The Youngest Partisan
A young boy who fought the Nazis
By A. Romi Cohen & Dr. Leonard Ciaccio
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Joining the partisans would not be easy. If it was dangerous to hide in Pressburg, it was much more perilous to try to leave it. To hide in the city, one had to avoid the Nazis at all costs. To leave the city, one had to place himself in the hands of the Nazis at numerous checkpoints. It was not a matter of simply getting on a train and leaving. You could only buy a train ticket if you had a travel pass. This rule applied to everyone: to travel outside the city limits required a stamped travel permit, and only the Gestapo issued these permits. Every exit route was guarded and you had to show papers -- travel permits or travel orders -- to pass through these checkpoints. If you had no permit, you were taken back to the Gestapo station for further questioning. In my case, the Gestapo had my picture and they were looking for me. They would identify me immediately, without having to ask a single question.
Fortunately, I had already formulated a plan to leave the city and join the partisans. One key element of the plan was to have a partisan unit to join. My efforts during the preceding months, had enabled me to discover a number of people who were involved in the underground resistance in Pressburg. These people could connect me with the partisans. Once I made my intentions known to the underground, it was only two or three days until I was handed a piece of paper that would be my admission to the partisans. It told me to go to the town of Svetkrisenteronim and travel across the Hron River to a little village called Dornosdena. Once in this village, I would be contacted.
The other crucial element of my plan was to have a way to travel safely. To join the partisans I had to get to the mountains. Therefore, I had taken the precaution of procuring a stamped Gestapo travel order and a travel permit while I could still employ the services of the janitor at the Gestapo offices.
I would never have escaped the city or been able to purchase a train ticket without these permits. The permit would allow me to leave, but it would not allow me to approach the frontier where checkpoints marked the edge of the territory that the Germans controlled. No one passed these checkpoints unless he had a specific travel order. Since the Gestapo had issued my travel order, no one would dare question it. The travel order specifically directed me to go to Svetkrisenteronim, a town next to an area that was known to be in the hands of the partisans.
By this time, the Slovak army, which had joined the revolt earlier, had been defeated and the Nazis had captured most of the soldiers. Some soldiers escaped the Germans and fled to the mountains. Once there, they joined the partisans. The surviving hard-core partisans were holding out in the mountains and were fighting the Nazis. For the most part they were fighting for their survival, but we often heard reports that they had managed to inflict significant damage on the Germans on a hit-and-run basis. I was proud that I was now a young man who was going to be a partisan; I was going to stand side by side with real soldiers to defend myself and my people from the Germans. The thought that I would be able to fight back, that I could kill the Nazis, that I could help stop the Nazi monster, was exhilarating. Visions of valor and heroism filled my naive imagination. I was anxious to get to the partisans and begin my new life as a warrior. Even with all I had seen and experienced, I was still very young and had much to learn about life and war.
When the time came for me to leave, I became increasingly nervous. I understood that, as a partisan, I would be in mortal danger every second. At any instant, a shrill command or an outstretched arm could end my freedom. With no warning, a bullet could end my life.
As I approached the train station’s platform, where there should have been hundreds of civilians, I could see only military uniforms. There were mostly regular army uniforms intermixed with uniforms bearing the hated SS insignia. Each soldier carried a gun of one type or another slung over his shoulder and a pack on his back. Military personnel were milling around awaiting transportation to somewhere in the war. By the time I was actually on the platform, I could see that some of the soldiers were standing guard, spaced every three or four meters with their weapons at the ready. Most of those on guard were the SS troopers. As I walked past those soldiers, I was aware of the presence of the most hated of all, the Gestapo. It is impossible, and it would in fact be a lie, to refer to them as men or as people. They were predators and it was possible to pick them out of the crowd, simply by the way they moved and the way they glared at people. As I moved past a Gestapo agent, his eyes followed me, checking every detail, looking for a reason to kill me. It was more than a look of hatred. It was a look that conveyed an intense desire to destroy me. I knew that if he detected one detail that raised any suspicion, he would pounce on me like a hungry cat on a wounded bird.
With all these terrifying visions assaulting my imagination, I walked the entire length of the platform, through all those soldiers, to the ticket window. One slip and I was a dead man. At the window, using all my will to control my panic, I presented my permit and requested a ticket to Svetkrisenteronim. I tried to appear calm even though I was so nervous my legs trembled exceedingly. I expected the ticket agent to yell for the Gestapo and I was ready to run, though, where one Jewish boy surrounded by hundreds of armed Nazis could run, I had no idea.
