The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
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With the changes of the regimes, life was becoming more difficult. Purchasing of food and other necessities required a large effort and ingenuity. This was the period dominated by the Meschochniki, or bagmen who were risking their lives by carrying needed products from town to town. Officially, this kind of trade was forbidden, but without it, the people had difficulty in surviving. Epidemics of typhus had broken out. Our family too was affected. Personally, I had a severe case of typhus. After I had survived the crisis, I heard Mother and Dad talking about it and thanking the Lord.
After a period of convalescence, I could hardly stand up. Walking required great effort. My hair had begun to thin out. After several weeks convalescence, I went back to the job at the Co-op, which was practically empty of any goods. Replacements couldn't be obtained.
My older brother Harry had left for Odessa, where he still found some customers for private Hebrew lessons. He managed to enroll in the University there. The antireligious activities of the authorities also affected Father's income. Kosher slaughtering was prohibited and income from his synagogue officiating declined. Smiela was a non-industrial city. Now, with private trade non-existent, there was no reason for the Co-op to remain open. Thus there was no future for me either. It was decided that I should return to Kremenchug where better conditions for jobs were likely to be found.
To cover the expenses of the trip, and perhaps earn a few extra rubles, we bought 50 pounds of granulated sugar, available in Smiela because it was beet sugar grown and refined in the area. We knew that in Kremenchug we could sell it for triple the cost because of sugar's scarcity there.
Father and I went by train to Cherassy and from there by river boat to Kremenchug. Each of us carried the sugar in burlap bags, approximately half each. Father and I felt good about our undertaking for we didn't see any military or policemen on the boat.
About an hour before docking, a group of chekists in black leather coats suddenly appeared from nowhere and arranged for a search of everyone's belongings. Unknown to us, there were some closed cabins on the boat, where the chekists were drinking in the company of friendly ladies during the entire trip and now they were ready for the booty.
Needless to say, we felt very threatened. Our sugar was confiscated. We were interrogated by the chekists in their cabin. While they waved their guns at us, we were warned about the law and released. There was no question in our minds that all the confiscated goods went for the personal profit of the chekists.
Upon disembarking in Kremenchug, we walked to the quarters of Mothers Uncle Tode Muschat, where I was to remain. After a few days, Father returned home.
Again in Kremenchug
Tode Muschat had no particular skills, but he was a friendly and happy-go-lucky man. His wife Heneh was a skilled wig maker. She used to canvas for customers. Where and how she acquired the hair of various shades I never did learn. She wove the wigs on a primitive piece of equipment. Their daughter, Rechke, a jolly young lady, about a year older than myself kept house. The older brother, Hayim, was a jeweler by trade. He had learned that trade in Zagare, at our cousins Lazersohns' shop. Hayim taught the trade to his young brother Leo, who was about one year younger than myself. The principal activities of the boys was to buy coins or articles of gold and manufacture gold wedding bands. Through the underground sources they would buy wholesale 12 inch rods of rolled gold. They would cut the rods in different lengths and roll and solder them into wedding bands of various sizes. In Kremenchug there was an open air market, called Tolchock, where goods were sold or exchanged. When dealing in items of gold one had to be on the look out for plain clothes or uniformed officials. The Muschat brothers had their merchandise hidden on their bodies and would hop on trains to nearby towns and try to do business in the market place. The Muschats lived in a semi-cellar about 4 steps down from the street level on Pavlovskaya Street.
My personal belongings didn't require any extra space because I had practically none except for the change of underwear, socks and a shirt. There was a dilapidated sofa in the living room on which I slept. The sofa was much too short and was very uncomfortable. This was the period when the Soviet system was first being organized. Private business ceased to exist. The equipment, buildings, goods on hand were confiscated, or, as it was referred to, "nationalized". Propaganda and slogans were heard and seen all over. A prominent slogan was, "The one who doesn't work - doesn't eat."
A central employment office was set up where all able-bodied men and unmarried women had to report. Everyone had to fill out an application about their qualifications and class background. An applicant whose father was a factory worker or a peasant was given preference. Here a problem presented itself to me. If I should fill out that my father was a Rabbi, I would have been classified as someone who is not sympathetic to the revolution. So I filled out that Father's occupation was teaching. Sitting alongside of me and filling out an application was a Mr. Kaplan, whom I recognized, as a former owner of a large hardware store, who had been contributing substantially to the Refugee Relief Committee where I worked in 1916-17. His store was closed and whatever goods there were confiscated.
