Project «Voices of Jewish settlements. Vitebsk region.»
פיתוח קשרי התרבות בין העמים של ישראל ובלרוס
ALL LEVELS OF HELL
Yanovichi, an urban settlement, is located 35 kilometers away from Vitebsk. First it belonged to the Great Duchy of Lithuania and in 1772 was annexed to the Russian Empire. According to the first census, organized here in 1772, the population of the settlement constituted 2,359 people, three quarters of whom were Jewish.
The pre-war Yanovichi was a picturesque place with more than a thousand houses. There were three schools, a club, a hospital, a mill, a tannery, a library and a kindergarten. On Sundays it was customary to visit the bazaar and several times a year big trade fairs were held.
Before 1938 the town had a Jewish, a Russian and a Belarusian school. There were three synagogues, a big Orthodox and a Catholic church. There were no religious or cultural conflicts – Belarusian children knew what a tallit and a tfillin is, while Jews became political activists of the Soviet Union, like Mikhail Markovich Borodin, who was known in Yanovichi as Gruzenberg.
Jews lived in Yanovichi for almost three hundred years – they were deeply rooted in the Belarusian land. The last day of the Jewish community was on September 10th, 1941.
It was a genuinely bright morning – the first frost had colored the grass whitish. The sun was looking into the windows. But it was not the sun that woke Yanovichi residents that morning – they were woken up by the humming of approaching cars. The ghetto residents, knowing they should expect only the worst, were listening to that humming in fear. The German troops surrounded Vitebskaya and Tadulinskaya Streets, where the ghetto was located. The encirclement was so tight that even a cat would not escape. That was the end of a previously planned crime. Here is how it began:
Semion Mikhailovich Rybakov recollects: “In the middle of June, right after the Germans occupied the settlement, they started forcing the residents to work- mostly repair roads. Once, at the end of June, they assembled 30-40 men and took them away. They explained they the men would be taken to do some other work in Kolyshki. About an hour later we heard shooting but nobody really paid attention – we heard shooting every day. Only later we found out that those people had been shot near village Ohrutka, one kilometer away from Yanovichi.”
That was the first mass campaign, organized by the fascists against the Jews. As a matter of fact, such campaigns were usually very meticulously planned by the Germans and were repeated in many other towns and settlements.
First the Nazis eliminated “the backbone” of the Jewish community– the people who could actually fight back. “The backbone” consisted of former Soviet activists, and just healthy men.
Semion Mikhailovich Rybakov adds: “After the first execution the Nazis started organizing almost daily raids, catching Jewish men and teenagers and taking them to the same place to be shot.”
There were cases, when ghetto residents went insane – it was very hard for human brains “to digest” all the violence and brutality that the people observed.
Y.A. Nikiforova recalled that many middle-aged women went out of their minds. Before the war there were quite a few mixed families in Yanovichi, where one spouse was Jewish and the other – Russian or Belarusian. For such families the war was a horrible trial, when one of the spouses was forced to live in the ghetto and the other was left in more favorable conditions. Not all the families managed to overcome that. Some of them immediately forgot about their husbands or wives, who were behind the barbed wire. However, Kabakova’s husband was different – he saved his wife from the ghetto. He bribed a Nazi and his pregnant wife was let out of the ghetto at night. She was immediately taken to Kolyshki, where she gave birth. On the hardest days the Nazis spread rumors that the men, who had been taken to work, were coming back. Middle-aged people prayed for that and fasted. Everyone hoped they would come back. But nothing was happening and the ghetto residents started to lose patience. On the first days of September many people managed to break out of the ghetto, finding shelter at their friends’ houses or hiding in the woods. And then the fascists resorted to cunning.
Nikolai Ivanovich Shpakovsky recalls:
“The fascists brought potatoes and bread into the ghetto. Rumors about that spread quickly to the neighboring villages and the Jews thought that they would be treated differently, so they started coming back to Yanovichi.”
