MEMORABLE DAYS OF KOBYLNIK’S LIBERATION
(Translation from the Yiddish book "Kobylnik"-1967 pp. 244-251)
I was residing in Stalingrad for several months, a city located along the shore of the Volga River. It became progressively clearer that the Nazi monsters will ultimately be conquered. Stalingrad, which became the symbol of resistance to the Nazis, was slowly recovering from its ruins. I was among those who were engaged in the restoration and rebuilding of a tractor factory. We just celebrated the delivery of the first tractor.
After the defeat at Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943 the Germans were driven westward by the Red Army. Thereafter, every day, reports were coming in about new victories against the enemy, about liberated towns and territories. The Red Army was successfully moving forward. News reports were informing us about the savage destruction by the Germans in the liberated territories.
The press slipped through hints about the massive destruction of Jews by the Germans and their collaborators. I was actually an eyewitness to such destruction about two years earlier. In the liberated cities and towns there were no more Jews. It was also reported that the White Russian front was breached. With great anxiety I was catching all broadcast news. The Red Army was moving forward with a series of bloody fights. With every liberated city or town my hope was heightened that the day was near when the town of my youth, Kobylnik, will be liberated.
Two long years of painful ignorance about my home town was changing into a ray of hope that some of my close relatives may still be alive. How soon will the day arrive when I will have to face reality? Suddenly the ray of hope may be extinguished. How will I continue to live? Frequently, during the last two years, I felt isolated and lonely. Will I receive confirmation of what I am afraid to think about? Is it possible that I alone from my family will remain in this world? One after another I see in my imagination images of my dear home, parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends. I see them all alive and happy awaiting quick victory over the vicious enemy. But my dreams are not continuous…. I cannot rely on them… reality is quite cruel and leaves no room for Illusions. Yet there was hope, otherwise despair would have overwhelmed me.
My thoughts turned to August 1942 when I left Kobylnik. Since that time I heard nothing about my family and the 250 Jews who were still among the living. The Jews of Kobylnik then received an order to send six more people to work in the town of Mydel (21 Kilometers west of Kobylnik), after several Jews of our town were already dispatched to Mydel. We understood that upon completion of the work nobody was likely to return. The dwellers of Kobylnik could select only four people, among them my father, David Leib Swirski, a father of six children. With great difficulty it was possible to persuade the head of the local bureau, Vantzekovich, to send four instead of six Jews. None knew how this would be received by the Germans in Mydel…And thus the four were set to go. The horse drown wagon pulled up in front of our home where total despair reigned — mother was to remain with her six children. Besides fear of death, hunger awaited us. It is then that I proposed to the member of the Jewish committee to send me instead of my father. I succeeded in persuading them — I looked older than a 15 year old. I was certain that I would not fall behind adults since I had more than a year of practice at heavy labor. I was very glad that father remained with the family. Little time remained to say goodbye. At that time my brother Herzel was not at home. My mother gave me a prayer book and said goodbye with pain in her heart and tears in her eyes. Father blessed me by saying "God look after you, and take care of yourself". He added "my son, at the first opportunity run into the forest! Hitler will be conquered; it is just a matter of time. We have no chance for survival with our little ones, therefore let at least one of our family survive". I embraced and kissed my younger sisters and brothers and with a bundle in hand I climbed onto the wagon. On Mydel Street, near the exit of town, my brother Herzel, who was two years younger than I, run after us. He jumped into the wagon and we said farewell to each other. We looked at one another unable to let go, but promised each other that we will run into the forest at the first opportunity. We knew that in the forest partisans were hiding. Herzel jumped off the wagon outside the town, near the home of the forest ranger. Tears chocked us. The dear face of my brother moved farther and farther away, and together with him my whole family, and the whole town…
In the days of Kobylnik’s liberation, I experienced time and again lively images from the past which supported and comforted me. Perhaps a few Jews of Kobylnik succeeded in hiding in the forest, similar to those who escaped from Myadel? May be there was also a man like Michael Patashnik (from the town of Hodutishki) who organized the escape of Jews, including women and children, into the forest. Possibly some who experienced difficult situations, succeeded in crossing the front line, and appeared in the rear as happened to me?
