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[Page 308]

Exile in the Far North (cont.)

In the Forest and the Sovkhoz

We set out for the sovkhoz with better morale. We hoped that there would not be a shortage of bread there. The snow began to melt and left behind puddles, on which floated layers of ice that had formed at night. A river flowed through the place and the water flowed more strongly on both its sides. In the middle of the river was a dark blob, which would quickly surrender to the flow of the water.

When we entered the camp, few people were around, and they all looked at us, as though trying to find relatives among us. Each one of us took his place in the cabin and placed his belongings there. We asked how life was run in a sovkhoz, and if there was enough food. The “veterans” broke out in bitter laughter in response. When one of them saw that we were impatiently waiting for food, he pointed to the grass peeking up from the ground and said that it was edible. We remained astounded. We looked at each other and each one silently returned to his place in the cabin. In the evening we received soup made of sauerkraut, which we ate without bread. Tired from our journey, we lay down on the floor and fell asleep. In the morning they took us out to the field to remove the snow, and they immediately spread fertilizer and prepared the field for planting.

Spring was late in coming, and when it arrived it covered the ground in grass, and its quick growth could be discerned every day. We worked in the field on the other side of the river. We picked weeds, cooked them and mixed the mixture with the moist sticky bread, which contained only a small amount of flour.

A large section in the forest was prepared for planting, and that is where we planted the seeds. On one side of us was a river and on the other three sides we were surrounded by the primal forest that extended for thousands of kilometers.

I was appointed to be the watchman of the forest. There was a kind of lean-to there, in which you could find shelter from the rain, and the logs were placed beside it. It was about five kilometers away from the camp, and I used to set out for there at nightfall and return at daybreak. I used to pull up plants, wash them in the river and eat them. I also gathered and ate berries, and warmed myself beside the fire that burned close to the lean-to. I no longer suffered from hunger, and began to become accustomed to my life in the forest. The forest became my home and I wasn't afraid of animals or snakes. It seemed as though I myself had become a kind of animal. I used to lie down on the ground or run by myself in the forest, and if someone had seen me, they would almost certainly have been frightened. I scratched signs on the trees so as not to get lost, and when the mushrooms began to appear, I picked, cooked and ate them…

 

… My life in the forest came to an end, and I returned to my brigade and was sent to different jobs.

At the time for gathering the crops, students came there, who received food in their own special kitchen. The sovkhoz wasn't far from the town of Abiz [Byzovaya?], Komi A.S.S.R. At the time I worked mainly at night. Hunger again began to gnaw at me, and when I learned about the existence of that kitchen, I offered them my help. In compensation for sawing wood to heat the kitchen I received food, and I was pleased. One time I suggested to the brigadier Ivanov to join me in the kitchen and eat well.

 

The cook was a pretty young woman with dark eyes, and a braid around her head. She asked us to bring in a pile of wood, and after we hurried to do as she requested she gave us a large dish of soup, and porridge with bread in it. “Here you are, eat,” she said with a friendly smile. The building stood in the forest, and the river ran along one side of it. We sat on the ground and ate. The food was varied – rice and noodles and other things – and tasty, and different from what we received in the camp.

Ivanov began to tell me about the nourishing food in his home, and I felt myself choking up, and couldn't make a sound. I recalled the tasty food that my wife used to prepare, with the children standing beside her and watching what she was doing. I recalled the beloved Sabbath, when we all sat at the table across from the shining candles, and I swallowed my tears. He sat and talked, and I just nodded my head and cried. I was lost in thought, with the past going through my mind.

 

Ivanov thanked me for inviting him, and when we returned to the camp he said that I didn't need to go to work that day, that he would say that he had given me permission to rest. When I heard that the students needed regular help, I proposed to the natchalnik, with whom I was friendly, that I be employed there…

 

… At daybreak we were sent to the forest to gather mushrooms. The commander warned us that the river was very long, and told us not to continue walking after nightfall. We went out in small groups, made up of three people. I went with a Russian and a Turk. On the way we found large quantities of blackberries, “enough to build a bridge” – as they used to say. We ate and walked deeper into the forest. We gathered mushrooms and filled our sacks with them. The sky grew dark and it began to rain. We decided to return to the camp. Each of my two companions pointed in a different direction to walk, while I preferred to keep silent lest we get lost, and it wasn't hard to imagine what they would do to me. It rained and a bothersome cold prevailed; the trees swayed and shrieked with weird noises, as though there were a large symphony orchestra there. We stopped and didn't know where to continue going. We got caught in the thick grass that was wet and taller than us, and we had to push it aside in order to make way to walk.

