However, the real war was rapidly approaching, and finally came. On September 1, 1939, the Germans bombed Poland's cities and Nazi troops crossed the Polish borders. There was a mass exodus toward the eastern part of the country, in an effort to escape the bombing raids. The Jews who fled had a dual motive. They wanted to escape the bombs, of course, but the fear of falling under Hitler's rule was even greater. From press and radio reports, they knew what was happening to Jews in Germany and in the countries that Germany occupied. It is therefore clear that the Jewish refugees fled their homes to escape falling under Nazi rule.
The goal was to get out of Poland. They ran, they fled to the borders. They hoped to find asylum in one of the neighboring countries.
The two countries which could have been expected to be sensitive to the problem were Lithuania and Rumania. Since Mikulince is on the way to Rumania, strange caravans came through the town. Some people traveled by bus, others by truck, others on bicycles and still others by wagon. Many walked on foot. Some had no means, and no strength to continue their flight. They remained in Mikulince.
The battle did not last long. Within two weeks, the weak resistance put up by the Polish armed forces was completely crushed. Chaos reigned in the country. The rulers fled for their lives and lawlessness was everywhere. Local officials tried to keep order. In some places, clashes continued. However, everyone knew that the end was in sight. In Mikulince, the Jews lived in fear, preparing for the worst. Nevertheless, nobody fled the town. Everyone listened to the news on the radio and counted the hours to the disaster. Suddenly, a rumor was spread to the effect that the Red Army planned to cross the Polish frontier and to invade Galicia and White Russia. The rumor was confirmed by a declaration broadcast on the Soviet radio in these words: Since the Polish Government left the country and anarchy reigns, the Soviet government has decided to send its armed forces to defend out Ukrainian and Russian brothers living in West Ukraine and in West Bielo-Russia. In plain language, that meant the Russians intended to invade the territories mentioned in the communiqué. At that itme, nobody yet knew that this was the result of an agreement between Stalin and Hitler.
The information made a tremendous impression on the Jews though different people had different reasons. The main factor was the belief that this would enable the Jews to save themselves from certain death, which they were sure would be their fate under Hitler's rule. There was no other available escape from the Nazis.
For some segments of the population, it was the fulfillment of their dream to live in a Communist society.
Meanwhile, when it became public knowledge that a Soviet invasion was really going to take place, people began to prepare for the new regime. Until then, not one Soviet official or military man had shown his face in Mikulince. The Polish officials of the town the mayor, police and others left. The Jews, as usual, were afraid that Gentiles from neighboring villages would take advantage of the situation and come to stage a pogrom and to steal Jewish property as happened on other occasions. The night after the Soviet invasion was announced was a night of vigil; young men patrolled the streets and defended the town. The next day, September 17, 1939, trucks full of Soviet troops came into town. The population welcomed them enthusiastically. There were many among them with whom it was possible to speak in Yiddish.
The town's Jews surrounded the trucks and began asking questions about live in Soviet Russia. The answers were vague, which aroused concern among the older generations. Younger people, on the other hand, were hopeful.
Meanwhile, a provisional town council was formed, headed by the Ukrainian Martinewitz. The man was known for his service as Mayor of Mikulince during the reign of the Bolsheviks after the First World War, in 1920. Now, a number of Jewish residents of Mikulince offered to work cooperatively with him, particularly those who considered themselves close to the rulers.
The town's life began to be organized. Laws and regulations were passed. There were still no Soviet officials in town, so matters were run by the local interpreters of the law.
The shortage of food was immediately felt. No supplies came from the nearby villages and no new source of supply was forthcoming. The merchandise left in the town's stores was hidden, and when it was displayed for sale its price was several times what it had been before.
Nobody wanted to hold Polish currency.
It didn't take long before Soviet officials arrived from Russia and began organizing the life of the town in Soviet fashion. The main problem was to find jobs for those able to work. Until the war, there hadn't been factories in Mikulince, nor had there been businesses able to provide employment for young people. Young people whose help was not needed in a family business or at home were simply unemployed. They talked politics, played chess and so forth. Those who had finished high school couldn't find jobs; the government offices employed only a small number of Jews.