Both of us, Kaplan and I, were assigned to a newly created office by the name of Sovnarchoz, which was the acronym of the Soviet of National Economy. This office was located in a large semi-circular three story building with a fenced in courtyard. Even before reporting to this office, we knew that the function of the Sovnarchoz was to manage all the nationalized industries of the region of Kremenchug. The biggest industries in the region were: flour mills, lumber mills, tobacco and cigarette factories, foundries, paint factories, print shops and lithographies, a sunflower oil press, and various small shops. Retail stores were all closed, for they didn't contribute anything positive to the revolution.
The man in charge of the Sovnarchoz was a Communist who had received special training and was sent from Moscow to establish the Regional office in Kremenchug. People with some knowledge of a particular industry were assigned to the respective department.
Kaplan and I were assigned to the Bookkeeping Department which wasn't yet in existence. On the day we were told to report to work, a total of about 20 men came. The general manager came in and assigned by name each person to a specific industry. Beside myself, four other men were assigned to handle the central bookkeeping department.
All of us were given printed instructions that came from Moscow, plus stacks of various blank forms for the recording of inventories of the plant's machinery and the manpower and planned production for the following year. Most of the bookkeeping staff were middle aged or older people and they had difficulty adjusting to the new procedures. Within 6 months, I was recognized as the head bookkeeper. Within a year, the staff grew to 120 people. Since acts of sabotage were still going on, the offices of the departmental heads were guarded by an armed sentry. So, now I had a guard at my door.
At this point, I will not comment on the end product of my office. It was a bureaucratic set-up with improbable and unlikely figures coming from the factories which were then ruled by workers' committees. The summarization of planned production we sent to the National Sovnarchoz were over optimistic by several hundred percent.
To give you a clearer picture of the times, money, that is, paper money, was no longer used. The remuneration of the employees was in merchandise, principally edibles. When food was available, each worker would receive so many pounds of flour or millet, etc. and ration tickets for such necessities as kerosene, which was used mostly for lighting or cooking. Two men who were in charge of the central flour distribution department were accused of appropriating 400 pounds of flour for their own use or sale. A public show trial was held in a large auditorium which was packed with onlookers. The men were found guilty and the presiding "Judge" announced the verdict - "The defendants will be given the highest form of punishment - to be shot at sunrise." The wives and families of the defendants were present. While the members of the families cried bitterly, the public generally approved the verdict.
In the same building housing the Sovnarchoz offices, were also the offices of the local Cheka. As previously stated the chekists were mostly former criminals, in many instances, or workers who carried grudges against their former employers. People were being arrested and executed in the cellar, the shots of which I frequently heard. The rationed flour that I received I gave to the Muschats. There was no safe way to keep it, except to hang the burlap bag suspended from the ceiling of one of the bedrooms as protection against the rats.
In 1920, the spring and summer were dry, resulting in total crop failure, especially in the lower Volga region. Even in the Ukraine, which was considered as the prewar breadbasket of Europe, the crops were very meager. Trains coming from the Volga region or from the north were covered on the outside with human beings - like flies they were coming because in the Ukraine some food was still available. That was the period when Hoover organized a relief program in America for the starving people of Russia. While it saved a lot of lives it came too late for many. The city administration of Kremenchug established a special wagon, attended by two men, who would drive through the city streets in the morning and pick up dead bodies of famine victims.
Even I, a well-established functionary without family, endured a two week-period during which there was nothing to eat but millet, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lack of food was problem number one for the family in Smiela. There was nothing I could do about it. The parcel post system was not operating. Travel on the railroad was still dangerous, as roving bands would hold up trains at various stations. Jews and identifiable communists were usually removed from the trains and killed. This happened to a group of 18 Jews who were trying to get home to Kremenchug from Charkov. It was immaterial which side caught the Jews. To the communists they were capitalists, which justified robbing and killing them. Insofar as the rest of the population was concerned the Jews were responsible for Russia's troubles, having made the revolution "Your Leibele (Lev) Trotsky is in command of the revolution," they would say.
