by Emanuel Goldberg Toronto, 1983


Those who survived the destruction of European Jewry, especially those from Eastern Europe, are aware that they are the last living representatives of a once dynamic and creative community. It was a community that created modern secular Yiddish literature and modern Hebrew literature - and actively participated in various political movements of the time: the Bund, the various Zionist groups, Jewish and general socialist parties, the Russian revolutionary movement, etc. This dynamic and creative community no longer exists. It perished, a victim of incredible brutality. I belonged to this community. In the pages that follow, I recollect the last year and half of its existence as reflected through my personal experience as member of the Jewish community of Svisloch, a small town in the province of Grodno (Grodno was under Polish rule from 1920 till Sept. 1939, at which time the Russians took over). It was a typical border "shtetl" (i.e. townlet). The Jewish population constituted the majority. There was the working class - mostly tannery workers working in the large and smaller local tanneries owned by the handful of wealthy in the community. And there was the middle class composed of store keepers and craftsmen and a small group of specialists: a doctor, a dentist, an akusherka (midwife), paramedics and pharmacists and a chemist (for the local leather industry). They spoke Yiddish, had their Jewish (Yiddish & Hebrew) libraries (even Russian and Polish books were to be found there), two elementary schools (a large Hebrew school and a much smaller Yiddish school), four synagogues, and many religious, social and charitable organizations.

Political life was vibrant. The various Zionist organizations, especially their youth groups, and the Bund, were especially popular. A non-insignificant number of the youth belonged to the communist movement, which locally, was predominantly Jewish. Lectures and open political discussions were common. Various papers and journals, in various languages were received and passed around.

Many teenagers studied in the high schools of the larger towns of Volkovysk, Bialystok, Grodno, some even in Vilno, Warsaw, etc. Since 1932 Hebrew-Polish high school courses had been established at the Hebrew elementary school. In the last few years before the second world war, the Polish state high school admitted a larger group of Jewish students - in short: the youth was educated, alert, intelligent and politicized.

I describe my town, actually the Jewish community there, from the beginning of the Soviet rule at the end of Sept. 1939 till its end in June 1941. Then I left Svisloch, never to return. The description is very personal. Many important aspects of Jewish life in our town during the short period of Soviet rule, are omitted: the sad experience of the Jewish refugees, the activities of the religious community, of charitable organizations, political youth groups. Except for freedom of worship, organized Jewish life was disbanded by law. Former organizations either dissolved or continued to operate clandestinely. What course each local organization chose, remains an unanswered question. In any case, I was left ignorant of these matters. I was considered, contrary to what was really the case, as part of the ruling Soviet establishment. This meant of course that many of those who conversed with me must have been wary of what information they shared with me. This limited my knowledge about many aspects of the community. Nevertheless, the description provided in the following pages, should give a revealing glimpse into life in Svisloch just before its tragic closing chapter.


August 1939 was nearing its end. Big events were transpiring in the big world beyond and about the little town of Svisloch. These events would bear heavily on the people of Svisloch in the coming months and years, as upon countless such towns which abounded in the surrounding country.

Even the most superficial observer would have quickly noted that business was not as usual there; the townspeople were visibly jittery, as if in anticipation of news which could only be bad. It was certain that Poland would be the next victim of Nazi-Germany's aggression. The standing orders of the day - to dig air-raid trenches in all backyards - further reinforced the immediacy of the situation. And so it was that the men and women of Svisloch armed themselves with spades and shovels and began digging zigzagish air-raid trenches. On the first of September the railway station was bombed by German planes. To the town's population, this was the first clear confirmation that the war really started.

That same morning I was out for a stroll. Small groups of people had congregated on the streets and I could hear their worried discussions on the most recent evidence of the war's proximity and palpability. Not waiting to indulge in interpretation I hurried home and woke up my parents and my sister. Silence engulfed the family. The shattering meaning of the events pierced everyone's consciousness. Mother's voice trembled when she remembered out loud that we had no reserve of flour or bread.

Usually newspapers from Warsaw would arrive by train by early noon, but with the outbreak of war their delivery was disrupted and soon ceased altogether. The radio was the only means of communication with the outside world. There were only a handful of radios in all of Svisloch - belonging to those few who could afford to buy them. On our street only one family owned a radio. This was the family of the vice-commandant of the police - the only Polish family on this solidly Jewish street. The vice-commandant had the good sense to place the radio on the window sill for the benefit of the neighbors and they would gather (myself among them) outside his window listening intently to the latest news of the day. What we heard was mainly military and patriotic music, patriotic exhortations and code signals - actual news was sparse.

All this time, trains packed with mobilized soldiers were frequently passing through towns such as ours. Moral was high - the local station personnel were asked time and again for the distance to Berlin... But with every passing day the news got worse. Droves of German planes and tanks broke the Polish lines of defense; from north, south and west they pushed relentlessly and rapidly toward central Poland. The British and French declarations of war against Germany raised the spirit of the people, but did not change the reality on the front. The Polish army was retreating everywhere. Rumors spread in town that the German army advancing from East-Prussia had already occupied the provincial capital, Bialystok, and were perpetrating atrocities against the Jewish population. Refugees on horse-driven wagons started arriving in town, as if it was a safe place. Many realized that they were trapped - and that there was nothing to do about it.


As the full extent of the Polish defeat became clear, I realized that a resolute decision was demanded on my part. Being known in town, as a "radical" and "communist" - there was no doubt in my mind of the treatment in store for me in the event of the Germans entering Svisloch. In fact, my decision to flee was clear-cut and quick. And to flee there was only one direction: the Russian border. The route of escape began to crystallize in my mind; the previous June I landed a teaching contract with a Hebrew school in a town in the district of Lida. I was to start teaching there in September, and probably on this basis I would be able to obtain a railway ticket and move closer to the border. My parents and sister agreed - my flight was imperative and should be immediate. Somehow mother secured a few pieces of bread and a few hard-boiled eggs. Soon after I was on a train to Lida. I had left Svisloch.


The train arrived at the town in the evening. I knew nobody - in fact before landing the contract I had not even heard of the town. At the station I met a Jewish porter and asked him to take me to the home of the school's principal. The principal, and his tall, pretty wife, needless to say, received me with bewilderment: don't you realize that a war is raging and Poland's very existence is in question? asked the principal. Politely but resolutely he added that no school can operate and no contract can be valid under such conditions - the school is closed and its future uncertain.

His face reflected his complete amazement. Again and again they stressed their profound bewilderment and finally suggested that I sleep over in their home and return the very next morning to Svisloch.

Hot tea, bread, butter and cheese were served. I very much enjoyed the company of these two teachers and their two small children - who did their best to attract the guest's attention. The kids spoke with me in Hebrew which they spoke fluently and naturally. My hosts did not cease to express their bewilderment about the irrationality of my coming. Perhaps I made the real motivation of my coming transparent then, when I ventured that with the Germans closing in on the heart of Poland from three sides, Jews, especially the radical youth who would be the first victims of the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis, should get as close as possible to the Russian border - in the crunch and confusion of events, they might be allowed into Russia. My hosts clearly rejected this idea; both dictators were the incarnation of evil and no meaningful choice was available - of this they were convinced. The idea that Russia could be regarded as the lesser of the two evils seemed to them totally irrational. Yet they were friendly and hospitable and we all agreed that I should leave in the morning. I was given a small, clean room with a comfortable bed and after such an eventful day, it was no wonder that I quickly slumbered into a sound sleep.


It was early morning when the Principal knocked at my door. He wished to bid me farewell - that is both 'farewell' and 'fare-well'. I asked him how far it was to the border and for the direction as well. He looked at me with understandable suspicion, but provided the requested information and even took me to the road which led directly to the border. Now my motivation in coming was only too clear.

The road was well paved - and virtually empty. I walked forward at a quick pace; a few times I would pass some peasants plodding along with their carts. As the hours passed my pace slowed but I was determined to push on. Late in the afternoon I was overtaken by two large wagons pulled by very healthy looking horses. I approached the man holding the reins on the first wagon and asked if I could ride with them for while.

-"From where are you", he asked.

-"Svisloch", I replied.

-"And your name?"

I gave him my name

-"Are you the son of Alter and Malke?", he continued.

-"Yes, yes", I replied almost as surprised as happy.

-"Come up then and sit beside me", he commanded.

He told me that their name is Ain, that they were from Krinki (a small town near Svisloch), and that as I, they too were fleeing the advancing Germans and they know the families of both my parents, both of whom came from Krinki. Only then, sitting on the wagon did I realize how tired I was and how much my feet ached. But I was elated and had every reason to be. Not only had I been fortunate to get a ride but I was among friendly people who even offered me food. The wagons, both belonging to the Ain family moved eastward at a steady pace.

We had not traveled down the road for more than a few hours when suddenly soldiers, who appeared as from nowhere, encircled our two wagons. Fortunately for us, they were Russian soldiers. Had we already crossed the border!? This seemed an absurdity. In fact, the reverse turned out to be the case: the Russian army had crossed into eastern Poland. The soldiers ordered everyone to get down from the wagons and to line up. They looked at us with great contempt as if they were facing their hated enemies. Soon everyone had a rifle directed at their temples. A couple of the soldiers searched the wagons; they were filled with hand-made soles and that is all that they found! The elder Ain, who knew Russian, explained something to them. At that stage, my knowledge of Russian was rudimentary and I could only understand from the context of the situation what they were talking about. At last they put their guns down - but they kept us lined up. Some soldiers took the horses from the wagons and replaced them with their own scrawny, sickly horses. Each of us was then questioned by the officer in charge, with the elder Ain acting as translator. When my turn came, I explained that I had decided to flee to the Russian border to be saved from fascist Germany. He answered that the Russian army was moving into Poland to liberate White-Russia and the Western Ukraine. For us these were indeed good tidings. Still, this first encounter with the Russian army could not be described as a pleasant one - they looked ruthless and as miserable as their horses - and directing loaded weapons against obviously innocent and unarmed men and women could not be described as decent behavior.

Now only one choice remained: to get to the closest train station and return home. Svisloch had always been considered as being in White Russia and it too was to be liberated from the peril of Nazi rule.


It took me two days to get back to Svisloch; two days of almost continuous walking with the occasional ride on some peasant's wagon (for a small fee, of course). From Volkovysk, I was fortunate to be able to board a train to Svisloch - fortunate because I had assumed that the trains would not be functioning.

It was very early when I started out on the two kilometre walk from the station to Svisloch. The dirt path from the station took me through the forest and eventually to the large experimental farm station. I remember vividly walking amidst the tall golden corn stalks covered with fresh early morning dew. Soon I reached the outskirts of the town. The calm and quiet around made the war seem remote. Only when I came upon the market square did I notice the first conspicuous sign of the historic change. A huge red flag was raised over the newspaper stall at one of the market corners. The stall belonged to the legless cripple Smirnov the son of the local Russian "feldsher"-paramedic. Smirnov was notorious as a fascist rabble-rouser. The Jews of Svisloch called him "Hitler". He was an incorrigible anti-Semite. And now from his stall, a lone red flag waved .... The market square was deserted. Before the war, even at this early hour, the square would have teemed with movement.

