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From Mir to Montreal: A memoir by Simcha Itzkowitz
(part III)


One day, at the beginning of August, Oswald informed the leaders of the underground that the Germans had set the date of August 13, 1942, in two weeks time, as the day of the final liquidation of the Mir ghetto. Preparations for our escape began immediately. My brother Leibel told me to prepare a knapsack for each of us, containing a loaf of bread, some meat, butter, cheese etc. as well as 2 pairs of underwear and a blanket. Everything must be ready by August 9, when we would escape the ghetto.

A rumor spread among the Jews that Rufeisen was a traitor. They suspected that he would be waiting with the police to kill the escaping members of the underground, and would then enter the ghetto and murder the remaining Jews. In fact, Oswald's plan was to lead the police in the wrong direction, on a vain chase of the escaping Jewish fighters, allowing them as well as the rest of the Jews of the ghetto to flee in the opposite direction.

On Saturday night, August 9, I took a long rope and lowered the knapsacks I had prepared from the balcony of the second storey where we lived. Suddenly, there was screaming in the streets, and fights broke out among the Jews in the ghetto. In the corridors and on the stairs, people were blocking the way of the escaping members of the underground. The Jews were afraid of German retaliation against those unable to leave, in the event of an escape. The melee lasted four hours, until the attempt to leave the ghetto was abandoned for the time being. On Sunday morning, Oswald entered the ghetto and told Shlomo Chachas, the leader of the underground, that this night will be the last opportunity to escape. In the morning, the ghetto will be surrounded by police and the liquidation will begin. Shlomo went immediately to Eli Boruch, the Secretary of the Judenrat, and warned that if his group was prevented from leaving the ghetto, they would fire on whoever tried to stop them. Boruch agreed to allow the iron bars on the windows to be cut, as well as the barbed wire surrounding the walls of the ghetto. Whoever wanted to join the underground in their escape could do so.

Sunday evening, many heart-breaking scenes took place. Not everyone wanted or was able to leave the ghetto. Families were torn apart; children and parents cried bitterly. I lowered the knapsacks I had prepared from the balcony, one for each of my brothers. All the members of the underground had packed some food and bare essentials. On the ground floor, Eli Boruch stood crying with a kerosene lamp in his hand. He wished us well, even though he knew the fate that awaited him the next day. We climbed through the window, stepped over the barbed wire, and were on our way, leaving the zamek behind us. About 145 Jews left with us, having decided to follow us into the forest.

My brother Leibel, who knew the surrounding roads well, led the way. Our first stop was the Tatar Muslim cemetery. Here, Shlomo, the leader of the underground, told the Jews who had followed us out of the ghetto, that they must continue on their own. We expected to soon be fighting the Germans or the local police, and they must go their own way. This caused great consternation, and they refused to leave. Arguments broke out, and they even began fighting among themselves. We were only one kilometer from Mir, and we were afraid that peasants in the surrounding farms would hear us. It was decided to allow the escaped Jews to continue with us. Leibel led us to a dense part of the woods near the Stara Miranka forest. By this time we had learned to move silently, and could hear the rustle of the birch leaves in the wind. The Jews who had fled the ghetto at the last minute had no food with them, and so we, who had prepared ourselves, had no choice but to share our food with them. They of course, were very happy with this arrangement, but within a day, all our food was gone.

Our group chose six members to visit a nearby village to collect food for everyone. Each night, another group went out after food. Our men would beg food from the nearby peasants, and sometimes had no choice but to take by force, if none was forthcoming. The situation was becoming desperate, and Leibel suggested that our family go to the Kruluta's farm not too far away. Perhaps we would be able to work in exchange for food. The four of us agreed, and went off to the Kruluta's house where we were welcomed by the family and told we could work in their fields. Leibel stayed behind with the underground fighters.

