TESTIMONY OF BORIS LISIANSKY
I, Boris Pasach Lisiansky, was born on May 25, 1918 in the village of Belilovka, which is in the Ruzhin region, Zhitomir County, Ukraine.
Q: (Question: ) What did you do before the War?
A: (Answer: ) Before the war, I was a post office worker - initially in Belilovka and then in Ruzhin.
Q: Where were you educated?
A: In Belilovka.
Q: Was there a high school there?
Q: Were you drafted to serve in the Red Army?
A: No, due to my health problems I was not drafted.
Q: Please tell us how many Jewish families lived in Belilovka and what they did?
A: Most of them were skilled workers such as tailors, cobblers and others. I think there were about 5,000 Jews, making up about 300 families.
Q: Did you attend a yeshiva?
A: Yes, there was one yeshiva with 7 grades. After that, the students had to transfer to a Russian or Ukrainian high school. In Belilovka I learned to work in the post office and also to operate a Morse machine. Then I moved to Ruzhin and worked as a telegraphist on a Morse machine.
Q: What were the relations between the Jews and Ukrainians before the war?
A: They were not bad, tolerable. There were anti-Semites, of course, but other than that they were OK.
Q: On June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and advanced very quickly, was it possible to escape from your village or from the region?
A: My village, and the whole Ruzhin region - including Kazatin, Ruzhin, Skvira - was encircled by the Germans. So, in the beginning of July 1941, the Germans were in Belilovka.
Q: Right after Belilovka was occupied, were all the Jews still there?
Q: Did the Germans organize the Ukrainian police?
A: No. As soon as the Germans entered Belilovka, they announced that all the Jews must gather all their most valuable belongings - jewelry, money - and gather in the central square. They then would be taken on a work detail; and this was the case for most of the Jews.
There was the auxiliary Ukrainian police that helped in the round-up of the Jews from their houses to the central square. The policemen herded to the square those Jews who refused to go. I wasn’t at the central square when this happened but I heard that the Jews were loaded into trucks, after the confiscation of their belongings. Those who didn’t fit into the trucks were forced to walk. All the Jews were taken to a ditch and executed.
Q: Were there mass graves there?
A: No. The Ukrainians dug out a ditch beforehand. That was near the Rostovitsa train station. First, they executed the women and dumped them into the ditch; then, the children and then the men. On each side of the ditch there was a German soldier firing rounds from his automatic rifle into the Jews.
Q: Where were you at that time?
A: My sister and I went away then.
Q: What was your sister’s name?
A: She was Enta. We called her Donya, Enta-Donya.
Q: Where did you go?
A: We went to the Ukrainians. My mother and father told us to go and hide away.
Q: Did the Ukrainians help you to hide?
A: No. They didn’t know we were hiding there. My mother and father knew those Ukrainians. So they suggested that we go there. My mother, father and sister Tsilya didn’t go to the square either. Tsilya was nine months pregnant. The Ukrainian man found her in his barn, and pushed her out to the street. There she was forced by the policeman to walk toward the ditch for three and a half kilometers, and then he killed her. That’s how Tsilya died.
Q: What happened to you?
A: Next we came out from hiding with my father and mother. There were maybe 50 to 100 people who didn’t go to the square and were hiding. The fascists (Germans – ed.) gathered the people from 3 regions: Ruzhin, Vcheraysheh and one more, I don’t remember. Maybe, the Kazachesky region. The fascists gathered all the Jews who were still there and organized a Jewish ghetto inside Ruzhin. The Jews from Belilovka and many other villages were brought there too. There were several dozen houses near the river, behind barbed wire. My sister Enta, my mother Blyuma-Leya and my father Pasach-Movshovich were placed in that ghetto.
Q: What about you?
A: I was there too.
Q: What did that ghetto look like?
A: It was just a piece of land surrounded by a barbed wire fence, next to the river.
Q: Barbed wire?
A: Yes. We had to live there. They didn’t give us any food. The Ukrainians came to the fence and ordered clothes or other things to make. Our craftsmen fulfilled the orders and got food as payment. The Ukrainians brought more food than was allowed, and the craftsmen could feed their family and other Jews who didn’t have skills or work.
Q: Was there an elected or appointed committee, organized among the Jews in the ghetto?
A: No, none.
Q: Who governed the ghetto?
