Truth – Legends / The Corpse-Burners
So the Ninth Fort received us into its bloody arms. In the courtyard, a Gestapo officer ordered us to form a single line, to take everything out of our pockets and put them on the ground. What could a person keep in his pockets after the Gestapo and the guards of the “Yellow Prison” had checked him out? Until that moment, I had succeeded in keeping my pocketknife. I still kept it hidden between the fingers of my left hand.
In the courtyard, my attention was drawn to two figures holding a saw and trying to cope with a wooden plank. One got the impression that two corpses dressed in the tattered uniforms of the Red Army were sawing wood, or to be more exact, were trying to saw wood. Perhaps the two of them would manage but I had my doubts. Would we also end up in such a state?
The inspection was at an end and I still had my pocketknife.
A police sergeant arrived. A tall, old German with a lined face, aged about fifty to fifty-five. He looked down on us with his large gray piercing eyes. A typical German gendarme. He ordered us to enter the main sector where we would receive food and afterwards go to work. He was responsible for the work at the Ninth Fort.
One of the prisoners of war showed us the way. We passed an open door secured by metal bars, leading to a large courtyard, and from there we entered through the heavy iron door of the main sector. On the door was written: “The prisoners are strictly forbidden to touch the outer latch." The place was dark. An odor of rotting meat took my breath away and made me dizzy. The feeling of disgust made me nauseous. How could a person exist in such an atmosphere? We passed through a narrow and long hallway and entered Cell Number 7. To the left there was a double-level bunk. A window with metal bars faced the small courtyard opposite the entrance to the guards' room. The window set in the wall was more than a meter deep. A lame prisoner of war entered the cell. He placed some tins of food and bread on the table. We sat down alongside the table on two benches; how could one eat in this atmosphere? In the tin was a dish made of various leaves, grasses and potato skins. I wanted to vomit because of the air in the cell and the food in the tin. As hungry as I was, I was unable to eat. Everything was putrid. The smell of decomposing meat pervaded the atmosphere but apparently one can get used to anything and we ate the food we had been given.
A young prisoner of war entered the cell dressed in a clean German army uniform and introduced himself as head of the prisoners group in the Ninth Fort. His name was Sashka. He was blond, of average height and narrow-shouldered. He asked us who we were and where did we come from? We told him the same story that we told in Garliava and to the Gestapo. All the prisoners of war at the Ninth Fort evidently were Jews.
Sashka ordered us to go into the courtyard. There a police chief instructed us to remove our boots and put on wooden clogs. We were to leave the boots in the cell. At work we could only wear clogs. He called someone by the name of Shachov and showed him how to tie our feet. Shachov was the smith at the fort. He was a broad-shouldered prisoner of war, with a black moustache, who came with a wooden box which had been used to store bullets for Russian rifles, placed it on the ground, showed us how to hold the foot, bind it with a chain, and close it with a buckle. The same applied to the other leg. When everyone was properly bound, the police chief told us to take up the shovels, rakes and pick-axes. We were escorted by two officers with submachine guns and led through the heavy metal gate of the small courtyard, to work on the “battlefield,” as it was called.
A young prisoner of war entered the cell dressed in a clean German army uniform and introduced himself as head of the prisoners group in the Ninth Fort. His name was Sashka. He was blond, of average height and narrow-shouldered. He asked us who we were and where did we come from? We told him the same story that we told in Garliava and to the Gestapo. All the prisoners of war at the Ninth Fort evidently were Jews.
Sashka ordered us to go into the courtyard. There a police chief instructed us to remove our boots and put on wooden clogs. We were to leave the boots in the cell. At work we could only wear clogs. He called someone by the name of Shachov and showed him how to tie our feet. Shachov was the smith at the fort. He was a broad-shouldered prisoner of war, with a black moustache, who came with a wooden box which had been used to store bullets for Russian rifles, placed it on the ground, showed us how to hold the foot, bind it with a chain, and close it with a buckle. The same applied to the other leg. When everyone was properly bound, the police chief told us to take up the shovels, rakes and pick-axes. We were escorted by two officers with submachine guns and led through the heavy metal gate of the small courtyard, to work on the “battlefield,” as it was called.
