The Books of Doom, II:
Last Days of Byten
In slonim, in March 1942, six hundred people were hustled into the market place, deprived of all their possessions, beaten, and told to get out of town fast. It was freezing weather. About four hundred of them managed to reach Byten half-dead. Byten’s harassed Jews took care of them as best they could, and through influence (yes, marked for death, they still knew someone who—) won permission for half the Slonimers to return home.
At the beginning of June 1942 all the Jews of Byten were forced to leave their homes and take up quarters in thirty-nine small houses in the center of town, with twenty to twenty-five persons to a house. A bribe, of two suits of clothing and a gold watch, brought the community nine more houses and the big synagogue, which accommodated seventy persons. Hundreds of Jews were now set to work chopping down trees for the barbed-wire stockade that was to be put up around this ghetto. As they themselves were well aware, the Jews of Byten now formed a more compact mass that was very easy for the enemy to handle.
But the Nazis created still deadlier kinds of ghettos in other places. For example, in Wolkovisk, most of whose houses were destroyed, the Germans set Russian prisoners of war to digging trenches ten feet deep, thirty feet wide, and fifty yards long. These were roofed over with boards raised only slightly above the surface of the ground. Light came from a few small apertures in these, and from the entrance holes at each end of a trench. Fitted with a table, with benches running its entire length, and with three narrow tiers of shelves called beds, each of these bunkers housed five hundred persons. “There was,” to continue with the description by Dr. Einhorn in The Wolkovisker Yizkor Book, “a single outhouse for each bunker, for use by the adults, men and women. A single toilet within each bunker was reserved for the aged, the sick, and the very young. The stench was beyond description.
“The camp was divided into sections, each containing several bunkers, each section surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Encircling the entire camp were barbed-wire fences in three parallel lines. Two small wells of water had to suffice for all. It was insufficient for drinking purposes; washing was out of the question.”
The seven thousand Jews of Wolkovisk were jammed into such bunkers. Living on half a pound of bread and a quart of soup a day, their faces encrusted with dirt, their bodies covered with lice, they looked so different in a short time, so horribly changed, that they could hardly recognize each other. Thirteen thousand people brought in from the environs of Wolkovisk—from Liskove, Most, Porzeve, Izabelin, Rosh, Wolp, Zelva—were confined in even worse bunkers. Those from Ruzhnoi were so crowded that many had to sleep outside the bunkers, in cold and rain and snow: the death rate was twenty a day.
Having concentrated their victims for convenience of handling, the Nazis had alternative methods for killing them. From the Wolkovisk bunkers, they transported their victims to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Meanwhile, not in bunkers but in their ghetto “homes,” the people of Byten heard of another massacre in Slonim, and in despair began to hunt for hiding places, digging burrows against the time when they would be reduced to animals. Under constant police surveillance, they were at the mercy of the peasants in their efforts to buy food. A dress was exchanged for a piece of butter, a whole wardrobe for a slab of cheese.
Only certain specialists and other skilled workers were given permission to live outside the Byten ghetto, and most of these Jews were accommodated in what had once been a clinic. As a friend of the Russian who ran the public bath house (which was in the Shulhof), the Meyer Joffe we quoted before, having escaped from a work camp in Slonim, got the job of tending the furnace—a job authorized by the police. Friday, the bath house was reserved for White Russians, and it was then that Joffe got even with them for their anti-Semitism. Somehow, the heating system always broke down on Friday, producing only lukewarm water instead of the steam the Russians liked. By evening, though, when some Jews were able to slip in for a bath, the system was working fine again. And Joffe made sure it was perfect on Saturday for the Germans, on whom he practiced no jokes; he liked his job too much—not to mention his life. He himself could take a bath at any time, and he had the chance to provide unique hiding places for his friends in case of future need: under the steps of the steam table, in the reserve cauldrons in the attic, and other places like that.
On Friday, July 24, one of the most brutal of the SS officers appeared at the bath house and left orders that no Russians were to be admitted that day: this Friday was to be a German day. Joffe suspected that this change of schedule had some special, perhaps ritual significance—like preparation for a ritual murder.