Our older brothers, Tzodek and Itchke, cut hay in the Kruluta's fields, while Chaim and I sat guard near the road, on the lookout for approaching Germans or local police. The hay was wet from recent rains, and Tzodek and Itchke worked without shirts or shoes. The lunches that the Krulutas brought us were very good. They brought baskets of bread, butter, cheese, and occasionally meat. We were afraid to sleep in the barn, since unexpected visitors could appear without warning. The Germans were on the lookout for Russian soldiers who had been left behind when the Red Army retreated, and had found refuge with the local peasants, working in their fields in return for food. In order not to be caught, we dug a small shelter for ourselves in the woods, and covered it carefully with pine branches. Here we slept until winter came.

One day, Leibel appeared and told us that the remaining members of the underground had taken the arms and ammunition, and left the Jews who fled the ghetto to fend for themselves. These had also split into smaller groups and built shelters in the forest to prepare themselves for the oncoming winter. The fighters had moved deeper into the forest, and no one knew their exact location. One day, six men from the underground came to our part of the woods bearing ammunition, but no guns. They demanded that Leibel and my friend Schreiber's brother-in-law, who was with Leibel in the underground, hand over their guns. They had met up with a band of partisans who offered to let them join their "otriad" (partisan unit), but only if they brought their own weapons and ammunition. Therefore, they demanded that Leibel bring his rifle, and join the partisans together with them. Leibel refused to abandon us, and the men told him that in that case, he must give them his gun. Leibel answered them, "I brought the ammunition into the ghetto, and the guns you carry are those I smuggled in. Are you not ashamed of yourselves?"They replied, "If you don't give us your gun, we'll kill you." Two of them approached Leibel from behind, and fired into the air. They told Leibel that the next shot would be for him. Leibel told me to get his rifle from where it was hidden in our secret shelter, and hand it over to them. "I won't die for the sake of a gun." After taking Leibel's gun' the men approached Schreiber's brother-in-law, and threatened him as well. He drew the pistol from his belt, and told them that he would shoot first. They turned without replying and left. Later, we heard them celebrating the acquisition of Leibel's gun.

Some days later, they sent a messenger who apologized to Leibel for taking his gun and explained why they needed both our guns. He told us that their group had met a large group of Russian partisans in the forest, who were much better equipped than the Jews. The partisans overpowered them, and took the three rifles they had with them. That is why the Jewish fighters wanted to take our weapons, even though they were our close friends. Unbelievable.

In the Forest

We needed a permanent shelter. We decided to build ours near the farm of a peasant named Buszkowski, whose daughter had married Joseph, one of the Kruluta brothers. Joseph was kind to us, and showed us a suitable site for our shelter. At first, we dug too deeply, and our bunker filled with water. Joseph suggested we move uphill a bit, near a small path. We worked quickly, so that our labors would not be noticed by the neighboring peasants. We prepared wood cut to the right size, and brought it to the site. As we dug, we had to shore up the walls with boards since the sandy soil crumbled back into the pit. We worked for five days and nights to dig a pit of 4 by 7 meters. We made a roof of cut trees covered with grass, leaves and branches. The covered entrance, about a half meter in diameter, was hidden by a small pine tree. Along the back wall we built a platform on which to sleep, and to one side another platform which could accommodate another few people if necessary. In one corner was a container of water, and outside, a long passageway led to a latrine and garbage dump. We dug holes in the walls to store barrels of produce. My brother Tzodek carved our every-day utensils with a knife. When completed, our bunker was as beautiful as any peasants home. The only thing missing was a stove which was not only necessary for cooking our meals but also for keeping warm during the approaching winter. My brother Leibel found a small cast-iron stove which a farmer wanted to sell for 10 Russian gold rubles. How on earth were we to get such a large sum? Fortunately, our uncle Moshke, who had been hiding with a farmer, had to leave him, and came to live with us at this time. He had some gold pieces in his possession, but was reluctant to part with them. After pleading and explaining that he would benefit from the transaction as much as we, we were able to persuade him to give us the money to pay for the stove. When the stove was installed, we had to make certain the smoke would not reveal our hiding place. We built an underground chimney which allowed the smoke to escape into a hollow tree. We knew that once snow fell, we could not leave our shelter because we would leave a trail of footprints that could easily be followed. This required us to stock up large supplies of food. We could go to Boczkowski's house only on days when we knew snow would fall and obliterate our footprints. Another trick was to walk backwards in the snow, and with a piece of towel tied to a long stick, wipe out our prints as we walked. We knocked snow from branches we passed to further erase our tracks.

