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Dzerzhinsk ghetto

Recollections by Emma Yefimovna Zagner

On June 22 I was revising for my final exam in psychology at the end of the first year of studies. I was sitting in the library, reading, when suddenly someone rushed in and shouted: “War! Everybody upstairs, to the dean's office!”. We ran upstairs and heard the voice of Levitan over the loudspeaker announcing that at four o'clock in the morning the Germans crossed the border. The war broke out. My first wish was to go home! I lived in a hostel, I left all my belongings, even the bedding that we had to bring from home, and rushed to the train station. There were crowds of people there, shouting, cursing, crying. It was only two days later that I got home. My mother told me: “You should have taken your exam.” I was ashamed and rushed back to the station. But it was impossible to leave, there was panic around, and I went home.

People were leaving, especially Jews. Many of them went on foot, taking only bundles with the most necessary things. My mother told me that when the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, all Jews were locked in barns and burned. Many people didn’t believe it. But my mother told all of us to go away. She was unable to go, since she had been operated for appendicitis. My father gathered all our family and said, “You go and I'll stay with mother. We are old and no one will hurt us. I’m a blacksmith, and no one will do me any harm”. Everyone who could leave were leaving, but I remained with my parents. I just couldn’t go away and leave them. At that time we didn’t understand what the war with the Nazis meant.

The men liable for military service gathered at Myslochanskaya mount, where now Jews are buried in a common grave, and lived for three days. We, young girls, used to visit them in the evenings. Once a German plane appeared above us and started shooting. All the people scattered in different directions. That was the end of the mobilization; everyone began getting out of the trouble on their own.

On June 26 we were bombed again. Everything around was burning. My parents and I were hiding in the cellar. I was curious. I went outside and saw our shop destroyed and people running and grabbing everything they could right from the fire. At that moment I felt ashamed, but later regretted that I took nothing.

On June 27 there was anarchy, the public authorities were the first to escape. The streets were silent and deserted. At night we heard the rumble of artillery. My father said to come out of the house. We managed to lie in hiding the garden and soon the shell hit directly to our neighbor Manya’s cellar.

Everything around was burning, huge fire was approaching our street. People began carrying water from the river in buckets to fight the fire.

In the morning my father and I went outside. There was dead silence and unbearable stench in the street. We saw a wounded soldier on the road and tank with a cross rushing just to run him down. My father ran out and raised his hand to stop the tank and take the wounded away. But soldiers with machine guns jumped out of the tank, pushed my father away, shot the wounded and threw him into a ditch. The tank went past, followed by a lot of motorcyclists with guns. There was a cloud of dust. We ran into the house. From there we saw the Germans going into the kindergarten opposite. They made a commandant's office there. The Germans established the police from the locals. Our neighbor became the chief of the police.

They announced that all Jews were to move to the ghetto. They cleared one district off the Russians, and forced all Jews to settle there. The Germans organized Jewish Judenrat (Jewish authorities). They ordered everyone to sew yellow patches on clothes and stay inside or they would kill. There was nothing to eat. We settled in a strange house, which had neither a garden nor a vegetable plot.

I didn’t look like a Jewish girl, so I went to our house to dig out potatoes. I told nothing to my parents. I managed to go several times. Once I was coming back and a German officer came out from the commandant’s office. I got scared but did my best not to show that. He looked at me suspiciously and asked: “Jude?” I smiled at him and replied in German: “Nitz forshtein”. He winked at me, patted my cheek, then turned and walked away. I picked up the potatoes and rushed to the ghetto. Later I went a few more times. We had to survive. People exchanged everything for food. My friends, the Russians and Belarusians, came to me in the ghetto and brought some food. When the Germans killed two people for that, it got dangerous. I went to see them myself at the fixed place.

On October 19 Jews from other shtetls were brought to our ghetto. An old Jewish man was to stay with us in the house. He had good things. At night the police raided, beat him and took all his belongings.

