From Mir to Montreal: A memoir by Simcha Itzkowitz
November 7, is celebrated in Russia as the anniversary of the October Revolution. The members of our demolitions workshop celebrated the holiday with the rest of the partisans. The girls began work in the early morning preparing mashed potatoes and meat for breakfast. This was served with a powerful home-made alcoholic drink called samagonka brought from nearby villages. One glass of this evil-smelling brew was enough to get one drunk. I had already drunk my first shot, when our commander offered to fill my glass once again. This second glass made me so drunk that I began singing, laughing and crying all at once. When my brother Itchke came to visit, I insulted him so terribly that he ran back to his camp.
I fell asleep after breakfast, and slept until the afternoon. When I woke up, I felt much better. My good friend Velvel Schreiber passed by our camp, and invited me and my friend Shlomo from Smargon to a party that evening. Velvel, who was older than Shlomo and me, worked as an orderly in the nearby partisan hospital, serving food to the wounded. We arrived at his camp in the evening, and Velvel who had prepared seats for us, served us a supper of meat kreplach washed down with a jar of samagonka. We drank and immediately our mood improved. An older man sitting nearby disapproved of our behavior, and told Shlomo not to give us any more to drink. We made it halfway back to our camp before collapsing to the ground. We shouted for help, and our comrades heard us and carried us home. I fell asleep on the floor of the workshop, but Shlomo got into a drunken argument with the head of the workshop. The next day, when I awoke, the people in the workshop praised me for falling asleep quietly. Eventually, all was forgotten.
The New Year holiday of 1943 was approaching, and preparations were underway for the celebration. But first, we needed supplies, and our crew, together with the hospital workers, began planning a "visit" to the nearby villages to replenish our stocks of food. We needed geese, chickens, sheep and of course, samagonka.
I had a good friend, Vicia, from the far eastern provinces of Russia, who was a young man, very short of stature, and by profession, a very good locksmith. He had been an officer in the Russian army when the war broke out, and his unit had been overrun in the German advance. His group was planning the raid, and he suggested that I come along, since my boots were torn, and I needed a new pair. This sounded to me like a good idea.
On December 22, 1943, we set out, 12 partisans on three horse-drawn sleighs, with a mounted scout in front. We left the forest around noon, wearing white coats to hide us in the snow. The nearest village was 25 km. away, and we arrived there after dark. We entered a peasant's house, and asked him to feed us all. His family served us a very tasty supper, and after eating well, we rode on to the next village to continue our "shopping". Velvel Schreiber was riding scout, and behind him the three sleighs. I was driving the last sleigh, with Vicia sitting at my side and another two men behind. My job was to follow the first two horses, and Vicia warned me not to go too fast, and to keep a good distance between our sleigh and the others. Suddenly, I noticed that those in front of us had stopped. I allowed our horse to close the gap to the last sleigh. I saw Schreiber speaking to German police who had set up an ambush along the road. We had approached them from behind, and at first they did not identify us as partisans, because of the direction in which we were travelling. When they realized who we were, they opened fire, and their flares lit up the sky above us. We abandoned the horses and sleighs and scampered to shelter in the nearby woods. We ran for a long time until we felt safe and there we regrouped. Miraculously, no one had been hit. Vicia was carrying a machine gun with 72 rounds, and it was very heavy for him. We exchanged weapons; I took the machine gun, and he took my rifle. We walked together to the next peasant's house, and took his horse. We continued on all night, until by morning, we had confiscated three horses and sleighs. We ate at the house of one of the peasants, and slept there all day. In the evening, we went to another village which had a machine for making samagonka. We demanded that the mayor bring us grain for brewing the drink, and prepare slaughtered geese and sheep to take back to our camp. In the meantime we visited other villages in the area, and loaded our sleighs with supplies before returning to take the slaughtered meat which had been prepared for us by the peasants. Unfortunately, I was not able to find boots for myself.
