Helen Kugelmas – Part II

The Partisan Years

I had a cousin who had joined the partisans. One day I received a letter from him stating that on a specified night I should sneak out from the gates of the ghetto. A trusted gentile would meet me, along with some others, and take me to an appointed spot where my cousin would be waiting. We were lucky that it was very dark and there weren’t too many Germans around the ghetto at this time. I met my cousin and a few other partisans with rifles. During the day we hid in the bushes and at night we walked. Two, three days later, we arrived in Bielsk.

In October 1942, shortly after our arrival, the Germans surrounded the partisan camps. We were all separated and sent to different places to hide. My cousin was out on a mission and hurt his leg. I heard that he was recuperating on a farm. When things quieted down we returned to the camps. However, because I did not have my cousin to vouch for me, the partisans decided that they no longer wanted to take care of me.

There were families living around the camp. Because they had small children they weren’t allowed to enter the camp. One of these families took me in to stay with them. They were a wonderful family. They had one son of their own and the three orphans of a brother and sister-in-law who had been murdered. I lived together with them in an underground bunker.

During this time I heard that a man by the name of Yosef Ash, an acquaintance from my hometown, was hiding in a ditch not far away, together with a male gypsy. The gypsy deserted him when he contracted high fever and typhus. I heard that he was starving and I knew that I must get some food to him quickly before he died. Those living with me warned me not to go; they feared that I would catch typhus and spread it to them. I did not listen. I took a lantern and without much direction I headed out to him. When I arrived he was lying on a wooden bed, starving, with high fever. I gave him food and left; but I had enough contact with him that I came down with typhus.

When I returned to the bunker they allowed me in but threatened to leave me in the bunker. I was scared because winter was coming and the snow would find its way in. In the meantime, everyone living in the bunker caught typhus from me. The family with whom I was staying tried to help me. I had a terrible case of crawling lice and the woman of the house had to cut off my long braids to help my scalp heal. I was ashamed to walk around with a boy’s short haircut and so I wore a kerchief when I went outside.

When the snow melted the rest of the people who were planning to leave the bunker and move on agreed to let me join them.

It was at the beginning of 1943 when I received a letter from my cousin who had rejoined the partisans that they were going to join the Bielskis and I should gather with some other girls and meet them there. When we arrived at the camp, the Germans were already there. There was little or no food. We were so thirsty that we drank the dirty water from the puddles of melted snow and we ate wild mushrooms. The Germans didn’t actually bother us; they only surrounded the camp because they were afraid of the partisans. We formed a group where the men went out each day to do some work and the woman and children stayed around the house taking care of household duties. I had some friends and my cousin in the group, and we helped each other. We remained there until the end of July 1944.

After the war we traveled to Italy since we could not get visas to the United States. I came to America in 1950.

What message would you like to impart to today’s generation?

You should never forget what your grandparents and great-grandparents endured.


These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.