Of course, my parents and sister were overjoyed to see me safely back. All were relieved that the Russians and not the Germans, had taken over. Poland had collapsed. The choice, if you could call it that, was between the rule of the Nazis or that of the Soviets. The overwhelming majority were clearly for the latter.

The crisis had reunited our family. Both my sister and I were now at home and even some of our extended family had joined us. In my absence, the number of occupants in my parent's home had more than doubled. Sleeping conditions, which were even in normal times less than rudimentary, became even less so. My mother and sister slept on the floor and my father on an improvised cot in the family room of the three room house. The bedroom was occupied by some close relatives of my father, an orthodox rabbi, his wife and their four children. They had escaped from a small town, close to the German border, that had been occupied by the Germans early in the war. The third room was a small kitchen, almost entirely taken up by the oven where bread and "chala" were baked every Thursday. In the long winter months it was the only source of warmth.

Soon after my emotional homecoming I was overtaken by tiredness. I prepared the improvised bed I had grown up with - a board held up on two chairs and supporting a narrow hay mattress - and was soon soundly asleep.


It was well into the afternoon when I awoke. That same afternoon, walking in town, I met my neighbor and high-school friend Eshka. She was a tall and slender young woman. She too was studying in Warsaw and we had met there several times. Eshka filled me in on what had transpired during those days I was on the road. She described, obviously moved, a shattering event that occurred the day after the radio announced the entry of the Russian army into Poland. A White-Russian communist from a nearby village, had assassinated the vice-commandant of the local police. The villager had come to Svisloch that morning. He went first to the home of the Viner brothers and asked their young teen-age brother to come with him. When they reached the policeman's house he sent the boy to tell the policeman that someone wants to speak with him outside. The policeman came outside and it was then that the villager shot and killed him.

This event shattered both the Polish and Jewish communities. To the Poles it was an ominous sign of what the future might have in store for them. The Jews were worried that they would be blamed for the murder of the vice-commandant, and many like Eshka were genuinely saddened. The vice-commandant (for a policeman) was a liberal-minded person. He was the only Pole living on "Doctora Bitnera", the solidly Jewish street where we lived. To the Jewish community he was always cordial. He even allowed his two daughters to befriend their Jewish neighbors - a rarity for the Polish families of our town. Rumours began circulating that the villager was in fact a police informer; with the coming of the Soviets, he was trying to destroy all evidence of his betrayal and for this reason he assassinated the vice- commandant. Soon afterwards Russian secret police arrived from Volkovysk to investigate the incident. They arrested the villager and took him back with them to Volkovysk.

Later that afternoon I made my way to the local police station; word had got round that those activists sympathetic to the new Soviet rule were meeting there. It was the first time in my life that I was in a police station. Some of the faces there were very familiar to me. There was Neche Dobrovolsky, Frida Sidranska and there was Motl Miller with his gaze as serious and sad as ever. There were others too who I had not met before. There were White-Russians from the outlying villages. The contrast between now and just a few days before was striking: the region's radicals, some who had been involved in prohibited political activity, were taking over the local seats of power.

Motl suggested I take a rifle and join Pinchas Viner who was in charge of investigating a group of Polish refugees who had situated themselves on the grounds of the town's Lyceum. So I went off to the Lyceum, leaving, however, the rifle behind. On the school's grounds I found the refugees. They were grouped together, adults and children, and looked obviously frightened and bewildered. They were surrounded by a few armed local villagers wearing the red arm bands of the newly established militia. I found Pinhas who was busy searching the wagons. -Did you find anything?, I asked. -Only some tasty jam, he replied. -Tasty or not, its not ours for the taking! Don't forget - they're refugees fleeing the fascists, I reminded him.

The refugees weren't bothered further and nothing was confiscated from them. Even the jars of the tasty jam were returned - true, some half full!

The change of 'rule' had been abrupt and resulted in a temporary vacuum to be filled in the next few days. These roles would be assumed by those who asserted themselves politically, intellectually, or otherwise . I suppose similar scenes were enacted in countless such towns and villages in the 'liberated areas'. They were the local version of events which were also transpiring on a national scale...


A town council, ("Gorodskoy Soviet") was established and Peysach Viner was appointed as its chairman. Viner, a man in his mid thirties, had been sentenced to death for his participation in a revolt of White-Russian peasants against the Polish regime. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and it was the outbreak of the war which enabled him once more to gain his freedom. The council became the local seat of power. The district capital was in Volkovysk but after a few months Svisloch became the capital of its own newly formed district. The city hall, neighboring the Lyceum, became the home of the town council.

As someone with a pedagogical education and a teaching background besides, it was natural that I become active in the reconstruction of the local educational system. So it was that I participated in the council's education committee's first meeting. Volyntchyk, a White- Russian teacher, previously notorious for his anti-Semitism, was appointed chairman. The committee's recommendations were to be submitted to the town council that same day. Volyntchyk opened the meeting in the White-Russian language. Though I could hardly speak this language I could understand it almost completely. He declared that on the order of the Department of Education the Polish High School is to become a White-Russian high-school. And further, the Polish elementary school in the town's centre (where the meeting was being held) is to become a White-Russian elementary school and the second Polish elementary school at the town's outskirts will remain Polish only if the number of Polish students warrants it. The religious Hebrew school is to become a secular Yiddish institution and will remain for the time being in its present building under the direction of its present principal. Furthermore, all the schools will be reopened immediately and all the former teachers will be rehired.

A discussion ensued. The representative of the local Polish teachers was clearly choosing to refrain from argument. Finally I took the chair, and speaking in Polish, defended the right of the Polish community to their own schools - pointing out that the basic socialist principle of equality for all national groups demanded this. Being the only person openly sympathetic to the new regime my view carried weight and my suggestion was accepted. The decisions of the meeting were written out, signed by all those present and turned over to the council.

That evening I went to see my friend Avrome Ravitch. He lived with his impoverished family in a shabby house in the poorest district of Svisloch. Avrome was sitting in a near empty room engrossed in reading. Surprised and happy to see me, he related that he was looking for a job as a worker in one of the local tanneries. Avrome was self-educated and had only two years of formal education. He was very bright and scrupulously honest. The many years he spent in Polish jails for his political convictions, had left their mark on him physically and steeled his convictions.

We talked about the current situation. The Soviet regime had started to assert itself. All the factories had been nationalized as were all the stores. The former owners were taken on as managers or specialists. This amazed many who had not expected such benevolence. A kind of barter trade emerged. The peasant who brought goods to the market refused to accept even Russian money. But many of the town's population, did not own barterable goods...

I described my experiences on the road homeward after my encounter with the Russian soldiers. I remembered the wide banner, stretched high along the full width of one of the roads I had traveled. It read: "Da Zdrastvuyet Osvobozdeniy Belorusskiy Narod - Nashy Bratya po Krovi" ("Long live the Liberated White-Russian People - our Brothers in Blood"). It didn't sound right to me. I can well imagine the streets of Austria filled with such banners when the Nazi "liberators" took over but surely to goodness not from Socialist Internationalism. Avrome did not react to it, but evidently it puzzled him as well.

After a while, Motl Miller, who was Avrome's neighbor, came over and joined us. How is it, I asked that the likes of such anti-Semites as Volyntshyk and Bodak, who had tried inciting anti-Jewish riots in town, were now appointed to responsible positions by the Soviet administration. Motl too, was worried by this; but Avrome tried explaining it realistically: ... our region is part of Russia; the majority of the population is composed of White-Russian peasants and it's only to be expected that the Soviets want to establish a White-Russian school system and administration... so all those White-Russians who are cooperative, whatever their past, can't be turned away ... Volyntshyk and Bodak are professional teachers and White-Russians and the Russians are encouraging them hoping that they will change their ideas and cooperate with the new system and evidently they are ready to do it...

We talked and talked, revealing our fears, and of course our hopes. It was almost midnight when we adjourned our reunion. Only a short while ago, when the three of us would meet, we would do so discreetly; And now, we were meeting openly and freely. Yes, all in all, we were fortunate - not only to be able to meet so indiscreetly - but not to be at the mercy of the Nazi beast. The increasing number of "bezhentsi", refugees (the vast majority Jewish) from the German occupation, provided us with their first-hand accounts of the dreadful conditions on the German side of occupied Poland.


Early in October, the secular Yiddish school, formerly the "Tarbut" elementary school opened its doors to the local Jewish children. Actually it became what used to be called "an incomplete high school" as the last three grades were not offered. The previous faculty was reappointed in its entirety and I was appointed a teacher of Yiddish language and literature and of history. In this same school I had been a pupil for seven years and my father had been teaching Hebrew language and literature there since its establishment immediately after the first world war. The classes were packed. The children were eager to learn, and were quiet and subdued in class. There were no textbooks, no notebooks, not even chalk - just rooms, desks, the students and their teachers. A certain Resnik from Minsk was appointed as chairman of the district Bureau of Education and he assured everybody that books, notebooks, etc. will arrive in the near future from Minsk, but in the meantime there was nothing to do but to wait patiently and improvise as best possible. Besides myself there was another new teacher, Heniek Pasternak. In Warsaw we had studied together and both been active in the pro-communist student movement. We were both elated to be able to renew our close friendship. A year before the war, Heniek landed a position in the Yiddish elementary school "Chisho" in Svisloch, and had boarded with my parents who all but adopted him. His sister Rachel had also escaped from Warsaw to the east, but he still did know her whereabouts. His mother, after living a short while under the German occupation managed to make her way to Svisloch. Heniek and his mother had rented a place together and he succeeded in finding her a job. The war had torn apart many families - some would be lucky and be temporarily united. At the war's end in little more than half a decade, for the overwhelming majority of families there would not even be the one survivor to mourn them...


Captain Nicolai Durov was a political officer (Politruk) of the military garrison station in Svisloch. I received Durov's invitation, for a meeting at his residence, in the house owned by the local dentist Dr. Cossak. Durov lived in a spacious and beautifully furnished room, requisitioned for him by the army. The captain, a friendly and pleasant young Russian greeted me warmly. I could not converse with him directly as he spoke only Russian and at that time I did not know Russian well enough to conduct a meaningful conversation. The dentist, Dr. Cossak, middle-aged, stout and of pleasant disposition, volunteered to help out. She spoke a fluent Russian, which she learnt before the First World War, when the region was under Russian rule, and even her Polish, though quite correct, was delivered with a noticeable Russian accent.

The Cossaks, a wealthy, childless couple had built for themselves a beautiful house near the town's market. In their younger years they were strong sympathizers of the Russian revolutionary movement, but the rising antisemitism since the early thirties, drew them closer to Jewish nationalism and Zionism. During my student years in Warsaw I infrequently visited the family of her sister, Fira Antses. She and her husband Anshl, together with their two daughters, Shula and Bertha, lived in the same gloomy, foreboding building which housed the tannery where Anshl worked as a chemist.

The three of us then, sat and conversed in Durov's room. First, Dr. Cossak introduced me to Durov. She explained that as Svisloch is a small town it should not be surprising that she knew most of the town's residents. She described how in June, about two and a half months before the outbreak of the war, she had the opportunity to get even better acquainted with me. At that time, her sister and two nieces came to Svisloch to spend the summer vacation with her; one day during that summer of 1939, her sister and I had met in the streets of Svisloch and I had asked her if she would be willing to privately teach me Russian. Dr. Cossak related how both she and her sister were surprised at the time by this initiative: why should one suddenly start to learn Russian? In any case, her sister agreed and lessons were arranged. Frequently they were followed by discussions on the political situation, and it was through these discussions, Dr. Cossak explained, that she and her husband had the opportunity to know me.

