Truth – Legends / By the open graves

Fast forward again, to December…
And now I stood here, beside the open graves of the victims, one of whom I could have been two years ago. Was there any limit to this suffering?  Was there any reason fate had decreed that I should experience this? From where could the strength be found to bear all this, to overcome…?
Would the driver, Adolf succeed in getting me out of here? I believed he would. I had a feeling that he would not leave me here to work. When my comrades saw me at the "battlefield" they stopped working for a moment and stared at me in astonishment.  Their eyes asked: “Alter, what has happened?" I calmed them by telling them that my driver would get me out of here.
I was set to work carrying the corpses – that is the "dolls" – to the fire.  With my bare hands, I had to take the dead bodies from the "draggers” and “checkers," place them on a stretcher and take them to the fire that had just been lit.  I had to carry the "dolls" from two pits: one which was almost empty, and the other where work had just begun.
When I approached the grave which was almost empty, I stood there petrified: all the murdered were dressed and they looked as if they were alive, that they had fallen asleep from exhaustion. I still bear the sight in mind: a pretty girl, a brunette of about fifteen, is stretched out across the grave and looks at me with large black eyes, full of surprise and fear, with her mouth partly open...I could not move away. Alongside the grave stood an officer from the Viennese police force, a submachine gun hanging on his chest, and smoking a cigarette, who was mumbling over and over again: “My God, how many of my acquaintances are lying here, how many friends are scattered here... Why? My God, why?”
I was shocked by what I saw, but also by what I heard. There were apparently Viennese Jews among those that were murdered and lying here. Not all of them were shot to death. There were many who were only injured. One could distinguish those whose open mouths were trying to breathe. All the murdered were in a condition in which their acquaintances could still recognize them.
The bodies in the second pit, which was now beginning to be emptied, were in a much worse condition. There the corpses were already half decayed. All those who had been shot were in their underwear. These were the Jews of Kovno who had been murdered in the actions. When these corpses were uncovered, I witnessed an atrocious sight. I saw mothers holding their babes in their arms, as if they were trying to protect them. I saw fists lifted in the air, as if calling for revenge for the blood which had been spilled. I saw babies, tots, piled on top of one another in this pit. They were lying as if interwoven in one mass...the “drawers” had difficulty separating the bodies and lifting them out of the pit. They had to actually tear them apart.
It was horrible...there are no words to describe it. Among the murdered were also my parents. With my bare hands, together with another corpse-burner, I placed the “dolls” two by two, or parts of them, on the stretcher and brought them to the fire. The “dolls” would slip out of my hands. Their limbs exuded a strange fat and it was difficult to hold them with my bare hands. Other “porters” had prepared special gloves for this purpose, in order to make it easier for them to perform this “work."
Now a new pile was being prepared for burning the “dolls." There was a layer of square pieces of wood on the ground on which we “porters” placed the “dolls” we had brought. A “firefighter” stood nearby, supervising the placing of the “dolls” in the proper order. The “chief firefighter” registered in his thick notebook the number of “dolls” heads, for the other parts of their bodies did not interest him. These were the Germans’ instructions.
The “chief firefighter” was a prisoner of war who treated his job seriously – a considerable responsibility rested on his shoulders. The fire had to be made properly so that it would not go out and would burn throughout the night.
The “chief firefighter," Dr. Michael Nemionov, was fifty-two years old when we met in the fort. He had finished his medical studies at the University of Heidelberg and his German was perfect. He had two sons, one of whom had died at the age of twelve from leukemia. He was taken prisoner and as he was a Jew, was sent to the Ninth Fort in November 1943.
Deep in thought, I carried the “dolls” to the fire. It was probably midday. The sky was overcast and a thin rain began to fall. Heavy-hearted, I wondered if we would be able to overcome all this.
Suddenly I heard someone calling for the auto mechanic. From afar, standing on a heap of ash was “my” Adolf. He stood in the posture of a conqueror, with legs apart and striking his boots with his whip.
When I came up to him, he admonished me for going to work at the “battlefield," and do I really want to infect him with the poison coming from the corpses? I pretended that I understood little of what was going on and told him that the group leader, Sashka, claimed that Adolf had no right to make decisions here. I did not need more than this. The driver walked away with determination and a flow of words I could not understand. He entered the smithy and berated Sashka, who began to apologize, saying that he was not responsible. There was a lack of workers and the chief of police had ordered... Adolf shouted at Sashka that if there were insufficient workers, he would go to work at the “battlefield” himself while the auto mechanic remained here in the smithy. And he left.
That evening, Tuvia Pilovnik told me that while he was shaving the chief of police, the chief asked him if he knew me and if I was an auto mechanic. Pilovnik did not know what was going on but he had no need to lie for he happened to have worked as my assistant at the H.K.P. garage. Pilovnik told this to the chief of police and confirmed that I was indeed an auto mechanic. And I remained working in the smithy mending cars.
Later on, Berl Gempl called me aside and showed me a Lithuanian passport: “Alter, today I burned my uncle." The face of a Jew with a beard and forelocks and a skullcap on his head, stared at us from the photograph in the passport. I trembled all over. My parents must also have been there! Was it possible that I placed them on the fire today? I embraced Gempl and said that we would take revenge for the blood that was spilled. Gempl was taken into our “cell” on my recommendation. Now we were five: Tuvia Pilovnik, Aharon Vilentchuk, Aba Diskant, Berl Gempl and myself.
Zimelevitch – “Pok” – called us “the plenum” for whenever I would seat the cell members on the upper bunks, he would pronounce: “Comrades, the plenum has entered.”
We were very depressed. We were all suffering from a form of fatalism and apathy. Even Pok’s sceptical comments were no longer effective. We were all under the pall of the mood induced by the “battlefield."
Shmuel Chananovitch was known as a courageous member of AKO. He was expert at slipping through the ghetto’s barbed-wire fence, although it was strictly guarded. He seemed to have no fear of Lithuanians or Germans. He would go out to town to fulfill some mission imposed on him by AKO. But in the fort, it was impossible to recognize him. From day to day he deteriorated. In the evenings, after supper, he would be seated near the stove wrapped in sadness, watching the fiery tongues leaping in the stove and he would whisper: “What are you talking about, running, escaping...nothing will succeed with you people, nothing will come of your plans. What are you looking for? What do you want? Why are we better than those we burn at the ‘battlefield’?”
I would gather my friends in the cell and ask them to speak to the rest of the inmates, to encourage them and ask them to have patience. We would finally arrive at some understanding with the prisoners of war and escape from the fort. Only patience was needed. Until now we had not succeeded. The prisoners of war had not agreed to listen to anything about escaping. When one of them attempted to speak with his fellow prisoners on the subject, they reproached him. When Pinia Krakinovski proposed the idea to his group leader Sashka, Sashka answered him that if he heard from him once again about fleeing, Krakinovski would suffer a bleak end.
On page 251 of the protocol of the investigation in the Minsk archives, Anatoli Garnik provided evidence on the character of the group leader Sashka: “He tried to run away twice but failed on both occasions, as he wished to escape on his own and lacked experience. He also failed to carry out his plans to their very end.” And Anatoli added, “the very idea of escaping gave him no peace. Actually the group leader Sashka prevented the escape. In the exit from the building, the door was always closed by a latch outside. When the younger people from the ghetto were brought to the fort, I got in touch with them but Sashka rebuked me harshly for it.”
Group leader Sashka Chailovski – Sashka the electrician – whose real name was Alexander Podolski – was born in Belaja Tzerkov in 1918. He lived in Leningrad and worked in the “Satira” theater as a lighting technician. With the Nazi assault on the USSR and the siege of Leningrad, he was recruited into the army and sent to the front. His hand was injured by shrapnel and he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He lay wounded in a hospital for prisoners of war in Kovno. In April 1942, the fact that he was Jewish was discovered and he was transferred to the Ninth Fort. There he worked as an electrician and also repaired telephones and radios. Owing to his knowledge of German, he was appointed group leader of a working crew at the fort.
I understood that the fact that I had been made an auto mechanic despite the group leader’s opposition accounted to a certain extent for the despairing mood and apathy of the inmates of Cell Number 7. We needed time and patience. We could not take a step that would finish us off. But time was running out faster than we reckoned. The work in the “battlefield” would be over, according to my estimate, at the beginning of February 1944 at the latest, and we were already at the beginning of December 1943. Would we have enough time? Only two months! I could not sleep at night for my thoughts gave me no respite. But I repeated the promise to myself: be careful, do not exaggerate, let the passing time work for you and be patient. We would somehow convince the other corpse-burners to collaborate with us and even more important – convince such opinion-setters as Sashka and the blacksmith Shachov to change their minds.
