Olga Yakovlevna Notkina,
Head of Vitebsk department of Public association
of Jews–former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners,
Former prisoner of ghetto in Kolyshki
Olga Notkina at the opening of memorial to Jews, executed in Kolyshki.
Kolyshki is located in the east of Vitebsk region, 20 kilometers away from Liozno.
At the end of the 19th century Kolyshki was a big Jewish settlement, located on the way from Vitebsk to Smolensk. According to the 1897statistics, 1127 Jews lived here, which constituted 71.9% of the total population. Kolyshki developed rapidly as a trade center. People grew potatoes, vegetables and flax. Many people were working as shoemakers, tailors, tanners and blacksmiths. Wickerwork, baskets, barrels, spoons and other items were produced here and sold at fairs, which were held in Kolyshki twice a year.
Kolyshki was statistically a place with the highest percentage of Jews in the region. According to the census, held in 1939, the Jewish population constituted 67.4% of the total. (In comparison with Vitebsk - 22.2%, Polotsk - 21.8% and Surazh - 15.4%). The village had a two-storey synagogue. A Jewish school functioned until 1938. From 1926 to 1935 there was a National Council, where records management and meetings were held in Yiddish.
Our family consisted of seven people: parents and five children, four daughters and a son.
My father, Notkin Yakov Ilyich, worked as a blacksmith on several collective farms. Being a highly-qualified specialist, he was in demand everywhere.
Mother, Notkina Maria Lvovna, was a housewife. We went to school. Two of my elder sisters finished school before the war and left for Vitebsk to continue their education.
We had a big house in the center of Kolyshki and a spacious yard with a family farm.
The war broke into our lives like a tornado – the cruelest and bloodiest war of the 20th century.
The sunny morning of June 22nd, 1941 looked rather peaceful. My father, sister and I went to the forest to procure firewood for the coming winter.
We were coming back in Lioznenskaya Street, where our aunt Liza, my father’s sister used to live. Suddenly we saw our cousin Rosa come out of the house. She said: “Germany has declared war with our country.”
A week later almost all the men were mobilized to the battlefront, including my father. Kolyshki was occupied by the German army on June 10th, 1941. The occupation was preceded by a battle, during which the center of the village was destroyed and burnt down: the post office, shops, houses, including ours.
Today it is difficult to imagine that it once used to be a rather big, nice green village, where people of different nationalities lived peacefully together. Almost no one managed to evacuate. First of all, nobody could guess that the Germans would succeed in reaching so far; and secondly because the railroad was too far (20 km away) and there was no transport.
Fascists immediately opened a policemen council, appointed its head and started “solving the Jewish issue”. All the Jews – the local ones and refugees from Vitebsk immediately turned out in a ghetto. They had to wear yellow Magen Davids on their clothes and the local people were prohibited to give shelter or hide them. The life in the ghetto was similar to the rest of the ghettos: overcrowded houses - five families in every house, injustice, hungry and sick people, deprived of medical help or medicine. Those who became ill with typhus were shot at once.
Fascists’ assistants – policemen – were especially cruel, reveling in power and constantly telling the Jews they would be killed soon. They took everything that was left in the Jewish houses. They constantly reminded them that in the neighboring villages like Surazh, Yanovichi, Dobromysl and Rudnia Jews had already been executed. “Soon you will be taken care of”, - they said. The policemen shot and beat the Jews for no reason, for trifles. Mina Amromina and Grigory Fomin were simply shot while walking; Ziama, a young man, refugee from Vitebsk, was shot just because he failed to take off his boots quickly enough. So they took the boots off the dead body.
Olga Notkina at 145-year anniversary of Kolyshki secondary school.
My cousin, 15-year-old Haim Bliaher, was beaten cruelly because he was wearing a Soviet field cap, which he had found after a battle. Vulf Merzliak was beaten black and blue because he refused to show the place where communists lived. His cousin, a middle-aged man, was chased around the house for a long time and hit with a gun on the head, only because he did not have tobacco. He fell and died. Five men were murdered because they dared to come to the village to beg.
We existed in such conditions for almost nine months. It was a terrible life. Death followed us every hour of every day. But the worst was yet to come.
On March 17th, 1942 a fascist punitive squad surrounded the village at dawn. I found out what happened later from a letter, written by my classmate Peter Fadeyevich Lipshin, who now lives in Minsk and who tried to save his friend, a Jewish boy Motia Zlatin. This is an extract from his letter.
“… Indeed, it was an eerie morning of March 17th, 1942, when fascists surrounded Kolyshki. They began gathering the people in the trade square, both Russians and Jews. Then they let the Russians go home and locked the Jews in a courtyard. My younger brother, together with Motia Zlatin and me, hid in our basement while my mother was guarding us. When the Germans gathered everyone in the square, we thought they would not come back and curiosity took over. As soon as the three of us came out of the basement, a policeman (Romanovsky) came in. He immediately rushed towards Motia, grabbed and dragged him outside. He ordered my mother to stay at home until he came. We, however, ran into the barn and hid in the hay. At that time Soviet soldiers began shooting and the Nazis hastily set all the Jewish houses on fire. Those, who were hiding in the basements, ran out and were shot by the Germans. A lot of people got killed: children and old people in particular. The policeman did not come back to our street, probably because of the panic and thus we survived.
It was a nightmare: everything around was in flames and the Germans hastily convoyed the Jews towards Liozno. The people who were not strong enough were shot on the way. On the second day our men and teenagers collected the bodies, took them to the Jewish cemetery and buried in a mass grave.”
This letter is a true description of those tragic events that I experienced as well.
I, together with my mom, sister and brother, hid in the basement and stayed there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Suddenly we saw smoke filling the room and realized the house was on fire. Mother said: “Let’s hug each other. We are going to die here.” But my sister, who was four years older than me, said: “No, mom, let’s go outside. It is better to be shot than burnt alive.” I still get shivers remembering that conversation between mother and my 16-year-old sister.
When we ran out, fortunately, nobody noticed us, perhaps because of the smoke or perhaps because the murderers had left. We ran into a barn in the yard and sat there while the column with Jews was being taken in the direction of Liozno. They were shot the following day on March 18th, 1942 near a village called Adamenki. We went towards Ponizovie, where the Soviet troops were located. From there we were sent to the home front.
Twenty of my relatives died on that tragic day, including my mother’s sister Bela Bliaher and her seven children. Bela’s husband and elder son died at the battlefront.
My mother lived for 32 more years after the tragedy and every single day she remembered it and said: “Unbelievable, no one is left from such a big family!” Every year she would light a memory candle. Now I do it.
On the same day the families of my mother’s brother and father’s sister, five people in each, were murdered, too. My cousin, who was also my best friend died on that day.
Two generations of new, happy people have grown since the war. They did not see that war and many of them are unaware of the horrible tragedy, which took place on March 17th, 1942 in a place called Kolyshki.
All we can do now for the dead is remember them, remember our history and not let this nightmare happen again.