The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Q. And when they encountered any of these?

A. When they came across them, they were annihilated.  Not a
trace of them remained.  Only part of them reached the

Q. How did the Jews live in the forest?

A. There were family camps that were without the protection
of the Jewish fighters.  And there were family camps which
were under their protection.  Those who did not have the
protection of the Jewish fighters - when they fled to the
forests, they stayed in the undergrowth, as I have
described, and they were afraid to go out.  From time to
time, they allowed themselves to come out and to listen -
perhaps here, in a corner, people would be speaking Yiddish,
a sign that there might be some Jewish family there.  They
stayed there for weeks and months, and only by night would
they come out to the edge of the forest, to the fields, in
order to gather a few potatoes.  And potatoes were, of
course, a seasonal food, and they would bring potatoes to
the forest.

Q. And, afterwards, did they organize themselves into camps?

A. One by one, these families organized and formed family
camps.  But those family camps which were not under the
protection of the Jewish partisans were almost totally wiped
out - not many remained.  The reason was that they soon
encountered all kinds of spies - and the Germans sent such
spies into the forests - and they were exterminated.

Q. Do you remember a trek of your partisan unit with a
family camp in February 1943?

A. Yes.

Q. Perhaps you would describe it briefly.

A. The position of those who were under the protection of
the Jewish partisans was, of course, different.  To them,
the partisans provided a shield, that is to say protection,
and also food.  I can say that it was not only that we gave
them support, but they also gave us something very
important.  When we came there and saw before us a Jewish
father, we saw before us a Jewish mother, we saw before us a
Jewish child - figures that had long since vanished totally
from our existence in the forest - there was a feeling of
the atmosphere of a Jewish home, when we came into a family
camp which was protected by us, which we defended, and which
we fed.

Q. Did such camps have any buildings?  Did they have any
permanent structures?

A. In quieter times, when our unit did not move around and
was not compelled to move, these Jews showed exemplary
vitality.  They even organized provisional workshops, shoe-
repairing, sewing, for themselves and for the Jewish
fighters.  They even set up a bakery, whenever there was a
little flour.  They showed a perfect vitality.  But their
situation became substantially worse when they began to move
from place to place, and the partisan movement depended on
its mobility.  It was most critical in the period of the
manhunt, that manhunt which began in 1943, and it spread
practically over all the forests.  But in our case, with our
unit, it began on 10 February 1943.  Large German forces
surrounded the forest, and they had a firm, single resolve -
to destroy all activity inside the forests of Polesye.

Q. What German forces?

A. This was the SS and the German army.

Q. How did you know they were SS?

A. We knew according to the prisoners.

Q. You captured prisoners?

A. We knew it according to the prisoners whom we took, and
according to all kinds of other information.  They
surrounded the forests.  Polesye was one of the strongholds
of the partisan movement.  They moved along the roads -
these roads were made of wood, there were no other roads
there.  And the partisans adopted tactics - not to do battle
with large German forces.  Our ammunition was scanty.
Generally, we used to follow in the tracks of the Germans.
We provoked them into storming dummy positions.  We hit them
in ambushes, in the most convenient places, where there were
the best lines of retreat, so that we should not get caught.
And, of course, we did not move along the roads - we walked
between the roads.

Q. Are you able to describe for us, briefly, the trek with
this family camp?

A. The family camp went with us.

Q. How many people were there?

A. There were about two hundred and fifty Jews there.

Q. Children?  Women?

A. Children, old folk, and women.  And when the ice had
frozen over, it was possible to move across the fields.  Our
troubles began when the snow melted and large swamps formed
in March.  Women, old people and children had to walk in the
mud up to their necks, to walk in cold mud, when they
stepped on hoarfrost which broke up.  And so the long days
passed, days and nights.  At night, they rested a little.
There was not even a place for them to rest, to sleep.  The
people bound themselves with ropes to trees.  For these were
the highest places, and two or three paces away from the
trees, there were swamps.  And the next day - again the same
march.  This trek lasted more than two months.

Q. Did you rescue this camp?

A. We rescued the camp as a camp, but many died, collapsed.
There were old men and women who remained behind, frozen in
the swamps.  Children, as well as elderly people, remained
behind, frozen in the swamps.  There was no way out, there
was no salvation for them.

Q. And when you went into the forests, did you find more
Jews there?

A. There were no longer any Jews then.

Presiding Judge: When was that?  What period are you talking

Witness Cholawski  There were no more Jews in the small
forests already by the summer of 1942.

Attorney General: But you entered small towns as partisan

Witness Cholawski  We went in, we also liberated small
towns, but there were no longer any Jews - that was one of
the most tragic aspects.

Q. But did you use to go into a small town which was known
to have had a Jewish population?

A. A substantial Jewish population.

Q. And there were no Jews?

A. There were no longer any Jews.  When Jews were still in
the small towns - there were no Jewish partisans; and when
cells of Jewish partisans began forming - there were already
no more Jewish towns - just here and there.  But I can say
that the forest not only knew this misery of the family
camp, but it also knew another side.  In the forest there
were great Jewish fighters.

