|The long two-storied building of the fort was separated by the one-story structure and thus formed two courtyards, a large and a small one. The small courtyard was adjoining the guards' sector with a number of rooms, the smithy, the kitchen and the shower-room on the second floor. The windows of Cell Numbers 5, 6 and 7 faced this courtyard. The carpentry workshop and the barber shop were located in the building dividing the two courtyards. Before the war, this building served as a reception room for the prisoners and their relatives and visitors. The Germans put an end to this practice and used the space for the “battlefield."|
In that same building, a part of the wall facing the small courtyard was missing. This section of the building was occupied by the fifty-eight-year-old prisoner of war Venetzian Borok, a pharmacist from Leningrad. He was kept busy cleaning valuables which had belonged to the murdered Jews. Most of his work was applied to the cleaning of gold teeth and dentures which the Germans would bring from the “battlefield." There were two workers in the carpentry shop: prisoner of war Boris Shtulman from Dnepropetrovsk and Mendl Chas, a member of the group that had formerly worked in the “constabulary."
From November 27 until the day of the escape, December 25, 1943, there were sixty-four prisoners in the fort:
26 Jewish prisoners of war
14 Partisans from the Kovno ghetto
17 Men from the Kovno ghetto including a young boy
3 Women from the Kovno ghetto
3 Russians from the vicinity of Jonava
1 a Polish woman
The sixty Jewish prisoners in the fort stemmed from three different groups: 1) Soviet prisoners of war; 2) partisans from the Kovno ghetto; and 3) other Jews from the ghetto. They were not all of the same ilk. They differed as to character, state of mind, education, manners, their world-views, profession and age, etc. Among them were four doctors, a pharmacist, an engineer, a mechanic, an artist, a lawyer, professionals and laymen.
From November 27 onward, there were twenty men interned in each of the cells numbered 3, 6 and 7 and four women in Cell Number 5. The Germans decided to feed them well. For breakfast, each prisoner received a quarter of a loaf of bread, black coffee, honey substitute, Swiss cheese spread or Norwegian herring. After work at the “battlefield," they would receive two liters of thick soup with noodles and meat. The better-quality food was one of Paul Blobel’s tactics to spur on the workers and thus do away with the traces of the Nazis' murders as quickly as possible.
Work at the “battlefield” was conducted according to the German system whereby each task was given a special name. The bulldozer would remove the upper layer of the clay-like earth. Afterwards, the “gravediggers” would turn up with shovels to uncover the “dolls." They were followed by the “drawers” who, with the help of long poles with hooks at their ends, would lift the “dolls” from the surface of the pits. At this point, they were awaited by the “checkers," who would look for valuable items among the “dolls," especially gold, diamonds, jewelry or money. They would extract gold teeth and dentures from their mouths. The items they found were put into a box watched over by a guard. After the “checkers” came the “porters” with stretchers, loading two “dolls” on a stretcher and taking them to the site of the conflagration. A group of “firefighters” headed by the chief firefighting officer dealt with the fire that was being prepared near the pit. It was arranged in layers, a layer of wood and a layer of “dolls” forming a square. A narrow ditch was dug around the fire, into which the fat and fuel from the bodies would drip. The “chief firefighter” would register the number of “dolls” brought to the fire and when he had marked down three hundred “dolls," they would pour fuel on the pile, placing lighters and mines under the lowest layer of wood. Lighting the fire marked the end of the working day at the “battlefield."
The fire would burn throughout the night. On the following day, the “grinders” would crush what remained of the bones on a metal plate with the aid of special mortars used for paving roads, and the ash was scattered to the winds. Forty-two men worked at the “battlefield” burning corpses, twenty were employed doing other jobs in the fort building itself and only two were permitted not to work because of illness.
