Ukraine SIG: Hard Memory: A WW II Memoir of Nova Ushitsa

A World War II Memoir
by
Mikhael Borisov Eisen



Invasion

It was in the first days of July 1941, that parts of the Russian Army were retreating through Novaya Ushitsa on its way to Yaltushkova, and beyond towards Vinnitsa. The soldiers looked miserable and shabby. Retreating with them were those residents who were smarter, who had forebodings of what was to come; or maybe they were led by fate. They left on whatever was available: carts; more seldom, cars; or simply on foot.

Nobody knew what was going on at the front; over the radio, we heard total misinformation. Mostly it was the news about the fights at the border. When Stalin spoke, on July third, many people gathered near the loudspeakers that hung on the telephone posts at the market place, but nobody could make anything out of his speech besides the fact that the situation was hard and “Our way is right; we will win.” 

During these days the Usimys, my future wife's family, escaped, together with hospital workers from the hospital where they worked. It was during these first days of July that one began to hear the remote sounds of cannonade and, in the sky, see a form hang overhead. It was a plane with two fusiliers. Later, we learned that it was a reconnaissance plane and that flocks of aircraft were flying to the south-east. The chain of the retreating troops disrupted unexpectedly. The cannonade grew louder, and explosions were heard somewhere close by. The town looked dead. All of the people had hidden.

Our family (there were four of us, together with grandfather Benya, and grandmother Brukha with her sick daughter Khanna) hid in the cellar in our courtyard. At that time I was a very inquisitive thirteen–year–old kid, who could hardly sit there; I was dying to get outside, up there where the fight was. At some moment I managed to do so.

Behind the cellar, there was a huge woodshed. I climbed on its roof. I saw the shells and mines burst on the opposite side of the hollow, where there was a village, Kaskada, along the nearest border of Struzhsky Forest. Stretched for the fight, chains of troops moved in the direction of the forest. I guessed that they were Germans. In the forest, I thought, there was a fight between them and our retreating troops. I heard continuous rattling of plane engines far above. When the cannon fire moved further to the south-east the Germans entered the town. They were not the Germans that we came to know later.

These Germans were frontline soldiers. They sat camped in the gardens, in the schoolhouse, and in other empty buildings. Right next to our house, behind the post office, there was a three-story house where our friends Vitya and Nila Kharma lived. Germans lived in their house, too. Everything about the Germans inspired our interest: cigarettes that we had never seen before (in the Soviet Union we had only “papirosy”); huge horses; and the enormous quantity of chocolates they ate. They did not harm the locals, but mercilessly requisitioned chickens, geese, ducks, pigs, and cattle of local residents, including our family. Nobody spoke about Jews, but occasionally a passing soldier would point his finger at a young boy, and ask, “Jude?”. If only we could have known what would follow …

Occupation

After a few days, the frontline troops left town, and a new unit came in. Different from the “boot” soldiers who were covered with dust and dirt and with sleeves rolled up, the newcomers were dressed as if for a parade. They wore clean uniforms and high caps. Some of them wore glasses.

A new local administration was created. Maluta, a local resident, was appointed starosta [official agent of the Nazis]. A number of other collaborators, soon to be referred to as schutzmann [policeman], formed the police. It did not take long before the schutzmans started wearing black uniforms and visor caps. The Starosta and his staff were stationed at the premises of the former District Executive Committee; the police were located in the building used by the militia and the local NKVD branch. The German headquarters were located near the school.

It was after the new administration was established that the first Jews fell victim. One night, they broke into the house of a local cattle agent, Aron, beat everybody inside, and then dragged the poor man out and hanged him on a telegraph pole, in the very same market where Aron had spent so many days. He was left hanging there for a long time.

Then, Itzek, a local boy of sixteen or seventeen, known in Novaya Ushitsa as a naughty troublemaker, was shot. Here is how it happened. Shortly upon their taking over, the Germans and schutzmann started to show up in the Jewish neighbourhood both at night and in broad daylight, break into houses, and rob and beat people. During those ordeals, the local residents would hide in their homes or cellars. No one showed up in the street at that time, not wanting to take a chance that they might be shot. Itsek, out of curiosity, climbed to the attic of a small wooden house and was watching the Germans and schutzmann from there. They noticed him and shot him, and Itsek fell out of the attic.