To my surprise and relief, the ticket agent looked at my permit, pushed a ticket toward me and asked for payment. I handed him the money and asked when the next train would leave. I only had to wait 10 minutes, but it seemed like hours. I had to wait without raising suspicion, without provoking the SS guards or the Gestapo. Within a minute a Gestapo agent stepped in front of me demanding my papers. My heart was pounding so loudly, I was sure he could hear it. It took all of my courage and self-control to stand calmly and hand over my travel order as if I had nothing to fear. This moment was a nightmare; by a supreme act of will I was frozen in a posture of external composure while every nerve and muscle was screaming for me to run. It seemed to take forever, but I am sure only a few seconds passed as he carefully read my travel order. As he began to raise his eyes, eyes that I knew were those of the angel of death, his right hand came up in a salute of exaggerated respect. He handed me my documents and as he pointed in the direction of the train I was to take, he wished me a good day.
I walked toward the train and was stopped again by another Gestapo officer, with exactly the same results. Nazis were saluting me. The Gestapo was guarding every door to the train. As I attempted to board, I was stopped again, and once more my papers were returned with a respectful salute. Though I was being given such honor, I could not dispel the terror of looking into the Gestapo agent’s eyes while he inspected my papers.
Once on the train, I realized that I was the only civilian on it. Now I was literally in the lions’ den, one lamb among hundreds of ravenous lions. As the train moved through the countryside, soldiers got on and off and the Gestapo conducted periodic inspections of my documents. And though each ended in similar fashion, I felt as if I was in grave danger with each inspection. As always, I had a plan to escape. I tried to stay within a few strides of the car door at all times. I reviewed the training I had received when I was studying at Nitra. Fortunately, I did not have to leap from a speeding train.
Some hours and many salutes later, the train reached Svetkrisenteronim. This town also served as headquarters for the German Army for the region. Here too, there were soldiers everywhere. I felt it was very dangerous to wait around the city any longer than absolutely necessary, so I set off immediately in the direction of the bridge over the Hron River. As I looked toward the bridge, I was aware of the Tatras Mountains rising majestically on the other side of the river.
I had just spent hours in total abject fear. As I gazed at the mountains, I knew that the partisans lived there. I imagined these were special, powerful men who were not afraid of the hated Germans, and soon I would be one of them. As I walked toward the last checkpoint at the foot of the bridge, I prayed: “O, G-d, help me to make it across alive.”
“Halt! Don’t move! No civilians can pass!” The shouted orders of a German SS border guard interrupted my prayer and jolted me back to the reality of the Nazis. After a myriad of document inspections by the Gestapo, this was the first time that I was looking down the muzzle of a machine gun. I calmly handed him my travel order and almost instantly his entire demeanor changed. He said, “It isn’t often that I meet a secret agent who is risking his life to go into enemy territory to infiltrate the partisans.” This, of course, explained the Nazis’ respectful salutes. The partisans were so feared by the Nazis that any one who was being sent behind enemy lines to spy on them and sabotage them was held in the highest esteem by the Germans.
He continued talking without waiting for any comment from me. All I could think about was that at any second a Gestapo agent could come running toward the bridge screaming about my real identity, that I was a partisan and should be killed immediately. Still, the checkpoint guard went on telling me that the German troops were deathly afraid of the insurgent fighters. He told me about the many casualties they had suffered at the hands of the hit-and-run partisan bands. He went on, with his voice raised in anger, “How dare they challenge the Third Reich!”
All the while I listened with feigned sympathy. “What chutzpah!” I was tempted to say, but I thought better of it, Nazis were not known to use such jargon.
When the SS guard seemed to be finished, I started across the bridge and never looked back. About halfway across I could hear the guard call out to me, “Good luck. Don’t get caught.”
I chose not to respond to the guard’s good wishes. The knowledge that the Germans were running scared thrilled me. As I neared the far end of the bridge, I thought, “G-d has kept me alive this day.” And I prayed, “May He keep me alive to see their final downfall.”
Once on the other side, my objective was to reach a little village called Dornosdena. I had been told to follow the only road, which I found was little more than a narrow snow-covered mountain trail. The walk was only about two kilometers. However, the trail was so rough and steep that I was forced to walk very slowly; and even then I was afraid that I would slip off the path and freeze to death.
