PAWNS OF WAR
1 . Prussians and Swabians
Within a short time after their arrival the Germans took a census of the population and an inventory of personal property, with emphasis on cattle, horses, fowl and grain. A tax was then levied on the owners, not in money but in kind: so many liters of milk or pounds of butter per cow, so much wool per sheep, so many eggs per hen, so much grain per acre, and so on. This tribute fell heaviest on the peasantry, but the effect on their living standard was minimal, since it represented the surplus they usually sold to the townspeople. Jews were taxed mainly through the labor of tailors, shoe makers, blacksmiths, et cetera; and by requisition of merchandise from storekeepers against payment in German paper marks, which the peasants also received for their products and which were quite worthless except for trading with the soldiers. Trade among the local population was either through barter or with prewar Russian silver coins.
Some months later the Germans began-to exploit the extensive forests in the region, cutting down trees for lumber, firewood and for production of charcoal and turpentine. For this work they wanted as many people as they could get, both male and female. They started a drive to recruit volunteers on promise of a small daily wage plus food and lodging in the forest. Since many people found themselves without any other means of earning a living, they applied for this work, including my grandfather Leiser Ber, to whom the prospect of working again in the forest was quite appealing.
However, the number of volunteers was not enough to satisfy the demand, so the Germans resorted to force, taking one person from a family which had two or three able-bodied men, unless they were engaged in occupations which were otherwise useful to the authorities. Peasants, for instance, were exempted during the plowing and harvesting seasons, but were recruited for work during the winter months. And finally the Germans began apprehending young people in the streets indiscriminately, and shipping them off to the forest. This was the manner in which I, then just fifteen years old, became a forced laborer in the famous Belovyezh forest preserve, erstwhile the hunting grounds of the Polish Pans and the Russian Tsars.
The heavy taxes imposed by the Germans and their economic exploitation of the country's resources, though resented, would not have antagonized the people so much were they not accompanied by the arrogance and contempt displayed by them toward the native population. To outfit their Kommandantur which they established in one of the nicest houses in town after unceremoniously ejecting the owners, they arbitrarily requisitioned furniture, bedding, linen, and anything else that took their fancy. Any service they wanted was never conveyed as a request but as an order, which had to be obeyed at once if one did not want to have his face slapped. Failure to step aside and make way for them on the narrow sidewalks led to a kick or a slash with a whip, often accompanied by coarse invectives of which the most favored was Schweinhund. It made no difference whether one was young or old, Jew or gentile-- all were treated as less than human. Even the gallantry occasionally shown to a pretty young woman had the air of a favor bestowed on someone not really worthy of it, and was insulting rather than pleasing. No opportunity was ever lost to show who was master and who was slave.
The described attitude sometimes led to outright atrocities, having no purpose other than dispelling boredom. The Herrenvolk were quite inventive in finding amusement suitable to their sense of humor. During one sub-zero winter day they had a lot of fun in grabbing peasants in the market place, putting them under the pump and drenching them with water, clothes and all. Another time they harnessed a bearded old Jew between the shafts of a wagon and made him play the role of a horse, whipping included. Then they had races: teams of men were made to pull the large water barrel, normally used in case of a fire, a designated distance at top speed, timing them and placing bets on which "contesting" team will win. These things did not happen too often, but a few instances were enough to demonstrate the superiority of Teutonic culture.
To set the record straight I want to emphasize that this wanton display of arrogance and insensibility was exhibited primarily by the shiny-booted Junkers and their noncommissioned underlings. There was an inordinate number of these in our small and out-of-the-way town. Some were technicians assigned here because of their skill in management and exploitation of natural resources. Many others, though young and healthy, apparently never saw combat duty, having been posted to soft behind-the-1ines jobs through influential connections. They strutted about the town in immaculate uniforms, kept clean and well-pressed by their orderlies, always wearing leather gloves, and acting for all the world like tourists on vacation rather than soldiers in time of war.
