Rachel Pinchusowitch Litwak was born on March 12, 1923, in Baranowicze, Poland, a town surrounded by many forests. She lived with her parents, Ziporah Feige (Griver) and Zvi Herschel, along with five older siblings: Tanya, Lisa, Lola, Osnat, and Eliezer. Her brother, Lola, and sister, Lisa, immigrated to Palestine and the United States, respectively, before the war. Rachel was the only member of her family living in Baranowicze who survived the Holocaust.
Rachel grew up in a middle-class family, and her comfortable home was adorned with flower gardens and fruit trees. Her father owned two factories, while her mother was involved in community volunteer work. Rachel studied at a teacher’s college in Krakow from 1937-1939, arriving home before World War II began.
When the war broke out in September 1939, Poland was divided between Germany and Russia. Under Russian control, the factories in Baranowicze were taken over by the Soviets. Rachel’s father was nearly deported to Siberia, but the family succeeded in saving him from the decree. The Russians sent many wealthy capitalists to Siberia, and Rachel could see the freight trains pass her house en route to Russia.
In the summer of 1941, Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Russia and invaded the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the bombings, Rachel’s family fled to a small town. When they returned to Baranowicze, their house, barn, and cellar were destroyed.
Two weeks after the Germans conquered the area, they began persecuting the Jewish population. The Jews of Baranowicze were soon enclosed into a ghetto and required to do forced labor. Rachel and her sister, Osnat, worked for the Signal Corps, where they washed clothes by hand every day. When the soldiers came to collect their laundry, they would often give the sisters leftovers from their food rations. This provided much-needed sustenance as food allotments in the ghetto were not enough to live on.
The ghetto was soon divided into two populations: the productive and “nonproductive” Jews. The productive Jews were needed for hard labor, while those who could not work were killed. Rachel and her immediate family received certificates stating they were productive Jews. Rachel and her mother cleaned and did laundry for nurses who aided wounded soldiers returning from the German front.
One day, Rachel’s work detail, along with many others, was surrounded by armed soldiers and led to a large yard near the Polish Bank. They stood in groups according to their workplaces and near each group stood German escorts. Rachel’s German escort realized what was about to happen and decided to save them. He told them to walk quickly after him without looking backward. Rachel hid her mother in the middle of the line so they would not see that she was older. As they left, Rachel could see people kneeling in a circle as trucks with loudspeakers played music to drown the screams and cries of those victims sentenced to death. Rachel’s brother, Eliezer, was caught and killed while trying to escape the massacre. Her sister, Osnat was later murdered by the SS.
The ghetto was reduced in size. Rachel’s parents convinced her to leave the ghetto and join her Uncle Mordechai who was hiding in the swamps near Wielkie Luki. December 10, 1942, was the last time Rachel saw her parents. She left in the morning with her work detail. On the way, she escaped and made contact with Edward Chacza, a Polish non-Jew who was later recognized as Righteous Among Nations for helping Jews during the Holocaust. After being taken to Edward Chacza’s house, a Jew came to take Rachel to her Uncle Mordechai.
Uncle Mordechai had built a hut in the swamps, where he was hiding with his family. Life in the swamps was challenging; the constant fear that they would be discovered lingered over them. In early 1943, one of the local farmers agreed to hide them in his barn attic. They laid there day and night, encouraged by the news that the Russians were advancing. However, one night, the farmer told them to leave because German soldiers were searching houses nearby. Rachel and the others fled back to the swamps, eventually making contact with partisans in the area who transferred them in small groups to the forest.
As Rachel and her uncle left the swamps with three partisans, they were ambushed by the Germans at an intersection. Rachel ran with the partisans as the Germans began shooting and throwing rocket bombs. Uncle Mordechai was armed with a rifle and helped the partisans fight back. When the bombs lit up the sky, they all fell to the ground, then continued running when darkness shrouded them. Rachel heard bullets whistle past her ears. Afraid she would be wounded and fall into German hands, she made one of the partisans promise not to leave her and to kill her himself before she could be taken. They miraculously survived the ambush and eventually made it to the Russian partisan camp under the leadership of a man named Neckolsky. They arrived late at night at a large camp, where partisans were sitting around fires singing Russian songs.