As I struggled along the route, I was greatly surprised to hear someone shout, “Hey! You are not from around here.” I looked in the direction of the voice and I saw a burly peasant who was standing a few meters to the side of the trail. If he had not called out to me, I would have walked right past him.
He continued, “Watch out for the partisans. If they catch you, they will kill you.” I should have been frightened by this assertion. Instead, I was again reassured that I was now in territory where it was the partisans who were feared more than the Germans. He told me that the village was now only a ten-minute walk away.
As I entered the little town, an old peasant woman came up to me and commented that I must not be from this region. I told her that I was from Pressburg. “You had better get to your destination before dark,” she warned ominously. “It’s not safe to walk around the town or on the roads at night. It is very dangerous. The partisans shoot at anything that moves.”
With nightfall within two to three hours, I did not have to worry. However, this message was the cause of great satisfaction for me. This was the happiest moment I had experienced for a long time. It was a great relief to no longer be frightened of the Nazis.
When I had first received my travel order, I was also given a series of passwords to use when I made contact with the partisan guide. It was this old woman who directed me to the house where I would make my first contact with the partisans.
I knocked and the door opened immediately. The residents were not frightened to answer my knock; they were not expecting to find a Gestapo agent when they opened the door. They were not living with the pervasive fear that I had endured for so many years.
I greeted the peasant who opened the door. He gruffly asked me what I wanted. I repeated the password that I had been given and without saying anything, he winked at me. Turning, he closed the door, leaving me outside in the cold. Though he had said nothing, I felt that he had understood my secret and that I had made my contact.
Within a few minutes, that same peasant came around the side of the house with a boy and a horse. He told me that the boy would show me the way to the next village, a place called Hornosdena. This trip would be longer and more difficult and I would need a guide. I was told that in Hornosdena I would find a man named Nemchok, who would bring me to the partisans. Nemchok, a peasant living in the village, was on very friendly terms with the partisans and provided them with information on German troop movements on almost a daily basis. I would eventually find out that a network of these villagers was a key factor in the partisans’ success. Not only did they provide information that allowed the partisans to attack the Germans in positions where the terrain favored the partisans, but also the information that the partisans received from the villagers about the movement of the German troops made it impossible for the Germans to ambush them. As a result, a small group of very aggressive partisans with excellent intelligence could wreak havoc on the larger, better-equipped German army.
The boy, who looked to be about 13, climbed onto the horse and offered his hand to help me up. The trail was narrow and steep and as a result we traveled very slowly. After a few hours we reached Hornosdena. The boy took me directly to Nemchok’s house.
Nemchok was waiting impatiently inside. I expected to be questioned about why I wanted to join the partisans and what I knew about being a soldier. Instead, all he wanted to talk about was news from the city. He wanted me to tell him everything I knew. I told him as much as I knew about conditions in Pressburg. Most of my information was about Jews who were taken by the Nazis and he listened to me with obvious disinterest. However, when I began to relate what I had seen of troop movements, Nemchok became attentive. He was very interested in my observations of the troops heading out of the city toward Svetkrisenteronim and asked many questions about the numbers of troops, the arms they were carrying and where they detrained.
We spoke for at least half an hour, then Nemchok fed me supper. I was so tired from the rigors of my trip that I had no trouble falling asleep afterwards. At daybreak, I was shaken awake. As I finished breakfast, there were noises from outside the house. I could hear the sound of horses walking and neighing. Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on the door that startled me. Nemchok must have been expecting the knock because he jumped up and quickly opened it without hesitation.
The blast of cold air made me realize how warm and comfortable I felt in Nemchok’s house. But nothing could have prepared me for what followed that cold wind into the room. Two of the tallest, largest men I had ever encountered walked in. Aside from their immense size, their appearance was fierce. Their eyes were hard, and glowed with the fire of unbridled anger. These were men who had long been removed from the civilizing effects of normal social contact. I thought to myself that these two certainly would have no problem killing a man when the need arose. The thought sent chills up and down my spine. This was the first challenge to my romantic notion of the partisans. The obvious hardness and ferocity of these men conveyed an undeniable sense of the reality of life as a partisan.
As I sat there, a boy too frightened to move or say a word, Nemchok conversed with the two men. There was a good deal of laughing and joking, so I concluded that they must be friends. After 5 or 10 minutes of this bantering, they seemed to come to some sort of agreement. Abruptly, Nemchok turned to me and announced with authority: “You’re going with these men.”
