Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
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Einsatzgruppen Operational Situational Reports
[ OSR's #8 - #195 ]
On the evening of 14 August 1942, the first day of the Hebrew month of Ellul, a Friday, the SS surrounded the ghetto in the village of Zagrodski, near Pinsk in Belarus (Belorussia), home to five hundred Jewish families. “The commotion and noise on that night”, recalled Rivka Yosselevska, “was not customary, and we felt something in the air.”
On Saturday morning 15 August 1942, the Germans entered the ghetto, ordering the Jews to leave their houses for a roll call. All day, the Jews were kept standing, waiting. Towards sunrise, the children screamed, demanding food and water. But the Germans would allow no one back into their homes.
That evening a truck arrived at the ghetto gates. The Jews were ordered on to it, and drove out of the ghetto. Those for whom there had been no room on the truck were ordered to run after it. “I had my daughter in my arms”, Rivka Yosselevska recalled, “and ran after the truck. There were mothers who had two or three children and held them in their arms – running after the truck. We ran all the way. There were those who fell – we were not allowed to help them rise. They were shot – right there – wherever they fell.”
On reaching the destination, Rivka Yosselevska saw that the people from the truck had already been taken off, and were undressed, “all lined up.” It was some three kilometres from the village, by “a kind of hillock”. At the foot of the hillock was a ditch. The Jews were ordered to stand on the hillock, where four SS men stood “armed to the teeth.”
“We saw naked people lined up”, Rivka Yosselevska recalled, “and we hoped this was only torture. Maybe there is hope – hope of living.”
Her account continued:
“One could not leave the line, but I wished to see – what are they doing on the hillock? I turned my head and saw that some three or four rows were already killed – on the ground.
There were some twelve people amongst the dead. I also want to mention that my child said while we were lined up in the ghetto, she said `Mother, why did you make me wear the Shabbat dress, we are being taken to be shot’-; and when we stood near the dug-out, near the grave, she said, `Mother, why are we waiting, let us run!’
Some of the young people tried to run, but they were caught immediately, and they were shot right there. It was difficult to hold onto the children. We took all children, not ours, and we carried – we were anxious to get it all over- the suffering of the children was difficult- we all trudged along to come nearer to the place and to come nearer to the end of the torture of the children. The children were taking leave of their parents and parents of their elder people.
We were driven; we were already undressed; the clothes were removed and taken away; our father did not want to undress; he wanted to keep his underclothes on. He did not want to stand naked. Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. And then they took my mother, and she said, let us go before her, but they caught my mother and shot her too; and then there was my grandmother, my father’s mother, standing there; she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms. And then there was my father’s sister. She also had children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms.
And finally my turn came. There was my younger sister, and she wanted to leave, she pleaded with the German; she asked to run, naked- she went up to the Germans with one of her friends; they were embracing each other; and she asked to be spared, standing there naked. He looked into her eyes and shot the two of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls, my sister and her young friend. Then my second sister was shot and then my turn came.
We turned towards the grave and then he turned around and asked, `Whom shall I shoot first?’ We were already facing the grave. The German asked, `Whom do you want me to shoot first?’ I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First he held onto my hair and turned my head around; I stayed standing; I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me, ordered me to watch, and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies – but I felt nothing.
The moment I did feel I felt a sort of heaviness and then I thought may be I am not alive anymore, but I feel something after I died. I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling which comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking; people falling over me. I tried to move and felt that I was alive and that I could rise. I was strangling. I heard the shots and I was praying for another bullet to put an end to my suffering, but I continued to move about.
I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself, to find some air to breathe, and then I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose, and I felt bodies pulling at with me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet with my last strength I came up on top of the grave, and when I did I did not know the place, so many bodies were lying all over, dead people; I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible. They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying, `Mother, Father’; I could not stand on my feet.
The Germans had gone. There was nobody there, no one standing up. “I was naked, covered with blood, dirty from other bodies, with the excrement from other bodies which was poured on me.” Riivka Yosselevska had been wounded in the head, but she managed to crawl out of the grave, then she recalled;
“I was searching among the dead for my little girl and I cried for her – Merkele was her name – Merkele! There were children crying `Mother! Father!’ – but they were all smeared with blood and one could not recognise the children. I cried for my daughter. From afar I saw two women standing. I went up to them. They did not know me, I did not know them, and then I said who I was, and then they said, `So you survived’. And then there was another woman crying, `Pull me out from amongst the corpses, I am still alive, help!’ We were thinking how could we escape from the place. The cries of the woman, `Help, pull me out from the corpses!’ We pulled her out – her name was Mikla Rosenberg. We removed the corpses and the dying people who held onto her and continued to bite. She asked us to take her out, to free her, but we did not have the strength.
And thus we were there all night, fighting for our lives, listening to the cries and the screams and all of a sudden we saw Germans, mounted Germans. We did not notice them coming in because of the screaming and the shouting from the bodies around us.
The Germans ordered that all the corpses be heaped together into one big heap and with shovels they were heaped together, all the corpses, amongst them many still alive, children running about the place. I saw them. I saw the children. They were running after me, hanging on to me. Then I sat down in the field and remained sitting with the children around me. The children who got up from the heap of corpses.
The Germans came and were going around the place. We were ordered to collect all the children, but they did not approach me, and I sat there watching how they collected the children. They gave a few shots and the children were dead. They did not need many shots. The children were almost dead, and this Rosenberg woman pleaded with the Germans to be spared, but they shot her.
They all left – the Germans and the non-Jews from around the place. They removed the machine guns and they took the trucks. I saw that they all left and the four of us, we went on to the grave, praying to fall into the grave, even alive, envying those who were dead already and thinking what to do now. I was praying for death to come. I was praying for the grave to be opened and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places, like a well of water, and whenever I pass a spring now, I remember the blood which spurted from the ground, from that grave.
I was digging with my fingernails, trying to join the dead in that grave. I dug with my fingernails, but the grave would not open. I did not have enough strength. I cried out to my mother, to my father – `Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to. I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?’
And I remained there - stretched out on the grave, three days and three nights.
I saw no one, I heard no one. Not a farmer passed by. After three days, shepherds drove their herd on to the field, and they began throwing stones at me, but I did not move. At night, the herds were taken back and during the day they threw stones believing that either it was a dead woman or a mad woman. They wanted me to rise, to answer. But I did not move. The shepherds were throwing stones at me until I had to leave the place.
A farmer took pity on Rivka Yosselevska, hid her and fed her. Later, he helped her join a group of Jews hiding in the forest. There she survived until the Soviet army came in the summer of 1944.
Nineteen years after her escape from the execution pit she told her story at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986
The Eichmann Trial Transcripts
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