by Yechiel Granatstein
At last, the day we had been waiting and longing for, arrived. Liberation became a fact, a living reality. It was here.
Someone informed us that Soviet tanks were nearby. The Soviets, he said, wanted information about the partisans.
Afraid it might be a ruse by the Germans, we had to verify if this messenger told the truth. So we sent out a few men to reconnoiter the area.
The men returned, breathing and perspiring heavily. They couldn't utter a word, but nodded their heads - and we understood. We started dancing and crying out at the top of our lungs, They're here, they're her in the forest! We're free... free... fre-e-e-e.... fre-e-e-e-!
We didn't know what to do those first moments of liberation, when this hell was over, done with, kaput. They were moments of confusion, disorder and chaos, out of this world.
We Jewish fighters embraced one another and wept, but not tears of happiness. Our wounds, anguish and pain rose to the surface.
We numbered exactly seventeen Jewish partisans among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-Jewish fighters to march together, with the rise of dawn, into the liberated city of Slonim.
We seventeen had been scattered among various partisan units, and each had his own story to tell. We began remembering the names of Jewish partisans who had been with us at the beginning, but did not survive. That list of Jewish names was so long, that we didn't have the time or ability to remember them all.
That night, the top Soviet general of the liberating forces came to address us. Praising the mighty Red Army, he described the German atrocities against the Russian people, and recalled the millions of Poles and Frenchmen, Russians and Byelorussians and Ukrainians killed by the Germans.
We didn't know much about the death camps; but were shocked not to hear a single word from this Soviet general about what the Germans did to the Jews. Weren't they massacred and thrown into pits?
We were stunned. They were all against us, and we could only keep silent.
At dawn we went on to Slonim. Fields of wheat stretched out on both sides of the road. The suns golden rays cast their sheen over soldiers dead bodies. Some bodies were whole; others were shattered. We passed by cannon and tanks: some damaged, some burnt, and a few had swollen body parts stuck to the steel.
An army band escorted us. Our feet marched to the beat of patriotic Russian tunes. Officially we still had to obey our superior officers. But slowly, the discipline grew lax. Local partisans left their ranks, and went off home, back to their parents, wives and children.
But our little group of Jewish partisans had nowhere to go. We marched like mourners returning from a funeral. Arm in arm we marched, like brothers.
The full ears of wheat in the fields bowed low to us, shedding their ripened kernels.
Reaching the city, the bands played louder, and the mass singing of the partisans was deafening. But we seventeen were silent.
We walked on the main roads of the city and crossed into the narrow side streets that had once been alive and full with Jews. We went into the synagogue courtyard, the warm houses of prayer that once stood there, next to the stores in the Jewish market place. We broke down. Our tears welled up in our eyes and poured, as the dams of emotion broke. We sat on the stones by the roadside as mourners without consolation.
We ran to the pits of Petrolovitch, where three fourths of the city's Jewish population had been thrown.
We stood there heartbroken. Each of us picked a spot for himself, to stand alone in contemplation, imagining himself at the grave of his own beloved kin, to unite with them in thought.
In a choking voice someone began the kaddish: Yisgadal ve-yiskadash shmey rabboh. In its wings the soaring wind gathered our cries of the age-old prayer, and scattered them over the large terrain of pits, and carrying our tears upward, to heaven.
Forlorn, we responded to the kaddish: Ye-hey shmey rabbo mevorach le-olam ule-olmay olma-yo.
A stream of tears flowed from our eyes, spread over the green grass that covered the pits, and filtered down into the ground.
Choking up, each of us said the kaddish in turn, and the others responded. We wanted our trembling words and cries to wind their way into the forest, to find the burial places of all Jewish partisans who fell in combat, so that the kaddish we were saying in Petrolovitch was for them too.
Standing at the mass grave, we seventeen Jewish partisans swore to remember them. This much life we would give them, so they would live on in our memories.
We would never forget them. Never.
-- Excerpted from The War of a Jewish Partisan, by Mesorah