Chapter VIII - B


KARTUZ BEREZA 1939 – 1941

Byt Elie Mote Bockshtein


At the end of August 1939 when the Polish government declared a general mobilization, many young Jews of Kartuz Bereza presented themselves to the Office of Mobilization in Brest, but they were returned to our town due to lack of ammunition and clothes. Their town became a "stand by" point for many refugees who escaped from Western Poland to the East, near the border with Soviet Union. The route from Warsaw to Moscow, which crosses the town, was disturbed by the movement of cars and pedestrians. When German troops came closer, it was also clear to the local inhabitants that they should go toward the East. When German troops came closer to Brisk, it was also clear for local inhabitants that should go to the East.


On September 10, 1939 a group of four families organized themselves: The families of Leizer Reznik, Moshe Kaplan, Ephraim Seletzky and my family (Bockshtein). We left mounting on three cars heading for the limits of Soviet Union. When we arrived to the second bridge, some soldiers stopped us saying that they had received orders to set fire to the bridges.


We were ordered to return and take the route to Chomsk - Pinsk instead of Baronovitch. From Chomsk we arrived to Sparawe because the family Reznik had relatives there. We found other Jews of Bereza there who had arrived in cars or on foot. They also escaped from Bereza before the Germans arrived. From Sparawe we continued on route through the woods to the town of Telechan and from there to the border of the Soviet Union. There were 20 men among us who went into the woods and we stayed there until September 17, 1939. We heard on the radio that according to the agreement with Germany, the Red army came to liberate Belarus from the Polish yoke. We immediately left the woods the 18th of September and returned to Bereza in the morning.


When we were in the village of Kadiz, peasants assaulted us and they stole all our goods. By some miracle we were alive. Aching and wounded, we arrived in Bereza the day that the Red army arrived. Meanwhile, the Christian local population organized a local council of Christians. A few days later when the Jewish population returned to Bereza the young people went to the Soviet commandant and requested that he appoint a civic committee among workers. In the meeting that was carried out in the fire fighter’s club, a committee of five men was elected – three Jews and two Christians. The Jews were; Itzel Pomeranietz, Chaim German and Nioniush (the accountant). Herschel Galperin was designated as commandant of the militia. He was liberated from the prison in which he was incarcerated for the crime of communist activities.


Businesses were reopened, peasants began to buy whatever there was good quality of fabric and haberdashery. The merchants went to Brisk and Bialystok where there still were wholesale business and privately owned factories. The merchants always paid more for the new merchandise compared to the prices that they charged their customers in the town. In the course of almost one month, all private trade ended. For the merchandise that was confiscated from the merchants, they received a small price. Everything could only be bought in a governmentally centralized place. Elie Motie Bokshtein, Shloimke Vainsthein and Alexander Levkovitz were responsible for organizing cooperatives. They went to Pruzhany, Brisk and Baranovitch to get groceries. All that they could get was salt, candles and chicory. It began to feel the shortage of kerosene and groceries. Authorities tried to bring some kerosene, salt and flour to the town. Long lines were formed in front of the bakeries. Also the peasants came to the town to buy bread.


This situation continued until the year 1940. That year Bereza was declared a central District; it included eight villages, and was separated from Pruzhany. Veteran communists arrived from the Soviet Union in order to manage all offices that were established in Kartuz Bereza. They opened a bank, a net of cooperatives, committees of the communist party, and the NKVD (the secret police of the Soviet Union that was replaced by the KGB in 1946). Local communists and leaders that previously occupied important positions, were designated as auxiliaries of the communists.


Schools were opened.  Also, a Yiddish school was opened.  Christian and Jewish communists arrived from Minsk and were designated as directors. They set up cooperatives of tailors and shoemakers.  Houses of former rich Jews and businessmen were nationalized.  They were forced to abandon their housing and to inhabit houses in common with other neighbors. The houses that were taken became offices and the communists who arrived there occupied them. A restaurant opened up in the "Bet Hachomá" of Lichatzky brick house in market square. Cooperatives were alongside the roads. The wooden stores in the middle of the market square were removed. In the market square a public park was built and trees were planted in it. In the middle of the square two monuments were erected: one for Lenin and another for Stalin, and other monuments memorializing Red soldiers who died in the war in 1920.


A dance hall was installed in the priest’s orchard near the new Catholic Church. Every Sunday an orchestra played melodies and the young folk danced.


The passports now were Soviet. The former merchants received passports with a special paragraph that differentiated them negatively from the rest of the inhabitants. This gave them fewer rights than those who did not have that paragraph on their passports. Each person tried to get work in offices, in sawmills or in train stations, but it was not easy to get work because everyone looked for easy work. Of course not all were able to find responsible jobs. Henach Liskovsky and Meir Buchalter, for example, came out to chop down trees because they could not get any another work.


Polish officials of the past and landowners were expelled to Siberia. The Communists also wanted to expel the Jews that had big businesses in the past, but the communist Jews objected and were able to stop this cruel ordinance. They claimed that now they were poor, were no longer rich and their debts had grown very large. For the moment it was a victory, but afterward they, along with all other Jews, were murdered by the Nazis. The other Jewish residents in the nearby villages who were deported to Siberia returned after the end of the war. Many Jewish young girls married officials of the Red army, however they were not very happy. There was no Saturday or Sunday, nor was there any social life. The only problem was work, how to get work, how to continue and exist.


Apathy dominated everything. At the entrance of every business long lines were formed and customers grabbed anything at all. Winter garments were bought in summer and summer clothes were bought in winter. Intentionally, residents dressed in old clothes so that nobody would suspect that they were rich. Many former merchants dreamt of the day that the Russians would abandon their town.