Just months earlier, I had been living the life of a yeshiva bachur (schoolboy) sitting at my bench, filling my mind with the holy Scripture. As I stood next to the horses, I realized that I was placing my life in the hands of two strange men who were very different from the people whom I had trusted in my previous life. “Are these two killers a vision of my future?” I wondered. Even though I had great misgivings, I knew that I had no choice. I could only go forward; returning to my past life was impossible.
Gathering all my courage, I climbed onto the horse in front of me with an outward confidence that I feigned. We left the village traveling in single file along a snow-covered trail that led toward the mountains. It was not necessary for me to direct my horse because he was following the horse in front of me. The totally white world that we had entered and the steady rhythm of the horses were hypnotic. With nothing to do, my mind began to wander and soon I was lost in my thoughts.
Surely the partisans knew of all the good work I had done for their people in Pressburg. The partisan leadership would be very grateful and I was certain that they would greet me with an honor guard and music. I would receive a hero’s welcome. I thought about how wonderful it would be to be able to rest for more than a few minutes at a time. I could begin to recover from the effects of all the troubles I had endured. The thought that they would give me a nice room in which to sleep called to my mind a vision of a warm, soft bed with thick blankets and luxurious pillows. I would spend days in this wonderful bed as I waited for the end of the war in peace and tranquility.
A loud snorting and whinnying of a horse awoke me from my daydream. As I looked around, the second horse and then my horse repeated the protest. I realized that we were beginning to climb into the mountains and that the trail would become more treacherous than it had been. This trip would be more difficult than I had anticipated. And I would have to pay attention to the erratic movement of the horse as he ascended this trail or I could easily be thrown. Nevertheless, I realized that this suffering was but a small hardship to endure to reach my freedom and a more normal life. The honors that I would receive from the partisans would be a pleasant bonus.
We traveled for hours, the horses plowing through half a meter of snow that covered the trail. Most of the time the path wound through dense forest with tall trees on either side within a meter or two of the path. The trees were shrouded in white, giving a feeling of traveling through a tunnel of snow. When the wind would pick up, the snow swirled down from the tree branches to white out all the details of the forest. Sometimes, even my companions were cloaked in this whiteness and disappeared from my view. When we reached a high point along the trail, I could see snow-covered mountains in every direction. Under more normal circumstances, the scene would have been exhilarating. But for me, it only served to emphasize the fact that I was removed from all civilized society.
Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a deer or a fox through a break in the trees. But for hours on end I saw little sign of life and absolutely no human life, and for the entire time, my companions uttered not even a word. It was as if the two partisans were no longer human and I was totally alone with no connection to anyone. This dire feeling of isolation and loneliness devoured me.
My companions had stopped next to a tree and were dismounting. The one who had been in the lead position looked up at me and announced, “We’re here!” These were the first words I had heard since we left Nemchok’s house. I looked around excitedly. I looked in every direction, but saw nothing but snow and trees.
I immediately reverted to the defenses honed by my years of experience with the Nazis. I was instantly alert. This must be a trap, an act of treachery by my companions. I had no weapon. No one would know that I had been murdered in this desolate spot. I was trapped, one young teenager against two seasoned killers. My only hope was to run back over the trail that I had just traveled. I was about to prod my horse when the leader called to me. “Come on. We’re taking you to central command.”
The other partisan brushed aside the snow revealing a board set at a 45-degree angle lying on a hill that was directly behind a cluster of trees. The partisan lifted the board and revealed an opening to a cave. The second partisan told me that he was remaining outside to take his turn on guard. He pointed toward the cave in a way that I understood as a direct command to go inside. I crouched down and entered the cave with the other partisan behind me.
The large cave I had entered was at least three meters wide and two meters high. Only lanterns and two campfires provided light. To breathe, I had to remain stooped over because smoke hung in the upper quarter of the cave. Along both sides of the cave was planking set up off the dirt floor and I could see that there were patches of cut straw lying around. As we walked toward the back of the cave, we passed a number of partisans cleaning their weapons. No one so much as looked up to see who was coming by; not a single word of greeting was proffered. The tunnel was about 20 meters long. When we reached the end, we came to a heavy wooden door. My escort knocked on the door and was given permission to enter. He went in alone, closing the door behind him. I was greatly relieved by the totally unexpected level of military decorum and respect shown by my escort. Almost immediately, I heard him say in a respectful tone, “I brought the boy from Pressburg.”
