Tribute to Oscar Borecki
by the Borecki Family
AN OUTLINE OF MY SURVIVAL – OSCAR BORECKI
(pronounced “Osher Boretsky”)
Written by Eric Borecki
10 April 2001
I ask myself the question how did I survive “ebergehlebt”.
Who am I what am I.
Section 1: Introduction & the arrival of the German army
When the German bombing of my town Novardok commenced on 22 June 1941 I was 11 years old. My father was a boot maker and a merchant. I was the youngest in my family of 5 children. When I was born Novardok was part of Poland. Between 1939 and 1941 the area became part of Russia. The small town of 12,000 people was approximately 50% Jewish.
Three days after the Germans occupied Novardok the Gestapo issued their first orders, all Jews over 10 years old must wear a yellow star on their front and back and Jews were not allowed to walk on the footpath. Further, at random Jewish men were being arrested never to be seen again.
On the “Shabos” of 26 July 1941 the Gestapo issued an order to the “Judenrath” to deliver 50 Jewish men to the town market place for a work detail. In an attempt to impress the Gestapo the “Yudenrath” sent 72 Jewish men. I was in the crowded market place surrounded by non-Jews at the time and saw what happened with my own eyes. The Gestapo selected 50 Jewish men placed them in 5 rows of 10 in the middle of the square and systematically executed them by firing squad. Their bodies were deliberately left in the market place as the Gestapo set up a military orchestra, which played Wagner to the absolutely silent crowd of non-Jews. When the orchestra was finished 10 young Jewish girls were brought in to mop up the blood. When I returned home my parents were furious that I dared to stay in the town square to watch the executions.
I could never have imagined that some two years later (except for my sister) I would lose my parents, brothers and my whole family. In order to survive I would have to endure the ghetto, three selections and mass executions, escape the ghetto, wander the countryside pretending to be a non-Jewish orphan, until eventually I was able to join (the largest Jewish partisan group in Europe) the Bielski Partisans as a child scout and courier.
Section 2: Executions & the Ghetto
On 7 December 1941 the Jews of Novardok were ordered into an abandoned court house to form a ghetto (“the Sud”). One day after arriving in the court house, the Gestapo area commander Reuter, carried out the first selection.
In a matter of seconds each person was required to state their trade or profession and how many children they had, after which they were directed to the left or the right. Those sent to the left were sent into the yard. It is very difficult for me to express in words how I then witnessed how those people who were selected to be executed acted, as they waited in the yard for the trucks to arrive to take them away. As people became hysterical, women cried holding their children, as some men raised their fists to the local Polish and Belarussian police threatening retaliation and also screaming to the remaining survivors to take revenge – “nakoma” (the “first execution”)..
On that day 5,000 Jews were taken away to the local forest to be executed by firing squad. Two days later the remaining 1,500 Jews were relocated into a poor area behind the town called “Perishike”. This area became known as the “Perishike” ghetto. Somehow my entire family survived this first execution.
Some 7 months later (July 1942) people became very concerned and talked about an imminent second execution. As I was too young to work in the court house (the “Sud”), my family was concerned that I could easily be rounded up for the next execution from the Perishike ghetto when the adults went off to work in the court house. My oldest brother Moshe smuggled me out of the ghetto to join the work party, which would walk everyday to the old court house to work as slave labourers. Moshe hid me on the roof of the 4 storey court house amongst the guttering and covered me in branches. He told me not to leave the hiding place on the roof until he or my father comes calling my grandmothers name, Liber. I was told to stay still on the roof until the execution was completed which may be some 2 or 3 days later. However, after two to three hours I became very uncomfortable with the situation. Intuitively I had a very strong feeling of the “smell of death”.
It was about 8.00pm at night, it was dark and I was on the fourth floor on the roof of the court house building. Two Polish policemen were guarding the perimeter of the court house buildings. I observed their movements and timing as they patrolled the perimeter fence. I timed my escape, climbing down the drain pipes and jumped from landing to landing. At ground level I then crawled under the fence and escaped. That night I managed to find a safe place to hide and slept in a hay stack in a field. Even today after recently visiting Novardok and seeing the court house, I do not know how I managed to climb down the 4 storeys and escape.
