THE GERMAN OCCUPATION - 5
Youth Movements and Underground Activities
The youth movements were the moving force of the armed struggle during the Holocaust. Their activity can be divided into two stages: the ghetto period until the beginning of the liquidation, and the period of the transports. Of course, under Nazi rule the movements acted as undergrounds.
In the first stage they concentrated on spiritual survival and on coping with the vicissitudes of their situation. The emphasis was on organizational activity, even including regional conferences and seminars to discuss the movements’ operations (such as the meeting held in Bialystok in 1942), organizing mutual assistance for the members and their families, and, above all, educational activity. There were no schools in the ghetto, and, although former Tarbut teachers operated illegally to hold some school-courses in private homes, this was far from filling the void. In order to keep the youngsters from roaming the streets and perhaps becoming caught up in unsavory activities, the movements trained group leaders, set up new groups, and generally filled the educational vacuum left by the Judenrat and the other adult organizations.
Members of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir established at least four groups of twenty-five to thirty children aged ten to twelve in the city’s two ghettos, trained group leaders, and organized two or three meetings a week. In the absence of a permanent site, activities were held at makeshift locations – in the synagogue, or in the home of a member whose parents were at work. In Ghetto One there were gardens, so it was easier to find a corner to meet there. The meetings, which were conducted in Yiddish, included discussions and stories about Eretz Israel, Jewish holidays, and other topics. In addition to their regular activities, the movements also assisted families of members that found themselves in acute distress. Chajka Grosman relates: Eliahu Tankus would smuggle flour, carry it on his back, enlist his father in the work of baking, while the “Bitsaron” smallfry – Dudik, Lonchik, and others – would distribute the bread to the homes of members and to the needy.19
19 Chajka Grosman, The Underground People (Hebrew), Merhaviah, 1950, pp. 203-204.
In the second stage, as the transports began in the winter of 1942/43, the youth movements were among the first in the ghetto to abandon their illusions about the Jews’ chances of survival. They mobilized for vigorous underground activity and urged all the Jews to join the struggle. In fact, the revolution in the goals and methods of the youth movements had occurred even earlier, when the news was received of the mass murders in Lithuania and Byelorussia. The emphasis shifted from indoctrination and education to armed revolt. The youth movements tried to convince the public that the Nazis’ actions in Vilna were not the exception and were not limited in scope, but were one link in a chain of mass annihilation that would inevitably encompass also the Jews of Grodno and its surroundings.
Grodno was situated on a crossroads and was an important connecting station in the Vilna-Bialystok-Warsaw triangle. To the youth movements, these cities and their districts constituted a single organic unit, but under the Germans’ administrative division they were located in three different government areas. Warsaw was part of the Generalgouvernement; Vilna, of the Reichskommissariat Ostland; and Bialystok and its district belonged to East Prussia. A special permit was required to move from one region to another, and inspectors carried out frequent rigorous checks of passengers on the trains. Nevertheless, the youth movements maintained constant contact among the ghettos in Vilna, Bialystok, and Warsaw, and the Grodno ghetto, by means of emissaries and go-betweens. The messengers that were chosen usually had an “Aryan” appearance and spoke fluent Polish; they were also supplied with the appropriate personal papers. In time the emissaries became intermediaries who transferred information, situation appraisals, and carried letters. The closest ties were between the ghettos of Grodno and Bialystok, and between them and the smaller ghettos in the region.
The first contact between the Grodno ghetto and Vilna was effected through Bella Chazan (later Ya’ari), a native of Volhynia and an activist in Dror–He-Halutz (she was caught and sent to Auschwitz in April 1942, survived, and settled in Israel after the war). In October 1941, Bella Chazan was sent to Grodno, arriving a few days before the city’s Jews were incarcerated in the ghettos. She found living quarters at the edge of the city, obtained work as an interpreter for the Gestapo, and was issued authentic “Aryan” papers under an assumed identity. Her apartment was a transit and meeting place for the intermediaries of the pioneer youth movements on the Vilna–Warsaw route. She herself maintained contact with the ghetto through her friend Itka Burakov, and the two established a group of He-Halutz ha-Za’ir in the ghetto. Her mission was to serve as a liaison between the center in Vilna and the branches in Lida, Grodno, and Bialystok, to smuggle information, money, and arms, and to prepare “safe houses” in Grodno for other movement intermediaries.
