The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann
Session 73
(Part 8 of 9)

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 forest.

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 about?

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 fighters?

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 established.

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 photographed.

[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 forest?

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 correct?

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 treatment.

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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