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

Nazi Conquest

On June 27, 1941, the Germans occupied our town. When they entered Mir, the entire center of town, our house included was in flames. My father and three older brothers tried to save some of our bedding and clothes from the fire. The little that they managed to save was hidden in a neighbor's orchard, and our dog and cow tied to a nearby tree. Many families were left homeless, and found shelter with relatives or friends. We moved in with our uncle Artsik, his young wife of a year and a half and their small child. Seven families were crowded into their small house, and we slept in the barn with our cow and horse, who had deserted the Russian army, and found his way home.

The Jews were put to work under the direction of the Judenrat, clearing the rubble that remained after the burning of the center of town. Most of the houses had thick walls of bricks that had to be cleared away, and men, women and even small children worked at the task. When winter came, we cleared the roads of snow with shovels. The Judenrat received it's orders from the German military, and it's job was to supply the necessary laborers for each day's work. Besides supplying Jewish labor, the Judenrat served its German masters by collecting the gold and jewelry of the Jews before their liquidation. At this time, the Germans established a local police force, and staffed it with gentile hoodlums from the area. These hoodlums took advantage of their uniforms to humiliate the Jews. They beat Jews, cut off their beards, and forced them to dance on top of high platforms. These acts of humiliation and degradation took place daily, and the Jews had no choice but to ""grin and bear" them.

Within a short while of our moving in with Artzik, our gentile neighbor, Czerniawski, betrayed us; he told the Germans we were living in the barn and had a horse in the stable. The Germans took the horse, and we knew it was a matter of time before they would take the cow as well. A quiet gentile family lived opposite our house, and we offered the woman to take our cow, in return for half the milk. She agreed, and added that in case of trouble, she would be willing to hide us.

The western edge of our land bordered on a very dense young forest of birch and pine trees. Almost every Saturday, our family, along with many others, would walk through the woods to enjoy the fragrance of the pines. It was here, two months after the Germans entered our town, that the first group of Jews from Mir was massacred. With no warning, we were told that all Jews must gather in the market place, where many homes and businesses had been destroyed. A gang of gentiles selected 38 Jews to be loaded on a truck. Some were chosen because of their wealth, and others because they were disliked. My oldest brother Leibel was also chosen, but he was released at the last minute because he was known to be a good boy. The Jews were taken to the forest, not far from our own field, and there tortured, mutilated and beaten to death, their bodies scattered through the forest. When the tragedy was discovered, the Judenrat sent a team of men to bury what was left of the bodies in a mass grave. Today, a memorial to the murdered Jews stands on the grave site.

Our immediate family had so far escaped untouched, except for one uncle, my mother's brother, who had been shot to death by a German soldier for violating the curfew. However, this was to end very soon.

The First Aktion

On November 9, 1941, at 5 AM, we were awakened by shouts of the police for all Jews to dress and gather in the market place. My father told my mother to take my brother Chaim and hide in the home of the woman to whom we had given our cow. My mother did as she was told, but our gentile neighbor ignored the knocking at her door and would not let them in. My mother returned home with Chaim, and because it was dangerous to remain standing in the doorway, my father told Chaim and me to take shelter in the attic; he would join us soon. The attic had no windows or lighting of any kind. We saw a big pile of storm windows leaning against the wall, and crawled under these to hide. We heard someone enter the attic, and thought it was our father. However, it was Mr. Sutin, a tenant in our house. He was a dental technician who had divorced his wife, a dentist, and rented a room in our house until it was destroyed by fire. After the fire, he moved with us to our uncle's house. We invited him into our shelter under the double windows