The next day I walked about eight kilometres to my uncles village of Lubch. On arrival I discovered that my uncle Ruvke was in a work camp near Lubch. Standing at the fence of the camp I pleaded with my uncle to let me into the camp. I explained to him that we were expecting another execution in Novardok and that I had no where to go or stay. He was angry and abruptly refused to help me. He hit me with a stick and told me to leave the camp immediately. Bewildered and upset that my own uncle would not help me I left the work camp and found a barn to sleep in overnight.
Later I found out that my uncle and all the people in the camp were gassed in a barn the next day. I also found out that 18 children were somewhere hidden on the roof of the old court house where I was hiding in Novardok. The Gestapo brought in sniffer dogs and threw each child down one by one from the roof into a waiting truck down below, as the children’s parents watched helplessly from the court house where they were working. As far as I am aware I was the only child who survived after also being hidden on the roof of the court house, but fortunately I had managed to escape earlier. I understand that in Novardok the 2nd execution took place on 7 August 1942 when about 4,000 Jews were murdered and buried in a mass grave at Litovka.
Section 3: Countryside & Villages
Some time later after the 3rd execution on 4 February 1943 (500 Jews were killed), my father told me that I must leave the ghetto and this time I must not return. That same day at approximately midday, I dug a hole and crawled under the ghetto fence without being noticed by the local Polish police guards. I then walked slowly and cautiously to the nearby forest. I waited for my older brother Eli to join me as we had arranged; but he never came. I would never see my parents and brothers again.
In the forest I suddenly realised that I was free. I remembered my fathers advice “listen carefully, from now on you are no longer a Jew, you have hope and you can survive – “gei gezunt a heit””. On my own, resting in the forest and thinking things through, I felt that I could survive.
Later that afternoon I approached and knocked on the door of a lone farmhouse (known as a “futter”). An old woman opened the door. Appearing optimistic and with a smile, I stated that I was an orphan and a shepherd willing to take care of her sheep. The woman took pity on me and said tomorrow at dawn I will take you to the fields with the cows. That night I felt privileged and safe pretending to be a non-Jew and ate a decent meal and slept that night above the oven in her house.
Five days later as I was tending to my sheep in the fields a group of shepherd boys approached me. One of the boys immediately pointed at me and accused me of being a Jew. I instinctively responded by laughing at him, grabbing his stick and hitting him over the head and accused him and his grandfather of being Jews and that everyone knew it. He cried and denied this, as the other boys laughed and also then taunted him of being a Jew.
Realising there was trouble that night I returned late to the farm house. The old lady was waiting for me outside with tears in her eyes. She had prepared some sandwiches and said I must go, as the local Councillor was looking for me and wanted to talk to me. That night I secretly crawled into the old lady’s barn and realised that in order to survive I must somehow make contact with the Bielski Partisans. I also knew that the Germans rewarded peasants with one pound of sugar for the capture of a Jewish child.
For the next 3 weeks I slept in barns, hay stacks and fields as I made my way slowly and cautiously to the Stankiviech area (where the Bielski brothers lived) some 60 kilometres away. There the Jewish partisans were known to operate in the vicinity of those forests.
A peasant in the village of Kamike told me that another peasant “Kosloski” who lived on the outskirts of Kamike had dealings with the Bielski partisans. I made up a story for Kosloski, that my older brother was a partisan and that he told me to meet him in the partisans and that he would collect me. Kosloski gave me some bread and cheese and told me to wait a day or two in the nearby forest until the partisans arrive.
Three days later at night time I heard a horse and cart stop a few hundred metres away. I heard Yiddish being spoken. Michella Laibovich (about 28 years old) was part of the group of 4 partisans who collected me. Our families were friends in Novardok. Michella’s father traded in horses in Novardok. Michella warmly welcomed me and told me that my sister Fruma was in the partisans in another group. She picked me up and gave me a hug. I began crying uncontrollably. Michella attempted to comfort me with some milk saying Bielski will look after you, with us you are safe. I was then questioned about news from the ghetto, who was still alive and who was not. I rested on the cart for the trip of about 2 hours through the forest before reaching the Bielski partisans camp site.