A: No one. There was no government or committee. Only the policemen came to look for younger Jews and force them to go to work for the commissar, Ghebbitz. They forced the Jews to work on construction or earth digging projects. There they ate whatever was left after the Germans had eaten. In the evening they were forced back into the ghetto. That’s how every day was.
Q: Tell me, approximately how many Jews were in the ghetto?
A: I think it was about two thousand.
Q: Two thousand!? And no committee, nothing at all?
A: That’s right.
Q: What about you? Where did you work?
A: I, for example, worked in the school. There was the German local government there headed by a German officer: the commissar, Ghebbitz. He ruled the region. The school was reconstructed to fit as his residence. Ditch digging, painting and other jobs were there and we worked. All the taskmasters were Ukrainian, and they ordered us what to do. We didn’t get any food, though.
Q: How did you survive then?
A: This was how we survived from July 1941 until the end of 1943 or beginning of 1944.
Q: During this time were there any actions against the Jews?
A: There were pogroms several times. All the Jews who survived were registered except children.
Q: How did you communicate with the Germans? Were there interpreters?
A: No. There was nobody.
Q: Still how did you communicate?
A: There was the German-Ukrainian police. We were taken there every day and checked against the list whether we were still alive or dead.
There was an order in 1941-42 not to kill any Jews until the Gestapo arrived. There was a Gestapo officer who abused opium, and always laughed when he was killing people. So once that Gestapo officer came, they rounded up part of the Jewish population as if they were taking them to work. Then they killed all of them and dumped the bodies into the ditch (kagat). One kagat was in Ruzhin in the Commune area. The other one was near the Rostovitsa station. There, were the executions.
The extermination was done in a certain order. Let’s say there were 10 tailors. The Gestapo killed 3 of them leaving 7. Same thing happened to the cobblers, glass workers and so on. The local government organized schools, where the Jews taught the Russians and Ukrainians. As the students learned the trade, the Jewish teachers were killed. Let’s say you have an 8-person family including you and your wife. They take your wife and half of your children and kill them. So half of your family survives. This way they kept killing the Jews until around August 1943. So the Jewish population became smaller and smaller.
Q: Did you know they killed the Jews in other places in Ukraine? Did you have any contact with the Jews outside of your ghetto.
Q: Did you get any information about what was going on outside?
Q: Did you have opportunities to talk to the locals?
A: Yes, when we went to work.
Q: Did they tell you anything?
A: No, but we knew that the Jews were being killed. There was just no other way for them.
Q: Did you know what was happening on the front?
A: At first we knew nothing. Then we were told that the Germans were near Moscow, and could see it through their binoculars.
Q: That was in 1941 but now we’re talking about 1943. The Red Army started a counter- offensive and liberated a part of the Ukraine, the city of Kharkov, and was approaching Kiev. Where were you then?
A: We were in Ruzhin.
Q: Did you know when Kiev was liberated?
A: We had no idea. Then there was the last pogrom.
Q: How many Jews survived until the last pogrom?
A: 500 to 600 Jews.
Q: Who survived in your family?
A: My sister Enta and I.
Q: When did they kill your parents?
A: They were killed in May 1943.
Q: Did you know at that time that they were killed?
Q: You were not in the ghetto then, were you?
A: We were not. We left and were hiding in the village with…
Q: I’d like you to tell us about your escape. The Germans announced to the Ukrainians: those who hid a Jew would be executed. Those Ukrainians risked their lives, they knew about this order and still hid you. I’d like you to tell us more about those Ukrainians that helped you.
A: First, I’d like to tell you the following episode. It happened, I think, in May ‘43 during the last pogrom. They tried to round up all the Jews and bring them to the Gendarmerie. My mother heard that they would kill everyone this time and didn’t go to the check-in. She and my sister Enta went to a Ukrainian she knew.
Q: What kind of connections did your family have with those Ukrainians before the war?
A: No connections before the war. We didn’t live in Ruzhin. We lived in Belilovka.
Q: When they went to the Ukrainian, did he immediately agree to hide them?
A: He was some kind of old-time acquaintance of my father, who was a tailor and a glassworks expert. I think he recognized them. The Ukrainian lived not too far from the ghetto and my mother and sister went there to hide. I went to the check-in.
Q: Tell us, Boris Petrovich, where did they hide them? Was it a hole in the earth or some kind of a bunker?