The common soldiers whom these officers commanded were an altogether different breed. They were older men from the reserves, either unfit or not needed for front-line service. Most of them were Swabians who did not have much love for the aristocratic and haughty Prussians who treated them with the same disdain they heaped upon the native population. These men were homesick and worried about their wives and children at home, and found some solace in the company of local families with whom they established cordial and even friendly relations. They understood and sympathized with the misery of the townspeople, and before long a barter system developed which was beneficial to both sides, the soldiers exchanging stolen army property for things to send home to their families. The first item traded was salt, not the ordinary table salt but some large-grained yellow stuff that was said to have been used for their horses. We used it as a substitute for the other kind which became completely unavailable, soaking it to get the yellow stains out, saving the water for boiling unpeeled potatoes, and using the dry crystals left for table salt, still yellowish but acceptable under the circumstances. Another item traded was a dark jellylike very sweet substance they called marmalade, which became a substitute for sugar. They also traded bread, hardtack, tinned meat rations (not eaten by Jews for fear it contained pork), and soap. When the soldiers became confident that they would not be betrayed, they began selling or trading horse blankets which were in great demand for conversion into suits or coats-- cloth of any kind was just unobtainable.
My brother David who had outgrown his old clothes had a suit made out of one of these blankets. They were grayish-green, the usual army color, which would have been fine except that theyhad two wide black stripes near the ends and the words Deutsches Reich, also in black, stamped on them. Since not enough cloth was left if the stripes and lettering were cut out, the blankets were usually dyed black. Unfortunately our dye was not good enough to match the black of the blanket, so David's jacket came out with a conspicuous stripe across its back, from shoulder to shoulder.
The poor kid was very unhappy, but had to wear it for want of anything else.
0f the most coveted items that occasionally could be gotten from the soldiers, for a very stiff price, were carbide lamps, or rather lanterns. As the town had no electricity, kerosene lamps ware used for illumination. It did not take long for the stock of kerosene to be exhausted, even though we tried to stretch out the supply by burning only tiny lamps with open wicks which reeked and smoked while providing no more light than a small candle. They were dubbed kurniki (smokers). When the last of the kerosene was gone we resorted to burning thin sticks of pine kindling which smoked even more. Candles, while they lasted, were saved for the Sabbath blessing by mother, and toward the end these were cut to small stubs, long enough to last through the Sabbath meal, such as it was. Under these circumstances a carbide lantern with its bright white light was a treasure, and people were willing to barter valuable items for it. It was of course used very sparingly, since a resupply of carbide was also not so easy to come by.
All these products the soldiers traded for Russian silver coins, tableware, copper candlesticks, pieces of old lace, colorful peasant kerchiefs, and. the excellent home spun linen towels that the women embroidered in beautiful designs during the long winter evenings. After the German mark became the established currency money was used to carry on trade with the soldiers.
There was also a certain amount of purely social contact, the soldiers naturally being anxious for the company of the opposite sex. In this they were more successful with the gentile girls, the puritanical Jews keeping their daughters under strict control. The officers occasionally organized dances, but they too had to rely mostly on gentiles for dancing partners. The music was provided by a small army band or played on a piano which they "borrowed" from an elderly lady, an impoverished descendant of the old Polish nobility, who lived alone on a small estate at the edge of town. She was the subject of much gossip and curiosity on the infrequent occasions that she appeared in the market place. She always arrived in her one-horse light carriage, which she herself drove, wearing a shiny black satin dress with all kinds of ruffles, white lace gloves, and a brimmed hat held down by a white scarf tied under her chin. This was a rare sight indeed in our town. This Polish aristocrat never made peace with the Russian usurpers of her land and in her patriotism always insisted on speaking only Polish. She must have spent innumerable hours playing Chopin etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas on that piano before the Germans took it away, which undoubtedly was a grievous loss to the lonely old lady .Incidentally , this was the first piano I ever heard being played, the music being audible through the open windows as one passed the Kommandantur.
