A tangled web

Their group now comprised over 30 people. …

Not far from their camp, [in the spring of 1944] they encountered a detachment of regular Red Army partisans. Well dressed in warm foufaikas (parkas stuffed with cotton and wool), well fed and well armed, they were supplied through air-drops. The site of the family camp was attractive to them because it was well camouflaged. The partisans gave an ultimatum: ‘We are here to fight the Germans. If you want to help us in this task, you are welcome to stay. If you don’t, get out of here, because you will endanger us all!’

The unit was composed of some 25 men and five woman, all volunteers. The commander, comrade Finkel, was in his early thirties, a Jew from Moscow … The deputy commander was a woman. … They had all recently been parachuted into the forest in a major effort by the Red army to disorganize the thinly stretched Wehrmacht supply lines before a major attack was to begin in the summer. …

Finally, after much haggling [among the Jews], Izak prevailed and Commander Finkel made him Nachalnik Spetsyalnovo Semyeynovo Partisanskovo Otryada [Commander of the Special Family Partisan Detachment].76

In his memoirs Tuvia Bielski mentions a group of Jewish stragglers whom the Soviet partisans were allegedly intent on murdering: “not far from Abelkevitz [Obelkowicze near Dworzec], there was a farm on which there was a group of armed Jews who robbed by night and did nothing during the day. The population round about were angry and complaining.”77 Their leader was Israel Kesler (or Kessler), reportedly a thief and arsonist, who ran a brothel in Naliboki before the war. After receiving an ultimatum, Kesler agreed to join the Bielski group sometime around December 1942. The following are descriptions of the so-called Kesler group:

A native of the small town Naliboki, Kesler was a professional thief. Before the war he spent several years in prison. … Like the Bielskis, he never became a ghetto inmate. Instead, he collected a group of Jews from Naliboki and from the work camp Dworzec. Though his connections to Belorussian peasants he acquired guns and ammunition and a place to stay.78

When Abraham [Viner, also a native of Naliboki] met Kesler he asked to be accepted into his unit, but Kesler refused, saying, “‘You cannot stay with us. You are not made of the proper material. You would not be able to kill, to fight, you are not fit to be a partisan.’ I left; I had no choice. I and the others were not accepted. We were of the same social background. We had no arms, nothing.”

Better suited for life in the forest, Kesler looked down on Jews whom he felt did not fit in. In fact, most young working-class men seemed to resent and envy those who had been their social superiors before the war.79

Kesler’s group was able to secure a measure of autonomy during the German raids on Naliboki forest in the summer of 1943. It set up its own camp and became notorious for robbing peasants.80 The main Bielski group was not immune from such abuses either:

Undisciplined rough behavior was not limited to Russian partisans. When most of the Bielski people reassembled, complaints about one of their own group leader, Kaplan, were also heard. Local farmers on whose goodwill they depended accused Kaplan and a few of his men of robbery. These forcible confiscations included money and valuables. …

Hersh Smolar, a prominent partisan and a member of the Soviet headquarters, knew that “the accusation was that the Jews had been robbing the peasants. They take clothes, not only bread. [General] Platon let me read the document.

“It was indeed true. There were some Jewish partisans who took clothes. The partisans were not allowed to take anything but food, but the Jews did take other things.”81

Both Kesler and Kaplan, as well as other partisans, were eventually executed by the Bielski brothers for their communal transgressions such as insubordination, subversion, lack of discipline, disputes over stolen property, etc.82 There is no evidence that any Jew was ever punished for excesses committed against the local population, despite Bielski’s claim to the contrary in a report he submitted to the Soviet high command outlining the history of the detachment.83 In the spring of 1944, Kesler denounced Tuvia Bielski to General Dubov for financial mismanagement (misappropriation of gold, jewelry and money) and asked for permission to form a separate detachment. Fearing that Kesler was planning to usurp his authority, Bielski had Kesler arrested and put to death following a quick trial. He then denounced Kesler to the Soviet command as a “marauder” and “bandit.”84 Estera Gorodejska, who was a member of Kesler’s group yet showered praise on Bielski for his efforts to save Jews, described the “power struggle” in an entirely different light.