Ghetto

In mid-July, the Nazis started bringing to Novaya Ushitsa Jews from neighbouring and more remote villages of the district, where Jews lived in abundance before the war, actively engaged in agriculture and crafts. There was even a Jewish kolkhaz [collective farm] in Novaya Ushitsa named after the Third International. This “aktion” was the first step towards organizing a ghetto. All new arrivals were put up at the houses of the local Jewish residents, as ordered by the local Jewish community starosta Dinetz, appointed by the Nazis. Starosta Dinetz created a lot of inconvenience for the people, trying to show off for the authorities. Starosta Dinetz could not know that he and his family would share the same fate as all the other Jews.

Many Jewish families living in the same neighbourhoods with Ukrainians were kicked out of their houses. Ukrainian families living on the Jewish block, few as they were, also had to relocate from the ghetto. Barbed wire and poles were brought in, and construction of a two–meter–high fence around the ghetto was begun. There was only one gate left to enter the ghetto, and even that one was guarded around the clock.

Periodically, searches were carried out in the ghetto, accompanied by robbery, beatings, and murder. During these searches, with the help of starosta Dinetz, the Nazis would single out groups of young, healthy men and women and send them to the nearby labour camps to do construction and other work. All of them perished there.

Daily Life

There were a few lucky ones though. Isaak Itkin and Manya Grinberg were among them. They still live in Novaya Ushitsa. All the other able-bodied population was assigned to work in Novaya Ushitsa. People were employed in their usual occupation – Novaya Ushitsa was a town of craftsmen. Those whose skills were not needed were used for hard labor; they repaired roads, chopped trees in the forests, and worked in the stone and sand quarries. My grandfather Bentzion Aizen, his brother on his father's side [sic], Shmil Aizen (of the same age as my father), and my father Boris Aizen, born in 1903, were assigned to the former District Consumer Society as leather-dressers.

All of those assigned to work were required to leave the ghetto through the gate before seven AM and return by six o'clock in the evening. The slightest violation was punished by having the violator shot to death. Nobody reported sick. I would leave the ghetto with my father and help him in his work, which was very laborious.

Fall and winter passed in hard labour. Sometimes we would stay at work overnight. From the point of view of the German authorities, it was a big crime. But my father, my grandfather, and my uncle made clothes for the officers and their assistants in the local headquarters. Not only did they look the other way when we stayed in the shop, but they would indirectly urge us to do so and hurry up. They knew that the ghetto would be liquidated one day and that the Jews would all be killed, so they were in a hurry to put on as much leather and fur as they could.

One day the headquarters' officers came to us and demanded that five–fingered sheepskin gloves be made for them; not the one–fingered gloves that we made before. They needed these new gloves for horse riding, to steer the horses better. My father, who was “the boss”, not my grandfather, tried to reason with the officers that they had never made such gloves before, and had no idea how to make them, but the officers responded with threats and curses, and said that if a sample of those gloves were not made by the following morning, all of us would be hanged on the hooks in the ceiling. At that they pointed to the hooks with a characteristic gesture. We had to oblige. We took the sheepskin, trimmed the hairs to the height of one to one and a half centimeters. We also found an old pair of gloves to serve as a pattern. The gloves were made by morning, as demanded, and both the “clients”, and ourselves liked them. From that time on, we started making such gloves along with sheepskin coats.

One more event of that winter stuck in my memory. Round-ups happened very often, if not on a daily basis (allegedly because of partisan activity that prevented round-ups). Round-ups were meant to rob, beat, and murder. This particular time the round-up was particularly cruel. Drunk officers and soldiers grabbed several men. Our barber, Abram, was among them. During the round-up the men were tortured, taken into the forest not far from the place where all of the Jews would later be shot, made to dig a pit in the frozen ground, and ferociously killed.

The Jews were not paid for the jobs they performed. How they lived, only G-d could know. Many of them suffered from starvation. In the main, food could only be obtained in exchange for belongings that were still in their possession. Everything was traded, from nails, dishes, and tools, to clothing and more. There were no stores, you know. The exchanges took place mainly during the daytime, near the fence when fewer guards were there. Those who left the ghetto to work also took some things with them, and if there were no guards, or if the guards were known to them, they could exchange things. I cannot remember if there was any question about money.

