From Mir to Montreal
A memoir by Simcha Itzkowitz, who was born in Mir on January 3, 1927.
I wish to dedicate these memoirs to my brothers, Leibel and Itchke, who led us in our resistance to the Nazi murderers, but did not live to reap the fruits of victory.
Arie (Leibel) Itzkowitz
As a young boy, Leibel was very shy, especially around girls. However, as he got older, his shyness disappeared. Even though he did well in school, his real love was horses. He would ride with our father to the villages to buy cattle from the farmers, and as a result, he knew the roads and villages of our area very well. This knowledge was valuable when was chosen to lead the underground fighters of Mir out of the ghetto, into the forest.
While still in the ghetto, he was able to get a job caring for the horses of the local police force, and it was there that he met Oswald Rufeisen who provided arms and ammunition for the Jewish underground. It was Leibel's job to smuggle these into the ghetto.
We were five brothers in the forest, and Leibel, as the oldest, felt responsible for our welfare. He was killed on June 1, 1943, 29th Iyar 5703, at the age of 23, when surrounded by non-Jewish partisans.
Itzhak (Itchke) Itzkowitz
Itchke was an ambitious and talented young man, who excelled in many sports, especially swimming. He was an excellent student, and completed two years of the local Russian high school, before the German occupation terminated his formal education. In 1942, he was drafted by the Germans to work at building a bridge in the town of Usha. He would come home on Saturday nights, and on Monday morning, return to Usha. On his way home, one Saturday evening, he was warned by local peasants, that he best not return to Mir. Rumors were circulating that on November 9, 1941, the liquidation of Jews in Mir will take place.
Itchke was the first of my brothers to join the underground, and he encouraged us to join as well.
When the Red Army liberated our area in 1944, Itchke left the forest and signed up for the Russian Army, together with his fellow partisans. On August 23, 1944, 4th of Elul 5704, Itchke and his group were on a truck near Bialistok, as part of the Russian advance to liberate Warsaw, when his truck hit a mine. All the soldiers on the truck were wounded, including our brother Tzodek, and one, Itchke, was killed. He was 21 years old at the time of his death.
May God avenge their deaths.
And to Zodek Itzkowitz
Our dear brother Jack (Zodek) Itkow (Itzkowitz) who passed away on July 14, 2010; Hebrew date 3 Av, 5770, was a remarkable man and devoted brother. Every person who met him and spoke to him, or did business with him, liked him very much. He had many friends.
As a young lad, he and his younger brother Itske (z'l) were both like twin brothers, although they were one and one-half years apart in age. They were in the same grade in school and evenings they went to a Rabbi for Torah lessons. They used to like to play volleyball with their friends in our back yard.
In his younger years, Jack played the mandolin and every day he played all the songs that he knew.
When we escaped from the Mir ghetto to the woods, Jack had a sharp knife and he would carve the essentials out of wood, for our daily use.
In 1943 he spent 6 months in Bielski brothers' brigade. After that, Itchke, who was in Vasutin's brigade, asked Jack to join him there, which he agreed to and served as a partisan in that brigade.
In July 1944, we were liberated by the Russian army. Both Jack and Ishke, together with the group of partisans joined the Red army. While going in a truck with all the partisans, near Bialistok, on the way to Warsaw, Poland, the truck went over a mine, which exploded. Our brother Itchke (z'l) was the only person killed from his wounds. The other people, including our brother Jack (z'l) were wounded.
After being in the hospital for a few months, Jack (z'l) was sent back to the front and became a sniper. In early 1945 in Königsberg, he was wounded again, in his right arm, . After many operations in Europe, which were not successful, the doctors in New York managed to reconnect his torn nerve and he was able to work.
When he lived in New York, with his wife and 4 children, it was difficult for him to make ends meet. Hyman and I decided to bring him and his family to Montreal, where we helped him buy an upholstery business. He lived in Montreal for 45 years, and as he owned a home in Florida, he decided to spend his retirement years there.
(note: There is a video of Jack Itkow describing some of his experiences during WWII in Mir on the Yad Vashem website.)
This is the story of my life, or rather of the survival of one Jew
among all those who did not. Certainly, luck played a great role, but
perhaps there are lessons to be learned as well. I am writing this
story for my children and grandchildren; I believe it is important for
them to know where they came from, and the terrible events that
brought me to Canada's shores.
My mother, Mushka Gross, was born in Mir in 1893, and my father Dovid, was born in the nearby town of Kletsk in 1898. In 1908 his father, Yaakov, went to America, taking with him two sons, Leibel and Yerachmiel, and two daughters, Zlatke and Chaika (Ida). After a short time he left his sons and daughters behind in America, and returned to Kletsk, where his younger daughter Bashka had remained. In 1913 he traveled once again to America, this time taking nine year old Bashka with him, and leaving her with her brothers and sisters who had settled in New York. He returned to Kletsk once again, shortly before WW1 broke out. My father, who had remained in Kletsk during his father's travels, was drafted into the Russian Army in 1916, and was wounded twice; once very lightly in the leg, and a second time in his right elbow. He underwent a few operations, and finally his wounds healed well. After the war, my father moved to Mir and settled there with his father and older brother.
The town of Mir, which is a small village of 6000 residents in Belarus, is located 85 kms. southwest of the capital city of Minsk. During the mid 19th century, it was a thriving commercial center whose 3000 Jews made up over half of the town's population. Many towns within a radius of 50 kms. of Mir such as Stolpce, Horodzei, Nesviez, Kletsk, Lachovicz, Baranovicz, Norogrudok, Korelicz and Turetz, had large Jewish populations as well. Mir was famous for its large Yeshiva which was founded at the beginning of the 19th century. When Greater Poland was created after WW1, Mir found itself part of eastern Poland, close to the Russian border.
My parents were married in 1919 in Mir, and within 10 years had five sons. Leibel the oldest was born in 1920, the next, Tzodek (Jack), was born in 1922. Then came Itchke in 1923, myself in 1927, and Chaim (Hyman) in 1928. My maternal grandfather was a wealthy man, and he bought my parents a house in front of his own. My family lived in the front rooms of the house, and in the back, my father opened a butcher shop. Most of the meat he produced was sent to Warsaw, but a good deal was supplied to the Yeshiva. The house had a big kitchen, two bedrooms and a living room. In back was a big yard with two barns, one for the animals, and a second for storing hay and firewood. There were two additional sheds for storage. We always had a horse, and one or two cows for milking. The front yard was paved with flat stones, and surrounded by a fence with a wide gate for animals and carts, and a smaller passage for people. The yard had to be cleaned every day, and the animals attended to, so all of us had our daily chores. Besides cleaning our yard, the street in front of our house was also our responsibility. One of the jobs of the policeman who patrolled the street, was to see that each family cleaned the cobblestones in front of its house. We hung a net in the yard and my brothers Tzodek and Itchke would play volleyball with their friends. In one corner of the yard, our unfriendly German shepherd was chained up during the day. At night, a long cable running the length of the yard enabled him to guard the entire property. My brothers and I were not allowed out of the house at night for fear the dog would attack us.
My formal schooling began in a kindergarten located in the balcony of our synagogue (the Kalte Shul), which served as the women's section during services. I was later transferred with a few other children, to study in the home of a Rabbi. I didn't like this Rabbi too much, and often I would sneak out in the early afternoon and run home. When my father discovered this, he was not very pleased. Next day, he took me to the Rabbi's house with his horse and buggy. He asked our good neighbor, Cantor Sklar, to accompany us. The buggy had a soft elegant seat. My father sat on one side, and Cantor Sklar on the other. I was trapped between them. The Rabbi was waiting for us at his door. After greeting us warmly, he invited me to sit at a large table in the kitchen. He opened a book of the Hebrew alphabet before me and had me repeat the letters after him – aleph, bet, gimel. Then an amazing thing happened. Coins began falling on the table in front of me. The Rabbi told me that an angel from heaven dropped the money, and my father and Cantor Sklar confirmed that this was true. When enough money had collected on the table, the Rebbetzin (the Rabbi's wife) brought me a small purse. My father and Cantor Sklar saw that I was happy, and so they left for home. After a short while, I sneaked out of the Rabbi's house once again, this time taking the money with me. Once home with the money however, I cried that I did not want to study with the Rabbi any more. My parents had no alternative but to send me to the Talmud Torah, which I attended for three years. After this, I transferred to a Polish public school for the third and fourth grades. Summer came, and two months of vacation began.
The Soviet Occupation
The year was 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement divided Poland between Germany and Russia, and the Soviet Army advanced into Poland. The Polish cavalry, which thought it could defend Poland against the tank and artillery divisions surrounding it on both sides, conscripted 200 horses from our district, which was famous for breeding fine horses. Ours was among those chosen, and this broke Leibel's heart. My mother was very pleased at the good price we were paid for the horse, but her happiness was short lived. After the Russians occupied our district, the money was worthless. Two weeks later, on September 1, 1939 at 4.45 AM, the war began in Mir. Two bombs fell, and one woman was killed. Neighbors told my father that the Russians were advancing from the east. He was overjoyed and cried from happiness. However, to be safe, he told my mother, my brother Chaim and me to go to the outskirts of town, and wait there for more news. If there was danger, he would send us a message through one of our brothers, to go to our good friend Karluta, who lived in the forest of Stara Miranka, seven kilometers from our town. Our brother would come by bicycle, since we no longer had our horse. Sure enough, our brother Itchke pedaled up and told us to remain where we were because the Russians would arrive soon. First, eight Russian planes roared overhead. In a short while, we could hear the Russian tanks and artillery drawing near. Soon they were in sight, and the spectacle made us so happy, we did not want to go home.
The Bug River now divided western Poland occupied by the Germans, from eastern Poland occupied by the Russians.
For three months, day and night, Russian tanks and artillery moved west through the town, on their way to reinforce the new border. The noise was ceaseless. The Russian soldiers were friendly; they threw candies to the children and took local teenagers for short rides through town on their tanks. Their slogan was: "We come as the liberators of Belarus to free you from the yoke of the Poles". Most of the local Poles fled westward to German occupied Poland. This made the people of Mir very happy. The Russians were particularly popular with the children of the town. They brought a movie projector, and showed special children's movies based on the stories of Jules Verne.
At Russian instigation, representatives were sent from Mir and the surrounding towns to Minsk, where, under Russian supervision, they unanimously voted to join the Soviet Republic of Belarus. The representative from Mir was a simple Jew with little education, whose father owned a blacksmith shop in town. After voting, the representatives were sent home, where they returned to their former status as members of the working class. On the other hand, the owners of businesses were forced to close. We saw rich farmers forced to leave their lands in their horse drawn wagons, bundled in their sheepskin coats, on their way to the railroad station in Horodzei. There, their horses and wagons were confiscated, and they and their families were sent to Siberia.
The Soviet authorities offered land to people who wanted to become farmers. Many Jews who had previously been merchants, took land and became farmers. However, they were obligated to give 40% of their crops to the government. Special inspectors would assess the potential crop, and determine the government's share of grain or potatoes. My father took five hectares of land (about 12 acres) from the Radzivil estate. We all worked on the land and it provided us with food and vegetables with a small surplus to sell even after the authorities took their 40%.
The Russians took over the Polish schools. In addition to Russian, we studied Belarusian and German. All children were put back one grade, and I found myself in the fourth grade once again. The principal of the school was Russian, but our teacher was a local Belarusian woman, whose husband had been a colonel in the Tzar's Army. She knew my parents well, and treated me with more respect than the other pupils. School was not difficult for me, and one incident in particular established my reputation. The principal of the school taught history, and of course emphasized the Communist Revolution of 1917. In one lesson he taught us about the Revolution of 1905, and several weeks later asked the class how the Revolution of 1905 led to the Great Revolution of 1917. I raised my hand and proudly announced in Russian, "The Revolution of 1905 was a general rehearsal for the Revolution of 1917." The principal smiled, and gave me the highest mark of 5. He told all the teachers about me, and my position in the school hierarchy was secure. I was considered one of the best students in the school, and was chosen to be the editor of the school newspaper, even though I had no idea how to even write an article, let alone edit the paper. I was more active as a member of the student-teacher committee. If a student was lax in obeying his teacher or doing his homework, I would accompany the teacher to the student's home to speak with his parents.
Itchke and Tzodek decided to broaden their education by learning English. They found a boy who had come from England to study at the Mir Yeshiva, and he agreed to teach them. However, their English lessons often ended up as political discussions concerning England's role in European politics.
At one point during the Russian occupation, I became ill, probably with an infected lymph node in my armpit, and needed to be hospitalized. The doctors were not certain at first what the trouble was, and my mother became very upset. I was used to her always being busy in the shop or at home, and when I saw how she cried with worry over me, I realized how much she loved us.
Of course, the Russian authorities closed all the synagogues in town, leaving only one small one where I celebrated my Bar-Mitzvah in 1940. Three families from Mir were sent to Siberia, the Kasmans, the Galvers and the Harkavis. Mrs. Kasman told me of her husband's arrest as a Polish spy. In fact, he owned a successful ice cream parlor, and served as the chief of the town's volunteer fire brigade. For the Jews of Mir, who made up half the town's population, it was important that a Jew serve as head of the fire brigade, since if one of the Poles, Belarusians or Tatars served as chief, the Jews could not be certain that a fire in a Jewish dwelling would be extinguished. As it was, most of the volunteer fire-men were Jews, and Mr. Kasman was regularly elected as chief.
When Kasman was arrested, his wife and small son were sent to Siberia. Conditions were so terrible, and food so scarce, that the mother decided to drown her little boy in the nearby river. At the last minute she relented, and somehow they managed to survive. Meanwhile, Kasman refused to admit his guilt, and was tortured until a Jewish commissar came to his cell and advised him to confess and accept imprisonment; otherwise he would be executed. Kasman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment. After the war he was returned to Poland and emigrated to Canada. We met in Montreal in 1949, and renewed our friendship. We helped each other in times of need and spent many hours together exchanging stories of all that happened since we parted.
The Russian administration undertook a civil-works project of widening the narrow streets of Mir. My four brothers and I applied to work on this project. Chaim and I carried the rocks to be crushed, and my three older brothers pounded them into gravel with sledge-hammers. We proudly brought home our first salary in Russian currency called Chervonci. We also had to help our father cultivate our five hectare field before we could go home to prepare our lessons for the next day. The field had a large mound of manure which fertilized the earth around it, and it was here that we planted our vegetable garden. We grew tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, onions and other produce. The rest of the manure was spread over other parts of our land. Our garden was a great success, and every day we took vegetables home to our own kitchen, and to sell to others. We had a good harvest in the fall of 1940, and in the spring of 1941, planted our field once again in hopes of a good crop. However, this was not to be, because on June 22, 1941, the Nazi armies invaded Russian Poland. Very soon, gangs of local youngsters would not let us approach our land.