Evacuation and Escape

Leningrad Blockade

Smilovitsky Lev


Born in Rechytsa, Belarus, in 1925, Dr. Smilovitsky held a PhD in History and worked in Minsk. He immigrated to Israel in 1992. He lived in Elkana (Samaria) and was buried there in 1997. He left a son, a daughter, four grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.


Rechytsa is located deep in Southern Belarus, hundreds of miles from the border, so when the war started on June 22, 1941, no one believed that it could be occupied.[1] There was no sense of danger; on the contrary, we were expecting any day to hear that the Germans had been defeated and driven back across the border. Official radio broadcasts supported the illusion. However, the frontline was coming closer and closer, and we soon learned that Minsk had been taken. Refugees from Western Belarus began to pass through Rechytsa, and they talked about the terrible atrocities that the Nazis were committing. Everywhere, the Germans killed the Soviet activists, communists, and Jews first. Aware of this danger, some of our local Communist and Government leaders took the unprecedented initiative – without waiting for orders from above to do so — of encouraging Jews to leave town. It is known, for instance, that Sarah Rabinowitz, chairwoman of the City Union of Education Workers, went door to door, persuading, urging, warning that the Germans would shoot Jews first. The word “genocide” was not yet known but people did say that the Germans did not spare Jews.

But there were also other points of view. Across from our house lived one Gurevich who had been a businessman during the short-lived Soviet experiment in pro-business New Economic Policy. He had been ruined by the Soviet regime and openly hated it. He was an educated person, and people listened to him. Gurevich argued that the Germans were a civilized people; he recalled 1918, when the Germans had even defended the Jews of Polesia from the bands of Bułak-Bałachowicz.[2]

That summer, panic broke out in Rechytsa three times. Rumors would spread that the frontline had been breached, the Germans were close and it was time to flee … People grabbed what they could and fled to Loyev as best they could: on a barge, in horse carts, by rail, on foot. Our relatives, the Kaganovich family (comprised of the father, mother, eldest daughter with two children aged one year and eight months, and youngest daughter with a five-month-old baby) took a barge to Dniepropetrovsk, a twelve-day journey. Suddenly German bombers swooped down. The shockwave caused the barge to capsize but the Kaganoviches miraculously survived. In Dniepropetrovsk they were met by their relatives, who took them in. One of the Kaganovich daughters had a document that said that her husband was in the frontline forces, and the local military commander used it as a basis to issue a temporary refugee certificate for the whole family and a permit for further evacuation. The family continued their journey by rail, in cars used to transport cement. Ten days later they arrived in the Kurgan region. They were the only Jewish family at the collective farm “October.” Tatyana Kaganovich was elected secretary of the local Komsomol (Communist youth) organization and became a fundraiser for the Defense Fund. Their landlady said that the locals had tried to scare them by telling them that the Jews were coming, and then concluded: “But you are better people than we are!”

My father, Mottel-Boruch, was a carter and therefore owned a horse. He used to be part of a horse drawn cab cooperative, transporting passengers, but the Government taxed these cooperatives out of existence, and he switched over to transporting cargo (sand, logs, and other heavy loads), which was still allowed.

Mama Lisa said we must go, and that was all there was to it! She was a strong personality. My father was against it, loath to throw away everything they had acquired by so much hard work. But my mother said, “Fine, you can stay, but I am taking the children and leaving. We will walk.” And he relented.

I was 16 years old, the age of love. I remember I was very fond of our neighbor Lyalya Zhezhenko, an excellent student. Lyalya knew German, and she had relatives in one of the Baltic republics. Her parents had fallen victim to Stalinist repressions, and she was brought up by relatives. It was puppy love that I was too embarrassed to mention. When we were leaving for Loyev, we took the main street, named the Soviet street. Dad held the reins, and the rest of us walked next to our cart. And there was Lyalya, walking down the other side of the street. She stopped and watched us leave … I felt ashamed.

In Loyev, all was quiet, and we packed up and went back. I wanted so badly to go back to Rechytsa that I went ahead of my parents with one of our relatives. For the first time in my life, I walked 60 km! My legs were killing me, my back felt as though it was about to break, even though I was not carrying any luggage.

I came home, opened the door — and saw our kitten. We had forgotten to take him, and he had starved to death. The little kitten’s corpse lay next to his empty bowl. I felt terrible …

Time went on, and the Germans did eventually break through and reached Parichi. It was the first time that I saw our soldiers and officers who had came out of a German encirclement. These were not neat and clean but dirty, ragged, exhausted people with blond beards. Why, how could this happen to our supposedly invincible army? I can still see them in my mind’s eye, so deeply is it etched in my memory. We gave one of them food and water, and he went on.

Then panic broke out again, and this time there was no doubt that the Germans would enter Rechytsa. My mother categorically insisted that we evacuate. I refused to go, since my school friend, Isaac Babitsky, and I wanted to join the home guard (istrebitelnye) fighter battalions[3] and then to go to the frontlines. We wanted to be where the action was! But my mother was implacable: “If you won’t go, we will all stay, and the blood of the whole family will be on your head! Yours alone!” I remember the exact date: it was August 16, 1941. Filial sentiments prevailed, and I bowed to my parents’ will.

Grandmother Basya, my father’s mother, did not go. She was old, over 70, and we left her to guard the house, thinking that the Germans would not touch her. No one thought then that we were parting forever.