Thursday, December 2. I succeeded in getting from Shachov the work of chaining and unchaining the corpse-burners. This was very important. At the crucial moment, I would be the one to take off their chains. This also gave the comrades greater confidence.
It was freezing cold in our cell. In the middle of the cell there was a tall stove covered in thick tin, but it did not give any heat. We agreed that whoever had to get up during the night would, at the same time, add some wood to the stove. We had enough firewood but the lack of heat stayed the same.
At dawn, when the guards noisily opened the doors to the cells, everyone went to the toilets. The water was icy and there was no hot water at all. To dry ourselves, we used the edges of our shirts, which were covered with small spots indicating the presence of bedbugs and other insects. We had not been issued either towels or soap.
After breakfast, when it was already light outside, Sashka, leader of the group, would pass the cells, shouting: “Come out for the Appell, quickly, come out for Appell." The chief of police was standing in the large courtyard. I would sit down at the exit of the building, at the side, with the box of chains and working gear in my hand. The corpse-burners would approach me one by one and I would chain their legs. After this, they would report to the chief of police in the courtyard. He would count forty-two men and order the guards to surround them and march them outside. The inmates of the fort were led through the heavy metal gate from the small courtyard to the “battlefield." The corpse-burners did not fully understand why they were summoned to the morning roll call. They were convinced that the name of the police chief was "Appell" and that he was calling on them to come to work. Actually, the word Appell in German means roll call, parade or inspection. But his real name was Apelt.
After the corpse-burners went off to work, I would see to Adolf’s vehicle as well as a light auto of the “Adler” brand, which belonged to the commander of the fort, Obersturmführer Rudolf Radif. After that, I would go to the smithy where Shachov was in charge.
Roman Shachov was a Jew from Piatigorsk, a town that had become famous as a health resort because of its mineral springs. Thousands from all over Russia would come there to be healed. Shachov was thirty-eight years old, a real craftsman. He boasted some thirteen trades, among them that of blacksmith, tinsmith, clocksmith, glazier and optician.
He had been taken prisoner in the neighborhood of Viazma. There he was the personal cook of the prison camp commander. When he felt that they suspected him of being a Jew, he fled to one of the farmers in the village, at a time when villagers were permitted to employ prisoners of war to help them on their farms. But the translator at the Seventh Fort revealed that he was a Jew. He was arrested and placed in “quarantine” in a concentration camp and from there, sent to the Ninth Fort. Shachov worked in the fort as a glazier and this saved him from the action in which tens of Jews were shot to death. He executed various types of metalwork and frames for the Germans but his major effort was the production of cigarette holders. These he would make from buttons and broken combs, which the corpse-burners brought him from the “battlefield". He would design them artfully in a wide range of colors and would sell them to the Germans in exchange for cigarettes. I tried to make friends with him but did not succeed. Apparently the invasion of his particular territory disturbed him and I could not get any closer. One needed endless patience but where was it to come from?
The comrades in our cell began to display their dissatisfaction. They said that I was taking too much time to organize the flight. I had already worked out a detailed plan of how to attack the guardsmen and disarm them. I tried once again to discuss this with the prisoners but they wanted to have nothing to do with me.
In the evening, the five of us met in our cell to discuss what to do about the present situation. Pok declared:
"Well, friends, let us go out because the plenum has already arrived. We pay no attention to his remarks."
"No, this is impossible. We cannot hold out," Diskant said.
"What happened? What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Better that you don’t ask. If you had only seen it! It was shocking. Today we opened a pit with only children and tiny babes within..." Aba, who was shaken by the sight, stared at me with his big black eyes, assaulted me with them. "You, and only you, Alter, are responsible for the fact that we are still here. If you had seen this, you would move more quickly to do something and not drag out the whole matter of the escape."
I tried to calm him down. "We must not be hasty. The opportunity to escape will only arise once. If we make any mistake, we will never get out of here. And don’t forget that we are not alone here in the fort!"
"What kind of nonsense are you feeding me?" Aba replied angrily. "You’ve become fatter here. If you were given less food, if you were hungry, you would quickly find a way to escape."
Pilovnik intervened. "You are convinced that only you are suffering? Look at my hands, at my fingers. All my fingers are cut from the shaving knives with which I shave the Gestapo people. Do you think it is easy to shave them and restrain from cutting their throats?"
Everyone had a hard time of it but mine was the most difficult. How many sharp words had I heard applied to me! It had even reached a point of being suspected of wanting to escape by myself. Pok was particularly fond of this approach, spreading doubts behind my back among the comrades and criticizing my way of organizing the flight. I decided to put an end to this gossip. In the evening during supper, I addressed the friends around the table:
"I admit that until now, I have not succeeded in speaking to the rest of the cells about collectively organizing the escape from the fort. I know that the comrades from our cell have tried to establish some rapport with the prisoners of war, unsuccessfully however. We made it our aim to enable everyone to escape from the fort, so that there would be as many witnesses as possible to blame the Nazi murderers. Today we are forced to assist in the annihilation of the traces of the Nazi murders, but we shall flee from here. It needs patience and a means of convincing the other corpse-burners that we are in the right. Give me a few more days. I know what everyone is saying. And if you doubt my honesty towards you and my devotion to this effort that we are trying to carry out, if you do not trust me, I suggest you choose someone else in my stead to deal with the organization of the escape."
Here my words came to an end and there was silence around the table. The first to break the silence was Tuvia Pilovnik. He expressed his complete trust in me. The second was Pok, Meishe Zimelevitch; he too was of Pilovnik's opinion and called on everyone to express their confidence in me.
Friday, December 3. The great iron gate of the fort was opened to the grating sound of those of its parts which were rusting from age. My fellow inmates, the corpse-burners were returning from work at the “battlefield” and were so weary that they could hardly drag their feet, and their shoulders sagged from carrying loads of firewood. They moved slowly, lifting their chained feet with difficulty, physically exhausted, and emotionally broken after another day of suffering. Another day had passed and with it another three hundred Jews who had been murdered. Tomorrow their bones would be ground and together with the ash, scattered over the large field and forgotten.
The corpse-burners anticipated a night of rest, but derived no satisfaction from the knowledge. What had they to be pleased about? That today, like yesterday, they had fed the fire another few hundred dead bodies, hundreds who had died before their time? Their consciences did not permit them to rest. They were plagued with an unceasing sense of guilt. Were they indeed guilty because they were forced, with their own hands, to burn the corpses of those who were murdered by others, who may also turn out to be our murderers?
Well, we were guilty! We were guilty because we were helping the murderers to erase the traces of their crimes! The thought that we were actually helping the Germans did not leave us for a moment.
The corpse-burners wearily entered the small courtyard. They put down the firewood and each approached me one by one. I relieved them of their chains and they disappeared into their cells.
Makar Kurganov ran out of the kitchen with a brush and bowl of hot water and began to clean the muddy boots of the guards. The workday was over. The cook Vladimir Sankin and his assistant brought the meal. A misty night descended on the Ninth Fort. The corpse-burners sat in their cells in silence and ate their food.
After supper, Michael Gelbtrunk went into the corridor, assembled his group of singers and began the evening’s “concert." Gelbtrunk escaped from the ruins of Warsaw after the capital was taken by the Nazis. He wandered through the forests of Poland until he eventually reached the banks of the Neman River in free Lithuania. But his joy at reaching a free haven did not last long. The Nazis managed to lay their hands on the Jewish community of Lithuania. And we met in the ranks of the fighters of the Kovno ghetto. We went to the partisans in the forest of Augustovo, fell into the hands of the Gestapo and were brought to the Ninth Fort. During the day, he stood chained alongside the graves of the murdered, raging with hatred and despair. Despite everything, in the evenings he gathered enough strength to console those who shared his fate with a kind word and music.
There was still two hours until the locking of the cells. Every evening the corpse-burners would gather round the smoking stove that stood opposite the women’s cell and listen to Gelbtrunk's singing together with Ivan Vasilenko and Anatoli Garnik. The sound of this heartfelt music, full of yearning, could be heard throughout all the corridors of the fort, penetrating the hearts of the prisoners and bringing up memories of the past, of families.
The first committee of six dissolved after the failure of the tunnel and the death of the two representatives of Cell Number 7. In spite of all my efforts, I did not succeed in establishing a new relationship with the rest of the cell’s inmates in order to discuss serious steps as to how to organize the escape. The prisoners with whom it would be possible to work, refrained from talking about it and altogether rejected the idea of any attempt to escape.
I decided to carry out the plan that was rejected at the meeting of the committee on November 21: to disarm the guards. This would leave the rest of the cells with no choice; they would have to join us and escape from the fort with weapons in their hands.
As an auto mechanic, I was able to move about the fort freely. I exploited this to execute various services and this also enabled me to enter the guards’ rooms. I already knew where the weapons were kept and how many guards there were and where they were stationed on night duty.
