Couriers in the Ghetto of Minsk
By Jacob Greenstein
Among the couriers who led people out of the ghetto, three children distinguished themselves. They were Sima, Banko and David. Three times a week they took groups of Jews to the forests of Staroje-Sielo, covering a distance of fifty kilometers both ways. Despite their age, they were fully aware of the nature of their mission and of the dangers involved.
The three children were our main contact with the forest. They came to the ghetto armed, their pistols always loaded, determined not to fall into the hands of the Germans alive. They were at ease and showed no signs of fear though they were constantly exposed to death. They carried out the orders of our general staff with strict discipline.
Sima was a twelve-year-old girl with blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimples that showed when she talked. Her parents perished in the first German pogrom. In the beginning Sima lived outside the ghetto and carried our important assignments for the underground party committee. Later, when we began to lead Jews out of the ghetto, Smolar brought the little girl to the ghetto and she became our contact with the forest.
No assignment was too difficult for Sima. Before going out on a mission, she listened carefully to the given instructions, then she would repeat what she was told, trying hard not to miss a single word. Her small pistol was always in the special pocket sewn into her coat. Before starting out, she would always point to it and say: "Don't worry, the Fritzes will not take me alive".
On cold winter nights, Sima would sneak out of the ghetto through an opening beneath the barbed wire fence. She returned to the ghetto through the cemetery. There were times when she did not succeed in getting into the ghetto at night. When this happened, she would spend the night, hungry and cold, in some bombed-out building, and remain there throughout the next day. At dusk, when the Jews returned from work, she would stealthily join their column, and together with them, enter the ghetto. After the liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto, Sima participated in the combat operations of the partisan detachment.
In the summer of 1944, when the Germans were driven out, Sima marched in the front lines, together with other decorated partisans in the large partisans` parade in Minsk. From her youthful chest shone a silver medal, first-rank Partisan of the Fatherland war.
Banko and David were two thirteen-year-old boys, who had been schoolmates and had lived on the same street. Their fathers were also friends. The boys went together to Pioneer camps. Together they hid out during the German pogroms and worked at loading coal into the freight cars at Tovarne station and together they escaped to the forest.
They wandered for weeks through the forest and villages until they came upon group partisans called the "Stalincy". There they found Smolar, Feldman, Zorin and other Jews of Minsk.
When Feldman called Banko into staff headquarters and ordered him to get ready to go to the Minsk Ghetto and bring out some Jews, Banko said: "I am ready to carry out your every command on one condition - that David go with me". His request was granted.
Banko's mother was still in the ghetto. All the other members of his family had perished in the German pogroms. His mother knew of Banko's activities and the dangers he was facing. But she was proud of him. Whenever Banko came for more people, he visited his mother. She would put him to bed and sit near him for hours, watching him as he slept. When he awoke, he would relate to her in whispers, how the partisans were fighting the enemy; how they were blowing up troop trains and killing Germans.
"And when will you take me along to the forest?" his mother asked.
"I spoke to the Commander and he said the next time I'm in the ghetto, I'll be able to take you along. I'd like you to be in my detachment and not in a family camp. Ours is a combat detachment; you'll have to stand guard and hold a rifle, but we'll be together. In a detachment, in a dugout, it is good to have a mother".
Banko was a small, skinny boy, who looked ten years old. The ghetto experiences had left deep marks on his elongated, youthful face. David was taller and also older-looking than Banko. But it was Banko who was in charge of their activities, and David was his companion.
David was an orphan; his entire family was killed. He was the sole survivor. His only friend was Banko. David carried out his work quietly and scrupulously, not overlooking a single detail. But he had one weakness - he did not like to remain long in the ghetto. He would become nervous and hurry Banko on by saying: "We've already been too long in the ghetto. So many Jews are waiting for us to take them out. Time is short".
Their mission was to bring combat-fir young men and women and weapons from the ghetto to the partisan detachment Parchomenko.
When Banko had gathered the people and supplies, the underground set the departure hour and selected to lookouts to guard the exists. Then Banko gave the final instructions. He addressed the people like a commander speaking to soldiers:
In two hours we will be leaving the ghetto. From that moment on you are partisans, until I deliver you into the hands of the partisan Chief of Staff, you must obey my every command. The order of the journey is as follows: I go first and you follow behind me in single file, according to the numbers I gave you. If we should run into a German patrol, there is no way back because it would endanger the Jews in the ghetto. If the situation becomes critical, we resist. Those who received grenades will throw them at the Germans; and those who have pistols will pen fire on them. Retreat is possible only in the direction of Staroje-Sielo. The Germans will not pursue us very far, because they are afraid of the night. Under no conditions must you abandon the knapsacks, which you carry on your backs. Anyone who creates a panic or refuses to obey my command will be shot without warning! I hope that all will go well and that in a few hours from now, you will be free people without yellow badges.
At the precise moment past midnight the two boys led the Jews out of the ghetto. As always Banko was at the head of the line, his loaded pistol in his pocket. The others followed after him. David was last. All along the way to the wide fence, our people were standing guard, including some members of the Jewish ghetto police, who were cooperating with the underground. The people moved quietly, holding their breath, thinking of the instructions Banko had given them.
For months these children engaged in such operations, leading out hundreds of Jews - among them practically all the doctors - and covering hundreds of kilometers. Later, they participated in actual combat operations, together with the others.
Here, in the natural surrounding of the forest, the children caught up on their physical growth, which the ghetto had stunted. Banko grew tall and many-looking and David surpassed him by growing a head taller. They had many friends in the Parchomenko and Dudiony detachments, which they regarded as their own; and hundreds in the Zorin's family detachment where Banko's mother was. He could not persuade the commander to let his mother be with him. A combat detachment had to be combat-ready at all times, and Banko's mother had suffered too much hunger and illness in the ghetto to be able to keep up with the young partisans.
On August 15, 1943, the Germans surrounded our forest with the aim of annihilating the partisans. The Germans threw two divisions of the regular military into this operation, plus some Vlassov men and Lithuanians. A few days before the blockade, they burned down the farms in the forest area. Because the peasants of these farms had maintained friendly relations with the partisans, the Germans had herded them all into one house and burned them alive.
The German attack lasted fifteen days; it was prepared and carried out like a full-scale front-line operation. There were bombardments from the air; heavy and light artillery were fired without letup; mine sappers cleared the way where the military had to pass, and the Germans went into attack in three waves. Every bush, every tree, was shot at.
During the first days of the attack, we offered resistance. We mined the roads, dug trenches, and engaged the Germans in minor battles. The Parchomenko detachment had mined the main Ivenic-Bakszt highway, and the first truck, carrying more than thirty Germans, was blown up as soon as it entered the forest. They were all blown to pieces together with their vehicle.
After several days, our resistance collapsed. We could not hold out against a regular army. From headquarters came the command that we scatter in small groups and wait out the blockade. On September 15, the Germans abandoned the forest. At the time of the German attack, several hundred partisans perished, among them between fifty and sixty Jews.
The Parchomenko detachment suffered the heaviest losses. Twenty-two men, twelve of whom were Jews, were hiding out in a cave close to the base. They were discovered because of a child in their midst and all suffered martyrs' deaths. We found them burned, some only in part, their arms pulled back and tied with barbed wire. According to all evidence, they had been burned alive. We found no bullet holes on their bodies. Among the burned as Banko. His body was half-burned, his eyes open as though petrified. I untied his arms, but could not straighten them out. With clenched fists and anguished hearts, we swore to take revenge on their murderers. David stood at Banko's open grave and cried bitterly.
The entire detachment cried with him.