Yitschak Ziskind’s Testimony

In the Spring of 1942, a rumour circulated that the North Western part of White Russia would be passed over to the Lithuanian government.

This rumour caused much distress as it was known that, within three days after the invasion of the Germans, the Lithuanians cold-bloodedly murdered all Jews in the small towns.

Therefore when we heard that Volozyn was to remain under White Russian control, I and my family, along with other families, moved from Olshan to Volozyn.

This, however, was a flight from water into fire.

After a short while, on the 10th of May of that year, we found ourselves in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, in the midst of a terrible slaughter whose survivors could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

I recall a dream which I had dreamt on the night before that horrible day. In the dream, my father and I were walking to the synagogue. Suddenly, big stones were falling upon us from out of the sky. One stone hit my father and killed him. I was also hit by a stone, but I was not hurt.

The loud knocks on the door, which woke me up from the nightmare, were also the explanation for my dream, as well as an omen of the end of the Ghetto in Volozyn. In fact, already a day earlier we had seen that the Lithuanian militia had encircled the Ghetto. They had also been joined by militants from Latvia. We, however, did not understand the meaning of such activities.

At four a.m., the drunken murderers burst into the Ghetto like a storm, fired in all directions and kicked the Jews out of their houses. They then gathered them into a large building and from there took them in groups to the cemetery, where they shot them. On the streets that led to the cemetery, there already lay the dead bodies of hundreds of men, women and children who, through illness or weakness, had not been able to walk, and so had been killed on the way to the killing fields.

In the yard of one of the houses, the families that dwelled there built a hiding place underneath a pile of firewood.

On the night of the action, I slept in that house. When the drunken murderers attacked the dwellers of the Ghetto that early morning, I ran with a few others to that hiding place. We climbed a ladder to the top of the pile and then lowered ourselves into it. We then pulled the ladder inside, so as to hide our place. However, our footprints were visible on the grass, which was wet from the morning dew, and these led the hooligans to the pile of wood. With wild shouts, they pulled us out. One of them even came down into the hiding place and kicked me out along with two others who did not come out straight away.

When I reached the top of the wood pile, I suddenly jumped onto a nearby roof and then to the ground, and started to run wildly. The hooligans shot at me and hit me in the shoulder. With the remains of my strength I reached a little hut in one of the yards” the hut served as an out-house. Without much deliberation, I jumped into the hole and sank up to my shoulders in excrement. The murderers would have never thought to look for me there.

In that state, as I was sitting in this hole full of stinking dirt and suffering from my injured shoulder which still had a bullet in it, I was destined to witness, through the cracks of the door of the hut, one of the most devastating scenes in our history.

Next to the large building in which they housed the Jews, there sat a German. His rank was “Gebis Komisar” (district director). He conducted, in the most organized fashion and with much “expertise”, the selection of the groups to be sent to their deaths in trenches which had already been dug in the cemetery.

From amongst the condemned, the Germans selected a few trades people to be spared. They were allowed to have their wives join them. One of the selected was a bachelor. Two women jumped at him, each claiming to be his wife. One had a baby in her arms. The man was allowed to take the woman without the baby. The Germans then snatched the baby from the arms of his mother, threw him in the air and shot him. He fell lifeless to the ground.

The atrocities which I was forced to witness continued through the morning and afternoon. The hooligans then went on their way. One could still hear shots in the Ghetto. Later, I found out that White Russian policemen had searched the Ghetto, shot the people they caught in hiding places, and looted Jewish homes. These events all took place on Sunday, 10th of May 1942.

At nightfall, I carefully came out of the outhouse hole. I went to the closest house and climbed into the attic. Injured, dirty, and hungry like a dog, I lay there until Monday morning. Then I came out of my hiding place to try and find out what was happening. However, the noise of the crowds and the local policemen who came to loot the empty houses immediately forced me back to my hiding place. At nightfall, I decided that I needed to regain my courage and go into the houses in order to look for clean clothes, and perhaps find a means to tend my wound, which was beginning to bother me. However, when I crawled out, I heard two shots and then someone shouting in Russian: “Again we shot two Jews” I ran back to my hiding place.

On Tuesday morning I heard someone climbing the ladder leading to the attic. From behind the open door that concealed me, I heard the hooligan telling his friend (who was waiting downstairs) “There is no-one here”. These were local residents who used to help the Nazis do the final “Chametz check” before completing their atrocities.

In the evening, I went down and entered one of the houses. I found a piece of bread and a few cooked potatoes. I also saw there a discarded Sefer Torah in which the looters, it seemed, had no interest. An atmosphere of great sadness and abandonment cloaked me, which added to my loneliness and my heart’s despair.

The following day, I lost all that had remained of my strength, and I lay there half alive. The pain in my shoulder was very strong.

On Thursday, at twilight, I tried to come out of my hiding place, but could not move a limb. I managed to crawl to the attic window. In the street below, I saw a woman I knew. I wanted to call her, but I was too weak and too excited to be able to utter a sound. Later, I saw another acquaintance, a man I knew very well. Again, I was too weak to signal that I was alive.

Suddenly, I fell down and fainted.

I woke up to the sound of Yiddish conversation and strong hammering on the door below. Through the attic window, I could see men nailing up the door leading to the house in which I hid. I began to shout: “There is a Jew in here! Open the door!

The men took me to the house in which the tradesmen lived. There were a few other Jews there who had also miraculously survived. Amongst them there was a doctor. He managed, with a simple kitchen knife, to extract the bullet from my shoulder. In that house I also met a good friend of mine. I asked him how he had survived. He told me that the murderers had kept him alive so that he could bury the dead.

He had buried, with his own hands, his parents, his brothers and his sisters along with their children.

The Christian dwellers of the surrounding neighbourhoods told me later that the ground of the big mass grave was moving up and down for a long time after that dreadful day, as many of the those buried there were still alive underneath.

I and a few other Jews who were not residents of Volozyn, decided to go back to our hometown, to Olshan. In normal times, it was a walk of about three to four hours. We walked for two days on side-roads and tracks, gripped by the fear of our enemy, which was lurking everywhere.

When we reached Olshan, the Jews there stared at us as if we had just returned from the dead. They had already heard about the destruction of the Volozyn Ghetto. They did not expect to see us alive.

And so I was the witness to the murder of three thousand five hundred Jews, residents of the Volozyn Ghetto, and I remained one of its sole survivors, with the duty to tell the world about the great tragedy that befell one of the most glorious Jewish communities in our history.

Posted in Testimonies.