Alter Dvoretsky, head of the Zhetl Judenrat (Jewish council) and leader of the Zhetl underground.
Pinkes Zhetel (Tel-Aviv: Zhetel Association in Israel, 1957)
From The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945
Pre-1939: Zdzieciol (Zhetel - Yiddish), town in the Nowogródek province, Poland
1939-41: Dyatlovo, Belorussian SSR
1941-44: Djatlowo, Rayon center, Gebiet Nowogrodek, Generalkommissariat Weissruthenien
Post-1944: Dyatlovo, Grodno province, Belorussian SSR
Since 1991: Republic of Belarus
Jews first settled in Zdzieciol (located in present-day Belarus) in 1580. The town was the birthplace of Jacob of Dubno (the “Dubner Maggid”) and Israel Meir ha-Kohen (the “Hafetz Hayyim”). In 1897 the Jewish population was 3,979 (75 percent of the total). In 1926 there were 3,450 Jews out of 4,600 people in Zdzieciol (also 75 percent). Many Jewish refugees arrived from western and central Poland in 1939-1941 after the beginning of World War II, so that by the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Jewish population of the town had increased to more than 4,500.
German forces occupied the town on June 30, 1941. On July 14, 1941, the local military commandant ordered that the Jews had to wear a six-pointed yellow star on the front and the back of their clothing. On July 23, about 120 of the most respected citizens and members of the Jewish intelligentsia were selected from among all the Jews assembled in the square. The selection was carried out according to a list compiled by SS-men who had arrived in Zdziecol especially for this purpose. Among those arrested were Alter Dvoretsky (an attorney active in Poalei Zion), the rabbi, and Jankel Kaplan. The local Jews bribed the Germans and thus attained the release of Dvoretsky and the rabbi. All the others were allegedly taken for forced labor, but two days later it was discovered that they had been murdered in the forest near the military barracks in Nowogródek.
At the end of August 1941, authority was transferred to a civil administration and Zdzieciol became a part of the Nowogródek district (Gebietskommissariat). At this time the Judenrat was formed including Alter Dvoretsky, Hirshl Benyamovitz, Jehuda Luski, Moshe Mendel Leizerovitz, Eli Novolenski, Dovid Senderovski, Faivel Epstein, Shaul Kaplinski, Rabbi Jitzhok Reicer, and Berl Rabinovitz among its members. Shmuel Kustin became the chairman of the Judenrat and Alter Dvoretsky was the deputy chairman. Soon afterwards Dvoretsky replaced Kustin as head of the Judenrat. He was 37 and had obtained his education as a lawyer in Berlin and Warsaw.
One of the main tasks of the Judenrat was to ensure that all the German orders were strictly carried out. On the second day of the holiday of Sukkot, some Germans arrived in the town to requisition horses for the army. Many of the Jews had decided to hide, but the Germans caught one--Ya’akov Noa--and shot him without warning. On November 28, 1941, the Jews of Zdzieciol were made to line up, and forced to surrender all their valuables to the Germans. Libe Gercowski was accused of having hidden two gold rings and was then selected from the line and shot in front of everyone. On that day the Judenrat was also obliged to provide four glaziers and fifteen carpenters who were sent to an unknown destination. On December 15, 1941, 400 men were sent to the labor camp in Dworzec to work on the construction of an aerodrome. This work was supervised by the Organisation Todt (OT).
Alter Dvoretsky established links with the Jews living in the surrounding villages and also with a group of former Red Army soldiers, who were in the process of organizing a partisan force in the area. In the fall of 1941, before the ghetto was set up, Dvoretsky himself formed a Jewish underground organization in the town, consisting of about sixty people. His group was divided into twenty cells, each of three men. They also obtained some weapons about a month before the ghetto was established. About ten members of the underground also joined the Jewish police.
On February 22, 1942, the authorities put up posters on the walls announcing that all the Jews had to leave their homes and move into the ghetto, which was based around the synagogue and the Talmud Torah building. There was no detailed plan for the resettlement of the Jews into their new living quarters in the ghetto. Between five and six families had to share each house and many families had to be split up. Eight or more people were put into each room, from which the furniture had been removed, to be replaced by improvised bunk beds instead. Some of the families, like the Kaplans, prepared secret hiding places in the ghetto, which helped them to survive during the massacre.
The ghetto was partly fenced by wood and barbed wire, and two local policemen guarded the gate. The Jews were not even permitted to talk to other citizens and might be shot if they attempted to obtain food from the outside. Nevertheless, peasants still brought food to the ghetto to exchange it for gold, clothes, and other items. Special work permits were issued to those who worked outside the ghetto. The Jews were guarded when marched in columns out of the ghetto to perform forced labor.