2. Voluntary and Forced Labor
In the spring of 1917 I became a wage earner, by getting a job in the creamery which the Germans established for processing the milk that all cow owners were forced to contribute. They took me on because I spoke an acceptable German and could read the Gothic script. My job was to check off the deliveries on the "milk tax" roster, and to act as interpreter when necessary. The pay was one mark per day, but more important was the occasional permission to take home some skim milk or whey, most of which was being fed to the piglets the Germans were raising. For us it was a welcome addition to our scant diet.
I worked together with several soldiers who operated the separator and other implements For making butter and cheese. They were all older men, and befriended me, the Bursche or Junge who no doubt reminded them of their own boys in distant Bavaria, snapshots of whom they proudly showed me. There was no sign of animosity or disdain toward me because of my Jewishness-- on the contrary, they seemed to take a certain pride in my knowledge of German, deficient though it was, and were positively delighted when I recited Heine's "Die Lorelei" and Goethe's "Der Erlkoenig"- poems which I learned from that much-abused German teacher at my school in Brisk. Though quite proud of the feats of their army, these men did not conceal their disparagement of the swaggering young officers in town, who in their judgement should be at the front. They all longed for the end of the war and return to their homes and families.
One of these soldiers gave me a military map of our town and vicinity which astonished me. The map showed not only every street and back alley of the town, but the exact location of the landmarks: the two churches, the Shul, the three windmills, and the Jewish cemetery outside of town. Topographically it showed the forests, swamps, high grounds, the roads to all the surrounding villages and their condition--paved, sandy or swampy. Considering the relative unimportance of Shershev and its location hundreds of miles from the pre-1914 border, this was amazing evidence of the thoroughness of the German military planning, and must have contributed in no small measure to their success in overrunning half of European Russia despite the predominance of the Tsar's manpower. It is doubtful if the Russian general staff, not to speak of low-ranking personnel, had such detailed information about their own country as given on that map.
My job at the creamery lasted only two and a half months, to my regret and I hope that of my friends there as well. 0ne morning as I was on my way to work two armed men, not from our garrison as was evident from the different uniform, stopped me and "recruited" me for forest work. My protestations that I was already working for "them" were disregarded, and I was taken home to get some warm clothing and say good-by to my parents, whose pleas of course made no impression upon them. I was then marched to the Kommandantur where about a dozen other boys and men in the same predicament were assembled. We were put in a truck, together with two guards, and transported to the previously mentioned forest, the Belovyezhskaya Pushcha as it is known in Russian. It was my first ride in a motorized vehicle, which I would have enjoyed much more under other circumstances.
Upon arrival at the control center I told the registration officer that my grandfather was already in the forest as a voluntary worker, and asked to be assigned to his group. Surprisingly enough the request was granted and was brought to a large dugout which he shared with several other men. The dugout was about six feet deep, with a slanting roof, so that one wall on the inside was higher than the opposite one. Walls and floor were of beaten earth and four small windows were set in the higher wall, just on the level with the outside surface. Wooden planks lined all four sides, covered with straw-filled mattresses. The only other furnishings were a rough long table with equally rough benches on each side, and an iron stove in the center with a metal chimney poking out through the roof. I was assigned a place next to one of the windows, alongside the space occupied by grandfather.
Grandpa, an experienced woodsman and a hard worker, was valued by the group overseer, so as a favor to him I was assigned to "easy" work-- removing the branches from felled trees with an axe, and then cutting the trunk into segments with a long two-man saw, with an older man as a partner. Working with the axe was not bad-- in fact I really liked it-- but wielding the long saw was a different matter. The wood was green and full of sap, which caused the saw to bind after it penetrated the trunk a few inches, especially since in our inexperience we caused the saw to wobble and not go in a straight line. At times the saw would get stuck so fast that no amount of pulling would set it free. In such case we had to use the axe to chop out some wood near the cut in order to budge it out of the groove. Needless to say, the overseer was disgusted with us, yelled and cursed, but obviously realized that we did the best we could. On one occasion an officer in a natty green uniform came by as we were struggling with our stuck saw, watched for a while as we pulled and tugged, then hit me on the head and hissed out: "Verdammter Jude" (Damned Jew). The blow on the head did not bother me, but the hateful insult made my blood boil. He was a young man, rather handsome, whose face with its blond little beard is engraved in my mind because for weeks there after I daydreamed about meeting him in some situation where I could get even with him. The passage of time has not dulled my hatred for that contemptible bully.