Using various pretexts, Bella Chazan succeeded in leaving Grodno and returning on a number of occasions. Toward the end of 1941, she visited Vilna and discovered that the city’s Jews were being massacred at Ponar. Back in Grodno, she told the heads of the Judenrat what she had learned and asked them for financial assistance in order to smuggle Jews out of Vilna. To her comrades in the Dror movement she conveyed instructions to organize as an underground. However, as she later related, her story was not believed in Grodno:
Some members of the Judenrat disowned responsibility: What does she want, this youngster, where will we put more people? The head of the [Jewish] Council, Dr. David Brawer, said that they couldn’t just give money for no good reason to a “pisherkeh” like me.20
20 Bella Ya’ari-Chazan, They Called Me Bronislawa (Hebrew), Bet Lohamei ha-Getta’ot, 1991, pp. 50-51.
Bella Chazan stood in the corridor and burst into tears, but then Dr. Zvi Bielko, a Judenrat member, came up to her and said he would do everything in his power to assist the refugees who reached Grodno. Good to his word, he gave Bella money and false papers for Vilna Jews. At a meeting with members of the movement’s local branch, Bella Chazan described the mass murders in Vilna and spoke about the need to organize all the young people in a revolt.
A few days before Christmas 1941, two emissaries from Warsaw arrived in Bella Chazan’s apartment in Vilna – Lonka Koziebrodska and Tamara (Tema) Sznaiderman (Mordecai Tenenbaum’s girl-friend), who had been sent from Warsaw to Vilna. From Tamara Bella heard about groups that had already been smuggled out of Vilna to Bialystok and about an expected visit by Mordecai Tenenbaum in Grodno on his way from Warsaw to Bialystok. Tamara returned to Warsaw, where she made known events in the areas annexed to East Prussia (the Bialystok district). At the same time, Mordecai Tenenbaum and Bella Chazan reached Grodno and stole into the ghetto.
We hurried to meet with the Judenrat. Mordecai admonished them in no uncertain terms that they had to prepare for a revolt. His message was transmitted from one person to another. The members of the Zionist movement began to grasp the need to make preparations for an uprising, but the majority of the Jewish public believed that as long as they would supply the Germans’ need for cheap labor, [the Germans] would have no reason to exterminate them. Even those who believed the stories about the massacre of the Vilna Jews at Ponar preferred to view it as an exceptional case.21
21 Ibid., p. 54.
22 Bronia Klibanski, “My Memories of Mordecai Tenenbaum and the Work of the Bialystok Underground,” Yalkut Moreshet (Hebrew), IX (Tishrei 1929), p. 58.
Zippora Birman, a Dror activist from Bialystok, came later to Grodno to replace Hershl Rozental, who was put in charge of connections with the partisans in the forest.
In the middle of 1942, Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir and Dror united for a joint struggle. Each movement continued to pursue its own way of life and its own social existence within the framework of the kibbutzim, but they shared a common goal: to secure arms and do battle in the ghetto. The united underground group numbered about 100 people. Attempts to co-opt other movements – the Communists, the few Bundists who were left, and the Revisionists – were unsuccessful. The Communists were not an organized, cohesive force, and their members operated as individuals; the Revisionists promised to make contact with the underground but finally acted on their own. In the meantime, there were no means to purchase arms and Zerah Zilberberg asked the Judenrat for financial assistance. Zilberberg’s efforts to forge ties with the “Aryan” side also led nowhere.