We dragged ourselves with difficulty through the muddy road. The chains made it more difficult for we could not take normal steps. The chains cut into our leg bones. In addition, the clogs sank into the mud. After treading two hundred meters, we arrived at a long pit which we had to fill with earth.
The earth was muddy. We had to dig with a pick-axe and use a shovel or rake to move the earth to the pit. The length of the pit was almost a hundred meters; it was 2.5 meters wide, and some three meters in depth. The “battlefield” occupied an area of approximately 100 by 120 meters, enclosed by a fence three meters high and ma   de of cloth attached to wooden poles. To the left was a watchtower with a machine gun. The tower guard, an SD officer, did not take his eyes off us. Towards the back, there was a mound of ash taken from the pit which had been worked on by the bulldozer, which lifted off the upper layer of ash from the adjoining pit. From time to time a thick vapor rose from the earth and the smell of rotting flesh pervaded the area. That was when the bulldozers reached the level of the murdered corpses. Again, it was the same putrid smell that permeated the cells in the sector. A large fire blazed near the bulldozer. I could not see anything and the air was filled with the smell of burnt flesh. I sensed that something terrible was going on here. The guards did not take their eyes off us and we could not pause for even a moment of rest. One of the guards from beyond our pit suddenly appeared and began to shout:
"The man with the revolver, come here!" And he pointed at Meishe Gerber.
The moment Meishe approached him, he started to beat him with a heavy club. When Meishe’s cries became too heartbreaking, the guard backed off. We did not stop digging the sodden earth and moving it into the pit. Here and there we exchanged a word about what was going on around us. Without any doubt, we were filling a pit from which the bodies of murdered Jews were removed. The bulldozer removed the upper layer after the fire seen from afar had cremated the corpses of the murdered Jews taken from their graves. A new and blazing bonfire raged.
The guards stopped the work. Outside it was still light. All the chained prisoners assembled. We formed two columns. We were counted a number of times and made to run back to the fort under a heavy guard of officers armed with submachine guns.
Exhausted, we dragged our feet and our heads were bent. Shocking thoughts continued to plague us. We did not want to accept what we had seen – but it was a fact that we had been brought here to the fort in order to dig up murdered Jews from their graves and burn them. We were being forced to help the murderers to erase the traces of their perversions. And we had to burn our dearest relatives: our children, brothers, sisters and parents. I had to cremate my own parents, who were murdered here on October 29, 1941. We were compelled to help the executioners to wipe out the evidence of their murders. Was this not as if we had assisted them in their terrible deeds? We had to flee from here... We had to escape and tell the rest of the world what we had seen. Such thoughts troubled me all the way to the fort’s iron gate.
We, the new ones, went into the barn in order to take straw to cover the wooden bunks of Cell Number 3 where we were to sleep. We each received two thin blankets: one to put over the straw and the other to cover ourselves with.  The head of the group said that these blankets were from the Czech Jews who were burned on the “battlefield." This is all we had in the way of bedclothes. There were no pillows, we were given neither towels nor soap.
The blacksmith Shachov sat at the entrance to the sector and removed the chains from our legs. We went to wash our hands. Our meal consisted of the same soup we had already tasted. We got used to this too – we ate and even the air in the sector had become bearable. We were all depressed. Most of all, Michael Gelbtrunk (Itzchaki). He was completely broken and said he would take his own life. I tried to calm him down by telling him that we would all have time to die but that we must do whatever we could to escape.