After a few days in the countryside, we decided to return to our campsite in the forest. On the way, we came to a house set back in a clearing in the forest, so that in front of the house was an open field, but the back was only a small distance from the trees. We were all resting in various rooms of the house, when I opened the front door on my way to the outhouse. I immediately saw many German soldiers on skis with rifles on their backs, on the far side of the clearing. Unnoticed, I ran back into the house and yelled to Vicia to tell everyone to leave the house right away. Some of us ran stupidly through the front door, and when the Germans saw us, they opened fire from more than one direction, catching us in a crossfire. The boys who were still in the house jumped through the rear windows and escaped into the forest. We joined them and luckily, all of us survived. No one was even wounded. The Germans could not follow us into the forest because of their skis, but once again we lost our horses, sleighs and all our supplies and returned to our camp empty-handed but happy to be alive to celebrate the holiday with our friends.
My brother Itchke came to tell me of a similar adventure which had befallen him. While we were escaping the Germans, he had almost been trapped inside a house by a German patrol. He didn't have his boots on, and so he escaped barefoot through the snow until he came to another peasant's hut where he could thaw out. He came to tell me of his miraculous escape.
The New Year of 1944 arrived, and we celebrated our survival. Our situation was improving. The German Army was retreating before the Russian advance, and bands of German soldiers were fleeing through the forest. We were constantly on alert, and added more guards around our bunkers. By summer, we had taken about 60 German prisoners, officers and soldiers. We kept them for a few days, then shot them. The partisans buried them in our bunkers, and we had to sleep outside, under the trees. By this time, the Red Army had occupied our territory, but we remained in the forest another two weeks to mop up any German soldiers still wandering around. After this, we set out for Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for a grand parade of 40,000 partisans. Heavy crowds lined the sidewalks, looking for family and friends among the partisan groups. There were very emotional scenes when relatives or friends would meet. We gathered in a very large field in Minsk, where the Russian Army had set up field kitchens to serve us food, while an orchestra played nearby. The commander of each partisan unit would tell the Russian authorities how many medals he needed, and these would be awarded to the fighters together with a certificate made out in each one's name.
In the evening we walked to the outskirts of town, looking for a place to sleep. No sooner had we fallen asleep, when German bombers flew overhead intending to bomb Minsk. Russian anti-aircraft guns opened fire on them, and after fruitlessly attempting to get through the barrage, the planes turned back without dropping any bombs. The sky was brightly lit up by parachute flares dropped by the German planes. We lay in the fields fully exposed, but besides being very frightened, we were unhurt. The next day, we returned to Minsk to register for induction into the Russian army. Tzodek and Itchke saw me and advised me to tell the authorities my real age (17), because in order to be accepted into the partisans, I had lied about my age. When Chaim and I told the Russians our real age, they sent us both home.
Civilians Once Again: Tragedy Strikes
When I arrived in Mir, I found some friends, and we moved together into a big house which had been owned by Jews who were no longer alive. We then went to visit the Kurluta's house, to recover some clothes which our parents had given them to keep for us. They gave us the clothes, and in addition, supplied us with flour, potatoes and grain. Within a short time, the local police force was reestablished, and some of our friends joined the force, while others became officials in the passport office. Oswald Rufeisen became an officer in the passport office, because he knew the identity of the Jew haters and of those who had collaborated with the Germans. He would type this information in code onto their identity cards.
My friend Shimon Kagan and I were both seventeen. We were the only Jewish boys who registered for training in the Red Army. After three weeks of training together with other fellows from the vicinity of Mir, I came home to find a package waiting for me from the front lines containing Itchke's personal belongings. He had been killed when the truck he rode in on the way to the front, hit a mine. Our brother Tzodek was in the same truck, and was lying wounded in a hospital near Bialistok identified only by a field-post number. I showed the letter to my army instructor, and he immediately gave me a seven day pass to visit Tzodek. At that time, one needed a travel permit to travel from one city to another. I got a ride on a truck with soldiers traveling through Bialistok on their way to the front. When I reached Bialistok, I naturally looked for Jews who had returned home after hiding in the surrounding forests. The front was not far away, and German aircraft were bombing nearby targets. I found several Jews who had come out of hiding, and they invited me to stay with them. A farmer in Mir had given me a few kilos of butter to sell in the local market, and this put a bit of money in my pocket for expenses. I made the rounds of army units in the area searching for the hospital where Tzodek was hospitalized, but no one recognized the field-post number in my letter. Some soldiers saw that I was wearing a partisan medal, and tried to help, but they could only send me on to the next unit. Others were suspicious, and checked my papers carefully. Finally, my seven day leave was over, and I had to return home without seeing Tzodek, or risk being arrested. I went out to the main road, and an army truck heading for Volkovitzk picked me up. The town had been partially destroyed, and at the headquarters of the local army unit, I asked for a place to sleep. They asked for my papers, and pointed me in the direction of the nearest shack. Inside, it was very dark, and after stepping on a couple of bodies, I squeezed between two sleeping soldiers and fell asleep. It was the beginning of September and already very cold. I woke up early, and my new bunkmates asked me if I was Jewish. When I told them I was, they insulted and cursed me. I later found out that these soldiers had been arrested on various charges, and were awaiting punishment.
