Purim in The Naroch Forest, 1942

My father told me many stories about his years as a partisan fighter in the forests of Byelorus. this one he would tell every Purim:

It was getting close to Purim. Boris started remembering his father’s home and how wonderful Purim was every year. They would celebrate Purim in a big way – lots of alcohol, costumes, Purim shpeils, good food, the Megillah reading and so on. He would wake from these memories and daydreams in tears as he realized where he was now and in what circumstances he was now living.

Here in the forest the conditions were rough. It was cold, freezing cold and there was never enough to eat. And how could one risk being drunk at all. You had to have your wits about you so that Ivan wouldn’t put a bullet in the back of your head or stick a knife in your gut, when you were unprepared.

Boris stood there, shaving, thinking about life as it had been in Disna before the war. Then he remembered his Jews, the ones he had discovered hiding in a hole in the ground, once when he was out exploring the forest. He remembered their shrunken, depressed faces,
the rags they were wearing and the stench that came from their hole. A thought broke in on him. He was going to celebrate Purim with them! A real Purim in which they would smile again. He was determined to do it.

So he devised a plan, which he shared only with his brother, Fima, and a couple of other guys from other partisan units. They were going to have a Purim party there in the forest! But how could you celebrate Purim under such conditions? he asked himself. Easy, came the answering thought, a little vodka, a good wash, some good food, a fire and no Ivans, …. that would do the trick.

The planning process went on over a number of days, during which time they collected some of the things they needed – firewood, warm clothes for those Jews in the “malina” (Yiddish for “hiding place”), sweets, a couple of bottlesof vodka. But most important of all was to find someone who could “read” the megillah.

Of course, they had no megillah in the forest, but there were plenty of Jews amongst the partisans, so one of them must be a megillah-reader. As the word went out that a Purim gathering was being planned the excitement rose. The Jews were whispering to each other, the goyim suspected something was going on but noone would tell them anything, of course. The tension was palpable. There were fights.

But despite all the excitement noone came forward to volunteer to recite the megillah from memory. It was, perhaps, too awesome a task. After all, the megillah is famous for its great length and its unusual trope.

One day, coming back to camp after collecting “taxes” at one of the neighbouring villages, Boris had a brainwave. What about the Jews in the malina – those poor hiding scarecrows – perhaps among them there was someone who knew the megillah well enough? That night, after Markov had finally fallen asleep, he sneaked out, carrying his rifle, of course, and rugged up in his fur coat and cap. He headed for the malina, hoping that the Purim redemption would be found there.

As he approached, he heard the voices of people arguing. they were quarrelling over something or other quite heatedly. They often fought in there. He knocked on the hollow tree trunk, knowing that it was actually a disguised chimney. His knocks echoed down the hollow cylinder and suddenly the voices fell silent. After a while he heard a scratching sound and a little window suddenly opened out of the snow. “Who is it? Who is out there at this hour asked a trembling voice in a heavily- accented Russian.

“It’s me, Boris, Beryl Grenimann” came the answer in a good Litvak Yiddish. “Ah, Boris.. Beryl!” came the response and a door opened out of the snow. A thin, withered old hand waved him in.

Boris brought with him the tragic news of the latest liquidations of some more ghettoes in the region. Some of the women wept, others had questions to pry him with. Had anyone escaped? The children just stared their empty, hollow stares. Then silence reigned again.

He brought out the bread he had hidden under his coat and a flask of oil. (Noone asked questions about what kind of oil it was anymore) The food was devoured in minutes. No blessings, no comments, just the sound of desperate eating, loud chewing and sighs. Then, finally, a few words of gratitude came his way – they all knew he risked his life bringing them the little he could. More tears. Silence.

Now it was his turn to ask. “Next week – another five days – it will be Purim. We are looking for someone who knows the megillah well enough to recite it”, he said. ” Is there someone like that here?

They looked at him strangely. “Purim? Purim… what are you talking about?”

The Jews in the malina were from the town of Miyadzel. It was the winter of 1942. Altogether thirty people, mainly women and children were crowded into the one dug-out under that hollow tree. Amongst them were the two daughters of the rebbe and five of their children.

Boris repeated his question: “Is there someone here who can “read” the megillah for us?”

Silence.