A: No, no. We didn’t get to that yet. This is still about Ruzhin, the last pogrom. That day, three of us, my friends and I, went to work for the commissar, Ghebbitz. It was some kind of Ukrainian Christian holiday. My friends told me: “Let’s go to the Ukrainian police (they were separate from the Germans). Let’s go and see if the Gestapo officer came.”
If he came, there would be a pogrom. I told them:
“Why go and get seen. Let’s go ahead and continue our way.”
“Ah, you are a coward and fool.
I told them:
“We shouldn’t go there and be seen.”
They still went there. Those Ukrainians were drunk and caught my two friends, Busya and Aron. Then twisted their hands, poked out their eyes and tortured them in every way. In the meantime, I went to work. My taskmaster told me: “Run away Boris because Aron and Busya have been executed, and lie in the kagat and the birds are picking at them.”
I came back (to the ghetto). There was no pogrom yet and the Jews were still there. I told them:
“Let’s go. It’s getting serious. They have started killing us.”
“If you go there and confirm that it’s not rumors, we’ll believe you.”
This way the tailors and handymen were talking. They hoped to still survive. I went and confirmed. My father was working in the collective farm installing glass in the greenhouse. My mother and sister were in hiding.
Then the pogrom started. This time they began to call people according to the list: 5 tailors here, 2 handymen there, everyone. The horse carriages were ready beforehand. Everyone realized: this was the end. The Jews broke through the police gates and ran in all directions through the square. Then came the order: kill every Jew found alive. So an open war started. But what kind of war was it?! We had no arms to defend ourselves.
The Jews tried to run away. Lyuba, my classmate, ran ahead of me but fell and I fell on top of her. The police caught some in the barn, some on the bridge. There were dead bodies all over Ruzhin. I thought: “Let me come back. If I try to run, I will surely get a bullet.” So I came back to the gate through which the people tried to run away. What can I say?! On those gates, were the people who had hung themselves in despair, who had strangled themselves, who had poked out their eyes, who had done everything not to let themselves fall into the hands of those bandits.
Q: Was it mass suicide?
A: Yes. It was in May 1943... (When I came back,) I saw a Gestapo soldier who had rounded up about 25 Jews. He let them sit down and guarded them. Here I was coming back. Where could I go?! I came to the horseman who prepared the horse carriages to collect the dead bodies. One Ukrainian bandit approached the Gestapo soldier who guarded those Jews (most of them were older people and two children who couldn’t run away, who had gotten confused). He pointed at me and said: “Yudeh (A Jew)… Yudeh come here.” His eyes were bloody. In that moment the Gendarmerie director ran up and asked:
“Who from you is a glass worker?”
“I am”, said I.
If they had checked my pockets and didn’t find a glass cutter, they would have cut me to pieces. I volunteered just like that. My father was a glass worker, so I thought: let me call myself a glass worker. And then they started to argue – the Gestapo soldier and the director of Gendarmerie. They argued to let me live for a couple of hours to fix the windows in the Gendarmerie, broken during the pogrom. After I had fixed the windows, they would kill me. So they argued over whether to let me live another two hours. One, pushed me towards the other Jews, the other pulled me out.
Then the director said: “I will kill you if you execute him. So the soldier ran away to call the commanding officer in Ruzhin, and the Director of the Gendarmarie ordered me to fix the windows, intending then to kill me. After that, the soldier executed the Jews. He ordered them to lie face down and then fired rounds into one head after another.
You know how a butcher kills geese, ducks and chickens. They raise their heads. So the same was with those people. They raised their heads then dropped them until there was a whole river of blood. That instant the gendarme grabbed me by my chest and pushed me onto the pile of bodies, so I tasted that blood. What more can I say?!...
Q: Hot blood?
A: This was such blood that it strikes through you like a shot. Can you understand what I felt? He smeared blood all over me, and then threw me to the side. I was all covered in blood, barefoot…a corpse, but with a spark of life somewhere.
When I was going for the check-in that day, my mother had said: “Let me go in your boots and you go barefoot. Maybe you will be able to escape.” So that’s how I was.
Then they forced me to gather the dead, load them onto the horse carriages and help transport them to the kagat. We had to go over a small bridge to cross the river. Some bodies dropped into the river. I was ordered to jump into the river and pull the bodies back onto the carriages. Finally we came to the kagat, the second one.
