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The Jewish Ghetto
Navahrudak, Belarus

(during WWII known as Nowogródek, Poland;
After WWII known as Novogrudok, Soviet Union)


Outside of the Ghetto

By Lyuba Rudnicki

Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil

From the Navaredok Memorial Book
Translation of Pinkas Navaredok

To the memory of my brother in law Meir Rudnicki

May 1942. Life in the Novogrudok Ghetto is “as usual”: every morning the Jews go to work outside the Ghetto under heavy guard. The ones who stay behind the Ghetto walls are waiting for their safe return, consumed by fear. Rumours started to circulate that there are partisans near Novogrudok and that their chief is someone by the name of Gromov. People are curious, but there is no concrete information. Somebody said that Gromov left a note in the barbershop, which read: “Gromov was here”. Everyone wants to see or contact him. People would do anything to leave the Ghetto. Those who are still alive begin to comprehend that gradually all of us will be killed. But the Germans promised that the ones who were left alive are needed and nothing untoward will happen to them. Despite that, the aspiration of most of us is to get out of the Ghetto. Is it the influence of spring or plain common sense that guides everyone? The main question is “where can one hide?” They look for contacts among the villagers.

One bright morning we found out that a few people had left the Ghetto overnight. Those were: the smolarnik [tar maker] (I forgot his name), Ben-Zion (Benche), Movshovich, David Golvicki and Ada Ziskind-Shapiro.

They went to an acquaintance of the smolarnik, near the village of Shchorsy. But after two days the smolarnik and Golvicki returned and said that the guard near the Shchorsy Bridge detected them and opened fire. The two managed to escape, but Movshovich and Ada Ziskind-Shapiro were killed on the spot. That incident shook everybody. If anyone held any hope of escape, it disappeared. We realised that all is lost, there is no safe refuge, we are all hermetically shut off. In the meantime rumours went around that the second slaughter was about to take place. The murderers prepared themselves with all the thoroughness (“planmaessig”) of the Germans. The rumours materialised. The terrible “day of judgment” arrived. It was the 7 August 42.

In the morning, as usual, people left under heavy guard to work. We, my husband and I, worked in the infirmary in the house of Mordechi Movshovich in the 3 rd of May Street. There was a lot of restlessness. Everyone was looking for a hiding place till the killings would end. From the experience of the first slaughter we knew that those who managed to hide during the slaughter, returned unharmed to the Ghetto. The Judenrat prepared a list of all the tradesmen who will have to move to the building of the district court. Till now the Ghetto was only in Pereseka. Many made an effort to be among the lucky ones who were transferred to the second Ghetto. We wanted to move too. But we met with the stubborn reluctance of the Judenrat and the police, though the medical personnel, to which we belonged (my husband was a dentist and I was a nurse) were promised previously that they would be left alive. This time we did not trust them and found a hiding place in the cellar of the dentist Shimon Kaminiecki ZL (of blessed memory). It was a house next to the German police station. We entered into the jaws of the cruel beast in the hope that they wouldn't look for us there. “Who would think that someone would dare to hide there?” we asked ourselves. Fifteen people were concealed the cellar. We put a kitchen cupboard in front of the entrance door from the kitchen; we brought water and bread to the cellar and waited for the terrible storm to pass. At night we heard sirens above our heads. From the house next door, the police station, we heard cries of people, the sounds of beating, cursing, sobbing, moaning and from time to time shots. We set huddled close to each other, did not move, and waited, hoping to survive, to let all the troubles pass. That was the strong desire within each of us. We did not know the time; light did not penetrate the cellar. By listening to the traffic we estimated that it was dawn. We were desperate. How could we find out if the slaughter had ended? Who would tell us when to come out? No one knew where we were. While we were thinking and whispering too each other, we heard the sound of steps from the other side of the cellar. The cellar under the house of the family Kaminiecki extended under the vacant apartment of Kushi Plazenski (who lives today in Israel). The entrance to that apartment was from the main thoroughfare, the market square, and only a thin wall separated our cellar from the abandoned and dilapidated apartment. We did not know about it at the time. There was no time to contemplate. The wall was pulled down and, as the light penetrated, policemen appeared, their guns at the ready; the order was given for us to come out. They pulled us out one by one; it was still dark inside. I managed to hide under a washing basin in the cellar. I curled up under it and lay quietly. Suddenly I heard screams from the police station. I thought: “they killed everyone”. I wanted to go out, was there any value to my life alone? When facing death you don't know what to hold on to. One moment you have a strong will to overcome all and the next you are enveloped in such despair that you want to die without resistance.