In 1943 Bielski surrounded himself with members of the command such as Gordon, Malbin, Fotasznik, etc. They played cards all day long and were never sober. The command ate very well when everyone else got watery soup. There was great dissatisfaction in the camp, but discipline was so strong that no one dared to say anything. Kesler went to see Sokolov (Dubov’s aide) to ask his permission to organize an independent unit. When the command found out about this, they entered Kesler’s zemlianka in a drunken state and arrested him. This was in March 1944. The next day they took Kesler out of detention and Bielski himself shot him three times. He was drunk. He said to the deceased Kesler: “You’re lying down, you scum. Why don’t you answer now?” He shot the corpse two more times. The command ordered some Jews to bury Kesler. They made a small mound for him. The command told them to remove the mound and wipe his grave off the face of the earth. … A report was written that Kesler was killed because he had left the unit without the permission of the command (when he had gone to see Sokolov) and for robberies on the civilian population. … A few days before we joined up with the Red Army, retreating German units wanted to cut through the forest and stumbled upon us. We engaged in combat. Eight people from our unit fell, Gordon among them. The Germans lost 40 men. The day we marched out of the forest, Bielski killed Faivl Połoniecki, a Jew from Mir. I understand there was a dispute between Bielski and Połoniecki over some [stolen] clothes.85

Anatol Wertheim describes the antics of Semen Zorin, the leader of his Soviet-Jewish unit, who had a habit of descending on a village with a company of men, pressuring the villagers into giving in marriage a peasant girl he had taken a liking to. After nuptials and celebrations that lasted for several days, Zorin abandoned his new bride.86 The most candid description, however, is that of Yakov Ruvimovich, who joined up with the Soviet partisans after being sheltered by a Belorussian family for over a year.

About half of our people were Jews, but what kind of partisans were they? All they did was rob and rape. They liked taking me along with them when they went reconnoitring. “Yasha,” they called, “come with us.” Since I was a young boy I was afraid and did not breathe a word. They raped whomever they came across. Once I went to our leader, Romanov, and told him what I saw. “You better be quiet, you mother-fucker,” he bawled me out. “Can you prove it?” I couldn’t because I usually stood watch on the street. They enjoyed taking the wives of [Polish] officers. They all enjoyed that.87

Dramatic examples of the deleterious consequences of the activities of unprincipled Jewish bands have been recorded by Jews in other parts of Poland as well:

Thus, in Galicia, where in the absence of an organized anti-German partisan movement groups of armed Jews simply tried to survive in the forests, there were cases of fratricidal murder motivated by the urge to obtain arms. In the Bialystok [Białystok] region such a ‘wild group’ of Jews, as they were called, raped several Byelorussian peasant girls and stabbed to death two Jewish partisans of the Jewish Forois Detachment to get hold of their rifles.88

[In the environs of Buczacz, Tarnopol Province:] The Jewish bandits were no better than the [Ukrainian] murderers. They fell on the Jews in hiding, on the Jews in the forests and robbed them naked. That happened to Shaul Enderman and others.89

To Buczacz they brought Jews from the town of Tłumacz. Among the youth from Tłumacz was a so-called band. This was a group of young, armed boys. Brave and determined for anything, they were the scourge of the area. They even robbed their well-off brethren.90

A group of Ukrainian “partisans” counting Jews among their members are known to have pillaged and murdered in the vicinity of Kopyczyńce east of Tarnopol.91

[In Volhynia:] A group of Jewish families called “The Tenth” possessed guns and boldly raided Ukrainian farmers for food and clothes, dividing the loot among themselves. To be part of their group became a privilege with many benefits. Gershon wanted to join them, but Moishe did not. As chance would have it, Gershon found a gun without bullets. Ignoring Moishe’s advice, Gershon approached the leader of The Tenth, asking to join. They turned him down.

The Tenth became a power to be reckoned. Originally thought of as an elite group of Jews, it was discovered that their acts of force were motivated by their own selfish needs and gratification. It was while hundreds of Jews were hiding in an area known as Abluva, that the true character of the Tenth was realized. The Tenth became aware that the Germans had discovered where the Jews were hiding. Instead of informing everyone of the intended raid, they left unannounced for Russia, leaving the others unprepared for the assault that followed.92

There was a 14-year-old boy in our group, Itche Meir, whose parents had owned the paint factory in Lukow [Łuków]. After explaining that his parents were dead, he confided that he knew where the family gold was buried in an old cast-iron pot. Two of our group, brothers-in-law—one a little shoemaker and the other a strapping hulk of a man who had worked in a slaughterhouse—volunteered to go with him to find the gold.