Q. Where were they concentrated?

A. There were great feelings of rejoicing in the forest,
when they returned from important operations.  The large
centres of the Jewish partisans began roughly from Kovno
along the whole length of the large forest areas, the length
of East Polesye, to Galicia in the south.  It stretched from
Kovno, the forests of Vilna, the forests of Naliboki, and of
Lipiczany, of Polesye, and of Northern Volhynia.  These were
the places where the family camps and the Jewish fighters
were concentrated.

Q. After that, was there also military contact with an army
headquarters, the headquarters of a brigade of partisans -
you were subject to military discipline?

A. After that, a headquarters was created.  At first, they
were cells, operating independently, and later on links were

Q. You are holding a parchment - where did you find it?

A. This is a parchment that I found in 1943, in one of the
small towns close to my own, with one of the farmers.

Q. It was written on the parchment of a Torah scroll?

A. Yes.

Q. What did the Germans do with it?

A. The Germans, after destroying the ghetto and the
township, threw it into the garbage.

Q. Can you see what they did with this parchment?

A. They made a playing card out of this parchment.

Q. Please submit it.

A. I would only ask you to return the parchment to me, since
it is a memento, and I want to bequeath it.  It can be

[The witness shows a piece of parchment from a Torah scroll,
on the back of which there is a drawing of a playing card.]

Presiding Judge: Dr. Servatius wishes to see it.

Attorney General: [To witness] When did you emerge from the

Witness Cholawski  On 12 July 1944.

Q. Whom did you meet?

A. When I went into the small town of Lechowicz, I did not
meet a single Jew, not even a Jewish child.
Q. How many Jews were there before the War?

A. Before the War, there were about three thousand Jews
there.  The streets were empty, the houses were deserted.
The wind was howling, but there was death in the town.

Presiding Judge: Dr. Servatius, do you have any questions to
the witness?

Dr. Servatius:  I have no questions.

Presiding Judge: Thank you, Mr. Cholawski, you have
concluded your testimony.

Attorney General: I call Advocate Aharon Hoter-Yishai.

[The witness is sworn.]

Presiding Judge: What is your full name?

Witness: Aharon Hoter-Yishai.

Attorney General: Mr. Hoter-Yishai, in 1945, at the end of
the Second World War, you were in Europe as an officer in
the second battalion of the Jewish Brigade - is that

Witness Hoter-Yishai:   Correct.

Q. Where were you stationed?

A. On the border of Austria, Yugoslavia and Italy.

Q. Apart from your military duties in the battalion, was
another special duty allotted to you then?

A. The late Mr. Yehuda Arazi, who acted on behalf of the
"Aliyah B" organization (unauthorized immigration to
Palestine), entrusted me with the task of co-ordinating the
activities of the Jewish Brigade in Europe, in connection
with the search for Jews, if any were found, and providing
help for them.

Q. What was your first function?

A. My first function was to organize some form of official
operational framework, at least formally, since the unit was
a military one.  Accordingly, I approached the Brigadier,
the commander of the Jewish Brigade, and he appointed a kind
of committee which was to deal with the search for relatives
of the members of the Jewish Brigade.  In this way, it
became possible to travel to Germany, to any place, to do
whatever was possible.

Q. Did you go out personally to look for Jews?

A. I think I did not stop doing that over a period of
several months, from the moment of my appointment.

Q. What places did you visit?

A. I certainly visited dozens of camps, the largest of them:
Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt, and
dozens of others in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy,
and France - and everywhere in Europe wherever they were to
be found.

Q. Did you appear there as an officer of the British Eighth
Army, of which the Jewish Brigade was a part?

A. My uniform was, of course, that of the Jewish Brigade,
which was part of Montgomery's Eighth Army. Officially, of
course, at the beginning, we appeared in order to search for
relatives.  But the moment we encountered the Holocaust, it
was no longer possible to restrict the operation to the
official limitations, and the whole Jewish Brigade burst
forward to render help, without paying much attention to
military limitations.

Q. What did your people find in those camps - what did you
see with your own eyes?

A. I believe that if I were to try to confine myself to a
few sentences, I could say: We found a collection of living
people who, psychologically, were not very different from
those corpses we found lying there without limbs and even
heads.  From the physical point of view, everything was
done, to a certain extent, especially during the first
stages, in order to put them back on their feet, as far as
that was possible.  If my memory serves me correctly, there
were, at the time, in Bergen-Belsen, 52,000 refugees, of
whom 27,000 died in the course of receiving medical

Q. They died after the liberation?

A. They died after the liberation, while being treated,
during the attempt to save the spark of life still possessed
by them.

Q. What did they die of, Mr. Hoter-Yishai?

A. If they weighed about thirty kilograms, they had no
contact with life.  They no longer had the power to resist,
the fighting spirit.  They looked - if we can compare them
with the incidents of war - like complete forests where only
tree stumps remained, with their branches cut down - that is
what each one of them looked like, for he stood there with
his right and left arms cut off - on the left-hand side they
had taken his wife, and on the right-hand side, they had
taken his children, and he had survived.  And, as much as he
weighed, as much as he was worth, he was a wounded being in
every respect; and not only did the wounds not heal, but
after he had experienced the first shock of being rescued,
these wounds only opened up again and bled, for he did not
forget them and led an inner life that hardly made it
possible for him to communicate with others.

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