Now, under the Soviet system where the employer was the state, a wealth of jobs opened. Departments of agriculture, commerce, industry, education and other functions were established. Each such department needed staff. Though some of the officials, particularly those in charge of the different departments, came from the Soviet Union, there was still a great need for local workers. The young Jews who had acquired a certain amount of formal education now joined the civil service. Mikulince became the urban center of the district which included the town and the surrounding villages. The Jews were represented in all facets of government and held important positions.
It is difficult to say if the economic situation of the Jews in Mikulince had objectively improved, but there was a feeling that things would get progressively better. After all, they had not lost much of what they had had under Polish rule.
During the years immediately preceding the war, there had been anti-Semitic incidents such as boycotts and pogroms. It is therefore easy to understand why the Jews were so hopeful and optimistic about their situation under the new regime. Anti-Semitism was not felt, and if there were anti-Semites among the new rulers they didn't show it. Anti-Semitism was against the law.
Everyone willing and able to work got a job (The exception was those with an unclean record). This made the individual feel important and equal rights were stressed.
The older generation was not enthusiastic about the changes. Jews who had devoted many years of their lives to trade did not find their niche under the new system. The religious Jews were particularly confused. Sadly, they watched religious values disappear. The prayer houses still functioned, but those that worked in the civil service, worked on Saturdays. Going to services was not considered a sin under the new regime but it was also not an accepted principle. Despite the official negative attitude toward religion, the new rulers turned to the synagogue whenever they wanted to meet with the Jewish population. The Soviet authorities wanted to legitimize their rule over eastern Poland and decided to hold a plebiscite to prove that the population wanted to be under Soviet rule. A mass meeting of the Jews was called for the Sabbath in the synagogue to encourage them to go to the polls and vote for annexation. During the services, town council chairman Martinewitz (a Ukrainian Gentile) gave a sermon comparing the delivery of the Jews from the bondage of Poland to the deliverance from Egyptian bondage.
There were no longer any privately owned stores. A few cooperative stores were opened. These stores lacked sufficient merchandise and there was a continual shortage of items needed for daily living. Craftsmen and artisans organized into cooperatives of carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, bakers and barbers. There was no shortage of work.
There were a few young people in Mikulince who had been unable to complete their high school education because of the anti-Semitism in Poland. Now, they had the opportunity to take their matriculation exams and get an appropriate job.
But what about Jewish education and culture, and what about Jewish political activity? The political parties ceased to exist. The clubs were open in the early days after the change in government but it soon became clear that the public political activity must be abandoned. Political parties and Zionist youth movements were forbidden in the Soviet Union. Continuing any activity of this kind was a crime. All political and cultural activity was to be left in the hands of the communist party. The party leaders came from Russia and supervised all cultural activities. A dramatic club was founded to put on plays in Yiddish. Of course, plays had to be approved by the party office.
The only Jewish institution which still educated Jewish children was the Jewish school. Since the days of the Jewish school sponsored by Baron Hirsch, there was no secular Jewish school in Mikulince. The lessons in that school were not conducted in Yiddish.
The Hebrew school sponsored by Tarbut had only a few pupils and was financed by the parents.
The school now founded was a public elementary school run completely by the government. It was, therefore, a special phenomenon. And this is how it happened. The war broke out in September and there was no possibility of opening the school year at the Polish school.
When the Soviets took over the town, a group of householders met to discuss the problem of education. Everyone knew that the Soviet constitution gave every national minority the right to run its own school in its own language. It was clear to us, therefore, that we had the right to our own Jewish school. Those who attended the meetings decided that we should try to exercise this right by founding a Jewish school for the Jewish children in Mikulince.
There were in those days a few unemployed Jewish teachers in town. Some of them had taught in other cities before the war. When the war broke out, they were in Mikulince for their summer vacation. Later, they were unable to return to their previous places of employment. There were other Jewish teachers who had previously taught at the Polish elementary school. A meeting of all of these teachers was called and a list of their names was submitted to the education committee for approval. Insofar as I can remember, the list included the following names: M. Margulies, Dr. Yisrael Hochwald, the well known historian Dr. Philip Friedman, Yisrael Trief, Henzel Trief, Yaakov Nassberg, Aharon Weisshois, Eti Appel, Bella Dankner, Haim Dlugatsch. There were others but I don't remember their names.