Dr. Cossak now digressed to her sister's present situation: two weeks before the outbreak of the war, her sister, together with her two daughters returned to Warsaw to join her husband. Now her sister writes that she is desperately trying to return to Svisloch together with the whole family as the German authorities in Warsaw are behaving in an exceedingly brutish way, especially to the Jewish population. Life is unbearable there and it is extremely difficult for them to return. However, there might be an opening: ethnic Germans born in the former Polish districts of White Russia and the Ukraine may now emigrate to Germany, if they so desire, and White Russians and Ukrainians now living in former Polish territory, under the German occupation will be allowed to emigrate to the USSR if they so desire. Her sister and brother-in-law, and both of their children were born in Svisloch and thus they should be permitted to come here legally. Dr. Cossak entreated Durov to use his influence to help her sister's family return to Svisloch.

After this introduction and digression Captain Durov explained why he had asked to meet with me: The party and government were calling for an election among the people of the liberated territories to elect deputies to the higher soviets of the White Russian and of the Federated Republics, with the mandate to unite the liberated territories with the Soviet Union. In order to make a success of the elections, the local population must get involved. He asked if I would be willing to play an active role, especially in organizing the youth. I replied that I would do whatever I could. Durov unfolded before me his plan: in the name of the comsomol he would invite the youth of the town for a mass meeting at the White-Russian high school. He would open the meeting and then have me carry on. He asked me to invite some of my political friends as speakers and stressed that the liberating role of the Soviet Army should be explained clearly: that after years of oppression by the Polish bourgeoisie and Polish landowners the peoples of the liberated areas can reunite with their brothers and sisters from eastern White Russia and the Ukraine.

Durov talked on about the "Great Stalinist Constitution", election procedures, etc. We parted amicably with Durov wishing us success in our common endeavor.

The big hall of the former Polish state high school could accommodate close to 1000 people. On the evening of the meeting, it was filled to the brim with the towns young and middle-aged. On the stage sat Captain Durov, in full military uniform, flanked by Heniek Pasternak and myself. Durov opened the meeting in Russian with a few words about the issues to be addressed, and then introduced Heniek and myself. Then came my turn. Speaking in Polish, and addressing the Poles in the audience, I assured them that they would not be discriminated against under a Soviet government as this would be in full contradiction to the basic principles of a socialist regime: isn't there a Polish school and don't Poles work in Soviet offices alongside with White Russians, Russians and Jews?, I asked. And weren't the Polish poor, the same as the poor of other minorities in Svisloch and all over Poland, hungry and humiliated under the old regime?

The audience was attentive. I noticed Avrome Ravich and Motl among them. I had refrained from inviting them to speak. Although they were conversant in Polish and White Russian, only in Yiddish could they speak fluently and persuasively - and here it seemed wisest to speak Polish as it was the most widely spoken at the time. When I finished speaking Heniek took over. He too spoke Polish. He recalled the suffering of the poor of the Polish majority and of the minorities under the previous reactionary Polish regime. He vividly described the miserable life of Poles and Jews under the German occupation in Warsaw. His convincing logic, deep humanity and his extraordinary command of Polish, charmed all. He was enthusiastically applauded. All in all, the first all-town mass meeting was an impressive success. Though he didn't understand Polish, Captain Durov sensed this success and thanked us profusely. Afterwards, parting with us most warmly, Durov expressed his regret that no Polish or White Russian speakers appeared. In fact, no-one in these two groups had volunteered to speak and it was thus that in Svisloch, and probably in a good many towns like it, the Soviet authorities were generally left with the assistance of the sympathizers from the local Jewish communities.


Mass meetings were called by the Soviet authorities to confirm candidates as deputies to the supreme soviets of the USSR and the Byelorussian SSR. Basically their mandate was to perform the formalities needed for the incorporation of the liberated areas into the Soviet Union. Without exception, the candidates nominated were White Russians. Most were without political experience, let alone experience in addressing meetings. Even in towns such as Svisloch, where the Jews were the majority, and Poles the largest minority, this was the case. Even Jews with years of prison for communist activity behind them were brushed aside in favor of White Russians who were being catapulted to their new found status by the newly arrived Soviet dignitaries. As for the Poles, it was becoming more and more clear that their situation was depressingly inferior to what it had been before the collapse of the Polish state. As far as the Poles were concerned, it was the fourth time Poland was conquered and partitioned by old historical enemies.

At mass meetings the White Russian candidates would struggle with their recitations of their prepared speeches. They performed their duty as though it were an unwanted but necessary ritual - some had attacks of stage-fright and would recite their speeches in trembling voices. The audience would mechanically confirm the candidates when asked to do so. No-one dared object and soon indifference prevailed. The people of Svisloch weren't given much time to adapt to the realities of Soviet political life. But necessity was an effective teacher ...

And yet, in this stifling atmosphere the unexpected would also transpire occasionally. When a young and unknown White Russian woman finished reciting her biography, Avrome Ravitch asked for the floor. Many recognized him and a hushed expectation filled the hall. Speaking in colloquial White Russian, his voice clear and determined, he declared that he knew this woman candidate: ... by profession she is a prostitute and before September 1939 she served a special clientele - the local Polish police. Often when he was called to the station for interrogation he would see her there. The biography she has recited is a collection of fabrications though this can't be her doing as she can hardly express herself in writing. It would be shameful to elect such a person he declared and suggested removing her name from the candidates list...

When he left the platform a stillness engulfed the hall. His courage and integrity struck everyone. The chairman, after a short pause announced that the matter will be investigated and did not put the woman up for confirmation.

The following day Avrome was called in to Shershnov, the first secretary of the local communist party. Shershnov, a former worker from the district of Vitebsk, was a tall, athletic man. He asked Avrome to explain his behaviour at the previous night's meeting. As a result of this meeting another White Russian woman - this time a factory worker - replaced yesterday's candidate. An unavoidable question presented itself: why was someone such as Avreml Ravich - the son of a poor factory worker, highly intelligent and scrupulously honest, a dedicated communist who spent years in prisons for his beliefs - not nominated? Or Peysach Winer the town's mayor, who had been sentenced to death by a Polish court for his participation in a peasants mutiny? What was the meaning of "Long live the liberated White Russian people - our brothers in blood." Yet, one tried hard to be optimistic. How could it be otherwise: just a short while ago, one feared the Germans. In sharp contrast to their status under Polish rule, the Jews formally became (in the context of Soviet reality) real citizens with equal rights. The former Hebrew elementary and high schools had become secular state schools and the teachers became employees of the state - something inconceivable under the Polish regime. Many of the Jewish youth who had been unemployed and destitute until just recently, were now working. Svisloch had become the capital of a new county and the many new offices which were opened provided many jobs. The hope for a better life in a more just society, was so great, that one needed and wanted to be optimistic, and one naturally tried evading the disturbing reality which was becoming increasingly apparent.


In the initial period of Soviet rule, Polish, White Russian and Jewish schools were provided for the population. No Russian school had been established but as the number of Russian army and administrative personnel increased, it was decided to establish a Russian school for their children and for the local children whose parents wanted their children to be educated in the Russian language. At this time I was offered a position at the proposed Russian school, as a history teacher. When I responded that my Russian was not sufficient for the task, I was assured that working in a Russian school, teaching Russian children, I would quickly master the language. I consented but asked for a few days to mull it over. My parents encouraged the change. Yiddish had invoked no special loyalties in them. Moreover my father was pessimistic about the future of the Yiddish school in Svisloch as he foresaw the majority of its pupils switching to the Russian school. He committed himself to teaching me Russian intensively.

Still the decision was not easy. I could easily empathize with the Jewish pupils in the Yiddish school. I knew their families well and understood their attitudes and sensitivities. On the other hand, the Russian language and literature, the Russian revolutionary movement, all captivated my heart many years before. Though I shed many tears reading our tragic history, the history of a religious and ethnic minority in a cruel, bigoted and uncivilized world, I felt uncomfortable with parochial life and felt that the best course was to break down the walls of ignorance and hostility that separated peoples. My decision was made: I would resign from my present position and accept the appointment in the newly created Russian school. At the same time my friend Heniek also secured a new appointment; he was to become the supervisor of academic subjects as well as a teacher of Polish language and literature, at a Polish school in the small town of Yalovka, a few hours buggy ride from Svisloch. Yalovka, a town of mixed Jewish and Polish population, lay in the thick of a large forest. The air there was especially fresh and people with lung disease would come to spend the summer there in hope of a cure.

When Avrome Ravitch heard of my plans to leave the Yiddish school he became most disturbed: how can you leave the Yiddish school?, he asked me; the Russian school won't lack qualified teachers but the Yiddish school will be unable to replace teachers like Heniek and yourself! ...

To Avrome, who championed secular Yiddish culture it was a personal setback. And no doubt, our decision struck him as unfair. Just when it seemed to him that the secular Yiddish culture was being given its rightful status it was becoming apparent how vulnerable its position really was. Avrome's reaction to my decision to leave the Yiddish school struck me deeply, by its sadness and disappointment.


Meanwhile, our living room (which doubled as sleeping quarters for my sister and myself) had been requisitioned from us for a young woman from Minsk who came to work in the local Comsomol. For our family, it created a difficult situation. We were left with my parent's bedroom, a small room indeed, and the kitchen. We had very little contact with this Comsomol activist. She was shy and quiet and obviously did not feel comfortable in our milieu. To our relief she moved out after only a short stay. Soon after that, my sister discovered that some of her clothing was missing. The riddle was solved a few days later when my mother met our former boarder on the streets: she was wearing my sister's socks ... We decided to keep quiet about it.

But the housing problems did not finish here. The owner of our apartment, Shloyme Geller, a Jewish worker, wanted us to move out. He claimed that his son from Volkovysk would like to move in. Actually we suspected the real reason to be the low value of the rubles with which he was paid. When his behavior became openly aggressive, I went to Peysach Viner, the town's mayor and complained about Geller's behavior. The mayor wrote a stern letter to Geller warning him that he has no right to oust us and if his aggressive behavior continues more serious steps will be taken. This calmed down our landlord, but he and his family ceased to exchange greetings with us.

Soon after the departure of our Comsomol activist we received another tenant, this time one who we were all happy with. My sister, Hadassah, married a school friend of mine from Warsaw, Yeshayahu Mocry. Yeshayahu was forbidden, because of his refugee status, from staying on in our town; he was issued a Soviet passport which included a paragraph forbidding him residency in the vicinity of the new border with Germany, now considered a security zone. And so they departed, my sister and my brother-in-law, for a village near Slomim (still White Russia, though further from the border) where they were both given teaching positions - my sister as a kindergarten teacher and my brother-in-law, as a history teacher. It was at this time that my brother-in-law's younger brother, Eli, joined us. As he was adopted by my parents he was allowed to stay on in our town. He was a friendly boy of twelve or thirteen, and was made to feel at home with us. Whatever we had, we shared with him.


