Eric Albrecht/Dispatch

Manny Elman -- formerly Manny Gekelman -- says his arrival in the United States after World War II allowed him to start living.

A survivor's story



Polish immigrant reflects on slow, painful journey to freedom

By Steve Stephens
Dispatch Staff Reporter

January 23, 1997

It was a choice between death and slavery -- a flight from hell into hell -- that 19-year-old Manny Gekelman made as war overwhelmed his Polish village during World War II.

It was, he says, the correct choice, the only way to survive.

But he still awakens on lonely nights to the memories of the war, of forced labor at the hands of the Soviets, of unceasing hunger, of returning to his tiny town to find his family and every other Jew exterminated by the Nazis.

After the war, Gekelman came to the United States, changed his name to Elman and eventually found work in a Canton steel mill. Today, he is 74 and retired. He lives alone in Bexley near his children.

It is time, Elman says, to tell his story:

In 1939, Gekelman, then 17, lived with his family in the eastern Polish village of Luninets (part of Belarus today). His father and mother had lived for a time in Russia but fled when the Communists rose to power.

When the Germans invaded western Poland, Russian troops moved east, and the Gekelmans found themselves under the Soviets again.

"They came into my small town, my shtetl like a bunch of hungry wolves," Elman recalled. "The Russian officers would load their hands full while we stood in line for hours for some bread."

His hunger would last nearly six years, his pain worsened by the death of his father from cancer in 1940.

Seeking bread and a way to avoid conscription in the Russian army, Elman got a job with the Russian railroad. He was sent away, but in 1941, when Germany continued its eastward move and attacked Russia, he returned home.

The German army had gone around Luninets, which was on swampy ground.

Elman's mother and one of his brothers already had escaped in the chaos.

He, too, wanted to get away from the Germans.

His family had lived for a short time in Danzig when he was young. There, he saw German boys marching menacingly through town with brown shirts and shovels.

"I had a sense about what was going to happen," Elman said. "I didn't want to get stuck behind German lines."

Elman's aunts, uncles and cousins chose to stay.

"They hated the Russians," Elman said. "Their experience with the Germans during the first world war wasn't so bad. They didn't know."

Elman knew. He hated the Russians, too, but he began walking -- east, following railroad tracks to the Russian border.

He hopped trains across western Russia.

Near the Volga River north of Kuybyshev, the train he was riding stopped on a siding, where police were waiting with horse-drawn wagons.

The refugees were forced onto the wagons, which carried them to a village near the Volga River. There, the ovens were still warm from baking bread, but the inhabitants, ethnic Germans, were gone -- taken by the Russians, who feared disloyalty, into Kazakhstan and Siberia.

The police assigned the new residents beds and told them to work the fields.

After several weeks, Elman, cold and with no end to his hunger, decided to leave.

"No one stopped me," he recalled. "I didn't know where I was going. I was just getting away from the confusion and the bombardment and the battleground."

He made his way, sneaking aboard boats and trains, to Stalingrad, now Volgograd.

"It was a big, beautiful city," Elman recalled.

But he was still hungry, and he still felt the Germans behind him. The time had come to decide where he was going.

He long had enjoyed his studies in geography and knew about the warm, southern Muslim republics of the Soviet Union. He also knew that the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, had a Russian name meaning "City of Bread." Elman boarded a southbound train.

In Tashkent, he asked the railroad authorities for a job.

He was sent to work in the Turkmenistan town of Krasnovodsk. The "City of Bread" had been just a name, anyway. In wartime Russia, only the authorities had enough to eat, Elman said.

Later, the railroad sent Elman to Tajikistan. What happened there still haunts him.

"You can only see such a thing in a movie or a book," Elman said.

He insists that one day, on the street of a Tajik town whose name he has forgotten, thousands of miles from his shtetl, he found his mother and brother Phillip.

His mother was skeletal, barefoot, wearing only a thin dress. His brother's arm was in a sling.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Elman said.