A shaky, high-pitched voice came from the dark, crowded corner: “Me. I can do it. I used to read megillah in the main synagogue every year. I know most of it by heart. I can do it. I know I can.”

Everyone turned to see who was speaking. His eyes had become accustomed to the dark and his pupils had expanded, but Boris could barely make out the face in the corner. He picked up the candle which had been extinguished earlier and relit it. In the flickering light he saw a tall blond boy with green eyes and a wisp of a beard on his chin. He was smiling. The thought of celebrating Purim had already put a smile on his face. What a fine young man, thought Boris.

What’s your name, boy?” asked the partisan visitor. “What are you called?”
“Mottel, sir, ” came the answer. My name is Mottel. My grandfather was the rebbe of Miyadzel. He taught me the megillah.”

The boy’s mother then spoke up: “Mottel, are you crazy? These are not normal times. It is dangerous. We will be discovered. They will murder us all, as they have so many already. Who can imagine celebrating Purim this year? Better we just stay hidden here until the troubles end.” she said.

“No, mother” answered the boy. “I will do it. It is a Kiddush Hashem to do it. The rebbe would have wanted it, I’m sure.”

“Alright” responded Boris, “we will be back to discuss details, but for now, Mottel, start practicing. We will try to procure a megillah somehow but if we don’t we rely on your memory. Good night to all of you. Be strong!”

And Boris left.

Days past. They huddled together in their malina. It was bitterly cold. And Mottel sat on his own in the corner reciting what he remembered of the Megillah.Sometimes he asked his mother or sisters if they remembered a word. He fought with them over the candlelight.He wrote down some of what he remembered on scraps of paper that he managed to salvage. It was bitterly cold that winter and he shivered as he struggled to protect those pieces of paper from the ever dwindling little fire.

Boris returned. He asked to speak to Mottel. “Mottel” he said, “tomorrow is Purim. Are you ready?” “Yes, Mottel answered,sadly. “I can manage about half of the Megillah from memory.” “O.k.” came the response, “then we will go ahead with our Purim plan.” He turned to the others in the malina: “Tomorrow, you must all be ready to go just after dark. We have a surprise prepared for you” And then Boris left.

Mottel’s mother, Hava, was worried. She mumbled to herself at night. Her eyes were red from crying. Everyone could read the fear in her face.. Her advice to her son was clear – don’t do it, don’t go. Mottel, of course, was adamant too. He must do it. So he continued to practice.”

Meanwhile, Boris and his friends had completed their preparations. They had chosen a clearing in the forest where a couple of hundred Jews could gather. They had built some sukkah-like structures for shelter around the clearing. In one of those they had placed the firewood. Nearby, dug into the ground, and carefully camouflaged, they had placed the drinks, food and sweets, which they had managed to “organize” from surrounding villages. A couple of partisan guards patrolled near by regularly to keep an eye on things. Stealing was very much part of the partisan way of life. It was a matter of survival.

Boris had met with a peasant in one of the nearby villages. A supporter of the communist underground, he had often in the past been of help. But this time the request was an unusual one. Boris had told him that he wanted to arrange for hot water – baths – for some thirty Jews who were in hiding in the forest nearby and who had not been able to wash for months. Could Ishtvan help him do this? The peasant thought for a while and then said he would help organize this. Boris explained to him that it was a Jewish holy day and that being clean for the occasion was a religious obligation.

The next day, towards evening, Boris came and, accompanied by three of his toughest comrades, collected the Jews to take them to Ishtvan’s farm for a wash, and some new clothes. The Jews were besides themselves with joy at the thought of leaving the malina after so long and the idea that they would be clean in honour of Purim.

They marched through the snowy forest towards the nearby village, accompanied by the four partisans. Mottel and his mother continued to argue about the megillah-reading, while the others nervously hushed them once in a while.

“Mottel, Mottel” she said, “we have lost so much, so many. We are all that remains of the town of Miyadzel. How can you agree to endanger all of us by agreeing to this foolishness?” The last strands of her once brown hair had turned grey over the past couple of weeks and the deep lines across her forehead seemed to have become even deeper.

“Sha!” called out one of the partisans suddenly in Yiddish. “You must all be quiet now. We are approaching the village. There might be Germans here.”

