Holocaust Survivor and Partisan
by Rita Yelgin
Translated from the Yiddish by Louis Yelgin, KSC Cohen Center Fellow, 2006
Truthfully, I’ve always considered myself to be a coward. Yet, I was able to escape from the Grodno ghetto in February 1943 even though it was surrounded by armed German soldiers in iron helmets and rifles with bayonets. I then lived for almost 2 years in the depths of the Lithuanian forest as a member of a Jewish partisan group until I was liberated by the advancing Soviet army. What series of events enabled me to survive the Holocaust?
On a Friday night in July 1942, a young man of 35 befriended my father in the ghetto shul. His name was Tevke and he came from the small town of Radun near Vilna. As was customary for religious Jews, my father invited Tevke back to our rooms to share our meager Sabbath meal. He told us many shocking things about massacres of Jews and death camp deportations in all the small towns around Vilna. We simply could not comprehend this and naively thought that surely some Jews had done something wrong and that was why this had happened. But, he said “no”. They were killed only because they were Jews. He also told us about some Jews who had managed to escape the slaughter and had formed partisan groups in the forests near his town.
There were two ghettos in Grodno that together contained about 29,000 Jews. On November 1, 1942, my ghetto (the smaller one) was closed and people were no longer permitted to enter the main city for work. All the Jews from the villages surrounding Grodno were taken to a holding camp 10 kilometers from the city where previously the Germans had held 20,000 Russian war prisoners who had all died from hunger and typhus. I myself saw the dead war prisoners being carried on sleds to a burial site. Some of them were still just barely alive. It was in this camp that the Jews from the villages were taken and from where transports were assembled for Auschwitz and Treblinka.
As the smaller ghetto was liquidated by transports to the death camps, I managed to escape to the larger ghetto in a wagon filled with feather beds. My father did not want to go, but he often said to me that if he were younger and did not have a weak heart, he would try to escape from the ghetto. Someone must surely survive to tell the world what has happened here.
In the larger ghetto, I was given temporary shelter by a Jewish family. However, the Germans soon began staging raids in this ghetto as more Jews were needed to fill the the train transports to the concentration camps. Miraculously, I was able to find a hiding place for myself four times and escape the raids.
In the early morning of February 7, 1943, a Saturday, I saw my father appear before me in a dream. He spoke to me very sternly and said that I should stop trying to hide myself in the ghetto. I must escape from this trap and go to the forests near Radun where Tevke had told us there were Jewish partisan groups. It was still dark and cold in the small room where 11 people were hidden with me. I dressed myself under the bed covers and slid out of the house quietly. I came to the barbed wire ghetto gate and saw two German soldiers marching their post. They marched a measured distance of 50 meters before turning around to march back. As I stood hidden from view near the gate, a young boy of 14 whose name was Cokie ran up behind me. His father was a cattle dealer whom I knew very well. He was quite frightened, so I explained my escape plan to him. When the German soldiers reached the halfway point of their post, I would lift the barbed wire and walk to the other side of the street – outside the ghetto. He was to wait there until the soldiers had their backs to him on the next patrol cycle and follow my lead.
I took off my yellow Star of David, lifted the barbed wire, crawled under, and began walking to the other side of the street – a street about as wide as Harvard Street. I walked calmly and slowly so as not to attract attention. But, on the other sidewalk, a group of three Polish women stopped and were about to yell out, when a German major appeared and told them to move on. He then turned to me and said, “Machen sie das shneller……shneller” (Move faster….faster). To this day, I think this man must surely have been an angel sent from heaven to help me escape.
I quickly turned into a small street and went down a hill toward the Nemen – a river as large and wide as the Charles River in Boston. A half kilometer from there was the woods where I had arranged to meet Cokie. When he arrived, we tore up our German identification cards and buried them deep in the snow-covered ground. We waited until dusk to leave the woods. Scared and hungry, we began walking on the main road to Lida where we had heard there were Jewish partisans in the forests. We walked 16 kilometers that first night and slept a few hours in a farmer’s barn. We pressed on at daybreak, moistening our lips with snow for sustenance. One couldn’t really eat the snow because it tasted like chalk.