Uncle Mordechai built a large hut with a roof covered with grass and sand. Inside, he built a raised layer made from tree trunks to use as a bed. It was topped with sticks and grass, and the family slept in a row next to each other. Life in the forest was not easy, but it was safer than the swamps. They suffered from diarrhea, sores from lack of vitamins, lice, toothaches, and illnesses. Rachel sewed undergarments by hand from parachutes and wore sandals made from reeds or “lusa” which was found in the swamps. Rachel enjoyed working in the camp kitchen where she could give food to the families and had plenty to eat herself.
The partisans bombed German trains, ambushed German convoys, and gathered information for the Russian Army. One winter day, the Germans were nearing their camp. The partisans scattered mines in the area, and they all escaped deeper into the forest. A young boy was shot by the partisans as they were afraid his crying would lead the Germans to their location. Many Germans were killed by the mines, and they swiftly discontinued their search.
At the end of 1943, the group was divided into fighters and a family group. While the fighters were transferred to a different place, Rachel and the families stayed in camp. Their huts were hidden between trees in the depth of the forest, and the Germans were afraid to enter because they could not carry heavy ammunition with them. They could often see German and Russian airplanes fighting overhead and rejoiced when the Russians downed enemy planes.
Rachel and the others prayed to see the fall and destruction of the Germans who wiped out their people and killed their brothers, sisters, and nation. Their prayer was answered. On July 8, 1944, the Russian Army liberated Baranowicze. Wearing her homemade shoes, Rachel returned to the city after liberation to find the city burned and houses destroyed. Uncle Mordechai located a house that belonged to a relative, only to discover that the Russian Army was setting up an office there.
One of the Russian soldiers recognized Rachel, as he was the manager of the grain warehouse where her sister, Osnat, worked before the German occupation. Rachel told him in tears that she was the only survivor of her family and had just returned from the forest looking for a place to live. He explained to his staff that they had to evacuate the house and give it to her. He then escorted Rachel to the main office and introduced her to the director of the state, a Russian Jew named Gutkovitz. Gutkovitz gave her a job as a personnel director, a high position with an excellent salary.
As more survivors came into the city, they began erecting memorials for those slaughtered by the Nazis. One such monument was built at the gravesite of 12,000 Jews, including Rachel’s parents, Eliezer, and Osnat. Around the graves, they found evidence of the murders: childrens’ shoes, broken toys, bones, and hair. They gathered it together and buried it near the mass grave. Antisemitism was still prevalent in post-war Poland, and the monuments were soon shattered and defaced by antisemites.
Rachel could not continue to live among murderers and mass graves, so she decided to illegally immigrate to Eretz Israel. Rachel traveled with a group through Poland and Czechoslovakia before arriving in Linz, Austria. There she met her future husband, Zvi Litwak, a humble and kind-hearted man who was also born in Baranowicze. She continued on until arriving in Italy, where the Jewish Brigade was waiting for the group. They were transferred by trucks to a detention camp where Rachel stayed for a few months, reuniting with Uncle Mordechai and his family. They were then transferred to Nikelino near Torino, where Rachel met Zvi for the second time. They were soon married.
In June 1946, Rachel and Zvi were among 1,257 illegal immigrants who boarded the Josiah Wedgwood bound for Eretz Israel. The ship was overcrowded, water was rationed, and Rachel became ill. Once they reached the middle of the sea, they were discovered and surrounded by British battleships. British soldiers boarded the ship, and they were taken to Haifa port after a hard eight-day journey. Rachel was so ill and weak that she was taken off the boat on a Red Cross stretcher. The refugees were taken to Camp Atlit. With the help of her brother Lola who lived in Haifa, Rachel and Zvi were released.
When Israel’s War of Independence began, Rachel was drafted into the traffic police. She was part of the police force for two years before giving birth to her daughter, Zipora, who was born on July 8, 1951. Two years later, on October 8, 1953, Rachel and Zvi had a son, Moshe.
After the war, Zvi started a successful store in Haifa with his business partner, Zalman Mart. Rachel devoted her life to her family, a deeply involved and protective mother to her children. She has openly shared her Holocaust experiences with her family and given talks in schools to educate future generations on the lessons of the Holocaust. Her daughter, Dr. Zipora Gur, has continued her mother’s mission through founding Classrooms Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to equipping educators to effectively teach about the Holocaust and Israel.
Rachel and Zvi (who passed away in 1986) have four grandsons: Saar and Ilan Gur and Lior and Ziv Litwak. They have eight great-grandchildren: Zev, Eliana, Talia, Solomon, and Naomi Gur and Yonatan, Ariel, and Lia Litwak.
Rachel resides in Israel and is the author of Remember the Past, You are the Future, a memoir of her Holocaust experiences.