I continued to work in the steel fashioning section of the tractor factory, but once, while working on the repair of an electric oven for melting steel; I heard over the loudspeaker that the regional center of Mydel has been liberated. I was overwhelmed with anticipation and I ran to share the news with my co-workers. Then came the thought of writing home. But something stopped me. My hands were shaking, and I could not collect my thoughts. I was somehow encouraged, seeing what was happening to me. Finally, after several hours, I calmed down and I sat down to write. I addressed my parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, one letter for all. While writing my uncertainty vanished – they are alive! They will read this letter!
Four months have passed. The front moved and now reached Polish territory. The Soviet Union was liberated. Everyone was happy. I was still waiting for an answer. I did not know how long it takes for a letter to arrive, after all nobody ever wrote to me in Stalingrad. Every day I passed the list of those fortunate to receive letters, but I looked in vain for my name. Now it was more than a week since I looked at the list. More than previously I was overtaken by doubt and despair. And suddenly a friend runs toward me and informs me that he saw my name on the list. In a state of agitation I hurried to confirm the finding, but I find on the list not "Swirski Meyer" but "Swirski David", the name of my father. That must mean that that my letter was returned… After a couple of days, I gathered all energy I went to the post office to pick up the letter. I actually saw my father’s handwriting! I did not even touch the letter when I lost consciousness. In the ambulance the first aid nurse read the letter to me, which I remember by heart to this day.
"Our dear Meier, at this minute there is no limit to our happiness. Today we came out of the forest, and when we returned to town, we received your letter with your greetings. There is nothing more precious than a surviving child! One more Jew survived. We are all alive and healthy. Thirty six Jews from our town have survived. The nicest and best are no longer with us, among them our dear and your lovely brother Herzel. Our town was burned, including our house. But who thinks about that. The survivors: your uncle Yehoshua with sons Israel-Leib, Hertzke and Itzele. Afroike Kravchinsky, Ida Burgin and her children, Leib Friedman’s family, Joseph Blinder’s family, Tzifke Harmatz, her sister Sorel and her husband Nathan, Meyer-Shmerl Khodosh, Itzik Chernotzky, Asher Krukoff, Ben-Zion Steingart, Khone and Hershl Dimenstein, Abrasha Khodosh, Khaya-Liba Chernotsky and her brother Feivel. There is hope that several others survived. We were fortunate to survive. God protected us during the most difficult times. Thanks to your mother, who was needed by the Germans because she was a seamstress, we were not destroyed together with the other Jews the day after Yom Kippur 1942. We and several other Jewish families with useful specialists that the Germans needed were transferred to the Ghetto in Mydel. From there we were freed by the partisans. We stayed in the forest until we were liberated in July 1944. Several people from our town died in the forest. Now is not the time to think about the difficulties we encountered. Thank God that we are alive.
Khana, Mina, Yehoshua and Zundel, who grew up in the forest, send their kisses; and your mother, my dear wife, is too emotional to write to you today. She embraces you and firmly presses you to her heart. In this happy day we must not forget those who were an integral part of our lives, those who will always remain alive in your heart, and in our hearts, we will never forget them. Also don’t forget our murderers and tormenters — the Nazis and their collaborators. Today we are celebrating your rebirth, simultaneously with our liberation. We are proud of our heroic Kobylnik’s partisans: Herzel Gordon, Meyer Khodosh, Khaim-Osher Gilman who together with many other Jews fought with the Germans to avenge spilled Jewish blood. Their fight brings enormous honor for our people. This is a bright page in the history of the awful and dark days which we survived"
We are heartily kissing you
Your father Yosef David-Leib Swirski
Stalingrad, November 1945
After many months of wearisome expectations, I finally received permission to visit my family. Happiness overwhelmed me. After more than three years of separation I will once again see my mother, father, brothers and sisters… my greatest happiness — to see everyone up close with my own eyes.