Itzel Pomeranietz and Tuvia Aizenberg from " Blodnia “ were jailed for the crime of belonging to the Trotzkist group and were still in jail when the Germans invaded. This created a difficult situation among leftist groups, since they had high hopes in the Soviets - they saw the Messiah in the Red army. This was the reason why many Jews stayed in Bereza. In June of 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. When the World War II broke out in 1939, fearing the Germans, many escaped from Bereza. The situation continued this way until June of 1941.


At the beginning of June, the Red army was concentrated near Brisk. Russia declared that they would carry out common military maneuvers. On June 18 they arrested many former Polish officials and two Jewish families, Noteh Savinski and Attorney Shachnerovich. They were accused of collaborating with Poles and were transported by train to Siberia. Noteh Savinski returned to Bereza when Germans arrived. He worked for the Germans as translator, and afterwards he was murdered together with all the Jews. His wife and children were transferred far from Bereza and later they returned. They are now in Israel.


On Sunday June 21st, 5 o’clock in the morning, the Germans began to bombard the new airport of Rybnik, beside Bereza. Wounded workers were transferred to the town and they rested in the Bet Medresh. After a short time, at 9:30 AM, the Germans returned to bombard it. At 11:45 AM we heard on the  radio that Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union At 12:30 PM 32 German airplanes flew over Bereza and they shelled the military camps, and bombarded the airport for the third time as well as the railroad station. There was a turmoil and tumult in Bereza. From Brest and Kobryn many cars and trucks arrived with Russian civil and military officials and their families. They were ordered to abandon the city. The first were the bank officials who left accompanied by Itche Averbuch from Pruzhany. Their wives and children stayed behind. The next to leave were the Treasury officials accompanied by Vove Vainshtein, but without their wives and children.


Zelik Zakheim, Leizer Reznik, and Shepsel Liberman asked me what to do. I told them that I would be leaving the city with my children, and suggested that they do the same. They went to ask other people and they did not return. I never saw them again.


At 9 PM workers of the cooperatives left in 4 cars. My daughter and I rode two bicycles, and the two smallest children made it in a car. My wife was not with us. At the time she was visiting her sister in Leningrad. During the morning, Germans bombarded cars. The road from Bereza - Slutzk - Minsk was crowded with people who worked around Bereza. Also, there were work camps for incarcerated people near Bereza. They worked for the Russian military. They were released from the camps and were told, “Run, save yourselves, however you can”. All of them ran to the highway. German airplanes flew low and sowed death with their weapons. During the day we hid in the forest and we traveled at night. In our car the wife two children of a Soviet official were killed. On July 26 we arrived in Minsk. The city was in flames due to the bombs hurtled by German airplanes.


We left the city and arrived to Moguilev. Here we found people we knew from Bereza, Chaim Gehrman, Moishe Frydman, Fishke Shlimovitch from Livishky and Fishel Eliezer Gois’ son. On the road we also met Ema Kaplan and her husband who escaped from Baranovitch. Chaim Gehrman and Moishe Frydman volunteered to serve in the Red Army. We said goodbye to them and traveled by train deep into Russia accompanied by many refugees.


The German planes shelled the train throughout our travel, but in the District of Tambow where we got off the train there was no bombings. We were sent to the "Kolkoz" (a Soviet collective farm) to help with the crop of grain and in exchange for our work we receive food. Most of the men were mobilized into the army.


In the meanwhile Germans came closer. Winter was to arrive and we decided to escape as we only had our summer clothes and to go to warmer areas in Central Russia. We said goodbye to some young people that enlisted in the Red army and we traveled to Tashkent. together with Leizer Yalos from Blodnia and with the husband of Ema Kaplan. (They had been mobilized in the Red army, but was released for being an “undesirable element”, since they were in a category of people from " The West" coming from areas that were under Polish rule).


We continued toward Tashkent and the trip in a freight train, which was difficult, lasted almost one month. Russia is an enormous country. Every train station was full of refugees. In some stations groceries were distributed, but most of the time we were hungry. Here or there, we ate cucumbers and radishes that we picked from a field. We arrived in Samarkand, because they didn't allow us to go to Tashkent. The city was full with refugees. The first days we got some work and food. Then it got crowded because many of those who were incarcerated in Siberia were released and all of them came to the same warm area of Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Food disappeared. Some worked in the kolkhoz in exchange for 200 daily grams of flour. We were dirty and hungry. A typhus epidemic began and the hospitals were over crowded. Thousands of refugees died from hunger when they left the hospital, being still sick and very weak. 


The men were mobilized in the army. Instead of going to the battlefield they were sent to an ammunition factory in the Urals or to Siberia as part of work groups. They sent me to a tank factory in Tshelabinsk. I worked there until the end of the war. We received 800 grams of bread and soup twice a day. Those, who were lucky enough to be in this group, survived.



In the year 1945 my wife and youngest son arrived in Tshelabinsk. My older son, who enlisted as volunteer in the Red army when he was 17, died on the battlefield near Warsaw.  In the year 1946 I returned to Poland with my wife and son and thousands of refugees who survived the war. I visited Kartuz Bereza, but I will write separately about this.


The Polish population received us with hate. The asked us again and again, "Are you still alive?”, “Didn’t they slaughter all of you?”. We were very sad. Did we return to liberated Poland to listen to this - a country where almost all Jews perished? We left Poland and finally we arrived in Eretz Israel. Here we found our homeland.


We unpacked our baggage, after being homeless for ten years in Russia and Poland. Here in Israel we feel that it is our place and our home. Happy is the Jew who lives here. We, the newcomers, appreciate it very much.


                                                                                                Israel, 1955