There was a small group of Jewish girls who had fled to the forest, and had no shelter of their own. We took two of these in with us. My job was to do the cooking and washing for all the occupants of our bunker: my four brothers, Uncle Moshke and the two girls.

With the coming of winter, Itchke left us to join a group of partisans located about 60 kilometers away. He took his gun, which was a requisite for joining the band. He hoped that once he joined them, he could persuade them to accept us as well. He was gone for a long time.

Meanwhile, our life in the forest settled into a routine. We would occasionally leave our bunker for the Boczkowski's house to hear from Joseph Krutula about the war, and what was happening in the world. He advised us to supplement our diet by hunting wild pigs. There were platforms built in trees surrounding the potato fields. The pigs would come to dig up potatoes and the idea was to shoot them as they ate. He even lent my brothers shotguns for the hunt. They spent a whole night on a platform up in a tree, but no pigs showed up. The freezing night spent in the tree convinced them to give up pig hunting.

On March 16, 1943, we were awakened early in the morning by shooting and screaming very close to our bunker. German soldiers, assisted by the local Mir police, were searching the Stara Miranka forest for partisans. As they approached the Boczkowski house, four partisans who had been hiding in the house, ran out and were shot by the Germans. Three others escaped successfully through the back door. These partisans, who had been soldiers in the Red Army, were cut off from their units during the German advance, and rather than surrender to the Germans, joined the partisans in the forest.

Upon hearing the shooting, we fled our bunker, and ran in the direction of the nearby swamps. This was something we had planned in advance in case of a German raid. Jews from two nearby bunkers also escaped into the swamps. It was still early morning, and the water and mud were still frozen from the night's frost. Later in the day, the sun warmed the icy surface, and we tried jumping from one dry outcrop of shrubs to the next, but often we had to wade through the cold water. After spending the day in this desolate place, we carefully returned to our bunker to sleep, and were relieved to find that it had not been discovered by the Germans. We took turns guarding the bunker all night.

That evening, the three surviving partisans returned to the Boczkowski house, convinced that the peasants had informed the Germans of their presence. They shot the entire family, and the family of Joseph Kruluta as well. The partisans continued to the house of neighbors who lived a half kilometer away, and shot the father, four sons and a Jewish girl who was living with them. The youngest son, 12 years old, escaped, and found shelter with a family in Mir.

After these events, we were afraid to continue living in our bunker. Together with Jews from two other bunkers, we found shelter in the swamp. We built a wooden platform one meter above the mud and water, and on this platform, erected a large tent. We camouflaged our tent from all sides to hide it from overhead aircraft as well as from ground troops. We felt sure that German troops and local police would not enter this inhospitable area, which was only three kilometers from the Kruluta's farm. However, we needed food, and it was too dangerous for our older brothers Leibel and Zodek to leave our new shelter to find potatoes because they could be shot by partisans. Chaim and I, as children, would be safer, and we were sent to the Kruluta's to bring as many potatoes as we could carry. We walked to the potato fields, up to our knees in the frozen water. In some places, we broke through a layer of ice, and our feet quickly became numb from the cold. However, we returned with two 18 kilo sacks of potatoes on our shoulders, half the potatoes in front and half behind to spread their weight. We arrived at our new home with our precious produce, exhausted, wet and freezing cold.