Most of the underground members advocated an armed struggle inside the ghetto, but some urged flight into the forests. A mixed group of five made its way out of the ghetto in an attempt to make contact with partisans, but four were killed by the Germans; only Leiser Rejzner got back to the ghetto. The hopes they had had of going into the forests had to be dropped for the time being, especially when they discovered that a sine qua non for joining the partisans was the possession of weapons. Some suggested that the members of the movements go to Bialystok, but the decision of the majority was to remain in Grodno and do their best to organize resistance. In the words of Zippora Birman:
The failure of the forest [idea] shattered us all. We were left with no option. We had no choice but to die honorably where we were. We began to prepare a “counter-action.” Not everyone agreed with this. A “counter-action” would mean [our] total liquidation within a few days. We thought that, despite everything, a few thousand would survive in this way. The community seeks options, nobody wants to die. In the face of death, the life instinct is heightened. We decide: the girls will break into Bialystok, and the boys will remain in order to implement the “counter-action.”23
23 Zippora Birman, “To My Dear Comrades Wherever You Are,” in: Bronia Klibanski, “The Underground Archives of the Bialystok Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies, vol. II (1958), pp. 304-324.
Betar activists also tried to develop underground activity in Grodno, but, as we have said above, did not join Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir and Dror; their operations were limited. In December 1941, the Betar emissary, Ya’akov Leizerowicz, a Grodno native who was educated in the Tarbut network, arrived in Grodno from Vilna. Moshe Notes relates that Leizerowicz was sent to organize armed resistance cells in the Grodno ghetto. He let it be known that negotiations were under way to bring about cooperation among all the youth movements; and he, too, was in contact with Brawer in the expectation that the Judenrat would provide means to acquire arms for self-defense. Notes himself, who was appointed commander of the city’s Betar cell, relates:
Notes and Leizerowicz enlisted in the Jewish Police, but were expelled from it a few weeks later.
During 1942, two emissaries of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir – Tosia Altman, an EYAL activist in Warsaw, and Adek Boraks, a leader of the PPO, the Jewish partisans’ organization in Vilna – visited Grodno. The home of Chasia Bielicki-Bornstein served as a meeting place for Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir emissaries and others, among them Irena Adamowicz and Zerah Zilberberg.
Movement activists would also meet in the bakery of Eliahu Tankus. As Chajka Grosman relates:
Here they found a youth movement organized in battalions, groups, and tribes, a movement that conducted meetings and discussions, engaged in mutual help, and maintained the great educational imperative. They sought a new way to ensure the movement’s existence, knowing that what had been done yesterday would not suffice tomorrow.25
24 Dov Rabin (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Diaspora (Hebrew & Yiddish), vol. IX, s.v. “Grodno,” Jerusalem, 1973, pp. 547-548.
25 Grosman, op. cit., p. 198.
From Grodno Zerah Zilberberg went to Bialystok, where he informed his comrades about the deportations to Kielbasin. He returned to Grodno on the eve of the major Aktion of January 1943, to organize and guide the underground. The local underground was headed by Yochebed Taub from Warsaw, and the leadership included Eliahu Tankus, Zila Shachnes, Miriam Popko, and Chasia Bielicki, of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir. Members of Dror and Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir organized together in units of five. Zerah Zilberberg guided the unit’s commanders, planned points for attack, and ensured that combat materials were prepared. The weapons were primitive and few: an electric lamp with vitriol, brass knuckles, sticks, and other items easily purchased or found in courtyards. There was also one pistol. Detailed maps of the ghetto and its surroundings were prepared, with the passages between courtyards and hidden passages to the “Aryan” side clearly marked. Dudu Rozowski set up a sophisticated laboratory for forging documents.
In November 1942, as the Aktionen continued in the neighboring towns, Mordecai Tenenbaum also returned to Grodno, after unsuccessfully trying to enter the Bialystok ghetto. On his way back he broke his leg and took shelter with a peasant woman. When he was finally smuggled into the ghetto he discovered that he had lost his papers; yet he was able to evade Gestapo troops who opened fire on him. Despite his injury, Tenenbaum tried hard to recruit Jews to the underground. In a proclamation he warned the Jews not to be misled by the Germans’ false promises. He also raised money, made sure that various documents and exit permits were prepared, and then, with his broken leg, went on to Bialystok.