Visit in Smiela
Sometime in 1921, when rumors reached me that trains had been going through without being stopped by bandits I decided to get through to the family. In a burlap bad, I carried some flour and loaves of bread. With the rest of the passengers I was jammed in a freight car. There was hardly any room to sit on the floor. We reached a bandit-infested area at Station "Znamenka" at night. The train was stopped there for several hours. Of course, there were immediate rumors and speculation that bandits had assumed control of the train. Finally, an hour or so before dawn, the train started moving. With arrival of daylight, I noticed that my precious cargo of food was now useless since someone had urinated on it. The entire floor of the car was permeated with urine. Upon arrival in Smiela, I discarded the bag at the station and arrived home empty handed. Of course, it was most gratifying to see everybody, except I didn't see my younger brother, Baruch Meyer, who, I was told died of typhus six months before.
I also learned that my older brother Harry, had come home from Odessa. When mother opened the door in response to his knocking, she didn't recognize him, and asked him, "Whom do you want to see?" He was so emaciated and looked like a tramp. He too risked his life traveling at this time. He was no longer at home for he had left for the area near Vitebsk. While there he saw Mothers cousin, a sister of Clara, who was married to a local photographer by the name of Meschaninov. From Vitebsk, Harry went to a nearby small town Liezna, where again he gave private Hebrew lessons. Latvia had recently been established as an independent country and he hoped to get there and from there to the U.S.A.
While at home with the family at Smiela, I was told of a harrowing experience father had. Some Jewish butchers in a nearby town of Kamenka, acquired a steer and wanted to have it ritually slaughtered, so as to have kosher meat. They knew of father being also a shochet (ritual slaughterer) so he was called to do the job. All of the above was against the newly established regulations. The job was done and father received the head of the steer as his compensation. He carried it in a burlap bag to Smiela. Had he been stopped by anybody, it would have been the end of him. This was just to point out what risks were taken to obtain some food. Mother was keeping any bread there was under lock and key and doling out inadequate portions to the children.
There was talk about the possibility of repatriating the war time refugees from Russia to the newly independent countries.
I took leave of the family and returned to my job in Kremenchug.
By Soviet standards, I had an excellent job, but I found no satisfaction in it. I always wanted to be an engineer. There was in Kremenchug a Railroad Polytechnic Institute. In the days of the Czar, no Jew was permitted to attend this school. The railroads, from the very beginning didn't employ Jews, although some high caliber Jewish contractors had the job of constructing the railroads.
From the time of the Interim Government, in early 1917, all laws pertaining to Jewish disabilities were abolished. I learned that a Jewish student had been accepted in the Polytechnic in the previous year, 1920. Since I never had the opportunity for a high school education, I needed some tutoring, especially in mathematics. I got in touch with a Professor of Mathematics who was heading the department at the Polytechnic and arranged for private lessons. This professor by the name of Serenko was no friend of the new regime.
In the fall of 1921, I took the entrance exams and, in view of my position at the Sovnarchoz, I was accepted.
Repatriation and Exchange of Refugees
Peace treaties were established between Soviet Russia and the newly established Baltic States. One of the basic provisions of the treaty was for a mutual exchange of wartime refugees or citizens who elected to return to the country of their origin.
The newly independent countries sent representatives of embassies or consulates who traveled to the larger cities and approved repatriation based on the documents the refugees possessed. Approval was given to depart from Russia once the local police had checked the appropriate documents. Freight trains were provided for the departing refugees. The Muschat family with whom I lived, left Kremenchug to return to the place of their origin, namely in Zagare, Lithuania.
Living quarters in Kremenchug, or any city were in short supply. The Sovnarchoz had grown in its bureaucracy and now occupied its own large building, which had been confiscated from the owners. The family of the janitor of the building occupied a small apartment and I had taken up lodging with them.
The mail was still very irregular but I heard from Father, that he, Mother and the younger children, namely David, Lozer and Sarah had been approved for repatriation to Zagare, Lithuania, and they, too, shortly thereafter, left in a freight car for the five day journey.
At this point, I will divert a little, and tell you about the Czarist system, in which the classes of the citizenry and passport requirements were established in the middle of the 19th century. The highest ranking were the titled aristocracy and landowners followed by "Grazhdane" or well-to-do industrialists and professional men. Next were, "Meshchane" mostly tradespeople and small business people. The last category were the peasantry living on the land or in small villages.
Simuktaneously, there was established the passport system for internal use. Thus, wherever my great grandfather lived, this was recorded, in his passport. Insofar as their progeny was concerned, no matter where they lived or were born, they carried on their passport, the town of origin of the family when the system was established.