At night, Meishe Zimelevitch (nicknamed “Pok”) suggested that we try to flee. His plan was that Eidlson, Gelbtrunk, he and I remain in the large courtyard of the fort after work and when it became dark, climb over the six-meter-high fence which surrounded the sector from the front to the eastern side. We could do this via the watchtower which the Germans did not use and run off in whatever direction we chose. I utterly objected to this plan and claimed that perhaps one or two of us would succeed in escaping in this way but what about the rest of us? Our comrades, the prisoners? I suggested we establish contact with the other cells, set up a committee that would work out a general plan of escape from the fort. It was important that everyone should have a chance to escape – the greater the number of escapees, the greater the number of people who would survive to give evidence against the German criminals and their Lithuanian helpers. Zimelevitch and the rest of the comrades did not support my idea. I stood by what I proposed and took on the task of setting up a committee and organizing the escape. The comrades agreed. And so the night passed.
Friday, November 19. We worked at covering the pit, in the same fashion as the previous day. The guard who beat Gerber the day before sought him out again. We tried to hide him but the guard spotted him and called him over, shouting:
"The man with the pistol, come here!"
Once again Gerber is beaten by the same guard, as he was the day before. His heartrending cries cut into me like a knife. Not far from the bulldozer, behind a pile of ash, a fire broke out, reaching skyward, with its flames mixed with thick black smoke. The lighting of the new fire ended our working day at the “battlefield."
We returned to the sector. On the way, we were instructed to enter the tunnel, from which we all took a wooden log and brought it to be sawed in the small courtyard of the fort. Dried firewood was kept in the tunnel for use in the kitchen and for heating the prisoners' cells as well as the Germans’ living quarters. The great iron gate opened; Shachov was awaiting us to take the chains off our legs.
New comrades were brought to our cell from the prison: Tuvia Pilovnik, Pinia Krakinovski, Mendl Deitch, Grisha Shalit, Shepsl Shmidt and Shmuel Chananovitch – all former members of AKO in the ghetto who were caught by the Lithuanian police on their way to Augustovo and handed over to the Gestapo. Meishe Levin, a Jew from the townlet of Vendzhiogala, some twenty-four kilometers from Kovno, had been hiding with Christians in the village when someone informed on him and handed him over to the Gestapo. Now we were fourteen men in the cell.
A converted Jew by the name of Jonas Pilvinskas, who had not been in the ghetto, also worked in the fort. He lived in town with his Lithuanian wife, Birute.
Pilvinskas, who was an electrician, told the Germans that he was a barber. He did not go to work at the “battlefield” but worked for the German guardsmen. On my return from the “battlefield," I told Pilvinskas about that guard who beat Gerber and asked him to shave Gerber so that the guard would not recognize him. Pilvinskas told me to bring Gerber to the room where he shaved the guards and Gerber returned from there almost unrecognizable.
From the hour when we returned from work until the distribution of food and the locking of our cells, it was possible to roam about the sector freely. I exploited this opportunity to visit the other cells.
There were fourteen cells, seven on each story. The prisoners were kept in four cells on the first floor. All the other cells were empty and unlocked. In Cell Number 7, there were only prisoners of war. In Cell Number 6, there was a mixed company of prisoners of war, converted Jews who had been in hiding with Christians, a rabbi from the Kaishiadorys camp, a speculator who was caught in town without a yellow patch, and also Jews who were separated by the constabulary at the entrance to the ghetto. In Cell Number 5, there were three women who were separated from that same group, and there was Cell Number 3, where we fighters of the ghetto were interned, together with that Jew who had hidden with Christians and had been caught.
I walked about Cell Number 7 where no one seemed to pay any attention to me. Everyone was occupied only with himself. In Cell Number 6, I found Tuvia Fridman, the tailor with leftist opinions. He used to visit a tenant of ours, Shleime Pasternak, who was also a tailor who had lived in our house for a short time before the war. Together we would listen to the broadcasts from Moscow. I understood that they were attached to the Jewish leftist circles.