We began to call out: “Oho, oho!” After a while we heard a voice: “Oho!” We walked in the direction of the voice, walked faster, but the sacks were a burden. We met a Russian prisoner who had gotten lost like us, and had become separated from his two companions.

We heard the flowing of the river, but didn't know whether we were walking in the right direction or not. It was hard to carry the heavily laden sack that was soaked with water. Suddenly we found ourselves on a path and hoped that it would lead us somewhere. The path was a winding one. We walked along it and didn't know to where we were going. The longer we walked, the deeper we entered into the forest. Our clothes were soaked and it was hard to pick up our feet. We abandoned the sacks and continued walking. We noticed a building and quickly moved toward it. One side of the structure had fallen down, and we tried to shelter from the rain under it. We found a nailed door that had been displaced and we lay down on it. We lay in wet clothes and huddled close to each other in order to keep warm, like four brothers sleeping in one bed. The troubles didn't differentiate between a Jewish, Russian or Turkish prisoner. When day dawned the rain stopped for a short while. Our teeth were chattering and it was hard to talk. We wrapped the wet rags around our feet, put on our shoes and continued walking, until we reached the end of the path, which ended at the riverbank…

 

… We sat down to rest on logs in the forest. It was hard for me to get up and I was overtaken by extreme weariness. I was distressed with the thought of how I would continue walking. I lagged behind my comrades and they waited for me. I noticed two bales of hay some distance away. I thought that someone would probably soon come to get them, and I could join him. I parted from my friends and stayed to wait. I was hungry and searched for berries, but in vain. I found a mushroom, but was unable to eat it and threw it away. I wandered to and fro restlessly. It began to grow dark. I thought about what would happen to me there, all by myself in the forest, and where I would lie down. I was afraid that the rustling of the trees at night would frighten me. My nerves were already shot, and weird thoughts went through my mind… I returned to the riverbank and again returned to the building and hunched up in the hay. I was extremely tired and fell asleep. When I woke up my clothing was dry and also the rag wrapped around my feet. It was already daylight. I carefully crawled out of the building and walked in the direction of the river. I hoped that someone might show up, but no one did, as though the whole world had died. I returned to the forest, wandered around in the high growth and searched for food, but didn't find any. I again returned to the river, and back to the forest, and the second night fell. This time I didn't sink into a deep sleep, and I heard the rustling of the trees and the chirping of the birds. The forest was filled with life. In the dark every noise could be heard clearly. I wasn't afraid, and I didn't know of what to be careful. I felt resigned to my fate. “Whatever will be, will be,” I thought to myself, and dozed on and off.

 

Day dawned again and the light made me happy, even though there was nothing new. It was the fourth day since I had parted from my companions. The sky grew overcast and a light rain began to fall, and I was still waiting. I again went back and forth from the forest to the river, until I grew dizzy and fell flat on my face. My arms were spread to the side, and I couldn't move. I was completely conscious, but felt terribly weak. I thought that if my life was ending here my loved ones would never know where I had disappeared. Suddenly from afar I heard a voice from the direction of the river and a bit of a commotion. The voice came nearer. I couldn't get up. I made an effort to turn over, and suddenly I felt that I was being lifted and carried from there on shoulders. One fellow removed my wet jacket and wrapped me in his coat. They lit a fire and we warmed up beside it. A man handed me a piece of bread and his companion went and brought me berries. There were three of them. It was hard for me to talk, but seeing these kindhearted people I grew stronger and slowly told them what had happened to me in detail, and that I had been lost there for four days. It turned out that they worked in the nearby hospital. When I saw people around me my frame of mind improved. I cried and laughed for joy. While in the forest my beard had grown, my body was thin and in pain, and I could barely stand on my feet. The people took me to the hospital.

In the hospital the nurse asked me to tell her about myself. I had no identity papers, and the doctor refused to admit me. “Perhaps he's a spy,” he contended. I received a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, and they asked me if I knew the way to my camp. When I left there it was already completely dark. I walked along the Pechora River. I found shelter under a large tree, wrapped myself up and fell asleep, tired but not hungry.

 

An Explosion at the Electrical Power Station

I returned to the camp and again worked at chopping down trees and digging trenches, and it was already the winter of 1943. I again worked at hard labor from dawn till dusk, and I grew weaker. Many people broke down and other prisoners were brought in their place. Many exiles were brought from Leningrad.

One morning a storm accompanied by cold and frost was raging, and I had difficulty getting up from my bed. Luckily, the doctor gave me permission to remain in the cabin. When I went out to wash I met a Jew from Leningrad. He was an electrical engineer and was a resident of the camp. I lamented to him that I only had a year and a half left, and I had to save my life and return home. My words apparently touched him, and he offered to help me. He told me that he was the manager of the electrical power station, and he would appoint me to be a guard, if I was capable of holding my tongue. I shook his hand in thanks, and could barely express my joy. He encouraged me saying: “I know everything. You have to hold out!”

One evening I was called to the guards' building and was instructed to go work as a guard at the power station the following day. For me this was a kind of resurrection of the dead. The next morning I put on my worn out, patched woolen pants, tied them on with a rope, put on my rubber sandals and following the natchalnik's instructions walked to the city in the direction of the power station.

There was a fuel reservoir there. The natchalnik advised me to occasionally warm up in the power station, and that is what I did. I walked around outside, and went in to warm up inside the station, and again went out. It was hard to go out from the warmth to the cold. The night grew long, and I regretted the job. As the night wore on, it grew gradually colder. I was so frozen and tired that my cheeks caved in. If someone had approached me with a question, I wouldn't have been able to open my mouth to answer him. “I can't tolerate this,” I thought to myself. I wanted to already see the light of day, and for the natchalnik to come, because I wasn't allowed to leave before that. I thought about what I would say to him. I would explain to him that this work was not suitable for me, that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to hold out, and it would be better for me to return to the labor brigade.

The morning finally arrived, and with it the natchalnik. I spoke to him, but he had trouble understanding me. He saw that I was shivering from cold and led me to the building to warm up. He advised me to come to that building at night too, and he would see to it that there was a heater there, and I could look outside from there. I returned to the camp, drank some soup and lay down to warm up my frozen bones. I wanted the break to go on forever. As usual, the alarm went off at four o'clock, as usual they gave out soup and bread, and I rushed off to the power station.

It was still light out, but the moon could be seen over the horizon and the stars had begun to twinkle. The manager was waiting for me and in a joyful voice said that today I would be warm. “Bring firewood here and warm up, but go out occasionally and take a look to see that everything is as it should be. I can see that you know how to do the job.” In the meantime, the natchalnik had begun to heat up the stove. In good spirits I went to bring wood and began to warm up.

 

The stove was made of cast iron, and the chimney was made of bricks. The room was tiny and built out of wooden beams. I put more and more wood in and moved away from the heater so that I wouldn't get too hot. I stood absolutely enjoying the heat, when suddenly I heard a loud explosion, and the bricks began to fly and fall down around me. They tore through the wooden walls, and by some miracle I remained standing uninjured in the middle of the room. Flames burst forth from the stove, and I saw that everything would shortly begin to burn. Upon hearing the noise and the bang, everyone came running to the station. I immediately began putting out the fire. I poured water on it and the smoke became thick and cloudy. The workers broke in and immediately threw the stove outside. Everyone began shouting and said that I was at fault for what had happened. I was confused and didn't know what to answer. The sound of the bricks flying was still ringing in my ears. However, I repeated one sentence over and over again: “I didn't construct the chimney!” to myself I thought that my end was now near. I could sit there in silence and let death take me. “The end! The end!” I shouted out my inner thoughts. My nerves were affected and I couldn't calm down. I was choked with tears. The manager, who had previously been so good and considerate to me now came up to me in an angry voice and said: “Nu, from now on you will freeze outside.” I again said: “I'm not the one who installed the chimney.” I went outside, walked back and forth, and each step broke the ice. I was in shock from the horrifying experience and thought about how I would get through that terrible cold night.

I quickly counted the fuel containers. I couldn't relax over thinking what could have happened to me because of the stove and the chimney. I thought to myself, “Thank the Lord that the building didn't burn down, because if it had, they would have extended my sufferings for many more years.”

