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Zakhar Gelman

Jessica Savitt


Lucy Sverdlov was born in Watertown, NY to Asher and Chaya Relya Michla Sverdlov on Dec. 5, 1912. Her parents did not like America at that time and found keeping kosher very difficult so they moved back to Plissa Poland in 1913 when my grandmother was only 10 months old. Her parents owned a small grocery store in Plissa and their customers included both Jews and non-Jews. The problem was that my grandmother was an American citizen and had American papers, which the Polish government wanted to have her give up. Her parents would not let her renounce American citizenship so the government harassed her and her family endlessly. My grandmother said that that in 1914, when the first World War started, there was a lot of shelling going on over Plissa and her parents sent her (she was only about 2-1/2 at the time), like most of the families in Plissa at the time, to live outside in the yard b/c the houses were specifically targeted by the planes for shelling. She said she lived outside in the yard for nearly 2 years until the shelling became less frequent. Her uncle and his two sons were killed only a few feet away from her, she recalled, by shrapnel falling from the planes. When she moved back into the house, she said her parents also took in a lot of other kids from the village, but they had very little to eat. It was hard to find bread, let alone any other types of food. She said her mother used to use a triangular grate on the floor to cook potato peels for the children so they had something to eat. She could not light the main oven b/c the smoke would have been seen by the passing planes and they would have alerted them to the presence of people, causing them to be shelled. My grandmother remembered that her mother used to keep two baby goats in the space beneath the big oven in the wall and that she crawled over one time and drank the remains of the milk her mother had fed the goats. She remembered it tasting so good. My grandmother said that her family lived across the street from a priest, and once there was a huge fire in the priest's house that threatened to spread to their house and the other houses along the street. She remembers her mother screaming and her father praying and the fire finally turned in a different direction away from the houses, so her house and the priest's house were not damaged. When my grandmother got older, she helped her father chop wood and she brought water in two large buckets from a well about a block and a half away from her house. She was very strong and she wanted to help her parents b/c they lived a poor life. She had a younger sister (7 years her junior) and two brothers (I don't know if she was older than them or not). One older sister died in birth. Her parents were orthodox and her father used to pray with his tallit and tefillin. She said that she eventually started selling things at fairs in different towns on different days of the week. She was warned once by her mother, who ran the long distance to the village she was in that day, that she should find a place to hide overnight and not leave any merchandise outside. She did hide, along with some other Jewish merchants, and that night, thugs came and turned over all the Jewish tables at the fair and destroyed whatever merchandise had not been put away. She also said there was a nice sheriff who saved her life once when he lied to some Polish men who came looking for her and told them that she was home sick that day.

My grandmother said she went to a Polish day school and then to a Hebrew school afterwards to learn about Judaism. She said that the Polish teachers and principal were very anti-Semitic and gave the Jewish kids bad grades for no reason. She said that the Polish kids would take away the Jewish children's lunches that they brought from home and put ham or pork on them so that the Jewish children could not eat the food. They would be called terrible names and no one would do anything about it. One time a Polish monitor reported that my grandmother was doing terrible things to the Polish children during recess. He said she was a bad influence on the Polish children, so she was sent to her principal and he wanted to hit her hand with a wooden ruler. My grandmother said she tried to tell her side of the story and the principal didn't listen so she would not give him her hand to hit. She got sent home from school and her parents were called in to speak with the principal. She said her parents were very strict with her and her siblings. She also said that the Hebrew school teachers were very scared of the Polish authorities so they were very strict with the kids who came to learn with them. They were constantly being monitored by the Polish police and government and so they were not very nice to the kids who studied there. My grandmother said that the non-Jewish kids and also the authorities would ask Jews why they needed such a school if they already attended the Polish public school. She said they asked why they (the Jews) wanted to be different and why they didn't just do the same as the Polish people. She also said that the Polish people in her village forced the Jews to clean the mud from the streets on Jewish holidays, telling them, "It's not our holiday," My grandmother talked about the pogroms and said that during the Christmas holiday, which lasted 8 days in Plissa, the Jews had to stay indoors in their homes the whole time or they would be killed. There were people drunk in the streets who would look for Jews to beat up, and these people would also come to the Jewish homes and destroy Jewish property. She said it was the worst time of the year for Jews in Plissa.

When my grandmother was 26, she left Plissa to come to America because she was an American citizen and had always wanted to come back to her birthplace. The Polish government gave her trouble before leaving and wanted to her to take a later ship, but her mother convinced her to take the one she had bought tickets for. She left May 2, 1939 on the Pilsudsky. That same ship sank later that year when it hit a mine and exploded after the war began.

My own research into what became of Plissa after the war began yielded the following insights:

Plissa was first under the control of the Russians from the beginning of the war till about 1941. The Germans pushed the Russians out of Plissa, but initially, they did not do much to the Jews. Then, they began treating the Jews very badly and the Jewish part of town became a ghetto. On June 1, 1942, all the Jews were rounded up in the town square, made to dig their own grave (a large pit), sat down in front of it, and systematically shot into the grave by the Nazis. According to a man who was a friend of my grandmother's family and who may have been distantly related to her, he was randomly picked out of the line up by a Nazi officer who said, "Save this one, I need someone to give me a haircut." His wife and three children were murdered and my grandmother's whole family were murdered too. Another woman apparently was saved randomly by the Nazis but she did not survive the war. This man joined the Polish Partisans for the remainder of the war and eventually remarried and came to America, where he co-owned a chicken farm in Vineland, NJ. This man told my grandmother what had happened to the Jews of Plissa. I spoke with his son recently about the story. Another survivor of the Plissa massacre was a young man named Moshe Zumkind who also joined the partisans and eventually moved to Israel. He was only a boy at the time and he hid in his family's attic while the rest of the Jews were being rounded up. He heard the shots though.

There is a memorial to the Jews of Plissa in the town today...I saw pictures of it online. It said 410 Jews were killed that day, among them, my great-grandmparents and great aunt and uncles.

If I remember more information I'll send it to you.

All the best,

Jessica Savitt

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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