Holocaust Information and Stories

The Black Chronicle: tragedy of the Lyakhovichi Jews
by Zalman Rabinowitz and Yosef Peker, c.1952translated from the Yiddish by Wilfred Kay, 2008

Wilfred Kay provided the information about his search for his brothers and sisters that we report in The Katz Children of Pultusk and Lyakhovichi and it included details about Lyakhovichi right after the war that we had not previously had available. The webmaster was grateful to Mr. Kay and he was similarly grateful for the Lyakhovichi research community’s assistance in his efforts. He translated this article by two of the men he met in Lyakhovichi in 1945, they were among the eight Lyakhovichi Jews that got on a train for Warsaw, Poland when it was clear that there was no one left in the town itself to save, and that survivors would not be making their way back to the now desolate town.

The Germans occupied Lyakhowici June 23rd, 1941.

On that same day, the Jews were ordered to assemble in the Synagogue yard. There the Germans demanded from the Jews their valuables: gold, silver, furs, cows, all valuable items. The next day they were ordered to wear yellow patches and to stay off the sidewalks. On the 25th, all were ordered to report to work, no exceptions. For two months they worked 16 hours a day building a road, guarded by armed Germans and Belarussians, beaten for the slightest reason.

June 28th, without any reason, the leaders of the community were arrested: Baruch Meier BERKOWITZ, Leibl SEGEL, Meier MALOWITZKI, Jankiel DELOMITZKI, the young brothers KERBAL, Aaron EPSTEIN, the military police sergeant MELNIK, (brother of Moshe MELNIK). They were tortured and killed in the Kominke forest.

July 8th, at 5 in the morning, on the way to work, we noticed German police, Latvians and their helpers - the Belorussians, surrounded the town. They beat us and drove us back to town. They assembled us in the Market Square; we met there our grandfathers, fathers, mothers, and children. They were beaten; they sat there with their arms raised, in the same position till 3 pm. Those who tried to run away were shot on the spot. That day we saw people lying in the street in their own blood, struggling with death. The 85-year-old BEDER, R. Iser, who was on his deathbed and couldn’t follow the order, was killed with the bayonet on a rifle by Demian, a Belarus from Latwer St. That was the horrible scene I witnessed from the roof of a house; I will never forget it. Many tried to run across the bridge over the river Wiedma, on the road to Baranowici, but the Germans posted Latvians and Belorussian guards with machine guns. 150 men found their death on the banks of the river.

From the 6000 Jews assembled, 1500 were selected as useful elements. 1000 succeeded in running away and hid; the remaining 3500, in groups of 150, were driven to the prepared graves, which we dug earlier; the Germans told us the ditches were for the town’s garbage. The slaughter took place at Little Latwe, 500 meters to the right of the railroad station, on a hill. They were machine gunned by Latvians and Belorussians; the wounded were shoved into the ditch. This went on until 9 in the evening. The ground was moving for 24 hours.

Next morning, the order was for all Jews to assemble at the house of Baruch TUKACHINSKI; there, Sr. Lieutenant Kemp and Master Willi, assured that the surviving Jews will not be harmed. Kemp also demanded that all those in hiding must report and that they will be given work. 2000 Jews reported; the same day the ghetto was established, consisting of 28 houses, 100 persons to a room; there was no room for your head to lay down, the filth was unbearable. That is how we lived for seven months. A Judenrat was created, made up of: Itze ZMUDIAK, Shlomo ROSOWISKI and Iser MALOWITZKI. On the 6th month, under the leadership of Yosef PEKER and Zalman RABINOWITZ, it was decided to escape from the ghetto. When that became known to the Judenrat, Itze ZMUDSIAK threatened to report it to the German police, because it would endanger all the others if they escaped. We worked very hard during the seven months in the ghetto and didn’t even get a piece of bread from the Germans. 70 men, I among them, worked on the construction of a road to Baranowici. In the ghetto, the Germans went after the women and girls. I remember well the case when the Germans demanded that Rive SHTEIN turn over her two beautiful young daughters; she resisted, so they shot her.

Summer 1942, 4 o’clock in the morning, we noticed that the ghetto was surrounded. From past experience we knew what to expect. A group of 40 men, I among them,(Zalman Rabinowitz), including Yosef PEKER, Aaron SEGAL, Moshe TZIRINSKI, Motel KWEDIUK, Dor KRAWETZ, Jakov LITZITZKI, Michael BUSEL, Meier ABRAMOWITZ and Chana PRESHTZITZKI, decided not to allow the Germans to come in to the Ghetto, to put up resistance. We assembled at the entrance to the ghetto; it turned into a big fight and shootings. The Germans started throwing hand grenades and fire bombs. In hours, the town was surrounded and set on fire by fire bombs. About 10 people succeeded to escape under a hail of bullets, the rest were burned alive. At the same time, the German SS stormed the ghetto from Podlesie Street through the Jewish cemetery. Like wild beasts they started to liquidate the ghetto; the ’action’ lasted late into the evening. An order was issued after the action for the member of the Juderat, Iser MALIWITZKI, to undress naked, to collect the bodies, load them on the wagons and take them to the mass grave. The 85-year-old woman, Reisel MALOWITZKI, who was hidden in a bunker, was forced to undress and go on the wagon with corpses then she was shoved into the grave alive with the other bodies. The same thing happened to Iser MALIWITZKI. 300 people managed to hide.

