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Sefer Vladimirets

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My Escape from the Ditches of Slaughter

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Mordechai Weissman


The moon shone brightly that night in the middle of the month of Elul, in the year 1942. We all stayed inside our houses with the doors locked, knowing that the police watch had been strengthened. From behind the house, we could hear the footsteps of the patrols in the garden. They would stop and look into the closed shops from time to time. Behind our locked door, we spoke only of death; each of us reviewed his sins and good deeds. Many recited Psalms, weeping. At dawn, we held a minyan at Borak’s place; he had a Torah scroll hidden in his house, and held regular services there. One of the congregation was a Jew who had the reputation of being a Tzaddik, one of the 36 holy and just men who sustain the world. Some people would believe anything he said, which is understandable if you remember how terrible those times were. Since there were no ways to avoid these troubles, people looked for support and comfort in mysticism. This man was one of the refugees who had come to Vladimirets during the war.

Many of the neighbors gathered together at Borak’s, men and women together. Everyone was depressed and discouraged, the fear of death on everyone’s face. Suddenly the "holy man" stood up and said in a commanding voice: "Women, go home and prepare for Shabbos! I am telling you, a miracle is going to happen."

His words made a deep impression on that terrible Friday which stood in the shadow of annihilation, but they awakened hidden hopes: "He must know what he’s talking about, he can’t be speaking in vain."

Not far from Borak’s house lived a Ukrainian goyim woman named Zosia. When she saw me that morning, she gave me a sad look and offered her words of "comfort".

"Oh," she said, "it’s not bad for you Jews, you will certainly be buried in the ditches they’ve dug, but us, who knows what will become of us?"

Her intentions were good, but who could have been comforted by those words?

When the Ukrainian police came to our house and began driving everyone out cursing and shouting, it was late in the day; we were one of the last families to be marched to the assembly point. We had heard shooting, and had seen people running everywhere in search of a place to hide. I had always been a man of action, but now I felt completely helpless, and had no desire to escape. It didn’t even cross my mind to leave my wife and two beloved daughters, one 2 and one 6 years old. I knew our fates had been sealed. We were caught in a trap, and whatever powerful urges had lead me to take action in the past had fled.

The only thing we took when we left the house was food for the children. Each of us was wearing our best clothes. Many men brought their tallis and tefillin, as I did. I had also slipped a box of matches into my pocket, thinking that I could set something on fire, although I couldn’t really imagine taking revenge with only the aid of a match’s small fire.

When we reached the assembly point at Linkes square, we were ordered to sit. Before we had arrived, there had been shooting. Some Jews had tried to run away, and many of them were shot. Occasionally, more Jews who had been found hiding in houses were brought there. I sat with my wife, my daughters, and my mother-in-law. My father didn’t sit with us. The Germans, trying to hide their intentions and confuse us, had divided us into groups, one which consisted of the Judenrat and their families. My younger brother worked as a servant of the Germans, so he was in that group, and because of my brother, my father was among them as well. Additionally, there was an artisan group, supposedly the Germans had an interest in their skills.

Suddenly, a Ukrainian policeman stood up and called out: "Whoever has hidden gold, silver, or other valuables can come with us and remove them from their hiding places. Those who do this will be allowed to remain alive."

I don’t remember if anyone actually believed that, or took them up on their offer, but the thought of a supposedly protected group of craftsman inspired several of us to try to join them.

My family and I found ourselves included in the "worthless" group, those destined for death. Not far from us, in the craftsman group, sat Borak’s family, with whom we were very close. I said to our six-year-old Devoryle: "Run, Devoryle, and sit with Borak’s children. Maybe you’ll stay alive that way."

Devoryle obeyed and quickly joined Borak’s family; but she couldn’t stay very long. She wanted to be with her mother and father, and came running back to us.

I sat broken and depressed. I thought of my wife and daughters – I could do nothing for them. I looked around me at the Jews of Vladimirets, and knew that we were all condemned to death. Family after family sat there, grandfathers and grandchildren, generations of Jewish love and hope. I saw us all bound together with the love of the condemned. Many of the old men were wrapped in their tallisim, praying and reciting Psalms. Near to us was Reb Zelig Tsherniak with his family, one of the most popular and respected families in the village. The village was surrounded by Ukrainian police, but at the square itself there were several Germans and a few Ukrainians. I had always known our cause was lost and had never held onto false hopes; now I felt more hopeless than ever.

A few young men were sitting next to me. "We have nothing to lose," I said. One of the young men was a refugee from Warsaw who had found himself in the Vladimirets shtetl. "Maybe it would be worthwhile to attach the Germans and take their weapons. With a few rifles we’d be able to accomplish something before we die. We have to do something!"

It is possible that I meant them as empty words. The urge to act, to do something, which had abandoned me since we left our house, was revived. I became restless, knowing that we had nothing to lose and no way out, I was compelled to say what I did.

Time passed slowly, until it was four in the afternoon. Sitting on the ground, overwhelmed by despair, prayers and tears, we saw a row of Germans and Ukrainians approaching the square, and all of a sudden orders were being shouted at us: "Stand up and march out!"