The reunion was short-lived, because he didn't dare show up late for work. He stopped long enough to learn that his mother's train from Luninets had been sent to Siberia and that his brother had been wounded in the Russian army. The family made plans to meet in the same place the next day.

He never saw his mother or brother again.

On his way to the railroad, a police officer stopped him and ordered him to follow.

Elman refused.

"I told him I worked on the railroad and I had to go," he said.

"He beat me. I kept talking back, but he beat me with his rifle and finally I went with him."

About 100 men -- Jews, Yugoslavs, Gypsies -- were gathered in front of the police station. Soon, they were loaded aboard freight cars.

"I didn't know where they were taking us, but they were looking for slaves, like somebody goes looking for stray dogs," Elman said.

They went north. As the weather grew colder, the men, dressed only in thin clothes, huddled.

The trip ended in the Ural Mountains, near Chelyabinsk. The men were given picks, shovels and a few other crude tools and ordered to build a railroad.

"We would march miles to begin work," Elman recalled. "We worked from dark until dark. The snow was deep, and we had no warm clothes."

At the end of the day, he said, the laborers stood in line for a bit of bread and a bowl of water sprinkled with grain.

During one march, about six weeks after Elman arrived, a man fell off the pace. Later, he was found frozen to death.

"I decided I would not freeze to death," he said.

Through the snow and across the barren plain, Elman escaped. He made his way to town, and in the thriving black market traded some small thing for a Russian soldier's uniform.

He donned the uniform and boarded a southbound train. A military police officer approached him once, but Elman bluffed his way through.

He didn't dare go back to Tajikistan, because he feared authorities might be looking for him.

He ended up in the Uzbek town of Samarqand, where, with his knowledge of trains, he got another railroad job.

Elman was never able to get enough food, though. Once, when a freight train dropped some sugar beets along the tracks, he grabbed as much as he could carry.

A soldier stopped Elman and took him to the police station, where he was thrown into a cramped cell with several beggars. For weeks he was confined to the tiny cell. Finally, the group was taken at gunpoint to a public bath, where one of the prisoners tried to escape. The prisoner was captured and marched to within sight of the others, where a police officer placed a gun to his shoulder and pulled the trigger.

At that point, Elman said, he surrendered his own thoughts of escape.

After several months in jail, he was taken before a judge, who quickly ruled that his possession of sugar beets constituted "crimes against the Soviet government." He was ordered to report to the local army headquarters for assignment to the western front.

"Then they just let me go out the door," Elman recalled. "Of course, I did not report to the army."

Instead, Elman defiantly returned to his job on the railroad, expecting arrest.

He spent several years in Samarqand, surviving by his wits, sometimes stealing food, sometimes helping his superiors in black-market schemes. As the war wound down, Elman used his knowledge to pressure his boss to let him return to what had been Poland.

On his way to his assignment in the Ukrainian town of Kovel, he returned to Luninets.

"There were no Jewish people left in my town," Elman said.

A gentile family told him that the Jews -- including his uncles, aunts and cousins -- had been forced by the Germans to dig large pits. The Jews were then made to undress and climb into the pits. There, they were shot and buried.

Elman's fears had proved correct. The war, though, was nearly over, and life under the Soviets promised continued misery.

"I was born free, and what I had seen in Russia I couldn't stomach," Elman said. "There was nothing in the world that would make me stay there."

After a time, he obtained a leave from the railroad to visit what remained of Poland. In Lodz, he made connections with the Jewish underground and traveled with a group of Jews out of Poland with false Greek papers.

After traveling through Soviet-controlled central Europe, he entered an American-controlled refugee camp in Salzburg, Austria.

An older brother and sister who had emigrated just before the war lived in Brooklyn. They arranged Elman's passage to the United States.

The converted troop carrier Marine Flasher carried him to New York Harbor in 1946.

"From there," Elman said, "I started to live."

Copyright © 1997, "The Columbus Dispatch", Ohio.

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