Outside, we heard screaming and shooting. We knew most of the people had been driven out of their houses to the market place, but we did not know who was being shot at. Several minutes later, we heard the Belarusian police coming up the ladder to the attic. The attic was very dark, and I whispered to Mr. Sutin and to my brother "don't even breath". Three policemen entered the attic and began searching with lighted matches. They stood right over us, but the light didn't penetrate the thick layers of winter windows. After a few seconds, we heard one of them say there was no one here, and they went downstairs. A few minutes later, we heard the voice of my father saying to a policeman, "I’ll go myself, I'll go myself". Two shots followed, and for five terrible minutes, we heard our father groaning, then silence. He was killed a few steps from the door of our house. A few minutes later, we heard policemen screaming in German, "We found three Jews". Three children were brought to the wall of the house and shot. These were our cousins, the beautiful children of our uncle Moshke (our mother's brother), a girl of eight, a boy of four, and the youngest, a boy of two. Later, we heard that police had shot our older uncle Chaim Schwierzenski and his son in the vicinity of the house where we were hiding. They also killed my uncle Feitel (the husband of my mother's twin sister).

Meanwhile, our mother had been among the Jews driven to the market square. We learned of her fate later from one of the local gentiles who knew our mother and had been drafted by the Germans to dig the mass grave for the Jews of Mir. The Jews were ordered by the Germans to undress before they were shot. Our mother refused this order, and jumped of her own volition onto the bodies of her fellow Jews wrapped in her shawl. There she was shot, together with about 1600 Jews of the town.

All afternoon we heard shooting from a distance, and we understood that the Jews of Mir were being murdered. At some point, a horse drawn wagon drew up before the house, presumably to collect the bodies of my uncles, cousin and father. During the night, we heard thieves ransacking the house, and we decided to stay in hiding until morning. We knew the farmers got up early to feed their livestock, and if we would leave then, perhaps we could escape without arousing suspicion.

We Escape

Several weeks earlier, our father had outlined a plan of escape should we need to flee this part of town. He advised us to find shelter with the Kruluta family in Stara Miranka, a town seven kms. from Mir. This family had been friends of my grandfather, and they visited us every week on market day when they came into town. In the morning, we crossed the garden behind our uncle's house, carefully crossed the main road without being seen, and walked on back country roads to a house where my father's friend Chmiel lived. They had served together in the Tsar's army during WW1. We knocked on the door, and Mr. Chmiel opened immediately. We told him we were very hungry, and he pointed us in the direction of a field where other Jews from town were hiding. He had supplied them with some food, and when we arrived, we found a few cold potatoes cooked in their skins which we devoured very quickly. I will never forget the taste of those potatoes as long as I live. Here we rested a bit and then continued on to our destination, the house of the Kruluta family. Here, a much warmer welcome awaited us. They immediately gave us food and told us that one of our brothers was hiding in the woods, and would soon come for lunch. We thought this was our brother Itchke, who had been put to work building a bridge in Usha, and had not returned home. To our surprise, it was not Itchke who appeared, but Tzodek. We embraced, and cried bitterly over the events of the last few days. However, we were happy that Tzodek was alive, especially when he told us how narrowly he had escaped death. He hid with our father in the barn, under the hay. The Germans pulled our father out and shot him, but somehow, they did not notice Tzodek.

My two brothers and I together with Mr. Sutin, stayed at the Kruluta's home. The first night, they spread the bedding my mother had given them after the fire, on the floor, and we slept in the house. The next three nights, we slept outside in the hayloft. However, all our meals we ate inside. On Thursday morning, the Krulutas prepared breakfast for our family and left for work in the fields. We were very hungry and ate everything they had left for us. As we sat at the kitchen table, we saw our brother Itchke through the window, approaching the house together with two friends. They had come from building the bridge in Usha. We ran out to greet them and brought them into the kitchen. They were very hungry, but there was nothing left to eat on the table except a big jar of lard. Within a few minutes, they emptied the jar with their fingers. When the Krulutas came home, they fed my brother and his friends. One of them had been in Mir, and reported seeing several Jews walking in the street as if all were well. My brothers, Tzodek and Itchke, decided to go to Mir to see what was happening. It was decided that if they did not return by early afternoon, we were to come as well. Since they had not returned, Mr. Sutin, Chaim and I left for Mir, keeping carefully to back roads and close to the cover of the forest. Suddenly, among the trees, we saw a woman dressed elegantly in black, holding two porcelain cups, one red and one black. She was startled when she saw us, and disappeared silently into the forest. In spite of all that happened to us before and after, the image of this mysterious woman has remained in my mind.

