(1,2,4) – The empty cells
(3,5,6,7) – Cells of the corpse-burners
(8) – Forecourt to the entrance of the main building
(9) – Entrance to the main building through the iron door, which was locked by latches from without
(10) – Metal staircase leading to the second floor. Beneath the stairs was the dry prison cell
(11) – The wet prison cell
(12) – The stove in the entrance hall
(13) – The narrow corridor between the brick wall and the cells
(14) – The long tunnel, where the water pump was situated.
(15) – Entrance to the toilets
(16) – Storeroom for old German uniforms
(17) – The well under which the tunnel was dug
(18) – The deep, large well into which the earth dug up from under the tunnel was placed
(19) – The exit from the dug-up tunnel
(20) – Iron stair leading right, to the tunnel at left, to the second floor
(21) – The tunnel, where full sacks of used army uniforms hid the metal door of the exit
(22) – The opening we drilled in the metal door
(23) – The little tunnel beyond the metal door of the tunnel (21)
(24) – The open field
(25) – The entrance to the tunnel (26)
(26) – The tunnel from which we took dry wood
(27) – Exit to the tunnel (26) and the road ascending to the hill
(28) – The descent from the height of thirty meters
(29) – The six-meter-high concrete wall to which the ladders were attached
Eidlson proposed that we go through the village of Sargenai instead of the road. I was very upset by this suggestion but this was neither the time nor the place to prove how much of a mistake it was to go through the villages. Shimon Eidlson and Michael Gelbtrunk, the best friends of Meishe Zimelevitch (Pok), refused at the last moment to join him.
The group going to the ghetto divided into two: one part – Shimon Eidlson, Aharon Maneiskin, Aharon Vilentchuk and Tuvia Pilovnik – went through the village of Sargenai. Joining me along the straight road were Ivan Vasilenko, Aba Diskant, Berl Gempl, Pinia Krakinovski, Mendl Deitch, Meishe Gerber and Michael Gelbtrunk. Once again, they were given the address of the meeting point in the ghetto: 95 Krishtchiokaitchio Street at the house of Chaim-David Ratner, who acted on behalf of the AKO within the ghetto police.
Anatoli Garnik tells in the protocol of his investigation: “Thus the escape was carried out 100 percent and securely. Sixty-four people left, among them four women. They were all divided into groups. I know few names and those of families, and if I did know, they would not be correct, for most of the names were those of the families of strangers.” (p.252)
I led the group along the road. The edges of the road were covered with snow. The road itself was smooth and free of snow. We walked in the middle of the road in order not to leave footprints. Krakinovski ran to a milestone to see what distance we were from the town and left footprints in the snow. I scolded him and told him not to do this again. We walked quickly. Electric light posts illuminated the road. Everything was covered with snow. There was too much light for our “hike." Every time we came near a milestone, I looked at Krakinovski to make sure he would not run over to it. And now I noticed three long and dark lines on the road surface, one line was shorter, and the others alternately longer. I began to think that we were being followed. We went down to the nearby ghetto. The shadows on the road did not disappear. I decided not to continue walking. We hid in the hollow of the mounds at the side of the road and waited until it became clear who was following us. If someone was following us, we would attack them here, far from the town where they could get help. We did not have to wait long. From afar, we spotted three escapees from the fort, who had parted from the third group: Yudl Maister, Meir Hirsch and Aharonovitch. They joined our group.
We left the road and descended from the top of the hill, to the left of the road, in the vicinity of the Lithuanian huts situated all along the road from Paneriu Street, opposite the ghetto fence, far from the entrance to the ghetto in Varniu Street. We encountered a guard who was flirting with a girl and was not aware of us. But this obliged us to come nearer the ghetto entrance. We passed through Aukuro Street. Some fifty meters from the gate, we stopped and stood close to the wooden fence and studied the area. There were electric lanterns lighting the place as if it were the middle of the day. When the guards, who made their rounds in pairs, got a little further away, we would dash across in pairs and slip through the fence.