When the main office opened, I requested my papers, and set out once again for home. This time, I got a ride to Horodzej, about 16 km. from Mir. From Horodzej, I continued to Szimokova, a distance of about 8 km. Here I met Olga, our former housekeeper, or Olla as we used to call her. Olla had lived in our home for 17 years, and had helped raise us because our mother was often busy helping out in the family butcher shop. Olla was a 15 year old invalid when she began working for our family. She had fallen as a child, and her leg had not healed properly. As a result, one leg was shorter than the other, and she walked with a cane. She was kind to us, and a good housekeeper; her Yiddish was as good as any Jew's. She was a devout Christian, and went regularly to services at the church on our street. She insisted on staying with us, even after the Germans entered Mir, and was willing to face the same fate as the Jews. When she learned that our parents had been killed in the action of November 9, 1941, she returned to the ghetto, to cook and wash for us. We finally had to force her to leave. After leaving us, she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Szimokova, and this was where I found her on my way home to Mir. She cried bitterly when I told her what had befallen my family. I brought her baking soda from Bialistok, and she fried latkes for me, which cheered us both up a bit.
In the Ural Mountains of Russia
Deeply depressed over Itchke's death and Zodek's injury, I returned to Mir, and had to immediately report back for military training. However, I decided that because two of our brothers had been killed and another badly wounded, I must do everything possible to ensure that our family not be wiped out completely. So together with a few other Jewish boys from Mir who were a bit younger than me, I applied to the authorities to transfer to a trade school in the Ural Mountains to study auto mechanics. I stopped my military training, and prepared for my trip into Russia. Meanwhile, my younger brother Chaim, who was too young for the army, remained at home, and began bartering goods back and forth between the towns in the area. This was forbidden by the Soviet authorities, but since Chaim had been a partisan, he was pretty tough, and continued with his business deals regardless of official regulations.
We left for the Urals by train at the end of September 1944, packed into cattle cars, 50 people and two bunks in each car. The five of us from Mir remained together and slept under one of the bunks. The other boys in the car were from western Belarus, on their way to the same school. They were all enthusiastic anti-Semites, and continually annoyed us, often by pouring water over us. We complained to the person in charge of the train, but this helped only for a short while. The word spread that there were 5 Jews on the train, and whenever the train stopped at a station, boys from the other cars would throw stones at us. We fought back as well as we could, but were of course greatly outnumbered. The trip to Russia was very long; it took us over a month to reach our destination, a small mining town called Zirianovski-Rudnick. We arrived in late October, 1944, several days before the holiday celebrating the October Revolution. The school seemed very nice, with large dormitory rooms housing 16 boys in each room. Our group of five was split up; I was in a room with a boy named Yankel Lifschitz, and the other three were together in a different room. The other fellows in our rooms were of course non-Jewish Belarusian boys. We celebrated the holiday with a modest meal, since food was strictly rationed. The people we saw in the streets had a strange rusty tinge to their skin, the result of working in the iron mine nearby. We were not too surprised to learn that our new school had no course in auto mechanics, but instead, prepared all its students for work in the mines.