The train was full of demobilized soldiers. It was impossible to obtain a ticket. But nothing could stop me!... Several days later I was in Moscow. And here by one means or another I was able to push myself into a train destined for Vilno. Time moved very slowly and appeared like endless long hours. Cities and towns flickered by, but I did not notice them, even those that I passed during the difficult trip three years ago when I succeeded in crossing the front line and became a free man. My thoughts were aimed only at one house in the town of Postavy, where my family was living. I wanted to get there as fast as possible.
November 7, 1945.
I got off at midnight at the station of Postavy. I virtually ran the two kilometers that separate the station from town. Here I stood on Lenin street, in front of house number 8. Out comes the owner of the house, Mrs. Tsepelovich. She leads me through the yard to an apartment and opens a door in front of me: "Khava you have a guest…". After years spent in Russian rear areas I forgot Yiddish and therefore said in Russian "how are you" and could not make another sound. I lost the ability to move, my legs failed to serve me.
In the house was a holiday atmosphere. Mother, father and a few Jews from our town sat around the covered table. Through the partially closed door of the bedroom one could see sleeping children. As is customary in the Soviet Union in parent’s homes the anniversary of the revolution is appropriately noted.
I wore a sweater, warm pants, a hat with ear flaps which slipped over my eyes. Nobody recognized me. The father asked the mother "what does the guest need?" and added "sit him down, give him a shot of vodka, and ask him what brings him to us at such a late hour?" In the meantime I see that in the bedroom the head of a light haired boy lifts from a pillow (apparently of the 4 year old brother Zundel). The house noises wok him up. One look at me from his bed and he suddenly cried out "Meier came!" The only person, who could not remember me, recognized me instinctively. Mother removed my hat and finding the mark on my forehead (in my childhood I was injured by a horse) she exclaimed "Meier!" She threw herself on my neck, and lost consciousness.
A half hour later, washed and properly dressed, I sat at the table with my close relatives and enjoyed my fortunate and happy meeting.
A SHORT AUTOBIOGRAPHY
I, Meier Swirski, was born in November 1927 in the town of Kobylnik (Naroch), located on the picturesque shores of Lake Naroch. As a child I spent the early years in Belarus. My great grandfather Zundel Swirski was involved in an agricultural enterprise and lived with his family in the village of Yanovichi, located on the way from beyond Naroch to Svir. My great grandfather had a daughter and five sons. One of them was my grandfather Meier. The family of my grandfather lived in Kobylnik. The grandfather died in 1927, six weeks before I was born. I was named Meier in memory of my grandfather. Our family lived on Postavy Street in the house of my grandmother—Rivka Gordon (based on maternal forefathers).
Near the house were a large garden and an orchard, the latter was known for its plums. My father David sold fish and furs; mother Khava was a seamstress. In the family were six children. The youngest was Zundel, who was born on June 12, 1941, ten days before the outbreak of the war. In Poland (until 1939) I completed 6 years of schooling. (povshekhna) two years (1939-1941) I studied in a Russian school. Although I was quite young when I spent years in Poland, two years under the Soviets, and the years under German occupation, nevertheless it left an indelible mark on me, that affected my subsequent life’s path. The experience acquired in my young years affected my life’s direction.
I lived under German occupation for 15 months, over that period of time more then half of Kobylnik’s population was shot dead (the last 120 Jews were shot on September 21, 1942).