We lay in the snow beyond the barbed-wire fence. Everything around us was covered in white. There was nowhere to hide here. The guardhouse with the guards of the gate was within reach and it was dangerous to lie here in this manner, six of us together near the fence. As we all knew where we were to meet, I decided to leave the place and the torn barbed-wire fence as I found it. From afar I could hear the cocks crowing, just as they did when we first arrived.
I do not know whether Jesus was really born on Christmas. But we, the corpse-burners, did indeed come to life on that night. Christmas night marked the birth of Christianity; we created the legend of the rebellion. We fled from the Ninth Fort to the ghetto and landed in the Kauen concentration camp. To our amazement, this became clear from the large sign opposite the Jewish Council’s office. A deathly silence prevailed, disturbed by the squeaking of our footsteps in the snow. Our meeting place was still at Chaim-David Ratner’s house at 95 Krishtchiokaitchio Street.
We moved quickly and cautiously between the small houses, their residents still deeply asleep, evading the central streets of the ghetto, in which one could meet German guards or Jewish policemen. We slipped through the ghetto lanes, Vingiu, Griniaus, Girutchio, Stulginskio, Bajoru, and reached the corner of Krishtchiokaitchio Street and Broliu, standing close to the house where Chaim-David Ratner lived. I looked around to see if anyone noticed me. I gingerly tried to open the door but it was locked from within. The shutters were also closed. Only a thin line of light came through the gap between the shutters. I tapped lightly on the shutters.
"Who’s there?" asked a masculine voice.
"I come from Alte," I answered, hinting at the name of Alte Boruchovitch-Teper.
"What time is it?" asks the same voice.
Where could I get a watch so that I could answer what the time was? I understood that I was being tested. I recalled that when we were crawling under the ghetto fence, I heard from afar the crowing of the cocks and that they used to crow at midnight.
"The time is twelve-thirty," I replied.
A minute later we heard the latches being moved. The door opened and there was Chaim-David Ratner standing on the threshold. I moved through the darkness and entered a light-filled room. Meishe Musel was lying on a sofa near the window. Seeing me, he immediately sat up, a smile of amazement spreading across his face.
"We have fled from the Ninth Fort. Don’t ask me anything. See to where you can hide us," I turned to Ratner. "There are another twelve people with me. Here there are six and the rest are due any moment now."
Chaim-David wore his policeman’s uniform with its insignia, the ribbon and the hat, and went outside, bringing the comrades who waited there into the house. I sat down near a small table, opposite Meishe Musel. We stared at one another, smiling, but did not say a word. His eyes were full of wonder and enthusiasm. I asked him if he knew anything about my wife, Sima. He told me that she lived nearby. Where, he did not know. On December 22, the Germans ordered the evacuation of the old part of the ghetto. I had lived in that neighborhood. All the inhabitants of that sector were transferred to the houses in the limited ghetto. I asked for paper and a pencil, scribbled a few words and give it to him to pass on to Sima. Sima did not get my letter. Musel showed the letter to Chaim Yellin on the following day. He took it from Musel and told him to forget all about it. Chaim did not want anyone to know that I was in the ghetto.
Ratner went to Dimitri Gelpern. Chaim Yellin was not in the ghetto at the time. On December 24, he took the third group of fighters from the ghetto in a car and led them to the forest, to the partisans, and did not return.
Gelpern was ill in bed. He had been badly beaten by the Gestapo. He had been arrested by a German patrol on the road from Murava to the ghetto. The previous day, there had been a meeting in Murava between Gelpern, Chaim Yellin and “Albina” and their contacts in the forest. On December 10, 1943, they discussed the technical and military problems involved in getting fighters of the ghetto to the forest.