Although my father and family were refugees from Sasmaken, which now was Latvia, the Latvian consulate didn't permit them to return there. Despite the approval of the Lithuanian consulate, Father anticipated, and did have, trouble entering Lithuania. Most of the refugees were Jews, forcibly driven out from those Baltic countries. The new regimes were placing all kinds of obstacles to their return.
Father, Mother and the younger children did reach Zagare. Once again, they were refugees; however, their lives and limbs were no longer in jeopardy.
Harry and I were now adults, 21 and 19 respectively. Neither of us would have gotten a visa from Lithuania or Latvia. However, I made a valiant try and traveled to Charkov, where there was a Latvian consulate. I will not describe the overnight journey. There I was, in front of the building waiting the arrival of the consul and any of his staff. The office was opened about 10 a.m. Though I had proof of having been born in Sasmaken and was driven out of there in 1915, the answer was "No." One reason was that my father was regarded as having been a "Meschanin" of Zagare, which is now Lithuania. Being not too disappointed, I returned to Kremenchug and was looking forward to a career in engineering in Russia. There was a great need for engineers in Russia and I was encouraged by the Chief of the Sovnarchoz to pursue that line. As a student, I was receiving a small stipend issued in the form of provisions. There were no dormitories connected to the Polytechnic. All students lived at home or with families as boarders.
In the latter part of 1921, postal connections with the USA were reestablished. Harry had written to our paternal grandmother, who was living in New Bedford, Mass. Harry had the address of Father's sister, Golda Baskin, who lived on Kempton St., New Bedford. Grandma got busy helping with needed documentation. She procured and sent Harry an affidavit, a required document for obtaining a visa. There were no American consulates in Russia at that time. Living in Leosna, not far from the Latvian border, Harry found out from knowledgeable people how and through whom to arrange to cross the border illegally to Latvia which he did. While in Riga, Harry even managed to travel to Sasmaken. Very few Jews had returned. A Latvian by the name of Reisneck, who was a piano teacher met him and offered to pay for the beds from our master bedrooms, which he had appropriated. Harry didn't accept any payment. Neither did he go to our former apartment where other people lived. Returning to Riga he received dollars in sufficient amount from our Grandma to cover the cost of his passage to America. The American consulate in Riga issued him a visa for entry and the German (then the Weimar Republic) and French consulates issued transit visas. Harry traveled through a world at peace. He sent me postal cards from Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Le Havre and then letters from the USA. Harry settled in New Bedford, Mass. where we had our grandmother Katzen, fathers sisters, Golda Baskin and Rose Brown with their husbands and families. He met aunts and cousins whom he had never seen before. In New Bedford, Harry gave Hebrew lessons and studied English.
Zagare was a temporary stopover place for the Katzen family. We had suffered six years of tribulation in the Ukraine: the war, revolutions, pogroms, and the deaths of two sisters and a brother. Our family's was the USA, where Father, besides his mother, had his sisters, those mentioned above and Feigi Gita Kramer and her family (Tillie's mother), as well as a widowed Aunt by the name of Sarah-Rivka Schneider, who had three married sons. Mother, on her side had in America her only sister Bluma Krales, who had a large family. A widowed Aunt by the name of Beila Okman who had three daughters. Mother also had a niece (daughter of a deceased sister) by the name of Anna Weiss, who lived in Westchester, PA and many cousins: The Levys and Macks in Portland, ME, and daughters of Tode Muschat, living in Brooklyn, NY and Paterson, NJ.
David, who was the oldest son with the family in Zagare, besides studying Hebrew had nothing else to do, so with the help of Grandma, he was sent off to USA in 1922, at his age of 16. He stayed with the Kramer family in Brooklyn and started working as a stock boy in a wholesale kitchenware establishment.
With most of the family now out of Russia, two sons already in the USA, and the rest to follow shortly, only I, Solomon Katzen, was still in Russia, embarking on his planned career of engineering. Every since the age of 12, I had no faith in Judaism as practiced at that time, with burdens of laws and observances. Even just before my Bar-Mitzvah, I do not remember having donned the Tefilin even once. Out of deference to Father I used to attend Friday night and Saturday morning services, never on weekdays. Mother was disappointed in my disregard of the observances, but Father understood and never used any pressure tactics or tried persuasion. Being away from home so much, especially in my formative years, while alone in Kremenchug, I completely dropped any semblance of observance, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religion, in general, was losing its popularity under the "enlightened" anti-religious propaganda of the state. I was present at a debate on religion between knowledgeable Communists and members of the Russian Clergy, which was held in a large theater and open to the public. Of course, the Communist debaters made mince meat of the fundamental dogmas of creation and the risen Christ.