“Bring him in!” a second voice commanded.
At last! I was about to speak face to face with the commander of the local partisans. My heart was filled with excitement and anticipation. Surely, he would know of all the bold and dangerous exploits I had carried out for the underground. I was certain that the commander would welcome me with open arms and would praise my courage and resourcefulness. I expected that after we talked he would introduce me to the other soldiers who made up this brigade, singing my praises to one and all.
The door opened, my guide emerged, but said nothing to me; he only waved his arm toward the door, motioning me to enter. I concluded that he meant for me to go into the commander’s room. Expecting the best, I walked confidently through the doorway. The bang of the door as it slammed shut behind me made me jump. However, nothing could shatter my happiness. I had waited for this dreamed-of moment for so long.
Standing stiffly inside the command room, I faced a heavy table made of rough, unfinished wood. Behind the table sat another very large, imposing figure, dressed like a soldier. His face was etched with deep lines. It was hard, as were his eyes, though they had the light of intelligence. His shoulders were wide and his arms heavily muscled. Altogether he had the appearance of a man of dauntless determination and iron will. I thought, this is a man who could lead other men into battle. I jumped again as the commander yelled in my direction, “Do you want to join us?”
I was shaken by the harshness in his voice. Before I could form the words for a response, my head meekly nodded yes. The commander reacted with an even louder question: “What is your name?”
“Avrohom Cohn,” I answered proudly though my voice was shaking and I could feel my knees knocking. Again he yelled, but this time so loudly that his voice seemed to reverberate in the room. Again I answered, but this time with much more humility. “My name is Avrohom Cohn.”
I was shaking with fright. I had goose bumps all over my body. This was hardly the greeting one would expect for an honored hero. However, I did not have much time to brood over the impoliteness of my reception.
“Give me your papers!” The commander bellowed.
I was not sure I would be able to extend my hand to give him my papers. Somehow I managed to control my shaking arm and placed the papers in his outstretched hand.
He looked at my papers for a moment and then thundered, “It says here that your name is Jan Kovic, liar!” He slammed his hand heavily onto the tabletop with such force that the room seemed to quake; cups, pencils and paper flew off the table. He roared at me again, “Your name is Jan Kovic! Do you understand?”
My eyes were wide in terror. I am sure I looked like a child who was convinced that there was a monster hiding under his bed. I thought now I was among friends and I did not have to hide my real identity. Before I could explain my answer, he screamed at me one more time. “Get out of here and go get yourself a gun! Here you don’t get food for nothing!” This time his eyes were dark and hard with anger.
The commander did not want his men to know I was a Jew for there could be partisans who were anti-Semitic.1 He could not have infighting among his men. The last thing he wanted was intrigue and dissension. He wanted a unit of men who trusted one another. Therefore, I was Jan Kovic, a gentile, end of topic.
A movement at the far end of the table caught my attention and for the first time I realized that there was another partisan in the room. My attention had been so riveted on the dominating figure and personality of the commander, I had not noticed the presence of the second partisan. This one seemed to be another battle-hardened warrior. He was not as physically imposing as the commander but still looked like a man who could kill when the time came. I would later learn that he was in fact the second in command. He grabbed my left arm and steered me toward the door. Pushing it open with his free hand, he shoved me through, back into the main, large room with the partisan soldiers. I stumbled clumsily feeling shamed and disheartened. I had fully expected to be appointed an officer at some level, with honor and respect. Instead, I had been treated with total disdain; it seemed that it was with great reluctance that they allowed me to stay.
My eyes were drawn from one partisan to the next. Each had been distracted from his individual chores by my unceremonious entrance. I stood, dumbfounded, with no idea where to go, where to get food, where to get an assignment, where to sleep or where to get a gun. I looked at the partisan nearest to me and asked in a feeble voice, “Where do I get a gun?” The question came out before I realized what I had said.
Though I had barely whispered, every man in the room burst into hysterical laughter. Again, I was totally humiliated. Moreover, I was perplexed by their reaction. Why were they making fun of me? They were showing me no respect, treating me as if I was simply a silly child of no importance. And no one gave the slightest impression that he intended to answer my question. I walked to the front end of the cave and asked again where I could get a gun. Once more, they all wildly laughed at me. I walked around the cave and repeated my question several times and received the exact same response.
I looked from face to face, unable to understand why no one would answer me. I noticed that one of the partisans was wearing what looked like a regular army uniform, with the emblems of an officer on his shoulders. I decided to try to explain my situation one more time in the hope that this real soldier might be different, in the hope that he would help me.