Saturday, December 4. Today, potatoes were delivered to the fort kitchens. Two trucks covered with tarpaulins arrived one after the other, entered the small courtyard and two prisoners unloaded the potatoes. The workday was coming to an end and the corpse-burners returned from the “battlefield." I took off their chains and returned to the smithy. After a moment, Pilovnik came running towards me, called me out to the corridor leading to the kitchen and said in an angry voice:
"Alter, it’s no good. The men are very angry with you. They will tear you to pieces when you get to the cell. What’s to be done? Everyone is prepared to do anything, but you must say what we should do!"
The horrifying visions of what was within the graves shocked the prisoners to such an extent that they could not keep their promise to wait patiently. They were now ready for anything in order to put an end to their suffering. I did not let myself think too much and said impulsively to Pilovnik:
"Today we attack! Get together some of the boys, and bring some irons from the courtyard to the cell. They are lying under the window of the smithy. I will leave one of the trucks with potatoes and come to the cell immediately to organize the assault. We will force everyone to go with us after we have disarmed the guards."
I "arranged" it so that one of the trucks which had carried potatoes could not return to town. The driver called me to come out of the smithy and check why he could not start the engine. I told him that the darkness did not permit me to see what was wrong. I suggested he go back to town in the second truck and that tomorrow morning I would repair his truck. The driver rode away in the other truck that was carrying the guards to town. I then entered my cell and there we discussed how to attack the guards. The task was given to me, Gempl, Eidlson and Levin.
Meishe Levin was thirty-eight and came from Vendzhiogala. I knew him before the war. He had a shop in the town of Vendzhiogala, some twenty-four kilometers from Kovno. He would come to town to buy textiles in the storeroom I worked in. In July 1941, he was saved from the massacre in his town and hid in the surrounding forests. Worn out from roaming about day and night, he reached the Kovno ghetto on July 15, 1942 (see Avraham Tory, Ghetto Everyday, p. 99). During the Estonian action, he fled from the ghetto, was caught by the Lithuanian police and handed over to the Gestapo. From there, he was brought to the Ninth Fort.
Everything was ready. After killing the two guardsmen, two of us would put on their uniforms, take their weapons and the key to the guardroom. After opening the door of the guardroom, two men were to turn right into the room where the officer on duty sat. There were two other rooms to the left, where two guards were sleeping. A corridor separated the two rooms from the room of the officer on duty, and those sleeping soldiers would not be aware of our presence. The surprise aspect of the mission would ensure its success.
In the room of the officer on duty, there were fourteen rifles. In the room the guards were sleeping in, there was a machine gun under the bed. After taking the weapons we were supposed to inform everyone and supply the prisoners with weapons and continue the mission: liquidate the guards outside – one guard near the fire and the second, near the road behind the barn. Afterwards, we were to surround the dining room, where we would be likely to find four Germans. And that was all. In the truck which I repaired after the driver had left in another vehicle, and also in a truck trailer which stood outside the building, we would find places for the sixty-four prisoners of the fort and drive in the direction of the Rudniki forest.
Berl Gempl writes in his memoirs, which are kept in the archives of Yad Vashem (Cat. No. 033/340): “To pounce on the two Germans who come at eight, wear their uniforms, to attack the guards in the building in front, and escape in the truck which remained throughout the night in the fort. We already knew all the details, how many guards remain there at night, the number of weapons, etc. We assigned also four men to attack the shifts on duty.”
When everything was already in order, Pilovnik came and said that Sashka had caught hold of him and with tears in his eyes, asked that I meet him in the smithy to talk. It seemed strange and suspicious, but I immediately went along.
In the smithy I found Sashka and Roman Shachov. Sashka said he knew what we were planning. He and the others in his cell were prepared to go along with us only if we would not attack the guards on duty. He suggested another plan of escape: above the toilet there was a tunnel where old German uniforms were kept. At the end of the tunnel there was an iron door. If we dug under the door, we would find ourselves outside the building, but still within the periphery of the fort. To escape, we would have to run across the road leading to the “battlefield."
I did not care for his plan. I tried to convince him that without weapons we would not get very far. According to him, his plan was less dangerous. From the tone of his voice, I realized that I had no alternative. The plan to disarm the guards was exposed. It was clear that we would not carry out our plan that day – they, the prisoners of war, would not let us. I decided to agree to his plan in order to gain time to think about what should be done. We decided that on the following day we would look for a suitable way to escape.
I gathered my activist comrades together and told them about the meeting in the smithy. In order to prevent the inmates from taking inadvisable and dangerous steps, I suggested postponing our plans for the time being, to clarify the situation and the possibilities that had arisen. Everyone agreed. The comrades were calmed. The guards arrived at their usual time, counted the inmates in the cell, the door was locked and the guards left. We lay down to sleep. Tomorrow another day of sorrow and suffering, and possibly hope, awaited us.
It took some time before I could fall asleep. Confused thoughts occupied my mind. How did I let Sashka know about our plans? Did he really follow every step we made? Was there really someone who informed him of the contents of our discussions and plans? And perhaps told the Germans as well. Did my agreement to his plans mean a failure on my part? Were my calculations incorrect? In my heart, I still hoped that we would return to the plan of disarming the guards.
With regard to the future, however, I decided to talk less about what I was planning to do. I had to change my whole approach and stop talking about escaping. We had to claim that we were well off here, that the Germans treated us properly – we had plenty of food. That we were satisfied. We had to give the Gestapo the impression that we were content and did not think about escaping. Whatever happened, I said to myself, I had succeeded in doing something after all: firstly, to get the prisoners of war to side with me; secondly, I had managed to appease the comrades who understood that we were not alone here. Now all the cells were in touch with one another and I was certain that together we would present such a challenge that the Germans would remember us for some time to come.
Among the prisoners of war, the situation was also complex: they did not trust anyone. Sashka and Shachov could move about freely. They wanted to escape on their own. This was known to the rest of the prisoners in their cell and they were warned that if they considered abandoning the rest of the prisoners, they would inform on them to the Germans. And now they were forced to join me and my comrades, whom they did not trust until now. In the evening, while I was discussing the possibilities in the smithy, a new committee of rebellion consisting of three people was chosen: myself, Alexander (Sashka) Podolski and Roman Shachov. The next day I told my comrades all my thoughts and decisions of the previous night and insisted that we no longer talk of escaping.
In the protocol of the investigation filed in the Minsk archives and signed by Anatoli Garnik on February 3, 1944, Garnik reveals on page 251 that:
“Groups of prisoners speaking in hushed tones formed in corners and at each meeting, new plans for escape were brought up. I demanded of Sashka that he give us a clear answer: either he was a provocateur, or he should help us to escape. Everyone had to escape. A new plan was formed: everyone agreed on it. In each cell, there was a representative of the organizing committee. We were given orders to stop talking about escaping.”
Sunday, December 5. After breakfast, we met with Sashka and went to study the place from which he thought it was possible to escape. At the end of the corridor, near Cell Number 1, there were two iron flights of stairs connected by a landing and leading to the second story. The first flight led to the right, to the tunnel. The others turned to the left, to the empty cells on the second story. In the corridor of the second story there were further steps which led down to the lobby of the first floor.
The entrance to the tunnel to which the first flight of stairs led, was secured by a door with an ordinary padlock. We surveyed the area and when we were convinced that no one had seen us, Sashka opened the door with a key. A weak electric light bulb barely enabled us to see along the length of the long tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, there were sacks of old and torn German uniforms. We laid these aside and freed the approach to the double iron door which closed off the exit to the tunnel. We examined the door closely, tried to move and open it but the two panels of the door were securely lodged in the wall and could not be moved. The threshold was also deeply entrenched in the floor.
After digging under the threshold of the iron door, we would reach the same place that we would arrive at if we had dug a tunnel under the well. To dig under the threshold of the door, we would have to blow up the concrete in which the door stood. We left the place and Sashka gave me the key to the door. I had brought a hammer and chisel from the smithy. I asked Gelbtrunk, who was then ill, to stand on guard near the window of Cell Number 8 on the second floor, from which there was a good view of the large courtyard. If one of the Germans would enter the building, Gelbtrunk was to warn us immediately.
With blow after blow I tried to break the concrete under the threshold of the door. After I managed to penetrate the concrete by some twenty centimeters, I was deeper into the threshold, which was made of a wide iron bar that did not allow me to dig to the bottom. At this point I began to have my suspicions that I may be boring an opening to the first floor where the toilets were. I measured the length of the tunnel by my strides, went down to the toilets and measured its length. Well, that was that. If I had continued boring a little further, I would have opened the ceiling of the toilets. I decided to examine the whole thing again.