Obviously, bread and potatoes influenced the decision of the starving people. However that was not the sole reason for their return. Jewish families have always been very big and united. There was a rumor that the families of the people, who had escaped, would be killed first. So they came back.
… On September 10th, 1941, chairs and tables were brought out to Tadulinskaya Street. The Nazis were sitting on the chairs with a list of Jewish names – making sure no one had escaped. Boria Efros intuitively hid in the stove. His friend Izik closed the stove, saying he would not fit in there… So Boris Efros was saved by a miracle. At night he got out and headed for a village called Vymno. In the very first house he entered, an old man looked at him and said: “You are blacksmith Leizer’s son.”
Leizer Efros was widely known as a skilled blacksmith. The man fed the boy. Later the man’s daughter came home and told her father: “We will be shot because of this Jew!” The man shouted at her and even pushed her out of the house. But then he asked the boy to go and gave him some food. Boris wandered from village to village. He invented a story that he had escaped from an orphanage in Lepel and that his name was Vasily Mikhailovich Ivanov. Eventually he met the partisans and joined them.
On that bloody morning, September 10th, 1941, Ignaty Ivanovich Lukianov was mowing grass near a village called Zaitsevo. He was about a hundred meters away from tank ditches. Not far from him Ulian Yegorovich Petrov was plowing land. They witnessed those shocking events. Ignaty Ivanovich Lukianov later described what had happened:
“In the morning we saw about 15 Germans bring sixteen Jewish girls to the tank-ditch. When the car was passing us, I asked the girls: “Where are you going?” One of the girls answered: “To Demidov, to pick cucumbers”. She waved at me with her white handkerchief. The car stopped by the tank-ditch and the Germans each took a girl to the shrubs next to the ditch. Then we heard the girls shouting and groaning. It did not last long. Then they were dragged out, some on the hair, some on clothes – to the ditch. All of them were shot. Most probably they were raped before the execution.
Then two more trucks with Jewish women arrived. They were also dragged out and shot in the ditch. Some of them were buried alive. After that there were two trucks with children, there were babies and children up to ten years old. They were all buried alive. The two trucks contained not less than a hundred children.
After that more people were brought. Some were shot, some thrown into the ditch alive. Up to 1,600 people were slaughtered on that day. Seven big ditches were filled with corpses.”
On November 2nd, 1943 the forensic expertise department of the Soviet Army organized exhumation of the graves. The size of three ditches, which were located between Yanovichi and Demidov, were 5x5 meters big and 4 meters deep. They were filled with corpses. After examining a body of a 2-year-old child they found no traces of wounds.
There was another detail. A child’s coat, which was found in the grave, had Soviet money hidden under the lining. Now it is difficult to imagine what the mother counted on. Perhaps she hoped the child would somehow be saved by someone and the money would be a gratitude to these people?
Before the execution the fascists forced the people to get undressed and put the clothes into piles. Then the trucks that had brought the victims went back, loaded with the people’s belongings. Not just the Germans were involved in the pillage – they were assisted by burgomaster Vysotsky and his people. They were just regular criminals, even though when they were on trial later they presented themselves as “noble” opponents of the Soviet regime.
Below is an extract from official documents:
“The day after the execution, - witnessed M.K. Kniazhishe, - I personally saw Vasily Fedorovich Vysotsky, together with policemen Ivan Dmitrievich Lebedevsky, Sergey Sobolev, Nikanor Kazakov, Alexei Stefanovich and several German officers, walking into the houses of the executed residents to look for valuables and check if anyone had been left alive. All the things were taken to the warehouse by the burgomaster personally. Vysotsky took a cow that had belonged to Sheikovich, an executed resident.”
Perhaps the most conspicuous was the list of all the objects that Vysotsky had stolen, which was presented at the trial – the long list consisted of more than 80 items.