Suddenly the basin was lifted, a policeman lit a match and recognised me. I knew him too, it was a Byelorussian policeman. I took off my gold watch, gave it to him and told him to go and save my husband, I promised him that if we will stay alive we will give him money. He agreed, covered me with the basin again and went out. From time to time policemen entered the cellar moved the basin and I moved with it. It was hard to say how long it took. I thought that a very long time passed. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice calling out: ”Lyubinka, come out”. I thought that it was a dream. It was my husband's voice - was it possible? Where was he? The call was repeated again and again. I came out and saw my husband without the yellow patch, with the police officer, they asked me to follow them. I was confused, where were they taking me, is it life or death? No, now I want to live, I must overcome all troubles in order to bear witness to all that happened to us. A sort of courage arose in me. I kept quiet. Erect I walked into the police station. An interrogation started; “ why did I hide, do I know what is going to happen to me?” I don't remember my answers. But till today I can hear my cry: “I want to live, this is the right of every human being.” The cry was not normal; it was a cry for life.

After I saw many acquaintances around me, one was sobbing the other was tearing his clothes in desperation, they wanted to know what I was asked. There were hundreds of people there. After a few hours nine people were taken out, among them, my husband and I. They led us under guard to the court house. We stayed alive thanks to the head of the Polish police. My husband treated his teeth and made a bridge for him. Later we found out that the policeman was in contact with the partisans. We don't know what happened to him.

In the Ghetto we met some members of our family: my brother in law Meir, who was saved by a miracle, my uncle Rafael Kaplinski with his wife. Their daughter Lea was killed in the slaughter. Some 800-900 Jews, broken and shattered, remained alive. We entered empty rooms. They smelt of mould. Still shaken, the survivors of Meztal (?) were brought in. They numbered approximately 250 people. From all sides stories were told about the slaughter. One said that he saw with his own eyes babies who were torn out of their mothers' hands by the brutal oppressors and had their heads smashed against the wall. Some told us about the way they were saved. Staying in the toilets in the yard saved many.

Soon came the order to divide the Ghetto. The courthouses were to house the tradesmen, and the professionals and those with no trade were to be moved to Peresika. Everyone tried to stay in a place they thought safe. People started to invent trades. Like everywhere else, friendship and family relations were useful, a talk with the “Judenrat” could help. I thought about one thing only: how to leave that “safe” place. That thought did not give me rest. We started to prepare an escape. Where could we escape to? And how? After the first slaughter, when I lost all my dear family, I was desperate and nothing interested me, but later after facing death a strong will to live overtook me.

At that stage we heard nothing about the partisans. I contacted a Christian woman by the name of Pargowicka. She lived two km. from the courthouse, in the village of Selco (Selec). She was an honest and God fearing woman. I trusted her. I told her everything and asked her for help. I was not mistaken; she did help me. She had relatives in the village of Khrapenevo near Iv'e. She heard that there were Russian soldiers in that area, who had not managed to escape and were hiding in the forests. Her readiness to help us was great. She believed that if she saved us, God would bring back her husband, who was taken prisoner by the Germans. She was left with 4 small children.

My husband, brother in law and I decided to break out of the Ghetto. One day Dr. Sasha Ziskind approached us. He was a good friend of ours, and asked if we would agree for him, his wife, Tamara Viner from Volkovisk and Dr. Mark Berkman [also spelled Bergman in another article], a surgeon from Warsaw, to join us. They did not know Mrs. Pargowicka. They learned about our plan from a friend of Mrs. Pargowicka. We agreed, of course, to let them join us, without doubt or hesitation. Leaving the Ghetto was a very risky undertaking. Getting out was, in itself, a very dangerous operation, and then there was the problem of surviving outside the Ghetto. But the idea of leaving the Ghetto was stronger then any doubts we had. We decided to do it. We decided to escape from the Ghetto on the 19 of August 42.

Our group consisted of five people: Dr. Berkman, who was then the head of the “Judenrat”, Dr. Tamara Viner, Sasha stayed in the Ghetto because of ill health and was to join us in the winter, Meir Rudnicki, my dear brother in law and a school master, my husband Yaakov and I. We were to meet at the water well in Karelicher street, where people from the Ghetto, under heavy police guard, were allowed to draw water every evening.

On the appointed day we returned from our work in town in time when people from the Ghetto had arrived to fetch water. We stayed till dark in the barn of Benzlavski, a postman. We had to pass by the Ghetto, there was no other way, except walking through the fields, which was more conspicuous and, therefore, dangerous. We took off our yellow patches and walked on the road, singing, so as not to awake any suspicion. Our hearts thumping, we passed by the barbed wire fence of the Ghetto. It was an unusual courage that grows from desperation and the strong will to live.