In January 1943 the underground decided to eliminate Streblow, the commandant of Ghetto Two and a commander of the Aktionen in both Grodno ghettos. On the second or third day of the “Aktion of the Ten Thousand,” Nahum Krawitz and Mottl Kopelman waited for Streblow in the dark near the ghetto gate. They had brass knuckles and the pistol. However, as Streblow approached, he shone his flashlight on the two and shot them to death before they could make a move.
Following this failure, Zerah Zilberberg and a number of others decided to let themselves be caught so they would be taken to the synagogue, where they would attempt to organize a mass escape. Tenenbaum related that their initial intention was to attack the Germans, but,
at the last minute, their spirits fell again. Only three were ready to take action. They were incapable of killing others – at the last minute they backed off. We should have taught them [how to kill]. Usually our comrades remained [i.e., survived].26
26 Mordecai Tenenbaum, Leaves from the Conflagration (Hebrew), Tel Aviv, 1947, p. 49
In the wake of the abortive attempt on Streblow’s life and the failure of the plan to smuggle youngsters out of the synagogue on the eve of the transports, the underground concluded that it was impossible to organize an uprising in Grodno. True, the Judenrat agreed to help the underground financially and to find work for its members, but it was opposed to the idea of an armed revolt. Moreover, the unavailability of firearms, the absence of military experience (most of those in the underground were youngsters who had not yet done army service), and the difficulty of making connections with the Polish population dashed any hope of organizing an escape and joining the partisans. Under these circumstances the activists saw little chance of saving themselves and their families if they remained in Grodno; most of them made their way to Bialystok or fled to the forests.
Attempts at Flight and Rescue, Fighting in the Underground and with the Partisans’ Units During the mass Aktionen of early 1943, when the Jews in the ghetto already understood that they were doomed, many no longer hesitated to risk escape. Getting out of the ghetto was relatively easy; finding shelter outside the walls was a very different matter. In order to find shelter in the villages, one needed friends among the peasants who were ready to risk their lives by helping Jews. Some Poles did aid Jews, but they were certainly the exceptions. Finding a place to hide on Grodno’s “Aryan” side was all but impossible, and most Jews who attempted it were caught. There was no anti-German underground in the city, and the inhabitants were known for their indifference or even hostility toward the Jews. Many in Grodno had taken part in acts of plunder and pillage against Jews, and some had informed on Jews to the Germans. This is confirmed by the testimony of Heinz Errelis, the commandant of the Grodno Gestapo, as given at his trial after the war. Asked whether the Germans had warned the Poles against helping Jews, Errelis replied that this had been unnecessary since by and large the Poles had been delighted at the Jews’ disappearance.27
27 Serge Klarsfeld (ed.), Documents Concerning the Destruction of the Jews of Grodno 1941-1944, New York, 1987-1994, vol. IV, p. 117.
Most of the Grodno survivors were young people, together with a few families. Some had fled during the roundups of Jews for deportation or during the forced marches to the transport trains. A few had taken tools with them in the hope of being able to pry open a floor or window on the train. However, most of the would-be escapees were caught and shot to death, were killed as a result of leaping from the moving train, or were handed over to the Germans by Poles. Very few succeeded to escape. Among them was Grisha (Tsevi) Chosid who, with a few other youngsters, found his way to the partisans.
Others were fortunate enough to find a relatively safe haven. This might have been a pit dug near or in the house, or perhaps an attic, cellar, or barn. Those who escaped tried to join others who were already in hiding. Survival was more likely in places with previously proven effectiveness. The fear of being entirely alone was also a factor. Many remained in hiding for nearly a year and a half, from February 1943, when Ghetto One was liquidated, until the city’s liberation in July 1944. The Kotler family hid in Grodno’s Christian cemetery and were afterward joined by the pharmacist Avraham Trop-Krinsky. One Jew, Haim Shapiro, a youngster born in Bialystok and raised in Grodno, walked about freely but was not caught.