 

At this point it occurred to me that I had been given this job because other people hadn't agreed to freeze there at night. The manager probably knew that running around there during the long night in the terrible cold was not at all an easy job, and he took advantage of me and my difficult situation. The second night was longer than the previous one, and went on and on, like the exile of the Jews. I could hardly wait for daylight, but even during the hard and bitter moments I held on to hope: “I will hold out. I mustn't give in!” I used to press my hands together so that they wouldn't freeze. “I have to return home. I will remain alive and return to my wife and children,” I kept repeating to myself.

At that time, when thinking of my home, I didn't know that my wife and children were already among the victims of the Nazi beasts. I could not and did not want to believe that! I thought about one thing: I would hold out and return to them no matter what!

 

The arrest and deportation of thousands of Lithuanian Jews, which began at the beginning of WWII, continued above and beyond the war period. Although the situation of these cannot be compared to that of their brethren who remained at the “mercy” of the Nazis, from the point of view of their suffering and the cruel treatment they received, this was a side effect of the Holocaust.

This issue is also an integral part of the ongoing confrontation between the Soviet-communist system and nationalist Jewry.

It appears that even under conditions of arrest and deportation, the Jews of Lithuania showed unusual tenacity in preserving their national and cultural values, and unquenchable vitality, which helped many of them physically overcome their tribulations. [15]

 

“No Jews Remain Alive”

The terrible news about the heavy losses of Jewish victims began to reach us, but my mind refused to accept that my family was also liable to be among the victims of the murderers. “No! They're alive!” That is what I thought, and my hopes were raised. I thought that I would soon return home, and my sun would shine again. My life improved, but my longing for home gnawed at me, because almost five years had gone by since I was taken from my home.

 

The war came to an end. People danced in the streets, drank and kissed each other. But my heart was not at ease. I could find no rest, and didn't know what awaited me. Thanks to the amnesty, they began to liberate people from the camp. I was supposed to be freed in another six months, and in the meantime I sent a letter to my shtetl Dusiat, to my Gentile neighbors, and from their reply I learned that no Jew remained alive! In a second letter they wrote that my relatives had not been seen there since 1941.

All the troubles and suffering I had undergone were not as hard as those moments in which I received the terrible news. All that had kept me going during those terrible days and nights had been the hope that I would one day return home and tell my dear wife and children what had happened to me. And now, everything was lost!

I decided to write a letter to my relatives in South Africa, to ask them whether they knew if someone had survived.

One night I dreamed that many planes landed one after another, but no one came out of them. I came up to a plane and saw that my wife and children were being carried from there, and they were dead! I began to scream, and a man grabbed me and threw me out.

I woke up covered in a cold sweat. I was frightened and couldn't make a sound. The next day I walked around like someone in shock. I was like a madman, and could find no rest. People began to console me, especially the Jews: “The Jewish people won't die, but will live!” “You must be strong!”

 

[Page 312]

How Will I Begin Life Anew?

Thanks to the amnesty, I was liberated. I had gone through half a year in prison and four and a half years in labor camps, and now I could return home, but how could I go to Dusiat, to my shtetl? How could I reside there on the blood-soaked earth?

I was forbidden to reside in Moscow or Leningrad, and they suggested that I go to the Ukraine. One of my acquaintances gave me a small package for his sister, and wrote a note asking them to treat me like a son. I received a liberation card and a free train ticket.

This was in November 1945. It was icy cold and snowy, but this time I ignored my distress, and my mood changed. Most of the passengers on the train were liberated prisoners. There were people there who barely had skin on their bones, and many couldn't stand on their feet.

The railway cars were old, noisy and uncomfortable. We departed from Abiz via Pechora, and after a few days reached the city of Gorky. Masses of people wandered around there, among them freed prisoners and soldiers returning home from the war. After a few days we reached Moscow, and from there everyone was sent to his destination.