We arrived safely to Mrs. Pargowicka's house. A guide was waiting to take us to Khrapenevo.

We left at midnight and walked a meandering route, circumventing the police station in Gorodelovka. While crossing the river at a shallow place [next to Selec there is a small river called Volovka] we realised that the light projectors of the Ghetto lit the surroundings. Crawling, we crossed a wide field and entered the forest. We felt safer there, but as our bad luck would have it, it was harvest time and Russian planes appeared and bombed the granaries. The bombing started fires, which lit a large area. Slowly we advanced towards the town of Vselub [about 14 km from Novogrudok]. We stayed in the forest without knowing exactly where we were. We thought we were in the depth of the forest and to our surprise we saw villagers going to the church in Vselub. Our guide went to the church too and told us to wait till the darkness of the night. [Another day must have passed since they left Selec at midnight]. Crawling we entered the forest, hid among the bushes and waited for it to get dark. Quietly we exchanged opinions: Tamara wanted to return to the Ghetto, we: my husband, brother in law and I, stood by our decision not to move back from there but to go forward, even if we were to meet the most horrible fate, but not to return to the Ghetto. It was a frightful time, we were crowded behind a bush with no food or water. Now and then we heard voices of Germans who went to and from Novogrudok. Hour after hour passed. Finally it was dark. The guide did not return. Doubts arose again: “He betrayed us, let's go back” one of us said “where are we going from here, who knows the road?”, another said “we are in these unknown surroundings for the first time in our life”. At 10 o'clock the guide returned. We walked all night along narrow tracks among bushes. Eventually, at dawn, we reached our destined place. [Khrapenevo lays some 25 km north of Novogrudok and about 4 km south of the river Neman. It is desolate country, full of swamps and isolated villages. The nearest town of any size, Iv'e, is 15 km away, on the other side of the Neman.]

It was a swamp and we had to sit there all day. Only at night were we allowed to sleep at the granary, which was at a distance of 200 meters. A new life started there. The main thing that was demanded of us was to sit in absolute silence, lest the shepherds near the swamp would detect us. The guide's sister, and her kind mother, supplied us with food. We did not hear about partisans yet. We were told that once Russian soldiers had been in the district, but they had left. It was a quiet area. Just an isolated house far from the road. A month passed by, the winter was approaching. We decided to dig a bunker (zemlianka) in the forest. The men went out at night, they tied a stick or a hoe to their shoulder, which looked in the dark like a rifle, to deter villagers, if they were to meet them. The women stayed put. The aim was to dig a bunker 2 meters deep, because my brother in law was very tall. They dug even deeper, till they reached water, which was a necessity, if we were to dwell in the bunker.

Once, early in the morning, we were fortunate to meet two Jewish fellows: one from Vselub and the other from Swencany, who lived at present in Vselub. They put us in contact with a few partisans who operated in the area. It was a small unit, altogether seven people. Their leader was an escaped Russian prisoner of war by the name of Anton. Our life changed. Our men went out for reprisal operations, they returned to their bunker, but did not tell their friends about the women in the bunker. Later, only in one operation, the women were involved.

At the beginning the operations were small, there was a shortage of weapons. Not everyone had a rifle, they only dreamt about rifles. The first big and important operation was to destroy the bridge [across the Neman] to Zboisk. All of us went out one night to fetch barrels of tar, which we took from a tar factory, located about six km from our shelter. We also got some kerosene, which we appropriated from a village. We set fire to the bridge. It burned for a few days. No one dared to reach it for fear of partisans. It was a audacious operation.

Our big enemy - the bridge - was eliminated and was not repaired at the time we were there. We felt safer and we moved around more freely. We were looking for weapons. The men ambushed some Germans, killed them and took their weapons. That is how they got their rifles. With the passing of time the men started to worry about the safety of the women ie myself and my friend Tamara Viner-Ziskind. The women did not take part in night operations, but were waiting, fearful, for the return of their men. It was necessary to obtain food. They crossed the Neman, went into villages, which were hostile to the partisans and took some food. That was how a small unit of partisans in the district of Ivia-Novogrudok was formed. [At that time, Belski was gathering the largest body of partisans, which, on liberation, numbered over 1200 Jews. Twelve months prior to liberation the Belski detachment settled in the wilderness of Naliboki, across the Neman, not far from Khrapenevo.]