Soon, the Germans began to take men and teenagers over 15. They were driven to work. Our father was missing for some days. When he finally came back and my mother asked him how he managed to come back, he said that he had told the Germans that he was Russian. My father was blond and blue-eyed. At the time when he was asked, there were no policemen nearby, so the Germans believed him. My father was hiding and didn’t go anywhere.

Pogroms occurred more often. The Germans burst into houses at night, robbed and killed. In the morning there was a funeral, so everyone knew what house the Germans and policemen came to. Killing a person meant nothing for them! If they didn’t like something, they shot dead at once. We lived in constant fear. They hold the men they had driven away to ransom. People gave their last things. The Germans took everything, even torn clothes, but none of the men returned. Nobody knew what would happen the next day, or even in the space of an hour. We were scared, especially at night. Everyone was waiting for pogrom to take place at their place,.. every night there were shots and screaming…

On October 29 a big massacre occurred. Only women and children remained alive in the ghetto. It was a massive pogrom with the Germans raiding from house to house. We heard shouting, lamenting, stamping feet, shooting. Suddenly, they hit our door with a gun butt. My mother pushed me behind the door. They broke into the house, rushed to my father and the old Jew, asking where we were hiding gold. They began to beat my father. I couldn’t stand it and jumped out of my hiding place, shouting: “What are you doing?!” They started to beat me, but I didn’t even feel it. They found nothing, broke the windows and left. We cried all night over. It was autumn, windy and cold, and my father was lying beaten.

Early in the morning there was fuss in the ghetto again. My mother was urging me to leave. I didn’t want to go, but out of sudden I got scared so much that I rushed out of the house and ran across the street. There was a hospital. I jumped inside. A friend of mine worked as a matron there. She took me to her room and ordered to sit quietly. She had seen that a huge ditch had been dug out, but the Jews didn’t know about it. And no one knew where they were herded.

From a small window I saw two little Jewish girls trying to escape, but they were caught up and brought back to the line. The Germans and policemen surrounded the ghetto. I was sitting in a closet and even had no idea that people lived the last minutes of their lives. At that moment a friend of the matron came and told me to leave because the Germans would come soon to check if there were Jews among the patients, and if they saw me they would kill me. I told her that I had nowhere to go, but her eyes expressed so much horror that I got up and left. I was walking right down the street. The hospital personnel were standing on the wooden porch and the Germans were all around the street. And I went straight towards them. Five soldiers surrounded me and asked where I was going. The people from the porch were looking at me. After the war a woman from that crowd said that she had never seen such a pale person as I looked at that moment. I put my hands on the cheeks and said that I had a toothache. The Germans shouted something and let me go.

Where could I go? I was walking along Leninskaya Street to get out of town. On the fences there were notices: “For hiding Jews - execution.” The German cars and policemen were shuttling along

the street. And I kept on going. When I reached my friend’s house, I heard unceasing gunfire behind. My friend’s father was standing on the porch of the house, looking in the direction where the gunfire came from and crossing himself. At the end of the street there lived the Yatsyn family. I came to their place. They didn’t say a word. But when the shooting started again and it was growing dark, uncle Mikhas told me: “Go away, Hana. At night they’ll go from house to house, seeking for Jews who have escaped. You must go.” He came out with me on the porch and showed where I should go, pointing in the direction of a remote village.

So I went, knowing neither the road nor the village. It was autumn, muddy, cold, and I was going right through the fields. Then somewhere on the edge of the woods I saw a light as a beacon in a storm in the ocean. I thought that there were people there, though it was impossible to light the fire at night during the war.

But I headed for that light.

Recollections by Leonida Iosifovna Myshka

The ghetto occupied several streets. All Jews were resettled in one area. They lived there for several months.