That day everybody was out working, but the rumor got around that peasants from the neighborhood had been sent to a spot west of the town, with spades. At the bath house, Joffe and three of his friends who were hiding there that night (others had not taken his warning seriously) were awakened by shots at around three or four in the morning—a steady fusillade. Through a spot in the window from which the paint had been scratched, they saw black-uniformed local police near the Big Synagogue. At the house of the shammes, people were being loaded into a truck.
In the ghetto houses, people who had contrived any sort of hiding place scurried into them. They heard the tramp of soldiers’ boots outside, and the shouts of the SS men and their White Russian auxiliaries, “Crawl out of there!” as they broke into houses, shoved aside obvious camouflage, and drove people into the streets. In a specially prepared cellar hide-out in the house of I. Yuzhelevsky (who contributed “In Those Days” to Pinkas Byten) twelve persons had taken refuge. As the police were searching upstairs, a baby began to cry—they strangled it; whose hands did it didn’t matter: it was an act of the common will. The police inadvertently pushed furniture and other objects over the secret entrance to the hideout, and the eleven were saved.
All the while the shooting in the streets continued. In the beginning the intention must have been to rouse and frighten the victims. Then it perhaps became a diversion, to cover the really serious shooting going on outside town, where the peasants had been the day before with spades. That was where the trucks that Joffe saw being loaded with people had been driven, where human beings had been commanded to strip (but Rabbi Joffe, his father, would not), and were shot and then thrown, one on top of the other, some of them still alive, into a clay pit. In that pit, measuring twenty by a hundred and fifty feet, some eight hundred and fifty people were buried.
The shooting went on in the village, just for the hell of it, or aimed at some Jew rash enough to appear on the streets. At ten o’clock, however, it grew quiet, and German soldiers and White Russian police began looting the abandoned homes.
The next day the police ordered the surviving Jews—there were about three hundred and sixty—to confine themselves entirely to the Big Synagogue and a few adjacent houses. From there they were sent out later to clean up the houses that had been evacuated and to bury those corpses that had not reached the pit. There were children’s bodies among these. How vigilant their parents had been to prevent them from unwittingly giving offense to the guards, hushing their voices, and keeping them away from the barbed-wire fences—all to no avail. The clean-up squads found fragments of children’s bodies in the gutter, in toilet bowls.
Word got through that Soviet partisans had driven the Germans out of Kossove and freed the Jews there. Now the partisans were encamped in the Woltshe Norres, an area of “several square kilometers” in the forest west of Byten, much of it fertile, cleared, and under cultivation, but some parts still wooded or swampy. A few of the Jews of Kossove had accompanied their liberators to the Woltshe Norres; some Jews from Byten, too, were there, and now others were encouraged to make a try for it. Among them were the authors of the two major narratives in Pinkas Byten.
During the massacre Moshe Pitkowsky, his wife, and two of their children had found refuge in a small hole he had previously dug under his house, and which a neighbor covered with a high stack of wood. The killers who had entered the house started to throw the billets aside, but were suddenly diverted by the sight of some loot and never came back. Even after the shooting had stopped on Saturday, Pitkowsky, without knowing the extent of the massacre, thought it safer to stay in his intolerable burrow. All day Saturday and Sunday they remained there, but by Monday noon his wife couldn’t stand it any more: they would have to take their chances above ground. Taking four small bundles, they started out that night, together with eight other members of their family, for the Woltshe Norres.
They thrust through tall grass, crawled over a stretch of sand, slogged across swampy ground. They saw rockets flare, heard shooting. Beyond the railroad station, they crossed a highway. In the dark their little niece Maya got lost, but they could not stop to look for her. All through the difficult journey, as later in the forest, the children were quiet. The party rested near a shock of wheat, then took cover in a thicket. They found a pool of rain water to drink, rested, dragged themselves farther on until midnight. They were startled by three shadowy figures—police? No, other Jews from Byten. Later they encountered Jews from half a dozen other villages, all bound for the partisans’ camp without knowing exactly where they were. It was not until nightfall that the refugees made contact with the partisans. They were told that they would be received by them only if they, the fugitives, could find arms and were willing to fight—conditions to which they readily agreed. Exhausted after nearly a whole day and night of wandering, the party lay down to sleep on lice-infested straw—next to the enemy, lice proved to be their greatest affliction in the whole period to follow.