Student in the Railroad Polytechnicum
The Polytechnicum was housed in a large three story brick building. When I lived in Kremenchug in the years 1915-17, I didn't even know of its existence nor had I seen the building, for it was a part of the city not frequented by Jews then. The building was located about 1/4 mile west of the railroad station and was built near the tracks. Being the only Jew in my class, some students looked at me as a curiosity, but I was generally accepted. The student sharing the desk with me was Nicholas Goncharenko, a son of a priest, whose parish house was not far from the Polytechnicum. Generally, there was practically no social mingling between Jews and Gentiles. Their contacts were mainly in business, in stores, market place or professional offices.
It was before Easter of 1922, when Nicholas invited me to come with him to his home for lunch. This was the first time that I had been inside of a Russian home. His mother was busy then baking the "koolichi" or "paschas" for their Easter. The priest engaged me in some conversation regarding Passover and Easter. A Jew in their home, must have been the first experience for them too.
The students, as well as instructors wore uniforms, where the colors and insignia were carried over from the prerevolutionary period. The insignia was a crossed over monkey wrench and a hammer. I still owned some woolen cloth that had been issued to me when I was in Sovnarchoz. Of this cloth, I had made to order a great coat which can be seen on my photograph. By the way, this was my first photo taken in 1922, not counting the family photograph taken in Sasmaken in 1913.
Of the instructors, I had great respect for the Director of the School, who lectured in advanced algebra. His name was Diebolt, of German antecedents. Outwardly, he seemed to have accepted the new regime. His lectures were models of precision.
Serenko who had tutored me, lectured in calculus and instructed in mechanical drawing.
I can still visualize some of them, the instructors in trigonometry, physics, chemistry, strength of materials, literary usage of the language, etc. There were no textbooks at the time. One had to keep copious notes of the lectures in order to stay abreast. In the basement of the school, there was an extensive shop, equipped with all kinds of machinery and hand tools - not having had any previous experience working with tools, my performance in the shop was not of the best.
At that time, in 1922, conscription for military service in the Red Army was instituted. However, as students, we were exempt, but were required to attend weekly military training. Having to walk two miles each way to school, topped with lots of homework, there was little time for socialization.
With snow on the ground, on a cold winter morning, when I was a bit late, the last quarter mile I walked on the railroad bed. With a self-rolled cigarette in my mouth, I encountered the Director, Diebold, in his fur great coat walking in the opposite direction. He stopped me, and gave a fatherly lecture, that smoking generally was not good for one's health and particularly in this cold weather, when I am inhaling a mixture of smoke and cold air. Not a word about me being late. During the first summer of school vacation, the students were assigned to work in a large railroad repair shop, which had several departments such as: undercarriage, frame, woodworking, etc. The shop was located on the west side of the Dniepr river in the township of Kryukov. Getting to the shop called for a 3 1/2 mile trek, two of which were along the tracks and the bridge across the river. One of the main supporting piers of the bridge had been destroyed in the civil war and was replaced by a temporary wooden support. I was assigned to the woodworking department where I worked in cutting groove and tongue in the narrow boards on American or German machines.
My social life was practically non-existent except for a small group of young idealistic Communists. Not being a member of the party, I was on the periphery of the group.
During the second half of 1922, I was getting letters from Harry, from New Bedford, advising me not to delay my departure from the USSR since illegal border crossings were becoming more difficult. Along similar veins, father wrote from Lithuania, that having lost three of his children in the Ukraine, he just couldn't accept further losses. Should I remain in Russia, he wrote, as time goes on, it will be impossible for me to get out, and that, I, too, would be lost to the family.
Living in Russia, the propaganda was all encompassing, how bad it is for the working people abroad. Unemployment, bread lines, minuscule wages and oppression, whereas the freed Russian proletariat is on the threshold of great economic development.
Though overt anti-semitism was outlawed, and acts of ani-semitism were punishable by law, yet, the air was permeated with it. An amateur theatrical group of the school was rehearsing a play. Unexpectedly, I walked into the room and found the actions denigrating for the Jewish character. The group was somewhat embarrassed. The action stopped, and I promptly left the room.
The summer work experience for the second year students involved working on locomotives, moving cars to specific tracks, etc. I was told that another Jewish student was at the throttle, and that he and his fellow students were attending the switches. Presumably they purposely locked the switch, with the result, that the locomotive crashed into some cars causing a lot of damage. A hearing was held by the railroad authorities. The only other Jewish student at the Polytechnicum was found unfit to continue his studies and was dismissed. This affair was more than a hint to me.