One autumn morning, I don’t remember the exact date, several Jews were crawling in our vegetable garden. I remember well the man and the boy. I asked them: “Why are you crawling?” They said: “Our street is being encircled. They will we take us to work and kill.” And they ran away. At that time nobody thought that they would be shot. It was simply impossible to imagine?! We thought that if they come for us, they would take us away to work. We got used to it, it had already happened several times. Men were taken, and women were left. Then I saw a large crowd of Jews convoyed along our street, guarded by soldiers in the Lithuanian military garb and dogs. Their form was yellow, and the Germans had a gray uniform. All the soldiers were with guns. We thought that the people were convoyed out of town. No one even could imagine that they would be shot fifty meters away. The pit had already been prepared. Suddenly I heard gunfire and unceasing screaming. It was horrible. I was so scared that rushed into the room and buried my head in the pillow to hear nothing. It lasted for more than an hour. And then I realized that Jews were being shot. And later I saw only soldiers with dogs, and people were no longer with them. Eyewitnesses later told me that the ground at the place of shooting was moving for a long time.

I remember that there were no men among those people, mostly old men, women and children. I knew some people from those who were shot by name. But so many years have passed…

They probably did not know that they were taken to be killed. They walked very quietly, without crying and screaming. It's difficult to say now how many they were… …hundred, two hundred… or, maybe, a thousand… I didn’t count. They were just going along our street for a long time. I assure you that we were looking at them and didn’t think that they would be shot.

One woman saw from the window of her house as they were being killed. They were taken to the pit, next to the stables. One woman was holding a baby in her arms. She was covering the baby with a kerchief and running around the pit, and then they were pushed into the pit alive. The woman who saw it, turned gray overnight. Another woman was hiding in a barn for two days, but someone betrayed her, and she was shot… The Germans didn’t shoot babies, they just banged their heads together and threw in the pit.

One girl ran into the school, but the Germans dragged her out and killed on the spot … Lithuanian castigators were especially cruel. The Germans tried not to do the dirty work. Our policemen with white-and-red arm bands hanged people. The whole way to the pit was covered with dead bodies, many people were killed on the way. They were screaming terribly! And then for a few days crept from house to house, trying to hide. I remember the boy, who I had seen before that shooting crawling. They say he was seen with the partisans later. Those who managed to crawl away, ran to the woods through the collective farm yard.

… You know, everything now seems to have been a nightmare. We were afraid to go to the pit for a long time. It seemed that the enemy was there, in ambush, and would shoot everyone in a row.

That’s how … … made me remember - and I can’t tell you more. Half a century has passed. But it’s as if happening now. I don’t want to remember this. I want to forget, my heart won’t bear remembering more …

Recollections by Ilia Borisovich Slutsky

I served in a transport squadron on the German border. On the first day of the war the first shot was fired at our barracks. We lived in private apartments. While we were gathering, the Germans had reached the rear. We took up arms and tried to resist the enemy for two days more. We had a lot of people at that time, since before the war many men had been brought for military training, many of them stayed in tents in the open field. It was a real betrayal, all of them were killed there in the first bombing. When the Germans outflanked, our squadron had no commanders, all of them escaped. We remained, like sheep.

People began to disperse in all directions. First I was going with my squad leader, and then a friend joined us in the woods. We were in the uniform, wanted to go to the village to change clothes, but the Germans were all around. They captured soldiers and sent them to prison camps. And I decided to go home. On the way home I came to a village, where people gave me food and clothes to change. When I came to Dzerzhinsk, it had already been occupied by the Germans. My house had been burned down, but my brother’s house was safe. There I found my father, mother, sister and my brother’s wife. My brother went somewhere with the children and did not return.

A few days passed. The Germans came to us and asked me if I was a soldier. I denied. They grabbed me, threw down the steps and led to the barn. There had been a lot of our soldiers. We stayed for several days there, were given some stinking fish soup, but no water. One soldier and I managed to get away home.