The next day, with other Bytener who had got hold of some weapons, they set up camp in a clearing on the edge of a swamp. Maya turned up in the company of a group of Jews from another village. They built wooden huts with branches for roofs. The men went out nights on foraging expeditions and brought back bread, meat, potatoes, pots, furniture—some of it given to them readily, the rest taken by force. (Many small settlements were scattered through the forest, and the Bytener saw some of their own property in the peasants’ homes.)
The partisans were organized in companies of fifty to sixty men, but under a single command. The Jews formed their own scratch companies, which included men, women, and children. Group 51, from Slonim, numbered over one hundred persons, and was well armed with guns picked up while working for the Germans in the magazines abandoned by the retreating Red Army. Group 58, composed of two hundred Kossover, had only fifty or sixty pistols and rifles, but possessed many skilled workers, one of whom, a locksmith, is said to have made a cannon from a wrecked Red Army tank. (Our guess is that he put a disabled gun into working condition.)
Dodl Abramovitch (“Destruction and Resistance”) had escaped the assassins by hiding inside a double wall he had built in his attic. Furniture placed against the false panel had helped to disguise its newness. Even after the first massacre, he declares, the surviving Jews were not all of a mind to flee. It was argued that the forest was far from a safe haven, and was difficult to get to, many Jews having already been killed on the way there. Besides, it was possible that the Nazis had had their fill of blood. Nevertheless, about two hundred Bytener did make for the Woltshe Norres within the next month.
Abramovitch had been unwilling to abandon his old widowed mother. One Friday afternoon, looking out of the window and seeing SS guards all around the ghetto houses, he said to Zalmen, a young relative who lived in the same house, that they had waited a few hours too many: now escape was cut off. “Zalmen is silent, doesn’t say a single word. He paces up and down the room without let-up. Once in a while he glances toward the street corner, at the pair of SS men, as if he were standing guard over them.
“From the three rooms in which the members of our family are gathered, no one comes into our room, and we don’t go into theirs either, as if we would have shamed each other with our helplessness, and also because we are afraid to look in each other’s eyes—those eyes from which death looks out. They, in there, are silent.
“The dead silence which gripped the living grave with its ten people, each waiting in his corner for inevitable death, was broken every now and then by Zalmen’s dashing across the room and muttering to himself, ‘They’re still there; they’re still there.’”
On August 29, at his mother’s urging, the author, accompanied by Zalmen and another young relative, made a break for the forest. “We are envious of the dead,” he writes of that day, “and [yet] we want to live.”
That was the day—again (with malice aforethought) a Saturday—when at four in the morning the hundred or so survivors in the ghetto were ordered into the street and told to wait near one of the houses. At ten o’clock they were lined up and marched to the site of the first massacre. Some tried to escape—bullets traveled faster. The rest stripped and jumped, so many clay pigeons for the trapshooters, falling into the already occupied grave, so much clay.
Again several people escaped, hiding inside double walls like Abramovitch’s, only to be shot down a day or two later as they made for the forest. Six people found refuge in a tunnel-like underground flue of the stove which heated the Big Synagogue, going out at night to the river for food and water. A peasant saw them and told the Germans. Dragged out of their hiding place covered with soot, they were shot to death before a crowd of spectators.
Like others from Byten who had reached—or failed to reach—the Woltshe Norres, Abramovitch and his companions found the going dangerous every step of the way. (No one in the book gives the distance to this place. We can only roughly estimate that from Byten to the edge of the forest was at least five miles.) They walked slowly in order not to rouse suspicion, “afraid of the young White Russian shepherds [they met], of the dogs and cattle, of themselves and their shadows, of the night that passed and the day that came.” Pursued by Lithuanian SS auxiliaries, shot at, forced to hide in a swamp, they inched along as best they could. Once, hearing a burst of shots ahead, they left the road they were on and swam across a river.