We stood together with Shachov and Sashka alongside the iron door to the tunnel and arrived at the conclusion that the plan to dig deeper into the threshold was not practicable. Shachov suggested somewhat jokingly that we make a hatch in the iron door. Sashka thought this was a ludicrous idea and discarded it with a gesture. But what else were we to do? Wait? Await our turn on the fire? I, however, told them that we would drill a hole in the door. They looked at one another, wished me luck and disappeared.
There was a hand drill in the smithy with three borers out of order. I took this tool, returned to the tunnel and began to drill into the door. Gelbtrunk stood on guard. The drilling was difficult. An iron door, six millimeters thick, with drilling borers of three millimeters. To make an opening through which we could crawl, I had to drill at least 350 holes. The drill made a noise. What worried me was whether the noise could be heard from the other side of the door. Although the walls of the fort were a meter and a half thick, I did not know what was on the other side of the door. I stopped drilling from time to time and listened. All was quiet. I’d already made three holes. The wind was coming through them. Gelbtrunk suddenly came running: “Alter, you are being called!” I ran with bated breath, full of fear...the trucks had to be cleared.
I drilled in the same manner for some days but managed to make only twelve holes, for I had to cease drilling a number of times during the day. The auto mechanic had to be called on to carry out a number of tasks. I only had time to fill the holes with a mixture of clay and ash, which I had prepared in advance (the color of the door was gray), cover the door with sacks, and run off to my driver. What would have happened if he suspected something and came to look for me? Where was I, what was I doing in the building when I was supposed to be in the smithy? That would have been a real catastrophe!
In the evening, I assembled the comrades from our cell and explained the situation, and that I could not continue drilling holes in the door. I proposed that one of the comrades who was familiar with locksmith’s work should continue in my stead. Everyone agreed, except Pok, who suggested that I wanted to quit the job, and that nothing would come of all the planning and talking. I explained that my drilling involved danger. Finally, Pinia Krakinovski came forward. He was the son of a locksmith and had studied the craft at an ORT school. He was the right choice.
Wednesday, December 8. After the return of the corpse-burners from the “battlefield” and until the locking of the cells, there was an interval of two hours. During this interval, Krakinovski drilled the iron door. I brought the manual drill to the cell under my clothes, put Krakinovski into the tunnel, showed him what he had to do and went out, locking the door after me.
The work was done very slowly and there was some danger that we would finish the burning off the corpses before we managed to make all the holes in the door. I decided we needed two men who would remain in the fort on sick leave and who would drill throughout the day. Meir Sher – the man of the forest – joined Krakinovski.
In order to allow two healthy young men to stay within the building, we had firstly to make them unwell. Secondly, two other prisoners who really were ill would have to be sent to the “battlefield," for no more than two sick men were permitted to remain in the cells at the one time.
Friday, December 10. I asked Pok to ensure this was done. I wanted him to contribute to our plans as well. On the following day, we almost failed. Dr. Portnoy was called to establish that Krakinovski was ill, but he would not confirm his illness. Pok confronted the doctor and in his chatter, managed to reveal the purpose of Krakinovski's “illness." Dr. Portnoy lost his temper. He made all sorts of despairing gestures and left without saying a word. I was called over and found the men quarreling in the corridor. Pok was arguing with one of the prisoners who was ill, insisting that he go out to work. I really did not want anyone to know that I had anything to do with the matter, but I had to intervene in order to save the situation. I explained to the sick man that there was indeed a pressing need that he go to the "battlefield" today. He understood and went off to work. The second invalid was Gelbtrunk. He did not say a word and also went off to work. But what was to be done with the doctor? I sought out Fridman who shared a cell with the doctor and asked him to ask his cell mates to keep an eye on him. And I reproached Pok severely. He felt guilty and did not calm down for some time.
After the corpse-burners left, I took the drill from under my clothing, assembled the men, placed them in the tunnel, showed them what was to be done and locked them in. I warned them that if they should hear the song “Wide and Great is My Motherland," they should stop working immediately. This alert was to be made by one of the prisoners – Jashka, the former tank-corps member. He would be cleaning the corridor and the cells. If he were to encounter a stranger in the corridor, he was to burst into song. Today, when writing these memoirs, I must admit that these were unnecessary precautions made to calm the comrades who were responsible for the drilling. Actually it was impossible to hear anything for the walls were so thick that neither the sound of singing nor that of drilling could be heard beyond them.
Every day, I would take the drill from the smithy, put it into my pants and wear my coat to hide the fact. I would run across the courtyard, enter the cell, assemble the men and take them to the tunnel. Before the return of the workers from the “battlefield," when the gate of the fort was being opened, I would quickly make my way to the tunnel, take the equipment, smear the hole we had drilled with clay mixed with ash, spread sacks over the door and take Krakinovski and his assistant from the tunnel through the second floor. I managed in good time to sit down at the entrance to the building with my box of tools and begin taking off the workers’ chains.
The three borers broke. They could hardly be used any longer. I asked my driver to bring me new ones, as they were needed to repair the side of the car. Adolf promised he would but forgot to do so. I looked all over the courtyard for something which could be a substitute for the borers. I found some springs from a mattress which had been discarded and brought them to the smithy. They were three millimeters in diameter. Together with Shachov, I turned them into a sort of shovel, sharpening and forging them into shape. They did very well as a substitute for the broken borers. The work in the tunnel proceeded rapidly but with the passing of time, new problems arose.
After the corpse-burners were brought from the “battlefield," the chief of police made a speech: “Amongst you,” he said, “false rumors are being spread that at the end of the work here, everyone will be shot. No one will be shot. After the work is finished here, you will be moved to work elsewhere. There is still a great deal of work and the Gestapo is treating you well."
There were many places where Jews were murdered and the Gestapo was obliged to obliterate the traces – this much could be believed. However, that we were to be the ones to carry out this work was doubtful. I did not care much for this speech. It was evident from what he said that someone was supplying the Gestapo with information from our conversations with the prisoners and this was dangerous. A week earlier, I had warned the comrades not to express doubts with regard to the Gestapo’s “intentions” towards us, that we should say that we were satisfied. Once again, I alerted the comrades to this and through Sashka and Shachov, also the prisoners in the other cells.
Saturday, December 11. As a token of their goodwill, the Gestapo gave instructions that the corpse-burners at the “battlefield” should be served coffee and bread smeared with substitute honey every day at noon. The fort’s iron gate opened to the creaking of the ancient hinges. Shachov and I lifted the heavy container full of coffee and held the baskets of bread and honey and, accompanied by an armed Gestapo guard, went towards the fire of the “battlefield."
That day was no different from other days. Outside it was dark and gloomy. The wind lashed our faces while the raindrops penetrated our clothes and caused us to shiver all over.
We walked slowly, taking tiny steps, and with difficulty succeeded in lifting our wooden clogs from the muddy ground. We did not have far to go. The fire with the burning corpses was next to the wooden guard tower. Near the tower there were piles of wood and beams. The corpse-burners were already seated on them, awaiting the arrival of the food.
The slices of bread and tin cups of coffee were distributed. All this was done alongside the burning corpses. While the food was being served, one of the corpse-burners dropped his bread on the ash of the fire. He picked it up and tried to blow away the ash. He couldn't clean it off and looked around at us as if to apologize for what had happened, and began to eat the bread topped by the ashes of burning bodies, and drank his ersatz coffee.
I stood and gazed at the slow fire consuming in its blaze the corpses of men, women and children. It was too awful – but we had already become accustomed to it.
In the concentration camp at Stutthof, there were corpse-burners who cooked potatoes on the flames while living people were burning together with the naked corpses. One of the inmates, Rudolf from Colding, told of this some time later: “In the Stutthof camp we all became callous and hardened. Nevertheless it was difficult to understand what we were witnessing. I do not know what was worse: when the prisoners were placing their tins of potatoes on the burning coals, or when we once saw living people on the fire together with the naked corpses."
The coffee break came to an end. The guards hastened the prisoners back to work. Shachov and I took the empty containers and returned, escorted by the armed Gestapo officer.
On the way, I took note of the place where we would come out of the tunnel when we carried out the escape, arriving at the conclusion that our present plan would enable only six to eight of us to get out. The way from the fort to the “battlefield” was heavily guarded. We could only run across it one by one or in pairs and only after the guard had passed. This would take too much time and prevent everyone from escaping in the course of a few hours.
I thought again and again of the place we would have to pass through running towards the “battlefield." And my heart was heavy. It was clear that not everyone would get through. Perhaps ten and the others would be caught at once. A guard kept an eye on the road that we would have to pass in order to turn to a side road from the fort to Keidan Street in Slobodka. I was aware of all this when we were planning to disarm the guards. What was to be done? This problem plagued me like a fever.