I called Tuvia into the hallway. He was standing and talking to one of the prisoners. He told me that he had worked in a very good group in town, with the German “constabulary." This was a group of craftsmen. Of late, there had been less need for craftsmen and they had to be employed doing hard labor. One day, on October 20, when they were standing near the ghetto gate ready to go out to work, nine men and three women were taken out of the group in order to unload coal and they were brought to the Ninth Fort. One of the crew, a tailor, became ill with appendicitis and on November 5, was taken away and had not been seen since. The following are the names of the Jewish crew attached to the “constabulary," who were brought to the Ninth Fort:

Men:
1. Abramovitch (who took ill with appendicitis and was murdered by the  Germans)
2. Aharonovitch
3. Gitlin Israel
4. Hirsh Meir
5. Chas Mendl
6. Lochnitski Israel
7. Maister Yudl
8. Fridman Tuvia
9. Tzinman Betzalel

Women:
10. Beder Batia
11. Griksht Liuba
12. Demantovitch Roza.

Our distressing situation was obvious to Fridman and he was prepared to participate in whatever we chose to do. I explained my plan to him. In the present situation, we could not conduct meetings. Two representatives from each cell would have to be chosen, while a committee of six members would have to organize and prepare escape plans. Fridman suggested the prisoner with whom I spoke earlier as the second member from his cell.
The prisoner, Aharon Rudanski, was a young doctor from Sverdlovsk. He was twenty-five. When he was captured, he concealed the fact that he was a Jew, and was sent as a doctor to Germany, to the town of Letche, to the ROA (Russian Liberation Army) school for army officers. As he had no intention of serving the Nazis, he revealed his Jewish identity. He was beaten up and sent to Kovno, to a special camp where Ukrainian volunteers for the army of Russian liberation were imprisoned and sentenced for various charges and then transferred to the Ninth Fort.
His story made a deep impression on me. I was of the opinion, however, that we had to find someone with military experience. I asked Fridman to find someone else. We went over the names of his cell members and stopped at that of Vasilenko. Ivan Vasilenko had worked with the bulldozer at the “battlefield." He claimed that he was an engineer and a captain in the Red Army. Later, he told me that he had taken part in the battles on the roofs of Sevastapol, was wounded in the leg and captured. He also called himself a Ukrainian. He had been in a camp in the Lithuanian town of Kalvarija when it was discovered that he was a Jew and he was sent to the Kovno prison. And then, on November 3, 1943, he was sent to the Ninth Fort. Vasilenko kept to himself and distanced himself from the other prisoners. He spoke very little, and this trait was very important. So Vasilenko and Fridman represented Cell Number 6. They would have to prepare their fellow cell-members for the escape.
Now I had to deal with Cell Number 7. Who should I choose? Here Fridman helped me. He told me that one of the prisoners from Cell Number 7 had approached him and suggested escaping from the fort. But these were only idle words. He had not seen or heard from him since. I asked Fridman to introduce me to the man. I went to Cell Number 7 and after a moment, Fridman returned with a small prisoner aged about fifty. His name was Mark Emanuelitch. After a short conversation he agreed to act with us and to choose another member from the cell. I suggested we all meet on the following day, Saturday, and hold our first meeting. I also asked them to treat the matter with absolute secrecy, not to take any hasty steps, and to behave with care towards the other prisoners. And so we parted.
I returned to the cell and assembled my good and active friends: Zimelevitch, Gelbtrunk, Eidlson and Pilovnik, and told them what I had achieved so far. They were all satisfied. We began to act!
It was 19:00 hours. Two guardsmen of officer's rank arrived armed with submachine guns. The corpse-burners quickly dispersed to the cells. I arranged with Fridman where and when we were to meet. The guards counted the prisoners in the cells, locked the metal doors from without and left the sector. They locked the outer metal door and closed the latch on the outside. There were no guards within the fort.
I lay between Zimelevitch and Pilovnik. We did not fall asleep for some time. I told them about my plan. It was based on disarming the guards, capturing the weapons and heading back to the forests. Zimelevitch – Pok – promised me that he would support my plans. Once before we had tried to move without weapons and the result – we were sent to the Ninth Fort.