In January 1940 I started teaching in the newly established Russian school. My facility in Russian improved considerably. My father, who was teaching Russian language and literature in the Yiddish school, was instrumental in my progress. I ploughed through Krilov's delightful parables and through an assortment of history books. In the evenings my father would coach me on pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. The study was intensive but the progress made was ample reward. Within a few weeks, I was able with some recourse to a dictionary, to read through articles from the Russian papers.

In the classroom of the Russian school the majority of the pupils were Jewish children who left in droves from the Yiddish school. The rest were Russian children whose parents had been sent here for special assignments. Nearly all the Jewish children were sons and daughters of the middle-class of the town - of former manufacturers and storeowners. I knew them all from the Yiddish school. They were intelligent and inquisitive - and had a serious attitude to their studies. The principal was a middle-aged Russian woman, a member of the Russian communist party. She had a pleasant bearing despite her heavy limp. Another Russian teacher I still remember, was Valia Shershnova, the wife of the first secretary of the district committee of the communist party - a tall, vivacious young woman. The rest were also Russian women whose husbands had been sent for special assignments in our town and district. There were only two local teachers, a former mathematics teacher from the Polish high school, a Mr. Kovnas, a Lithuanian assimilated in the Polish culture, and myself. In the classes a strict discipline was imposed. My former students from the Yiddish school had lost much of their former self-confidence. It was quite a change for them. When they approached me here, they spoke only in Russian and it was clear that my father had taught them well. Being the only Jewish teacher, they felt close to me. I remember their inquisitive eyes and mostly their pale and sad faces. Many were chronically hungry. Food was expensive and in short supply. I remember my brilliant student Sonia Medvedeva, the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family. Her father, the owner of a tannery, had been killed in an accident in Warsaw. She would come to school hungry, so I was told, and so it seemed... I still remember Lidia Sokolova, a petite Russian girl, whose father was a high officer in the Russian army. I don't know what became of my Russian students, but not one of my Jewish students survived - they were all murdered by the Nazi murderers and their local collaborators.

During the hourly breaks the faculty engaged in lively conversation. The Russian teachers were especially eager to know about the life here before the war. They had read about a miserable life in Poland - about exploitation, suppression and oppression - but coming here, they realize, that there had been an abundance of food, goods, textiles, good housing, etc. Kovnas would confirm and reaffirm this picture to his inquisitive colleagues from the east. He described life in the pre-war Poland as free, peaceful and happy. Knowing that the rosy picture he painted was highly misleading I would recall the sorry situation of the White Russians. They lived in abject poverty, their national and social movements were suppressed and there were no schools in their language. Economic boycotts against the Jews were not only permitted, they were encouraged, physical attacks on them had become more frequent and violent. Jewish students at the Warsaw University were segregated and forced to sit in what was called the "Ghetto of benches". These exchanges of views between Kovnas and myself focused the attention of the Russian teachers. To my surprise the majority sympathized with Kovnas. "Weren't the best homes in Svisloch owned by Jews?", they would ask. "Didn't Jewish children receive an excellent education, many of them in Polish "gymnasiums"? So how could they be oppressed?".

In the course of my history classes, it was not infrequent that one or other student would broach an event or topic of current times. A war was raging not far from us and many of my students were naturally inquisitive about the nature of this conflict. In response to their queries, I would describe the dark and cruel character of Nazi-Germany and the dangers of the German expansion throughout Europe. Evidence of the bestial Nazi character and intentions were in fact to be found in occupied Poland just to our West, I would point out. Word of my sharp criticism of Nazi-Germany during and after classes got around. Mrs. Polyakova, the school director, called me to her office and scolded me for my negative and incorrect attitude to Nazi-Germany. - No one has given you the right to criticize Germany in a Soviet school, she bluntly told me. - Do you mean Nazi-Germany?, I asked. - ... Germany is our ally, you cannot criticize Germany here - it is against the basic policy of our party, government and of Comrade Stalin. No more attacks on our allies from you! ...

Shocking as were these words from the director of a Soviet school, the fact of the matter was that one could not find any criticism of Nazi-Germany in any of the mass media. This was obviously dictated from above. My friend, Avrome Ravich, the eternal optimist as far as Soviet Russia was concerned, explained away this dilemma, as a tactical measure that the Soviets were constrained into temporarily adopting, in order to avoid coming into conflict with Germany. His reasoning did not convince me. Later, at the end of June 1941, while retreating into Soviet territory after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, I came across town after town, all with masses of Jews, who could have retreated easily into Russia. But as we know, tragically, they didn't. How could they foresee the horrors that awaited them when the true character of the invaders was so vigilantly kept from them. The silence dictated by the Soviet dictatorship concerning German behavior in the countries they had occupied, would soon trap these helpless people in the cruelest and darkest of worlds.


Once, quite unexpectedly, I was approached by a Soviet security officer and asked about one of the town's veteran citizens, Berenstein, a life-long member of the Jewish socialist party "Bund". I answered that I can say without hesitation that he is the finest and most honest person I had ever known. Thinking that it was a question of his being considered for a responsible position, I added that he could be trusted with the highest position, as there would be no doubt of his serving the people with the greatest devotion. I was asked to put it in writing; I did and signed it.

After a few days I received a note from the same security man, requesting I see him in the office of the bureau of education. At the designated time I appeared at the office and was shown to a room. There sat the agent I had met only a few days before. He came quickly to the point of the meeting: ... we would like you to become a steady informer for the Soviet Secret Police. You will be given a code-name under which you will sign all notes of information.

When I flatly refused the proposition he went on to explain how as newcomers they need to obtain all the information essential to them. Friends of the Soviet Union must help in this respect, he enjoined. The agent continued his exhortations but to no avail. My position was steadfast. When this became clear to him, he suggested that we terminate the meeting but that I should think over the proposal. We shall meet again soon, he promised.

A few weeks passed and sure to his word, I received a second summons. Again I reiterated that I would not accept under any conditions and suggested that the best way to find out what people think would be to call open, public meetings and have a free-for-all with those who attend about the issues of interest. My idea was rejected, not at all surprisingly, as utopian and unworkable. When it became clear that continued exhortations would lead nowhere I was dismissed with the suggestion that I reconsider it yet again, this time more seriously. Then several weeks passed without being summoned and I thought that I could stop worrying about the matter. I was proven wrong. Again and again I was summoned. The sessions, with their repetitive monologues of the security officer, became less polite, and a new dimension was introduced: intimidation. The determined rejection of their proposal brought more menacing intimidation. I was summoned to appear at the office of the military commissariat after midnight. A security agent was waiting for me. I was told that my further refusal will have serious and tragic consequences. I could disappear... no-one will know what became of me. On the other hand if I cooperate I would be justly rewarded... I was given two weeks to decide. Again, as before, I was warned not to divulge to anyone about this encounter.

The brutal character of this latest encounter was acutely distressing. There was no doubt in my mind that they were perfectly able to carry out their threat without any scruples. The initial suspicions I harbored about the nature of the new regime were now so starkly confirmed. Till now, I had as ordered, kept quiet about my repeated encounters with the secret police, but now I decided that I must confide in someone. If they carried out their threat, at least one person should know of my fate and what preceded it. Before the war, my political activism had brought my parents much anguish. They constantly worried that this activity would land me in a Polish jail and at the mercy of the Polish political police. And how, could I now, of my own volition cause them such grief, by telling them about my troubles with the Soviet security agents. Avreml Ravich? No, he's too dogmatic. Why not?, he might say. Maybe they had already recruited him? The same goes for Pesach Viner - doubly so! Only one person could I trust fully and confide in fully - Heniek, my closest friend. I arranged a horse and buggy to Yalovka, for a day when I finished my teaching early. Heniek was surprised but happy to see me. I related to him the history of my present predicament. He too, had come to the conclusion that the Soviet regime is based to a large extent on the terror of the secret police. It was clear to us, a network of informers must be around us already. Heniek supported my decision to refuse to give in regardless of the consequences. I left Yalovka relieved. At least Heniek would know what happened. Sharing my decision, gave me further strength to uphold it, and ensured a witness would remain. It was the last time I would see Heniek. To this day, I remember his brilliance, and his honesty. He shared the fate of the few hundred Jews of Yalovka and that of the millions of Jews of Eastern Europe - dehumanization, torture and annihilation.

The next encounter was, as expected, not long in coming. Returning from school, I found a summons on the table. I was ordered to appear at midnight at the office of the military branch, located on the other end of town, beside the huge stone gate, a remnant from medieval times. Lately, quite a few young people had received a summons to appear at the same office. From there, they would be sent off for some work connected with defense. Some were recruited for regular military service. But I could not harbor any illusion that I was to be in that category - the order to appear at midnight, made that clear. At the appointed hour I approached the building. It seemed deserted, there was complete darkness. It seemed incredible. Should I return home? I tried the door. From the pitched darkness I heard the familiar voice of the secret police agent. - And what is your decision?, he asked. - I will not join you, I replied. - Do you realize that you could disappear tracelessly right now and no one would dare investigate?, he asked with his anger reflected in his voice. - I am in your hands - but I cannot and will not join you. There was a short and tense silence. Then, in the darkness of the night, he seized my arm - but instead of pushing me forward he grasped my hand. A firm handshake. - ... Go home now, and we'll leave it at that. And remember, no talk about any of this.

Coming home, it must have been very late and very dark. From this traumatic experience I now, not only had a clearer view of the workings of this terror ridden state, but also a clearer image of myself. It was an acid test and I was glad, very glad, to have passed it as I did. Reaching home, I tried to be as quiet as possible, but my mother had stayed awake. She asked if all was well - and I replied, that yes, everything was well. I lay down on my mattress but despite my tiredness, it was a while before I slept.

At last I could return to my daily routine. A dent had been made which would never be erased. I had learned about Soviet reality in an intimate way - and the reality wasn't pleasant...


The vagaries of daily life provided other occasions to become better acquainted with the reality of Soviet life. During a meeting of workers from the local tanneries, I was elected in absentia, as controller of local commercial traffic. I was to monitor the receipt and distribution of all goods received at the towns stocks, and ensure that all is done as the law stipulated. It was an important and responsible position as the goods received were scarce, especially the food. So scarce, that guards from the local militia would supervise the ever growing queues for food. I took the assignment seriously, endeavoring to justify the trust of those who elected me. I hired a professional accountant and set off together with him to inspect the main ware-house where all incoming dry goods were stored prior to distribution to the local retail stores. From the start, it became clear that not all was in order... Before the incoming goods were distributed to the factory and public stores the warehouse was ransacked by a motley of public and party officials. They took what they fancied and the little that was left was sent off to the stores. The warehouse manager, a local person, had little choice but to keep his doors open for these scavengers: ... that's how the system works, and I have only two choices: I'm out, or I'm in! ..., he explained. Knowing of these goings on and keeping tight-lipped would make me party to this system. On the other hand, I could harbor no illusions about making even the slightest dent in the system. And so there was no way I could continue and still justify the trust confided in me. My only course of action was clear: to resign. Armed with my letter of resignation, I went to the office of the district party committee. There the secretary tried dissuading me from resigning - but to no avail. He then refused to accept my resignation. Only those who elected me are entitled to accept my resignation, he claimed. I left my written resignation on his desk and left. Thus ended my career as controller of local commercial traffic. Still my clashes with the authorities were not yet over.