Suddenly I had an idea that needed investigation. Where did the tunnel lead to from which we took firewood when the corpse-burners returned from the battlefield? We discussed this in the smithy. Sashka and Shachov agreed with me that the firewood tunnel was near the spot where we were to emerge from the opening we were drilling in the door.
Monday, December 13. The Viennese police officer took Sashka and me to organize the vegetable storeroom on the outer side of the fort. We moved barrels of pickles and sour cabbage from place to place. I told Sashka to ask the officer to permit us to collect broomsticks after our work, because we needed brooms to clean our cells. We finished our work and the officer agreed to let us collect broomsticks – for the sake of cleanliness!
We walked among the bushes and gathered branches. This angered the German guard. He warned us that if we tried to escape, he would shoot us. We calmed him down by telling him that we would not even consider doing anything so foolish. We could see the pile of wood on the other side of the tunnel and moved towards two tall trees which were growing there. We would have to descend from the hill to the valley where a tall, concrete wall six meters high surrounded the fort. Topping the wall was a barbed-wire fence. This was a marvellous spot: the guards would not be able to see us here because the hills and the bushes hid everything. The escape plan became more detailed but much safer.
When we had collected a sufficient number of branches, we returned to the fort accompanied by a downpour of German curses on the part of the officer. After the return of the corpse-burners from the “battlefield” the police chief repeated his speech. He mentioned that a committee headed by a general visited the fort and they expressed their satisfaction with our work.? We worked better than the crews at Ponar. But we could achieve more. The general decided that we could manage two fires a day, that is, we could burn some six hundred “dolls” in a day. I realized immediately what their aim was and gave an order to tell the “burners” to demand dry wood and only then would they be able to manage two fires per day.
Tuesday, December 14. Dry wood could only be found in that tunnel which we hoped to use for our new plan of escape. The chief of police ordered the corpse-burners to take the wooden logs from the tunnel with them when they go out to work, which meant that the tunnel would be emptied in a short time. The workers took as many as they could. On their return, they were only permitted to take one log. Now there were two fires blazing in the “battlefield,” consuming six hundred “dolls." The Gestapo was pleased and the police chief rubbed his hands triumphantly.
* This was SS Standartenführer Paul Blobel.
In the cells there was an atmosphere of grievance. There were some prisoners who were seriously ill. One of the prisoners suffered from a high temperature. I ordered Meir Sher to go to work at the “battlefield” the next day. Sashka came to me in the smithy in the evening and told me that Garnik said he would not go out to work. In other words, I would also have to send Krakinovski to work at the “battlefield." I went to Garnik in Cell Number 7 at once. I would rather not have gone to see him but there was no alternative. With him behind the drill, we were lost.
In the protocols of the investigation which are located in the archives of Minsk, Garnik relates the following detail on page 269: He was ill and there were many wounds on his body which gave him no peace. He sat on the upper bunk and rubbed the large swelling on his right leg. The leg was very painful, feverish. He felt he could not go out to work the following day. Sashka entered the cell. “Sashka, I won’t be able to go to work tomorrow," Garnik said.
Sashka did not respond but merely stared at the ceiling with his watery eyes and left the cell. His tall and quixotic figure disappeared round the curve of the corridor. A few moments later, Alter (the author, Faitelson) came to Garnik. “Well, how are you?” Alter asked.
“Eh, you can see for yourself, my foot hurts and I cannot go to work tomorrow.”
“Listen, Anatoli, you must go to work! Otherwise we should have to leave behind someone very important to us." Alter's velvety eyes slid softly over Garnik's hands.
“If so much depends on it, I shall go."
(In this section, Garnik uses my name – Alter [in Yiddish, “old man”], in Russian translation: “Staryk” (in quote marks), thinking that this was my cover name.  The other prisoners of war also thought that Alter was not my real name.  At the time I was twenty years old, hardly an old man.  They were not aware that this was a Jewish name.)
After my conversation with Garnik, I left the cell in a calmer mood: Krakinovski would be able to drill throughout the day. I had an uneasy feeling, however, for having had to expose my feelings to Garnik.
Wednesday, December 15. The household administrator of the fort, Obersturmführer Ridle, called me to the guardroom and asked me to repair the smoking stove in the workshop. Tuvia Fridman, the thirty-seven-year-old tailor, Josef Kozlov, the thirty-nine-year-old shoemaker from Mogilev and Osip Jurtchenko, the thirty-four-year-old hatter from Orel, sat and worked in the little room full of smoke. Kozlov and Jurtchenko were taken as prisoners at the beginning of the war and as Jews were brought to the Ninth Fort, where they pursued their crafts.
The stove heated two rooms. The side of the stove facing the second room had a stack for extracting the burnt-out coke which accumulated there. I mentioned this to Ridle and he opened the second room, waiting until I could clean out the stack. In the course of this work, I noticed a large box full of gold teeth on a table near the window. I trembled all over at the thought of these objects.
After a discussion in the smithy, I asked Shachov and Sashka to pass on the message to the cells, that they should cease handing over to the Germans the gold teeth and other valuables they found on the corpses and wherever possible, gather them together in each cell in order to have significant evidence of their murderous deeds. It was also important for the inmates to have something valuable that they could exchange for foodstuffs, weapons or other essentials. I also requested that they leave the murdered corpses in the pits intact or partially intact. They should do everything they could not to empty the pits completely.
In my cell, I made Meishe Zimelevitch and Shimon Eidlson responsible for preparing a bag to collect the valuables which were brought to the cell every evening. They would have to hide the bag in a secure place which no one else knew about, including myself.
The Gestapo would collect and dispatch the gold teeth and valuables in special containers prepared in the carpentry workshop. In the documents describing the crimes of the SS (translated from German into Russian), it stated that the head of the central economic administration, SS Obersturmführer Oswald Pohl, revealed during his interrogation after the war that boxes of gold teeth reached him in Berlin from those sites where Jews had been murdered. Himmler had issued an order to transfer all these boxes to the State Bank (Reichsbank). Oswald Pohl was arrested in 1946, sentenced to death and hanged in 1951. 
Thursday, December 16. I was working at the smithy and looked out of the window to see what was going on in the small courtyard. Everything was quiet as usual. The Kurganov brothers were sawing logs. Sitting under the roof of the small shed was Venetzian Borok, the pharmacist, who was taken prisoner during his service with the navy in the Baltic Sea. He was cleaning the gold teeth and dentures brought to him by the Germans from the “battlefield." It was 11 A.M. In half an hour it would be my and Shachov’s turn to deliver coffee to the “battlefield." Suddenly an officer came out of the guardroom and opened the iron gate of the fort. From a distance, I could see the group of corpse-burners approaching. I barely managed to get Krakinovski out of the tunnel and put everything in order. I relieved the workers of their chains and could not understand why they had returned so early in the day, and sent Sashka to find out what was the reason for this, but with little success. A long and restless day and night went by.
Friday, December 17. The guards opened the cells at dawn. Everything seemed to be as usual;    I did not notice any change. The light car “Adler,” belonging to the head of the sonderkommando, Obersturmführer Rudolf Radif, was driven into the courtyard. The driver went into the guardroom, ordered me to wash the car and see to the carburetor. A tap at the window drew my attention. Fridman gave me a sign that I should go to the workshop immediately. The guards permitted me to go. Fridman pointed to a pile of clothes that was lying on the floor: a long black dress, a short dress, shorts suited to a child of ten or twelve, long trousers – all covered with mud. In the pockets of one of these items, I found a purse with small change, a comb and a letter. The letter was written in Hebrew and addressed to Rabbi Shapiro. I asked Fridman if he knew anything about Rabbi Shapiro and his family but Fridman did not know anything about them. Apparently, they were victims who had been dealt with on the previous day. Jurtchenko asked me for the purse and Kozlov wanted the comb. I was slightly taken aback and gave them what they wanted. What people thought of at such moments! I left the workshop and joined the carpenters.
Two men were working there: the prisoner Boris Shtulman, aged thirty, was a skilled carpenter who was born in Moldavia and had lived in Dnepropetrovsk. The second was Mendl Chas, aged twenty-six, a member of AKO in the Kovno ghetto. Two days earlier I had ordered from them a six-meter-long ladder made up of three sections of two meters each. Naturally I did not tell them what the ladder was to be used for and they knew better than to ask. When I entered, Shtulman mentioned that they were about to finish the ladder parts. I took the letter and showed it to Chas. He knew some Hebrew but could not read the letter because the handwriting was not quite legible. But he did know that in the ghetto there was talk that the Swiss Red Cross was enquiring of the Gestapo as to whether the Shapiro family was still alive and if they were, that they should be permitted to go to Switzerland.
Two questions troubled me: why did the corpse-burners return from work so early in the day and why had the Shapiro family been shot? The answer to the first question was clear: the chief of police had denied the rumors that the corpse-burners would be shot after their work was done. In other words, it was important to the Gestapo that the work in the fort should continue without complications. The presence of the corpse-burners at the shooting of Jews would perhaps make them despair and slow down their work to erase the traces of the mass murders in the Ninth Fort.