In my own mind, the idea of getting out of Russia and joining the family ripened. During my second year of studies, 1922-23, my zeal and application slackened insofar as my studies were concerned.
Plan for Departure
My parents in Lithuania and brother Harry in New Bedford were delighted to hear from me that I plan to join them. In disguised language, Harry wrote to me and gave me the name and address of a Jew, resident of Sebezh, which town was close to the Latvian border. Upon payment of 20 rubles in gold, this man will arrange the illegal crossing into Latvia. Once there, my further passage to America will be assured. In time, I received an affidavit from Grandma Katzen, certifying that she wants me to join her in the USA, and that I will not become a public charge. This affidavit was needed preparatory to receiving a visa.
In early 1923, with the gradual improvement of postal communications, I received a parcel from Grandma, which contained used clothing and some cloth. With great care, I sold these articles, as well as my formal coat on the black market to a dealer known to me. In all, I raised 55 rubles in gold coin. Two 10 ruble coins I kept hidden in my clothes and the remaining 35 rubles, as well as the affidavit were also hidden. I went to a friendly shoemaker, who removed the outer layers of the heels of my shoes. He hollowed out sufficient space in the heels, placed the gold coins in one heel and the affidavit in the other and covered same with two layers of leather. A letter of my planned arrival was dispatched to Sebezh. These precautions were necessary, that in case of being apprehended near the border, the authorities would not have prima facie evidence that I intended to go on to the USA.
Travel on the railroad was restricted to people on official business or those who had acquired some permit or another from the various governmental bureaus. The stations were teaming with uniformed and plainclothes secret police. There were no regular train schedules. Everything was still in a post revolutionary chaotic state.
As time was drawing nearer for my departure my attendance at the Polytechnicum was erratic. I didn't even study for the final examinations of the second year studies. My first arrangement was with a doctor, whom I knew well. He gave me a certificate that I was suffering severely from a certain type of rheumatism, and that he suggested, for me to travel to Velikie Luki for curative mineral baths. This town was even further north of Sebeszh, but also not far from the border. With this certificate in hand, I reported to the Director of the Polytechnicum, who already knew of my frequent absences. He told me, that of course, "Your health comes first. Go and take the cure, so you will become an engineer a year later." Being a student at a railroad school I was given a certificate entitling me to free passage from Kremenchug to Velikie Luki and back again.
Only the Professor of math, Serenko, knew of my intention to leave Russia for good. All of my belongings including some dry food for the trip, as well as a few notebooks were put in a burlap bag. With trepidation in my heart, I went to the railroad station of Kremenchug. I still wore the official uniform cap with the railroad insignia. After hours of waiting, I boarded a passenger train bound for Romni, that is, in a northerly direction.
On My Way
In comparison with the packed freight cars, in which we arrived in the Ukraine, the accommodations that I had on the way back were luxurious. Actually, I was riding in a third class carriage, where the benches were of wood. The lighting was provided by a small kerosene lantern hung at each end of the carriage. The benches also served as the bed for the night. Besides the conductors, at each important station the train was boarded by secret police, who were checking documents at random. The cap that I was wearing with railroad insignia saved me from being checked. After a three day journey I arrived in Vitebsk, where I disembarked, since I had to take another train toward Sebeszh. Following the family custom, I too looked up the Muschat family. I do not recall meeting any other member of the family except Minna, who was mother's cousin and a sister of Clara Muschat. After a short visit, I returned to the railroad station and boarded a train for Sebeszh. There were several stations between Vitebsk and Sebeszh and the passengers were mostly disembarking as the train was getting closer to the border. On the final stretch, there were very few passengers left and mostly small groups of army personnel, border guards and secret police.
Outside of the station, there were several wagons providing transportation to the town, which was about two miles distant. I boarded one of these wagons, which already had three passengers. When we reached the town, I asked the driver to let me off at the market place. Because there were no signs indicating the names of the streets, I had to inquire how to reach the street that I needed. Being in a small town, I had no difficulty reaching the destination, that is, the home of the person who was to make the arrangements for crossing the border. All the houses on the street were one story, log cabin type. From the description that I had been given, I readily recognized the house. The "broker", already informed of my coming, was expecting me. He was a middle aged man. He and his wife lived in the house.
