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THE ESCAPE
by Israel Shifron (Piernikove)
 Mir was one of many hundreds of towns in Eastern Europe where different ethnic groups lived side by side. The population was 50% Jewish, the rest were Tatars, Poles and Belarussians, so we may refer to it as a Jewish Town. 
  Its location explains the reasons for such a large portion of Jews within the population. Mir was known as a center for trade in that area. Monday was a colorful Market Day when the villagers and peasants arrived to trade their products. The greatest celebration took place at the times of fairs, which were a winter tradition since the 17th century.
 The Jews of Mir, besides being shopkeepers, made up the majority of artisans and small industrialists in town. They were tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters and they operated the ironworks.
 Jews were invited to settle in Mir in the 17th century by the Dukes who were the masters of the town. The noblemen needed the Jews as exporters of furs and other goods, and importers of perfumes, jewelry etc. so they were granted with a relative protection.
  Along with the development of flourishing communities in the vicinity and the rise of new religious streams, a Yeshiva was established in the town. The Mir Yeshiva played a major role in the development of both the town and the Jewish population.
  Between the World Wars it enrolled 500 students from around the world with the majority being Americans. This was welcomed by the local economy, out of 3000 Jews 500 were sole consumers of goods and services which were paid for with hard currency. The yeshiva brought about related occupations such as the writing of torah scrolls and the industry that evolves around it. These were mainly for export and supplied Poland with much needed foreign currency.
 The Yeshiva influenced the social fabric of the community and had an impact on its rich culture. Many of the graduates became known as scholars or public figures such as Zalman Shazar the third president of Israel. The Yeshiva building is still standing and is in poor condition. It was used until recently as a post office. The Mir Yeshiva operates now in Jerusalem (with 2000 students) and in Brooklyn.

 By the end of the 19th century new social and revolutionary ideas appeared in Mir. Along with Zionism came the revival of secular Jewish culture and literature in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. Many Jews were involved with this wide spectrum of ideologies and at times they became even rivals. Jews from Mir participated from the 1st Aliya in the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

  In the summer of 1939, the government of the US and other Western countries ordered their citizens to leave Poland. This was followed by a Soviet occupation. The Yeshiva closed its doors and the staff fled to Lithuania. In Vilnius Mr. Shugihara the Japanese ambassador saved most of these people as he did thousands of others.
 The times of the Soviet rule, with all of its problems, was relatively a heaven compare to what was told by refugees who arrived from Nazi occupied Poland. At that time we lived in an uncertain world; for months we could see troops of the Red Army streaming towards the west in great numbers and the Soviet propaganda made us believe that we are on the winning side
  The arrival of Soviet forces to Mir caused bewilderment within Zionist circles. A search started for avenues to escape this anti-Zionist regime and go to Palestine. Veterans of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsaeer (a Zionist-Socialist youth movement) found themselves in Vilnius hoping to find a way to the Promised Land. The city of Vilnius is significant in the history of the Jews during the Second World War, and for the Jews of Mir this city was of special importance. Occasional gathering of groups there led later to closer cooperation under Nazi occupation. Most of the escapees to Vilnius returned to Mir, realizing that there was no way out.
The school year of 1941 ended and we, the children, looked forward to the summer recess. Instead, our town was bombarded and a dark cloud was set upon us, the Jews. We tried to figure out why the Red Army was pulling back towards the east, but the soldiers and officers declined to answer. The town center was burnt and chaos took over. The German conquest was faster than any of us could perceive and a tragic times which were worst than any nightmare started
After five months of murders, robberies and rape by the Germans and local collaborators we started to hear of mass murders in the neighboring towns. Our turn came on the 9th of November 1941. The town was surrounded and the hunting for Jews started. Jews were massacred on the streets or taken to the market place to be slaughtered there. Within twenty-four hours, 1200 men women and children, about 60% of the Jewish population were killed in cold blood. The shooting ceased in the morning. Those who survived were granted with a temporary "permit" to live. Officially, the Germans let go 80 people who were able to work.
 The ghetto became smaller, and a new order took place. Relatively speaking, our lives were calm. Only later we found out the reason for this, as one of us infiltrated the system and operated from within.
 That person was Oswald Rufeisen (later known as Brother Daniel). Dov Resnik from Mir, a member of Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsaeer kibbutz, met Oswald Rufeisen in Vilnius a few years earlier. This meeting proved crucial.
Rufeisen, a young Polish Jew covering his identity, served as a translator (from Polish to German) for the local police. He saw in Mir the Zionist from Vilnius, recognized him and a close and brave contact was established.
 Information about German plans concerning the Jews started flowing. In most cases it could not be used effectively without disclosing the source. A few months later the moment of truth arrived. Rufeisen was a witness to a telephone call where the date for the termination of the ghetto was set.
All the survivors of the previous massacres were relocated, on May of 1942, to the Castle. This act was one of the reasons for the miracle of our survival. The closeness and concentration of people, in this 15th century ruined Castle, led to the formation of an underground group. Very few were aware of the group which did not have then any clear goals. Rufeisen encouraged these activities and supplied the group with arms and ammunition. He was an active participant in the discussions whether to activate an armed resistance within the ghetto or plan to escape. There was no clear-cut answer to this dilemma. We learned that on March of 1942 four young men, some of them veterans of the Polish army, contacted a fellow veteran in order to join the resistance. The men were brutally murdered by this fellow and his friends for their clothes and the little money they had. This was the atmosphere; the outside world offered next to nothing.
Personally, I knew that something was happening. I lived with my mother together with two young men who were brothers. One of them was a member of the underground for his command of the Russian language and its eastern dialect. Rifles were held in our room and some of them were hidden under my mattress. I, as a child, did not know the source and purpose of these arms.
My brother and his wife shared secret plans for escape and they asked me to join. My mother gave to me the final blessing: "You may be able to survive". Today, I assume that most people escaped mainly because they did not want to die in such a degraded way, every other form of death was perceived as a form of salvation.
 The final date for the termination of the ghetto was set to August 13th 1942. This horrible action was executed with a Germanic tight and detailed control, but without noticing those 250 people who escaped four days earlier.
During the process of planning grave tensions appeared. The rumor spread and small groups of friends and families organized in order to join. The members of the underground tried to keep distant from the accompanied groups and organized separately. Everyone envied the other, and tried to join one and desert the other. Our group was different since its composition included women, children and men.
 The underground leaders planned it together with Oswald. This cooperation contributed greatly to its success. I do not know what part coincidence played in the chain of events that facilitated conditions of securing survival even for one day. It so happened that the commander of the Militia had been injured and hospitalized. Rufaisen took the position and informed his subordinates that partisans were seen on the south side of the town as, at the same time, we ran away to the north far from the police and any other who may trouble us.
 The first stage of escape took a long time and the progress was slow. We had to spend the following day near the town in an insecure thin forest. By the time the police realized that we are missing we were already deep within the thick woods by the river Neman.
 At first we were in a state of depression, but slowly we realized that there was a chance, ever so small, to survive the war. As witnesses to human tragedies and daily hazards from all sides; death, collaborators who threatened our lives, anti-Semites even within the resistance, the hunt and surrender of Jews for a reward and the ambient conditions which were no less of an enemy, we never lost hope.
 The survivors from Mir joined combat groups bravely fighting the Nazis and some paid with their lives. After liberation in 1944 many joined the Red Army and fought and were killed in battles defeating the Germans. The majority of the survivors arrived to Palestine fought for the independence of Israel and again some paid the heaviest price.
 None of us returned to Mir. At the War's end we headed west towards freedom. For many years we could not reach our birth place, but deep in our hearts we kept the memory of life which was lost and the need to commemorate our loved ones has grown.
 The lifting of the Iron Curtain allowed us to visit the place. In the Mir's area none of the Jews were taken to labor or concentration camps, people were murdered in and near the towns. In and around the town there are four sites of mass graves and the Castle that was the ghetto is now a state museum.
The Mir Jews Organization is taking now a great initiative commemorating the Jewish community and its history and culture in and around the town.

Also see A Mir Commentary by Israel Shifron (about Oswald Rufeisen).

Note: Israel Shiffron passed away September 26, 2010 /18 Tishri 5771


Updated November 2010

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