The answer to the second question I only learned later on. Many details regarding the tragedy of that unfortunate family in which the American public seems to have been interested were subsequently revealed. The Nazis ignored the International Red Cross as well as the Catholic Church, to whom the American Jews officially applied, in the hope that through their good offices, they would help their brethren. On the contrary, such requests only hastened the death of many families.
Dr. Shmuel Grinhoiz, formerly deputy director of the labor office in the Kovno ghetto, tells in the publication Fun letzn churbn (From the Last Extermination, no. 8):
“On December 2, the Gestapo assembled the entire Shapiro family. It was explained to them that the Catholic Church had intervened on their behalf as a result of the request of the American Jewish rabbis and they were to be sent to Switzerland. That is, the elderly wife of the rabbi, her son Dr. Chaim Nachman Shapiro, a senior lecturer who headed the cultural activities in the ghetto, his wife and son (the old rabbi was no longer alive at the time), were taken outside the town and there shot to death.” (p.32)
L. Garfunkel, deputy chairman of the Jewish Council in the Kovno ghetto, also writes in his book Kovno ha-Yehudit ve-Churbana (The Destruction of Kovno Jewry, Jerusalem, 1959):
“On the 2nd of this month [December 1943] the Gestapo arrested Dr. Chaim Nachman Shapiro, eldest son of Rabbi Shapiro, the last rabbi of the Jewish community of Kovno, who had died a few months earlier. His wife and only son, aged fourteen, were also arrested with Dr. Shapiro. The following day, his mother, the seventy-year-old widow of the former rabbi, was also arrested. They were held by the Gestapo for a few days and afterwards, tied in chains, transferred to the municipal prison. There they were only kept for a few hours and then taken to the Ninth Fort and murdered there...It seems that one of the rabbi’s relatives in America asked the International Red Cross for information as to whether the rabbi’s family were alive and how they were situated.” (p.157)
There were still naive people then who thought that the Germans would take into consideration certain privileged Jewish groups. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the Jews had only one right: to choose their death pit or gas chamber. Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka write in their memoirs Fabrika smerti (The Death Factory, Moscow, 1960):
“In the summer of 1943, immediately after the Germans occupied Italy, two thousand Jews, American citizens, were arrested and taken to Birkenau. They were promised that they would be sent to Switzerland in exchange for German prisoners of war. But they were all sent to the gas chambers.” (p.168)
When the corpse-burners returned from the “battlefield” on that day, they said that alongside the fire that was still burning, they found a pool of fresh blood and a pair of galoshes. Barrels of fuel had bullet holes in them. The guards said that during the night some Lithuanian pigs tried to rob the place and they were shot.
There were still naive people then who thought that the Germans would take into consideration certain privileged Jewish groups. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the Jews had only one right: to choose their death pit or gas chamber. Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka write in their memoirs Fabrika smerti (The Death Factory, Moscow, 1960):
“In the summer of 1943, immediately after the Germans occupied Italy, two thousand Jews, American citizens, were arrested and taken to Birkenau. They were promised that they would be sent to Switzerland in exchange for German prisoners of war. But they were all sent to the gas chambers.” (p.168)
When the corpse-burners returned from the “battlefield” on that day, they said that alongside the fire that was still burning, they found a pool of fresh blood and a pair of galoshes. Barrels of fuel had bullet holes in them. The guards said that during the night some Lithuanian pigs tried to rob the place and they were shot.
Shleime Kaplun, the twenty-four-year-old redhead from Lutzk in the Western Ukraine, was a baker. He had been serving in the army for only two months when he was taken prisoner. He was immediately sent to the Sixth Fort near Kovno and from there to the Ninth Fort. Kaplun was one of the few witnesses to the murder of the Jews of Kovno and Germany at the Ninth Fort.
Kaplun and Garnik were great friends in the fort. On that Saturday, when the chief of police issued his warning about the gold to the corpse-burners, Kaplun stopped me in the corridor and pulled me into empty Cell Number 4 after him and in a trembling voice, asked me what he should do. If the Germans, on the lookout for gold, were to find it in his cell, he would be hanged. I understood that Garnik had sent him to me and I calmed him down and told him to hide the valuables somewhere outside the cell, and that no one should be told where. He quietened down and departed.
The scare died down. I encouraged the comrades not to take too much notice of the warnings and to hide everything properly.
There was barely another two days' work to finish boring holes in the iron door. My mood was much improved. We discussed in the smithy what would be the best way of opening the cell doors. All the locks on the doors were identical, one key would do to open all four. We needed only to open a passage through the iron bars which crossed between Cell Number 3 and the corridor. Krakinovski would have to break a few joints restricting one of the bars crossing the door. This would be the only way as the locks were on the outside of the door and one could reach them only via the corridor.
Sunday, December 19. We did not work on Sundays. I was busy throughout the day with discussions and arguments. Where would we escape to? Where should we head towards, or more exactly, where were we leading the others? From the very first day in the fort, I believed that with weapons in hand we should all go to the forest, but that without weapons we should all go to the ghetto. Every ghetto member would take one prisoner with him. I would reveal our assembly point in the ghetto on the day we escaped. As the question of disarming the guards had been discarded, the only possibility now was that we should all go to the ghetto.
Among the prisoners of war at the fort, there were only two army officers who had military experience: Anatoli Garnik, an air force mechanic with the rank of captain, and Alexander Businover, a senior lieutenant in the artillery corps. There were also two army doctors with the rank of captain, and one staff sergeant, Herman Rubinfeld, who served with an anti-tank corps. All the other prisoners were ordinary soldiers who were recruited at the outbreak of war. Israel Veselnitzki claimed he was an engineering captain on the basis of his education, but he was neither a captain nor an engineer. To the other prisoners, he presented himself as Ivan Liontievitch Lionov and to us Jews of the ghetto, he called himself Ivan Vasilenko.
Not everyone was prepared to go to the ghetto with me, particularly the prisoners of war. Pok carried on a propaganda campaign urging them to go to the forest unarmed to look for partisans. Among the members of our cell, he advocated that going to the ghetto would be exactly like going from one prison to the other. I claimed that we had once gone without weapons and ended up in the Ninth Fort. Now, I said, when we know that people are leaving the ghetto for the forests where the partisans are based and AKO is arming those who leave for the forest, there is no point in feeling our way in the dark.
To what extent Meishe "Pok" Zimelevitch managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the other cell members, I only learned after the war when I met Vladimir Sankin, the cook from the Ninth Fort, and when I read the documents in the archives in Minsk, in which Anatoli Garnik, in the protocol of his interrogation on February 8, 1944, makes the following statement:
“Among the young members of the ghetto, there were some who were caught on the roads outside the ghetto with weapons. From them I learned about the mass partisan movement. One of them told me in a very secret conversation, that he was a guide and that every hour, a group of twenty-five leave the ghetto for the forest of Augustovo. Another by the name of Meishe, told me that not far from Kovno, at a distance of some sixty to eighty kilometers, there are partisans living in the forests who are in contact with Moscow, where parachutists are dropped and have their own airfields. He censured me for postponing the escape and said that if, for instance, we fled today, we could establish contact with the partisans within three days.” (p.253)
Shachov, Sashka and I met to discuss matters in an empty cell on the second floor. They expected me to tell them where I intended to lead them but I still had not made my final decision. However, I still tried to convince them that we should attack the guards and go out to the forest with weapons. But they absolutely refused. Then I tried to convince them that they should go with me to the ghetto. Everyone trusted me. But they could not understand why I wanted to leave one prison and go into another. To this I replied that I had good friends in the ghetto who would help us as soon as we arrived there. I could not tell them that there was an underground organization in the ghetto, as I thought that by doing so, I might be placing AKO in some danger.
Monday, December 20. I was in the smithy and looked through the window to see what was going on outside. Suddenly the door of the guards' room opened and three tall officers of the Sonderkommando 1005-B burst out, headed by the commander of the fort, Obersturmführer Rudolf Radif. They marched rapidly to the second courtyard towards the main building, where the door was being drilled. I was petrified. The Gestapo had evidently sensed something. Everything was lost! I could not move and my feet felt as if they were made of lead. I sent Shachov to call Sashka who was in the kitchen. Sashka came running. He was pale and frightened. I sent him to see what these Gestapo men were doing. Could the situation still be saved? It was too late to help Krakinovski. The Gestapo were not in the habit of entering the building during daytime. If they found something, they would immediately deal with me. Sashka ran to the building. Minutes felt like years. At last, the Gestapo men left the building. Sashka told us that they went into the long tunnel where the water pumps of the fort were situated, checked the doors and in particular inspected the door at the end of the tunnel. After making certain that everything was in order, they left the building. It was clear: the Gestapo had received some information that the prisoners of the fort were planning something in the tunnel. Now we would have to be doubly careful and we agreed not to tell anyone else about the incident.