As we continued on our way to town, we saw a figure coming towards us through the fields. We were frightened and increased our pace. The stranger reached the road, but headed in the opposite direction, away from us. We suddenly realized this was our brother Leibel, and we turned and ran after him. We had a joyous reunion, and told him that Tzodek and Itchke had returned to Mir. Chaim and I decided to continue on to Mir, and Leibel would go to Kruluta's house and try to arrange for us to stay with them.

Meanwhile, Chaim and I arrived in Mir. We went first to the house of our uncle Artzik, and there joined our uncle Moshke in mourning the death of his entire family. In the yard, pools of blood marked the spot where our father and uncle Feitel were shot, and in the barn, two bloody, bullet-riddled hats lay where our great uncle Chaim Szverzenski and his son Tzodek were killed. His wife and their daughter Esther were hidden by a Christian family and survived. Mrs. Szverzenski was an excellent dressmaker, who sewed clothing for the gentiles, and this saved her life.

The Ghetto

After living in our uncle's house for a week, we, together with the rest of the Jews of the Mir, were relocated to a temporary ghetto near the center of town. Here we remained with the remnants of our family until the end of 1941. In early 1942, we were forced to move again. The Germans declared the old and neglected Radzivil castle (the zamek) to be the ghetto, and the 850 surviving Jews who remained in Mir were forced into the cramped quarters of the castle. We all wore the yellow Star of David, and lived in constant fear of death. It was forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, only in the middle of the streets. The castle was surrounded by barbed wire, but the Jewish guards posted around the ghetto were not overly zealous in their duties. These Jewish police were themselves forced to cooperate with the Germans, and used no violence against their fellow Jews. We were allowed to leave the ghetto only to work at the tasks assigned to us by the Germans. Luckily the weather was mild, but we still had to dress heavily to remain warm.

The younger people, including my brothers Leibel, Tzadok and Itchke, were concentrated in a section of the ghetto called Kavalerka. A post with a long metal bar was planted in the middle of the yard, and every morning at 6 AM, someone from the Judenrat would bang on the bar with a hammer to wake us for the work we were assigned for that particular day or week. Water was supplied by a well in the yard.

In December 1941, a unit of the German civil police (Gendarmerie) took up residence in our town. Very soon, they levied a quota of gold and other valuables that the Judenrat was to collect from the Jews and hand over to the German authorities. They let it be known that the more gold handed over, the better the Jews left in the ghetto would fare.

My brother Leibel was assigned to looking after the police horses. His job was to feed and clean them, and generally see that they remained in good shape. This job suited Leibel, since he loved horses. The German police were satisfied with his work. Tzodek worked first as an assistant to the veterinarian, then got a job at the slaughterhouse. This enabled him to bring home choice portions of meat to supplement our diet. Because of my young age, I was responsible for the housework and cooking. Occasionally, the representative of the Judenrat would draft everyone, and if the roads had to be cleared of snow, women and children were called out as well. The chief of police was a local anti-Semite named Simon Serafimovicz, and his interpreter was Oswald Rufeisen. Leibel was very fond of Rufeisen, because he was kind to him and treated him as a human being. This was in contrast to Serafimovicz, who carried a long leather whip when he rode out among the Jews. The whip, of course, was not for his horse, but for the Jews whom he would beat pitilessly. I first saw Serafimovicz while I was shoveling snow after a large storm. I was one of about 20 Jewish men and women working at clearing the road, and Serafimovicz, together with Oswald and the gentile Mayor of Mir, came to inspect our work. They stopped their horses right in front of me, but we were working hard and doing a good job. One day, while riding, Serafimovicz's gun went off accidentally, and he was wounded in the leg. He was unable to continue at his job, and Rufeisen replaced him as Chief of Police. (Serafimovicz was discovered in London in 1993; he was arrested and tried for war crimes.)