On his way back to the ghetto the following day (Chaim had remained in Murava), Gelpern was arrested by the German guards, beaten and handed over to the Gestapo, where he stubbornly persisted in claiming that he had gone to look for food. The Gestapo could not get anything further out of him by torture and he was released after being severely beaten and wounded. His freedom was partly due to AKO, who used every possible channel to get him out of the hands of the Gestapo.
Gelpern wrote to me, in a letter dated August 8, 1987:
“On the night between the 25th and 26th , I think it was not 00:30 but later, after 02:00, Chaim-David Ratner came to me. He woke me up and told me that there had been an escape from the Fort and some of those who had escaped were already here, while other escapees were expected to come. What should he do? Chaim Yellin was not there. On the evening of December 24 he had accompanied a car full of fighters to the partisans’ base, and he had not yet returned. For this reason I gave all the instructions as to what to do.” Gelpern wrote an article about this incident in the Vilna newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda of December 23, 1988, to mark forty-five years since the escape from the Ninth Fort.
Gelpern ordered Ratner to take the escapees down to Lipman’s “malina” (hiding place) in Krishtchiokaitchio Street and to send comrades to the ghetto fence immediately to help the rest of the escapees from the fort to get into the ghetto. Gelpern also told Alte Boruchovitch-Teper and Meir Grinberg to look after the escapees and supply them with anything they needed.
Burdened with all the tasks imposed on him, Ratner returned home where we were all waiting impatiently. He told us to go with him, and we did not have far to go. Opposite his house, in an empty lot near Krishtchiokaitchio Street, there was a toilet. Ratner opened the door and told us to follow him one by one. He lifted the plank covering the lavatory bowl and pushed the partition to the right. We crawled through the hole beneath the bowl into the hiding place, which had not been prepared for us, avoiding the excrement still in the hole. The “malina” was two meters deep, lit by a single electric bulb, and with a well in the middle. Here and there were planks of wood intended for sleeping bunks.
The “malina” was still not ready for occupation. An atmosphere of cold and dampness pervaded the place. I tried sleeping but did not succeed. From time to time, the wall partition of the hut opened and another of my group of escapees from the Ninth Fort descended to the “malina." How pleased we were to see one another! The place was getting crowded but the joy of meeting added warmth.
Sunday, December 26. Chaim Yellin came down to the hiding place. We embraced. I briefly recounted the whole escape and took out Garnik's drawings from the lining of my coat. Chaim gazed at the “triangular finger gesture” and “a day at the ‘battlefield’.” I showed him the gold teeth and dentures we had taken from the Ninth Fort and which were intended to serve as further evidence, together with the living evidence of our existence, of what we witnessed at the fort.
"Why didn’t you do everything to bring them all to the ghetto?" Chaim asked me reproachfully. "We would have had many more trained army men and officers."
I stood with my head bowed. But I was pleased that my choice had been the right one. To go into the forest without weapons and without a guide would have been irresponsible, especially when it was known that the AKO was already sending groups straight to the existing partisan groups. It was possible that if I had told the prisoners that a fighting underground movement existed in the ghetto, they would have come with me. But did I have the right to reveal AKO’s existence to them? After many years, the real reason was uncovered, as was the person responsible for influencing the choice made by the Jewish Soviet prisoners. This is described later in the chapter “The Fate of Escapees."
Chaim told me that he was sending us out of the ghetto and into the forest to the partisans immediately. I asked him to let us rest, to recover after all that we had experienced with the Gestapo, in prison and in the Ninth Fort.
"The last guide to the forest is now here," Chaim replied. "The car is supposed to leave on December 28. The intended group is ready. Either you leave or they do. We will not have another guide for you."
I tried to convince Chaim that we would reach our destination on our own. We were not as inexperienced or lacking initiative as we had once been. Vasilenko was with us, supposedly a captain, and we would arrive on our own. I asked him to transfer us to another “malina” as we would not be able to hold out in the present one in view of its dampness, cold and the congestion. Chaim promised to consider all these aspects and decide what was to be done. And then he left.