The broker told me not to go out of his house until he could establish contact with the border runners. I was instructed to go to the outhouse only after dark. In a small border town as this, everybody is known to everyone else, and a new face will start the tongues wagging. The next day was to be the market day and he would try to establish contact.
This man, whose name I do not remember, went to the market the following morning and returned in the afternoon, sadly reporting that none of his contacts came to the market and that we would have to wait until next week. While the news was unpleasant, I had to remain a house prisoner for a week, for which I paid him extra. There was one good feature about the cottage. Within ten yards of the back entrance, there was the shore of an enormous lake, which was bordered by fir and birch trees. When the wind was blowing, it was good to look at the ever-changing panorama.
On the second market day, contact with the border runners was established. My host came back from the market and told me I would be leaving that same afternoon. He gave me a slip of paper, which I tore in half unevenly. My instructions were that after crossing the border I was to write on the piece that I had retained that I had reached the other side, and give it to my guide. He would present it to my host, who would match it against the half that he retained, and then pay the guide the ten ruble gold piece. I had paid my host the 20 rubles in gold coin.
In order not to be conspicuous, I left my jacket there and was given a peasant type shirt. I took my burlap bundle and followed my host at a distance until we came to the market place. My host went to one of the wagons on which were seated a peasant and his son. I was pointed out to the occupants of the wagon and they started out on their way at a slow pace. I followed that wagon on foot and maintained a distance of about 200 yards between us. This maneuver was for their benefit. In case I was stopped by some guards, those in the wagon wanted nothing to do with me.
After walking this way for about three miles, on a dusty unpaved road, we finally reached a forest, where the wagon stopped. The driver beckoned me to come forward. He told me to clamber into the wagon with my bundle as he believed that we were now in safe territory. Now we started moving at a trot. After traveling about 1 1/2 miles, the driver stopped and I was led about 30 feet into the woods. Although, I had no watch, it must have been about 6 p.m. The guides told me that as soon as it got dark, they would come to fetch me.
I realized that where they left me was not far from the clearing where their farmhouse stood. Barking dogs, bleating of sheep and even human voices were reaching me. There was nothing else to do, so I sat down and waited for darkness to fall. About 9:30, two young men came to me. I recognized one of them as having been on the wagon that brought me here. They told me to follow them. Before long, we were out of the forest and crossing a swamp. They told me to be careful and to follow them by jumping from one cluster of bushes to the next. They warned me not to step any place else, for I would sink in the swamp. The jumps varied in distance from 2 to 5 feet. I carried my bundle and, as I was tired from the days experiences, required extra effort to follow my guides in these jumps through the swamp. The swamp was about 500 feet wide. After crossing, we reached a forest and proceeded through unmarked paths, or I should say, that there were no paths. One of the guides was about 100 feet ahead and we were zig-zagging. I did notice that at every turn a low branch of a tree or bush had been stripped of its bark and in the darkness, the white of the branches could be seen. This apparently was their way of marking a safe approach to the river, which marked the border.
By now we could hear dogs barking.
The forward scout told us to wait while he went on for a closer inspection. After waiting for 30 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, he returned. To my utter disappointment, he said that it was unsafe to attempt the crossing that night. I was told to remain at that spot in the woods and that in the morning, they would bring me some food. They promised to return the next night to lead me across the border. Since there was no other alternative, I remained in the woods over night. The events of the day were going through my mind. The night noises of the forest kept me awake but eventually I must have been overcome by sleep. Was it the bleating of farm animals, crowing roosters, barking of dogs, that reached my ears? Or perhaps the rays of the sun breaking through the tops of the fir trees? No matter what, I was awakened.
There followed many hours of anxious waiting. I was aware that my hiding place was not very far from a farmhouse or small village. About eleven in the morning, I heard someone whistling by mouth. As I listened, with much apprehension, the sound came closer. Having overcome some of the fright, I realized that perhaps someone was looking for me and I answered by whistling. Because of the dense woods, I still didnt see anybody, but I heard footsteps on crackling branches on the ground, and then suddenly a peasant woman appeared. She brought me a half loaf of black bread and some milk in a clay vase. I ate some of the bread and drank all of the milk, as she was waiting to take the clay vase back. This peasant woman reiterated that my guides would return late in the evening to take me across.