One account of a failed escape attempt was given by Jonah Zaretsky. He related that a Pole named Folkowski, who had already smuggled out Jews from Grodno to Warsaw, promised to get a group of six young people to the capital, among them Zaretsky and a young woman with her infant son. On March 23, 1943, Zaretsky, together with the woman and child, waited for Folkowski, but he did not appear. It later emerged that the others in the group had been arrested. Folkowski again promised to get the three to Warsaw, but within a few days the young woman and her son were also seized. Only Zaretsky succeeded in escaping, and he survived. He later learned that Folkowski was a Gestapo agent and had set them a trap.28
28 Yad Vashem Archives, 0-16/448.
Joining Undergrounds in Other Ghettos. A number of young people, mostly members of youth movements, moved to other ghettos, where the Jews still seemed to have some hope of survival. In January-February 1943, Tadeusz Soroka, a Pole and a former railroad worker, smuggled nine young Jews from Grodno to Vilna. Three other Grodno Jews reached Vilna by different routes. The head of the Vilna Judenrat, Ya’akov Gens, and the chief of the Jewish Police, Salek Desler, helped them obtain papers and arranged for them to work. However, they prohibited them from talking about the liquidation of the Grodno ghetto. The Grodno youngsters organized as a separate unit within the framework of the FPO, the Jewish partisans’ organization in Vilna. The “Grodno group” objected to the FPO’s conception of calling for a revolt within the ghetto; having already witnessed the liquidation of their own ghetto, they believed that flight to the forests was the only solution. However, at the end of July 1943, after FPO head, Itzik Witenberg, having been forced to turn himself over to the Germans, committed suicide, the FPO, too, changed its strategy and began moving youngsters from Vilna and from rural towns into the woods. Twenty-eight former Grodno residents joined, as a group, the famous “Mest’” (Vengeance) partisans’ battalion that operated in the Narocz forests. Following the unit’s dissolution and its co-option into the general Byelorussian unit (Komsomolski), most of the Grodno group was integrated into the combat unit and took part in attacking German camps, blowing up bridges, and other operations.
Quite a few of the Grodno youngsters reached the Bialystok ghetto and joined the ghetto underground. Most of them were later killed in the uprising there in August 1943. Some young women from Grodno who had “Aryan” features served in the underground as liaisons between the ghetto and the “Aryan” side of Bialystok; following the revolt of August 1943, it was they who maintained the connection between the city and the partisans. They found work and lodgings on the “Aryan” side, stayed in contact with the underground in the ghetto and with the nearby partisans’ unit, and smuggled food, medicines and arms; they lived to see Bialystok liberated by the Red Army. Among these young women were Bronia Winitzki-Klibanski, who was sent to Bialystok on the eve of Passover in 1942 in order to take part in the movement’s seminar and stayed on; Lisa Chapnik; and three who joined them in January 1943: Ania Rud, Zila Shachnes, and Chasia Bornstein-Bielicki.
Joining Partisans’ Units. It was virtually impossible to reach the forests from Grodno. It was only after the ghettos in the vicinity had been liquidated and hardly any Jews were left in Grodno that the first partisans in the region began to organize. Moreover, whoever wanted to join the partisans needed connections and weapons, and both were nearly impossible to obtain in Grodno.