Again I was elected, and again in absentia, to public office - this time as a peoples' judge (I suspect that someone like Pesach Viner or Avrome Ravich had a hand in it). The court was presided over by three judges, two of whom were elected locally and the third a professional judge. Typically the professional judge was an 'easterner' and a member of the Communist Party. On the occasion when I was summoned to serve as local judge, the other local judge was Elke Miller, who like her brother Motl, had spent several years in prison for communist activity.

The cases that went before the court were of minor criminal nature only. Generally there was agreement among the three judges. However, a conflict arose in the case of a young Polish woman, the one parent of a preschool child. She was accused of stealing and admitted it. The professional judge suggested a two year prison sentence. This punishment seemed to me unduly harsh considering the child that had to be taken care of. I opposed his sentence, suggesting in its stead, a two month suspended sentence. Elke Miller broke the stalemate: she too opted for lenience. The majority decided - even if it was a case of the two elected judges being at odds with the professional appointee. I was delighted as was Elke, when the presiding judge pronounced the lenient sentence we had recommended.

Another case was to cause even greater friction. A young White Russian peasant from a nearby village, faced the elderly Jewish butcher Cantor, who came with his son, a classmate of mine from elementary school years. The peasant had come to the weekly town market which had been renewed under the Soviet regime. He left his bicycle in the unlocked corridor of Cantor's house and informed somebody inside about it; he knew the Cantors and had business relations with them. When the peasant returned for his bicycle, he discovered it missing. It had been stolen, and now he was suing Cantor for the cost of replacement. Cantor answered that as the bicycle was placed in an open corridor where anyone could enter without being noticed, he could not be held responsible for the bicycle, and neither he nor his children would ever take anything belonging to someone else. I knew them as honest people and believed what old Cantor related. After hearing both sides the three judges withdrew to a side room to discuss the case. The appointed judge contended that the peasant was right in demanding Cantor to replace his bicycle. I took issue with this view: how could Cantor be held responsible when no-one in the house took responsibility for the bike?

Elke Miller agreed with me. This annoyed our professional colleague. He forwarded other arguments in favor of the peasant. When these failed to sway us, he brought up something new: the peasant belongs to an oppressed class and Cantor who buys cattle to resell at a profit is basically a member of the bourgeoisie. Soviet law must protect the exploited and not the exploiters. I replied that I failed to see how this argument is relevant in this context. With Elke Miller's support, we over-ruled our colleague. We reentered the main chamber of the court and the verdict was read out by our fuming colleague: ... the court dismisses the case. He however added, that he personally shall appeal immediately to the higher court in Volkovysk in favor of the plaintiff.

My career as a peoples' judge was almost as short lived as my career as a controller. After the differences with the professional judge, I was never again called to serve as a people's judge. Later on I was told by Avrome Ravich that at a public meeting of workers, the same judge publicly accused me of being a Jewish nationalist and of defending Cantor solely on the grounds of his being Jewish. Ravich, who was present at the meeting, interjected then that those who know me better and longer, know that I am a true internationalist. In any case, it seemed that my public career had decidedly finished. Other individuals were needed for the party's calling ...


Captain Durov kept pressing me to apply for membership in the comsomol. Whenever we met he invariably referred to it, adding that he would gladly serve as referee. Eventually, with Durov's full endorsement, I applied for comsomol membership. For what seemed an inordinate length of time I received no response to my application, however, this did not disturb me unduly.

Once I was told that my name had appeared in "Liberated Bialystok", the official provincial organ of the communist party. I acquired a copy of the paper and indeed found an article relating how I, Heniek and Volynchyk (a brother of the Director of the newly established White Russian high-school) had attempted to infiltrate into the comsomol but thanks to the vigilance of its leadership the attempt had failed. "Under the Polish regime", the article continued, "Goldberg, Pasternak and Volynchyk maintained suspicious ties with the Polish authorities and consequently cannot be admitted into Lenin's comsomol". I was overwhelmed by the mendacity of these outright lies. I got in touch with Captain Durov who assured me that a deplorable error had been made. My friends, too, were shocked when I showed them the article. I wrote the paper a letter accusing it of spreading malicious lies and challenging them to refute my accusation in court or else print an official apology. Weeks passed and no acknowledgement of my letter arrived. I sent a second letter, this time by registered mail. This letter was even more adamant than the first one, warning that such falsifications undermine the credibility of the Soviet press and readers would draw parallel conclusions concerning the veracity of other such 'informational' articles. Weeks passed without any acknowledgement of either letter. Durov assured me that the matter was not forgotten and that in due time it would be resolved. And really, the unexpected and the unusual happened: the "Liberated Bialystok" printed an official correction stating that the accusation made against me and Heniek had been made in error.


Gradually I withdrew from public life devoting myself almost exclusively to school work and the study of Russian language and history.

One could sense a feeling of both resignation and disappointment among the population. There were serious difficulties in the supply of all the basic commodities. The long lines at those few stores which sold food were getting longer. Many people were actually starving or near starving. The wood required for home heating during the cold winter months was difficult to acquire. Fear and terror were instilled in the population by the increasing incidence of midnight arrests by the secret police. The first group victims were the Poles. The former Polish director of the "gymnasium" (a combined high-school and junior college) was arrested. Other Polish intellectuals disappeared. Rumors circulated that they were simply taken off to the German zone of occupation. Others claimed that the NKVD, - the Soviet secret police had taken them away. It was during the bitterly cold winter of 1940 that the mass arrests of Poles began in earnest. Poor Polish peasants, who had migrated from the central Polish provinces to the "eastern regions" ("kresy wschodnie") were herded into cattle trains and exiled to remote regions of the Soviet Union. These Polish peasants who had in previous years been lured to the "eastern regions" by promises of cheap land - part of the Polish government's attempt to "Polonize" the White Russian provinces - had not been pampered by the Polish government. They worked hard to eke out a poor living. Their grown up children served as maids or handy-men with the more comfortable families in town. Yet these hardworking and poor people were treated as enemies by the Soviet government. They were portrayed as willing servants of the former Polish regime. Fear and panic overtook the Polish population. Rumors spread of their imminent exile to Siberia or to the Arctic Circle. Those Poles who worked in the various local state institutions were safe for the moment ...

I remember Maria Tokarska. Once, visiting the Polish orphanage we re-met. We had befriended one and other many years before the war. An avid reader, she used to borrow books from the Hebrew-Polish library and on many an occasion we would discuss books we had read. She was a friendly, intelligent and attractive young woman. Maria's father managed the local electrical station and her two brothers were both teachers. Later on the entire Tokarska family was murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

In the sharpest contrast to the Poles, the White Russians were strongly promoted by the government. They were made to feel the masters of the land. White Russian schools, libraries, clubs and newspapers were established. Many White Russians, were accepted into the police force; many were promoted from virtual anonymity to responsible positions in the municipal government and in various institutions. The first Jewish mayor of Svisloch, Peysach Viner, a man of great vitality, intelligence and honesty, was demoted to a less conspicuous position in the economic sector and a White Russian, Voronich, replaced him. Even White Russians notorious as reactionaries and anti-Semites were favored and promoted.

The designation of Svisloch as the capital of a separate region, had created a need for people with at least a basic education to take on newly created managerial and technical positions. These positions were in the main, filled by Jews and to a much lesser extent by Poles. Not that the government favored local Jews - quite the contrary - but the White Russians, through no fault of their own, were mostly uneducated and semi-illiterate. The Jews of Svisloch, besides having the advantage of being relatively well educated, had another obvious advantage: in contrast to the White Russians who were dispersed in the villages around Svisloch, the Jews were contort in close proximity to where the jobs were. Moreover, the Jews tended to speedily adapt to the new conditions and to become quickly conversant in Russian - providing an important avenue of communication with their Russian bosses, who were in general, a friendly lot. As a result of these advantages many of the Jewish youth were chosen to fill the positions, which though less prestigious than the ones the White Russians were catapulted into, were essential to the continued functioning of government.

The vast majority of White Russians remained in the villages, tilled the land, paid taxes, and remained subservient to their new masters. Though they had gained no economic advantage and had of course, no real freedom, they did benefit from free medical services and the cultural amenities (schools, papers, radio broadcasts) which were established for their benefit.

The status of the Jews was ambivalent. The Soviet army had indeed saved us from a most brutal German occupation. Though no mention was ever given to the treatment of Jews and Poles under the German occupation, we had heard, at the beginning of the German occupation of Poland, of Jews being tortured and burned alive. Despite the actual ban on all news critical of Soviet Russia's new "ally", enough news of the barbaric treatment of the Germans to the Jews and Poles did get through, by way of reliable channels, to make Jews shudder. We had been given a respite from the Nazi beast; and this fundamental fact determined the Jewish attitude to the Soviet Union throughout the occupied territories. The Russians were also personally friendly and supportive towards us and we reciprocated. In certain aspects there was a marked improvement in the overall position of the Jewish minority in contrast to the former Polish regime: anti-Semitic propaganda ceased, all schools and universities were open to Jews and there was no numerous clauses. It seemed that we were being treated as equals. The rife and endemic anti-Semitic excesses and incidents under the prewar Polish regime were conspicuously absent. The friendly relationship which had been established between the coming Russians and local Jews sympathetic to Soviet Russia, also contributed significantly to the Jewish community's acceptance of the new regime and their subsequent cooperation. The loss of Jewish educational and cultural institutions, (the two Jewish schools of Svisloch, two libraries, all social institutions, etc.) which had been closed, was generally perceived as being favorably offset by the new found equality - though the richness of these institutions made their loss lamented by many. The Jews were no longer represented as a separate community with unique problems. The only exclusively Jewish institution which was not closed down was the synagogues and Jews were allowed to pray in accordance to their tradition.

The economic situation of the Jews was desperate. Many faced starvation or a situation of near starvation. Basic products such as bread, milk, eggs, shoes and clothing were in scarce supply. The peasants who brought their produce to the weekly market would not accept the new currency and so a system of barter emerged. Many Jewish families had nothing to barter off. But for a small minority within the Jewish community there was a dramatic improvement. These were the bakers, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths and watchmakers who were in possession of goods they had stocked and hidden. There was a large number of Jewish workers in the numerous tanneries which had formerly belonged to Jewish industrialists. Unemployment among tannery workers had disappeared with the nationalization of all the tanneries. The former owners of these capitalist enterprises were pleasantly surprised when instead of facing the feared exile and punishment they were retained in various capacities in the tanneries they had once owned. Yet in spite of the town's numerous tanneries it was hard to get sufficient leather for even a pair of boots. Dissatisfaction among the workers was so serious that they even contemplated organizing a strike. I learned of this through Avrome Ravich. He related to me how the veteran labor union organizer Peysach Kravetsky, himself a tannery worker, had consulted with him about the desperate situation of the tannery workers and the possibility of organizing a strike. Avrome warned him of the dire consequences that would result from such an action and seemingly this had an influence in averting such a confrontation.