There I met the Ukrainian who worked with me before the war but had become a policeman. I had been on good terms with him. I had never put him down and he treated me in kind. He had changed, though. He was standing with the Gestapo soldier, and counted the dead. The Ukrainian filled out some paperwork. After getting the papers signed by the local government, he could go to the bank and get 50 marks for every person killed. Here, in Israel, people get money from America for bringing Jews to the Promised Land. There they got money for every head of a killed Jew. After counting was done, they missed one body. The Ukrainian pointed at me. That second, the angel, the Gendarmerie director who tried to save me, drove up. He didn’t really care much about the windows being fixed. He knew I was NOT a glass worker but he wanted to save me. He drove in on a motorcycle.
Q: Why was he so benevolent towards you?
A: I don’t know. It happened that some Germans saved Jews and the Jews survived. There were cases like that. Rare, but they happened. So he told the Gestapo soldier: “Don’t you dare touch him. There is a permission from the commissar Ghebbitz to leave him alive.” The Ukrainian policeman took the rifle, loaded it with an explosive bullet and aimed at my stomach. In the next instant, the Gendarmerie director pounced on the Ukrainian. That fell and the riffle misshot. Then the director chased me, and chased me, and chased me all the way to the center. Then the Ghebbitz commissar that allowed me to stay alive for 2 hours saw the chase, how I was bitten by the wooden part of the riffle, how I was all in blood. He said: “Shvine (go in German), go to hell, leave him alive, and don’t touch him.” They he told me: “Aflyus”, so I should run away.
Where should I run? I went to check where my mother and sister Enta were hiding. They were supposed to be in Berdichev. I came to that Ukrainian: “Where is my mother? Where is my sister?” He said: “They ran away long time ago. Run away while it’s not too late. Executions are still going on.”
He pointed to one woman: “See that Ukrainian woman. She was killed because she was mistaken for a Jewish one.” I thought I should go and check out. He took two buckets of water and washed me all over. A river of blood washed away from me. I went there and saw my mother. She was lying there hit by a bullet, dying, unable to speak. She was already undressed, the boots and her sweater stolen. At that moment I fainted. I don’t remember how I escaped but I think someone saved me.
That Ukrainian with whom my mother and sister tried to hide apparently threw them out, fearing for his life. So the policeman chased down my mother and sister. He caught my mother very quickly and after shooting her, tried to kill my sister. But my sister, being very scared, ran too far ahead and the policeman couldn’t catch up. My sister didn’t know what happened to our mother. If she had found out, she wouldn’t have been able to run away. So, my sister survived…
It was during the previous pogrom. We were running away and were walking near Samotuga’s house. He called us over and we thought he wanted to shoot us. But he said: “Come here. Where are you going?” I told him about our situation. He gave each of us a glass of vodka and ushered us up to the attic. So, we were hiding with him – away from the ghetto. He was telling us later that he was a Petlyura man (a member of the local bandit militia organized by General Petlyura during the Civil War after the October revolution in 1917). He had robbed and killed the Jews that time; but now, his heart was full of pity for the Jews, and he decided to become a savior to us. We stayed with him occasionally for a month, sometimes two.
Q: With him?
A: Yes, in his attic.
Q: Was there anyone else hiding there?
A: Only my sister and I hid there.
Q: You said the ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire. Did anyone watch over you?
A: No, no one as guarding.
Q: No one was guarding? You could run away from the ghetto?
A: Yes, there actually was some supervision. We couldn’t run away en masse.
Q: Was there a permanent lookout station?
A: No, none. But outside the police were always on the look out. So, at night my sister and I went outside to work and to get some food. How can you survive without food?!
Q: What about others?
A: Others?... They were fed by the handymen who could earn some food. I had been feeling worse and worse, and we were barely surviving. Then we met him (Samotuga).
Q: He treated you well, but what about his family? His wife?
A: He had children, two girls, Marusya and Nina: between 15 and 17 years old. They obeyed their father, no questions asked. His wife, Korotina, was arguing with him that they would all get killed, get executed, that he was out of his mind for what he was doing. He put it this way: if you go against me, I will kill you all, except Boris and Olya (Enta). On those days when he had an argument with her, he took us - during the night - to a different place… It was an abandoned windmill. To get to the second floor, one needed a very long ladder. He left us there and had Nina and Marusya bring food for us there.