We know of groups that set out for the forests but did not reach their destination; for example, the group of Eliahu Tankus. According to Chajka Grosman’s testimony, Tankus and the others wanted to reach the Augustow Forest. On the way they were put up by a peasant in the village of Koropoczica, some 12 kilometers from Grodno, who sold them two rifles. However, the peasant informed on them, and all but one were killed when they tried to defend themselves against the Germans with those two rifles.29
29 Grosman, op. cit., pp. 262, 282-283.
Another group that fled to the forests had greater success. In early 1943 a Jewish underground was formed in Grodno by Leib and Yisrael Rejzer, Salomon Zhukovsky, a teacher named Shmuel, Sonia Epstein, and a few others. They had been active in a local Communist organization, and they were joined by members of Poalei Zion-ZS. Sixteen of them slipped out of the ghetto and, using sleds, set off toward the town of Skidel. Their objective was to make contact with a Byelorussian partisan activist, Kostia Bucko, who was known for his assistance to Jews. They met with him, returned to the ghetto, and, two weeks later, again went into the forests. Leib Rejzer, who worked as a carpenter in a military hospital, had pried open the window of the hospital’s storeroom and removed four pistols and 150 bullets. Armed with these and five rifles, twenty-six youngsters set out for the Puszcza Nacza woods. A few days later they were met by Bucko and two Jewish horsemen, who took the group to the Radun Forest.
In time the unit was augmented by young Jews from Lida, Radun, Wasiliszki, and other towns, until it numbered about eighty members, of whom more than thirty were from Grodno. They were part of the “Leninski Komsomol” brigade; the commander, Anatoli Stankiewicz from Skidel, was known for his sympathy to the Jewish cause and for helping Jews. In May 1943 he transferred thirty-five members of Rejzer’s group to his battalion. Many of them acquitted themselves bravely in the battles fought by the partisans. At first they attacked small groups of Germans who were leading supply convoys, or Lithuanian policemen, and took their weapons; later they blew up trains, railway lines, and bridges.
The rest of Rejzer’s group lived as a family camp. In July 1943, the Germans and the Lithuanians raided the Puszcza Nacza forest; most of those in the family camp (ninety-six in number) were killed, but Stankiewicz’s partisans withdrew without losses to another forest, Puszcza Ruska. It must be to mentioned that many partisan units of White Poles, which operated in the Puszcza Nacza woods, murdered Jews who fell into their hands as they were attempting to join partisan units.
Survivors Who Posed as Non-Jews. Two Jews succeeded in remaining for some time in Grodno under assumed identities. Bela Szwarzfuks, the niece of Mejlachowicz, the owner of the well-known printing-press in Grodno, who posed as a Pole, lived for a while within the city limits outside the ghetto. She later fled to Warsaw and from there succeeded in reaching Germany, where she found work. She was liberated at the end of the war.
Eliahu Skowronski drifted from one ghetto to another – Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystok, Grodno – posing as a Pole, finding lodgings on Grodno’s “Aryan” side, and getting work in the aforementioned printing press. Skowronski kept in constant touch with the ghetto and with the underground and, through the printing press, conveyed letters to Arieh Wilner (one of the leaders of EYAL, the Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw). After the January Aktion in Grodno, he helped Zerach Zilberberg and Zila Shachnes return to Bialystok. When he came under suspicion of being a Jew he immediately enlisted for forced labor in Germany using Polish papers, was sent to Prussia, and worked there until the Russians arrived.
Boris (Borka) Shulkes and his wife Helena were able to reach Vilna, where they lived under assumed identities until the end of the war, as did Lusia (Lea) Riwkind.
Entrusting Children to Christians. We know of a few cases of parents who entrusted their children to Christians. Following the Aktion of January 1943, Franye Braude fled to a village near Grodno and went into hiding. She entrusted her infant daughter with a childless young woman who wanted to use the infant to avoid being sent to Germany for forced labor. After the war Franye had a long and hard fight to get her daughter back. Tanja Kaplan, who gave her small son to a Polish family, also put up a stubborn struggle to reclaim the boy, and was finally successful thanks to the help of a Jewish Russian officer, Gorchakov. Hannah Kotler (later Zalman) was entrusted to the family of the keeper at the Christian cemetery in Grodno who had helped the Jewish family hide; but her parents soon had to take her back when the Polish family grew too frightened of the Germans. Other children may also have been saved this way, but, if so, we do not know of them, perhaps because they were compelled to convert and continued to live as Poles even after the war.
