Lt. Volodya Vatikin [a Russian] and I were making our way through dense
woods when suddenly armed men yelled, “Freeze! Hands up! Don’t move!” With
four rifles pointed toward us, we obeyed. I was not too afraid. From the
mens’ accent and looks I was sure they were Jews from the Bielski otraid
[detachment]. The armed men came closer and they, too, recognized that I
was a Jew. They asked me if I were “amchoo” and I nodded. As for Volodya,
his long blond hair, blue eyes, and his expression! They didn’t ask him.
A Visit to the Jewish Partisans
The two heavy bags we were carrying contained a small, new automatic rifle
and many bullets with it. Other armed men and women joined the group to
guard us. They spoke Yiddish and some Russian. After emptying our pockets
and relieving us of our revolvers, they allowed us to sit down without hands
A short time later we heard horsemen galloping toward us. It was late afternoon
on a gorgeous summer day. The forest around us was splendid and suddenly
we saw a group of well-armed men in black leather jackets wearing caps with
a red star in the center. They jumped down from their horses and I was sure
they were the brothers Bielski with some of their officers. One
tall fellow, who I later found out was Zus Bielski, approached Volodya
and they embraced.
Vladimir Vatikin, or Volodya, had been security chief of many partisan
groups. Tuvia Bielski, commander of the Bielski otriad, apologized at once
to Volodya and gave him back his automatic rifles and the bullets. Our revolvers
were promptly returned to us, too. The armed guards walked away satisfied.
Volodya’s automatic rifle needed serious repairs and was taken to the otraid
workshop. The bullets I carried were a gift for Tuvia. These bullets were
very hard to obtain so it was an exceptional gift.
The Bielskis and Volodya went to a nearby tent where they stayed for some
time. I was left alone with the youngest of the Bielskis, Archick, who showed
me their camp. It was full of civilian people, families with children. I
was astonished, not having seen Jewish families for a long time. Archick,
speaking in Yiddish and Russian, pointed out the enormous responsibility
and impossible difficulties that arise with saving so many civilian people
in the forest. The difficulties connected with obtaining
enough food and clothing, especially for the cold winter months, were great
and involved dangerous work.
Soon Archick’s brother, Zus, joined us and questioned me. In answer to
his questions I told him that I had been awakened at dawn and ordered to
accompany Lieutenant Vatikin (Volodya) on this mission. Our sergeant had
taken away my rifle and given me a heavy bag of special bullets and a revolver.
We set out on horseback but by midday, after having gone over halfway, we
had to walk because the road through the forest had become dangerous and
by foot it was much easier to slip through undetected. The peasant (whom
Zus knew well) at whose farm we left our horses told us that German soldiers
had arrived in the vicinity of the Bielski otriad. He had obtained further
information en route from some other peasants whom he knew. After
hearing my story, the Bielski brothers left together.
The next morning Volodya and I started walking back to our camp. Volodya
was happy having his beloved rifle repaired and I was very glad not having
the bullets to carry. The horses at the farm were ready for us. While riding
Lieutenant Vatikin asked me not to tell anybody about our compromising arrival
at the Bielski otriad. A Red soldier must rather die than be taken
prisoner! I promised Volodya and never told anybody until now.
As for the Bielskis’ otriad, I was very worried by what I had seen. The
Bielski brothers and their helpers had a superhuman task: to save Jews and
they did it brilliantly. We should all be proud of them.
Copyright © 2004 Maxime Rafailovitch
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