Updated: Apr 8, 2021
On this, Yom HaShoah, I wanted to introduce you to my cousin Dawny who has been doing research on our family history during the Holocaust. She has spent years researching their unfinished and incomplete stories of life during the war. Here is an excerpt from the book she is writing about a few of their experiences when they were part of a group of partisans in the forests. I want to thank her for sharing her writing here on Words Have Wings.
By Dawny Gershkowitz
My parents could speak English, Yiddish, Russia, Polish, and German. Yet for about thirty years, they did not speak about their experiences in World War II, about their survival of the Holocaust. Not in any language. When they did begin to open up, this was one of the first stories I heard. * * * * * There were five of us in our cave. None of us had much. Each of us was lucky to have a pair of flimsy shoes—not the best protection against an icy winter night. And between us, we had one—just one—pair of boots. We called them shtivel. On really cold days, when someone had to go out into the frozen forest, he would use the shtivel. We tried to keep a fire going throughout the cold nights. Each of us would take a turn being the ‘fire watcher’: feeding the flames, keeping the fire under control in the small space. One night, our fire-keeper fell asleep. The spreading smoke woke us to see the fire starting to burn out of control. We all got up, waving smoke away, trying to stomp out the fire. All of us were shouting, screaming. What were we shouting? “Save Tsaleh”? No. “Save Yalek”? No. In Yiddish, we were all yelling “Chap die shtivel!” “Grab the boots!” * * * * * My father and uncle laughed when they told that story over dinner at a seder, more than thirty years after it had happened. They lived in a cave? What were they talking about? Caves?? Years later, stories later, I began to understand. On August 25, 1942, the Nazis rounded up almost 3,700 Jews of Berezne, Poland, led them out of the city, forced them to dig three pits, each 60 feet long. Then they shot the Jews. About one hundred Jews managed to escape. My father and uncle, my mother and two of her sisters, were among those survivors. Their community was near the Sluch River, which was part of the eastern border separating Nazi-occupied Poland from Soviet-occupied Ukraine. All those who had managed to elude death wanted to get across the river and find the partisans, who had been waging guerilla warfare against the Nazis since the German invasion a little over a year before. In August, the Sluch River was shallow and easy to cross. Finding the partisans was a little harder. My mother, two sisters, and their stepfather, were making their way through the forest hoping to find the partisans. This is the story my mother told. * * * * * `Suddenly a group of four men appeared in front of us, men carrying rifles. They come so quietly we froze in fear. “Kuda vy dvoye!” one demanded. My heart stopped. I heard my sister gasp. “Where are you going!” he shouted again. Russian! He was shouting in Russian. “We’ve come from Berezne,” Yossel told them. “You’re lucky,” one said. “They killed the Jews in Berezne.” The men, dressed in plain clothes like farmers, offered to take us back to their camp, “We have others there who have escaped. You’ll be safe with us.” We had found partisans! As we walked, we saw other Jews, people we had known all our lives, Jews who escaped the massacre and made it across the river. We had found the partisans. * * * * * That August night in the partisan camp, the survivors slept on the ground. The next day, the Russians shared some of their rations and showed the survivors how to build shelters that would protect them in the coming cold. They taught them to build “zemlyankas”, caves dug into the forest floor, caves that would protect five, six, even ten people. That same Passover night when I heard about ’save the boots’, my father and uncle told another story. * * * * * The partisan leader, Dmitry Medvedev, did not demand that the survivors fight alongside his men. But Stalin felt anyone in a partisan camp should be able to contribute. Then the orders came: any who might help the partisans could stay. A plane would be coming to take the children, elderly, and the sick to Moscow. None of us wanted to go to Moscow and be under Stalin’s thumb. We didn’t know what was ahead, but in this camp, we felt protected. The day for the plane came. The partisans made a ‘landing strip’, clearing a section of the forest floor. They made small piles of wood for fires that outlined the area so the plane could land. We were watching. Daylight began to fade. We were listening. We were waiting. We were quiet: no music, no singing, no talking, only whispering. The partisans wanted to be sure to hear the plane so they would be ready to light the fires. From the distance, we heard an engine. Very faint. Partisans ran to the small mounds of fuel to light them, like a welcome sign: “Come here! Land here!” We looked up, nervous, as the sound grow louder. We watched. The pilot turned his plane to land. But the area for the landing wasn’t long enough. The nose of the plane pointed downward too much. Would he pull up? No. The plane crashed into the landing strip, plowing into the trees at its end. The nose of the plane was damaged. The partisans ran to help the pilot, to put out the flames, to save whatever supplies he had been bringing. No one would be leaving the camp. Everyone from Berezne was relieved. * * * * * For over two years, until autumn 1944, about one hundred survivors from Berezne lived in the forest. They sustained themselves by begging in nearby villages. Some fought alongside the partisans in combatting Nazis. And for two years, they lived in caves.
Dawny is a writer currently finishing a book about the Shoah survivors in our family—her mother, two of her mother’s sisters and the men they married, and my father and his older brother.
In this photo are three sisters. The one in the center was my Aunt Rina who was married to my father's brother, Julius. Here Julius is seen holding his son who was born in a DP camp.
Also in the photograph is Rina's sister Paula, seen to the left of the baby and her husband Marc who stands behind the baby. On the right behind my aunt is her sister Anya and her husband Elya.
I would be remiss not to include this photograph which also includes my father's other brother George, his good friend Asher, my aunt Rina, my father's brother Julius and their son,
and my father Saul. I do not know the other people in the photo. This was a series of photos that I have from my father that were taken while the group were in a DP camp in Austria called Bindermichel.