Project «Voices of Jewish settlements. Vitebsk region.»
פיתוח קשרי התרבות בין העמים של ישראל ובלרוס
I HAVE GONE THROUGH HELL…
I received this letter from Krasnodarsky region in Russia. A history teacher from a local school, Anatoly Petrovich Kostenko, wrote: «I am currently supervising research work of my student Sergey Ostapenko. We have written about Lev Mikhailovich Haimovich. We were looking for information about his life and wrote letters to his place of birth – Vitebsk.»
The research work «I have gone through hell…» (Memories of a young ghetto prisoner in Vitebsk) caused keen interest of his relatives. And upon their request the copies of the research work were sent to Nazareth-Illit (Israel) and New York (USA).
We are happy that our research has helped you find another ghetto survivor.»
Below are some extracts from Sergey Ostapenko’s research work.
Lev (Leib) Mikhailovich Haimovich was born on December 22nd 1928 in Vitebsk. His father Mikhail Ruvimovich originated from Poland. During World War I he was in the Tsar’s Army. In 1918 his detachment took the side of the Red Army and in 1922 they arrived in Vitebsk, where Mikhail Ruvimovich met his future wife – Sofia Abramovna Kozlianskaya.
There were five children in the family. They lived not far from the railway station in a tiny apartment. But they were optimistic about the future and hoped that soon they would get a new and more spacious place to live in. However, their plans were not to come true.
The war began on June 22nd 1941. Mikhail Ruvimovich was mobilized the following day. The family did not manage to leave the city – they were one hour late for the last train that evacuated the city residents. That was the reason the whole family was killed. Mikhail Ruvimovich also died in October, 1941 in a battle under Mozhaisk. Only Leva survived in the family of seven people. He spent many years looking for his father and found his grave only in 1967.
On July 9-11th Germans invaded Vitebsk and Jews were forced to register on the first days of the occupation. Vitebsk ghetto was created on the bank of the Western Dvina, surrounded by a fence and barbed wire. The ghetto was guarded by Germans and local policemen. They were incredibly cruel to the ghetto residents – life became hell. At that time Leva was twelve and a half.
On the night of September 29th 1941, a group of ghetto prisoners managed to escape from the ghetto. When Leva was leaving, his mother was unconscious, five-year-old sister Dashenka already dead, and nine-year-old brother Tolik had no strength to run.
That was one of the very few successful escapes. Leva was the first to crawl under the barbed wire, his cousin Sonia Katz and her mother Hana following him. More people followed after them. Then they decided to split into smaller groups. Hana, together with the children, started walking along the bank of the Western Dvina. Soon they saw a fisherman with a boat. Hana gave him her engagement ring and he agreed to take them to the opposite river bank. They continued their way in the direction of Liozno, where their relatives used to live. They had to walk at night. Fortunately, the relatives in Liozno were alive, so Hana and the kids spent several days at their house. Then they continued their trip towards the frontline.
… By the end of 1942 they were completely worn out. They had to spend nights in hay stacks, sometimes in bath houses, if they were lucky. They begged for food. Hana was a tailor and in some houses she would sew clothes to get food. So they travelled from village to village. Then, in one of such villages Hana was murdered. They were staying in a house, which was one day attacked by Nazi policemen. They wanted to take the owner’s cow. The woman, who owned the cow, started crying and begging them not to take the animal, because she had three small children, who would starve to death. The policemen were shouting back that such was an order of a German officer and they had to obey. At that moment Hana came out of another room and yelled: «When our soldiers arrive – you will have to pay for everything,»
«Who is this?» – the policemen inquired. They grabbed Hana and shot her right at the front door. Leva and Sonia were out of the house that day – they had gone to a neighboring village to beg for food. When they were on their way back, they saw the owner of the house run out to the front porch and wave her arms – warning them of the danger. They had to wait until it got dark and only then were able to enter the village. Then they were told about Hana’s death. The grief-stricken children had nothing left to do but keep moving westwards.
In February, 1943 they approached the frontline and stayed in one of the villages. Later Leva found out that the name of the village was Obletsovo, Smolensky region. In this village there was a woman, Anna Pakhomova, who saved Jewish children from starvation and death. She risked her life and the lives of her three children to save others. Despite everything, she gave shelter to Leva and Sonia and fed them. The children hid themselves in a barn.
Lev (Leib) Haimovich.
Nazi policemen often came to the village with raids. Once, during one of such raids Sonia was out of the barn. The policemen caught her. She looked older than her age and did not at all look Jewish, so that saved her life. However, she was sent to Germany with many other locals. Leva found out about what happened to her only 25 years later, when he found his relatives.
One day later the village was liberated by the Soviet Army.
The Germans fought back vigorously. A great number of locals were killed but Leva was lucky – he survived. It happened on March 8th 1943. After the liberation military doctors started assembling orphaned children – all of them had blond hair. Suddenly they called Leva to their table. He approached their table and heard:
- Why is he here?
They started asking Leva questions:
- Where are you from?
- From Vitebsk.
- How did you happen to come here?
- On September 29th 1941 I escaped from Vitebsk ghetto…
- And how long have you been travelling for?
- A year and a half.
- So you are a Jewish boy! Where are your relatives?
- Mother, brother and sisters, my six aunts (mother’s sisters) and their children were all killed. Only aunt Hana and her daughter escaped with me. Aunt Hana was shot by policemen. Sonia was caught in another village.
Then they weighed Leva and were shocked to see he only weighed twenty seven kilos. He was dystrophic.
… Age-wise, Leva had to be sent to college, but the military doctors made a different decision. They registered the boy as being two years younger and sent him to an orphanage. That saved the boy’s life – exhausted as he was – he would not be able to work in a factory.
Two weeks later the orphans were taken to an orphanage. In Orneburgskaya region they were met by other children-orphans, counselor and groom Grisha.
Leva, staggering from exhaustion, approached the groom and asked:
- May I join you?
- Of course! Sit down!
Leva loved horses, so the old groom made him his assistant in the stable. The old man was often ill, so soon Leva became the main person in the stable taking care of the horses. He spent three years in the orphanage and in July 1946 left for Krondshtadt to study radiotelegraphy.
All the post-war years Lev Mihailovich spent looking for his relatives. He learnt about his father’s death while he was still at the orphanage. In 1967 he found father’s grave in a village near Mozhaisk. There he met an old teacher who related him a story about a battle, in which 207 artillerymen were killed. Among them was M.R. Haimovich.
Only in 1967 in Minsk did Lev Mihailovich succeeded in finding his other relatives. They were Pasha Zaretskaya and her children: Aleksey, Daniil, and Yefim.
Sonia Katz, who was sent to Germany in 1943, returned to the USSR after the war and in 1979 immigrated to New York.
Lev Haimovich considers himself to be a lucky man, because he survived the ghetto, where thousands of innocent people were ruthlessly murdered. He did not die of starvation. He married a woman, who he happily spent 40 years with. His life was hard. However he is not the one who gives up – he is still active and enjoys every single day of his life.
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 •