At the beginning of the second half of 1942 I was taken into Myadel for construction work (instead of my father, since I was the oldest of the children). There the Jews began planning an escape into the forest. They established a connection with the partisans (freedom fighters). One German of the Myadel military police informed us about the upcoming "action for the destruction of the Jews" of Myadel and Kobylnik. Thanks to this information the majority of Myadel’s Jews were saved, including me. At night, two days before the planned action, we walked into the forest; I remained there until the middle of November 1942. There were long days and nights. Each passing week included many occurrences and experiences which made time pass very slowly, simulating years. Nevertheless there was hope for liberation from the fascist’s hell.
In November 1942 I crossed the front line together with a unit of partisans that was dispatched to obtain weapons. I was sent to the rear in the Yaroslav region. After a few days spent on the road in a warm part of a train, we stopped on the Yaroslav station, specifically for a train transfer. I was hungry and cold but above all free. The German hell was behind me. At the station in the waiting room, I met unexpectedly my old teacher from Kobylnik – Lev Ivanovich Lvov. He gave me food and proposed that I follow him to Dzerzinsk where he worked as an agriculturist. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to travel with him, instead I was ordered to travel to the town of Lubin. But for a whole year I corresponded with him, which for me provided a great deal of moral support (I still keep in touch with Lev Ivanovich’s son Boris).
In 1944 I was dispatched from Lubin to Stalingrad to work on rebuilding of a destroyed tractor factory. This was not an easy time. I did not know anything about my family. I was sure none of them survived. I spent my days at difficult work, in the cold, hungry and in solitude.
Only after our area was liberated did I receive the unexpected message from my family – a letter from my father. My happiness was boundless. I was lucky. My parents and four children were rescued. From my father’s letter I learned about the awful Jewish tragedy. My brother Herzel died in Vilno (now renamed Vilnius), as did my uncles and aunts, and my cousins. My father stated in the letter how they succeeded in surviving and how they lived in the forest for almost two years. Only in November 1945 I succeeded in returning for a short visit to Kobylnik. My parents lived in Postavy where our long awaited meeting took place, about which a book can be written. The same November I was sent to Poland. Then through Czechoslovakia and Austria I arrived in Germany where I studied two years via correspondence and obtained a high school diploma.
In 1948 I arrived in Israel and immediately entered the army and participated in the war of liberation. In 1950 I was demobilized and entered Haifa Technical Institute from which I graduated in 1954 as a mechanical engineer. The same year I married Ida. We have two children, son David and daughter Osnat and seven grandchildren and a great grandchild.
In 1951 my parents and children immigrated to Canada and there my father experienced heart problems. At that time my father’s brother and my mother’s brother lived in the USA where they immigrated before WW II. Father died in 1954, mother in 1982. Both are buried in Israel. My sister Ann and brother Yehoshua and their families live in the USA, as well as the family of my deceased sister Mina (who died in 1984).
In 1970 my younger brother Zundel (Sheldon) immigrated to Israel from the USA. With all of them I maintain very close and warm relationships.
After completing my studies I worked for six years in an agricultural machine building factory as a project engineer. Subsequently, I opened my own private office where I worked for 20 years in this industrial and agricultural enterprise, dealing with refrigeration assemblies, packaging lines for fruits and vegetables, outfits for impromptu storage facilities and others. Finally, I changed the work profile of our business to the importation of sanitary ware and outfitting of industrial kitchens. The firm became a family business. As our children grew they found an interest in the business. Now the children manage the firm where about 100 people are employed and I function as the president of the enterprise.
In 1990, after 45 years, I visited my distant, dear town of Kobylnik (now renamed Naroch). I met old acquaintances from my youth and those who helped Jews during the German occupation. To this day we stay in touch with them and constantly deliver financial aid.
Our Jewish cemetery and brotherly tombstones have been restored in 1992. In Israel exists a society of emigrants from Kobylnik and Naroch. I am the chairman of the society. Together we established a fund, which serves to support the Jewish cemeteries and preserves the tombstones in both towns.
At the present time I live in Haifa on the Carmel Mountain, with a unique view of the sea and the unfolding distant spaces.
Translation from Russian
by EDWARD E. JAFFE
December 12, 2006