Krakinovski finished drilling. He was supposed to make 350 holes in the door – actually he made 314 holes. The remaining centimeters which were not bored we left as surplus, which we would have to break by pushing the drilled doorplate back and forth. But firstly we would have to free the spaces between the holes.
In the smithy, we had a few old metal files. We removed their wooden handles, prepared their edges in the fire, sharpened and hardened them. I took them to Krakinovski in the tunnel and tried them out. They worked quickly and easily. The distance between the holes was easily done away with. The plate which had been drilled began to come loose and remained hanging from the section which had not been drilled. Once again, we smeared the open spaces of the door with a mixture of clay and dust and covered the door with sacks and left the tunnel. That same day, Krakinovski also broke the nail heads that held the metal beam over the door of our cell, so that we could go out into the corridor and open the door.
Tuesday, December 21. Everything was ready. I went with Shachov to the tunnel to finish detaching the drilled part of the iron door. We pushed it back and forth and it came loose. We put it aside, hid the door with sacks and left the tunnel. Shachov returned to the smithy on the first floor, I locked the door and went through the second floor, down the stairs so that no one should see me, and made my way to the smithy.
Tuvia Pilovnik came to the smithy and told me that when he was shaving one of the guards, the guard told him that Jewish partisans who had been caught were being brought to the fort. Pilovnik asked me what I considered doing about it for he knew that we were planning to escape that very night. I told him we would postpone the flight and wait until these partisans arrived. They would undoubtedly be some of our friends from AKO and we should make it possible for them to escape as well. This news created quite a problem. Postponing the escape when the opening of the iron door was ready and the beam over our cell door was loose, involved considerable danger. After the Germans were informed that the prisoners were speaking among themselves of a tunnel, they went to look for themselves. They could still find out more, look more thoroughly and find the outlet from the fort. And then everything would be lost. But to flee from the fort at this moment when our friends may be arriving would not be right.
Later on, during a discussion in the smithy, I told the others that a new group of Jews were being brought to the fort and asked Sashka and Shachov what they thought about postponing the escape. Sashka mentioned that his cell mates wanted to sew warm sweaters from their blankets and also repair their clothes. And so he also wanted to wait another few days before the flight.
The nights were dark. Snow, which fell during the day, melted quickly. This would be the best time to escape. Shachov and Sashka looked at me, awaiting my decision. What should I do? If we fled today, we would prevent the newcomers from having a chance to escape. I came to my decision. We must wait another few days.
Wednesday, December 22. In the evening immediately after supper, Mishka the "Vagabond” who worked in the “battlefield” with the bulldozer, called me. He asked me to come into the kitchen. There I found Mishka and the cook, Vladimir Sankin. Without any introductory remarks, Mishka asked me why we had not made our escape the previous day. I was taken aback by the suddenness of the question...I realized that I could not avoid answering it and that there was no point in trying to evade it. They were aware that we were supposed to escape on Tuesday night.
I told them that Sashka asked that the escape be postponed for a few days. "And you listened to him? Don’t you know that you cannot trust him, that he should not be taken into account, and that you should have nothing to do with him? He is leading you by the nose and who knows, how things will end!" Mishke continued to speak angrily, demanding that I give the order to escape from the fort. “Don’t wait and don’t listen to him!” His words still ring in my ears.
I left the kitchen without knowing quite what to do. For some time now it was clear that the relationships between the inmates were strained and that everyone had a poor opinion of Sashka, but I did not realize to what extent... What should I do? We had come so far together that there was no going back, only a few more days of patience...perhaps nothing bad would happen before then.
Thursday, December 23. The question still remained: where should the prisoners of the fort be taken? This question gave me little peace. I spoke to my friends about the connections between the cells. The prisoners of war did not want to go to the ghetto. They also did not want to disarm the guards. Despite these disagreements, the most important thing was that the escape from the fort be done in an organized manner, quietly and with discipline, lest it cause panic during the escape through the opening in the iron door.
Tuvia Fridman mentioned that in his cell there were people who had friends and acquaintances in town and they wanted to hide there with their help. But the prisoners wanted to seek out the partisans in the forest. I could take my friends to the ghetto and consult again with the leadership of AKO. But what should I do with the Kurganov brothers? I decided to speak to them at the last moment. At that time, I still had not told anyone where they were to go and still hoped that I would succeed in convincing the prisoners of the advantages of going to the ghetto.
Friday, December 24. The days drew out, thick snow was falling. The door of the tunnel was open and available. New partisans who were recently caught had been brought to the fort. The snow outside was not melting. It was very cold. The matter of the escape could not be prolonged any further. I decided that it was to take place on Saturday night, December 25. We did not work on Sunday, nor would we work on Saturday, which was Christmas day.
I called a meeting of the committee in the smithy: Shachov, Sashka and me. I told them that I was going with my group of friends to the ghetto and I suggested that they decide where they wanted to go. Sashka wanted to know why I was going to the ghetto and not to town. In the ghetto, he said, there were Germans and also a Jewish police force which served the Germans. Everyone would be caught there and returned to the fort. I told him that I had good and devoted friends in the ghetto who would do everything to watch over us. There we would be secure until the searches were over. I could not tell them then that there was an anti-fascist underground organization in the ghetto to which we belonged and which would look after us. I asked them to rely on me and on my friends in the ghetto. Sashka and Shachov could not understand this and disagreed.
I proposed that we split into organized groups based on the inmates' preferences, appoint leaders of the groups, and see to it that everything was done in a disciplined and organized fashion. The prisoners had to be informed of the timing and date of the escape. There was the problem of who would inform the converted Jews, the Kurganov brothers, Dr. Portnoy and the Polish woman, Helena Metcheslavna. We were very fearful lest someone inform on us at the last minute. I suggested to Sashka that he tell them of the escape. I had little trust in the man, especially after the conversation with Mishka and Sankin. My idea was that if there were provocateurs among the people whom Sashka was supposed to inform, they would think that Sashka, head of the group of prisoners who was in daily contact with the Gestapo, wanted to test their loyalty and would not accept what he was telling them as the truth. I decided to inform the rest of the prisoners myself.
After work, the chief of police again made a speech to the prisoners. He was giving us a gift of six liters of vodka, in order, he said, to “clean” our stomachs. He was also giving a pack of cigarettes to each of us. “It is Christmas Eve," he said, "and you are working well.” Dr. Michael Nemionov, who knew German well, thanked him on behalf of all the prisoners for their decent attitude and promised that we would work even harder and wished the police chief a Merry Christmas.
I forbade everyone to drink the vodka and ordered them to hand the vodka over to the doctors who would use it as a substitute for alcohol. Everyone was told to prepare themselves for the escape. The prisoners were divided into groups according to the goals they had chosen. One group would go to the forest of Vendzhiogala in search of partisans; the second group would go to the ghetto, to the AKO’s authority. The third group would go to Lithuanian acquaintances in the city. The Kurganov brothers, who had been sawing wood in the small courtyard and clearing the mud from the boots of the guards throughout their stay in the fort, would go home.
Saturday, December 25. We did not work today. I assembled my cell mates, and told them of the final decision to go to the ghetto. Whoever wished to do so could join us. I also explained that we had once gone without weapons and landed in the fort as a result. Meishe Zimelevitch, Pok, jumped on the table and shouted: “Comrades, Alter Faitelson has given in. I am going with the prisoners of war. We are going to the forest, come with me!”
Eleven comrades stayed with me. I had told them of my decision to go to the ghetto some days earlier during the meeting of the “cell” and everyone agreed.
Aba Diskant had been bothering me for three days now that I should take Vasilenko with us. Diskant and Vasilenko had become friendly during the evening concerts when Vasilenko would sing songs in Yiddish and would warm the hearts of the listeners with his version of “Varnitchkes” (Pancakes). I objected, as Vasilenko was supposed to be the head of the prisoners’ group. Diskant claimed that Vasilenko had had the rank of captain, and therefore I should not separate him from the group which was going to the partisans. He would be essential in that group. Diskant again nagged me that I should meet with Vasilenko as he wished to talk to me. Vasilenko did not understand why I did not want to take him with me. "Look," he said, "I suggested to everyone to go to the ghetto but no one really wants to. And in my case, I want to go and you are not taking me." I reminded Vasilenko that he was supposed to be the commissar of the group. I would agree that he come with us if his group would release him.