The Germans ordered 70 able/fit people to report and demanded a list of the others; they also announced that it was not allowed to live in the ghetto (200 hundred still lived there). The 300 survivors lived another 10 days. The Germans again surrounded the ghetto; we resisted the last slaughter. Herman Fritz, the county "Commandant," joined the last slaughter, he entered a bunker where Jews held out, a friend of ours, Sheie Dod YELIN, cut Herman’s throat with a razor. Then came 1000 Germans and Latvians with a hail of bullets directed at the 3 houses where the 300 survivors held out; many were dead. It became obvious that there was no way out, then Meier ABRAMOWITZ set his own house on fire and called on others to run. Unfortunately, out of 300, only 4 managed to reach the forest: Zalman RABINOWITZ, Yosef PEKER, Motel KHWEDUK and Michael BUSEL.

Survivors’ Photo

After the war, this picture below was taken of Lyakhovichi’s survivors gathered in Munich a few years after the war. The names are those provided when the picture was submitted for the Yiskor book; "unknown" meant by the editor; "blurry" was similarly an editorial comment at that time. The caption was reviewed and translated by Wilfred Kay from the Yiddish. He had personal memories of a number of these people from meeting them in Lyakhovichi in 1945 after the war was over. He remembered the Peker brothers Yosef and Abram; Zalman Rabinowitz, and Mr. Strugach and, independently of captions, identified who was who. He remembers Mrs. Yosef Peker as being sweet and generous and helping him get papers that enabled his departure, but as with Mr. Strugach, he had always addressed her as Mrs. Peker and does not recall her first name. Thanks to Dr. Boneh Avidor whose father Yakov Simha Avidor (ne Peker) was a brother to Yosef and Abraham Peker - we now can identify Sonia Peker, the wife of Yosef.

(1st row, seated, R to L) Yosef Peker (x), his wife Sonia, Moshe Strugach with his son and his wife; (2nd row, standing, R to L) Moshe Inditsky (xx), Isaac Birger, Gershon Zayetz, unknown, Avraham Peker, Zalman Rabinowitz, unknown, Avraham Cherni, Isaac Pinsky, Yakov Greenberg, Michal Bussel, a Baranowitzer (of the family of Chayuta (Gavza) Bussel); (3rd row, R to L) unknown, Avraham Rabinowitz, unknown, blurred, Shalom Mednitsky, unknown, Shaul Kerbel

Jewish Council in Lyakhovichi

The Jewish Council in Lyakhovichi, which was established by the Nazis to aid in the destruction of the Nazi-organized Lyakhovichi ghetto, walked the hell-path that was common to these organizations. The leaders thought they could delay the murders the Nazis planned, if they provided services the Nazis wanted. They thought they could keep more people alive a little longer if they stayed within rules that the Nazis officers said were important. As Bauer’s book shows, some are remembered almost as saints. But the book Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation by Isaiah Trunk, published in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press shows that there were few who could walk the tightrope successfully. His book specifically mentions the Lyakhovichi ghetto councilheaded by Itzie Zmudziak and the strong efforts of young members of Zionist and political groups to reach the partisans in the marshes and forests. The Simon Wiesenthal Center commemorates Zalman Rabinowicz, Josef Peker, and Haim Abramowicz, as leaders of the resistance in the Lyakhovichi ghetto. Shmuel Mordkowski of Lyakhovichi is remembered as a renowned partisan who repeatedly struck at the Nazis from the Pripet Marshes. There were two aktions in Lyakhovichi (Fall 1941 and June 1942), which murdered thousands. The Nazis scheduled a final liquidation and the resistance fighters went into action with armaments that they had been smuggling in at high cost. Each weapon smuggled in, was also one less person smuggled out, and was also that much less money for food to be illegally purchased. Armed resistance slowed the Nazi progress, but in the end, the survivors were the ones that escaped to the partisans in the forest, and less than ten Jews survived in Lyakhovichi itself. Eighty Jews are known to have survived in the armies of the Soviet Union, dozens who were victims of the harsh Soviet deportation policies found themselves after the war alive in Siberia, Kazakhastan, Turkemenistan, and various Autonomous Republics and the Russian interior.Do you have information on the particular criminals whom we should hold accountable in Lyakhovichi? Do you know more about the circumstances of anyone who escaped? Have you read a witness report of a death we should also tell? Wilfred Kay answered those questions by translating the report above which though movingly written in Yiddish has been unavailable to English-language-only speakers for sixty years, thank-you so much, Wilfred! And Wilfred has since also added the report on the Trial for War Crimes of Yosef Grunevich.

599 Residents of Lyakhovichi who Died in the Holocaust

Around five thousand Jews are reported dead in three Aktions in Lyakhovichi. There was a ghetto and a "judenrat" in Lyakhovichi. There was a ghetto and judenrat in nearby Baranovichi. There were repeated efforts especially among young men and women from teens through thirties, to escape into Soviet territory, and to join up with partisan organizations functioning in this forested section of the Pripet marshes. There are reports of those who escaped, at least temporarily, from Nazi hands, by hundreds of different innovative means, and yet 5,000 Jews were reported dead by various competent authorities including the Nazi organizations themselves. This list is of the 599 that were reported to Yad Vashem as of December 2004. This material was extracted and formatted by Deborah G. Glassman, January 2005.

The Katz Children of Pultusk and Lyakhovichi
by Deborah G. Glassman, 2008

A man seeks information about the fate of his brothers and sisters who were in Lyakhovichi between 1939 and 1941. They may have escaped the fate of the rest of the community, by being in Soviet orphanages as the Germans rolled in.

In September 1939, Peisach Katz and his wife Sara (nee Goldstein) were living in the Warsaw region in the town of Pultusk. Mr. Katz was a native of Horodenko and his wife was a native of Mlawa. The couple and their family of seven children lived on his income as a teacher in Pultusk – (a picture of him with a class of students before 1939 was seen after WWII was over). But in September 1939, the Germans, including teacher Peisach Katz, gathered up a group of men in the neighboring town of Wyszkow. It is known that this group was shot, though there is no individual witness to Peisach’s death.

His young widow, who was not in great health, and with seven children to care for, was handed the same insoluble dilemma shared by most Polish Jews. Where should she go, who could help her, where would her children be safe? Sara’s birth town of Mlawa was just as much part of Nazi-imprisoned Poland as the Warsaw district. But the unholy seeming treaty between Ribbentrop and Molotov, between the Nazis and the Soviets, put what might be a safer haven in her reach. If Sara Katz could transport herself and seven children into Soviet territory, they might survive.

She was around thirty-six years old. Her children ranged in age from fourteen down to three. We don’t know the drama of her travel, how she fled a region across roads which were streaming with refugees and soldiers, but she arrived in Soviet territory and did not head for a big city, but for Lyakhovichi which had a strong, but not yet overwhelmed Jewish community to whom she could turn for help. According to her son who was eleven, she probably met the Soviet settlement requirements easily, - i.e. turn in your Polish passport and accept Soviet papers and obligations. She arrived in October 1939 and got a place to stay in the home of a Christian farmer who had a home on a long street that ran through the center of town. She had all seven children in that single room the first winter but by Spring, worrying and distress had taken their toll. In poor health she asked for assistance. In asking for food and resources from Soviet officials, she may not have realized that the Soviet system would begin placing the children in state-run facilities, government orphanages and training schools, which had replaced private ones of the Jewish and Christian religious communities. Her oldest son, Sholom, born in Mlawa in 1925, stayed with her. Her next son, Szymon, born in Pultusk in 1926, was started in a state trade school in Grodno. Her next three children – Shlomo, Sima, Leah, were sent to an orphanage in Berezhno, near Mir. The youngest two – Rachel and Benjamin born in 1934 and 1936 were sent to an orphanage for younger children in Grodno. Later Rachel was old enough to be sent to an orphanage in Bialystok, but Benjamin remained in Grodno. These were the nearest places with space in the state-run orphanages. The children in those Soviet facilities were of all backgrounds and faiths, most being fatherless rather than missing both parents.

We know that Szymon made it home to his mother in June 1941, escaping the certain death in Grodno that would have been his. We also know that Shlomo Katz, who survived the war, did so by a unique happenstance. He and a little girl from the Berezhno orphanage were chosen to go to summer camp at Lake Naroch in Western Belarus. The group of campers included children of Soviet officials and so on June 22, 1941, as the war started, 200 children were put on a train for a destination 300 miles southeast of Moscow. Shlomo Katz, has been looking, since his return as a seventeen year old boy to Lyakhovichi in 1945, for information on his family. The farmer’s wife, who was Sara Katz’s landlady, told Shlomo that some of Sara’s children had returned home before the Germans invaded and killed everyone. Shlomo took hope from the fact that the children’s names she remembered did not include the smallest ones, and also because she was not sure how long the older ones stayed.