Q: Did his neighbors know about this?
A: No, no one knew. Everything was hidden. Later he said that some neighbors had noticed something. So, he moved us from there. Can you imagine the attic, with its roof broken in many places. The winter wind blew through the holes. But we had to live there. In order to get out, we had to wait for him to come and put up the ladder. If he didn’t come, we were stuck there. This way he was saving us: he and his family.
There was a pogrom and the police took my father away - as I discovered later. The police were searching for us. They tortured my father to death, for him to tell them where we were hiding. He didn’t know; but even if he did, he would never have told them. Then we left for good…
Q: Tell us: this was how it went, until the ghetto was liquidated? Until there were no more Jews.
A: Yes, until all were killed and taken to the kagat.
Q: Where are those mass graves?
A: One mass grave is in Rostovitsa near Belilovka. All Jews from the region near Belilovka were buried there. The second one was in Ruzhin, in the part of the town known as the Communa, a collective farm. In the fields of that farm there was a ditch dug out. There is the second mass grave there. The people from three areas were buried there, including Ruzhin.
Q: So when the ghetto was liquidated you were hiding with that Ukrainian?
Q: After the final executions, how long did you and your sister stayed with him?
A: About half a year.
Q: Did he feed you?
Q: What did he tell you? It was such an incredible benevolence on his part.
A: He said he wanted to be a savior. He wanted to deserve God’s forgiveness that he saved two souls. Only two: but he had saved them. He had this belief, do you understand? So he became transformed: from a Petlyura thug to an honest person, a savior. A real savior.
Q: Where and when did you leave him?
A: We left at the end of 1943.
Q: Where did you go? Did he ask you to leave, or did you leave on your own?
A: He said: “Come and join our family.” He hinted that I marry his eldest daughter. “We will hide you in our house, together with your sister: but for no more than half a year. Then we need to look for the Partisans. We need to run away somewhere. The Germans are taking Moscow now.”
Q: You said Moscow. But, the Germans were defeated near Moscow in 1941. It’s now 1943, and the Red Army had moved very much to the west by then.
A: Yes. But what I did then was to go to Ghebbitz, the commissar, and take a risk trying to get a job. There were still a few Jews left then working as handymen. It was a chance – life or death. My sister didn’t know about it. So I was working in Commissar Ghebbitz’s place. I noticed when he left his office. One day, I slipped in, opened the table drawer and found a stack of German passports, stamped and all. Only left to fill in the name. There were six passports there. So we would complete and use the two passports: one for me, and one for my sister. I happened to be Boris Yankovoy. My sister was Olga Martinyuk. We knew Ukrainian better than Yiddish because we grew up in Ukraine, and had no accent at all. We were in hiding. We slept in the cemetery and places more frequented by dogs: any place where no one could see us.
Q: But you had to eat something?
A: We ate. We found dead horses that started to decompose and ate them.
Q: How long were you like that?
A: From the moment we decided to leave him. But where could we go? We were so scared.
Q: Did he tell you where to go?
A: No. I prayed then: Dear G-d, let us stay alive so we could tell people, other Jews who survived, about the pain and agony that the Jews experienced before they were killed.” So it turned out to be that way…
Very scared, we walked along the road until we came across a house in a village. There was a studistka living there. Do you know what studistka means? There were some Christian people who pray differently than the rest. They were also called the “Subbotniks”. They used to say that if G-d was taking the Jews - the best of among all the nations - for himself, then he would kill surely everyone else. So she (the studistka) was saying that she would be willing to be killed too - so she could get into Heaven. “You are going to Heaven”, she told us. She was trying to make us calm.
I asked, “Could we stay with you a little while?”
“Go to the attic. I’m not rich, but will feed you little by little. Almost naked, barefoot, we had to stay in an open attic. As we were climbing up, a wheat stalk got into my eye and badly hurt it. My eye was all bloody, and I lost vision in it. We stayed with her for three or four days, and then she climbed up and told us:
“You know what? My neighbors already know that you are here, and I’m afraid.”
“You said you are not afraid to go to Heaven.”
“They will shoot me and I’m afraid. You must leave today.”
This went on for another three or four days. She realized that we were not leaving and then told us: “If you don’t leave today, I will call the police tomorrow and they will take you.”
Q: She just threw you out?