Simcha with Partisans

Simcha Itzkowitz and friends repairing boots in a partisan camp

With the Partisans

In May, our brother Itchke, who had managed to secure a rifle which made him eligible to join a partisan brigade, sent us a message that a new partisan group was being formed which would provide shelter for young children and families. Leibel, Chaim and I decided to join this brigade, but Tzodek opted to remain in the Stara Miranka forest. We walked almost four days through the forest before finding two otriads (units) of this brigade. Lidski's otriad was a fighting unit, and Lebedev's, a family otriad. We joined Lidski's otriad, which had just finished constructing its bunkers. Very soon, Leibel led a successful patrol of partisans to the Mir region to get supplies. On the way, they met a Jew from Baranowicz who had escaped the ghetto with his two sons. Their name was Berkowitz, and they were originally from the town of Stolpce. They wanted to join our group, but because they had only one handgun among them, only one could join. They decided on the younger of the two brothers. Leibel's patrol had been operating all night, and so they entered the forest with their loaded horses and wagons to find a place to sleep during the day. Berkowitz, the new recruit, was ordered to stand guard, while the others slept. While on guard duty, he saw two German soldiers with a horse and wagon, passing nearby. Berkowitz fired at them, and killed one of the soldiers. The other returned his fire and Berkowitz was killed on the spot.

The entire incident turned out to have been a mistake. The supposed German soldiers were actually partisans in disguise. Had Berkowitz been more experienced, he would have known that in this area, the Germans were afraid to travel in small groups, and would only enter the forest in large units. The surviving partisan ran to get help from his friends, who were part of an extremely anti-Semitic band of partisans which would allow no Jews to serve in its ranks. They disarmed Leibel's group, and told them to return to Lidski's otriad. As they turned to leave, the others opened fire, killing five Jewish boys. Of the remaining seven, three were chosen by the non-Jewish partisans to go on a "patrol". One of them, Efraim Sinder, suspected the worst, and refused to go. My brother Leibel volunteered to go in his place. Ten minutes later, the four remaining boys heard three shots, and understood what fate had befallen the "patrol". These four survived, and returned to Lidski's otriad to tell us of the murder of our brother by the non-Jewish partisans.

During Leibel's absence, the leader of our otriad sent me and a few other young men to a site about 15 kms. away where a plant was being set up to restore ammunition recovered from the Germans. Together with twenty professional people who would work in the plant, we built the hidden "factory" and a bunker to house the workers. This project took almost a month. A blacksmith from the town of Gorodok named Berman, took a liking to me, and offered me a job as his assistant when the factory was completed. His wife and two children had been murdered by the Germans, and he had a brother in Lidski's otriad. He offered to teach me to be a blacksmith. This was a good profession, he told me; a blacksmith would never be hungry. I agreed to stay and work with him.

At first, it was very difficult for me to lift the hammer, but after a while, I was able to handle it. Our group included carpenters, blacksmiths, locksmiths, engineers, and two women who did the cooking. The other partisans supplied us with food which they collected from peasants in the area. We had a few milking cows, which the women would milk, and my job was to care for them. Two brothers who were engineers, installed electricity in the bunker, and this enabled us to operate a radio and follow the war news from Moscow.

At about this time, I discovered a horse untended in the woods. His master was gone, and I kept him for myself until we were liberated by the Red Army in 1944. Some partisans provided me with a saddle. One evening, we heard on the ten o'clock news broadcast, that Russian troops had liberated Mir. I was so overcome with joy, that I saddled up my horse and galloped off into the dark forest. Unseen branches scratched my face, and I returned bleeding from the ride. However, I did not mind at all, and my face healed quickly.

Fighting the Germans

In our workshop in the forest, we would convert unexploded German bombs and shells into usable explosives. Partisans from different otriads would bring us "raw materials" gathered in the forest. Some of the bombs were six feet long. Berman the blacksmith taught me to unscrew the detonators and remove the explosives inside. We used this material to make mines to be laid on the railroad tracks and blow up German trains on their way to and from the front. Special groups had been trained to carry out these operations. Sasha, a friend of mine from Mir, single-handedly blew up 18 German trains, and was awarded the highest honor of the Russian army, Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1945, I met someone who had been wounded and met Sasha in the hospital. He told me that Sasha was ill with tuberculosis, and since I never heard from him after the war, I assume he died.

Tzodek, who had joined Bielski's partisans, missed us very much. He decided to leave Bielski's band, and join Itchke in Vasutin's otriad. There were about 400 fighters in this otriad, many of them Jewish, and they carried out various missions. Chaim lived with a family otriad about 15 kms. away from ours. He would visit almost every day on horseback to pick up a newspaper written by one of the partisans in our group. This newspaper contained news broadcast from Moscow which we heard on our radio, and passed on to other partisan groups in the area.

