The Great Synagogue: A Channel for Weapons

The synagogue played a significant role in the Second World War by becoming a weapons store for the partisans.  The story is told by Nachum Alpert in his book “The Destruction of Slonim Jewry” which is reproduced below. The English translation is publishedd by the Holocaust Library New York. The photographs are not in the book, we have added them.

It describes how the synagogue was used to hide weapons destined for the partisans who operated in the forests around Slonim, but does not mention where they came from.  The Russian army made a rapid retreat when Hitler invaded Belarus and did not have time to take all their armaments with them and many were abandoned in the forests. The Nazis collected them and set up a repair workshop which was run by Jewish slave labour. It was impossible to predict how much could be salvaged so the Jewish workers were able to steal some of the repaired items without the Nazis noticing.  This posed the problem about how to deliver them to the partisans, and the synagogue provided one route.

At the end of May a branch of the OST, a German farm equipment company was opened in Slonim in the foyer of the Great Synagogue. Most of this machinery went to large farms that supplied produce to the German occupier. The director was an ill-tempered old German named Rick. Working for him as a bookkeeper was a Byelorussian named Sosnowski. The manager of the warehouse was a Tatar named Barionchik.

Through Sosnowski, Nonye Zirinski, a locksmith, got a job there assembling the machine parts for the customers. He did not have very much to do, however, because it was more convenient for the farmer to take the parts home separately and assemble the machine himself. Thus Zirinski mostly assembled models of each type of machine displayed in the “showroom” – the foyer of  the synagogue.

Nonye’s yellow armband which read “Locksmith for the Regional Kommissariat” gave him the privilege of walking through the city alone on his way to and from work. This was a very desirable situation for the partisans because Nonye now had the opportunity to contact people outside the ghetto and in the busy center of the town. From there it was easier to send weapons right to the forest.

During the war years, paper currency was practically worthless. The peasants employed a barter system instead – exchanging their farm produce for salt, matches, soda, soap, kerosene, candles etc.  And since the Germans often made sudden raids on the market place and confiscated these products, the peasants kept them in sacks on their backs and went from door to door to do the bartering. Frequently they came into the “showroom” to admire or to buy pieces of farm equipment.

Image result for google images partisans of slonim

The partisans decided to take advantage of this situation. Zirinski was often alone in the synagogue.  Barionchik, who trusted him and sympathized with the plight of the Jews, was always “away on business” for long periods of time.  The partisans brought some of the small arms from the Beuton camp into the synagogue and Nonye hid them away in various drawers in the walls, including the Ark which had once housed the Torah scrolls. In addition to weapons, he also hid radio parts, medicaments and printing type.

Possible hiding places

The weapon “transporters” would come to the “showroom” in groups. Those who the same kind of yellow armband as Nonye entered one at a time and unloaded their “merchandise”. Often Nonye himself took a walk to the Beuton camp and brought back a weapon or two. The synagogue was so crowded with machines and machine parts that that no one but Nonye could find his way around the place. He would pack up he weapons in a sack and, at an appointed time, a courier would come from the village with a sack of farm products on his back. If he spoke the right password, the sacks were exchanged. This “operation” never aroused any suspicion.

The partisan Nikolai Filenchic (from the village of Zalesia) would come into the showroom to look at the equipment. If Baritonchic were present, Nonye would make the exchange behind a large crate while the “customer” discussed prices and quality with the Tartar.  Then he would leave the synagogue with sack of weapons, heave it on the back of his wagon, cover it with straw and crack his whip over the horses flank…..

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