The committee approved the entire list and the teachers began their work. At first, the classes were housed in the same building as the Polish school. A short time later, we were granted permission to use the building which had once been the courthouse (near the bridge) and the school was run according to all the requirements. All the classes were taught in Yiddish except for Ukrainian which was the official language of the area. However, the subject matter taught was not Jewish. The curriculum did not include Jewish history, or Jewish tradition and culture either religious or secular.
The reader used for the Jewish literature course contained the works of Soviet Jewish authors. The School's atmosphere was comfortable for the children who no longer needed to fear anti-Semitic teachers. It was easier to talk in their mother tongue. The teachers included university graduates and individuals with long years of pedagogical experience. Dr. Hochwald was principal of the school. His assistant was Laiser Lilker. The academic level was high and the school was considered the best in the district.
One sad phenomenon was the expulsion of individuals. In the middle of the night, people would be driven from their homes, put on trains and sent to Siberia or to other farflung parts of the Soviet Union. It began with Polish military men and former civil servants. Afterwards, it was the Ukrainian nationalists' turn. Later, refugees who had stayed in Mikulince during the mass flight from the area (as already described) were sent away. They couldn't return home because their homes were in areas occupied by the Germans. All of them were Jews. There were rumors that the next candidates for deportation would be those formerly active in Zionist organizations. It didn't happen.
A far worse turn of events brought the Jews of Mikulince to their tragic end. The romance between Stalin and Hitler was suddenly over. In June, 1941, war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. Cities and towns in our area were bombed. A large number of Jewish young people were conscripted into the Red Army. The Germans waited in ambush for Mikulince. The end of Jewish settlement there was rapidly approaching. That is another chapter in Mikulince's history, and it will be dealt with in other portions of this book.
In ending this article, I would like to add the following remarks:
There was an awful panic. People fled in all directions. Only aftrer this the local command woke up and tried to gain control of the situation. In accordance with instructions, we packed up whatever was left and loaded it on railway cars. We retreated into Russian territory. I remember that my father, may he rest in peace, and my sister Bluma came to see with their own eyes if I was still alive. I took the opportunity to tell them not to run away, to stay at home. It was generally believed that the war would be over soon and that the Germans would not hurt people like them.
All during our flight with the rest of the Russian army back to the former Russian border, we were bombarded. The train stopped and could not go on. Each of us fled for his life, seeking a place to take cover. When things calmed down, we returned to the railway carriages. I remember that when I came back I realized that my phylacteries and my Bible, which I had taken in my knapsack, were gone. I had left them in the hiding place where I had taken cover from the bombs. I ran back there, found them and returned to the carriage.
We got to the Ukraine which is inside Russia. The railway lines had been destroyed and the Ukrainians among the troops fled to the forests. The commander ordered that weapons be taken away from the western Ukrainians. We all became work battalions. We began marching on foot from one city to another, working at kolhozes (collecting farms) on the way. We continued to retreat with all the troops and material (including animals and produce from the kolhozim) deeper into Russia. As we retreated, we dug trenches as a barrier to tanks, and we built bridges on rivers and other bodies of water. We worked and marched day and night, and the Germans followed us. All the time, we, the boys from Mikulince, stuck together. I would march behind Todio Fogelbaum. I would put my Bible on top of his knapsack and as we marched I would pray and study Torah.
After the German penetration of Russia, the Russians reorganized their army. In 1943, our unit was disbanded and the work battalions were moved to Siberia. In the late winter and early spring 1943, before Passover, we encountered a blizzard as we traveled with the rest of the transport. The train stopped near Voronish. Shalom Sas (Yaakov Henshel's son-in-law) and I didn't want to eat chametz (bread and other food forbidden to Jews during Passover) and decided to stay in town for the holiday. We looked for Jews. Only a few Jews lived there. We found the Goldfinger family. The head of the family was the manager of the regional executive committee. We stayed with them for Passover. The Goldfinger family gave us defense committee passes and sent us to the Polish army base in Chkalov. The unit sent us to Gozer, near Tahkent, to the Polish command and a special committee classified us as category d and as Jews we were discharged. We were given official certification to that effect. From there, we went to Jamboul in Kazahstan. There, I was sent to work at a soap factory. Six months later, I was conscripted into the Polish Army and sent to a school for noncommissioned officers near Moscow. When I finished the course, we were sent to the front in the direction of Wolin and from there toward Warsaw. We went into battle in Praga, a Warsaw suburb near the Kersberg Bridge. There, at the front, I was selected to go to officer's training school in Zamostch. I graduated as a second lieutenant and was sent to the Berlin front. There, I fought until the end of the war was over. After the victory in Berlin, our corps retreated to Poland and fought against Banderovtsim of all kinds and against the Krayova Army in the forests. Afterwards, we moved to Maidanek near Lublin. From Lublin, I was sent to an advanced military academy for officers in Posnan. Meanwhile, I was given two weeks furlough. I traveled to Sosnovitz, took off my uniform and entered the Kibbutz. With the Kibbutz I got to Vienna, where I was chosen to help the brichach (escape), the effort to smuggle European Jews to Palestine. From Vienna, I got to Germany. In 1949, I immigrated to Israel with my family.