Christians Who Saved Jews
The indifference, not to say hostility, of most of Grodno’s Polish population toward the Jews makes the deeds of those who risked their lives to save Jews shine even brighter. They came from all classes, and their success demonstrates that there would have been far more survivors if readiness to help had been more widespread. Emmanuel Ringelblum, the historian of the Warsaw ghetto and the founder of its archive, wrote:
Appalling terror reigns in the country, second only to Yugoslavia. The noblest among the people and the most self-sacrificing individuals are being sent en masse to concentration camps or prisons. Informing and denunciation flourish... Every day the press, radio, etc., infect the masses of the population with the venom of antisemitism... A Jew living in the flat of an intellectual or a worker or in the hut of a peasant is dynamite liable to explode at any moment and blow the whole place up. Money undoubtedly plays an important role in the hiding of Jews. There are poor families who base their subsistence on the funds paid daily by the Jews to their Aryan landlords. But is there enough money in the world to make up for the constant fear of exposure, fear of the neighbors, the porter and the manager of the block of flats, etc.? Idealists exist who devote their whole lives to their Jewish friends... a Jew is a little child, incapable of taking a single step by himself! A Jew cannot move around in the streets. His Aryan friend has to visit him frequently and arrange a thousand and one matters for him.30
30 Emmanuel Ringelblum, Polish–Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Jerusalem, 1974, pp. 226-227.
The rescuers shared their meager rations with their wards, usually without receiving anything in return from the destitute Jews. One survivor, Leila Krawic, succeeded in transferring to the Polish family that had hidden her the proceeds from the sale of her family’s belongings, which had previously been deposited in the hands of acquaintances in Grodno. However, this was a rare exception.
Among those who survived in Polish hands was Leon Trachtenberg, who, in March 1943, was placed on the transport to the Bialystok ghetto. He jumped from the train, made his way back to Grodno, took his parents out of hiding, and brought them to the village of Dulkowoszczysna. There they were all concealed by a peasant named Stanislaw Krzywicki in a dugout beneath the floor in which they could sit and lie down but not stand up. For more than a year, until the liberation in July 1944, the peasant and his wife supplied them with food, clothing of their own making, and even newspapers, while their small son Jozef kept guard outside.31
Jan and Janowa Puchalski, husband and wife, were employed before the war to guard the summer houses of the Freidovitch family, in an isolated forest area in Lososna. The Russians demolished four of the houses, leaving only one small structure standing, which served as the home of the Puchalskis with their five children. During the war the family dug a pit beneath the floor – 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters and 1 meter high – to hide Sender Freidovitch and his fifteen-year-old nephew Felix Zandman, Mottl and Goldie Bass, Borka Shulkes, and Meyer Zamosczanski (the latter two subsequently went to Vilna). A few months before the end of the war, they were joined by Esther Shapiro-Heidemak. The first four, however, had remained in their hiding place for seventeen consecutive months, until the liberation in July 1944. 32
31 See testimony of Leon Trachtenberg, Yad Vashem Archives, 03/6588.
32Zandman, op. cit., pp. 88-122.
Salomon Zhukovsky was fortunate enough to have a good friend outside the ghetto: “Finally I succeeded in contacting the Christians. My friend Feodor Boron, with whom I had worked for twelve years, helped me get in touch with Katia.” Katia and her husband gave him shelter in an apple cellar and in an attic in the village of Lososna, where he kept a diary. Even after his hiding place was bombed, he continued to hide beneath the rubble, and survived. In his diary Zhukovsky recorded two wishes – a kind of testament in the event he did not survive: that Katia and her husband should be compensated for their help and self-sacrifice on his behalf; and that everyone should beware of fascism...33
33 Salomon Zhukovsky, Yad Vashem Archives, 033/2434, p. 7.
Zigmund and Kassia Toloczko and their son Kazimierz, the owners of a farm near the village of Zydolma, on the road from Grodno to Skidel, sheltered the brothers Yehezkiel and Dov Furie until the end of the war. Before the war, Zigmund was a regular client at the Furie family’s grocery store in Grodno.