Nearing the outskirts of the forest later that day, they were stopped by a “Halt!” But it turned out to be a friendly peasant who had seen them shot at earlier that morning and was glad they had gotten through. He gave them food and directions—at the risk of his own life, for Gentiles had orders to kill all Jews on sight or hand them over to the police. Further along they met three peasant women, who fled screaming, “The Jews are attacking us!” In a hut they found a young boy, alone. He was glad to see them, gave them food, and suggested that they stay and wait for the partisans, who often came that way for water. Horrified, they heard strange singing close by. It was the boy’s mother, who had been beaten into madness by the Germans for having had dealings with the partisans: now she sang all day long a medley of hymns, folk songs, and dirges. When his visitors decided to go on, the boy gave them a large loaf of bread. Their next encounter was with a group of “Chapayev” partisans, who told them that they were trying to save as many Jews as they could. Finally they reached the headquarters of the partisans, a big unfurnished house, where all newcomers who passed muster were distributed to camps a half mile or so away.
In September 1942 there were about seven hundred non-Jewish and a somewhat greater number of Jewish partisans in the Woltshe Norres, subdivided into combat, sabotage, foraging, sanitation, and guard units. The Gentile partisans were all fighting men, while the Jewish units included, and were hampered by, women and children. In newly organized Camp 60, where the Bytener were, there was a preponderance of old men, women, and children. In the beginning, the political and military commissars and five other Gentiles assigned to Camp 60 were friendly, and patiently tried to train all those able to fight. It was hard work, here as in other Jewish camps.
Although they had lived simply, even austerely, in their village homes, the Jews did not take readily to forest life—eating rough and meager fare, and sleeping fully clothed in rude huts hastily roofed over with pine branches. The potential fighters among them had, moreover, to find arms on their own, as well as learn to handle them. The tailors and shoemakers and locksmiths of Byten, back in peacetime, had not spent their leisure in hunting. Jews from towns with Maccabee clubs, which went in for boxing, fencing, Swedish gymnastics, and such would have mastered the use of a rifle in short order had they had this chance. And the discipline of sport would have prepared them for military discipline. But there had been only a small Boy Scout troop in Byten.
Few Jews understood military discipline. Abramovitch, for instance, only six days after reaching his camp, innocently strolled down to a stream to wash up, only to find on his return that the rest of his unit was lined up in drill formation waiting for him. The officer in charge—and he was a Jew—kicked him all over the place. (Nothing like that ever happened again to Abramovitch.) The Jewish recruits had also to learn something of woodcraft—to be unafraid of forest noises; to distinguish the crackling of a twig (which can be very loud) from the crack of a rifle; to recognize edible berries; to estimate distances and to sense direction; to know how to take cover. They learned plenty of things they had never heard of and hadn’t ever wanted to know before.
Not everyone took the new life hard. A boy who called himself “Tuvia the tinsmith” was always in good humor, always singing folk songs. Afraid of the Germans? Why, they’ll never be able to reach us. This boy was also a master forager. Breaking into some peasant’s cottage, he would breezily announce, “Here comes Tuvia the tinsmith. Sholom aleichem!” And what could be the response to such an amiable greeting if not butter, cheese, fresh bread, tobacco leaves, and so forth? After two and a half years Tuvia was honored by being taken into a fighting unit, only to meet his death attacking a detail of Caucasians that was covering the German retreat.
However few the Tuvias among them in 1942, the new Jewish partisans did their best to become soldiers—“They learned the theory and the Germans gave them the practice.” But many of them paid for these lessons with their lives.