Section 4: The Bielski Partisans
Guards on horses guarded the outskirts of the camp. I arrived at the Bielski camp site at approx 5.00am in the morning. My group was greeted on their return and announced my rescue from the ghetto. I saw Jewish people walking about with rifles without fear, a large outdoor pot to feed people, “zemlankas” (underground bunkers) where people slept underground on bunks made of branches. At that time (March 1943) there were approximately 460 partisans in the group. At the end of the war (for us in July 1944) there would be approximately 1,200 Jewish partisans who would survive.
The partisans were led by the commander Tuvia Bielski and supported by his three brothers. The partisans included men and women of all ages, some with weapons but most were unarmed (“malbush”). The partisans had dug wells, set up work shops to repair guns, made clothes, resoled shoes, supplied services to other non-Jewish partisan groups and even established a hospital. The Bielski partisans led retaliatory raids against Belorussian peasants who collaborated with the Germans against their former Jewish neighbours, derailed trains, destroyed bridges and telephone and telegraph lines to weaken the Germans supply lines. As the Germans intensified their killings of Jews, Tuvia Bielski placed greater emphasis on saving Jewish lives. He would openly insist that saving lives was more important than anything else. He argued that that the partisans size in and of itself offered safety. Whereas others in the group often argued for a smaller, younger and better trained fighting force to fight the Germans. In fact scattered, small groups of Jewish runaways, even if armed were at a disadvantage. Most were attacked and destroyed soon after formation. Russian, Belorussian and Polish partisans while sometimes glad to destroy small Jewish units were reluctant to attack a larger group.
On the day I arrived in the partisans I was taken to Tuvia Bielski’s headquarter for interrogation. Tuvia questioned me as to whether I was sent by anyone, did I meet anyone or speak to anyone on my journey, meet any Germans, German activity on the roads, etc. Tuvia shook hands with me and said I will look after you, but here you must do exactly what you are told. Tuvia did not explain what I would have to do and said this we will tell you later. Now I will send you to your sister Fruma. Tuvia appeared to be happy with me and my responses.
I then spent 3 days with Fruma in her zemlanka, telling her my stories and of events in the ghetto concerning our family. A scout then collected me on a horse to meet Tuvia Bielski again at his headquarters. At the headquarters, Tuvia and 4 other officers (including Malbin the chief of staff) told me that they would train me. I must carry out their orders precisely for my day time missions in the local villages. I stated “yes I am willing and ready to do it”. The partisans generally operated at night time when the Germans were less active and less confident of their surroundings. Later when I told my sister that I had accepted this role, she became upset with me and stated that I should not have volunteered for such dangerous missions.
Some days later, I was again recalled to headquarters to meet Malbin, 2 officers, Michella and Chaimker Bloch (a 15 year old scout who was friends with my brother Eli). They instructed me to memorise messages to verbally pass on to Bielski village contacts, how to act in the villages, observe activity, act happily as a gentile, not to talk to people, what to say and not to say when approached and to liaise with friendly gentile contacts in the villages. Chaimker Bloch was a brave and experienced young scout. I respected his advice and he became my friend. He taught me how to climb a tree, how to ride a horse, deliver a horse and cart, never to run from Germans, waive to moving German transports, how to act as a gentile,etc. Chaim Bloch was later killed by a German sniper. When our camp was attacked by Germans he bravely stayed behind in a tree. After hiding in the tree for some two days observing German movements, he was shot when he climbed down the tree.
On my first mission I was taken by horse to the edge of the forest to then make my way to our contact Agatta in the village of Kamike approximately one kilometre away. I met Agatta and exchanged passwords, had tea with her, after which she gave me a parcel that looked like cheese to deliver to the partisans. Agatta explained which trails to take and how to identify tree markings which secretly identified trails. On my return to the forest I was met by a partisan on a horse who took me back to headquarters, where I was congratulated for completing my first mission. I was sworn to secrecy as to what I did and saw and returned to my “zemlanka”.
Later I was instructed to deliver a bag of corn by horse to the mill (some 10 kilometres away) so as to make flour for bread. Half way to the mill and as I was near the roadway, I could hear trucks approaching. I did not know whether to abandon the heavy bag of corn and flee to the forest or to continue on my mission. I decided to continue. A convoy of 4 trucks carrying German soldiers and a leading officer staff car stopped some 50 metres away from me. The officer ordered the driver to find out what I was doing.
The driver approached me with his revolver drawn. The horse stood up on its hind legs. I desperately held on to the reigns of the horse as the German yelled at me in German, where am I going. On the horse I pointed at the bag of corn and cried in Russian “the mill, the mill, Papa sent me…”. The officer then instructed the driver to leave the boy alone and return to the staff car. As the driver was about to leave he hit the horse on its rear causing the heavy bag of corn to fall to the ground.
Now I had a big problem, I could not lift or move the bags of corn and I knew that I could not return to the partisans empty handed. I decided that I should go to the mill for help. When I arrived late at the mill the woman owner was distraught and crying. She had assumed that I had been captured and that she would be executed and her mill burnt down by the Germans for collaborating with the partisans.
The woman sent her older son with me on my horse to collect the bag of corn. We collected the bag of corn and took it to the mill. It was too dangerous and too late to wait for the corn to be processed with the Germans operating nearby. Despite my pleadings the woman was too frightened to allow me to sleep overnight in the cellar of her house. So I left the corn in the mill and headed back to the forest. I slept the night in the forest with the reigns of the horse tightly tied to my arms as I slept. I knew that that I must secure the horse to ensure my safe return to camp. The next morning I found my way to the trails back to camp.
On another occasion I was ordered to collect a horse from a peasant in a village called Negramova. It was a Sunday at about 1.00pm, the village was quiet as the peasants were resting after church. I approached the peasant’s house to collect the horse. Inside the house about 20 peasants were drinking Vodka. I told the peasant that the Bielski’s have sent me to collect your horse. The peasant stood up and angrily responded that “the horse is my life, without the horse I cannot live”. He then grabbed a large axe and held it up over his shoulder about one metre away from me and said “I am going to kill you”. His wife screamed “what are you doing, the Bielski’s will come and kill us and burn down our house”. The other peasants in the house also pleaded with the peasant not to do anything. His wife promptly took me out of the room, as I was crying. She explained to me that they could not give me their horse.
After very cautiously leaving the village, I raced fast as I could to the forest and then back to camp. I reported back to my officer in charge and told him of the events. The officer laughed on hearing my story. I believe the Bielski’s took no action against the peasant.
One night myself and 5 partisans (including Fruma) were sent to collect a horse and cart from a village. I was sent in advance to ensure the village was safe. We approached the farmer to demand his horse and cart. He stated he had only one horse and attempted to negotiate with the partisans so as not to take his horse. After much discussion and argument he reluctantly agreed that he would himself escort the horse with the partisans on their journey. The farmer attempted to dress the horse in its saddle and reigns, but the horse stood up on its hind legs and refused. It took a long time for the horse to be prepared and attached to the cart. These events frightened the farmer as this had never happened before and we also found this strange. The farmer could not comprehend what was suddenly wrong with his horse.
On departing the village we had all become very wary. The farmer led the way on his horse as we followed behind him in single file – I was the last in line. We had only progressed about one kilometre down the road from the village when suddenly flares lit up the whole sky, heavy machine gun fire and mortars rained down on us. We had been ambushed by the Germans. Almost immediately the horse was killed. We lay down still and then slowly crawled away in retreat and then headed back to camp. The only fatality was the horse.
I understand that on 7 May 1943 the 4th execution took place in the Novardok ghetto where 350 Jews were murdered and buried in a mass grave in Hordelovka. Some time after that the remaining Jews in the Ghetto built a tunnel past the outside fence to the open field, a distance of about 250 metres. On a stormy night 230 Jews escaped through the tunnel with most later joining the Bielski partisans.
In mid July 1944 we were liberated by the Russian army as the Germans retreated. Our partisans fought the retreating German infantry. We did then suffer some unfortunate casualties. In last days of the war we also captured four Gestapo officers. The Gestapo officers were promptly put on an open trial and given a death sentence and then executed.
In mid July 1944 with the war then over for us, Fruma and I made our way back to our home town of Novardok. Our gentile neighbours all looked at us with disbelief that we had somehow survived. Almost disappointed they would say “so many Jews survived”. Our house was bombed and Fruma and I had no where to go. Our very worst fears were then confirmed, that we were the only survivors from the Borecki family; we were devastated. The “Shetl” was no more, we now felt like we “ghosts” in what was our home town.
David Borecki – NSW Yom Hashoah Commemorations – April 2017
Oscar Borecki, partisan 1943 Austria c1945 Adele & Oscar in Sydney 1989