Especially tragic was the situation of the Jewish refugees, most of them young people, who fled the Polish territories under German occupation. Now they crowded in the synagogue, where they slept - men, women and children, squeezed together on the floor in most unhygienic conditions. They suffered from hunger, dirt, lice and cold, were without any guidance from the authorities and received virtually very little help from the local Jewish population who with few exceptions, did not admit them into their homes, being afraid of contagious disease. It would be unfair to blame the Jewish community for the absence of any organized attempt to help them: no Jewish organized life was tolerated and the fear of exile to remote Siberia was common among the Jews - even if no local Jew had actually been exiled. One shouldn't forget that even before the war terrible poverty among Jews had been tolerated. I vividly remember one case - which certainly was not an isolated one. In the very heart of the Jewish quarter there lived an impoverished water-carrier, a short man with a tall wife and several small children. They lived in the basement of the house of a poor "melamed" who was known as "Der Kleyner Rebele" (the little Rabbi). Once I had occasion to enter the basement where the water-carrier and his family lived: it was a veritable horror: the sun did not penetrate this damp, deep and dirt-floored basement. There was not even a single bed to sleep on. During the cold winter months I had once seen their eldest son, Naftolli, standing with his bare feet on the snow and shivering from cold. And this occurred before the war - when there were many Jewish organizations to be found in Svisloch. This callousness in the face of the most conspicuous misery was a deplorable part of the reality of Svisloch and one can imagine, of the many similar towns of eastern Europe. This general indifference to the extreme poverty of fellow Jews, helps explain, at least partially, the attitude to the refugees.

The authorities offered passports to all those living in the town, including refugees. Many of these misguided refugees rejected the offer, believing these passports would prevent them from eventually returning to their families and homes in Poland. When the Soviet authorities announced their intention to register all those refugees who wished to return to the Polish provinces under German occupation and at the same time register those who agreed to accept Soviet passports and assigned places of work within Russia, this threw the refugees into confusion. Many of the young people, because of their desperate condition and their ignorance of German atrocities perpetrated on the local population in those provinces they wished to return to, registered to live under German rule. These inexperienced and often immature refugees became victims of the misguidance and misinformation of the Soviet authorities. One midnight, in the summer of 1940, the Soviet secret police carried out a mass arrest of those refugees who had registered to return to the German occupied provinces of Poland. The bewildered refugees were placed in cattle trains which would transport them to remote regions of the Soviet Union, the European part of the Arctic circle and Siberia. Those refugees who had accepted employment within the Soviet Union were given basic provisions and tickets to their destinations. Some refugees avoided registering altogether, continuing to live illegally where they were, under the constant threat of arrest and exile.

In spite of mounting disappointments, probably the vast majority of the local Jews maintained friendly relations with the Russian civilian and military personnel and were favorably disposed to the new regime. The only alternative - German occupation - was dreaded. Some information about conditions under German occupation trickled through in private letters and from the descriptions of recent refugees who had by a combination of daring and good fortune managed to cross the closely guarded border. The very few local Jews who would have preferred 'the alternative' had been blinded by distorted memories of 'civilized' German behavior during the German occupation of 1914-1918 or by the confiscation of their businesses or factories. Some simply harbored a blind hatred of what they called "communism".


In the summer of 1940, school vacation time, I would take a book and a newspaper, stroll across the fields till I reached a huge stone behind the Roman Catholic cemetery and there seat myself down to read and study. Here peace and tranquility reigned. German conquest of western Europe, the fall of Paris and the string of military triumphs of the hated fascist regime, seemed to be happening far away and were not of immediate concern. This was the atmosphere created and fostered by the Soviet press and by the Soviet internal propaganda.

In fact, even the internal peace was illusory. It was the time when the refugee problem was forcibly resolved: those not exiled were dispersed in factories and state farms throughout the Soviet Union.

My parents, despite their meager means, did not remain indifferent to the plight of the refugees and made their own small contribution. There was an elderly refugee who would visit us nearly daily. My mother would wash his clothing and cook him soup. He used to sit at our table and write - no-one knew about what - until he was exiled in the summer of 1940. Perhaps he was assigned to my parents by a clandestine local Jewish society which sought to help the refugees? It seems a reasonable assumption, but is speculation nonetheless. Actually, neither Avrome Ravich, Motl, or for that matter anyone in our group, including myself, showed any special interest in personally helping the refugees: it was left to the local Soviet authorities to deal with, as the problem was too big for any small group of people. While the exile of the refugees to remote districts of the Soviet Union was regarded by us as a great tragedy (a few slipped out of the net and were in hiding), no-one could predict that this would for most of them, save their lives. After the German invaders occupied Svisloch in June 1941 the fate of the entire Jewish population of the town, men, women and children, was tragically sealed.

In contrast to the official line of friendly neutrality towards Nazi Germany, the Jewish population maintained a friendly attitude to England and France. Many would tune in on news broadcasts from London, which were a popular source of information.

July and August were the months of school vacation, time to read, study, stroll, and converse with friends and acquaintances. From time to time I would be approached by people with personal problems, who mistakenly thought that I was a person with influence, if not power. A young man, Zelig Cantor, short and gaunt, with a sad and serious expression, met me on the street. Before the war I used to visit his home to read the Yiddish daily paper "Haint" (I could not afford buying it). He reminded me of the time he had returned to me illegal communist literature that had fallen out of my pants pockets while reading the "Haint" at his home and of how he had kept the incident to himself. He described his present predicament: how he was unemployed, and how he, his wife and their toddler were literally starving. He begged me to help him get a job, any job, and was incredulous when I explained just how little influence I had.

Eshka Orin, a school friend of mine, a professional midwife, who had studied in Warsaw in the prestigious hospital "on Czysta" started to visit me. She had a sympathetic attitude to the Soviet regime. Her father was a shoemaker, and Jewish craftsmen, despite their elevation in status under the Soviet regime, were not highly regarded within the Jewish community. A cousin of mine became alarmed at Eshka's visits, and warned me that marrying a shoemaker's daughter would bring great shame on the whole family. Though I was unperturbed by my cousin's warning, I was nonetheless resolved to remain single for the time being as a commitment such as marriage would hinder if not prevent me from realizing my great ambition: to resume studies in Moscow or Leningrad. When Eshka realized this she stopped visiting me. Apparently my mother was worried and she encouraged Yafa Olkienicka, the daughter of one of my father's friends, to visit our home. Yafa was an attractive and intelligent young woman who had a beautiful voice. At my parents' behest, she would sing before them; they enthusiastically applauded her and would compliment her on her talent. But I was not receptive to her visits; She was the daughter of a formerly rich merchant - and I was as much antagonistic of this statused class as my cousin was of the non-statused craftsmen. My reception of Yafa was at best indifferent and she soon stopped visiting.

My first priority was to continue to study - and my ambition was to resume studying at a highly regarded institute in Moscow or Leningrad. With the 'equal access' to education policy promoted by the Soviet regime I thought I would be able to fulfill my ambitions. I applied to the famous Herzen Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad and was accepted as a corresponding student in the "zaochnoye otdeleniye" (correspondence division). During the school year I was required to submit written assignments and during the winter and summer vacation I would have to travel to Leningrad to sit for examinations and attend seminars. The program and its prospects excited me. Immediately on receiving the curriculum and assignments I started studying in earnest.

Apparently, I was alone in Svisloch, in taking advantage of the opportunity to further studies by correspondence. I remember once meeting my mother's old friend, Malka Kash; we conversed on the street in Hebrew, her preferred language (considered then, a "reactionary language"). She was a hardworking woman with great integrity and it was hard not to like her. She chastised me with her typical openness: "why don't you go off to the big city and study until your hair turns grey?". To her pragmatic way of thinking my ambitions were foolish and as a devoted friend of my mother she wanted to see me settled down with a family of my own.


Several tannery workers were rewarded for their efforts with expense paid vacations in the famous health resorts in Crimea and Caucasia. Among the fortunate few chosen was my friend Avrome Ravich. He was overjoyed by the occasion and carried on how only in the Soviet Union are workers so pampered. He suffered from poor health - heart disease and lung problems - and a month's stay in such a resort would do him a lot of good. It seemed to me that he was no less happy that the Soviet authorities had done something just than he was at having the opportunity, for the first time in his life, of resting and relaxing in a resort. He was always quick not only to defend the Soviet Union against just criticism but to praise it where praise was due. When on occasion I raised the question of open anti-Semitism of a Russian party member stationed in Svisloch, he would respond that he knows the man, and despite this blemish on his character, he is sure that this same man would bravely defend the Soviet homeland. Avrome's friends, myself included, were happy to see him cheerful and optimistic. When he returned from his well deserved rest, he enthusiastically described his experiences there and the attention that was given to him and his fellow workers. He really did appear healthier, more relaxed and generally in better shape - and we, his friends, were happy that he had been given this opportunity he so fully deserved.


September 1940, the school year started. Back to work in the Russian school under the direction of comrade Poliakova, this strict and stern Russian woman. The school was growing by leaps and bounds. More and more Jewish and White Russian children knocked on its doors hoping to get in, but admittance was limited. Whether this was dictated by a limited budget or was politically motivated I did not know. but one thing was clear: had the admittance been unlimited, the Jewish and White Russian school would be forced to close down as a result of mass exodus of their students. The Polish parents, interestingly enough, stuck, almost uniformly, to the Polish school.

My progress in Russian was, as quick as had been predicted for me, my strong accent disappeared and I felt at ease lecturing and conversing in this language. The classes were full to the brim with students: children of the Soviet military and civilian personnel who had come from the "east", many Jewish children, and to a lesser extent White Russian children whose parents preferred the Russian language over their own. The White Russians, being Greek Orthodox ("pravoslavnie") by religion, felt affinity, by way of religion, to the Russians and the Russian culture. I had heard that pressure was exerted to direct the White Russian children to the White Russian schools. As it seemed that there was no such pressure on the Jewish children only limitations of space had limited their admittance into the Russian school.

I was teaching history of the ancient world to 5th grade students and the history of the middle ages to grades six and seven. During the class breaks, the mathematics teacher, Kovas, reiterated the provocative remarks about life before the Soviets came, that he had given vent to the previous school year. I started contemplating on the motives he might have for his outspoken challenge of party line. Except for us two, the teachers were nearly all wives of party members; some were themselves party members. Such outspoken remarks among such people was indeed puzzling. It dawned upon me that Kovnas must be a 'plant' of the secret police. Was this a practice exclusive to border zones such as our area or was it endemic throughout the Soviet Union? From the personal experience I had accrued to date I concluded the latter.


The winter approached. There was the difficult task of preparing essential items to last us through winter. Wood was needed to heat the house. Winter potatoes, pickles and carrots had to be prepared. My mother took charge of these preparations and I too was mobilized as was my adopted brother who showed initiative and dexterity in finding pragmatic solutions to problems which arose. Now two people worked in our family, my father and I, and if it was difficult for us to secure the basic necessities, how did the others manage?