Some fell victim to bullets from their own side. Sometimes it was because of the suspicions of well-intentioned persons having the security of the partisans at heart, but in other cases the machinations of prejudiced, ignorant, or venal informers were responsible. A Dr. Briskin, survivor of the massacre in Slonim, was at first welcomed by the partisans for the medical services he could render. One day it was reported that he had poisons in his valise and was planning to kill them all. On the face of it, the charge seems absurd, but under the circumstances there was not sufficient time or energy to make a proper investigation. The simplest thing was to banish the doctor and his wife from the camp. But how could they survive alone in the forest? A Gentile sympathizer brought them food at first, but when this was discovered the thirty-six-year-old doctor and his wife were put to death.
Later on there was a Jew named Stern who toadied to the commissars and gained considerable influence with them. Would-be recruits for the partisans were always screened, however roughly, since the danger of spies was ever present. Through Stern’s influence, a certain Jew from Slonim was denied admittance, which automatically meant his death, since rejected recruits were executed for fear they would reveal the partisans’ position if they fell into the hands of the enemy. What were the grounds for Stern’s action? His victim, once proprietor of a highly reputable cabinet-making establishment, had at some time in the past refused to give him a job. After the cabinet-maker’s death, Stern was seen sporting his watch.
The Woltshe Norres partisans gradually gained in strength, until they numbered about three thousand. The Germans who were stationed in all the populated places to guard the lines of communication came to fear them greatly. Undisputed masters of their forest home, the partisans emerged only after careful reconnaissance and, since they could choose time and place for an attack, they usually defeated the Germans, managing to carry off weapons, food, and clothing in the process. It was out of fear of the partisans that one German detachment, on its way from Byten to Slonim, took a roundabout route four times as long as the direct one.
Finally, however, the Germans massed troops and got ready to strike back, whereupon six hundred of the partisans withdrew from the Woltshe Norres into the Pripet Marshes (Pinsker Blutteh, in Yiddish)—running into an enemy patrol on the way and killing eighty of them. When the Germans began cutting all bridges and setting up roadblocks, Camp 60 likewise moved deeper into the forest. Unable to venture out to forage, its members were reduced to living on potatoes and sleeping outdoors in the wet.
At their main camp the partisans strengthened their patrols, camouflaged their quarters, and built breastworks of heavy logs. Now the Germans spread their own patrols over the entire area. Converging with their main force on the partisan camp from north, east, and west, they sent an engineers’ unit forward, just before their attack, to dispose of the breastworks with power-driven saws. On September 18 the camp and the forest around it were shelled. Then tanks and machine guns moved into action; reconnaissance planes flew overhead. There was confusion in the partisan ranks and panic among the Jews, who even here in the forest were obsessed, like those back in Byten, by fear of a massacre. But not all the fighting men lost heart: one “Chapayev” unit of two hundred and fifty men fought off thousands of the enemy. Even so, in the end the partisan lines were broken and they were forced to retreat in the only direction left open to them, into the swamps.
The next day, on the advice of Seriozza, the political commissar, in whom they all had confidence, the large Jewish group with the partisans split up into four less vulnerable units. But there were still women and children, armed and unarmed men, all mixed together among them.
Now the German planes not only followed the movements of the partisans but swooped down to machinegun them. Concealment became of the utmost importance, but the Jewish units were seriously handicapped in this by the presence of women and children. The women were perhaps hardened enough not to give way to hysterics and the older children had become stoical, but the infants were the innocent betrayers. In one place five suckling babies who cried perpetually endangered the whole group. A meeting was held, and a decision taken, on the eve of Yom Kippur; when the infants were choked into eternal silence. That night what seemed to be a searchlight groped through the branches, and the fugitives were about to move off in a hurry when they discovered it was the moon.
On the fourth day of the attack Commissar Seriozza went off to try to locate some food supplies. Camp 60 felt lost without him. When two days passed and he did not come back, they left the shelter of the marshes to fend for themselves. On a hill they found edible berries; later they met a couple of Jewish partisans who gave them bread, pork, a canteen of water, and a spade to dig for more. They were told, moreover, that the big attack was definitely over (the enemy was, however, to make sporadic forays until the end of September). Two days later Seriozza returned to confirm this. But meanwhile the partisan units had been dispersed. Many had fallen, and those unable to fly deep enough into the marshes had been captured. The Germans had thrown two full divisions—some 40,000 men—against them.