I remained quietly on the same spot in the woods for the rest of the day. I didn't move very much, for fear of making any noise. Night descended and I waited and waited for an appropriate sound. None came. I was overcome both by anxiety and sleeplessness for the second night in a row. Once again the thick forest was my bed and bedroom. The next morning, I was awakened by raindrops falling on my face. It was not a downpour but more like a drizzle.
I waited until 10 or 11 a.m. Since, apparently, nobody was interested in my situation, I decided to try to get off from my hiding place. I proceed in an easterly direction, that is, away from the border.
The decision in which direction to walk was not an easy one. Based on the sounds that occasionally reached me from the farm, I figured that there was probably a road that led to the farm. Hesitatingly, I began walking where I though there should be a road. The drizzle had stopped, but it was still cloudy. To my surprise and relief, I did come to a sandy road that was cut through the forest. Now, the problem presented itself, whether I should go right or left. To be going away from the border, my instinct told me to go right. And so I proceeded through the woods. The rain had compacted the sandy road and it was easier to walk. The air was fresh with a pleasant aroma. As I was contemplating how to reach Sebeszh again, walking all alone, not encountering man or beast, suddenly two armed border guards jumped out from a hiding place, and one of them commanded me to halt.
There are times, when in the face of utmost danger, one can manage, at least outwardly to remain calm. For me, this was such a moment. In answer to their questions, where I was coming from, and where I was going to, I told them, that I was coming from Sebeszh and going to Velikie Luki. To this reply, one, the leader said, that I was lying, that I was coming from the border, which is only two kilometers away. He suspected that perhaps I am a foreign agent coming into Russia for espionage or sabotage. The next request was for my documents. Here I overwhelmed them. I showed them a certificate that I had served as chief bookkeeper in Sovnarchoz. Secondly, I had a certificate that I'm a student at the Kremenchug Railroad Polytechnicum and the free railroad pass from Kremenchug to Valikie Luki.
Their future inquiry was "Well, the papers look good, but what are you doing near the border?" I knew that Velikie Luki is about 25 kilometers north of Sebeszh. My answer was that the doctor had recommended, if I felt well enough to cover the distance from Sebeszh to Velikie Luki on foot. So, when I got off the train in Sebeszh, I inquired about the road to Velikie Luki and, of course, you know the directions you get from a peasant are not always right. In fact, I'm glad that encountered them, for now I can get the right directions.
They told me, you are way off your course. You'd better get back to Sebeszh. The guards further suggested that by night fall, I would be able to reach village X (I have forgotten the name). I was told to stay there overnight and proceed the next day to Sebaszh. I thanked them, and we parted friends.
Before I had gone 100 meters, one of the guards started to yell for me to return to their post, which I did. He said there is something wrong and to show him the document again. Then he couldn't understand that I should be so far off the route I was supposed to be going.
Particularly in those days and in that part of the country, there were no numbers or directional signs on the roads, most of which were unpaved. I had no trouble convincing him again, that I was misdirected and was given permission to proceed. On the way to the village, I did not encounter a living soul nor did I pass any farmhouse. I was very much bothered by thirst, and being aware of possible dire results, I drank water out of the ditches, scooping it up with my hands.
Toward evening, I reached the village and went to the house of the Starosta, that is the elder, or the chief of the village. I told him of my encounter with the soldiers and that I now had the proper directions. I said that I needed a place to stay overnight. The Starosta took me to a home occupied by a peasant and his wife. In keeping with the custom of hospitality, I was given bread, butter and milk for which I was thankful. The homes of the peasantry were not equipped with beds. A long platform raised about six inches from the floor and covered with straw bags (instead of mattresses) or plainly covered with straw served as the bed. I slept at the other end of this platform called nari. My host knew of another peasant who was driving that day to Sebeszh. He took me there, and I rode to the market place of Sebeszh on the wagon with my new friend.
With my burlap bag over my shoulder, I was returning to the home of the broker. He happened to be outside on the street. When he saw me from a distance I could see that he shrank and was overcome with fear. He told me afterwards, that I looked emaciated, resembling a tramp and the thought flashed through his mind that I was apprehended at the border and under police pressure I was leading them to the house of the broker who is arranging these illegal escapes.
I read these fears from his facial expression and I waved to him that no police is following me. We entered his house together and both of us let go a sigh of relief. When I recounted to him what happened to me in the past few days, he was horrified. He said that he isn't going to use that particular family of border runners anymore since they proved themselves to be so untrustworthy. He kept on repeating that it was a miracle to have come through such an experience.
Forward to Part 6
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.