I walked over to him: “My name is Jan Kovic. I have just arrived to join the partisans. The commander agreed to take me, and told me to get a gun. But no one will tell me where they are stored. Whenever I ask for a gun, everyone laughs at me.”
He told me what the commander meant, why everyone was laughing. They had each killed a German to get a gun.
When I heard this, my heart sank. My earlier glory-filled fantasies paled when confronted by reality. I had never learned from my teachers at yeshiva how to kill another man. And though I had experienced great violence and had seen Jews killed brutally, I myself had never acted violently. The entire idea was utterly foreign to me. I was bewildered, confused. I had no idea where I could turn.
In yeshiva, for one to raise a hand against another was unheard of, to even say or think anything negative was considered a terrible transgression. We learned humility, consideration for others, love of mankind and of G-d. We would go through great personal discipline to etch these character traits into our personality. Rising at 5 o’clock in the morning, retiring at 11 o‘clock at night, we devoted the whole day, every day, to our studies. On Thursdays we stayed awake the entire night preparing for our weekly exams. Yes, we ate and slept, but our concern was to keep our bodies healthy in order to serve G-d more effectively, and grow spiritually.
To be thrust into a world at war, in which I was among those who could kill with their bare hands without a second thought, made my head reel. The officer must have sensed my despair. He arose from the wooden bench where he was sitting and instructed me to follow him. As he led me out of the cave, I thanked G-d that I had found at least one man who seemed more civilized than the others.
After a short walk, he bent down next to a tree and brushed away the snow to expose a small piece of wood. I saw as he moved more snow aside that it was a handle attached to a much bigger board. He stood up, pulling on the handle and as the board moved I could see that it was in fact a door, and underneath there was another cave. The officer crouched down to enter and I followed.
I was hoping that the cave would be a storehouse for guns. To my dismay, this cave was also being used as a bunker. A cloud of smoke hung near the ceiling, making it nearly impossible to see. I could tell that the ceiling was slightly lower than an average man’s height and I could see it was less than half as large as the first cave. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I counted 10 partisans who were much like the men in the first bunker; these too were coarse, brutish and dangerous looking. They were all dressed for the winter cold. There was no furniture, no chairs or tables or beds. Everyone sat directly on the floor. The fire that they had made to cope with the fierce cold had filled the top third of the cave with smoke and it was only possible to breathe under this cloud. As I looked around, I noticed that their guns hung on pegs that they had driven into the earthen walls. I could imagine that each man never moved more than a few feet from his own gun.
To my surprise, the partisan nearest to me asked me my name and where I was from. This small display of normal civility gave me encouragement. I joined the men sitting on the floor, ready to relate the story of my exploits with the pride they warranted.
I announced that I had been involved in the resistance in Pressburg and that I had recently come from that city. There were no questions about details or conditions in the city; instead, to my horror, when they heard that I had just come from Pressburg, they pounced upon me, taking my bags. They retreated with all my worldly possessions like a pack of snarling dogs, discarding whatever they did not want onto the floor of the cave. I imagined that I heard the sound of growling as they tore through my things. The food I had for my trip was devoured. One of the scavengers of the pack found a bottle of after-shave lotion and before I could say a word he took a long drink and then passed it to a friend who also took a swig. The lotion was passed from partisan to partisan like a bottle of prized whiskey. The empty bottle was thrown to the floor. I sat there in stunned silence. I had not been prepared for this. This was not the way I expected to be treated by my comrades in arms. These people might be soldiers, but they acted like primitive savages.
I noticed that one of the partisans had not joined the group. He was sitting on the floor near me looking through his own clothing. When he glanced at me, I asked him what he was doing. His expression changed to a look of amazement. “What? Don’t you have any fleas or lice in your clothing?” he asked.
In all innocence, I responded, “No, I certainly don’t.”
Another of the men screamed at me: “Liar!” He leaped up, grabbed the front of my shirt and repeated, “You’re a liar!” He tore open my shirt, ripping off all the buttons. He began to examine my chest looking for fleas and lice. “I don’t believe it,” he muttered incredulously. Turning towards his friends, he announced loudly for all to hear: “He doesn’t have any lice!”
Without another word to his friends and with no sign of an apology to me, he went back to his place on the floor. This brute acted as if he had done nothing unusual. This is a nightmare, I thought to myself. I prayed to G-d to deliver me from this hell.
