Yankel Zelbovich was born in Ponidel in 1920. His father was Motel, mother was Khaia Sara. He was the second oldest of 7 children whose names were: Leibe, Feivel, Feigel (married last name Ioneson), Gershon, Henekh, and Mendel. His father was a shoe maker, they were very poor. There were 3 streets in Ponidel, there was lots of mud. There was a big train that went through the shtetl but was not accessible because of the mud. There was a smaller train that did stop in the shtetl. They lived in a wooden house that had 2 sections, Yankel and his family lived in one, Yankel’s zaideh lived in the other. The interviewer did not ask what the zaideh’s name was.
Life was very difficult. They owned a goat. They went daily to synagogue. Yankel went to school for the lower grades and then to “cheder” for 4 years until 13 years of age. In the lower grades he learned math, Yiddish writing, etc., and in cheder he learned Talmud, Chumash, Rashi, Gemorah. When he was 13, after his bar-mitzvah, he left to learn to become a tailor.
In 1930 his father went to Kovno to find more work. When the rest of the family joined him they all lived in 1 room, there were 4-5 people/bed. They ate mostly bread, butter and soup during the week. For Shabbos they ate potatoes, herring, sauerkraut, and cucumber. When they moved to Kovno they only attended synagogue for Shabbos and yom-tovim.
In 1940 prices began to rise and people began to hoard staples. The people believed in the Russian army. Yankel said that the people did not know what was going on in the west, and if they did hear about it, they did not believe the stories. On the second day of the war the Germans arrived and people started running. Some were shot, others were sent to the ghetto. They heard about the “forts” in Kovno where Jews were being shot and burned. Both of Yankel’s parents and 4 brothers were shot at Fort 9 in 1943. Eleven thousand Jews were murdered daily. One other brother was killed later in the war. Yankel survived because he worked in the “aerodrome” and was transferred to several other camps. He never knew if he would survive, starve, or freeze to death. Camp names that were mentioned included: Slobodka, Villiampole, Kedahnen.
A German officer named Mentzel killed everyone in the group except Yankel. Yankel distributed benzene as part of his work. He was being shipped to the camp Kazlu Ruda when he jumped off a wagon, fell into mud, and the Germans thought he was dead. A Lithuanian woman told him to go to a little house in a cemetery, where he hid with the husband and wife who lived there. After 2 weeks some partisans arrived and took him along to the forest. The war ended after about 2 weeks with the partisans, and Yankel then joined the Russian army for 2 years where he served as a First Sergeant in the Lithuanian Division of Red Army.
After the army he went to Vilna and married in 1946. He emigrated to Israel after the war and lived at 7/5 Chernofsky, Rishon LeZion 75217. He had a daughter and worked as a tailor. He did not mention his wife or daughter’s names, nor if he had other children.
The only other survivors of the war were a paternal aunt, and Yankel’s sister Feige. At the end of the video, Yankel is standing outside Fort 9. He said that his father asked him to say kaddish after he died. So every year, Yankel would go to Fort 9 to recite the kaddish.