A: Yes. But where could we go? I’m hurt, with my eye, and we are almost naked, barefoot. This was in the late Fall, early Winter - but we had nothing to wear. So we decided –my sister Enta and me - to hang ourselves: to commit suicide. I had a belt and she had a scarf. There was a beam up there. That was the end. In that final hour, right before committing suicide, my sister fell asleep for a moment. In her dream she saw our mother, who had been killed by the policeman. She said: “Enta, we begged G-d and he gave you lives in order that you tell about the sufferings that the Jews – including you - endured. The people must know. And if you ever get to Israel, then the Jews throughout the whole world will know about it. So I came to warn you. We begged G-d for your lives. You must leave this place immediately, as soon as I fade away. If you linger until morning, the police will come and capture you. They would execute you, but first they would cut you into pieces.”
“Mama, where can we go? Look what’s going on in the street. We are almost naked. Boris is bloody. What can we do?”
“I can’t talk to you very long”
“Boris knows where.”
Did I know where? I knew like you know. But my sister turned out to be stronger than me: “No, we don’t hang ourselves. We are leaving.” We climbed down quickly and went out into the street. The weather was terrible: snow mixed with rain, sharp ice on the ground. We were walking barefoot. It was about 2:00 in the morning. We fell several times, half-naked, barefoot and now all in mud. What to do? We had no idea. I was asking her, “Olya, what are we going to do?”
“Mama said you know what. So go ahead.”
We came across an intersection of two roads: one leading to the left and another to the right. I said: “Let’s go to the right.” We walked some more, and then heard dogs howling.
There must be some home nearby, some village. We went there and walked up to a house. A German shepherd was sticking its muzzle out from there. We thought if it catches us, it would tear us to pieces. Then a woman came out and asked: “Who is this?”
“Locals”, we answered. It was 3:00 or a quarter to 3:00 at night...
The Germans had rounded up the local population to send to work in Germany. So we said we escaped from the train. She let us in and then said: “Poor children! Sufferers! They tormented your father, cut everything in him so he would tell where you were. I knew your father. Come here, I’ll save you. Then I’ll tell you more.” She washed us, dressed up and then pushed us into one of the rooms and gave us some vodka. It was their custom. “When you get up in the morning, I’ll tell you everything.”
We got up in the morning. It was Saturday. She gave us some breakfast. She gave us traditional Ukrainian clothes. She said: “My son-in-law works as a train operator in Kazatin. (Kazatin was a transfer station). He’ll take you to Zhmerinka. It was ceded to Germany, and considered part of the Transnister region or Romania. There is a Jewish ghetto there but no one is killing Jews there. They live well there, behind the barbed wire and under guard - but well. If you get there, you’ll survive.
What could be better? Mama’s words were turning out to be true. She took us from the village to the Sunday market in Kazatin. Sunday was market day in Kazatin, and people went there to shop. What can I tell you? Every little noise, the snapping of a tree branch, filled our hearts with dread and fear. We kept looking around. She said then: “What are you doing? People come by and notice your behavior. You will sell me out.” But how could we do otherwise? It had been 35 kilometers to Kazatin: 35 kilometers of walking. She brought us to her son-in-law and her daughter. There were two tables with people around eating and drinking and swearing: “Kikes, Kikes, Kikes” Then she came up to her son-in-law, hugged him and said:
“Son of mine, do you want your soul to be saved? I brought two sufferers to be taken to Zhmerinka. It can’t be hard for you to cross the border…” The border was the Gnevel River. There is such a river that separates Kazatin from Zhmerinka. He answered then:
“Where are they?” – he was drunk – “Give them to me. I’ll kill them myself.”
She came out and said, “My children! I wanted to save you but I can’t.”
We left there, again pursued by death. It was the time when young people were rounded up to be send to Germany. We let ourselves be captured. At least we could get something to eat. We got in. I was loaded into a train car with the men, and she got into the women’s car. The train ran fast and the doors were closed tight.
Q: Where did you arrive to?
A: Have you hear of Permishel? It was close to the old German border. In Permishel, they opened the cars and let us out. “Go where you like, and where you can.”
Q: Did you meet your sister?
A: Yes. We didn’t acknowledge each other.
Q: Your face looks so Jewish.