Almost all the Jews had “their own people” among the Ukrainians – good neighbours, customers, or colleagues. Many of them helped “their own people” in the ghetto. It's worth noting that everybody who was more or less wealthy saved some of their precious things in secret places, or buried them in the ground, just in case. There were rumours in the ghetto that all Jews would be transferred to another place, either to Palestine or somewhere else, and they would be able to take with them only the most necessary things. Everyone wanted to save their property.

What was going on at the front, we did not know. Before the war, almost every house had a radio and black carbon “plates”. As for real radio sets, there were not so many of them. Only very wealthy people could afford them, mainly the intelligentsia. In the first days of the occupation, the Germans ordered all radio sets to be turned in. The last news we heard on the radio was Stalin's speech on July 3, 1941. Sometimes a small newspaper in the Ukraine would be available. It was published either in Novaya Ushitsa or in the region, but it carried mostly stories about the victories of the Germans, and the claim that they had already occupied Moscow.

Everything was a problem. There were no matches, no salt, nor other necessities. In the first days of July 1941, when it was already clear that the Germans would start to rob stores, many of the people laid in necessary things, such as: matches, soap, candles, and salt. I was with my friend in a store after it had already been looted, and I was surprised by the number of crushed vodka and wine bottles. It turned out that the workers of the store were ordered to destroy all alcoholic drinks. The supply of all these goods came to an end by the summer of 1942, and it was necessary to look for a way out of this situation.

Many people began to make lighters, for example, out of handy materials; cartridge-cases, fuses from shells and other items. I decided to make such a lighter. I got a fuse filled with some white stuff, and wanted to get it out of the fuse, but as I could not do it, I gripped the fuse in a vise, and with the help of a nail, I tried to make a hole in this white filling. At the first hit with a hammer, an explosion happened. Small fragments injured all of my left hand. I was wearing a sailor's vest with long sleeves at the time, and the left sleeve was full of holes. This put an end to my attempts to make a lighter.

Round-up

In these surroundings, the nineteenth of August came around. On this day, as usual, we went to bed very early because there was no electricity in the ghetto. Kerosene for the lamps and candles had already come to an end, and the only light we could afford, if it was necessary at night, was an icon-lamp made out of a jar with a wick, and filled with sunflower oil. That night I woke up because of some noise, and when I opened my eyes, I saw the silhouettes of my siblings in the dark. Women were crying. At that time, we lived in my grandfather's house. From the conversation, I understood that the ghetto was surrounded by the Germans and the schutzmanner, who stood near the fence, close to each other, and that, for sure, it was the end of us.

After I dressed, my mother started to lament over me, and asked that I should try to escape under the wire behind the house, where hammer-smith Yankel Ak lived with his family. At least one member of the family might be saved. The others hurried me up. I went down the stairs, into the yard, passed the house of the Dostmanovs, crossed the street, and entered the neighbour's yard where the Shtimans (he was a teacher of mathematics in a Jewish school) lived. I then crossed the Post street and reached the wire fence between the houses of the Aka's and the Tsyganerov's. The wire in this place ran along dense nettle weeds. I heard the Germans' voices, and got through the wire, wriggling through the nettle weeds. I then ran along the path through the kitchen gardens in the direction of the office building, which was a machine and tractor station before the war. The guard heard me, and several bullets flew after me, but the Germans could not see me since it was still dark, and I was running along a path on both sides of which tall stems of corn grew. Having left the kitchen gardens behind, and the garden behind the Golubev's house, I crossed the street and headed to the park. There, I got over the fence and entered through the window of the shop where my siblings worked, and hid.

Many times after the war I asked myself: where had my mother sent me that time? What did she count on, besides the desire to save me, called up by her maternal instinct? What would have happened to me if the circumstances had gone another way? Where would I have gone? What would I have done?