After a few days, the men came back alone and told us that Itche Meir had changed his mind and run away. At first we believed them, but I soon became suspicious because of the way they were behaving. I started to worry as to what really happened to the young boy.

A few days later, as I peddled my wares, one of my cstomers told me he’d found a fresh grave near the road. That night I took two men with me to find the grave. … Digging it up, my fears became a reality: there was poor Itche Meir’s body with his head bashed in. … Returning to the camp, we found the suspected murderers. We said, “We found Itche Meir’s body. Why did you kill him?”

The shoemaker started crying and confessed. “I begged my brother-in-law not to kill the kid, but he didn’t listen.” He pleaded with us and cried. …

The big guy, on the other hand, was a different story. He didn’t seem to react to his brother-in-law’s accusation, he just sat there with his rifle … When he finally fell asleep, however, we took his rifle away. The next day, one man was assigned to take him deep into the forest and execute him. Our judgment was swift, his execution just.93

Rescuers of Jews could also find themselves among those robbed by Jewish forest groups:

Another Pole complained bitterly that his household was stripped bare of its belongings by a Jewish partisan group. Learning that he was actually involved in a Jewish network, they returned some of his possessions—“but only a fraction,” he said.94

Northwest of Lublin, a largely Jewish gang known as the “Morel” gang, but headed by a Polish bandit named Kapica, became notorious for pillaging in the countryside near the village of Garbów. Its members included Solomon (Shlomo) Morel,95 who eventually joined the People’s Guard (Gwardia Ludowa), the Moscow-directed Communist underground which was later transformed into the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa), an organization whose record of robbery and violent crimes against the civilian population and killing Jewish refugees was second to none.96 Jewish bands were responsible for extensive plundering and murders in the Podlasie region, north of Lublin.97 In the vicinity of Oszmiana, west of Wilno, small bands consisting of Soviets (former German prisoners of war) and Jews robbed and murdered the civilian population. The Jewish bands were known for their cruelty, especially one under the command of a Jewish woman from Smorgonie.98

Throughout Poland Jews connected to Communist partisan formations clashed repeatedly with the anti-Communist underground and the civilian population, and in many cases robbery came to the forefront. A Jewish unit of the People’s Guard known as the “Lions,” led by Izrael Ajzenman (Israel Eisenman), a convicted prewar robber (who victimized both Poles and Jews), did little else but plunder widely in the vicintiy of Kielce. The local population undertook self-defence. Incensed, following out instructions from Moscow to clear the area of “reactionaries,” Ajzenman’s partisans murdered seven Poles in Drzewica on January 20, 1943, and robbed their homes. Among the victims were five members of the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne—NSZ). At least a dozen other Poles on the hit list were spared because they could not be located. As could be expected, this was followed by retaliation by the NSZ against the perpetrators, however, Ajzenman himself eluded punishment. This was to be a major turning point in relations between the National Armed Forces and the Communist partisans. (After the war, under the assumed name of Julian Kaniewski, Ajzenman entered the state security service and embellished his partisan unit’s war record by making fantastic claims of combat actions against the Germans.)99

In vicinity of the Wyszków forest, the Polish population was terrorized by raids conducted by Soviet partisans and the Communist People’s Guard. The latter included some well-to-do gravediggers who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto alongside members of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja BojowaŻOB). According to Communist sources, the gravediggers were rapacious plunderers who even aroused the enmity of their fellow Jews to the point of the latter wanting to “get rid of them at any price and to liquidate them.” Their relations with the Polish Home Army partisans in the area proved to be equally problematic. The killing of some Jewish partisans in the Wyszków forest has been attributed in Holocaust literature to the Home Army or alternatively to the National Armed Forces, even though the latter did not operate in the area. Most probably, Merdek Growas’ subgroup was murdered by a band of partisans belonging to “Miecz i Pług,” a radical organization that turned bandit and was eliminated by the Home Army. However, Jewish sources do not mention that it was the Communist partisans who initiated the conflict with the Polish partisans by joining in a treacherous assault on a Home Army commander, which was followed by Polish retaliation. Another source of problems for both the Jews and Poles were the Ukrainians guards who, after deserting their posts at the Treblinka death camp, were recruited by the People’s Guard based near Wyszków.100