Sunday, November 28. I went through the cells, seeking an opportunity to get acquainted with prisoners of war, to try to get closer to them and find out how they felt about escaping from the fort. One of them, Anatoli Garnik (Rogovetz) from Kiev, of Cell Number 7, aroused my curiosity. He had served as an airplane mechanic in the airforce, with the rank of a captain. He told me that he and his friend Mishka, who worked the bulldozer at the “battlefield," had decided to flee from the fort. In the evening, Garnik brought a pitchfork into the cell and bent the tines to form an anchor. Mishka had brought a rope and tied the anchor to it. They planned that in the darkness, they would hang the anchor on the six-meter-high wall of the large courtyard, and escape by this means. But the head of their group, Sashka, kept an eye on all of them. In the evening, he would lock the metal door by its latch, so that no one could go out into the yard.
Garnik advised me to watch out for the head of the group. He did not trust anyone. Only one man succeeded in escaping from the fort, the prisoner Faivl Kulish, who had worked there as a mechanic and would mend the water pump and heater in the shower-room on the second floor. That was some time ago when the guards were Lithuanians. Kulish escaped in May 1943 through the framework of a window near the shower-room on the second floor.
I went to investigate the window through which Kulish had fled. I entered the corridor leading to the kitchen, went up to the second floor, found the shower-room and about ten window frames that were ten centimeters wide and sixty centimeters long. They were embedded in walls of a meter’s thickness. I could not imagine how it was possible to escape in this way and it seemed likely that Anatoli did not really know how Kulish had escaped from the fort.
I returned to the main building. Food was soon being served. On entering my cell, Vilentchuk was immersed in a story and the comrades were all worked up, particularly Pok. When I asked what had happened, they replied that Gerber had allegedly told the Gestapo about the route to Augustovo, the goal of the fighters of the ghetto, and of AKO. Pok shouted that Gerber was a provocateur and should be hanged. He demanded that he be sacked. The situation was rather serious. Meishe Gerber was not in the cell at that moment. I calmed them down and asked them not to mention the matter in Gerber’s presence. I explained to them that now, when we were organizing the escape from the fort, we should not antagonize him and thus push him into doing something silly, that is, something which a person in his situation may do. I said that I would take the responsibility and turn him over to AKO in the ghetto, and that they would interrogate him and decide what was to be done. In this way I managed to calm them down and avoid a quarrel which could have had sorry results.
In the evening, I met Meishe Gerber in the toilets. When we were alone, he turned to me and asked to be given the most difficult task, and said that he would carry it out. I promised I would. Naturally, I did not impose on him any task whatsoever. I did not believe that he had informed on any member of AKO, for if this was so, the Gestapo would already have seen to it that those who were uncovered would be in the Ninth Fort by now. For the time being, none of Gerber’s comrades had been brought to the fort.
Monday, November 29. The wound on my left hand was still bothering me and I was still absolved from having to work at the “battlefield." My career as a stove repairer had come to an end – there were no more stoves to mend. I sought an opportunity to meet the driver who took the guards of the Ninth Fort in his covered truck. He used to drive into the small courtyard and order them to bring firewood to the guardroom. On that same day, I was sweeping the courtyard and the Kurganov brothers were sawing wood energetically. They would douse the muddy boots of the German guards who had come from the “battlefield” in hot water. The Kurganov brothers were not sent to work at the “battlefield."
The door of the guardroom opened. The truck driver was standing in the doorway and told me to bring wood. I immediately carried out his instructions. He also told me to throw some particularly small pieces of wood into his truck in order to take them to town. I used the opportunity to tell him that I was an auto mechanic and that I could look after his truck engine, so that it would always be clean and easy to drive. The driver let me have my say, did not interrupt or shout at me, and did not answer me at all. From this I understood that he was interested in my proposition.
In the evening, before supper, Tuvia, Vilentchuk and Diskant approached me. Tuvia said: “Alter, here we are four comrades from the Communist youth movement, let us establish a cell. You deal with the escape from the fort, and I suggest that you become secretary of the cell." I accepted the proposal. I viewed it as an essential move in that I would always find a small group of friends around me, who would support me in carrying out the plans we agreed on, and with their help, we would manage to escape from the fort.