Dawn came. I could not sit in one place. I looked out through the windows. I saw some of the station workers, but was afraid to go out to ask what had happened in the ghetto. Finally, I lost patience and got out through the window. Sneaking along the fence of a fruit garden, I went down the street to the house of the Golovetskys, from where I headed in the direction of our house.

Near the wire fence in front of the post office, I noticed people who were looking in the direction of the ghetto. I sneaked up to them, and also looked there. It was around eight or nine o'clock in the morning. In the Post Office street, along the road, a column of people with bags and packages were howling and crying. The Germans were beating them with rifle butts and shouting. They dragged people – old ones and children – out of the nearest houses. One Ukrainian woman standing near the fence noticed me and yelled: “Jew, run out of here. Don't you see what they are doing with them? They are killing them.”

I went back to the workshop, and stayed there all night. The next day, my father came and told me that all of the Jews were turned out of their houses into the street, and ordered to take only jewels and the most necessary things. They would take them to the station and send them somewhere, from which they could continue to Palestine. While some Germans were searching for people in hiding, others picked names from a list of those who would stay with their families to work in Novaya Ushitsa. When the sorting was finished, the Germans ordered the column to move in the direction of the Trikhov Forest, which was on the way to Dunayvetsy station, one and a half kilometers from the village of Filyanovka, at the north-west border of Novaya Ushitsy. There, near a pit, they picked ten to fifteen people out of the column, ordered them to undress naked, and go up where pits had been been dug out earlier (as we learned later, by peasants from the village of Ivashkovtsy, brought there by the Gestapo). Over there, these butchers in human appearance, shot down their victims with machine-guns and finished with rifles and pistols.

My father told me what happened in the ghetto – he saw it himself. Witnesses who had managed to escape told what happened on the way to the forest and in the forest. Many attempted to flee, but the killers' bullets overtook them. Those like my father, grandfather, and Uncle Shmil, who were needed by the Nazis as craftsmen, tailors, and shoemakers, were accommodated with their families in a small block of some fifteen houses. Two families were packed all together in one room, and those who had managed to escape on the twentieth of August were also packed in there.

This was a very small site, approximately 150 by 100 meters, surrounded by a barbwire fence; and this was a new ghetto. We were accommodated on the second floor of a long administrative building. Life went on. You can understand the state of those left alive. Almost everyone had someone killed among siblings, friends and neighbours. They felt pain, and lived as if in a nightmare. The Nazis and their helpers grew even more cruel. They did not consider us as human beings any more, but we had to live somehow. We kept going to work in the morning, and coming home at night.

On the afternoon of October fourteenth, rumors spread (rumors – how often they proved themselves true), that on the following night killings would happen again. My mother, my poor mother, pleaded with me, as she did the previous time, to leave the ghetto while the gates were still open and go to my father to let him know about the rumors and, if it would be possible, to stay away all night. Mother, Mother… Why did you not then take Tsilechka and go with me? I guess she knew it was impossible. If they would go with me, then Uncle Shmil's family, with two children, had to join them; and grandmother Brukha with daughter Khanna; and the family of my father's brother Khaim with two children. They all were left alive after the first action. They would be too many, too visible. I think she did not want to risk all of them. That was the last day I saw them. Never since that time did I see any of them again.

I went to my father and told him everything. He said, “Stay with me, we have to work all night.” I do not remember what my father, grandfather and uncle were talking about then. For sure they were talking about the rumors, and were wondering what they could do, but there was not much they could do about it. The night passed in anxiety.

In the morning, a worker told us that the ghetto was again surrounded, and that people were ordered to form a column. It looked as if they intended to do something with the Jews who were left. A little bit later, my school friend Yasha Shmukler managed to get to us, and so did Yasha Aizen, the six-year-old son of my father's younger brother, Khaim. (Khaim had been drafted into the Army several days before the Germans came. After the war, we learned from Ushitsians who had been with him in the Army that he was killed in the first fight, not far from Novaya Ushitsa, in the district of Mogilev-Podolsk.) Both Yashas told us that the ghetto was surrounded by Germans and schutzmann, and nobody was allowed to leave. When he learned this, my father's uncle Shmil said that he would not leave his family, and what would happen to them would happen to him, and that he was going back to the ghetto. But thanks to the efforts of my grandfather, father, and ourselves, he did not leave, and stayed with us.