We passed the days by telling stories about our lives. That is how I know about the life of Dr. Mark Berkman. His home town was Warsaw. He worked before the war as a surgeon at the hospital on Czysta Street, Warsaw. He was clever and intelligent, but had a hard character. He said himself that he would walk over dead bodies to achieve his aim. But we liked him, he had a good sense of humour and liked to tell stories. He reached Novogrudok from Lvov, whence he had escaped, after the Germans conquered Warsaw in 1939. Dr. Limon, who was then the manager of the hospital in Novogrudok, accepted him as a surgeon in the district hospital (Sejmikowy). He left a wife and a daughter in Warsaw. He was a brave man. After the second slaughter in Novogrudok he was elected to be the head of the “Judenrat”.

My dear brother in law, Magister Meir Rudnicki, was born in Novogrudok. He finished high school in his town and then the faculty of history at the University of Vilno. When the Russians came he was the head master of a school near Slonim. He was an honest, quite and modest fellow, good hearted and unpretentious. He never liked people to talk about him or praise him. Always with a smile on his face, he used to say: “If we will get over all this, I will show you that I am not that shy!”. Poor man, he did not survive. When he took the rifle for the first time, his hands trembled. It was said about him that he would never hurt a fly, and yet he had to become a fighter. The first operation was hard on him; he could not shoot from an ambush. But when he reminded himself who the people that he was shooting at were, he found courage and used his bullets.

We lived together. It was like one family, and we became close to each other despite of our differences. Dr. Berkman and my husband Yaakov (who finished dentistry at the university of Bordeaux, France) many times helped the villagers. The partisans did not have a permanent location. Everyone was hiding separately, waiting for the spring. The aim was to unite and create one fighting body. It was hard to do that in the winter because of the climate. At that time we did not hear about other Jewish partisans. We thought we were the only ones. The Russian partisans were doing their rounds in the villages and if someone was sick they came straight to us and asked Dr. Berkman to help. My husband always accompanied him. Once, when one of the partisans was wounded, my husband pulled out his tooth and made him a primitive prosthesis from a piece of wire. Contacts between us, the locals and the Christian partisans were firm. That friendship and trust brought a disaster upon us in the end. We believed that we were all in the same situation and we all had the same aims. We forgot about the ever-present anti-Semitism.

From time to time we sent messengers from the village to find out about the situation in the Ghetto. We received news that the conditions in the Ghetto had become more severe. Guarding was stricter, the food situation worsened. Dr. Sasha Ziskind was coming to join us. Sasha was born in 1915. He was a handsome boy and very talented, quiet and modest, always ready to help anyone in trouble. He finished his high school studies in Novogrudok and later finished medicine at the university of Vilno. During the Russian rule he worked as a G.P at the hospital in Novogrudok. His friends liked him. He and I went to school together from early childhood. He was a good and a loyal friend.
On the 5 of January 1943 he walked disguised as a villager on the way to our hiding place. A policeman from Vselub, who was once his patient, recognised him and turned him over to the Germans. They jailed him in the Novogrudok prison, put him through horrific torture and pressured him to reveal our hiding place. He died a martyr without uttering a word. I honour his memory. We heard the details of his imprisonment from the jail wardens.

On the same fatal day the Belski unit was attacked by the Germans and some escaped to the district of Khrapenevo. We waited for the arrival of Sasha. Looking around we came face to face with the Belskis. We never heard of Tuvia Belski before, but we accepted willingly his offer to join his unit in the spring. We had just said good-bye to each other and left the house when it was attacked. Everyone in it was killed and the house was burnt. It was half a km. from our bunker. We found out about the killings the next morning, when we went to Khrapenevo and found burning coal and smoke. [This episode is mentioned briefly in the article on p.359 “Novogrudok partisans who fell in action”. According to that article, where no details were given, three Belski partisans: Hertzel Efroimski, Arie Volkin and Yitzchak Leibovich, as well as Tuvia Belski's wife and her brother Grisha were killed in that action. Khrapenevo was a tiny outpost, yet two Jewish tragedies occurred there.]

It was clear that we had to change our location. Too many partisans in the area were a threat to us. We just wanted the winter to pass, and waited for the spring to join a big and strong unit that would be able to stand up against the enemy that surrounded us.

The fatal day arrived, the day of the Red Army, the 23 rd of February. Early in the morning we heard knocking. Two Russian partisans asked my husband and Dr. Berkman to come to their dwelling, because a third partisan, Vania, had been injured during the night operation. Without any suspicion, they went with the partisans in their sledge. My brother in law Meir stayed with us. A few minutes later we heard machine gun shots. We knew it was bad news. Did the Germans attack them? We had no other thought.