Back in Byten, on the second day of the attack, another remnant of Jews had been wiped out. (It was, for the third time, on a Saturday.) And now it was the turn of the skilled workers—about fifty blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, locksmiths, barbers—whom the Germans had found useful enough to designate as “privileged.” And privileged they were: to live two months longer than their parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, only to be shot to death in the courtyard of their exclusive residence. Only a few escaped to Camp 60.
A saddle-maker, Yudel Birkner, had been sent by the Germans to work in another village while his wife and three daughters were allowed to stay in their own home in Byten. They had been killed in the first massacre, and the news was brought to Birkner by a peasant friend, Yakob. Yakob concealed him and his two surviving children when a group of partisans destroyed the village he was in, and took care of them until they were picked up by another partisan unit. The day after that unit left, the Germans came back, shot Yakob, his wife and child, and threw their bodies into the river.
The partisans began rallying, and now some of them demanded that the Jews be made to clear out. One of the bitterest of these partisans, a White Russian peasant living in the Woltshe Norres whose wife and child had been burned to death in the German attack, accused the Jews of being responsible. It was their presence in such large numbers, he said, which had provoked the German attack. Once more Seriozza stood by the Jews. At his suggestion they were divided into two groups, with the fighting men in one and the heads of families, with their dependents, in another; all the non-combatants were given work assignments. This arrangement worked out well eventually, but it took a little while for the ill-feeling to abate.
In this period, tired of the dissension as well as of inaction, and also perhaps because he wanted to get away from the place where, in August, his wife and daughter had been killed, a younger brother of Pitkowsky’s named Laimeh applied for admission to a distant partisan unit composed almost entirely of White Russians. Notified that he was acceptable, he reported for duty with his new unit, only to find Stern the informer there. The latter tried to have him rejected, but without success. Laimeh apparently took part in the bold raids of his new comrades, facing every danger they did. But one day, a month after he had joined the outfit, as he was going on sentry duty, his commanding officer came behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Whether Stern had plotted this, or whether Laimeh had offended his commander by his honesty and outspokenness, Moshe never found out. He couldn’t even locate his brother’s grave.
In January 1943, White Russian auxiliaries of the Germans launched a strong attack on the partisans of Woltshe Norres. Nine members of the Pitkowsky family, including Moshe’s daughter, were killed, along with many others. His son, badly wounded, lived on half-paralyzed until March, when Moshe’s wife was wounded in another attack on the camp and, weakened by her working day and night for those who needed help, died shortly afterwards. (We cite the fate of this one family as typical of others.)
In their second year together, the tension between the Jewish and the Gentile partisans faded. The partisans, now reinforced by Soviet paratroopers, acquired more equipment, and were able to keep themselves informed of enemy movements by two-way radio communications. Hardly a day passed that they did not cut railroad, telegraph, or telephone lines, or waylay German troops. The Jews played their part, and their Gentile comrades in time came to call them admiringly but not without irony, “brave Slavs.” One very strong indication of their fighting spirit is the fact that probably less than 10 per cent of all the Jews who found refuge in the forest survived. Only a handful of Bytener were among them.
What it was like to come home is told by Pitkowsky. He retraced the same route by which he had escaped. As he passed the house of a peasant friend, the latter cried out, “Moshke, du lebst?” It was heartwarming to hear his sincere concern, but how long could a man be sustained by concern? Of the twenty members of his immediate family who had gone into the forest, Moshe was the lone survivor.
Everything in Byten had changed. The Big Synagogue was destroyed, and so was his own dwelling place. The rest of the Jewish homes were occupied by peasants enjoying the Jewish furniture they had bought or stolen. He walked, through streets still littered with pages from Jewish books, to the home of his parents, who had died in the second massacre. Its present owners were considerate, gave him pancakes and milk to eat, and invited him to sleep over in one of the rooms. Over the place where his father used to sit studying Gemara hung an icon.