On the third day, we came to the small town of Stutzin – about 65 kilometers from Grodno. The Jews there gave us shelter in the homes of two different families and I was separated from Cokie. I stayed with a wealthy Jewish family who had owned 2 estates before the war. The very next day, a Polish peasant woman who had done business with the father came to visit and offered to hide one of his 3 daughters. Since the daughters did not want to be separated from each other, he told the woman that I was his niece and that she should take me. He gave her a lot of valuable things to cover her expenses and risks – horse harnesses, sheep skins, leather and cloth. He told her that she would get more after the war and asked her to bring him a letter from me next week. However, during the following week, the Germans captured and shot many Jews from Grodno who had tried to escape from the ghetto. Their bodies were piled on the main road and not buried in order to scare the local peasants so they would not help any escaping Jews. The peasant woman was afraid to travel into Stutzin and my letter was never delivered. After the war, I met a son from this Jewish family who had survived the war as a partisan. He told me that they all thought the Polish woman had killed me because my letter never arrived. The father, his wife and the 3 daughters had all perished in the Holocaust.
I stayed with the Polish woman for eight weeks. One night, I had a dream where my mother was giving me gold coins and telling me to leave this place and go to the forests where my father had told me to go. “Do not be afraid, my child. I will be with you, but you will not see me.”
A week later, the Polish woman’s daughter came to visit her. She lived far from her mother – about 10 kilometers from Vasilischok, a town very close to my destination. I decided to leave with the daughter when she departed from her mother’s house in a few days. The Polish woman gave us a ride for a few kilometers with a horse-drawn wagon and then we walked. As we approached the border at daybreak (the Germans had created a border between the new Third Reich territories and Russia), we met an old peasant who told us that the border crossing was quiet and we need not be afraid. We were very much relieved and in a few hours approached the daughter’s house. She told me to stay in the woods about 1/4 kilometer from her home because her husband was an anti-semite and would inform on me to the Germans. She brought me a pitcher of hot soup and bread every day for 10 days. On the tenth day, she told me that she could no longer hide me and that she would take me to the road leading to a small village where they helped Jews. She took the cross hanging from my neck and told me to always cross myself when I walked by a church so no one would suspect that I was Jewish.
As I walked along the road that night, I luckily stumbled upon 3 young men who were Jewish partisans on a food mission for their unit. They told me to wait there hidden in the woods until they returned. When they yelled “Shura”, that would be the signal to come out of hiding and they would take me to their camp deep in the forest. It was there in that partisan camp that I met my future husband Henry who was one of the leaders of the group. He was a true hero who had smuggled 26 people out of the Grodno ghetto one month earlier and broken into the German arsenal to steal the weapons the unit now had for protection, food missions and sabotage.
German and Lithuanian patrols raided our camp many times during the two years and the size of our group diminished as people fell in combat. In the early morning of June 16, 1943, we heard gun shots and started running into the swamps to escape. Everyone ran in different directions from panic and fright. I ended up hiding with a small group that included my future husband Henry, his mother, a young woman and her son, and a young couple with a one year old baby. As we lay hidden in very thick bushes, we saw a young Lithuanian of 25 with a machine gun walking slowly, looking right and left. Just as he came to our hiding place, he looked away from us to the left and walked by. The young mother had held her child to her breast wrapped in a blanket. The baby had slept quietly throughout the ordeal and we were safe for the time being. The other partisans had not wanted the couple to be with them because of the dangers posed by a crying baby. But we did not have the heart to drive them away. After the war, I learned that all three had later perished in another raid.
We lived as hunted animals in the woods, chased by German, Lithuanian, Polish and Ukrainian patrols. During the first summer, we slept on the ground without any shelter from the elements. By winter time, we had dug holes in the ground and covered the tops with tree branches that were covered by snow. As the raids increased, we dug more hiding places and regularly moved from one to the other in order to decrease the chance of being discovered. The men went on food missions 15 - 20 kilometers from our camp so as not to disturb the local peasants who might inform the Germans about our presence. Most of our food was gotten at the point of a gun from peasants who themselves were starving.
I was liberated on July 7, 1944 by the advancing Soviet army. I returned to Grodno in the hope that some members of my family had survived the Holocaust. After several months, it became clear to me that I was the only survivor. Of the 29,000 Jews of Grodno, only about 100 survived the war.
I married after the war and emigrated to the United States in 1949 where I raised two children. In 1968, my husband and I went to Germany to testify at the trial of the Nazi commanders of the Grodno ghetto. They all received lifetime prison sentences. I now live in Brookline, have 3 grandchildren and view each succeeding generation as a victory over Hitler who 50 years ago sought to annihilate us all.