Meir took his rifle and went to stand guard. Tamara and I followed him, though previously we, the women, did not show ourselves to the villagers in daytime.

My brother in law went further and suddenly we heard a horrific cry. They killed my brother, I thought. Tamara and I started to run away, but where to? Forest all around, the snow knee high and the legs did not move. We walked a few meters away from our bunker, when we heard the call of the two partisans, who only a short time ago took my husband and Dr. Berkman to the injured friend. I approached them first. With a pistol directed at my heart they ordered me to climb on the sledge, which stood, beside our bunker. I started to ask questions: what were the shots? Where were my husband and his friend? Dr. Tamara, who was usually brave and cool, lost her head, could not utter a word and pulled me to the sledge. An unusual strength came over me, strength out of desperation. I started to ask about the fate of my husband, Dr. Berkman and my brother in law. One of them blurted out: “we killed everyone and we will kill you too, today is the Red Army day, we received an order to kill all Jews.” I had a flicker of hope that one of the men was still alive, and it gave me the urge to go on questioning and talking. One thing was clear to me: if one of them is still alive, he will return early and if so, one must get rid of those murderers. Both were drunk, they smelt of spirits. Till today I cannot believe the coolness with which I manipulate them. Calm and relaxed I promised them that we would come to them, but only in the evening. I advised them to go home and sleep, rest for a while, and we would wait for them to come and pick us up. I explained to them that women cannot survive in the forest alone, and that we did not know the surroundings and wouldn't move without them. They accepted it, and told us to wait till the evening. I advised them that it was not good to see women among the partisans.

They left the bunker and we set out in the snow desperate, with no hope and not knowing what to do. We saw in the deep snow prints of man's boots. We got up and ran towards them. It was my husband, who was rushing to help us. He was stunned, tired and broken. His words were: “they killed Dr. Berkman, his head fell on my shoulder, where is my brother Meir? A miracle saved me, I managed to knock Sasha's hand (that was the partisan's name) and his revolver dropped to the ground, the second man was the driver of the sledge and had no weapon, Sasha (the partisan) took the machine gun, but I managed to jump into the forest, hung my coat on one of the trees, they shot at it thinking that it was me. In the meantime I returned to you, Where is my brother?” those were short, broken and terrible sentences. We told him the atrocious news that his brother was murdered. Hearing that made him deaf for a few days, only his lips moved. Our rifles stayed on the sledge with the murderers. Only one rifle with a broken barrel was left in the bunker. I picked it up and we started to walk away from the bunker. Where to go? It was a clear day. Broken, shattered and fatigued we walked, leaving behind brothers and friends, sacred corpses. We could not even bury them. We could not come close to them, lest we would also be killed. After a short time we heard deafening shots from the direction of the bunker. It seemed that the murderers regretted leaving us and came back to pick us up. Thanks to the dense forest we managed to escape. We remained very close to the bunker. We were afraid to walk during the day, for fear of being informed on. Enemies were all around us. Where could we go and what was going to happen? My husband was deaf and he did not talk! The persistent question hounded us: where should we go? With nightfall my husband recovered a little, he was our only hope. He decided to go in the direction of Kostus Kozlowski, who was a friendly villager and a contact man of the Belskis. He lived far from us, we walked for a few days, with great fear, along winding tracks. We did not know the area and feared every stranger. We made a great effort not to be seen. Those were torturous and troubled days. It was our bad luck to reach Kozlowski a few hours after the Germans left his yard. Swiftly he led us and hid us in a small wood. The Germans, again, were attacking the Belskis, who were back in their old base. We could see from a distance the Germans retreating towards Novogrudok. After a few days we finally met the Belskis. There, a new chapter opened in our life.

I would like to add a few things. During all our time with the Belskis our first aim was to take revenge on the family of the policeman who caught Sasha Ziskind. My husband could not rest, the thought depressed him. He found out from the villagers where the policeman lived and took a few men with him to the policeman's house. It was a very dangerous operation. First, his house was close to the police station. Second, in order to reach the house one had to pass an area where Germans and policemen hung around. But that did not deter my husband. Finding that the policeman was not home, my husband killed with his own hands his mother, sister and everyone else who was in the house. They left a note to explain the murder and burnt the house down.

Dr. Rosenbloom was a good friend of Dr. Berkman. Hearing about the horrific murder of Dr. Berkman and my brother in law, he sought and found the two partisans and the family they stayed with who assisted them. He killed them all.


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