As told by Victor Finkel OBM to his grandson Rabbi Moishe Pesach Finkel
Translated by Sarah Bendetsky
My zeyde* often repeated these strange and frightening words – the Barsuki village, with his eyes closed…
This village is situated in the Kaluga region, in Mosalsky District, and is known as the Death Valley.
It was the early February in 1942 when the Germans besieged the villages Vyshnyee and Sitskoye cutting out all exits. Surrounded from all angles, the divisions of the Soviet Army continued to fight. The Nazis were strengthening their troops with new reserves.
With no ammunition and fuel, it was a life-threatening situation for the Soviet soldiers. The regular bombings and firing resulted in a huge number of wounded and casualties.
The remaining soldiers had nothing to eat except for the flesh of dead horses.
When the commanding staff lost the last hope for help to arrive, a decision was made to break the siege on their own. They hoped to attack the Germans during the night by the Popolta River Valley to reunite with the other divisions of the Soviet Army.
On that night, the Nazis illuminated everything around them with rockets and fired point-blank from the submachine guns.
To imagine what was going on there without losing one’s mind is next to impossible.
A testimonial by the General-Lieutenant Y. S. Fokanov’s wife states, “… It was a living hell! Everything roared and rumbled due to bombings. You couldn’t see a thing ahead or next to you. The earth was packed with the dead bodies of soldiers and in order to move, you had to step on the carpet of corpses. It seemed that no one was going to come out alive…”
But they had no choice and moved ahead. With snow up to their knees and firing non-stop, the soldiers continued to break the siege. Most were killed, with only a few individuals who made it to the forest.
Among them and by pure miracle, was my zeyde.
He was starving; on the way through the forest, he ate tree bark and drank melted snow water.
Barely moving his legs, he somehow came out to a small river bank. He kneeled and drank the ice-cold water. And then he heard, “Stop! Who’s out there? Hands up!”
It was a Soviet soldier holding a gun pointed at my grandfather. But my zeyde couldn’t believe his luck! Miraculously, he came out to territory occupied by the 50th Soviet Army.
“It’s me, your fellow Soviet soldier, please don’t shoot! Take me to the commanding staff…”
And so my zeyde was taken to an inquisitive Captain with distinct Jewish appearance. For a long time he looked through my zeyde’s documents and then said:
“Victor Petrovich Finkel. A Jew. Born in 1922. Is that correct?
“Yes,” my grandpa nodded.
“Have you studied in a Jewish religious school before the war?”
“Can you read Hebrew?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Prove it right now,” said the Captain taking out a Siddur, a Jewish prayer book.
My grandpa opened the siddur and read, ”Shma Yisroel, Hashem Eloy’keinu Hashem Echod! Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”
The commander closed the prayer book and said in a quivering voice:
“Victor Petrovich! Please take no offence… The place is filled with German saboteurs! How did you manage to come out alive? Almost everyone died in Barsuki and you don’t have a single scratch! It’s nothing less than a miracle! You will eat now; we have pasta for lunch. But I ask you to eat very slowly; otherwise, you can die from all the starvation you’ve experienced. Remember, eat slowly… Now, go.”
… Years later, my zeyde used to say on many occasions:
“I have no idea who helped me to get out. I don’t know how to orientate in the forest. Left and right, people were shot point-blank. My own commander lied in the snow and begged me to shoot him… And the Nazis kept on firing, killing us, the living skeletons… They succeeded to kill almost all of us. And I am the lucky exception because someone just took me out… Someone from the other world… Back then, I didn’t understand that. I wasn’t a believer. But now, I shiver each time the memories of that hell come back to torture me…
I was taken out by the invisible guards who came to rescue me so that your father, you and your sister would be able to live…”
* Zeyde – (Yiddish) – grandfather