Every evening, when the weather permitted, we would sit around a bonfire in front of our bunker and sing. I enjoyed my role as a soloist (and still do), and the group enjoyed my songs.

There was a landing strip cleared in the forest, and Russian planes would land to supply us with ammunition. On their flight back, they would evacuate wounded partisans to hospitals in Russia.

Once, the Russians dropped 13 German parachutists, dressed in full German uniforms, from a plane. These Germans were all communists who had been captured by the Russian army and volunteered to perform sabotage operations against German army units. These missions were very successful, and did great damage to the enemy. Ironically, the only friends these Germans had were the Jewish boys, because they spoke no Russian, and the Yiddish speaking Jews were the only ones who could understand German.

These Germans taught me how to play cards, and we played a game called "Thousand" which I liked very much. We would gather in the bunker of the photographer Kunin and his wife, and play for cigarettes (papirosen). I became addicted to gambling, and it was difficult for me to lay the cards down. I believe that today I'm cured of my addiction, but I'm still careful not to pick up a deck of cards.

At the beginning of the summer of 1943, the Germans mounted a large offensive against the partisans in our sector. They surrounded the forest, and began advancing into the interior. The partisan forces rushed to the defense, and the battle raged for three weeks, until the partisans ran out of ammunition. They were left with no choice but to break through the German lines, or else retreat westward. Our group was about 25 kms. inside the forest, when we began our retreat to the west, accompanied by the staff and mobile patients of the partisan field hospital. Heading the retreat were about 400 partisans of the Vesutin otriad. We walked all day and all night, and in the early morning reached the shoreline of a lake (or river). Everyone fell exhausted to the ground and slept. However, it was my turn to be on guard duty, and when I walked to the edge of the woods, I saw German police moving up to surround us. I ran to wake our commanding officer, and he grabbed his binoculars, and woke the rest of our group. The only cover we had was the knee-high reeds along the shore, and people hid in the shallow water. The Germans opened fire with rifles and mortars, and when we heard the shells coming in, we would duck under water. We left the water, and made it back into the woods where we took cover in a deep ravine filled with water. My heavy coat and knapsack weighed me down, and it was only by leaving my coat and knapsack behind, that I was able to climb out of the water. We were still under fire, and by now I was separated from my group. I found myself following someone from the hospital staff who made the mistake of moving into an open area covered only with grass and water. The Germans opened fire on us with machine guns, and the man next to me was hit. He asked that I please shoot him, but at that instant I felt a bullet hit my leg. I continued running until I reached the woods; there I stopped to examine my wound. I saw that the bullet had gone through my pants and boots, but only scratched my leg. I wasn't even bleeding. I carried a silver spoon in my boot for eating, and this spoon seems to have saved me from injury. I have thought many times of the fellow who asked that I shoot him; I really could not do such a thing.

At this point, I decided that I would be better off on my own. I continued on my way through the forest, and if I heard shooting from one direction, I would simply head in the opposite direction where things were quieter. I picked wild berries for food, and drank from puddles. I walked all that day and the next, and in the afternoon, crossed a trail which led me to a spot where two wooden crates were hidden by broken branches. One crate was full of old clothes, among them a shirt and pants made of heavy cloth. These were not my size, but since I was soaked, I was glad of a dry change of clothes. Unfortunately, there were no boots or shoes in the crate, so I was left with my own wet boots. The other box contained bedding, including a down blanket and pillows. I wanted very much to lie down and have a good sleep, but I felt it was too dangerous. On top of the crate were some sacks of buckwheat which I transferred to the empty pillowcases. The buckwheat had not been winnowed, and was not fit to be eaten. However, I was very hungry and I tried to get some down, but it tasted terrible.