On the Run

Our workshop was located in a building that had a deserted bakery and was connected to it by a door. The person who informed us about the danger, also advised us to move there and hide, so we did. All the next night and day we stayed in this bakery.

Someone came over and told my father that all the Jews were taken in a column to the forest and that they were chasing after the ones who had managed to escape, and that the Germans were nearby. My father, grandfather and uncle (who was nearly unconscious all this time) decided that we had to wait till night and then move to Kopaygorod [twenty-three miles east of Nova Ushitsa]. (Long before this, there had been rumors in the ghetto that, not far, in the Transnistria, on the territory occupied by the Romanians, there had been no mass killings. Moreover, Kopaygorod was where Yasha Shmukler's grandparents, and our families and friends resided, so they could shelter us.)

Somewhere near ten or eleven o'clock at night, we left the bakery and went through a fence into the city park, which was near the Consumer Society office. There, my grandfather said he would not go to Kopaygorod, because it was hard for him to walk, and that he, together with his little grandson Yashka, would go to the village of Ivashkovtsy, where they had friends who would hide them. It was impossible to change his mind, and in addition, we were not sure what to expect, so we parted in different directions.

The four of us moved to the east. It was pouring when we descended the dell to the Kalyuska River. The rain did not stop for several hours; we were wet through and through, and lost our way. These circumstances – pain for our perished siblings, our feelings – all of this made us decide to return to Novaya Ushitsa and report to the authorities. We thought that if our relatives had been killed, our lives were meaningless. Especially my Uncle Shmil insisted on this. (Later, after the liberation in 1944, having survived and then having been drafted into the Army, Uncle Shmil was sent to the front along with my father, and there Uncle Shmil did everything to lose his life; he deliberately exposed himself to enemy bullets, and perished in the first days.)

Having returned to Novaya Ushitsa, we approached the wired fence of the ghetto which was guarded by schutzmann. At the fence, Yasha Shmukler said that he would go to his parents' friend who lived near Novy Plan, the district in the Kaskada village closest to Novaya Ushitsa. (After the liberation, we learned that he, too, was caught and shot.)

Now three remained; my father, uncle and me. We got through the wired fence and, having walked about one-hundred steps, ran into a schutzmann, whom we asked to take us to the police and let them do whatever they wanted with us. (This schutzmann was Alexander Paritskiy, a local resident. After the liberation, we learned that he was shot by the Germans for his connection with partisans, and because he had helped Jews. In his memory, a tree was planted in the Alley of the Saints of the World in Jerusalem.) He started to shout at us that we were not human beings if we wanted to be killed. He said that even insects tried to save themselves and fly away at any danger. My uncle remained adamant, and I started to pull my father's sleeve, saying that it was our fate to stay alive.

Finally, all of us talked my uncle into going back to the hole in the fence, got through it and headed to Novy Plan where my father's friend Ilya Zhereboy (Gilko)lived. Gilko gave us shelter in the attic, in the hayloft. We stayed there the whole day. Late at night, Gilko brought us some food, as we had nothing to eat, and we left.

The sky was clear, the moon was shining. We walked all the way to Maryanovka, a village at the border with Transnistria, a few kilometers from Kopaygorod. We stayed in the forest near this village the entire day, on rain-soaked ground. We were afraid to go to Kopaygorod in the daytime, not knowing what the situation was there. Though it was not a great distance between Novaya Ushitsa and Kopaygorod (about forty kilometers), we did not know what was going on outside of the ghetto limits. It was forbidden, under penalty of death, to travel from one place to another. One could be shot on the spot. We decided to wait until night came.

When it was dark, we safely got to Kopaygorod. We were surprised to see that there was no wired fence around the place of Jewish residence. By that time, many escapees from nearby ghettos were staying there. We found shelter with Yasha Shmukler's grandparents. They knew us, as they used to visit their daughter in Novaya Ushitsa, and our families were friends. Until liberation, they remained hopeful that their siblings were alive, but their hopes did not come true. All of their siblings perished.