My older brother Michael joined the Red Army in 1941. He served in the infantry at Meletopol-Krim. He was sent to officers' training school. Until 1943, I knew nothing of what happened to him. I put an ad in the papers saying that I was looking for my brother. Through that ad, I got to a captain in the Polish (Soviet) Army who knew my brother. He told me that he had served together with my brother in the First Polish Division which was organized in the Soviet Union, and in this way I picked up my brother's trail. When I found him, he was commander of the city of Lvov. He was an important man in those days.
He served in the infantry, was wounded three times and each time returned to active service as a combat officer. His position as a town commander was given to him after his third wound.
In 1943, my brother found out that I had been wounded was in the hospital. Because of his own wounds, he was exempt from further combat duty but when he discovered that I was no longer serving at the front, he volunteered to go back there himself. While I was in the military hospital, I received a post card from him. I later lost the post card in the confusion of the war, but I remember it by heart word for word.
My dear brother: Tomorrow I go into battle. I will beat the enemy mercilessly.Indeed, Michael went off to war and never returned. He got as far as Kenicksburg and at the city gates he was killed in the battle for its liberation.
If we remain alive, your fate will be bitter.
For our fathers and mothers, for our spilled blood.
For our towns which you ravages and destroyed, and our villages which you burned.
Be strong my brother.
When the Nazis advanced in 1941, I fled to Russia with others from Mikulince. I got to Harkov and worked in nearby Kolhoz. When the Germans continued to advance, we fled again. We got to Tashkent and there, in 1941, we were drafted into the Red Army, as Russian citizens.
In the Red Army, I fought at the gates of Moscow in the eighth division under Panfillow. I received a leg wound there and since I belonged to the Central Asian front, I was sent to a hospital in that region.
When I got out of the hospital, I was sent to officers' training school at Akmolensk where I spent six months. At the end of the course, I was made a corporal. In those days, the battles for Stalingrad were raging. Five hundred chosen soldiers were sent to a course for fifteen commissioned officers. I volunteered and asked to be sent to this school, but because I was a refugee, I was turned down.
There was a Jewish officer where I was, a Lieutenant Koznitsov, and I told him my story. He asked me why I had been turned down and I explained. I also told him that I was Jewish. Meet me here tomorrow, he said. I'll arrange everything.
When I returned the following day, he told me that I was accepted for officers' training. I spent a year at the school and ranked 29th in my class.
I was called to the Political Section, asked to read a text in Polish, and asked if I would be interested in joining the Polish Army founded by Wanda Wasilevska. At first, I thought this might be a political trap, but I recovered quickly and decided in the affirmative.
I announced: I was born in Poland and I am ready and willing to fight for Poland's liberation.
When I finished the course, I received the rank of first lieutenant and joined the Polish Army. During my service, I was wounded three times. I was among the liberators of Maidanek. I participated in the battle of Warsaw and after Warsaw's liberation we advanced on various fronts until we reached Berlin. I completed my service in the Polish Army in 1945.
I was in Germany, in Landsberg, in a kibbutz. In 1948, I received a visa from the American Consulate and emigrated to the United States. I now live in New York and thank G-d I have a fine family and I have a successful business. My situation is very good.
My brother Yitzhak also fled to Russia and passed the war years there. I met him in Poland after the war and we went to America together.
When I asked him if he received any help from former Mikulinceans in New York when he first arrived in the United States, he replied that he had not needed any help but that he has been in continuous contact with former Mikulinceans in America and is very active in the association of former Mikulince residents.
Interviewer: Haim Preshel
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