Saturday, November 20. Meishe Gerber was beaten again. Shaving did not help him. The guard sought him out, recognized him and gave him his daily beating. The corpse-burners were not allowed to work at the “battlefield” wearing boots, for one could take them off together with the chains. A police officer therefore showed us how to put on the clogs. But as it was not comfortable to walk in clogs, which often sunk into the mud, the prisoners whose job it was to examine the bodies of Jews brought from abroad, would take off the corpses' shoes (generally sports shoes) and bring them back to the sector. They would place them in the bathroom and everyone could choose a pair for himself. They would disinfect them with Lysol, rinse them, dry them and put them on. I decided that I should also have a pair and kept my boots for the escape.
But after I prepared a pair of sports shoes for myself, the skin between two fingers of my left hand was bruised and I went to the doctor of the fort, Dr. Mikolas Portnojus (Michael Portnoy). He was a converted Jew, aged approximately fifty-five years. The Germans had appointed him doctor of the prisoners and he was responsible for the health of the corpse-burners. There were three doctors among the prisoners who stayed at the fort for eighteen months, and now a new one had just arrived who had been appointed doctor of the fort. This aroused a certain suspicion and lack of trust. Portnoy said that he was brought to the fort because he had hidden in the town and had not gone into the ghetto. His wife was German and they had a son and lived in town despite the law against mixed marriages.
Head of the Lithuanian Security Police and SD, Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Heinrich Schmitz issued an order on October 13, 1942, Order No. 11B-1858/42, relating to the registration of mixed Jewish families. It stated, among other things: “It is forbidden for a Jew to be with his Aryan wife even if he has converted. If such an instance is found to exist, the Jew must be arrested at once and be brought to the Security Police in Vilna, Kovno, Shiauliai or Panevezhis."(74; 120,121)
In the city, Dr. Portnoy had helped a certain priest edit a German-Lithuanian dictionary and was arrested in connection with it. I found the doctor in Cell Number 6, standing against the bunk, in an obviously sad state. He looked at me with half-closed eyes. He examined the bruise on my hand and said that it was the result of poisoning from contact with a corpse or clothing of a corpse. Yet I had washed the sports shoes of the dead. Portnoy took a piece of paper out of his pocket, dipped it in Rivanol, put it on the infected finger, bound it with a paper bandage and told me that I would be excused from going to work. I never wore the shoes and did not want to see them again. The infection healed.
In the evening after supper, the first meeting of the three cells’ representatives took place. We had to discuss the question of the escape from the fort. In order not to draw the attention of the other inmates, I asked Michael Gelbtrunk, who had once been an actor in the National Jewish Theater of Kovno, to go into the large hallway at the entrance to the fort and entertain the prisoners with stories and songs. All our partisans left the cell together with him. And I asked Shimon Eidlson to stand in the narrow corridor leading to our cell and not to let anyone pass until the end of our discussions.
Two benches were near the stove with six conspirators seated on them. I opened the discussion, talked about our situation and how we would too be murdered eventually on the conflagration in the “battlefield." The aim of the discussions was to organize the mass escape from the Ninth Fort. It was very important that the greatest number of witnesses break out of the fort, who could tell what they had seen there. I proposed disarming the guards. The decision had to be agreed on in principle; the details could be decided on and worked out afterwards. Fridman and Vasilenko agreed. Mark Emanuelitch objected. He claimed that if we killed a German and one of the escapees were caught, he would be tortured to death. His comrade from Cell Number 7 added that prisoners were protected by the Geneva Convention. Emanuelitch suggested digging a tunnel. He knew of a suitable place. Meishe Zimelevitch also opposed my plan to disarm the guards despite the fact that he had agreed on the previous day to support the idea. He thought that the killing of a German could harm the ghetto.