Though I had only been with them a few hours, I was beginning to understand something of how the partisan army was structured. I soon learned much more. The vaunted partisan soldiers were mostly local peasants who had little or no education and who were accustomed to a relatively primitive lifestyle. These fierce warriors who engendered fear in the German war machine were common farmers fighting for their homes. Most of the soldiers were Slovaks, the rest were Czechs. In contrast, the officers were not recruited from the area’s farmers. Generally, they were trained military men. Some were officers who had been separated from the regular army in the course of the war. Others were officers who had been dropped behind the German lines specifically to organize the partisan resistance. For instance, General Kustechenko, who was the chief commander for the region, and General Cherpansky, his second in command, were both officers from the Russian paratroopers. Likewise, the officer who brought me to the second bunker was a lieutenant from the Yugoslavian army. Consequently, the officers tended to be more standard military types; they were more civilized, more cultured and not nearly as crude as the other partisans.
The Yugoslavian officer called me over and whispered, “Do you understand why these men act this way?” I had no idea why any human being would choose to act like these men. The perplexed look on my face encouraged him to continue: “They are confined to this cave with nothing to do except clean their weapons day after day. They are not allowed to go out and walk around, to get exercise or even to visit their families. If they did, the Nazis would discover our location. And if we had to fight the Germans on their terms, we would be annihilated. So, the men have to sit around here doing nothing until they get an order to go out and fight. Sometimes, they have to stay confined to these caves for days at a time. On top of that, many of the men have lost family members or comrades to the Nazi butchers. When they seem like they have lost all semblance of humanity, I’m not surprised.”
I could understand that these men were living under the worst hardships and I had great sympathy for their plight. Even so, I could not bear the thought of living with them in a cave under such terrible conditions. The lieutenant must have discerned from the expression on my face the battle that was raging in my mind. Again he leaned over and whispered, “On the other hand, my men do not have to live this way.”
Without waiting for any response from me, he went on: “I lead one of the patrol units. Every day my soldiers go out in groups of two and scout through the mountains and valleys all around us. Their objective is to gather information about the position and movements of the German army. It is a difficult and dangerous assignment. Each patrol usually covers about 20 kilometers a day and there is no shelter from the winter cold. It is essential that the patrol not lead the Germans back to the camp. And occasionally, the scouts are unable to avoid direct confrontation with the Germans.”
He continued, “If you joined the patrol unit, at least you would not be confined with the men in the cave waiting for something to happen. Most of the time you would be out on patrol.”
I did not have to think long to make my decision. I told the lieutenant that I wanted to join his group. He must have felt guilty taking advantage of my state of mind to recruit me because he tried to dissuade me. He provided me with a series of graphic descriptions of the terrors I could encounter on patrol. They included freezing to death while asleep, being ambushed by the Germans, stepping on a mine and getting lost in the mountains. He informed me that his patrol unit had by far the highest casualties of any partisan unit.
But I had made my decision. “I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going with you. I’m not afraid.” The macabre atmosphere in the bunker was enough to make me set aside my fears of the dangers I would encounter in the field.
But I had another motivation. With my most determined voice I said, “Besides, my only wish is to be able to fight the Nazis.”
I found my bags, collecting the few belongings I could find after they had been picked over during the partisans’ rampage, and walked back to where the lieutenant was sitting. All I could think about was getting out of this awful place.
I was relieved to see that he had a slight smile on his face. “Our bunker is on the next mountain,” he said as he turned toward the door of the cave.
He pushed open the door and I followed him outside. After he closed the door, we carefully pushed a thick layer of snow over it. I could see that within minutes the ever-present wind would blow away any telltale signs that we left in the snow and no one would know there was a door to a cave next to that tree.
As we set out through the deep snow, he said, “There are essentially three rules that every partisan must know and follow. First, you must fight the Germans to your very last breath. Second, you must follow every single order to the letter without fail. Third, never, ever, walk outside without a weapon and never let it out of your hands as long as you breathe. Anyone who violates any of those rules will be brought to a partisan military tribunal, which will decide whether you are guilty or not. There is only one sentence for a person found guilty: death by gunshot.”
While he spoke, I nodded my acceptance of every point he made. I did not think I would have any problem living up to those rules, and more importantly, the lieutenant was much more civilized than the partisans whom I had left; I assured him that I wanted to stay in his group.