Towards evening, I came to a village whose houses had been burned to the ground and were still smoldering. I looked carefully through the smoking ruins, but there was no one to be seen. I returned to the forest, and there I found a small military entrenching tool. I took it with me thinking perhaps I would have to dig myself a shelter to sleep in. Instead, I found a small trench which remained from WW1. I covered it with fallen branches, crawled in, and fell fast asleep. During the night, I was awakened by heavy gunfire around me, and the sound of people running nearby. I readied my gun, and lay awake thinking that I might not survive the night. Early in the morning, I crawled out of my hole, and found everything sunny and peaceful outside. Nevertheless, I was afraid to leave the forest, and I continued on my way looking for blueberries to eat, until I heard a cow lowing not far away. At the edge of the woods, I saw a single house with several outbuildings close by. I approached the house, and carefully opened the door, which was unlocked. Inside, a woman was lying on the floor of the kitchen, playing with three small children. She was frightened when she saw the rifle on my shoulder, even though she knew I was a partisan. She said there were many German troops in the area, and they passed frequently on the road outside. I saw a pot of borsht on the counter, and drank it up. The woman insisted that she had no food for me, so I asked where I could find a house with men who would help me. She replied that there were more houses along the road. I continued on to the next house, where a man and his family lived. He gave me a cup of milk and some cooked potatoes, but he had no bread since he had no fields to grow wheat or rye. He told me that this area had been occupied by partisans, but the Germans had pushed them back into the forest. He said it was dangerous for me to remain in the area. None the less, I went back to the first house, and asked the woman if I could sleep in the barn. She claimed it was too dangerous, but suggested that I sleep in an abandoned dog house in the woods. I asked if she knew of other partisans near by, and she said there was a wounded officer in the forest nearby, being looked after by a partisan who comes every evening to collect food that she prepares for the two of them. I went to sleep in the dog house for a few hours, and returned to the house in the evening to meet the other partisan. He was a nice fellow, but would not take me to visit the wounded officer. The woman gave me something to eat, and sent me to sleep in the dog house. In the morning, I returned to her house, ate a bit, and asked her for directions to the village of Kletsist, 20 kms. away, where Bielski's otriad was located. She told me how to find the road to Kletsist, but after walking all day, I found myself in the late afternoon back where I started from. When the woman saw me, she was convinced that I had not gone anywhere, but had decided to stay and eat her food. She came after me with a broom, and even though I was armed, I did not want to confront her. I ran into the forest, and soon came upon the wounded officer lying on a bed of branches. I saw that he had a machine gun in his hand, and I yelled out that I was a partisan. He beckoned me to approach, and told me that the fellow taking care of him was away bringing food. Meanwhile I told him my story, and how I ended up alone. He listened attentively and understood my situation, but when I asked if I could stay with him, he refused. Suddenly, we heard people passing close by. The officer told me to see who was there. I loaded my rifle and yelled out, "Stoy (Halt)! who goes there." They answered that they were partisans, and I asked for the partisan password. They called back, "Luchinka 9" I called out that only one approach me, and I saw immediately that it was a Jewish boy. I asked him how many they were, and he answered, "We're 13 boys; 12 from Bielski's otriad, and one Russian from another otriad who joined us in the forest. I invited them to join us, hoping perhaps that there was a doctor or medic among them to aid the wounded officer, but none of them knew anything about first aid. It turned out that Benchke, the leader of the group, was from the town of Korelich, about 30 km. from Mir, and knew my father very well. When I told Benchke how the woman in the nearby house had treated me, he said, "Let's go visit her."" The boys entered the house, went right to the cellar, and found a large jar of butter. They emptied the oven, and ate everything in sight. This time, the woman didn't dare approach us and didn't say a word. When we finished eating, we left the house, and walked to the next village. There, we asked the mayor to provide us with a sheep, and very soon, one of the villagers brought us a lamb. We made a bonfire in the forest, and feasted on delicious roast lamb with enough left over for next day's breakfast. While the others were eating, I stood guard, and through the darkness, I heard horses trotting through the woods in our direction. I called out to them to halt, and they identified themselves as partisans from Mitchke's otriad. I asked for the partisan password, and in reply, I heard them cocking their guns. I shouted to them not to cock their weapons, or else I will open fire on them. They answered that they were not loading their guns, and I ordered one of them to come forward. When he came closer, I saw that he was a partisan, so I told him to bring in his comrades. One other approached on horseback, and I meanwhile called Benchke. He immediately recognized one of the new partisans who had once mistreated him. Benchke wanted to shoot both of them. I pleaded with him not to harm them, and he finally relented. Our visitors left, and we put out the fire and went to sleep.