I reached Kremenchuk [Ukraine]. I carried the package on my shoulders and looked around. Military personnel were everywhere. I entered the city when night began to fall. I had difficulty finding the address because the city was in ruins and it was impossible to recognize the streets. I walked and thought about what the war had caused. Why had I come here? I walked for a long time until I reached a street that had already been cleared of rubble. There they pointed out the house for me, and I prepared myself to enter. I put on a happy face, as I was coming to a strange house, and no one likes a gloomy face! I knocked at the door, and entered with a happy face. I removed the package from my shoulder and held out the note. The people welcomed me like a son. Nine people sat in the room, and I was the tenth. I washed and was given a cup of tea. The package contained canned foods from America, which were hard to obtain items at that time. We exchanged a few words, and the owners of the house made room for me to rest. When I awoke it was already late in the morning, and silence prevailed in the room. The homeowner, an older woman, was quietly cleaning the floors of the house. The pleasant reception touched my heart, and for a moment I forgot my sorrow.

Now new worries went through my mind. How would I begin my life anew? I had to see about a ration card for bread, which was hard to obtain, and when I learned the high cost of a loaf of bread, I could no longer taste the food. I finally obtained a card for 300 grams of bread a day. I had to be registered legally in order to obtain work, but for that I needed a permanent place of residence. I walked around for an entire day, but couldn't find a room or an apartment. Everything was destroyed and burned, and people actually slept outdoors…

 

…I found an apartment and could go to work. In 1946 it was hard to earn a living from working only in a factory. The salary was enough for one week, and I had to worry about supporting myself for the remaining three weeks of the month as well. I was alone, and it was hard for me to live by myself.

 

I already knew that my wife Teibl and my children had been annihilated by the Nazis and that along with them the war had claimed many more victims and damaged the lives of those who remained. It was hard for me to live alone during that time, and the loneliness could have led to additional calamities.

At that time I got to know Betty, and together we began a new life. We supported each other. We lived in the Ukraine until 1953. Then a difficult chapter of oppression of our people began, which started with the murder of the actor Michaelis and continued with the murder of the Jewish writers and the doctors' trials. They again began arresting Jews and accusing them of every possible thing. Again slogans appeared on the walls: “Strike at the Jews and save Russia!” It was dangerous to walk in the street at night, and the danger especially increased after the death of Stalin.

 

I had a serious heart attack then, and was bedridden for three months.

... Afterwards, the Jews began to breathe more freely. But the poisoned atmosphere entered our hearts and caused us emotional distress. It was hard to overcome our feelings towards the people who had previously hailed fire and brimstone on the Jewish people, and had now again become pleasant…

In 1953 I left the Ukraine with my wife Betty, and we settled in Vilna, because that is where most of the Lithuanian Jewish survivors had concentrated.

 

 
“As a memento to family Aires from me”
Dovid Aires and my wife Baile Yudelewitz Aires
December 19, 1955

 

The Jews of my shtetl Dusiat, among them my family, my wife Teibl and the children, are buried a few kilometers away from the shtetl, in a large mass grave, two hundred meters long and eight meters wide... There the saints of Dusiat are buried. When we were in Vilna we used to go to the mass grave every year. We used to gather and say Kaddish together, and pour out tears over the terrible calamity that the Jewish people had suffered in the Holocaust, and over our loved ones who perished.

 

Our life was better in Vilna than in the Ukraine. However, I didn't want to remain there and planned to make aliya to Israel. In 1956 I submitted a request to join my brother Yitzchak [Orez], who was living in Israel, but my request was refused because of the Sinai Campaign. But I didn't give up. I knew that like everywhere in the Soviet Union, we could be arrested at any time. Every day you could hear that this friend of mine was captured or that one received ten years imprisonment, and perhaps he was lucky, because the prosecutor had asked for fifteen years. My job was also not secure, and it was no less dangerous to move to another place of work. The aspiration to make aliya did not leave me, but it seemed an imaginary mission with no chance of success, because they had already permitted the aliya and again forbidden people to leave.

We were certain that the day of our aliya was approaching. We went to the Ukraine to say farewell to our relatives. We met young Jewish men who didn't know of the existence of the State of Israel. They didn't believe me when I said we had a country. When I received a letter from my brother Yitzchak, I showed the young men the envelope stamped Israel, and their eyes lit up…

We didn't receive an exit permit until 1964, when we made aliya to Israel.

 

Dovid-Leib with Betty “As a memento to my brother and sister-in-law” Shavuot - June 10, 1970
Yitzchak and Feigitzke-Zipora Orez Photo Studio Chanan [Sneiderman] Hadera

 

Footnote

  1. [13] Ibid p.461. Return

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