Life in the forest was tolerable, considering the circumstances. We rose early in the chilly morning, braced ourselves for a run to the latrine and to the water pump for washing, then to the field kitchen with our utensils for steaming "coffee" and our daily ration of a pound of bread and marmalade. The dark brew that passed for coffee was chicory mixed with some other ingredient; the bread was heavy and soggy, and reportedly contained ground acorns or chestnuts; and the marmalade was a very sweet tarlike paste the composition of which nobody knew. But the appetite whetted by the invigorating forest air and hard work made us relish the ersatz food and wish for double portions, but only the "coffee" was not rationed. Ravenous as hungry wolves we took our breakfast on the spot, sitting on stumps or logs, taking several gulps of the hot liquid with every bite of bread and being careful to save enough for the rest of the day. For lunch we received soup made of potatoes, turnips or cabbage; and for supper a similar soup, but with some fat and even floating bits of meat, probably pork. Darkness came early under the green canopy of the trees, so after some necessary chores such as washing or mending clothes everyone was soon stretched out on his mattress and the dugout resounded with a cacophony of snoring.
My city clothes and shoes, not too good to start with, practically fell apart within a week from tramping through the thick and damp underbrush. Grandfather managed to procure a pair of old army pants and knee-high boots, both too large for me. That was no calamity, but unfortunately when they got wet the boots became limp like dishrags and collapsed about my ankles, whereas the pants became stiff like leather and chafed my skin with each movement. I had to resort to wearing my own tattered pants as an undergarment to prevent getting sores all over. When I took these garments off at night and placed them near the stove to dry, the pants actually stood up by them selves as if a body were inside, whereas the boots fell into a heap and had to be propped up with sticks, as otherwise it would have been impossible to put them on in the morning if they stiffened into this twisted shape after becoming dry.
This primeval forest preserve, encompassing several thousand square miles, was known to be full of animals: wolves, foxes, lynxes, deer, and even bears. The prize animal though was the zubr, an almost extinct species of bison found nowhere else in Europe or the rest of the world. The zubr was said to thrive on a certain reedy grass which grew there, and which was used as flavoring in an expensive vodka appropriately called "Zubrovka," distinguishable by one long spear of the grass inside the bottle. During the three months I spent in the forest I never saw any of these animals, presumably because the presence of so many people and their noisy activities drove them into the interior. Once my partner and I came across what looked like a thick yellowish pancake, about a foot in diameter, spread out on the usual forest detritus underneath a large tree. We were told that this was the curdled milk of a cow zubr which had lost her calf and got rid of the excess milk by leaning her hip against a tree and pressing the other hip so as to squeeze the udder and squirt out the milk. The peasants among the work force ate this stuff, claiming it to be nourishing and tasty.
Though as stated I never saw any of the large four-legged animals, I did have an encounter with a different kind of creature. The window near which I slept had a ledge on the inside about two feet in width. As I woke up one morning I was horrified to find two fat green-and-yellow snakes curled up on the ledge, warming themselves in the sun streaking through the glass. I let out a yell and scrambled over grandfather who slept next to me, then watched in terror as he grabbed an axe and chopped up the wriggling creatures with a few swift blows. I never again slept near the window, but nevertheless always looked around with apprehension before budging from my place on the mattress as I awoke each morning.