We took only the bare necessities, nothing extra. For example, we took a fur-lined coat, and it lasted us through the entire evacuation. My mother had purchased the coat in a torgsin (foreign currency) shop. That was when the authorities were collecting gold, and she had brought in her gold wedding ring and a gold watch and received two bags of flour and this fur coat. When we returned home after the evacuation, Mother sold the coat and bought a cow.

The Gomel region was the last part of Belarus to be occupied, and many enterprises in the city were able to evacuate. Our train, which carried a plywood factory, was the last to leave Rechytsa.

We passed through Gomel; the city lay in ruins. On the way, we were constantly bombed. Every five or six kilometers, the driver would stop the train. Everyone would run out and drop to the ground. Airplanes would come and drop their bombs. Then the survivors would gather, and the train would start moving, until it stopped again. The train engineer was the first to run, followed by everyone else. The bombs made this awful whistling sound as they fell. A terrible, soul-chilling effect, worse than any artillery shell. We learned later that the Germans deliberately equipped their bombs with special tail fins, to achieve this psychological effect.

We traveled towards the Ukraine, in the direction of Bakhmach and Chernigov. Then the train was re-routed; it now went through Moscow toward Penza, and there we were unloaded at the Sura station (named after the local river) and all the refugees were billeted with local families. We were assigned to a railroad worker’s family that lived right across the street from the station. Father found a job as a loader, and I went to school, to ninth grade. The students were sent out to the fields to glean ears of wheat left over from harvesting.

A lot of trains passed through the Sura station on the way from Moscow to Kuybyshev, since that was where the government and the main state institutions had been evacuated, including the State Security Ministries – the NKVD and NKGB. This was in October 1941, when the Germans were right outside Moscow. I was struck by this: here you had boys fighting in the home guard battalions, signing up as volunteers in the Red Army, while colonels were having themselves evacuated: what was the meaning of this? My heart was very troubled. The trains were passing through, one after another.

In winter of 1942 I saw the evacuees from Leningrad who had been smuggled out over the ice of Lake Ladoga. These were people who had reached the limit of human endurance. There were girls of 18-20 who looked like old women … They had lost all sense of natural modesty and urinated right on the station platform.

There was little food in Sura, and we moved to Bashkiria (today’s Bashkortostan). We rode in a boxcar with some soldiers. Their commander, named Kalinin, was from Belarus, and when he learned that we were fellow countrymen, he took us into their car. We arrived at the Tuymazy station, 60-70 km from Ufa. This area, known as the “second Baku,” was where the strategically important Bashkir oil deposits were being developed. So a workforce was sorely needed, and we were well received.

My friend Isaac Babitsky’s family came to Tuymazy, and the two of us again decided to volunteer for the front. Our parents tried to talk us out of it: we had just turned seventeen, we were too young to leave home, and especially to go into that slaughterhouse! But we persisted: we were going to fight and that was all there was to it.

Our parents went to see us off at the station. The train did not make a full stop there, it merely slowed down enough to let people board while it was moving. The crowd rushed towards the door, climbing over one another. We squeezed into the train, the train started off, and only then did I realize that I had not even said goodbye to my parents. I never saw them during the war. I kept seeing that moment of boarding …

The Jews of Rechytsa who, for various reasons, did not leave town were killed by the Nazis and their accomplices in November 1941. They pushed Grandmoter Basya Smilovitsky, alive, down into the cellar of her house and then watched her die for several days. They harnessed Yudka Smilovitsky (Mottel-Boruch’s brother) to a sledge (not even a cart), in place of a horse, and ordered his wife, Chaya, to lash her husband with a whip. When she refused, they shot Yudka in front of the family and sent Chaya to prison. The next day, their five-year-old son, Lyova, tried to pass a bundle with food to his mother through the fence and was shot by the guards.

Recorded by Lev Smilovitsky’s son, Leonid Smilovitsky.


[1] A town​ in Gomel region, BSSR (now Belarus). 7,337 Jews lived in Rechytsa in 1939. Most of the Jews managed to escape during the evacuation, leaving approximately 1,300 Jews when the town was occupied on August 23, 1941. That entire remaining Jewish population was destroyed in a series of executions in 1941.

[2] Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz (1883-1940), a Belorussian-Polish general. Fought in the First World War. In 1918 he joined the Red Army and formed the first mounted partisan regiment of Luga. In early November, 1918 he crossed over to the White side in the Pskov region. In 1919 he commanded a regiment in the North West corps part of the army of General Nikolai Yudenich. In August 1919, Bułak-Bałachowicz was dishonorably discharged from the Army for numerous robberies and executions without trial committed by his units. In 1920 he formed the “People’s Volunteer Army”, which was formally subordinated to the Russian Political Committee of B. Savinkov. Bułak-Bałachowicz’s squads cooperated with the Polish troops and carried out massacres of Jews in Belarus. After the signing of the peace treaty between the Russian Federation and Poland in August 1920, the Army of Bułak-Bałachowicz, along with other forces of the Russian Political Committee, launched an offensive in the Mazyr region, during which mass murders of the Jewish population were carried out. The story reported by the author about the actions of the German forces against Bulak-Balachowicz in 1918 in Polesia is fictional.

[3] Paramilitary volunteer formations created by the local Soviet and Communist Party organizations in an attempt to deal with German saboteurs and paratroopers during World War II. By the end of July 1941, 1,755 fighter battalions were formed, mainly on the front line, numbering over 328,000 people.