Project «Voices of Jewish settlements. Vitebsk region.»
פיתוח קשרי התרבות בין העמים של ישראל ובלרוס
In the pre-war years our town had one synagogue, which was closed down in the 30s. After that there were only prayer houses. A Jewish secondary school was open until 1936. Not far from the town there was a collective farm headed by Glikman, a Jew. After the war he became the chief editor of a regional newspaper. Before the war there were two secondary schools – a Belarusian and a Russian one. Among the teachers there were Jewish teachers Matvei Kamenetsky, Matvei Yudovin, Nina Kopina, Pikus. Asia Pavlovna Yudovina worked as a doctor in the local hospital. A well-known painter Yudovin was born and lived for some time in Beshenkovichi.
During the German occupation Beshenkovichi had a Nazi police detachment, made up of local residents. On the day of the execution, one of them, Tserkovsky, found a Jewish medical student, Riva Leitman, in a basement and reported on her. She was shot. After the war his wife and daughter denounced and abandoned him.
I BECAME A GIRL FOR TWO YEARS
I spent my childhood in Beshenkovichi, a town located on the Western Dvina, surrounded by forests, away from the railroad. About 3.000 Jews lived in Beshenkovichi before the war. According to the census, held during the occupation, there were 1.200 Jewish residents. Right before the war my father, Isaak Pinhusovich Ruhman, was 34; mother Rosa Markovna Dobromyslina was 32; I was 9.5, sister Sonia – 7 and brother Boria – 2.5. Father’s sister Sofia Petrovna Nemtsova and her children Asia (10) and Misha (8.5) lived with us.
My parents were accountants. As the war started, my father was mobilized. On July 3rd my mother was given a horse-driven carriage at work and we travelled towards Senno. However, the carriage was stolen in one of the villages we were passing, and we had nothing to do but come back to Beshenkovichi. The town was on fire but our house was not burnt. Then a ghetto was formed in Beshenkovichi.
There were four families living in our house and we had to attach yellow strips of cloth onto our clothes, as well as paint the Star of David on our houses. It became dangerous to walk outside. The first person to be murdered was Dubrov – he was coming back home with food that he had exchanged for clothing. From all the people living in our house I clearly remember a young girl and her grandfather. Two Germans came to rape the girl. They were directed there by her former classmate. Once, when the grandfather was praying, the Germans came. He stood in front of the closed door and would not let them in. One of the Germans took out his pistol and hit him on the face. Policemen would also come to search our house for valuable things. We hid our valuables behind a double wall and gradually exchanged them for potatoes and flour.
Then all of a sudden the Germans started giving Belarusians potatoes. I ran towards the warehouse and joined the line. Someone in the line pointed at me and shouted: “Jude!” One of the Germans grabbed me and threw me onto the road. At that time a truck was driving by and I was extremely lucky not to get run over.
Then I remember the time when people from neighboring villages began to arrive – they had escaped executions. Our family also started thinking about escaping and searching for partisans. Finally, at the end of December, 1941, my mother and I managed to escape, leaving my sister and brother with our aunt. Mother took only me because I was the elder brother – the winter that year was truly rigorous.
At that time I was not aware that mother had been preparing for our escape. As soon as we left Beshenkovichi, she warned me that I had to hide my Jewish origin in every possible way. It was rather hard to do, since I had been circumcised. So she took out a skirt out of her bag and told me that from that moment my name would be Yadia. My family name was changed for Kozlovskaya. It was our housekeeper’s family name. During our trip she kept telling me the invented story of my childhood. I had to say that mother was Armenian originally. Her husband died before the war. Now she talked to me as if I were her daughter. I seemed to play my role quite well. The only thing that could show I was a boy was my gait.
So we passed Vitebsk and walked towards Smolensk. By that time all the Jewish ghettos had been liquidated. It was very hard to find places to spend nights at. People were unwilling to let us in, because they were scared they would be punished. At the same time mother kept looking for partisans, asking people in villages if they knew anything about their location. One such attempt almost ended tragically. I remember there was a blizzard. We arrived in a village and knocked on a door. A woman opened. We noticed she had two children. She looked alarmed and said that there were Germans living in her house. She mentioned that they had left only to get something for lunch. She gave us some bread and said: “Run!” We ran out of the house but the Germans noticed us. Then we were taken to the German headquarters. Mother, who understood German, told me later that they intended to shoot us but later decided to send us to their headquarters instead. An officer there had a glanced at us and decided we did not look Jewish. So he let us go.