Meanwhile, a young Jewish fellow by the name of Beretzke Reznik, who worked as an electrician in the police station, recognized Oswald as an old friend from the Zionist youth movement in Vilna, where many young Jews who fled the advancing German army had gathered. Oswald recognized Reznik, and at their first opportunity alone, they embraced. Even though his parents were Polish Jews, Rufeisen spoke both Polish and German perfectly, and the Germans did not suspect him of being a Jew. He promised Beretzke that he would not abandon the Jews of Mir, and encouraged him to begin organizing a Jewish underground composed of veterans of the Polish army and young people with a knowledge of weapons. The underground was organized under the strictest secrecy, and each member knew only the names of those in his own cell. Oswald undertook to supply guns and ammunition. He took Leibel into his confidence, and decided that he would be the one to smuggle the guns into the ghetto. Oswald hoped he would have prior knowledge of German plans to liquidate the ghetto, and if possible, the underground would escape to the surrounding forests. If escape was impossible, the Jewish underground would rise up against the German army. Meanwhile, Leibel told me to prepare knapsacks for leaving the ghetto. Every day, I would go to a secluded spot in the Zamek, and work secretly sewing the knapsacks. Leibel told me that we would leave the ghetto fighting, and would need supplies for only a week. He had no real hope of living any longer than that. "We will not be led to the slaughter like our parents."

It was reported that Oswald visited the ghetto one day. He entered a small room where some older Jews spent their days studying and praying. When they saw him, they closed their books in haste and prepared to flee. However, Oswald put them at their ease, and even looked at the books they were studying. He did not punish them, and after a little while, left quietly. The people were amazed, and some suggested that perhaps he was a Jew.

Leibel had begun smuggling guns and ammunition into the ghetto on his way back from working outside. Bullets could be carried in his pockets, but when he had to bring in a rifle, he would return from work with a horse and wagon. One day, Leibel was on his way home with his pockets full of pistol ammunition, when he encountered the "Starosta" of Mir (a local gentile who served as mayor, and collaborated with the Germans) stuck in the street with his motorcycle. When the mayor saw Leibel, he yelled out, "Lova, come push the motorcycle to start the engine." As Leibel pushed, the bullets in his pocket began rattling. Fortunately, just then the engine caught, and the mayor didn't hear a thing. He drove away, and Leibel delivered the bullets to the underground in the ghetto.

Often, peasants would come into town to complain to the police about the partisans who came to their homes to seize cattle, bread, clothing and other essentials. They would leave their horses and wagons in front of the police station and wait their turn to lodge their complaint. One day, Oswald saw Leibel in the yard at the entrance to the police station. He began shouting at him, "Jew, why didn't you clean my house". He pretended to hit him and pushed him into the stable onto a pile of straw. Leibel felt something under the straw, and found two rifles waiting to be taken into the ghetto. The following day, he hid them under his wagon and delivered them to his compatriots in the ghetto. In all, Leibel smuggled in 10 rifles, 1 semi-automatic rifle, 8 handguns, 12 hand-grenades and about 500 bullets. Meanwhile, about 45 young men were organized in underground units and armed with guns and ammunition. Two girls, who had trained as nurses during the Russian occupation, were also part of the group. Our three older brothers were members of the underground, and so Chaim and I, even though we were very young, were also considered part of the group.

We all knew what to expect: the members of the underground would escape the ghetto, and join the partisans in the surrounding forests. However, the alternative plan, in case Oswald was not able to warn us in time to escape the final liquidation, was to rise in revolt when the Germans entered the ghetto, and kill as many as possible before dying.

Every day, terrible news reached us from neighboring towns. The Germans were murdering Jews and declaring the towns "Judenrein" Many of the Jews of Mir believed that God would have mercy on their town because of its large Yeshiva. They hoped to be spared because they had taken in some of the students and fed them in their homes.

(Continued)

From Mir to Montreal

Part V

Updated August 2009

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