Holocaust Survival Tale: Abraham

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 03.30.17
  • NOVA

Schlomo Gol was a member of the Partisans in Lithuania, a resistance movement during World War II. He was caught and forced to become part of the burning brigade—the group of 80 Jewish prisoners who exhumed and burned the bodies of Jews who had been murdered in the Ponar forest. Realizing he and the others would be killed next, Schlomo Gol helped lead the digging of an escape tunnel. Here is his story told by his son, Abraham Gol.

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Running Time: 07:22

Transcript

Abraham Gol: My father's mission, or the mission of the Partisans, was obviously to save as many Jews as possible that were at the Vilna Ghetto at the time. I can't remember the total numbers that were there at one time or another, but their purpose was to get into the ghetto, try to convince the Jews to try to escape from there.

He was caught with a couple of other friends and he was taken to the prison in Vilna. And they were trying to, they didn't know where they gonna wind up. As it turned out, they were… since they were at that time in their 20's and 30's, they seemed to be very able-bodied and the Germans decided they would use them for work, and that work was being the burning brigade, or the startup of the burning brigade in Ponar.

The purpose of the burning brigade was to get rid of the evidence—the Germans forced them to do—of burning the bodies of all the Jews that the Germans had killed during WWII.  Most of them came from Vilna and at that time also the Vilna Ghetto. Their purpose was to burn, get rid of the evidence, if they find any valuables to turn it over to the Germans.

The German commandant told them this is where you're gonna live. They were given a ladder to go up and down out of the bunker, and then at night obviously, they removed the ladder, and you know they couldn't crawl out of 6 meters of depth. So that was… but as they were living there, my father told his friends that there's no way we're gonna make it alive out of here, because by the time we're done doing their bidding, which would be burning the bodies, is we'll be next. They'll kill us, and that's going to be it. We gotta find a way to get out of here. And the only way for them to get out was to dig some kind of a tunnel under the ground and try to escape into… and dig the tunnel in the direction away from the Germans where they could possibly escape through.

My father did take a very major part in digging the tunnel. He had talked to the Germans on behalf of the group, saying that they really wanted to set up their living quarters in a way that would be more livable for them. He had asked the Germans for some lumber to try to make it a little bit more livable. And one of the things that as they decided to dig the tunnel, one of the things that they had gotten out of getting the lumber—they were able to build walls along the walls of the bunker. Leave enough of a separation between the lumber and the walls of the bunker to dump the dirt that they would bring out of the tunnel, in the process of digging the tunnel.

It did feel very claustrophobic. He said there were two of them at the time that, not digging side by side, but one would dig and another one would ferry the dirt back into the bunker. And they would use anything that they could get their hands on. They had some kitchen utensils, he said that they were using, I don't know if there were spoons, or knives, whatever.

They did go back in, told everybody that they succeeded in digging through. He said the euphoria among the people in the bunker was just—they had to control some of them cause they were really getting noisy and they were afraid the Germans would realize something is wrong, why these people so happy all of a sudden. So they did manage to control them. They managed to be able to divide into groups that could get out and as they get out be useful. My father may have been in the first group. They travelled at night. The second night they were able to get away far enough and then they found the Russian partisans.

Whatever Jewish life there was in Vilna before the war was completely gone. He had mentioned to me that were over a hundred and twenty some thousand Jews that lived in the Vilna area before the war. And he said when they had on the High Holidays the great synagogue of Vilna, that people would be standing outside, you know, circling the whole synagogue and standing outside. And, you know, and praying in unison. He said it was some sight to behold. My father felt that it was completely lost. He said the Germans seemed to destroy it completely.

My father's leadership position at the time was, you know, very revealing to me at the time, considering how withdrawn he became afterwards, after the war. So it just, when you put two and two together, it's just one of those things that the atrocities of war can take somebody and just knock them down that far.

I remember when my father and the few friends that he had that escaped with him. After the war, I remember when I was a child, they would meet on the last day of Passover at somebody's house. Sometimes it was ours, sometimes it was you know, Yosele Belets’ house, or Motele Zaidel’s, and they would sit there. And I remember I wasn't allowed at first to be in the room with them. But they'd sit there through all hours of the night going over and talking what they had gone through. And they would sit there with bottles of vodka, drinking shots and I think probably the more maybe that they drank, the more they were able to express their feelings. And you sit there and you take all that in, and you wonder what, you know how did they even, after what they had gone through, how could they even think that there would be some kind of normalcy left for them to live through for the rest of their lives?

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Director of Photography
Daniel Lyons, Ezra Wolfinger, Tom Phillips
Sound
Pete Nenortas, Oleg Kaizerman, Chris Preston
Digital Editor
Ari Daniel
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

MEDIA CREDITS

Archival Photographs
NARA
Yad Vashem
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Kadish/Zvi Kadushin

POSTER IMAGE

(main image: Abraham Gol interview shot)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

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