The great forests of eastern Poland and western Ukraine had been contested territory for much of the war. It was here that groups of ‘partisans’ with different allegiances sought to evade the German occupation. Here there were nationalist groups, communist groups, a few jewish groups and not a few opportunists. Later as more weapons became available they took the fight to the Germans. The Germans met this threat to their rear with huge armed sweeps through the area and savage reprisals against the local villagers who were simply assumed to be supporting the partisans, which was not always true.
By late July 1944 the forests had become crowded places with more and more people fleeing, both to avoid the repercussions of the German collapse, and also to join in the insurrection that was expected as the Soviet forces approached. Frank Blaichman, a leader of a Jewish partisan group, describes these final days:
At around 10 a.m., our lookouts on top of the windmill reported seeing four Germans on horseback approaching the village. We woke everyone up and told them to go into the fields where there was good cover and to trench in and take up defensive positions.
An hour later, we heard a low rumble, like thunder. The ground began to tremble. Through my binoculars I saw a column of German tanks coming straight toward us from the village. I was dug in alongside Gruber, Chiel, and Dworecki. We told our men to be ready, but not to open fire until ordered.
I saw the column turn left onto a field road that ran parallel to our position; the Germans were now only about a hundred yards from us. We became alarmed because it looked as though they were on their way to engage us in battle.
With our weapons and numbers, we could not possibly engage a column of tanks. My mind was racing: how could we escape? We sent out scouts behind our positions to find a way out. I looked through my binoculars again and saw that the Germans were not combat-ready; instead, they were sitting on top of their tanks.
At this moment, our scouts returned to report that all the roads behind us were filled with German trucks, tanks, and horse—drawn wagons moving west. They weren’t coming after us; they were trying to get away from the Russian Army as fast as they could.
What I was looking at was the Nazi war machine in retreat. We could not move. There was nowhere to go. Hiding in the fields, trenched in, we heard the decisive battles for our area. The forest was full of Russian partisans. When they saw the Germans moving out on all the roads, they called on their air force to bomb and strafe the columns.
When the Germans tried to take cover in the forest, the partisans cut them down with their heavy machine guns. Then the Germans called in the Luftwaffe, and we watched the dogfights above the forest off to the east.
It took hours for the tank columns to pass our positions. Our men later said that some of the Germans riding on the tanks must have spotted us, but just looked the other way. To this day, I can’t imagine how we managed to keep cool in a situation like this, when we could all have been killed and our only defense was in lying low and waiting it out. We had become a tightly disciplined group. Nobody made a false move.
About half an hour after the last tank passed, we heard a huge explosion and saw flames and smoke maybe a thousand feet behind us. We later learned that one of the German tanks had broken down; the Germans blew it up, not wanting to leave it behind for the Russians.
When night fell, the roads were still crowded with thousands upon thousands of German foot soldiers riding on trucks, wagons, and horses. It was this congestion that had forced the tanks to take to the smaller roads through fields and forests.
We had not eaten since the previous day. The tension was wearing on us. We began to move out from our positions through the high grasses and swamps on the margins of a meadow, trying to find a break in the German encirclement.