Tuesday, November 30. After the corpse-burners left for work at the “battlefield," a voice was heard in the corridor calling for the auto mechanic. I came running. Adolf, the Gestapo driver who had brought the guards to the fort, was waiting for me in the courtyard.
"Come," he said, "my truck is not in order."
I was so surprised that I remained stunned for a moment. I did not expect such a swift response to my proposal. And could I really fix his vehicle? I consoled myself by thinking that perhaps the problem was a small one and that the driver simply did not want to soil his hands.
Outside, an Opel-Blitz covered truck was standing, which had carried both prisoners and German guards. The German SS Sonderkommando 1005-B, which served the Ninth Fort, consisted of thirty-five men from the Gestapo and the Viennese police. Apart from the supplier Thisse and the driver Adolf, everyone was an officer. The guardsmen were divided into two shifts, which were changed every week. The day shift would travel in trucks to town in the evening and return in the morning in order to change over with the night shift, which would travel to town to rest and return in the evening to work.
Adolf told me that he could not ascend the hill in third gear. I took my courage in my hands, tried to control my trembling, went over to the truck with an air of confidence and lifted the lid of the motor.
My heart lifted when I saw that the ignition cables were not properly attached to the spark plugs. The numbers on the spark plugs should have matched those of the ignition cables but here they were not matching.
I immediately put them right. Evidently one of our comrades in town had been responsible for this piece of sabotage. I closed the lid of the motor and told the driver that he could now try the engine. Adolf told me to sit next to him in the driver’s cabin and we left the fort travelling towards the road. But suddenly behind a long barn, a guard with a machine gun appeared and stopped us. The officer spoke to the driver, saying that I was not permitted to travel with him. Adolf told me to stay in the driver's cabin, but the guard insisted that I remain in the fort. I returned to the little courtyard to await the driver’s return. Adolf returned pleased. I began to lead him on. Now he would no longer have to get his hands dirty, I told him. I would do everything needed for the vehicle and in my free time, I would like to work in the blacksmith workshop. He only need tell the head of the work crew. The driver took me into the smithy and told Sashka that as an auto mechanic, I would work in the smithy in my free time. And so the day passed.
The comrades were pleased by these arrangements. "Well," they said, "now there’s something to look forward to."
Pilovnik, Vilentchuk and I lay on the bunks joining one another. It was terribly cold in the cell. The three of us spread out two blankets beneath our bodies and covered ourselves with our four remaining blankets and so it was warmer to sleep in this way. Also Pilovnik and I could talk and discuss things. I told them about my plan and Pilovnik was of the same opinion. Only Vilentchuk was filled with foreboding. He could not believe that such a plan would succeed. “We are damned here,” he said and sighed wearily.
My plan was very simple. When I worked in the courtyard and would be free to wander about, we would try to win the trust of the remaining inmates, particularly those in Cell Number 7. I would share with everyone the secret preparations that were being made to escape. Hence, I was convinced that I needed the support of my “cell” comrades in everything I planned and could not permit an air of pessimism to take over.
Wednesday, December 1. Two hours after the corpse-burners were brought to work at the “battlefield," Sashka came over to me in the smithy and told me that the police commander ordered that I be sent to the “battlefield." I understood that the head of the group had deceived me. Later on, I learned that in Cell Number 7 there were two drivers among the prisoners of war: Alexander Businover from the city of Melitopol and Victor Tovianski from Vitebsk. They had attacked Sashka over the fact that he had permitted a stranger, a “Westerner” (a Jew from the occupied area of western Soviet Russia) to take on this job instead of one of them. And Sashka gave in to them.
The blacksmith tied me up with a chain and they led me, accompanied by a member of the special guard, to the “battlefield," saturated with rivers of blood and tears, a field which had swallowed up thousands of living beings, cut down before their time and not in battle… Bound in chains I was dragged along, and I wondered to myself, “How strange is man’s fate. Shortly, like it or not, I will be joined by fate with the Jewish victims brought here from abroad and the victims of the actions in Ghetto Kovno.”