But there were no Germans. In fact, all they met as they walked into the little village were more partisans patrolling the outskirts. “This is a liberated village” said one of them to the newly-arrived guests. “Liberated by night, but still controlled by the Germans during the day. They patrol here every day, but they don’t have the courage to hang out here at night anymore.” His face, lit by the full moon, glowed beautifully. It was gaunt, unshaven and he was not smiling, but his two dark Jewish eyes twinkled at them as they passed him.

And what a scene followed at Ishtvan’s house when they finally arrived. Laughter and cries of delight as one by one all the poor Jews were washed and supplied with new clothes.Boris noticed how thin and white their bodies were, but he said nothing. Everyone was given a little swig of Vodka, too, which really warmed their insides. Ishtvan’s family seemed to enjoy their defiance of the Germans and all were there to lend a hand in one way or another. Mottel noticed how pleased the farmer’s oldest son was as he kept emptying and refilling the two little tubs with hot water. It was he who offered the vodka around afterwards. His powerful, muscular arms turned gentle as he handed Mottel a little Vodka to drink. He looked at him directly, his eyes smiling. “Peter”, he said’ pointing to himself, offering him his ruddy and rough hand in a friendly gesture. “Mottel” came the reply, as he shook his hand. Mottle managed a smile, then turned his attention to the vodka in his other hand, which he finshed greedily, after making the appropriate blessing..

When it came time to go Peter escorted them to the edge of the forest. Mottel walked silently beside him. Mottel wondered what had led this goy to be so helpful and friendly to them. Would he have taken such a risk to help him, if the situation was reversed? He doubted they would ever meet again, but he felt he would like to, that he would like somehow to repay him his kindness. They waved as the little group of Jews and their partisan escorts reentered the forest.

The march back into the forest was much more relaxed than the walk there. Everyone was smiling. Even Hava, Mottel’s mother. No more arguments were heard. Someone started up a Yiddish liddle (song), other joined in , only to be silenced by their partisan escorts, who warned them not to make so much noise.

They approached the clearing in the forest, where a campfire burnt brightly and men, and a few women, dressed in old fur coats, some wrapped in blankets, sat huddled around the fire trying to warm themselves. They were singing Yiddish songs and talking quietly.

But the megillah reading with the partisans was not to be. A tall, mustached partisan (obviously an officer) came riding up on a horse and glowered at them. “That’s Colonel Markov” someone whispered. He ordered them to disperse immediately before they would attract German attention. Noone argued with him. Within minutes the fire was put out and the partisans dissappeared, as if into thin air.

The Miyadzel Jews made there way to their old hiding place, the malina. No one spoke, but the disappointment coud be felt in the air and could be seen in all the sad eyes around the little room. Then Mottel spoke up. His posture and the flash in his eyes spoke determination. “It is Purim, friends” he reminded them. “It’s a mitzva to hear the Megillah. Let me recite it to you.” They agreed, and he started to tell the old story of Esther and Haman, Mordechai and Achashvarosh, as Jews had done for so long in so many places. A knock on the chimney was heard. Silence. fear. They opened the window to find Boris and his brother, Fima, standing there. “We have come to hear the Megillah” they explained smiling.

A few days later Boris came by with food again – what they had brought “home” from the Purim party was already gone, though the good memories of the peasant’s home lingered on. He brought very sad news. Apparently the Germans turned up at Ishtvan’s house the next morning. Someone had informed on him that he was cooperating with the partisans. His eldest son, Peter, had been led out in front of the house and shot before the eyes of his onlooking family. Stunned, Mottel turned to his mother and sad sadly, tears in his eyes: “Mother, you were right, we should have stayed here.”

Purim, 1942. The Naroch forest, Byelorussia.

P.S. My father would tell me this story every year around Purim time, his eyes filled with mischief and pride as he remembered their daring and how they had outwitted the Germans. Only the bitter ending, telling me of Peter’s execution the next morning, was left out all those years. When I told him I was planning to write down some of his partisan stories to share with others and mentioned the Purim wash story, in particular, there was a long pause on the phone. He then added the terrible postscript. The sting and shock of that small addition cut my soul like a knife. What had always been an innocent fairy story, an anecdote about Jewish resistance during the war was wrenched out of my insides and reconnected with the horror which I knew the Nazi times had been.

Summer, 2002, Jerusalem.

Jon Green (Yehiel Grenimann)

Purim with the Partisans in Naroch Forest

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