A week later they started forcing all Jews to the ghetto. My father and I were taking our cow, but the Germans seized it, my father and drove them away. I never saw him again. We began to live in the ghetto. At the end of September my brother’s friend, who was Russian, came to me and said: “All of you have to go away. Especially men. Some punitive detachment has arrived. The SS.” We refused to leave our women and children. But he said: “Men should go, they will be caught first.” We didn’t go. A few days later he came again and said: “Go away. The Germans arrived to the farm, ordered everyone to take shovels and dig a big ditch.” He just begged us.

When we got to his house, he locked my brother, nephew and me in the cellar. An hour later we heard gunshots. Our Jews were being shot. In the evening he came to us, but told us nothing. Only his eyes were dark. We began asking him, and he told us that people had been machine-gunned. A few days later he came to us and said that the Germans would look for the Jews going from house to house. We decided that he saved us, risked his life and we had to go away from him. But where could we go? My brother’s wife had an uncle who lived in Rubezhevichi. So we left and went for many days. When we came to the village, there had already been a ghetto there. Everyone lived in their homes. The uncle said: “I’m scared to let you stay in the house.” He led us to the basement. A few days later he came and said that the Germans were raiding from house to house and looking for Jews, who had come from the other village. And we went away again.

We came to Minsk. There was also established a ghetto in Respublikanskaya Street. There I had had a room before the war, but it was occupied by a man who took all my stuff. We lived in one room. Every day people from the ghetto were taken to work. On the site of Government House, houses were being restored. We went to get just a little thin broth. I worked as a mechanic.

One day the Germans arrived in the ghetto and started to grab all the children. The parents were shouting and crying. But they stuffed a full truck and drove away. It happened in 1942. Later we learned that those had been partisans dressed as the Germans. Those children survived, and so was

saved my nephew. The partisans came, dressed in the German uniform, to the bread-baking plant, took the bread, took the people out. So I got to the partisans and fought until the end of the war…

Recollections by Lazar Isaakovich Kagan

Jews made more than half the population before the war. Most of them worked in the private sector: guilds, tailor shops, hairdressing salon, shops. All members of the family worked. They lived well, and there were no zealous opponents of the Soviet regime among them. We imposed taxes on them, tried to serve the people so that all were equal and nobody was starving. And we decided that if someone had extra income, they were deprived of the right to vote in elections. There were about a hundred such people.

We had known it since 1939 that the Germans killed Jews, when we went to Poland and liberated Western Belarus. I served in the cavalry squadron. When the borders between us and the Germans were established, they began to persecute and kill Jews in Poland. Those who could, escaped and fled to us. We gave them food. They told such terrible things that I went to the commissioner and said: “We are the country of workers, internationalists. Let's go and resist the extermination of Jews.” He replied: “Mind your own business. We made a pact with them. What they are doing there is none of our business. And keep silent, if you want to live.”

I'd been taught by bitter experience and knew what that meant. Those Jews who had escaped from the Germans, were taken a special department, and from there they were sent to the camps. They escaped death from the Nazi and got our, Soviet…

I went through the war, fought, saw so much misery and death, but when I returned home and found out what massacre of the Jews took place in my home town, horror gripped me! Fear!.. Sorry, I have no strength to tell it. What is horrible is that there were Russians who were happy to help the Germans in the extermination of Jews.

We set up a commission to investigate those crimes, worked for a long time, collected a lot of material. Two years later people came to us from the KGB and demanded: “Give this case to us. These are very valuable papers. Let us keep them. We’ll investigate and punish those who must be punished.” They left me a receipt and took a thick folder. And now, 50 years on, there’s still not a sound from them. Everything is buried in the archives of the KGB…

Recorded by Boris Roland

Jewish settlements in Minsk region

MinskBerezinoBobrBorisov DolginovoDukoraDzerzhinsk Ivenets Myadel NesvizhObchuga Pogost Rakov Seliba Slutsk Svir Uhvaly Vileika

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