We soon met a pretty young Jewish woman named Shifra, whose job was to mend the children's clothing, and had come to the school from Rumania several years earlier. She befriended us and introduced us to a Polish-Jewish family by the name of Krasnopolski. Mr. Krasnopolski was a shoemaker, and had been drafted into the Russian Army and sent far away from home to mend soldier's boots. We were happy to meet a Jewish family, and we became good friends. Mrs. Krasnopolski introduced me to her older daughter who was a teacher in the town of Alapayevsk, about 15 km. away. I think her mother wanted to arrange a match between us, but she was not to my liking. However, I did get acquainted with a quiet girl from Bessarabia whom I liked and visited very often.
We confided in Shifra that we had come to school to learn mechanics, and not to work in the mines. We knew that working in the mines was often more dangerous than being sent to the front. Shifra knew Krukov, the director of the school very well. She told us that he liked money, and was not averse to getting some on the side. We each contributed 1500 rubles, and Shifra brought him the total of 7500 rubles. Sure enough, within a few days, we were sent to work in a garage which repaired old trucks.
Meanwhile, life in the dormitory had become very difficult. The other boys continually started fights with us, and we finally asked the director to move the five of us into a small room that was not in use. He agreed, but the move only made the rest of the boys more resentful. The result was that they spread anti-Semitic gossip about us in the nearby town of Ziranovski-Rudnick. The people of the town didn't know anything about Jews, and so they were ready to believe the worst.
Near our school was a club, where the students would come in the evening to socialize. There was often dancing to the music of a harmonica played by one of the young people. One evening, I walked into the club with two Belarusian boys from school. Two local boys approached us and said that I was not welcome and should leave immediately. I turned and left, but the two boys who came with me urged me to go back, saying that if a fight broke out, they would come to my defense. I told them that I did not want to start a fight, and would avoid going to the club. However, word got back to the dormitory, and increased the tension between the students and the local boys. The students from Belarus were continually trying to provoke fights with the locals.
One evening, my friend Velvel Schreiber went alone to the club. There were already many students there when he walked in, but nevertheless, a local boy ran up to him and stabbed him in the back with a compass. Luckily, he was wearing a thick felt jacket, and was not injured, but a fight broke out between the students who came to his assistance, and the local boys. After 10 minutes, some older people who were present, stopped the fighting. These events caused a great deal of excitement in school, and greatly improved relations between us and the non-Jewish students. Our new-found respect was simply a result of the students hating the local youth much more than they hated us Jews.
In six months, school was over, and we moved to another dormitory in town. I was assigned to work as a geological assistant together with my friend Lifschitz. Our job was to drill samples of earth from around the mine so the geologist could determine in which direction to continue mining the lode of iron ore. The work was quite difficult, especially in winter. Each group was composed of three people; one was the leader, I was second in command, and Lifschitz was last. We worked two or three kms. from town, often in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. Our hands were usually wet, and this of course added to our discomfort. However, we had more generous rations than at school, and we would bake potatoes in a metal drum we used as a stove and stoked with wood to protect us from the wind and snow. We worked three shifts: one from 7 AM to 3 PM, from 3 PM to 11 PM, and from 11 PM till 7 AM.
The War Ends
Finally, on May 9, 1945, the war ended, and we gathered in the town square to celebrate the German surrender. After finishing school, we were obligated to work for three years at the job assigned to us as graduates of a vocational school. However, we soon learned that as Polish citizens, we had the right to return to Poland if we wished. Not only were we free of the obligation to work three years in the Urals, but the Russian government had to supply us with transportation back to Poland free of charge.
And so, in April of 1946, we boarded a train to Poland. We travelled once again in cattle cars, and it took more than a month to arrive at our destination. Most of the passengers were Jews hoping to find remnants of their families who had survived. I also was determined to reunite with my brothers, whom I knew were in a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in Lodz, at 49 Kilinskego St. This "kibbutz", and others of its kind, was organized by agents of the "Bricha", the underground arm of the yishuv in Palestine, which gathered the scattered survivors of the holocaust and by means of bribery, duplicity, and any quasi-legal or illegal means smuggled them through Europe on their way to Palestine, under the watchful eyes of the British mandate. Our train was headed for Wrotzlav, in Polish occupied Germany, and when it passed through Lodz, we jumped from the train with our baggage. Fearing the local police, we hid in the station until morning and then set out for Kilinskiego St. We arrived at the kibbutz, and the people there told me that my brothers had left for Israel some time before. After getting acquainted with the young people on the kibbutz, we decided to stay on for a while.
