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[Page 518]

Extracts from “Under the shadow of the sickle and hammer”

By Yehoshua Katzovitch

Translated by Emma Zahler

Edited by Dale Rosengarten, great-niece of the author.

In Kryvitsh for a Hearing

Four months had passed since the day I was brought into the prison at Vilayke, and I am still sitting there … Could they have forgotten about me? Oh, no. They never forget … That is out of the question! … Since that time, I have heard nothing and know not a thing about the fate of my wife and children. Who knows, who can know? Surely, it must be very hard on Hannah … Children miss their father, and become obliged to take his place.

One night – late after midnight – I was called out of my cell. I was told to take with me everything I had in the cell, and was led out. I noticed four men standing facing the wall: One of them was Jacob Katzovitch, whom I recognized at once. They led us right to the iron gate, which opened for us and soon we were outside the prison walls. I walked beside Jacob. We were accompanied by an armed convoy, led by one of the guards – a young Jewish boy from Kryvitsh, Abraham Zilbergleyt. Avreml (this is how we used to call him back home) was most cordial to us, walking calmly beside us. I whispered to him: “Avreml, where are they taking us this time?” He whispered his reply: “To Kryvitch for a hearing.” This news made us a bit more cheerful. A warm hope nourished us: Perhaps we might even be able to catch a glimpse of our dear ones, our family members in our home town … .

We reached the Vilayke train station. We were immediately pushed over into a corner to keep us away from everybody else. It was three o'clock in the morning. The station was filled with people – travelers and wayfarers. Several Christian women recognized me immediately and some even began to cry. Looking at me with questioning glances, as if to say, “Do you need anything?” I motioned that I could use a cigarette, but they thought I meant food. One of them immediately ran to the buffet and bought me a roll which she tossed to me from a distance, since they were not permitted to get close to us. Again I indicated that it was a cigarette that I wanted, and pretty soon, a pack of cigarettes was tossed in our direction.

Among those onlookers, there were some who knew that living quite close to the railroad station, lived my niece (also my sister-in-law) – she had married my wife's brother – Shosha. They notified her without delay, so that within the half hour, Shosha arrived on the scene with a quart of warm milk and some white bread. It was enough for all of us.

Soon we were herded onto a separate railroad car, and the train began to move. On the platform, stood my niece, Shosha, weeping.

Only a half hour later, we arrived at the Kryvitsh station. Now a convoy would be taking us in to the town, a distance of approximately three kilometers. The early morning light had appeared. Men, women, and children were already leading their cattle and livestock to pasture. We were exhausted, pale and weak. As for how we looked – may it be said of the enemies of Israel, wherever they may be in all the world! – like the downtrodden that we were, with our sorrowful faces, our badly creased clothes which had served us as bedding on the cement floors which were our beds – gave us the kind of appearance … .

The news of our arrival swept the town from mouth to mouth – that we had arrived – under lock and key, by the military. We were put away securely, with the windows boarded over. But we managed to see something through the cracks in the boards. You can imagine how Jacob and I never budged from the spot, straining our eyes and sharpening our glances so that not even a shadow could go by unnoticed …

Pretty soon, Jacob's children passed by – as though they had an urgent errand in the vicinity, and soon, they were back again, as though they had forgotten something important. They feigned all of this, of course, so that the military would not notice them and become suspicious.

They kept passing back and forth hoping for a glimpse, but in vain. We saw them, but they could not see us in spite of all their efforts. The same happened with my own children. They passed by several times. Yes, I saw them, but the poor things could not get a glimpse of me.

Our cell window, which permitted us to look out, faced the street. On the opposite side, stood my house, which had been appropriated by the N.K.V.D. for use by their officials and personnel. The house next to it had been Gnesye's, my older sister's, where she had lived together with her family members. My two younger children, one around ten, and the little one, Haym, two and a half, sat on the steps of that house for hours at a time, straining for a glimpse of me, even if only for a second … . Much as they wished with all their hearts to see me, I, still more, yearned to be able to appear before them.

After a while, I felt I could no longer tolerate it, with their intense longing to see me setting fire to me. I asked one of the guards to take me out of doors for “personal necessities.” This ruse made it possible, at least, for them to catch a peek at me … Until this day, I am caressed by those loving glances of theirs … All the more, since our bitter fate decreed that those glances were to be our last farewell, separating us forever … .

Ten days passed in this way. During the day, in the stuffy, locked cell, the heat was insufferable. At night, trying to get some sleep out of exhaustion, we would be dragged out several times a night for interrogation regarding a kind of third-degree investigation about our so-called “sins.” It was a malevolent black comedy played for effect.

The N.K.V.D. chief himself handled my case personally – great criminal that I was, no one else could be trusted with it. “I'll crack this tough nut myself!” he boasted. At our first interview, he bestowed on me his three-fold Russian “blessing” in his own special manner, with an additional insult regarding my “Jewish chin.” In a biting tone, filled with venomous irony, and with murder in his eyes, he asked, “Well, my dear friend, do you feel at home in your old house?” I remained silent and did not answer him. This fired him up even more. