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Daniil Sotman

Memories of Maria Pleshkova


Daniil Sotman
Daniil Sotman

I head about numerous villages in Vitebsk region from a very early age: Ushachi, Pyshno, Begoml, Beshenkovichi, Chashniki, Zabolotie, even though I never visited them. They were constantly mentioned in conversations by my father and other relatives.

My father, Sotman Kopel Zaharovich, was born in 1907 in a village called Zabolotie, in Lepel region. It was the only Jewish family in the village and consisted of parents: Debora and Zalman, and their children: David, Olga, Mikhail, Cecilia and Kopel. I have no information when the Sotmans settled in the village, but I know my grandfather lived there and had a smithy. Zalman inherited his business.

The Sotmans did not own any land. Grandfather made a living by his craft – as a blacksmith he was always busy making locks, ploughs, door and gate hinges, all kinds of agricultural tools, horseshoes and various mechanisms.

All the children in the family attended a school and a heder.

Only two people in the village subscribed to newspapers – a local priest and my grandfather. Then they would meet and discuss the news. On long winter evenings, when peasants finished their work, they would come to grandfather’s house and listen to David read newspapers aloud.

David was a very active person but had a short life. He did not even live to the age of 30 – died of appendicitis on the way to hospital.

During the First World War the whole village was occupied by the German Army. A German officer was staying at my grandfather’s house. Their attitude to the locals in general and Jews in particular was quite loyal. Once, a German soldier stole grandfather’s copper mug and grandmother complained to the officer about it. The officer took her to their garrison and asked to show the thief. She pointed at the man who had done it and he was soon sent to the battlefront. Robberies and banditry did happen, though. Once a retreating German regiment was passing through the village and a German soldier ran into the house, made grandfather take of his boots and cut a part of his beard off with scissors.

Children were growing up and in the 20’s most of them moved to Leningrad to work and study. Grandfather fell ill at 57 and in 1923 was taken to Leningrad, where he died. Grandmother died in the middle of the 30’s and was buried in a place called Pyshno. During the Great Patriotic war her grave was demolished.

My father visited his village in 1970 and said it was hard to recognize. The surrounding forests had been cut down and most buildings had to be rebuilt after war fires. My grandfather’s house had been burnt, too. There still were people in the village who remembered the Sotmans.

Here is a story of Zalman’s elder daughter Olga Zaharovna Kaplun and her son Zalman. After getting married she moved to Chashniki. In 1939 her husband caught a cold and died.

The Great Patriotic war reached the place at the beginning of June, 1941. Olga and her 13-year-old son tried to evacuate but were stopped by German tanks. They had do go back. Everyone treated them well in the village but then someone reported to the Germans that they were Jewish. At first they did not believe it – she did not look Jewish at all, so they let her go. But the informer insisted he was not mistaken.

My relatives saw the first execution in the village – the Germans hanged a local policeman. Then it was my relatives’ turn. The Germans decided to shoot them in the suburb. Luckily, they were stopped by partisans, who killed the guards and let them go. That was how my relatives found themselves in a partisan brigade. Soon they were given new documents, according to which they were considered Belarusians. This is how Zalman became Dmitry.

In 1943 Dima was on a regular military mission with other partisans. They decide to spend the night in one of the villages and someone reported it to Germans. They were captured. At that time partisans were sent to concentration camps due to lack of workforce there. Dima, who was 15 at the time, was sent to a prison in Lepel, which was guarded mainly by local policemen. Soon he was told he was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in a concentration camp. It was also mentioned that after the German victory in the war the sentence could be appealed. The sentenced prisoners were stuffed into a railway wagon so tightly that they could only stand. On the way to the camp the wagon was shelled by partisans who did not realize that there were captives inside. One of the bullets killed a man sitting right next to Dima. It took them a week to get to Auschwitz in Poland.

The concentration camp in Auschwitz was a system of separate camps. All the forests around it had been cut down in order to prevent any chances of escape. Thousands of Jews and Gypsies arrived from Europe all the time to be murdered. The people did not suspect where they were being taken. They were not even sent to the camp. Usually the Nazis would separate men and women as soon as they arrived and send them directly to the crematorium. Their clothes and belongings were put into special warehouses. The crematorium had an inscription “Bathhouse” at the entrance. First the people were taken to undress and then to a room that actually did have showers in it. The showers, however, were used to wash away blood and human remains. The doors were then tightly closed and the room was filled with poisoning gas. The Nazis watched everything through small windows. When everyone was dead, the room was aired and a special team of prisoners was brought to separate the bodies into parts and these parts were taken into one of the corners. Another team was taking out all the golden teeth. After that the bodies were thrown into wagons through a hole in the floor and sent to the crematorium. The crematorium worked almost non-stop. The new prisoners were all given numbers, which were tattooed on the left shoulder. Dima’s number was 149552. Since, according to his documents, he was not a Jew, he had a red triangle instead of a yellow star attached to his shirt. It is surprising that during regular medical examinations nobody paid any attention he had a circumcision.

Soon after arriving at the camp Dima got typhus and was placed into a hospital barracks. Naturally, there was no serious treatment – those who were really sick were immediately exterminated. My cousin was lucky and was soon sent to a normal barracks. There he met a German communist, who was one of the first Auschwitz prisoners – his prison number was 10. His sentence was over but they did not let him go because of the war. He had his own small enclosure in the barracks. Somehow he took a liking to Dima and let him stay there and helped him with his responsibilities. One of his responsibilities was to drag the dead bodies near the entrance and report the number of the dead to the Nazis. People were dying of starvation, disease, torture and medical experiments, carried out by Germans. Most prisoners were so morally suppressed that they lost all human dignity. There were people, who had had a high social status before the war, and could now kill a neighbor for food. There were people of different nationalities in Dima’s barracks. Most of them were Polish. There were both simple people and ministers. Among them was the future Polish Prime Minister Yusef Tserankevich. There was an Indian man who had fought for the British army. He had a very unusual tattoo: a silver snake which started at his heel and went up around the leg, along the whole body and its open chap was right at his throat. When the man bended it looked like the snake was moving. The Germans murdered and skinned him – they collected tattoos and sometimes made decorations from human skin. They also used prisoners for all kinds of medical experiments. My cousin saw men dying after their genitals had been strongly X-rayed. It was very easy to die in the camp and people got used to the idea they could die any day. Many people could not endure the stress and committed suicide by throwing themselves onto electrocuted barbed wire or trying to escape out of desperation, knowing they would not be able to hide anywhere. They were hanged in front of everyone in the evenings.

As the frontal line was getting closer to the camp, the Germans decided to move the prisoners. All the prisoners were ordered to come out and formed in columns. Soon after they started walking they saw Soviet planes above their heads. Of course, the pilots decided it was a military column and bombed it…

Some prisoners were left in the camp waiting for death. On one of the last January days in 1945 the camp gates were brought down by Soviet tanks. The camp was liberated. Before leaving Dima had a look at the crematorium… In the camp he met a 9-year-old Belarusian boy and offered him to travel back together. They took some things from the warehouse in order to exchange them for food on the way. It was a long way from Poland and they had neither much strength nor money. Dima, who was already 17, weighed only 38 kilos. Sometimes they were given lifts, sometimes had to walk. They reached Belarus in a few weeks. They were in some Belarusian village trying to exchange clothes for food when the boy was found by his mother. She happened to be there by chance and thus found her son. The boys were fed and given a place to stay and then Dima moved on alone.

Eventually he reached Chashniki. He found out that his mother had left for Leningrad, where all of her remaining relatives lived. She assumed her son was dead, their house had been burnt and so she decided to move. We can imagine her feelings when she finally saw her son was alive.

After the war Dima worked as a turner and later was promoted as the head of turners’ department. In the 70’s he decided to come back to Poland and see the place of his imprisonment. However he had a heart attack, which was caused by all the memories, and had to stop the journey.

Unfortunately, I do not know a lot about my father’s parents. I wish I did. At least with the help of the Internet I found people, living in the USA, who have the same or similar last names to mine.

Daniil Kopelevich Sotman

Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region

Vitebsk Albrehtovo Babinovichi Baran Bayevo Begoml Beshenkovichi Bocheikovo Bogushevsk Borkovichi Braslav Bychiha Chashniki Disna Dobromysli Dokshitsy Druya Dubrovno Glubokoye Gorodok Kamen Kohanovo Kolyshki Kopys Krasnopolie Kublichi Lepel Liady Liozno Lukoml Luzhki Lyntupy Miory Obol Oboltsy Orsha Osintorf Ostrovno Parafianovo Plissa Polotsk Prozorki Senno Sharkovshina Shumilino Sirotino Slaveni Smolyany Surazh Tolochin Ulla Verhnedvinsk Vidzy Volyntsy Yanovichi Yezerishe Zhary Ziabki

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