In Lyakhovichi in 1945, Shlomo met the rest of the few Jewish survivors. Zalman Rabinowitz who had been in hiding, is remembered in the Yiskor book along with the Peker brothers, as having engineered an escape from the Nazi-built Ghetto in Lyakhovichi. Shlomo remembers meeting the Peker family as well. A Mr. Strugach also survived, and a total of eight people, including Shlomo, all got out of Lyakhovichi on the same train for Poland in 1945. Zalman Rabinowitz settled in Northern California and he stayed in touch with Shlomo for some time. Mr. Rabinowitz told young Shlomo that Strugach had settled in Canada.

Shlomo Katz began his search in 1945, going to Lyakhovichi itself. In 1952-1953, while stationed in Europe in the US Army he submitted information about his “missing” father, hoping that the Germans sent him to a labor camp. The record of this communication was held by the ITS and is at USHMM. He submitted Pages of Testimony for each of his family members to Yad Vashem. He submitted information to the USHMM and submitted information to the International Red Cross. He has written repeatedly to the International Tracing Service. He wrote to Minsk (office not specified) and got no response. He wrote to the mayor of Baranovichi who tried hard to be helpful. He placed Shlomo’s letter in the local paper! Four people who read the Baranovichi posting, wrote to Shlomo with sympathies but no information. Shlomo wrote to Grodno and Bialystok, but was told there were no wartime records, the letter format suggests this was a standard formal response. He also wrote to Pultusk, and was pleasantly surprised that he could in fact get birth certificates for himself and his siblings, but the information was not relevant to his search for his family’s fate.

Finding Records of Jewish Children in
Russian Orphanages in WWII
by Deborah Glassman, copyright 2008M

A candidate for a doctorate from the University of Chicago’s history department wrote a dissertation on the subject of Jewish Orphans in Russia in 2006. The dissertation, There Will Not Be Orphans Among Us: Soviet Orphanages, Foster Care, and Adoption, 1941-1956 was written by Rachel Faircloth Green. It gives the reader a lot of solid information, and gave this researcher many clues to records that may have been created in what was then the Belorussian SSR based on Dr. Green’s findings for other Soviet Republics, as well as specifics on records of the four central organizations in charge of Soviet orphanage life.

This is a complicated subject, which Dr. Green approached in three hundred pages. Three quarters of a million Soviet children moved through the orphanage system in the 1940s, many of them children of an impoverished parent or parents rather than initially “orphans” in the American sense. Because the Soviet system presumed itself to be free of religious and racial bias, children of all faiths and backgrounds were in the same system, and in a strange quirk of fate, Jewish children are reported in many instances, to have survived in orphanages while their siblings and parents perished in the Nazi onslaught. The Soviets were sometimes able to evacuate orphanages to safer inland territory, even though official government policy made the movement of military personnel and goods its primary concern. And finally, children who survived the war in Soviet orphanages, often emerged into a workplace and social environment that found their orphanage years a permanent disability, as orphanage and juvenile detention were often synonymous. This meant, not only a permanent discomfort in Soviet life, but also a record reflecting that “original” orphanage residence was created.

Basically, four organizations made decisions about the children in orphanages.

  • Children who were found outside of orphanages, i.e. those old enough to try making their way back home during the war, or living on the streets generally – were picked up by the NKVD and transferred to receiving centers run by the NKVD for up to a month. The NKVD centers concentrated on processing the children, getting them fed and out of the cold, and finding permanent housing in a state facility or returning them to their legal guardians. The NKVD receiving centers (later run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs – MVD) located these stations in train stations and market places in major cities.

  • Children under three were under the jurisdiction of Narkomzdrav which was the Commissariat of Health. This organization, though specifically responsible for small children, was also responsible for the health of all children in all orphanages.

  • Children aged four – fourteen were under the jurisdiction of Narkompros, Commissariat of Enlightenment.

  • Children older than fourteen were under the jurisdiction of the Chief Administration of Labor Reserves which sent them to trade schools or put them to work on collective farms. Later this was called the Ministry of Labor Reserves, but both incarnations assigned “graduated” students to permanent jobs. Children coming out of orphanages were often separately notated in the records of the Labor Reserves.

Local departments of education also had some responsibility and orphanage children were usually in regular schools but separate classes. During the war additional jurisdictions were created. The Party Control Commission of the Central Committee was asked to inspect orphanages between 1943 and 1949. Volunteerism by organizations like Komsomol was highly encouraged and the Russian equivalent of women’s groups also participated in providing food, clothing, and linens, for orphanage children.

The records of those four main organizations listed above are in the Russian archives - Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiskoi Federatsii (usually abbreviated in scholarly papers as GARF). Each of the archival fonds related to them is cited in other current dissertations and research projects and so all presumably remain open to American researchers beginning in 2008.