When the war started, we had moved out of Berezno to my maternal grandpa’s village of Tishetsa, which was about ten kilometers away. He was a cattle buyer; his village only had around four Jewish families.
In 1941, The Nazis came to the village when I was about ten years old. I remember watching through the window one day when the Nazis took my grandpa out into the street and beat the dickens out of him before kicking him back into our house. That was my first experience with the Nazis, and after that we made sure we locked our doors and didn’t let anyone in. Some of our gentile neighbors looked out for us and one neighbor even offered to hide us if we ever got scared, and we did that a few times.
While we were staying with my grandfather in the village, my mother gave birth to my brother Harold. In order to have his bris (circumcision), my mother had to disguise herself as a peasant lady and smuggle him into the city. One of the villagers snuck her into Berezno to have the bris.
We stayed in the village until the Nazis formed a ghetto in Berezno. My paternal grandmother’s house was within the ghetto, so we moved back in with her. But instead of three families living in this house, we had to live with eight other families, one family to a room.
The Nazis formed a group of our fellow Jews to police us, and used them to take all of the wealth from the Jewish people, gradually stealing all of our valuables. Anyone who was older than fifteen and able-bodied was used for work. Food was very scarce but somehow we managed.
At some point, they came around and said that they needed people to move to a work camp to dig peat moss for fuel. My whole family decided to go to this work camp because we felt that it would be close to areas where we could get food; it was near where my Grandpa’s farm was.
One of my aunts and my maternal grandmother stayed in the ghetto to raise my two infant cousins. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Nazis in the ghetto. The Jews were forced to dig their own trench and then everyone was shot!
In the work camp, there were women that were kept in the guard’s homes. We called these guards, “Ukrainian Dogs” because they were Ukrainians working for the Nazis. One of the girls was kept by the Nazi Commandant and she overheard a phone call ordering all of the Jews to be sent to the ghetto for elimination.
She informed the rest of us, and a couple hundred of us broke out of the camp to try to run into a large forest that was near the camp. Some of the people were killed by the guards but my family was able to escape. My uncle had been a forester so he really knew this forest well.
My uncle’s skill kept us alive because we were able to hide. Other families ended up running back out of the forest and were killed so we were lucky that my uncle knew his way. We spent eighteen months living in that forest.
As we continued to live in the woods, we would take turns going out to the surrounding countryside to get food from villagers and farmers in the surrounding areas. We were hungry and spent most of our time just hiding.
This all changed when the Russian Partisans came in. We met up with them but they didn’t want any women or children with their group. My grandfather and uncle talked them into taking all of us, because the Partisans needed their skills and knowledge of the woods and the surrounding areas.
The men in my family would go on missions with the Partisans and they would raid surrounding German police stations and barracks. This is how they got weapons to fight against the German army. They were also able to get clothing and boots which were difficult for us to get. Until that time, we wore ‘pastolas’ which are shoes made of bark. Sometimes my uncles and the Partisans would come back with a sheep or cattle, which we would slaughter for food.
My father did not survive the war. Before we joined the Partisans, my dad and I used to go out to the surrounding farms and ask for food. Sometimes we had to steal the food. We would load up backpacks during outings that lasted all night and walk back into the woods to bring food to the families that were hiding there.
We had to avoid Ukrainian search and destroy missions all the time. The Germans were offering one ‘pood’ (about 16 lbs) of salt for any Jew, dead or alive. Salt was very rare and very valuable at that time. It was almost like a game to them. They would chase us with dogs to try and track us down. One time, my father and I went out looking for food and near the end, early in the morning, we ran into two of these Ukrainians. I don’t remember how my pack got off of me; I suppose my father took it off my back. I just remember him yelling, “Run!! Run!!” and I just ran! Then there were two or three shots and my father was dead.
I ran towards the farm of a family that was friendly to us and hid in the cornfield, after which I got into his hayloft. When the farmer, Mr. Sawchuk, came in to milk the cows the next morning, I scared the hell out of him when I came out of the loft!
He agreed to hide me until he could help reunite me with my family which he was able to do after about ten days or so. I followed him in the dark into the forest to a meeting place where my Uncle David was waiting and my uncle took me back to our camp in the forest.
We survived this way in the woods for eighteen months and near the end of the war, it was amazing! The Russian Army came and they brought all kinds of things like chocolate and other food. The able men were drafted and sent to fight at the front so my uncles ended up there. My grandfather, aunts and me ended up on a truck that took us to Korosten, which was very far from the Berezno.
This town was an important railroad station, so it was bombed very often by the Germans. I remember there was a bomb shelter inside a mountain and we used to have to run there whenever the sirens went off. One night, I remember that we didn’t make it to the shelter and I remember laying in a ditch and looking up at the sky, seeing the searchlights and bombs falling.