Dr. Anton Docha, a physician in the village of Staniwicze, near Grodno, his wife Janina and several of his assistants gave shelter to his professional colleague Dr. Alexander Blumstein, his father Dr. Haim Blumstein, his mother Esther, his brother Netanel, and a few others – Fania Halpern (today Luwitz), Helena Shevah (today Biblowitz), Hillel and Franye Braude, Misha and Rosa Wistaniecki – a total of ten people. Others who participated with them in this effort were Edward and Aniela Staniewska, Helena Zanieska, and Stefania Strzalkowska.
Tadeusz Soroka, as we have mentioned previously, saved nine Jews by transferring them from the Grodno ghetto to Vilna. A railway worker, he knew the times of departure of freight trains from Grodno to Vilna. The night before the train’s scheduled departure, he hid with two or three Jews in the canal alongside the tracks, and just as the train began to pull out, they jumped onto the step at the end of a freight car and then climbed up the iron ladder to the roof. In this way they reached Vilna.
One who spared no effort to rescue Jews was Pawel Harmuszko. He saved hundreds of Jews in the war’s early stage, before the start of the mass murders. He is even cited in Ringelblum’s book as an example of a Polish idealist who excelled in his devotion to the Jewish cause.34
34 Ringelblum, op. cit., pp. 238-240
Harmuszko had a farm, and, in the summer of 1941, a Jewish family, Mrs. Schiff-Lifshitz, her husband, and their year-old son were staying there.
“When the Germans entered Grodno,” Ringelblum wrote,
the antisemitic local population wanted to hand the Jews over to them. [Pawel] then defended this family, entirely on his own, arguing that to betray Jews was opposed to the principles of Christianity and morality.
After this he devoted himself to saving Jews, constantly traveling on the Grodno–Warsaw train to escort fleeing Jews.
He rescues the wealthy for money, but he transports the poor free and even helps them out of his own earnings. He is known in Warsaw and Grodno and enjoys infinite trust. He is entrusted with large sums of money and, more important, with human lives.
In Warsaw he helped Jews make contact with partisans in the forests, put discharged soldiers in touch with military organizations that could assist them, and helped Jews get to the “Aryan” side by obtaining papers for them, looking for lodgings, and transporting their belongings from the ghetto.
Among the hundreds of people who survived thanks to Pawel Harmuszko were Bolek Shiff, his wife Ania Klempner-Shiff, and eight other Jews who hid out for a few months in his grain silo in the village of Novosiolki, near Grodno. Harmuszko ensured that they all had shelter, food, and medical care. Others who survived thanks to Pawel Harmuszko were Dr. Grigory Woroshilsky, his wife, their son Viktor, and their two daughters.
At the time of the liquidation of Ghetto One in Grodno, in February-March 1943, Kristina Cywinska and her daughter Danuta (today Jurkowski) hid five Jews – Efraim Beilin and his daughter Bela, Abba Tarlowski and his daughter Rachel, and Yosef Prasecki – in a small shop. Someone informed on the mother, and she was arrested and executed by the Gestapo, but the daughter continued to hide the group of Jews. When the danger increased, she found them a hiding place with a Pole in a nearby village, and they stayed there until the end of the war.
Most of the survivors kept in touch with their rescuers, and, in time, with their children as well. They also tried to help them economically. After the war some non-Jews from Grodno and its surroundings were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Among them were Sigmund, Kassia and Kazimierz Toloczko; Jan and Janowa (Anna) Puchalski; Janina and Dr. Anton Docha, along with Edward and Aniela Staniewska; Helena Zanieska and Stefania Strzalkowska; Tadeusz Soroka; Pawel Harmuszko; and Kristina and Danuta Cywinska.
Entrance to Ghetto One today (with memorial plaque and menorah)