A: I was dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothes with a knitted shirt, and could speak Ukrainian very well. I met a rather inexperienced boy, from Dnepropetrovsk. He wanted to run away, back to his hometown. So we went together, and my sister followed… We walked for four days and four nights. We got to Ternopol… I didn’t know what I would do in Dnepropetrovsk, if there were any Jews left there. Where would I go? Suddenly someone tugged on my shirt from behind. I turned and saw my sister. She was all dirty, swollen from hunger. The boy went his way, and we went ours. But where could we go? We decided to try to get to Zhmerinka again.
Q: Ternopol is so far from Zhmerinka!
A: Yes. Could you imagine? Where would we sleep? What would we eat? We came to the shore of the Shrooch River near Volochisk. It was a very fast river. We decided to cross it to continue our way to Zhmerinka. We asked people the way.
Q: Zhmerinka is in Ukraine, and where were you?
A: We didn’t know what we were doing. She never cried, I never cried. There was no riverbank on the Shrooch: no place to enter. We jumped into the river with our clothes on. It ran along a very steep slope, spraying water around. G-d helped us to cross it. On one side was Romania, and on the other side… the Germans. We didn’t know whether it was Poland or somewhere else. We were tossed to the opposite shore. We couldn’t swim, we were really tosssd. The wind was really strong, and then we heard gunshots. The border patrol had noticed us and started to shoot. There was a tunnel nearby and so they didn’t find us. We walked up the shore until we finally came upon a railroad station. My sister told me then: “It looks like only one of us will survive if our Mother showed us the way. You are a man, you’re stronger. Kill me here with a stone and bury me here because…” I was carrying her on my shoulder. But how long could I carry her!?
“You will survive and will come here to take my remains. Bury it, so you will live.”
How could I listen to these words!? We finally found a stationmaster, and asked him what we could do. He said: “There are trains going in the direction of Zhmerinka. Usually, though, there are cargo trains going though here, no trains with passengers. Still wait for a moment when the patrol is not looking and sneak into the train. If you get killed – so be it. What else can you do?!”
We were sitting there trying to warm up a little bit, half-naked, barefoot. Then he woke us up. There was a cargo train coming. Most didn’t stop but this one did. It was loaded with cars. We climbed up on the platform and then snuck into one of the cars and hid. The car doors were not locked. We hid really well. He checked on us. Usually every car was checked and searched when crossing the border. Our car was not. That train was supposed to pass Zhmerinka without stopping, but it ran into some technical problems. So, it made a stop. That’s how we wound up in Zhmerinka.
We climbed out and went to the river to wash. There was a market there. We went there and found some old clothes to cover ourselves so nobody could see who we were. The market was very big and all kinds of things were for sale: cakes and other food. But we had no money. My sister told me: “Let me talk to the saleslady and you …” I grabbed two big cakes and walked away. She discovered the loss and “Oy…” So we had something to eat.
Q: The time when you came to Zhmerinka: was there a ghetto still in existence?
A: Yes, yes. The ghetto was there.
Q: Did you go to the ghetto?
A: Wait, let me finish. We came to the market again and saw the stands where the people sell goods. There, we saw a woman with a Star of David. She had a permit to leave the ghetto for 1 to 2 hours. She was selling candies and told us:
“I have a pass from 12 to 1. If I don’t come back on time, I will never get a pass again. We make candies and need to sell.”
I told her: “I’m sorry. I’m not a Jew but I have a classmate in Kazatin. He is hiding with some Ukrainians. But he can’t stay there any longer. They are pushing him out and I’d like to tell him to come here.”
“Listen to me carefully. We are all on the record, from the very young to the very old. When a child is born, he gets a number together with his name. We had cases when Jews from outside snuck in. We signed documents obliging us to notify the local police about newcomers. If we hide someone, the Gestapo commandos would come and shoot everyone. So tell him that he should continue to live there. Here, he would be dead right away. I can’t help you.” How do you like this?!
Q: So what happened next?
A: We decided not to leave Zhmerinka. We decided to search for the German firms that did construction. We went there. The workers got bean soup. At least they were fed. We were very happy and even forgot about our diseases, forgot about everything. Once I was with my sister, resting and a girl approached us.