With my formal acceptance into the nationally famous Herzen Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad, a new dimension entered my life, and gave me hope, vigors and enthusiasm. I was accepted in the History Department, in the so called "Zaochnoye Otdeleniye" (similar to a correspondence course). I was required to participate in seminars at the Leningrad campus during the winter and summer vacations and for the rest of the year, I would follow a program of study which outlined reading and written assignments according to a prepared schedule. I responded to the challenge enthusiastically. One of my written assignments was concerned with the book "What Is To Be Done?" written by Lenin in 1902-03. I studied the book carefully and then wrote up the assignment with my father making the necessary grammatical and stylistic corrections. Day after day I would sit till late at night and study. The two volumes of the book "Istoria Antichnovo Mira" ("The History of the Ancient World") by the historian Leontev appealed to me especially. In December I received a letter inviting me to participate in the winter seminars in Leningrad. Here I faced a problem: I could not leave for Leningrad without the written consent of the secret police, as we the former Polish citizens were on a special status which forbade us from traveling into Soviet territory outside of the former Polish territories without the requisite permission of the secret police. I was not at all certain that such permission would be granted to me. A refusal would mean that all my efforts to date had been in vain. At long last the permission was given.

My mother helped me prepare for the voyage as had been her custom during those years I would depart for my studies in Warsaw. She sewed an inside pocket for storing money safely and prepared a supply of food for the way - the distance of Svisloch from Leningrad was far greater than from Warsaw. The day of my departure arrived. The winter was bitterly cold and I bundled up and secured a seat in the big sleigh which took me to the station. The first leg of my journey was short and simple taking me from Svisloch to Volkovysk; there at the Volkovysk station I would transfer to the train which arrived from Bialystock and went directly to Leningrad. The Volkovysk station was bustling with people and one had to push one's way onto the train. The train arrived at Leningrad station late at night. I remember waiting outside the station, in the bitter cold, for the tram to "Prospect Mayorova" where the Institute's dormitory was situated. My toes became numb; the cold was more intense than I had ever experienced. When I finally arrived at the warm and cozy dormitory building I was greeted by friendly people who did their best to assist me. In spite of the late hour I was served hot tea and rolls - they had never tasted better!

I was assigned into a large class of high-school history teachers, mostly Russians but with a noticeable contingent of Karelian Finns. The Finns were blond, blue-eyed, healthy in appearance. Their expressions were uniformly serious - perhaps the recent Soviet-Finno war was the reason for this... I actively participated in the seminars and achieved uniformly respectable marks. My instructors and classmates were particularly impressed with my grasp of "Marxism- Leninism" which was a mandatory course for every student. One was too busy to establish personal contacts; this I felt I would be able to accomplish during the longer and less intensive summer session.

Leningrad was an impressive city. The streets were wide and clean and lined with beautiful pre-revolutionary buildings. Despite the bitter cold, I enjoyed strolling in the streets and along the canals where the cold was even more intense. Once I asked an elderly woman for directions to the famous "Nevsky Prospect"; she chastised me for using the old name: why can't people get used to the fact that the name of the street is "Oktyaberskaya" (on the month October 1917 when the Russian revolution took place). With great patience and frequently stressing the name "Oktyaberskaya", she gave me the directions. I visited the museums (the "hermitage" with its rich collection), libraries, bookstores and general stores. There were many bookstores on Volodarsky street; here I found books which had already been withdrawn from circulation (like Pokrovsky's history which I bought for a high price).

Visiting a few homes gave me great satisfaction. I had the address of a semi-forgotten relative who invited me to visit her home. She lived with husband, two teenage children and her old mother in one single room which served as a bedroom, dining room and living room. There were about ten such rooms along a long corridor and every such room contained a separate family. There were one washroom and one small kitchen shared amongst all the families. The living conditions were incredibly crowded. My relative seemed good natured and friendly and she showered me with questions. Before I left, she told me, in a subdued voice, in archaic Ashkenazic Hebrew: "Shomer Leshono, Shomer Mi Tsarot Nafsho" (loosely: "he who guards his tongue, guards himself") and warned me to talk seldom and to be constantly on guard whenever I talk and with whoever I talk. Reverting back to Hebrew she added: "Hakhayim Vehamavet Beyad Halashon" (loosely: "the tongue stands between life and death"). I nodded, acknowledging the full import of her words. In the context of the time it took great courage to speak in such a fashion to a person she met for the first and only time in her life. Tears streamed from her eyes when we departed - my visit had touched a sensitive chord.

I was also invited for dinner by an engineer Lapin. Mr. Lappin's family of four - the parents and two sons, young adults - lived in a spacious and beautifully furnished apartment which even included a live-in maid. He clearly belonged to a social class more than a few notches above that of my distant relative. During my visit he offered no advice nor made any allusion to prevailing conditions. He was eager to know about his old father, a rich businessman from Warsaw who had retired to his birth-place, Svisloch, to pass his last years. The dinner, served by the maid, was exceptional; wine and fruit juices were served, fish, meat, dry fruits - After thanking my hosts and preparing to leave, Mr. Lapin asked if I could deliver a package of food to his father and not having much choice after being served such a sumptuous meal, I consented. Seated in the train that was to take me to Volkovysk, and waiting for its departure, Mr. Lappin appeared with a huge and heavy parcel that I was to deliver to his father. It gave me real trouble when I reached Volkovysk and had to change trains. I cursed the inconsiderate Lapin who had unloaded such an exaggerated weight on a guest of his.

And so I became a student of the Herzen Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad. I received an official student card, bearing my photo - I did not realize at the time just how useful this card would be for me in the near future ... I looked at it with great hope, as an opening to further my studies - one of my basic ambitions in life. I brought books from Leningrad and written assignments to complete for the summers seminars to take place in Leningrad. This opportunity to resume structured studies helped me escape from the drudgery and dullness of a small town and brought a new context and a new meaning to my life. In the cold winter of 1941, when civilization and humanity, throughout most of Europe seemed to be disappearing, I was looking optimistically at the prospects of my own future and preparing for the seminars of summer 1941 ...


In February 1941, I was called to the large office building of the Communist Party. There I was introduced to a party secretary who explained the reason for my being summoned: on the 18th of March, the Party, the City authorities and the army will sponsor a city wide celebration commemorating the 70'th anniversary of the 'Paris Commune' and I was asked to present the main address at a mass meeting to be organized that day. I was surprised and puzzled that I was chosen for this assignment. After all I was not a member of the party or any other organization, just a teacher of an incomplete high-school. It seemed that their logical first choice would be someone from the White Russian school, the director Volynchyk, or one of the history teachers. Perhaps Volynchyk was asked to present the address and rejected the request. The secretary noticed my hesitancy and endeavored to convince me to accept the assignment and I relented. I was provided with material about the Paris Commune and diligently set out preparing the address.

On the evening of March 18, the large hall of the White Russian high school was packed with people. Entrance was by invitation only. There were representatives of the local party, all Russians, military personnel, workers, teachers, etc. From the podium I noticed my dear mother among the audience - somehow she had obtained an invitation. My description of the Paris commune was interlaced with illustrations of a history of German barbarism in Europe starting from the atrocities perpetrated on France in March 1871, and culminating in the atrocities being perpetrated on much of Europe by war-mongering Nazi- Germany. I described the sufferings of Svisloch during the First World War and here I documented the experiences of the local White Russian peasants, with information which I had diligently culled from local people who well remembered the period. The lecture had a clear anti-German militarism message. Throughout the audience remained captivated and when I concluded there was enthusiastic applause. When I descended from the speaker's podium, Dr. Cossak rose from her seat to approach me. In a quiet but clear voice, and with obvious satisfaction she told me: "Yevreyskaya krov otozvala u vas" ("your Jewish blood responded").


The spring of 1941 arrived and alongside the joy of the thaw after a long, cold winter and the warm rays of the sun, came the feeling of a changed atmosphere. An acquaintance, Dovid Tsemnik, a person just a little older than myself, with whom I rarely exchanged so much as a sentence, approached me on the street and made enthusiastic allusions to great changes which will take place in the near future. After encountering a cool reception from me, he left. I asked myself - does he want the Germans to take over - in the belief that they will return him his big house and the even larger houses of his fiancée, a rich heiress? Had avarice and greed blinded him to the consequences of war between Russia and Germany?

Quite noticeably, the atmosphere changed. An ever increasing number of young people were mobilized to assist in building fortifications, as our town lay in the border zone. Rumors were floating around about increasing troubles in Russian-German relations; some pointed out at German planes which were visible in the sky; others repeated the radio broadcast from London which spoke clearly of a forthcoming German invasion of Russia. Uncertainty and anxiety were felt by all.


At school the prevailing anxiety and uncertainty were also felt. One of the teachers, Valia Shershnova, enjoyed conversing with me, tete a tete, on political matters. She was an intelligent and friendly woman, a mother of two small children and the wife of the first secretary of the District communist party. She would listen attentively to what I said and would ask open minded questions. One morning before classes had started, Valia Shershnova asked me in a subdued tone: Emanuel Abramovich, is there really going to be a war between us and Germany? Valia explained her dilemma: she had just received admission for a month's stay in a famous health resort near Odessa. However, going there, would entail leaving her two children, one an infant and the other a toddler, under the supervision of her local maid - but if a war starts? Her husband had left for Leningrad, on a lengthy seminar for high party functionaries and could not be reached. Her decision, she added, all depends on how real the danger of Germany starting a war with Russia really is.

I answered that I consider a war with Germany unlikely - Russia is far too big and far too strong to be easily conquered, and besides, a German invasion of Russia would be madness, as it would create a second front for Germany and ultimately lead to a German defeat. Britain remained unconquered and behind Britain stand her commonwealth, her colonies and especially Roosevelt's USA. Moreover, I added, Germany is peacefully getting enormous amounts of resources from Russia - so why should they start a war? No, I said, I don't believe in an imminent German attack on the Soviet Union.

A few days later the notorious official refutation of the "TASS" news agency appeared in "Pravda". There it was officially declared that Germany was abiding by the terms of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in an impeccable manner and the rumors spread by war-mongers of an imminent German attack on the Soviet Union are groundless. Soon after the "TASS" refutation I met Valia Shershnova again. She too had read the refutation and was assured by it: she had now decided to proceed to Odessa ...

Early in the spring of 1941 I received a letter from Baruch Solomon, a close friend from my student days in Warsaw. Baruch wrote that he is living in the Soviet zone of Poland and teaching in a town called Kobylnik on the lake Narocz. He wrote on that his parents are still living in German occupied Poland but they had managed to send his two sisters and brother to join him. Shortly after, I received another letter from Baruch, inviting me to visit him in Kobylnik at the end of the school year. Baruch assured me that Kobylnik is an ideal place for relaxation in the summer. I was eager to see Baruch again and I needed some rest - my friend's invitation was accepted. I collected some books and documents from Leningrad's Herzen institute, as I intended to proceed to Leningrad after a short stay in Kobylnik. Before leaving Svisloch I went to Avrome Ravich to say good-bye. He was still living with his mother and sister, in the town's poorest district. I found him reading Bergelson's novel "Bain Dnieper (At the Dneiper). He raised the issue of the 'TASS Refutation'. It made him uneasy. Avrome thought that if such an official refutation was necessary then something serious is going on. Further, it sounded to him like a tacit confirmation of German troop concentrations on Soviet borders. Still, he believed that the military might of the Soviet Union would deter any would-be aggressor.

Back at home, I locked my bookcase, which was filled up with books, diaries, letters and photos and handed over the key to my mother. Mother looked old, exhausted and sad.