Upon moving into the ghetto the underground group headed by Alter Dvoretsky had the following aims: first, to prepare an armed revolt in the event that the ghetto was going to be liquidated; second, to collect money to buy weapons and bring them into the ghetto; and third, to convince the local Christian population not to cooperate with the Germans. The group made contact with the local leader of the Soviet partisans in the area, Nikolai Vakhonin. They also knew that a number of Jews who had fled from Zdzieciol, Zheludok, Belica, Kozlowszczyna, Dworzec, and Nowogródek were hiding in the dense Lipichanski forest. Pinya Green and Hirshel Kaplinski were their leaders. On April 20, 1942, Alter Dvoretsky and six members of the ghetto underground were forced to escape to the forest after their organization became known to the Germans. Unfortunately Dvoretsky was killed in an ambush by non-Jewish partisans shortly afterwards. After a while a partisan detachment consisting of more than one hundred Jews was formed in the forest near Zdzieciol. It was called the “Zhetler Battalion.” Everybody who wanted to join the partisans had first to obtain a gun.
The unit was divided into three platoons headed by Hershl Kaplinsky, Jonah Midvetsky, and Shalom Ogulnik respectively. The staff of the headquarters included two other members, Pinya Green and Shalom Gerling. There were also some women in the battalion, acting as nurses, cooks, secretaries, typists and washerwomen. A few of them also took part in combat activities.
The unit’s base was some twenty kilometers away from Zdzieciol in the Lipichanski forest and they coordinated all their activities with the other Soviet partisans operating in the area, in particular with the Orlanski detachment (renamed on January 5, 1943 “Bor’ba” (Struggle), commanded by Nikolai Vakhonin) and also the “Lenin” brigade.
They attacked the railroad tracks on the Lida-Baranowicze, Baranowicze-Minsk and Wolkowysk-Bialystok lines. Yisrael Bousel invented a fast new sort of mine, which the partisans successfully used to derail German trains. He was posthumously awarded the honorary title of “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
On April 29, 1942, the Germans arrested the Judenrat and at dawn on April 30, the ghetto inmates were woken by shots inside the ghetto. The Germans announced through the Judenrat that all the Jews were to go to the old cemetery, which was situated within the ghetto boundaries. At the same time the Germans and their collaborators began to drive the Jews out of their houses, beating, kicking, and shooting those who were reluctant to obey. A selection was then carried out: women, children, and the old were sent to the left, the young skilled workers to the right.
About 1,200 of those sent to the right were marched along the streets to the Kurpyash Forest on the southern edge of town, where some pits had been prepared in advance. There the Germans shot them in groups of twenty. During the course of the shooting the German district commissar appeared and released those who had a certificate stating their profession as well as their families. Thus about one hundred returned to the ghetto. The massacre was conducted by the German and local Polish police forces.
The second massacre started on August 6, 1942, and lasted for three days as many Jews hid in prepared bunkers. During the course of the clearance of the ghetto some 2-3,000 Jews were shot in three mass graves, in the Jewish cemetery on the southern outskirts of Zdzieciol, roughly 1,000 people in each. Just over 200 Jewish craftsmen were transferred to the ghetto in Nowogródek. This was the end of the ghetto and the end of the Jewish community of Zdzieciol. Several hundred Jews including the Kaplan family, who had hidden, fled once the massacre was over, some forming a family camp in the Nakryshki forest, where they managed to survive until the liberation.
Word spread about the “Zhetel partisan detachment” among Jews in the labor camps of Dworzec and Nowogródek and other places, such that a number of Jews tried to join them. Many of these were then caught on the way to the forest and were handed over to the Germans by the local inhabitants. The “Zhetler detachment” also in turn exacted revenge on local collaborators. One act of revenge took place in the village of Molery on September 10, 1942. After eliminating two collaborators, the Jewish partisans also informed the elder of the village and the local villagers about the precise reasons why they carried out this reprisal.
Tamara Vershitskaya and Avinoam Patt, from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945 (Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, publication forthcoming). For more information about the encyclopedia project, please see the related link below.
The Yizkor Book for Zdzieciol edited by Baruch Kaplinski, Pinkes Zshetl [The Register for Zdzieciol] (Tel-Aviv: Zetel Association in Israel, 1957) contains much information on the town, but refers only briefly to the Holocaust period. However, there is also a recent Israeli publication, edited by Haya Lipski, Rivkah Lipski-Kaufman and Yitshak Ganoz, 'Ayaratenu Z’etel: shishim shanah le-hurban kehilat Z’etel 1942-2002 (Tel Aviv: Irgun yotse Z’etel be-Yi´sra’el, 2002), which deals with the fate of the town’s Jews. In addition, the book “Pamiat’. Dyatlovo district,” [Russian language] (Minsk, 1997) contains a list of the Jews who were murdered in 1942. There is also a recent article entitled “The Holocaust in the Dyatlovo district” [Russian language] published in the journal Moj Rodny Kut, no. 2 (July 2002). With regard to the underground and the partisans there is a useful memoir in Hebrew by Shalom Gerling, Korot Lochem Yehudi [The Story of a Jewish Fighter] (Lohamei Hagetaot, 1968).
The Soviet Extraordinary Commission Report can be found in the National Archive of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk (NARB, 845-1-186, pp. 37-38). At the Bundesarchiv Aussenstelle Ludwigsburg (BA-L) some information on the fate of the Jews of Zdzieciol can be found in the investigation concerning Nowogródek (Artmann case), conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office in Traunstein (BA-L, 202 AR-Z 94e/59). Several useful survivor testimonies can be found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM, e.g., RG-50.030*0332), and in the Yad Vashem Archives (YVA, e.g., M-1/E/457).