“Olya, how did you get here?” She was a classmate of hers, a Ukrainian. How could we stay there any longer? If we were recognized as Jews, how could we stay? No way. Where should we go? We ran away and started to roam and got outside of town. There, we met a very old lady who was totally blind, and her husband who worked as a guard. Each of them was 80-85 years old. They took us in. The Germans then conducted searches, mostly looking for partisans. So, keeping the story short, they came to this place and happened to look for a Ms. Martinyuk. My sister had a passport with the same name. They took my sister to Zhmerinka and opened a case against her. Ms. Martinyuk turned out to be a partisan. They kept her for a week, torturing her. Did everything, until they proved that she was not that Martinyuk. Can you imagine such a story? Can you imagine how I was until they let her go? So we decided to run away to the partisans.
Q: Were there partisans in that area?
A: Yes, yes. There were partisans there. We had no other choice. We came to the train. I thought that I needed some kind of achievement behind me, so I could get to the partisans. Without merit, they wouldn’t take me. I could be a “plant”, and could give them away.
So I came to the workers, and told them not to go to Germany. There is work here, I told them, and you could then get back home… Someone recognized my accent and gave me away to the German soldier close by. He hit me and I fell into the ditch. Then he hit me again and again with his boots and his rifle until there was nothing alive in me. It was better to get a bullet. My sister saw that and then grabbed her hair and started tearing it out. The Romanian gendarmes noticed and pulled me from the German. They wrapped me in a blanket and carried me to the Russian Gendarmerie. There, they tortured me again and again. Then we were sent to Zhmerinka, Tarnopol, Volchisk, Permyshel until we were liberated.
Q: When were you liberated?
A: This was in the end of 1943.
Q: The Red Army came?
A: Yes. We were liberated in Zhmerinka.
Q: What happened afterwards?
A: After the liberation, in the beginning of 1944, I went to Zhitomir where the main communications office was. There were gathered all the workers in communications, electrical communication & the post office. I came to the main office, since I was a telegraph specialist and moreover, as I was born into the family of a postal worker. I knew all the postal rules. They were in bad need of workers.
Q: Were you hired?
A: Yes, he accepted me and said I would be sent to Troyanov. It was in the Zhitomir region. I was appointed as a senior agent and was sent to live there. He, the director of the main office, ordered that my sister & me be given postal uniforms (we didn’t have anything then). When dispatching us to Troyanov, he added: “If you fall in love there, you are still a young man, they will sell you out and you won’t be able to accomplish anything. So behave as though you are not a man…”
We came to Troyanov where there was an auditor from the Communications Ministry. He was auditing the office. It turned out to be a regional office that had 12 sub-regional offices. He instructed me to take charge. Corruption had been uncovered in this office and the person who worked before me was fired and then sent to the army.
Q: How long did you stay in Troyanov?
A: I worked there about a year and a half. Then I was transferred to the head office in Brusilov. There I stayed until I got married to my Golda.
Q: Besides your wife Golda, you have 2 children, don’t you?
A: Yes. The older is Peter and the younger, Dmitry.
Q: Is you goal now to save the memory of those wonderful people who saved you?
A: Yes. They were Samotuga and Scherbachook.
Q: They saved you and your sister?
A: Yes. There was only one request from Ivan Samotuga, the father: that when he dies, I should come to his funeral. That I should bury him as though I were his son. He had two girls but no boys. And then I was to install a monument on his grave. I accomplished all this when I was in Brusilov, working as the Director of the regional postal service. I buried him and erected a monument on his grave. It stands there to this day.
Q: Tell us a little more on whether you have maintained connections with your rescuers.
A: Yes I have.
Q: What kind of connections?
A: He brought his daughter, Marusya, to my office in Brusilov one day and said that she had received a mobilization notice to be sent for the reconstruction of Donbass (a region in southern Ukraine, severely damaged during the war). He didn’t want her to go and get killed there. He said: “I saved you, and now you save my daughter, Marusya. If you like to marry her, go ahead. Do anything to ensure she stays here.”
I was a regional director then, an important person, and had connections in the passport office and the police force. So I got a new passport for her and arranged a job for her 35 kilometers from my office. There was a small postal office there. She was taught to work as a telegraphist with Morse Code. She worked there all her life until retirement. She is retired now.
Q: Since you immigrated to Israel, have you still maintained connections with your rescuers?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: Do you exchange letters?
A: Yes, we send letters to each other regularly.
Q: Do you send packages too?
A: Yes. I sent packages twice but how much can I send if I’m in need myself.
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