Robbery and the use of violence, as Jewish partisans themselves concede, were widespread. This occurred even when the partisans had money to acquire food and no need to resort to such brutal tactics. A partisan in the Jewish “Adolf” partisan unit in the southern part of the Lublin province presents the situation is a succinct and clear light:

Jews from the nearby villages made up the bulk of the unit. They often fought battles, they robbed in order to gain provisions. The food was generally good, due to the energy of the partisans.101

In the summer of 1943, a Jewish band came at night to rob a Polish estate near Ryki, northwest of Lublin, belonging to a landowner named Kuszel. When he came to the defence of his daughter’s honour, he was murdered. In the environs of Kraśnik groups of Jews attacked well-to-do Polish families. Not only did they rob their homes, but they killed some of them and made off with a few young women.102 Violence begot violence.

A group of Jews who escaped from Radzyń Podlaski formed a partisan group led by Yitzhak Kleinman, and lived in bunkers in a forest not far from the village of Stara Wieś. In March 1942, they robbed a small dairy processing plant located on a landowner’s estate near that village and killed the German-appointed director. Containers of cheese and butter were hauled away by horse and wagon and shared with their comrades in the forest. Soon after, German gendarmes captured one of the bunkers and shot the Jews hiding there. Kleinman’s group decided to take revenge on the peasant believed to have reported the bunker to the Germans. One night armed partisans descended on his home, locked everything from the outside and set it on fire. The peasant and his entire family perished in the flames.103

Leibl Goldberg, a native of Międzyrzec Podlaski, describes a pattern of robberies his Jewish forest group engaged in, pretending to be Russian partisans (unpersuasively), which sometimes descended to the level of outright terrorization of the impoverished local population. Ocasionally, they met with defiance from peasants who were being robbed and encountered partisans who came to protect the villagers from repeated raids.

We headed toward a lone house standing in the field. A lamp was lit in one of the windows. I stopped near the house and my colleagues stood a little farther away. With feigned energy I started knocking on the door and called out [in Russian], “Open up.” The window opened and a frightened voice answered, “Please, please.” A woman handed two five-kilo loaves of bread through the window.” I yelled, “Too little, give more.” … Leaving I asked the woman whether Russians came here. She answered that they did and that people were afraid of them. Now we knew how to behave. We went away. We had 12 kilos of bread. My colleagues became bolder. We approached the next house which was also located off the beaten track. Here too I yelled [in Russian], “Open up” and knocked loudly. I entered the house first, and behind me Moshe Sztajbnerg. The rest stood sentry outside. In order to scare the residents I said in Russian, “We have automatic weapons. I’ll shoot anyone who leaves the house.” When the householders were sufficiently frightened, we searched the house. The house was well off. We found bread, half a metre of buckwheat, and flour. … In the same way we worked our way through five more houses. We took away full bags. Each one weighed at least 150 kilos. They were full of food with a large quantity of bread. We marched back with joy and pride. …

We decided to secure coal for the entire winter. Observing the surroundings we noticed that a worker from the power station … had amassed many bricks of coal. We calculated that we needed 1,000 bricks for three months. We went to his house. … It was dark in the house … We went to the stable which was near the house, tore off the lock with a staple and entered inside. … Most of all we took potatoes and garlic and hid them not far from our hideout. I stood sentry when the others left with the potatoes. Suddenly it became light in the house. Apparently the householders had heard us. Thinking what to do now I said loudly and emphatically, “I’ll at one shoot anyone who leaves the residence.” It became dark in the house. My colleagues returned. … Everyone again loaded up some bricks [of coal] and we went back and forth three times. We set the bricks not far from our hideout. Standing sentry I noticed there was an opening in the stable leading to the attic. I understood that there must be something there. When my colleagues returned I said, “Moshe, climb up and see what’s there.” He climbed up and said that there was about a meter of onions, two down-filled pillows and some underclothes. I ordered abruptly, “Take everything down.” … We took everything to that same place. …