Soon after our arrival in Lodz, there was a terrible pogrom in Kielce, not far away. Polish hooligans killed about 40 Jews who had returned to their homes after surviving the holocaust, and we decided to organize ourselves for self-defense. Since I was the only one who knew how to use firearms, I was given a pistol and asked to stand guard near the door. Fortunately, no major incidents occurred while I was on guard duty.
We remained in Lodz for about 8 weeks, and from there we were sent to a "moshava" in Germany, the next station on the long road to Palestine. Here, over 600 young people between the ages of 18 to 21 years old had gathered, and needless to say, the atmosphere here was very uplifting. From here, we would travel through Slovakia to Austria, our next stop. In case we were questioned by the authorities, we were to say we were Greeks, not Jews, and in general, it was best to say nothing at all. The agents of the Bricha rushed back and forth on their bicycles giving us orders what we should and should not do.
Once in Slovakia, we had to destroy any evidence of our origins: addresses, documents and papers of any kind in Polish or Russian. I had an address book with me, and my partisan medal, both of which I buried near Bratislava. The trip through Slovakia to Vienna, in the Russian zone, went smoothly with no interruptions by the Russian authorities. Once in Vienna, we went by streetcar to the Rothschild-Spital, which had been converted into a transit camp for refugees. On the way, our streetcar passed another refugee center at Alzerbach Strasse 23. My brother Chaim had found his way to this center, and by chance, noticed my friend Lifschitz sitting by the streetcar window. Hoping that I was also on the streetcar, Chaim took a quick shortcut through the streets, and was waiting for me when we arrived. How happy I was to see him.
From Chaim I learned that Tzodek was in a hospital on Maltz Gasse, and had recently had a second operation on his wounded arm. I was anxious to visit him, because I had not seen him since he had been wounded, and I asked my group leader that I be allowed to remain another couple of weeks in Vienna. My group was scheduled to leave for Italy the next day, on their way to Palestine, and I promised to join them in there. The next day, I moved to Chaim's refugee camp on Alzerbach Strasse. I worked at the camp, doing everything that had to be done to accommodate the refugees passing through the camp on their way to Palestine. A large group of Romanian Jews had arrived at the camp, and they had to be disinfected and beds prepared with clean sheets and blankets. We brought them up to date on what was happening in Palestine and in the rest of the world. I did not get a salary for this work, but was paid in produce: food packages, canned goods, chocolate and cigarettes. These could be sold on the black market for a good profit.
Tzodek was hospitalized for a longer period of time than we anticipated, so I utilize this period to attend driving school for six months. After receiving my license, I got a job with the American Joint Distribution Committee as a driver. At first I drove an American Army ambulance. After this, I was given an open jeep, and drove officials of the Joint to hospitals to deliver gift packages to Jewish refugees sick or wounded from the war.
While working for the AJDC during the day, I registered for a course in auto mechanics given by ORT five evenings a week. My employers at the Joint permitted me to keep my jeep in the evenings to get to and from school. The school was called the Bundes Geverb Schule and it was located on Argentiner Strasse in Vienna. We attended classes from 7 – 10 PM, and I would give some friends from the course a lift to and from school in my jeep.
Simcha Itzkowitz working for the AJDC in Vienna in 1947
It was about this time, that as part of my job, I participated in an unusual ceremony. In 1948, one of the first acts of the government of the new State of Israel, was to bring the bodies of Theodor Herzl and his family from Vienna, to rest in Jerusalem. The AJDC was asked to provide cars for the Israeli delegation which would spend a day in Vienna, before flying back to Israel. The day the plane from Israel was due to arrive was very overcast, and the plane was forced to land at an alternate airfield outside of Vienna, and flew in a day late. I was present at the airport with my jeep on both days to welcome the Israeli delegation. The caskets bearing the remains of Herzl and his family were ready at the airport, but as soon as the first casket was lifted to be put aboard the plane, a very heavy rain, heavier than I had ever seen in my life, came pouring down. As soon as the casket was placed in the plane, the rain stopped. This scene was repeated as each casket was lifted, and then loaded on the plane. When all the caskets were aboard, the plane left for Israel.