The Warrior and Witness

Ben-Zion Blustein, the teen-age lone survivor of a White Russian Jewish family, spent most of World War II on the run, hiding in the forest, fighting with the partisans against the German occupiers and their local collaborators.

In July 1944, when the Russians liberated the area near Domachevo, he volunteered for the Red Army. His unit was one of the first to enter Maidanek, a slave labor and extermination camp where 360,000 prisoners, one third of them Jews, were starved, bludgeoned, shot and gassed to death between 1942 and 1944.

“I can’t forget what I saw to this day,” says Blustein, now a retired Tel Aviv building contractor. “There were heaps of shoes, glasses, human hair. I saw a group of inmates in their striped clothing. I started speaking to them in Yiddish. One of them shuffled toward me, a shadow of a man. ‘Now I can die,’ he whispered, ‘because I have seen another Jew, who will be able to tell the world what happened.'”

This February, 55 years later, Ben-Zion Blustein kept faith with that shadow of a man. He was the only Jewish witness to testify in Britain’s first war crimes trial, which ended two weeks ago with a life sentence for 77-year-old Anthony Sawoniuk, who was convicted of murdering two Jewish women while serving as a police volunteer in his home town of Domachevo.

Blustein had grown up with Sawoniuk, who settled in Britain after the war and who worked as a rail ticket collector. The Germans captured Domachevo in June 1941. Only a dozen survived out of a Jewish population of 5,000. Blustein described Sawoniuk to a hushed London court as behaving “like a cruel and lordly master” toward the Jews.

The war began in earnest for Blustein on Yom Kippur 1942, when the Germans and their allies started the slaughter of Domachevo’s Jews. Blustein’s family hid in a hole they had dug under their home. As the Nazis closed in, his stepfather took a lethal dose of morphine. His mother, brother and sister were caught and killed on the spot.

Only Ben-Zion escaped, though he was soon captured and put to work with a handful of other Jews grooming horses for the German soldiers. He never forgot his mother’s parting words: “If you come through, try to live a normal life. It’s no shame for a man to cry, but don’t forget how to laugh.”

By the time he reached the newborn Jewish state in 1948, Blustein had earned the right to laugh — though first he fought in one more war, with the Israeli army, before he could rebuild that normal life. The comforts of his light, airy flat in the lower-middle-class suburb of Givatayim did not come easily, but they came. And with them the proud, defiant photographs of his Polish-born wife, Clara; son; daughter; and seven Jewish grandchildren.

In his interview suit and un-Israeli tie, Blustein cuts a short, stocky figure with a sculptured, outdoor face. He tells his harrowing tale in robust Hebrew, pausing now and then to swallow his emotions.

After 10 months in captivity, young Blustein realized that the Germans were preparing to evacuate their camp — and that they were unlikely to take live Jewish prisoners with them. “I was determined to escape,” he says. “I cut the bars of my window with a pair of shears and fled into the forest with a purloined hand grenade and a box of matches.”

Sometimes alone, sometimes with other Jewish fugitives, he lived off stolen potatoes, buried by peasants for the winter. “It was hard even to steal,” he says. “There were dogs in every village.”

By the time winter came, the runaways had no shoes. They bound their feet in rags. The Germans spotted their footprints in the snow and caught them drying the rags over a bonfire.

“When they started shooting, I ran away, alone and barefoot,” he says. “I stopped after about 3 kilometers. I knew that if I couldn’t light a fire, I would freeze to death. I had three matches. I succeeded with the second. As I sat by the fire, I asked myself what I had done, filthy, eaten by lice, to deserve this hell.”

He contemplated suicide but then teamed up with another Jew he encountered in the forest. The pair jumped a villager and threatened to kill him if he didn’t help them. He led them to a hide-out, where they found guns, grenades and ammunition.

“From that moment,” says Blustein, smiling, “we started to live. We held up local drivers ferrying food to the soldiers, and took whatever we needed.”

Later, when the Russians dropped paratroopers to organize resistance, the two highwaymen joined the partisans. “That was the start of our sweet war,” Blustein says with relish. “We blew up trains, phone lines, bridges. We invaded a German camp and fought a pitched battle for six hours. We killed dozens of Germans and took 124 Ukrainian prisoners. We filled 100 carts with weapons and uniforms.”

In July 1944, the Red Army liberated the area. “There was great rejoicing among the partisans. Some went home, others wrote home. The few Jews among us knew there was no one waiting for us. We had no home to go back to.”

So Ben-Zion Blustein ended one man’s war of survival in the uniform of the Red Army, promising a shadow of a Jew that he would tell the world what happened. “Testifying wasn’t easy,” he says, “but I felt better afterward. I felt I had fulfilled my mission.”