We decided to make our third round in a remote colony of the same village. We heard the sound of music in the village which was coming from one house. … Lozer [Potaż] and I looked through the window into the house while the others waited at a distance. Through the window I saw some couples dancing. … Suddenly someone left the house and started to call his dog. … The Christian became visibly frightened of us and asked us not to cause a commotion. He brought us some milk but we didn’t want to drink. You could hear music from a record player in the house … I entered inside. Fear descended on all those gathered in the residence. The girls went to another room. … Moshe and Lozer also entered the residence holding their hands on their holsters to give the impression that they had weapons. I saw that it made an impression on everyone. I yelled, “Play a tango.” They played a tango right away but the girls were afraid of dancing with me. The boys pushed them toward me by force. After dancing with one for a few minutes I said, “There’s something wrong with her, give me another.” Moshe also wanted to dance. I gave an order, “We’re leaving!”

We went to the first better looking cottage and knocked on the door. It was opened immediately. We took a sack of buckwheat and bread and left. Not far from us we heard yelling, “Hurrah, Jews, hurrah,” but no one had the courage to come closer to us. We realized that it would not be good to work in this village. …

We kept returning to the village of Sitno. We felt more sure of ourselves with a rifle. Entering a house we asked the owner, “What’s your name?” He answered Jan, for example. Then looking deep into his eyes, I said, for example, “No, your name is Wacław.” In order to frighten him some more I took a German cartridge out of my pocket and inserted it into my Russian rifle … This always worked. The Christian in these cases would always fall on his knees in front of me and cry, “Sir, my name is Jan,” and he would show me various documents to convince me. I waited precisely for that. Then I said politely, “If you are Wacław, you will live.” In these situations his wife and children would also cry a great deal. When everyone was sufficiently terrified I conducted a search during which we always found some flour, grease, and buckwheat. … When the Christian saw us on the other side of his door he thanked God and bid us farewell for the road. …

Our next raid was in Sitno, for meat. I stood sentry with my rifle. My colleagues entered the cowshed and tied up a pig. Suddenly, at a distance of 20 steps, I noticed someone lighting a cigarette. I aimed the rifle in his direction but the dim light immediately disappeared. I went to my colleagues and said, “We have to be careful, they’re getting something ready for us.” … Suddenly I heard a voice and a shot from a pistol in my direction. I ran to my colleagues and yelled, “We have to run, they’re going to shoot at us!” We left the pig that was tied up and ran away. They kept shooting at us. All of the roads were staked out. We chanced on a side road which we took in the direction of the town. Thinking that we came from the forest, they had not staked out that road. We didn’t return to that village anymore. Not wanting to return home empty-handed, we made a detour from the main road to several houses and again brought back some food, grease and vodka. …

Two days later we went on another foray. We decided to start in a remoter colony of the same village. We arrived at the first cottage. They opened [the door] for us. We took some bread, some food and went to the next house. They didn’t want to open [the door] for us. But when the owner looked out the window and saw a rifle he softened and opened right away. I entered the house with Moshe. Here we also took bread and meat. We heard a strange pounding. I thought that someone was in the attic and that it was the echo of their footsteps, but suddenly the peasant threw himself on his knees in front of us and yelled, “Run away, save us!” They though that Germans were coming. They were afraid that if they encountered Jews they would kill them too. But these were Polish partisans. We left. They shot many rounds of gunfire at us. They were evidently waiting for us because the previous night we had taken a pig here. We escaped through the courtyard. …

At night we went to Rogoźnica to [Lozer Potaz’s] friend, a Christian. We thought we would get something more from him but he only gave us a small piece of bread, saying he didn’t have more. We rested in his barn all day and at night we went out to look for bread. We knocked on [the doors of] several homes. They handed us bread through the window. We had enough for ourselves. We approached a cottage where we had been several times. As usual, after knocking, we asked for a piece of bread. The inhabitants started to yell, “These are the Jews.” Immediately people appeared from all ends and started to run in our direction. We went into the grain and from there into a small forest where there were enormous pools. We threw our sack into a ditch and ran farther. As we ran we heard a few shots.104

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