Several Russians were executed together with the Jewish residents. The people, who attempted to approach the Jews, when they were being convoyed to the execution, were also caught by the Nazis as defenders of Jews…
Unfortunately, the attitude of the local population to the Jews was not always friendly. When the Jews came back from evacuation, their houses had been occupied by their neighbors and they were not even allowed to take their belongings.
September 10th, 1941. The last group to be executed on that day consisted of doctor Yefim Livshitz, pharmacist Aron Israelevich Labkovsky, an old woman named Rahil Moshadskaya, the Amolins (wife, her mother, their six children, aged 6-13). The cruelest death expected Yefim Livshitz. First he was beaten up, just for entertainment. The fascists expected him to fall on his knees and beg. But Yefim Abramovich gazed at the ditches filled with corpses, at his murdered wife, Anna Abramovna, with whom he had lived for 30 years, at the murdered grandson who he adored more than anything, at his murdered friends. He was silent, which enraged the fascists. Then they ripped his stomach open with a knife. Yefim Abramovich only closed the wound with his arms and did not utter a sound. He was pushed into the ditch and shot.
Yefim Livshitz was a rare personality. He was born in 1877 in Nevel. He studied medicine in Kenigsberg and in Basel. When he moved to Yanovichi he was working here as a doctor. Modern specialists could find it surprising but being an excellent gynecologist, he was also a good surgeon, therapist, pediatrician and even a dentist. He also headed the local hospital.
When the Red Army was retreating, Yefim Abramovich was offered a place in a car that was going westwards but the doctor rejected the offer, saying he was too old and his grandchildren were too small. The family was not ready to take such a long trip – it would be too hard for the family. If he only had known what he and his family would have to go through! He also said that he knew Germans well – they were cultured and educated people, they would not harm the peaceful residents. Livshitz knew the Germans, but he did not know the fascists.
When the ghetto was established, the fascists came to him and ordered: “You will be the head of Judenrat”, meaning the head of the ghetto. The Nazis realized that the man was not only wiser but also stronger than them. To humiliate the old doctor they harnessed him into a cart with a barrel of water in it. They had other ways of humiliation, too. But Livshitz got through all of them.
Many stories are told about Yefim Abramovich. One of them is connected with his granddaughter…
The girl’s name was Maya. Every summer she came to Yanovichi from Leningrad to visit her grandparents. She was there in 1941 as well. She did not manage to come back home because of the war. There are rumors that the girl’s nanny decided to give her away to the policemen. She was sheltered by a middle-aged German officer, named Daum. Later the man took her with him to Germany and brought her up in his family. Today people say that Maya was even trying to find her relatives… Perhaps this is just a legend, made up by the Yanovichi residents, who want to believe the girl is still alive.
After the execution the fascists and their assistants searched for the people, who had not been killed.
Policemen Mikhail Fedorovich Krestovsky, Konstantin Ivanovich Ivanov, Mikhail Nikolayevich Tkachev, Pavel Mironovich Usachevsky, Ivan Dmitrievich Lebedevsky and burgomaster Vysotsky informed the punitive squad about the hiding Jews, who were caught and shot.
A man, whose name was Shepchenok, was hiding in a well. Translator Stefanovich dragged the naked man out and took him to the Germans, who shot him at once. Another Jewish girl Revekka was trying to escape and was caught by policeman Ivanov and shot.
On October 26th, 1943 V.F.Vysotsky was sentenced to death and publicly hanged in a village called Valki.
When the Soviet Army entered Yanovichi, a little over 300 people were left here, among them not a single Jew. On the site of the mass grave there was a plate with words: “It is here”.
The table was still there several years after the war. Very few Jews came back to the settlement after the war. The last Yanovichi Jew, Gennady Altman, died at the end of the 80s.
The war did not only take human lives. It destroyed a whole world, a whole civilization, which was called “Eastern European Jewry”, or “Ashkenazim”. Yanovichi was once a small island of this civilization…
M. Ryvkin, A. Shulman
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 •