I had to adjust the key to the cells. I stood in the corridor near the door of my cell and it would not work. Makar Kurganov, one of the three brothers, kept staring at me. I decided to call him out to the corridor and speak to him. I was not certain that Sashka had told him about the escape. “Tell me, Makar, where do you want to die, while escaping or on the fire, there?” I said, pointing to the “battlefield."
“Obviously," he replied, "escaping." And, he added, when Kuzmitzkas asked him if he had heard something about the tunnel that the Jews frequently spoke of, Makar had told him that he had never heard about it. But Kuzmitzkas also told him that if he did hear anything, he should tell him at once. Kuzmitzkas had worked in the Kovno prison and lived with his wife in the house opposite the guardhouse. His wife cooked at home for the German sonderkommando serving in the fort.
I used a file on the key to adapt it to the door lock of the cell. There was one key to the locks of all four occupied cells on the ground floor. The last preparations were being made.
Vladimir Sankin, aged thirty-two, came from the city of Kursk and had lived in Leningrad. He was a pastry maker by profession. During the German assault on Leningrad, he was taken prisoner and, being a Jew, he was imprisoned in the Sixth Fort near Kovno and afterwards transferred to the Ninth Fort, where he had now been interned for two years. Throughout this period, he worked as a cook for the prisoners. He and his helpers baked and distributed one hundred and twenty loaves of bread. We asked him not to distribute bread for these two days and set them aside for the journey.
The entrance hall was full of corpse-burners and there was a concert going on there. Everyone seemed happy and they were all singing. The mood was one of expectancy and all the prisoners were full of hope. As usual, the guards came to lock the cells at 7.30 P.M. The guards were confused by the concert being held in the lobby. They were told that the music being sung was in honor of their Christmas celebration. Two of the Viennese police consulted one another and decided to lock the doors of the cells two hours later. “Christmas is Christmas,” they said and left. How easy it would have been to disarm them – the thought crossed my mind. They did us a disservice for we needed every minute and had thus lost two precious hours.
I went to Cell Number 6, to the “head of the firefighters," Dr. Nemionov, and requested that he give me the notebook in which the numbers of cremated “dolls” were registered. I wanted to have an important document which I could use to prove the Germans' guilt. Nemionov refused to hear anything about the subject. I then asked Herman Rubinfeld, one of my contacts in Cell Number 6, to steal the notebook or to take it from the man by force, and then to bring it to me.
In my own cell, I guided the comrades as to how to behave on the way. I informed them where the meeting point in the ghetto was located in case we had to infiltrate one by one. The address was 95 Krishtchiokaitchio Street at the house of Chaim-David Ratner. Rubinfeld came to me and said that it was impossible to take the notebook from Nemionov as he was keeping it under his clothing.
Dr. Nemionov had decided not to escape from the fort and informed us that he was remaining in his cell. I told Rubinfeld that only the dead could remain in the fort, for fear that he would betray us to the Germans. I sent Rubinfeld to Sankin. Vladimir Sankin passed on my words to Mishka, the “Vagabond," who was going about with a knife and looking for cowards. When Dr. Nemionov saw the knife in Mishka’s hand, he decided that he had better join the escapees.
Shimon Eidlson came running with a caricature in his hand: a crude gesture aimed at a Gestapo officer. He said that Garnik asked my permission to hang the drawing on the wall before we left. I knew that Garnik was a gifted youngster but the fact that he could draw came as something of a surprise. I took the drawing and went with Eidlson to Garnik in a hurry. When Garnik admitted that he was the creator of the caricature, I asked him to draw from memory a day’s work at the “battlefield." Garnik drew what I requested in my presence. He wanted very much to go with me but I refused. He was a mechanic in the air force and knew how to find his way at night by the stars. Therefore I did not want to separate him from his group which was going in search of partisans in the forest. He would be able to help them find their way.
Drawings by prisoner of war Anatoli Garnik,
drawn in Cell Number 7 an hour before the escape.
Nine P.M. The guards came and counted the prisoners. Everyone was present. The guards locked the cells. We heard their steps as they departed down the corridor, and how the iron door, which faces the large courtyard, was being closed. Quiet reigned. We waited for half an hour. Now I gave the key I prepared to Eidlson. He wrapped his boots in sacks so that he would not be heard, stood on the upper bunk, removed the plank between the metal beams dividing the cell from the corridor, moved the loosened metal bar and went down to the corridor. I told him not to start with our cell door which was nearer the tunnel, but the last cell, Cell Number 7. I wanted the prisoners to be convinced that I would carry out everything that I promised. We, who were near the opening in the tunnel door, would leave the last and see to it that there was no disorder or panic. The important thing now was to secure my fellow prisoners' confidence. They must be assured, certain and convinced that the organizers would do what they promised: the first to leave the fort would wait for the last and only then the orders to proceed would be given for the groups to form according to their chosen destination.
Eidlson left us locked behind the door and slipped away carefully. He opened Cell Number 7, 6 and 5. The prisoners spread out the blankets along the corridor and metal staircase. Finally, Eidlson opened our cell, Number 3. In the tunnel near the opening there was utter silence. Each prisoner joined his group and they aligned themselves in two columns. Sashka, Shachov, Rubinfeld and Mishka the "Vagabond” went through the opening. Beyond the door was the exit from the tunnel. They had to clear the exit. They were followed by Anatoli Garnik, Boris Shtulman and another two. Garnik and his group were supposed to hang up a curtain made of bedsheets in order to hide the passage from one tunnel to the other. Two tunnels crossed the snow-covered field which was carefully patrolled by guards. After the exit of the tunnel (23) was cleared, Shachov called me. I asked everyone to be quiet and told them that I would come to take them out through the opening. We had the three ladders with us, and ran quickly past the open field (24) and entered the tunnel (25) from which we used to extract dry wood (25). Anatoli’s group, which had caught up with us, returned to its place.
Complete darkness. We stood close to the right wall of the tunnel. We had not managed earlier to take away three piles of wood from inside the tunnel. We transferred the pile of wood still standing in its place from the right side to the left side and opened the door. It was somewhat lighter owing to the brightness of the snow near the entrance to the tunnel (27). We began to ascend and reached the two trees we had marked when Sashka and I had collected branches for brooms. Between the trees, we descended the thirty-meter hill until we reached the valley (28). At the foot of the six-meter-high wall (29) we attached the three-part ladder, tying it with army bandages. I went up the ladder and with a pincer which I took on the last day from Obersturmführer Rudolf Radif’s “Adler," I cut the barbed wire on top of the wall and attached the rope ladder.
Garnik and his people stood with the sheets in the corner near the wall of the building. I entered the tunnel (23), and pressed half my body through the opening of the iron door (22). Quiet reigned. Everyone stood like mummies and waited. I called the groups to the opening. My eyes fell on Ilia Shkliar, the fat porter from Leningrad, and I wondered whether he would succeed in pushing through the opening of the door. Covered with Garnik's bedsheets, we ran across the snow-covered field (24) from one tunnel to the other.
I went up the ladder (29) and lay down alongside it. Mishka lay beside me. We helped the prisoners to go up. Mishka held his knife in his mouth and from time to time he threatened us not to speak but to act silently.
The first group had already arrived and with it Shkliar. I felt relieved. The group was lying to the right. The second group, mine, was standing to my left. The third group had yet to be seen. I began to believe that something has happened. Time stood still. Minutes felt like hours. We heard the barking of dogs. Mishka and I looked at one another. Mishka looked at me and awaited my orders nervously. I held the ladder and could not accept the idea of failure... “We will wait a bit,” I said to myself without letting go of the ladder. Finally we saw something from afar: black shadows rolled down from the top of the hill on the white snow – the third group reached the ladder.
Garnik recalls in the protocol of his investigation on page 252:
“At one moment, when we returned with the camouflaging bedsheets, I noticed among the vague shadows falling on the snow from the heights and the trees in the open field between the two tunnels, two guards. I saw the lights of their cigarettes and heard their voices. They stopped and stood as if they were stuck in the earth. We waited for about ten minutes until the guards finished their dialogue and parted.”
Those were the very ten minutes that seemed to me like an eternity, when I was near the ladder and waiting for the last group. I feared that the Germans had caught on to the fact that we had escaped and that they were chasing us with the aid of their dogs. I remembered, however, that the sonderkommando in the fort did not have dogs.
When the three Kurganov brothers finally arrived (each of them carrying a pair of shoes on his back, shoes belonging to the murdered Jews), I gave the order to disperse. At that very moment, Vasilenko and Eidlson came running to me. They were supposed to go with the Chailovski-Zimelevitch group. Vasilenko told me that his group released him. I asked Eidlson if this was true and he said it was. Garnik tells in the above-mentioned protocol:
“Ivan Liontievitch Lionov (an assumed name, evidently), known as the ‘engineer,’ was taken prisoner near Sevastopol. After the escape, he separated from his group and went with another group to the ghetto.” (p.253)