I began explaining everything anew: they all agreed that we were committing a crime by helping the Germans to erase the traces of their murderous acts. Our aim had to be, I said, to take everyone out of the fort, not simply to save our own lives, but to take up arms to fight the Nazis and tell the world about the Nazis’ atrocities. I was telling them how we went without weapons to look for partisans and today we were here and, in any case, considered as dead by the Germans. And the ghetto would be destroyed regardless of whether we fled or not. As to the Geneva Convention, it had not succeeded in saving a single Jewish prisoner up until that point.
Pok also suggested digging a tunnel so that we could escape in secret. I expressed my opposition to this proposal. Such a plan would enable only a few to escape. And where would we flee to? To the forest, Pok responded. To the forest without weapons? Once again depend on God’s mercy? Yes, Pok hastened to reply. This was nothing new as far as he was concerned. There was sufficient justification for his being ejected from the AKO organization in the ghetto.
The hour for locking the cells was approaching. When it came to voting, the results were equal for both sides. Pok and Emanuelitch and his comrades voted for digging a tunnel. In order not to cause further delay, I agreed to the second plan but lay down the condition that everyone must flee, that the first to leave must await the last, that all those who came from the ghetto should take one of the prisoners with him and that we return to the ghetto and hide there with the help of our ghetto friends. With this, the discussions were at an end. The German shift came into the sector. We dispersed. I had arranged with Emanuelitch to study the suitability of the place in which to dig the tunnel. After the guards checked and locked the cells, Gelbtrunk, Eidlson and Pilovnik crowded around me. I told them that we were about to dig a tunnel. Eidlson volunteered to do the work.
Sunday, November 21. I met with Mark in the long corridor (13)? after breakfast. Sunday was not a working day. Emanuelitch led me to the end of the corridor. There, opposite the toilets, (15)* was a door to the storeroom for old German uniforms, from which the prisoners were permitted to take clothing that was still wearable. Emanuelitch took out a key, opened the lock and we entered and closed the door behind us. We continued towards the end and turned right, to a small room full of old uniforms. We moved aside the pile of uniforms and Emanuelitch pointed to a shallow well (17)*. The well had to be made deeper and we also had to dig under the wall surrounding the sector from the front (19)*. This was the only way that it would be possible to get out of the main sector, but we would still not be outside the fort. In order to escape from the fort, we would have to run across the road leading from the great gate of the fort to the “battlefield." The plan was very complicated but as we had decided to proceed in this way, it had to be executed. We left the storeroom. Emanuelitch gave me the key of the lock and we parted.
Eidlson was awaiting me in my cell. I took him with me to the area under the staircase leading to the second floor (20)* where the refuse was usually heaped. I took a shovel and led Eidlson into the room where the well was.
In the early days, the Germans were not particular about their check-ups and the counting of those going out to work. Hence we could pretend to malinger. I did not go out to work for I had to keep an eye on Eidlson and I also suffered pains in my left hand and was released from having to work by Dr. Portnoy.
Monday, November 22. The guards were changed. Officers from the Viennese police were responsible for this week’s daytime shift while the SD officers took on the night shift. The comrades were pleased that Gerber would not be beaten anymore. But at midday, an SD officer appeared at the “battlefield” with a truncheon and called on Gerber, “the man with the pistol," to come forward and get his dose of beating. Here the Viennese police officer who was responsible for us intervened and ordered Gerber to continue working. An argument broke out between the two officers. The Viennese shouted that it was his shift duty and that he would decide, while the aggressive SD officer left the “battlefield” in anger. We did not see him again and were told that he suffered from a “poisoning from the corpses” and had been transferred to another place.
The sand which Eidlson was digging up from the well was put into a sack. I took the sack to the toilets and there the comrades filled their pockets with the sand and scattered it over the “battlefield.” But on the next day, I was anxious lest the Germans discover the fact that this sand differed from the earth on the “battlefield,” and that this would arouse their suspicion. But I found a well in the long corridor (18)* that was covered by a partly broken wooden lid. I moved the lid aside and poured the sand into the well. On the third day, Eidlson came across large foundation stones and I finally realized that it was no longer possible to dig at that spot. *See Plan Escape from 9th Fort.