The evening of my departure, I was unable to rest. The movement of the military had increased and most of it took place at night. The bright lights of the heavy military vehicles passing by, lit up the room. The windows and the walls of the house trembled. Lately, even tanks had started to visit this sleepy town. One could not help but ask what all this meant? Does it really mean a new war? At midnight the coachman arrived. He banged on the window so loudly that everyone woke up. I parted with my parents and my adopted brother Eli. My mother stayed in bed, but my father quickly dressed up and went outside to see me off. It was drizzling but he refused to enter the house until the coach disappeared into the darkness of the night. After a short while the coachman stopped to pick up another passenger; from the carriage I could hear him loudly banging on a door. Soon after, the tall stooped figure of the local rabbi Mishkinski emerged from the house. He too was off to the train station. We exchanged greetings and as the coach left the outskirts of the town and sped through the quiet fields we pursued a friendly conversation.

At the station there were already long lines of people quietly waiting for the wickets to open up. When my turn to buy a ticket finally came, the woman at the wicket could not find Kobylnik in her guide book. She gave me a ticket to Lida and suggested that once there I could probably obtain a ticket for Kobylnik. As was usual, the train arrived much later than scheduled. A swarm of people scrambled in front of the few cars which were allocated to them. I was carrying only a rucksack and briefcase so it was easier for me to get on - but even still it required considerable effort. When the train finally jolted forward several would-be passengers were still left standing on the platform.


The Lida station seemed as busy as a beehive. Masses of people scurried about, many carrying heavy parcels; the long lines of people waiting for tickets seemed frozen. Traveling by train had become a difficult chore; not only was obtaining a ticket sometimes impossible, but even with a ticket, getting on the train was a matter of luck. I was lucky, and ultimately managed to get on a train bound for my destination, Kobylnik.

Kobylnik was a quiet little town, surrounded and hidden by endless forests, large lakes and colorful fields. A local Jew volunteered to show me the house where Baruch lived. It was a big, beautiful wooden house. Baruch received me very warmly. We had not seen each other since we parted in Warsaw in the summer of 1937. Baruch was living in a veritable mansion. The rooms were large with high ceilings and panoramic windows which flooded the house with sunlight. The house had been only recently built by the former Polish Police commandant of Kobylnik. The Soviet secret police had arrested the Polish police commandant and his family was exiled. Only the former commandant's mother, an elderly but alert and lively lady, had been allowed to remain in the house, where she occupied a single room. She was forever frightened that the Soviet secret police would take her away as well. Now, Baruch, together with his two younger sisters and his young brother had taken over this mansion. Some, said Baruch, viewed it symbolically: under the rule of the Soviets a desperate and poor Jewish refugee teacher was given the mansion of the once mighty police commandant. Yet some Poles looked at it differently: the Jews who collaborated with the communist enemy of Poland, had now become the privileged and trusted allies of the Russians. The old prejudices and hostilities now grew deeper although outwardly the relationship between the Jewish and Polish communities was correct but tense. Not infrequently clear signs of hatred and jealousy would crop up. While the Jews of Kobylnik made up the largest community in town, the Polish community was a considerable minority. Only a small number of White Russians and Russians lived in Kobylnik.

After ensuring that I rested after my journey, Baruch took me to the local Polish school where he worked as a teacher and "Zavuch" (pedagogical director). The principal was on vacation and had left my friend in charge. On the way we met a colleague of Baruch's who was introduced to me as Wanda Gorska, a Polish teacher in the school. She was holding her small son and she was clearly agitated over something. She was in fact so tense that she could hardly talk. She related that she had just recently been informed by an individual, supposedly privy to certain secrets, that her whole family will soon be exiled to Siberia. She could not control herself and burst into tears. It was a painful sight. We accompanied her home, trying to calm her down by suggesting that it was just one of the many false rumors floating around. Wanda refused to doubt the truth of the rumors, but she managed to compose herself. All Poles, she said, who settled here and are originally from Western Poland are going to be exiled. She stressed that both she and her husband belong to this category. She and her husband had already prepared the family for the trip: warm clothing and preserved foods had been put aside, her husband had sold whatever possible, expensive furniture they had sold for a pittance. Their life's savings had disappeared.

Later on, after we had left Wanda at her home, Baruch praised Wanda for her humanity and her wisdom. He related that through all the years of Polish rule she was always friendly and encouraging to her Jewish and White Russian students. We agreed that it was indeed tragic that such people should be made the victim's of a ruthless bureaucracy that thrived on neatly and roundly labeling entire ethnic groups, classes, opposition parties, etc. as "enemies of the people".


Sunday - June the 22nd, 1941. A beautiful and sunny morning. It could have been an ideal day for swimming in the clear lake water or simply strolling through the forest enjoying the crisp air. Nazi Germany decided otherwise. On this day they launched their colossal attack on Soviet Russia. Over the radio I heard Molotov's voice announce that at four o'clock in the morning the German armies attacked the Soviet Union on many fronts and many Soviet cities had been bombed. Germany had officially declared a state of war on the Soviet Union. Molotov's declaration was shattering; it meant an unprecedented catastrophe. The Soviet ruling elite had failed to prepare the people for such an eventuality - especially the population of the most vulnerable Soviet western districts bordering on German controlled areas. The only remaining question was now: is the army prepared? This too remained doubtful. When I left the house where I had heard the alarming news, an unknown person, dressed in a holiday suit, approached me and whispered in Polish: there is a war, Germany attacked Russia in the early morning hours. He said it in obvious satisfaction and quickly disappeared - quite probably to further spread his 'good tidings'. Groups of people gathered on the streets and discussed the situation.

When Baruch heard the news from me he was stunned; momentarily he froze up. Finally he suggested that we walk over to Wanda Gorska to listen to the short wave radio and get a clearer picture of unfolding events. Wanda and her husband received us in a friendly manner. The mood in the family changed radically. Mr. Gorski thanked God: now they would be safe from imminent exile to Siberia; they could now unpack and sleep quietly - perhaps they could even repossess some of the furniture they had sold at ridiculous prices. Mr. Gorski's exuberant mood was in sharp contrast to ours. Wanda remained stoically quiet, refraining from any show of emotion. Sensitive and sensible, she quickly grasped our predicament and made an effort to be as friendly as possible. An old grandmother entered the room, dressed in a very fine holiday dress and jubilant. The old lady suggested tuning the radio on Berlin as Mr. Solomon (my friend Baruch), knowing German, could act as translator. Berlin was spouting its venomous, perfidious propaganda with call after call to destroy the citadel of Jewish-Bolshevism, i.e. Soviet Russia. Suddenly Mr. Gorski had the radio switched off. The tall figure of a Russian military officer was noticed through the window, as he entered the enclosed veranda of the Gorski house. The officer was a family acquaintance of the Gorski's. He evidently knew that they have a short wave radio and assumed that they might have heard some important news. Mr. Gorski assured him that they don't listen to foreign stations and that they can add nothing to what he already must know. The officer was visibly uneasy; he sensed himself in an uncongenial atmosphere. A silence pervaded the room. The officer left, his lips tensed in a faint, meaningful smile. Minutes after, we left as well. When we entered the house where Baruch was living, the mother of the Polish Police commandant came out of her room. She was dressed in a beautiful dress and she was beaming with happiness. The Poles were rejoicing. We could understand those feelings but hardly show any sympathy with them. For us, as for all Jews, the news of the day was disastrous. More disastrous than even the more farsighted of us could possibly imagine.

Seated in the dining room we discussed our options. I decided that my only place now was in the Soviet army and that the following day I'd volunteer for active duty. The army district office was located in Miadel, about 30 km. east of Kobylnik. Baruch decided to go with me to Miadel - to get the money owed him by the Department of Education! I wrote a parting letter to my parents, doubting it would ever reach them. Svisloch was very close to the border and might already have been taken.

Early Monday morning, Baruch and I set out for Miadel. We were lucky: a truck of the Pioneer summer colony, located in Kobylnik, picked us up and brought us right into Miadel. An officer in the army district office, where I presented myself to be recruited, told me to return to Kobylnik and wait there until called. I protested but to no avail. The officer stamped my military document and bade me farewell.

Baruch and I went to the market place hoping to find a vehicle on which we could return to Kobylnik. There was none. A few vehicles were on their way to Vileyka, about forty km. from the old Polish-Russian border, but none in the reverse direction. I realized that now I had an ideal opportunity, perhaps my only opportunity, to get closer to the old border. But I had left my rucksack with many documents in Kobylnik - and maybe I could persuade Baruch to take his sisters and brother and join my attempt at retreating into Russia. I decided to take a risk and return with Baruch to Kobylnik.

As we could not get a vehicle we decided to walk back to Kobylnik. We walked along the road. An unceasing stream of military vehicles, packed with soldiers and Soviet functionaries and their families, was moving to the east. The trucks were covered with a thick net of green tree branches for camouflage and machine gun barrels protruded from among the branches. The real meaning of this sad sight was clear: the Red army is in fast retreat. Any day this region could fall into German hands. At long last, after a tiresome journey, mainly on foot, we arrived back at Kobylnik. Hastily I prepared for an early departure on the following day. I begged Baruch to take his sisters and brother and join me. He rejected all my entreaties - how could, he answered, his younger sisters and brother be expected to cover such distances when he himself had difficulty walking back from Miadel - his feet were blistered and sore from the journey. I begged him to at least try, but he remained adamant. The following day, early in the morning, I sorrowfully bade Baruch, his sisters and brother farewell, and alone, started my journey on the road before me.

Close behind me, German amour was advancing relentlessly, crushing the resistance in its path. Around me German planes were strafing the helpless refugees lining the roads. I plodded on, driven by hidden reserves of power, sometimes obsessed, sometimes dazed, and when I faltered, thrust forward by a potent elemental force.


* * * * * * * * * *


Many years after these tragic events, and distanced by a continent and an ocean from where they transpired, I was informed that Leon Solomon, the younger brother of Baruch, had survived and was living in a nearby city. I got in touch with him and he came with his family, his wife Esther and their two children to visit me. From Leon I learned that when the Germans entered Kobylnik, one of Baruch's Polish students entered their house, and at close range shot and killed my dear friend. Leon himself, buried his elder brother. When the Germans and their local collaborators led the Jews of Kobylnik, Leon and his two sisters among them, to a field where they would be forced to dig their own graves and be subsequently murdered, Leon escaped. A young, local White  Russian Nazi-collaborator, who had in other times been a friend of Leon, observed him escaping and fired several shots in his direction, but missed. Leon escaped into the woods. He found a partisan group in the forest, joined them, and miraculously survived.

When I left Svisloch for Kobylnik I did not realize that I was leaving Svisloch forever - that my conversation with rabbi Mishkinski in the carriage on the way to the train station would be my last conversation with someone living in the community I had grown up in - that my hasty midnight departure from my parents would be a final one - that I would never again see my local friends and the many town-people I knew and liked. I was in fact leaving behind forever the "shtetl" where I was born and grew up and to which as an adult I had ambivalent feelings. The Jewish community of Svisloch perished as so many such communities of Eastern Europe: victims of an efficient and systematic regime that preached and practiced hell and murder.

To read more about the Jews of Kobylnik

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