We crossed a small valley to the base of the next mountain. He started up the mountain with me in close pursuit. Having to push through the thigh-high snow while traveling uphill made the last 200 meters very difficult. He stopped near a large boulder. Pushing aside the snow behind the rock where it was embedded in the frozen earth, he exposed a wooden plank about a meter square. As before, he lifted the plank to reveal the entrance to a cave.
I followed him into the dimly lit bunker. This cave was not as smoke filled as the other bunkers had been. There was a low bench that ran continuously along the perimeter of the bunker. There were about 10 partisans sitting on this bench, with a number of guns hung on wall pegs. At intervals on the bench there were piles of two or three travel bags or knapsacks. These bags were the personal belongings of each partisan and marked the portion of the bench which served as a bed for that soldier. Against one of the walls was a small fire that served both as a source of heat and a kitchen. The partisans all appeared to be young men and were dressed like the ones I had met earlier. They were also sitting there doing nothing while a few cleaned their guns.
However, they were not as tightly wound up as the men in the first two groups. When the lieutenant informed the group that I had arrived from Pressburg and was joining them, no one attacked my belongings or me. Two or three asked me a few questions about what was happening in Pressburg, but mostly they were quiet. They were all Slovaks. The one exception was a German Communist who had escaped from his homeland to fight against the Nazis. I was surprised that the partisans would trust any German. I was not sure that I would ever be able to completely trust this man. In fact during every assignment I always made sure that my back was never toward this German.
From all the partisans I had encountered in these underground bunkers I was by far the youngest. They were all seasoned warriors and, despite my experience outwitting the Nazis, I was still like a little schoolboy compared to them.
The lieutenant asked me if I intended to stay with the group. I answered an emphatic, “Yes!” Though these soldiers were clearly peasants, I did not have the feeling of revulsion that had come over me when I encountered the other partisans. For the first time, I felt that I would be able to stay and fight side by side with the partisans.
The lieutenant seemed satisfied with my enthusiasm. He gave me my first assignment: “Tomorrow you will get your chance to be a partisan soldier. You will go out on patrol with two soldiers who will teach you how to use a gun and show you the way through the mountain paths. They will also show you how to move through the forest without leaving a trail back to the camp.”
I thought to myself, “Finally.” I looked at the lieutenant and asked, “How do I get a gun?”
I half-expected someone to yell out, “Go kill a German!” But instead the lieutenant only whispered that he could give me a gun and ammunition thus freeing me from my first assignment of having to kill a Nazi. He walked toward the back of the cave, stopping in front of a large wooden crate.
“Mr. Kovic!” I was called to attention by the sharp, loud voice of the lieutenant. I quickly joined him in front of the crate. When he lifted the lid, I was startled to see it contained at least 10 rifles and a few submachine guns. He reached down and pulled out one of the submachine guns and handed it to me. I took it with a confidence that I did not feel. I must have had a bewildered look on my face because he whispered to me, “Don’t worry, they will show you how to use it before you leave tomorrow.” I nodded in relief.
The lieutenant led me back toward the cave entrance, and pointing toward an unoccupied portion of the bench, told me that this piece of board two meters long and half a meter wide was my sleeping area. I put my bags on the bench; my gun and two bullet clips I placed on top of my bags. I sat down, for I was totally exhausted and famished. The partisans had stolen all of my food. I had to go on my first patrol the next day, so I needed to keep up my strength. I had to make sure that I learned to use the submachine gun. If we encountered the Germans I had to be ready to fight. I did not want a mission to fail because I was not properly prepared.
But what would it be like to shoot at someone who was shooting at me? I began imagining and fantasizing and visualizing what a battle would be like. I was a soldier and I was not afraid to die. I did not want to die like a sheep led to the slaughter. If I was going to die, I wanted to die as a man fighting valiantly against his enemies. If I was going to die, it would be with dignity.
1. Though some partisan units included Jews, the partisans not only did not welcome them, they were often rabidly anti-Semitic, going as far as to expel them from their units (which meant certain death in the forest) or to murder them outright. Non-Jewish commanders would justify their refusal to accept Jews into their fighting units on the grounds that the peasants and townspeople on whom the partisans relied for information would begin to think of the partisans as defenders of the Jews, and so be less inclined to help them. Kowalski, Anthology of Armed Jewish Resistance, Brooklyn, 1985, pp. 117-20. Shalom Cholavsky, Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, Jerusalem, 1971, pp. 323-8.