It quickly became clear that the promises made to the two selected groups, the artisans and the Judenrat families, had been made only to divide and confuse us. On the contrary to our beliefs, the families of the Judenrat were killed first. Children clung to their parents; whole families took their final steps as one. All of us Jews were herded in the direction of the village of Zhulkin. As we walked, I could see murdered Jews lying here and there across the fields. They were probably those who had tried to run away from the square earlier that morning. Near the road, I saw a young girl who had been murdered. I didn’t know her. Her dress was covered with red blood and her eyes just stared out.

We walked down the middle of the road with guards along both sides – Ukrainians on one side and the Germans on the other.

I remember clearly one young man suddenly running away from one of the first rows, toward the direction of the fields, but he was shot. The young man paused, and then fell.

Several of the Ukrainian policemen who were accompanying us began saying quietly:

"You’re all lost, you have no hope. We just came from Sarny – all the Jews have already been ‘asleep’ for a long time. If any of you have a watch, it would be a shame for it to go to waste. If any of you has something valuable, give it to us, it would be a shame to lose it."

This is how the Ukrainian police spoke to me and the other Jews, but no one answered them. Now and then we heard them repeat the same refrain, attempting to arouse in us sentiment or feelings of responsibility for any precious items that might "G-d forbid" otherwise go to waste.

In one arm I held my 2-year old Chayele, and my other hand held that of my 6-year old Devoryle. My entire being was focused on my little family. The tragedy of this moment made me truly feel the essence of my love for them. I held only one prayer in my heart; that the moment would come quickly for us to release our souls, bound together.

We reached the ditches, and more Germans with machine guns came up. They ordered the men to separate from the women and children, but we all clung together. With iron rods and whips they began to beat us, tearing apart the entangled families. My wife shouted to me "Mordechai, give me the children, you can see that your resistance is useless."

The Germans left the women and children next to the first ditches. They ordered us men to walk further, to the ditches that had been assigned to us. They ordered the men to strip completely naked and fold our clothes into a neat pile. Then were were ordered to step away from our clothes and assemble in rows of five. I stood together with my younger brother Yenkele and my father. We were sure that they would kill us immediately after we stripped, but they had a different procedure.

Five in a row, we stood several meters away from the ditch that was to be our grave. My row was one of those near the grave. I remember that Yankel Eisenberg was standing a few rows in front of us.

"Jews, we should do something, we’re finished anyway," someone yelled.

Suddenly from among the rows the son of the Trisker shokhet (ritual slaughterer) shouted out:

"Jews, don’t worry, we’ll arrive just before Shabbos! Jews, don’t worry!"

Cries and weeping could be heard, mixed with loud voices proclaiming "Shema Yisroel!" In response to the cries of our martyrdom, the Germans and Ukrainians began to bellow and curse.

The first row was ordered to jump into the ditch. It was deep and wide, and a German with a machine gun stood over it at one end. Those in the first row jumped in, stretched out on the ground next to each other and were slaughtered with one burst of machine gun fire. Meanwhile, the next row stood at the edge of the ditch. The moment came for my row to jump into the ditch.

I was horrified by what I had seen. I didn’t want to live anymore, I just wanted the Angel of Death to come quickly. I wanted to look him in the face and not wait for him. I wanted him to come quickly, so that I wouldn’t have to wait in a row and have him arrive on a German’s command. Was it possible for me to realize my last wish?

Then I stood at the edge of the ditch, ready to jump in. I saw the German standing next to me, with his sleeves rolled up and his blood-drunk eyes. I saw him stretch out his fingers toward me, pointing downward as if to say "Jump!"

A moment before, notions of dying differently than they wanted me to had flitted across my mind. I had tried to thing of something to do, but couldn’t think of anything effective. But at the exact moment when the German motioned me into the ditch, a bizarre, illogical, primal thought hit me like a fiery sword, and showed me what to do: run past the guards and be killed there, to be killed as someone who resisted, an escapee, rather than following their order – to rip through them and be killed running away from the ditches instead of inside them.

And that’s what I did. Instead of jumping into the ditch, I ran, as though possessed, with all my strength, I ran off to the right. I made it through the short distance between two policemen, and ran toward the brush which bordered the forest not far from the ditches. I heard the sharp tap of shots behind me and the whistle of bullets around me. I ran without breathing. One thought filled my mind: I was running after I was dead. I must have been killed, but I was still running.

So I ran, not a great distance, and I found myself among the trees of the forest. Deeper and deeper into the forest I ran. When I finally stopped for a moment, I was amazed to realize that I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t even wounded. A flicker of life and hope lit inside me, a desire to live and fulfill a great mission. I had to remain alive in order to tell others what I had seen here. I thought of ways I would need to defend myself to stay alive, to realize this desire.

Those few seconds when I had been driven by primal instincts had passed, and now I consciously decided to walk deeper into the forest. Naked as the day I was born, I walked among the trees of the forest. From the distance, I could hear the shots coming from the ditches of slaughter.

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