At that time roads were more and more controlled by the Germans and mother decided to go to a German commandant’s office and say that we were refugees from Leningrad. That would grant us a residence permit. We inquired from one of the local residents where the commandant’s office was and he said he was heading there. It turned out that he was a Nazi policeman, so he actually took us to the Nazi police station. We ended up in a prison. First we were in one room; then got separated. I continued playing the role of a girl. When I had to use a toilet, I had to turn away, as if I were shy. My mother and I were interrogated separately and we both used the story she had invented. Once, during an interrogation, they were beating me up, saying that mother had admitted being Jewish. They said that Hitler decided not to harm Jews any more. However, I was silent. There was another moment when they were lashing me. Fortunately they did not tell me to undress. Then spring came and they let us go. We were allowed to live in the town of Roslov, without the right to leave.
We found an apartment and mother found a job peeling potatoes for Germans. The summer was over. At the end of September, 1942, we received a notice stating we had to come to the police station. We decided to run away from town. In the evening she entered our old apartment to get her shawl and I waited for her outside. Mother did not come for a long time, so I entered the house. The owner informed me that mother had already left. I dashed to our second apartment, which was in the same street only to hear that she had not been there. I was running around the town until late in the evening. I remembered her words that if she had been killed I would have to look for partisans. Therefore, the same evening I started walking in the direction of Briansk in hopes of finding partisans. I was wandering for a long time and met a woman, who was grazing cows. She informed me that there were no partisans in Briansk and the town had been in ruins. She then told me it would be better to come back to Roslov.
So I was back in Roslov. I visited the owner of the apartment where mother had gone to take her shawl. I was hoping she would know something about her. She told me that the town had an orphanage and I needed to contact the municipality.
I went to the municipality and invented a legend that mother had left me. I was sent to the orphanage. There lived Russian children, whose parents had been shot or were in prisons or concentration camps. The counselors were Russian. I was among girls. At that time I had long hair and did look like a girl. A rich family wanted to adopt me – they wanted their daughter to have a sister.
I lived under constant stress: I had to go the bathhouse together with girls. There I covered myself and turned to the wall. The children suspected I could be a boy but believed that I was a girl. I never knew what the counselors thought about me.
Once, a Russian doctor with a nurse came to our orphanage to perform a medical examination. The children stood in line only with their tops off, so I decided there was no need to run. I remember the doctor checked my heart and lungs and upon finishing he said to the nurse: “Strange rib cage constitution for a girl. It’s the first time I see one like this.”
I lived in the orphanage until autumn, 1943. This was when the town was liberated. Only then I could return to being a boy. Our nurse came up to me and said: “Ok, Yadia, now you can change to your normal clothes. You have survived.”
It was now difficult to return to being a boy and go to the bathhouse with boys. I was almost 12. Later I was sent to another orphanage in Kaluzhskaya region and then I entered a college. At that time I began looking for my mother’s relatives. Fortunately I received information that they were alive (they had managed to evacuate at the beginning of the war). Soon I received a telegram from my grandfather, in which he asked me to write where mother was. He also kept in touch with my father, who by that time had reached Berlin. This is how I found my relatives.
I met father in Vitebsk in 1946 after his demobilization. It happened by accident – I was coming back from my aunt and saw him at the station. Later we went to Roslavl in search of any information concerning my mother. We went to the apartment where we had lived. The owner told my father that I woman with a girl had stayed at her house. I was standing next to my father and she did not recognize me. We did not manage to find her.
After the war a memorial was set up in Beshenkovichi in memory of the Jews, executed in there.
Before going to Israel I visited Beshenkovichi in 1991. There were only a few Jewish women left in the town, a destroyed old cemetery and the memorial in the forest.
There is also a memory about the town, but it will not be there forever.
Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region
Vitebsk • Albrehtovo • Babinovichi • Baran • Bayevo • Begoml • Beshenkovichi • Bocheikovo • Bogushevsk • Borkovichi • Braslav • Bychiha • Chashniki • Disna • Dobromysli • Dokshitsy • Druya • Dubrovno • Glubokoye • Gorodok • Kamen • Kohanovo • Kolyshki • Kopys • Krasnopolie • Kublichi • Lepel • Liady • Liozno • Lukoml • Luzhki • Lyntupy • Miory • Obol • Oboltsy • Orsha • Osintorf • Ostrovno • Parafianovo • Plissa • Polotsk • Prozorki • Senno • Sharkovshina • Shumilino • Sirotino • Slaveni• Smolyany • Surazh • Tolochin • Ulla • Verhnedvinsk • Vidzy • Volyntsy • Yanovichi • Yezerishe • Zhary • Ziabki •