The incident with the snakes, added to the rankling I still felt over the insult by the German officer, made my further stay in the work camp unbearable, and I decided to run away. A peasant lad of about my own age who was my work partner at the time agreed to join me. Grandpa, to whom I confided my resolve, tried to dissuade me for fear of the consequences of being caught and doubts about the chances of reaching home safely, but my mind was made up. On the day before the escape my accomplice Pavlo and I saved our bread and marmalade (I refused grandpa's share of bread which he insistently offered me), and during the night we slipped out of the camp. There were no guards about, and we knew the paths leading to the road. Wa walked as stealthily as we could, stopping with baited breath to make sure that any of the myriad sounds boded no danger from man or beast. For the forest is alive with mystery in the deep of night, and to eyes and ears in a state of fearful alert danger seems to lurk all around. The crackling of a twig or the looming of a rustling bush could mean a prowling beast; a falling pine cone bouncing off branches on its way down can sound like pounding hoof beats; the snap of a dry branch can reverberate like a rifle shot; and the screech of an owl may be a portent of doom. And so we proceeded, two fifteen-year-old boys, trying to keep to the path and not lose our way in the darkness, with a feeling of fear but also of adventure, at least for me. I found heart in thinking of my hero, Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday, though in truth Pavlo was more sure of himself than I was. By morning we were out of the forest, got into a field of ripening rye, ate some of our bread and dried our clothes in the warm August sun, all the while keeping an eye on the road which remained empty of traffic.
We had no idea what the Germans would do upon discovering our absence-- whether they would send out searching parties, or lie in wait for us on the road, or what.
We felt that the safest thing was to get away from the forest as far as possible. So after a good rest we proceeded on our way, hiding in the field or shrubbery when we noticed any movement in the distance. By evening we Finished our provisions and found a concealed place where to spend the night. The next morning a village appeared on the horizon, and knowing that the road would pass right through it I suggested a detour, for fear of the possible presence of Germans there. But Pavlo, wise to the ways of the villagers and feeling a kinship with them that I lacked, insisted on going straight ahead, pointing out that by detouring we were bound to come across people working in the fields who would become angry with us for trampling their crops; that by carefully watching for trucks or motorcycles we could tell if Germans were there; and that only in the village could we get some food. We also needed directions how to best reach our destination, since the road was bound to fork and signs were nonexistent. Pavlo lived in a village about ten versts (seven miles) from Shershev, but on a tangent from the main road.
Things worked out the way he predicted. A peasant woman gave us some bread, milk, and cheese, refusing our offer of payment (we had German marks which were paid to us at the rate of one mark per day). We also got directions, and learned that no Germans passed through for a couple of days. Upon leaving the village we even got a ride from a peasant who was traveling to his field in our direction. After another night under the sky we reached the fork to Pavlo's village in the afternoon and parted company to my regret--I suddenly felt very lonely in the middle of nowhere without him, and realized that I probably would not have gotten along so well without his practical common sense and confidence in the villagers.
There were still about five miles to our town, and I covered these very cautiously, reaching the outskirts in late afternoon. I waited until dark, but even then did not dare going through the main streets for fear of being caught by a patrol. leaving the direct road, I waded through the familiar swamp and reached our house through back alleys. The family reacted as if they saw a ghost, which I probably looked like in the condition I was in. There was crying and plenty of "Oy"s and "Vey is mir"s (Woe to me) as I explained what happened. One of the children was immediately posted as a lookout to warn of approaching Germans, and after cleaning up a bit, eating, and changing clothes I was escorted to Bobbe Leie's house as a place of refuge. Thus ended my three and a half months of work in the forest, and I covered about fifty miles to get home.
Grandma's house had been used for refuge on prior occasions, when the "catchers" were roaming the streets and also entering homes in search of "recruits" for the forest, because it had a unique hiding place. Underneath the large baking oven there was a roomy cellar, a coochee, where four or five people could sit on the floor or on improvised low benches, since it was not high enough for a person to stand up. The entrance to it, just big enough to crawl through on hands and knees, was from a small bedroom. A wooden panel covering this hole could be manipulated from the inside, and a massive bed concealed the panel. Many hours were spent in this coochee by my father, myself, aunt Esther Beile, and uncle Yisroel, hardly able to breathe, until the all clear signal was given and we could crawl out. After my escape I spent about two weeks in grandma's house, ready to dive into the hiding place should the Germans come looking for me, which however never happened either here or at the residence of my parents. I suppose the Germans did not consider my disappearance of sufficient importance to even bother looking for me.