To support us, my father and Uncle Shmil went to the nearest villages, where they tailored sheepskin coats and other leather goods for peasants. At the end of the week, they would return and bring food. All relocations were made secretly, mostly at night, since we were afraid to be seen by the Rumanian gendarmes. Once, when they returned, they said that several Jewish families resided in the village of Matiki where they worked in forestry, and it would be better for us to move there; so we did.

It was the spring of 1943. The village of Matiki stays in my memory as one long street. All of us, including those who worked in forestry, lived in one empty house of two rooms, separated by a passage. Early in the morning, everyone left for work. Lisa and I stayed in the house. Lisa was from Moldavia; she got stuck in Matiki while trying to escape. Lisa did the cooking for those who worked in the forest, and I cooked for my father and uncle.

Lisa knitted a sweater for me made of hard wool (we had no clothing since everything was worn out). Shortages of clothing, linen, soap, and infrequent baths attracted lice. From time to time, we lit a stove and put our clothes in it (if you could call such rags “clothes”) to get rid of insects. We ate potatoes, peas and beans. When we had bacon, it was really festive. Old people (or maybe they just looked old to me) named Mikhalovkis, lived opposite our house; we became friends. They helped us with food and we did some work for them in the kitchen garden.

In the fall of 1943, the Rumanian gendarmes suddenly appeared in our village. They accused us of being partisans, ordered us into columns, and drove us to Kopaygorod. There, we stood for two hours in front of the Gendarmeria, while they questioned us about who we were and what we were doing in the village; and they beat us up in the forest. They knocked out my front tooth. Then they drove us to a shed and held us there for two days, calling us out to interrogate us one by one. On the third day, they let us go.

Liberation

We remained in Kopaygorod. Then, in March 1944, we returned to a liberated Novay Ushitsa. We walked home through places where, only two or three days before, fighting had taken place. Now we walked straight, not furtively along the paths. The snow was still everywhere. We saw broken machines and corpses. So we reached Novay Ushitsa. Our house was destroyed; only the large cellar in the yard was in place. Almost all of the houses were ruined; very few were whole. We stayed at Grisha Grecheshman's place, in the house that was outside the ghetto limits. He, himself, had been saved by one family (before the war he had worked in Kolkhoz). Soon afterwards, my father and Uncle Shmil were drafted into the Army and sent to the front. I stayed by myself.

After Novaya Ushitsa was liberated by the Soviet Army and we had returned from Kopaygorod, we learned that grandfather and Yashka had found shelter at their friend's, but that one of the neighbours reported on them. They were taken to Novaya Ushitsa and shot. Many others were caught and killed, as well. We also learned that my mother and sister were not shot in the first turn. They managed to hide but were found on the second day, held in a basement by the politsai, and when there were a sufficient number of captured Jews, they were taken to Trikhov and shot.

A little about myself. I was born on June 11, 1928. I went to school to the first class, not when I was seven years old as was usual, but when I was six; thus, I was one year younger than my schoolmates. They were all born in 1927. When Novay Ushitsa was liberated, everybody of that birth year were registered in the Military Office, and many were drafted into an active battalion to fight with Bandera groups that were numerous in the nearby forests. As a young one, I was not drafted, and was left with the militia and rode on horseback with a trophy rifle around the villages. I delivered summonses to those who were called to the militia as witnesses against those who served as politsais, schutzmann and starostas under the occupation.

Trials took place in Kamenets-Podolsk (at that time, a regional center). I also had to get there to testify, using passing transport, and sometimes by foot. The trials were held in fortress casements. As a rule, the accused were sentenced to twenty-five years of prison. Later on, I learned that they were released after ten years. So it happened that the head of the local police, Semenov, was set free. During the occupation, he had caused the deaths of many people.

On the twenty-fifth of November, 1944, I was drafted into the Army. I was not yet seventeen at that time. I burned with a desire to get to the front in order to take revenge for my perished relatives and siblings. Unfortunately, my call-up did not participate in the fight. The Army became my home. I served for thirty years, and demobilized with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

After the war, Jewish survivors from Ushitsa installed a monument to the Nazis' victims on the spot where they were killed in the forest of Trikhov. Each year, on the twentieth of August, people arrive in Novay Ushitsa to honour the memory of their perished relatives, friends, and fellow men.




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