On July 26, 1944, the anniversary of the first massacre in Byten, a group of Jewish survivors visited the mass grave. The clay pit was almost overgrown with bushes. The mourners were silent at first, then the women grew hysterical. A few days later they dug a trench around the pit, to make it inviolate even in its anonymity. On another day they set up a pair of memorial tablets.
Most of the survivors stayed on in Byten for a year or so. Pitkowsky, for one, worked in Soviet offices, where he was well treated. But he no longer felt at home in his birthplace. No matter where he went, he would never be able to forget his family or life in the forest, but here, so close to them, he could not even try to forget. With twenty-five others, he decided to leave Byten and make a new start elsewhere. His Gentile neighbors, he says, were not sorry to see them go: too many of them had guilty consciences which they could not quite still in the presence of the survivors.
Abramovitch, the Bundist, had left the partisans to join up with the Soviet Army, and lost a hand. But he did not stay on in the Soviet Union. Like Pitkowsky, the Zionist, he went to Israel.
After all the words of Pinkas Byten are in—the words of warm memories, the dry words of facts, the bloody words of massacre and resistance—come lists: bare lists of names of victims, solemn as the sounding of taps.
The first list is of the dead in Byten itself: when they were killed—in the first, second, or third massacre; and if not in these, where they were killed—in the forest, in the field, or (in a few cases) under unknown circumstances. For these individual victims there is sometimes an exact date of death, sometimes the month and year, sometimes nothing more than “end of 1942.”
The lists are by family and given names, but, to make sure that no one would be overlooked, the relationship names by which many people were commonly known have been added: Eisel Bunevitzky, son-in-law of the wineseller Israel Berel. Married women are further identified by their fathers’ names: Yachne Berkner, the harness-maker Kalman’s daughter; and one woman, presumably a poor orphan, by the notation “raised by Kapelyavitch.” In a few cases, first names have been forgotten, and apparently it would have taken too long, or perhaps even been impossible, to trace them. Hence, after the names of Kayleh Levick and his wife Hannah, are listed simply “two sons”; after Meyer Chazanovitch, his wife Itkeh and their son Berel, come two question marks for “two of their children.”
Eight hundred and fifty people are accounted for in :this list. The toll in the Chazanovitch family was nine; in the Rabinovitch family (Moshe Pitkowsky’s wife was a Rabinovitch), thirteen; in the Minkovitch family, twenty; in the Ditkowsky family, twenty-six; in the Yudkowsky family, thirty-two. And of course many of these families were inter-related.
A second list gives the eighty-nine people from Byten who were caught up in the massacres at Lechevitch, Kletzke, Slonim, Baranovitch, and twenty-five other places. Appended to almost every other name in this list is “and his (or her) relations.”
A third list gives the one hundred and fifty-eight victims who settled in Byten during the war years 1939-41. Some were so little known, even in that small community, that their dead are named only by family: “Futterman (5 persons) . . . Mishler (6 persons) . . . Katz (7 persons)”—like their mass graves.
A final list records the survivors: fifty-five, including women and children, from the partisan camps; two women who had previously escaped to Israel and Argentina; and sixteen persons evacuated by a Soviet rescue team; in all, seventy-three individuals left of an original population of one thousand three hundred. Less than half of them are now in the United States and Argentina; the majority are in Israel: the Bundists were proven wrong in the event, the Zionists pitiably right.
There is something in the book even more touching, if possible, than the stark lists: photographs of children that were picked up here and there in the village after the disaster—children without names. The editors and the contributors do not recognize them. Here is the universal happy baby on his stomach, naked, laughing. Here is a little girl dressed up in all of mama’s bad taste, and on the same page a dapper little boy with riding crop, or is it the baton of a conductor who did not live to reach a podium? Here is a very little girl, between tall older sisters, with be-ribboned hair. Here is a sweet and solemn brother and sister, cheek to cheek; a trio mounted on a decorative Jewish New Year’s card; and a quartet of eight- or nine-year-olds gazing out alertly and hopefully on a world that was soon to destroy them. All, all lost beyond identification. Perhaps they belong in the parentheses of the third list: “Futterman (5 persons)”. . . .