Truth – Legends / The Selection
Wednesday, November 24. After everyone had gone to work, all those who had remained in their cells were ordered to appear outside. Two columns of ten people were assembled in the large courtyard. The police chief proposed to everyone who was feeling physically weak to move to a special camp for people who do not work. I whispered to Mark Emanuelitch and his comrade, who were standing in the column in front of me, not to dare succumb to this temptation, but in vain. Eight out of ten marched forward. Unfortunately they believed what they had been told by the police chief. Only two of us were left on the spot: Fridman and I.
Later in the day, a messenger from Emanuelitch came running and told me that they were being taken to the place where people were shot and Emanuelitch asked that I give the order to disarm the guards. My new friends understood what was happening too late. I was obliged to tell them that this was not possible at the moment and that I needed at least two days to work this out.
My comrades returned from work. I called them together and told them about the well and the selection. To the workers who were weary from the hard labor and broken in spirit by what they witnessed on the “battlefield," my words were a fatal blow. The last flickers of hope were extinguished.
Thursday, November 25. After going out to work at the “battlefield," seven Jewish prisoners of war were taken from the fort. Afterwards, the Germans threw their clothing into the courtyard. Clearly, they had been shot elsewhere. The head of the group succeeded in keeping back the eighth prisoner of war, Jashka (Jakov Bruchankin), a former member of a tank corps, in order to work in the sector. His right foot was lame due to an explosion which had wounded the bone. The Germans had not permitted him to be operated on and the broken bone had not healed properly.
After the selection and the murder of the seven prisoners of war, the inmates were issued a very sharp warning that only two of them would be permitted sick leave and all the rest were obliged to go out to work away from the sector.
I lost contact with Cell Number 7. The corpse-burners were dreadfully frightened. What could be done? I read this question in their eyes. I felt an enormous responsibility for them. Now they all agreed to do whatever I would tell them in order to get away from the fort. During the evening meal, I told all of them that they should pretend to be craftsmen with the aim of remaining at work within the sector itself. This would make it easier to become familiar with the conditions in the fort. By occupying key positions within the fort, we would find a possibility of preparing new basic plans to disarm the guards and escape.
To escape from a workplace was impossible. The Gestapo officers did not take their eyes off the workers. They constantly followed every movement. We were only sent out to work when it was fully light outside, although they were always pressing us to work more quickly. Were they perhaps frightened of us, despite that we were chained and observed by their watchful eyes and under the threat of death by submachine guns?
Obviously, they were not afraid of us but of the secret which we, who were still alive, saw there in the fort and carried with us. The Nazis had no fear of us, but were fearful for themselves! The flight of even one of us with the secrets of the fort could end very badly for them.
The new tactics brought immediate results. Tuvia Fridman became a tailor in the fort and he worked in the guardroom together with two prisoners of war, who had been working there for two years now: Kozlov was a shoemaker and Osip Jurtchenko was a hatter.
Tuvia Pilovnik, who worked in a textile shop before the war, said he was a barber. The fort’s barber was Jonas Pilvinskas, but the Germans were not pleased with his work. They tested Pilovnik and told him to take Pilvinskas’ working gear and to work in the little barbershop in the small courtyard. In the course of shaving some Germans, he succeeded in learning from their conversation that new and recently caught Jews were being brought to the fort. This information was very important. I suggested to the comrades that we wait patiently for these new arrivals. Possibly they would turn out to be friends from whom we could learn what was happening in the ghetto, in AKO, if they were still going to Augustovo, or somewhere else. All this would be important for organizing the escape from the Ninth Fort. I also claimed that I was a craftsman in order to remain in the fort and roam about the sector freely.
The large stoves in the barracks were producing smoke but little heat. I began to repair them and claimed to be an expert on stoves. I managed to reduce the amount of smoke issuing from the stoves, but they still did not give much heat. At the same time, I began to “work on” a Gestapo driver who would bring the guards to the fort, to convince him that I was an expert auto mechanic.
Saturday, November 27. Seven new prisoners had been brought to the fort, among them the three Kurganov brothers – Makar, Arseni and Vasili – from the village of Kunishkiai in the district of Jonava; Meir Sher; a youngster of fifteen from Varniai; a Polish woman; and two members of AKO – Aba Diskant and Aharon Vilentchuk.
The Kurganov brothers and the Polish woman, Helena Metcheslavna, were brought to the fort from the concentration camp Pravienishkes. The brothers were accused of having contact with the partisans in the Jonava district. Helena Metcheslavna told us that the Gestapo had arrested her because strange people used to visit her at home and she would not tell the Gestapo who they were.
Helena was a teacher of Polish. Meir Sher fled from the pit in which Jews of Varniai were shot on July 16, 1941. For two years, he had been living in the fields and the forests. One of his ears had frozen and he was finally caught by the Lithuanian police, who handed him over to the Gestapo and brought him to the fort, where he was dubbed “the man of the forest."
All the men were put in our cell, Number 3, and the woman in Cell Number 5, together with three Jewish women. I called Vilentchuk outside into the corridor and told him what our situation was, about what we had tried to do in order to flee, and also our plans for the future. It was very important to know, I told him, what was happening in AKO. I had known Vilentchuk previously and knew that he was capable of keeping a secret. He told me that AKO cancelled the march to Augustovo and was sending the fighters to the forests of Rudniki, some thirty kilometers from Vilna and one hundred and thirty kilometers from Kovno. Soviet partisans were stationed there. There was unquiet in the ghetto, people were being sent to concentration camps near the city and it was thought that the ghetto would be made smaller. He and Diskant fell into the hands of the Lithuanian Security Police while they were going to Murava to meet with a guide there. Vilentchuk gave me regards from Sima and said that she had written a poem about me and that she sang this poem at gatherings of the comrades. And these are her words: