1 . Ghetto
Pruzhany, like the other towns in the area, was invaded by the Germans within a few days after their attack on Russia in June of 1941. During the first three months they perpetrated atrocities similar to what took place in other towns.. beatings, killings, extortion, forced labor. By September new orders must have been issued for dealing with the area's Jewish population. It was in that month that the Jews were driven out of Shershev and Antopole, massacred in Chomsk and Malcz, but temporarily spared in Drohyczyn through intercession of the local priest. And in the same month, by reasons of their own, they set up a ghetto in Pruzhany into which they crowded in not only the five thousand local Jews, but an additional five thousand forcibly brought in from other localities, among them about two thousand from faraway Bialystok. Why the Jews from Shershev, the nearest town, were not taken there, or why all Jews of Chomsk, another close town, were murdered, defies any rational explanation. It can only be surmised that the commander of each locality was given a free hand to dispose of "his" Jews as he saw fit, and acted in accordance with his own whim and fancy. There was no accountability for killing Jews.
The ghetto in Pruzhany was well organized. The Judenrat of twenty-four persons was responsible to the Germans for the ghetto affairs and for carrying out the demands for supplying workers, delivery of tribute in gold, merchadise, clothing; and for keeping the peace in the ghetto. There was a Jewish police force, but they had no firearms, only clubs. Several large factories were established to make and repair clothing, footwear and furniture; bake bread; and perform other services demanded by the Germans and needed by the ghetto population. The Germans made small payments for the work, and arranged for delivery of food into the ghetto from the large stocks left by the Russians, supplemented by requisitions in the surrounding villages. Food and other necessities were distributed by special committees. Though not plentiful, there was no actual hunger. There was a kindergarten for the orphaned children and those whose parents had to work, where these children also received their meals. There was also a hospital with a competent staff of doctors and nurses. All the synagogues and other public buildings were used as lodgings for the refugees, but most were quartered wherever room could be found in private homes. There was great congestion, entire families being squeezed into a single room, because the constricted area of the ghetto was hardly enough for the Pruzhany Jews themselves, who had been driven out of their own homes in other parts of town and forced to crowd into the confines of the ghetto, together with hundreds of additional families who were dumped into it by the Germans or came there on their own to seek refuge.
Compared to what happened in Shershev and other nearby towns, life in the ghetto was bearable. There was of course the hard labor, frequent beatings, exorbitant demands of tribute, and some wanton killings, but nothing like the wholesale slaughter and tortures perpetrated in other, in fact all the surrounding small towns. In general, the lot of the Jews and their lives depended on the whim of the German officer in command, who was however superseded by the Gestapo whenever they chose to take matters into their own hands. But no order from above was required for abusing Jews-- they were officially marked as fair game at all seasons for any member of the self-proclaimed master race. In Pruzhany a certain Leiman (or Lehmann), a high official of the military telephone network, distinguished himself in this sport. He used to strut into the ghetto daily, with his bloodhound, and never left until he beat up a few people with his whip or saw them mangled by the dog. After a while it was discovered that he was not at all averse to being paid off a pair of shiny boots, a fine leather belt, or a couple of fancy shirts kept him out of the ghetto. He later became a partner in a smuggling operation, providing official trucks and requisitions for bringing in leather, scarce in Pruzhany, from another town, Sionim, where there were tanneries. His percentage of the "take" was high, of course, but he probably had to share it with his counterpart in Sionim whose cooperation was necessary for the deal.
When the horrors from the other towns reached the ghetto everybody realized that the marginal life allowed there was only temporary, and would last only until the Germans had no further use for the services rendered by the inhabitants. Many people, especially the young who were not encumbered with families, began talking of escape. But where to, and how The Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries were everywhere, the roads were patrolled, and the local peasants could not be expected to help Jews if anything, they would most likely report any escapee to the first German who came along. Despite these odds, an organization was formed to seek ways and means of escaping to the forest and joining the partisans known to be operating there.
Already in the spring of 1942 contact was established with the partisans through adherents in the villages who risked their own lives by supplying them with food during the winter. But they were badly in need of arms and ammunition, and the ghetto underground found a way of helping with that. For Jews to engage in such activity was much more dangerous than for the villagers, the risk of death, or worse yet, torture by the Gestapo, was omnipresent but it provided a tiny ray of hope, a chance to avenge in some small way the brutalities endured, and most important, a renewed sense of self respect as human beings. Gradually more and more young people began participating in any way they could. Some got killed in the process, but a sufficient number got out to form their own Jewish partisan group in the forest.
I don't know who had overall direction of the clandestine operation. The work was carried on by small units of four, five, six individuals who knew and could trust each other. The leader of each unit coordinated actions with one or more leaders of other units, who in turn may have received directions from a general command- there must have been one to organize some of the exploits.
My unit consisted of six people: Sholem Bernstein, Zalman Rossokhovsky and myself from Shershev; the brothers Froim and Berl Kirzhner from Pruzhany; and Yudel Tsipkin from Kamenets. Sholem was our leader, and he arranged with another unit to coordinate the theft of rifles from a storehouse left by the Russians in their hasty retreat. The storehouse was part of a huge building which may have been a Russian tank repair depot hundreds of tank engines packed in grease were stacked up along an entire wall. Other tank parts were piled up in different places, some new and some used or broken. There were many unopened crates which may have contained ammunition I don't know.
But our interest was in a smaller part of the warehouse, a large lean-to annex where there were piles of discarded or broken rifles. Many ghetto men were working there to sort them out, among them Sholem, the Kirzhner brothers and myself. Our assignment was to help smuggle some of the rifles out.
Three other men whom I knew were involved in this job. One, Shmerl Elman, from Pruzhany, worked as a houseman for a German administrative official. He told his boss that he could get some good firewood, and asked that a soldier be assigned to go with him for protection. Shmerl already had a sled with a concealed double bottom, previously prepared by another Pruzhany friend, Hershel Muravsky. While Shmerl was entertainig his soldier escort, the top of the sled was loaded with broken lumber of which there was plenty lying about, and the space between decks received seven rifles in fairly good condition which we had previously set aside. These were later checked out and put in firing order by the other two men in my unit, Zalman and Yudel, who worked in the machine shop as mechanics.
The same sled was later used for another load of rifles by Yitzhak (Itche) Haidamak I don't know what town he came from. He was a metal worker, and came to the warehouse under some pretext with a pile of long stove pipes, a number of which received rifles inside.
These two instances of procurement of weapons are personally known to me. I heard that many handguns were stolen and brought into the ghetto by men and women who worked at a large arms depot which the Russians had at a railway junction, Linevo. Ammunition too was obtained at that place. Some of these arms were retained in the ghetto, but most went to the partisans, among whom there was the all-Jewish contingent led by Yossel Untershuh, a Pruzhany ghetto activist who escaped to the forest with a number of his men in the summer of 1942. Of all the persons mentioned only one is known to me to have survived, in addition to myself: Hershel Muravsky, who now lives in Florida. Three other men whom I knew personally, the brothers Nahum, ltzik and Meishe Maletsky, from Shershev, also escaped after bribing a Polish auxiliary guard, but they were intercepted and killed on the road before they could reach the forest.
In addition to procuring weapons, a number of house cellars were enlarged and strengthened with wooden beams and stones, and connected to adjacent cellars by tunnels to provide several exits. These underground bunkers were stocked with food and warm clothing, and also served as hiding places for weapons. A number of young people survived by hiding in them during the final mass deportation, and managed to join the partisans when the guard was relaxed after the ghetto had been emptied of its inhabitants.
The Judenrat knew of all these activities and collaborated in any way they could. Some of the Jewish policemen were also active participants. The Judenrat, however, exacted two conditions from the resistance activists: (1) that no more than two people at a time should try to get out; and (2) that no overt action take place in the ghetto proper. These conditions were meant to avoid inciting the Germans to carry out a large-scale retribution against the ghetto residents. But despite these precautions an incident occurred wnich hastened the doom of the ghetto and its inhabitants.
During the evening of January 27, 1943 the Gestapo chief of the town appeared unexpectedly at the Judenrat office and encountered two armed partisans, wno had just arrived to arrange for delivery of provisions. The men ran away at once they did not fire at the hated enemy, in compliance with the conditions set by the Judenrat, but he emptied his revolver in their direction, without hitting them. The partisans managed to get back to the forest, but the Nazi continued shooting, killing one of the Judenrat people and wounding three others. An ultimatum was immediately issued to deliver the two partisans by midnight, on pain of severe reprisals. Compliance was obviously impossible, but even before the deadline expired an order arrived from the Gestapo headquarters in Bialystok that the ghetto be liquidated.
The speed with which the liquidation of the ghetto was ordered and carried out must lead to the conclusion that the plan for the action and the details of its execution had been worked out and in readiness for some time, just requiring a signal for its implementation. Even the well-oiled German administrative machine could not have organized it in a bare six hours of a winter night. For at dawn the following morning the ghetto was surrounded by a large body of Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries, machine guns at the ready, and a train of six hundred sleighs from the nearest villages was lined up on one of the principal ghetto streets. The Judenrat was told that everybody is being evacuated to work camps, but no one believed it. Each adult was allowed to take only one knapsack (few had them and used sacks or pillowcases) of food and clothing. About twenty-five hundred people were chased out of the houses with curses and beatings, loaded on the sleighs and driven to one of the railway stations in the area. There their bundles were taken away, ostensibly to be put in a separate car, and they themselves were crammed like sardines into freight cars, the doors were sealed, and opened only forty-eight hours later, when the train arrived at Auschwitz.
Upon receipt of the evacuation order the Judenrat formally released the resistance group from the restricting conditions and announced that everyone was on his own, to do what he thought best. About two hundred young men and women, some with arms, made a concerted attempt to escape to the forest. Due to the increased guard all around the ghetto only a small number reached the partisans, the rest having fallen in the fight to get through. Many also tried to escape from the sleighs en route to the railroad station, but none of these succeeded, having been mowed down by the German and Ukrainian guards.
It took four days to empty out the Pruzhany ghetto. The final transport left on January 31, 1943. The Jewish community, which had existed there continuously for six hundred years, was wiped off the face of the earth.