In the morning, we relit our fire to get warm and prepare some food. After eating, we continued on our way. Bielski's men knew the way, and guided us. Bielski's band of partisans had scattered under the pressure of the German offensive, but now people were making their way back, each with a story to tell of how he had survived. I met two friends from Mir, and we decided to go to Priluk, a village four km. from Mir, to find some food. The peasants of Priluk were not too happy to be woken up in the middle of the night, but when they saw our guns, they became more cooperative. They prepared food for us, some of which we ate on the spot, and the rest we took back with us into the forest. It was still summer, and we went to sleep on the ground. Now that we had food, we decided each to return to his own otriad. Five kms. before reaching Lidski's otriad, I was stopped by partisans of the Vasutin brigade. I told them that two of my brother's were with their band. They knew my brothers, and told me to pass on to the next guard-post where I would find Itchke. He had been arrested for being caught asleep while on guard duty. The punishment for this was usually death by shooting, but Itchke explained that he had not slept for two nights, because the fellow who was supposed to relieve him had not shown up. His commanding officer was very angry, but only had him arrested for 14 days. He was not tied up, but since there was no proper jail, he had to sit and sleep on the same spot for 14 days and nights. However, he got the same rations of food as his guards, and his 14 days would soon be up. He knew that he was lucky not to have been shot on the spot, but his commander discovered that the guard who was supposed to relieve him had gotten lost in the woods, and never found the camouflaged position where Itchke sat waiting for him. Finally, Itchke was released, and he rejoined Tzodek and his friends in the Vasutin otriad.

When I returned to my own partisan group from my visit with my brothers, my comrades told me they had begun to worry over my long absence. I realized what good friends they were, all except the two engineer brothers, whose Jewish chutzpa I did not like at all.

The Germans Attack

About two weeks after my return to my unit, a force of 500 German soldiers accompanied by local auxiliaries, entered the forest. One of the guards stationed around our camp spotted them heading for Vasutin's otriad, and even though we had very little ammunition, we took up positions along the road which passed near our camp. The boys from our workshop were with Vasutin's force. Two artillery pieces which we had were in position on a small hill, and I was at the edge of the woods about 100 meters away. The battle continued not far away, until the commander of the partisan force reached us and ordered us to retreat. To cover our retreat, he ordered the two field cannons to fire 7 rounds each at a range of 2 – 2.5 kms. Meanwhile the horses were to be prepared to draw the cannons back out of range. The artillery fire was effective, and enemy fire ceased. After this barrage, the cannons were moved back. We remained in place, scattered in the woods, waiting for the partisans retreating from the battlefield to join us. Scouts reported that about 40 enemy soldiers had been killed in the skirmish, and two partisans, both from the town of Mir. One had been a friend of Tzodek and Itchke, the other a friend of mine. They had both been hit in the stomach by machine gun fire, and their wounds were as clean as the cut of a knife. They were buried in the forest, not far from Vasutin's camp, and all the partisans attended their funeral.

We learned later that the German force had first intended attacking Lebedev's family otriad. However, their way was blocked by a wooden bridge made of round logs. The German cavalry was held up, because the horse's legs slipped through the spaces between the logs. Our brother Chaim used this road regularly when he visited us to hear the news from Moscow. When he approached the bridge on his way to us, he saw the German force waiting to cross. He escaped unseen, and ran back to his camp to warn his comrades. The camp was quickly evacuated before the Germans reached the area. They left the camp untouched, and for the next few days, partisans patrolled the area to warn of a possible renewal of the German attack.


From Mir to Montreal

Part V

Updated August 2009


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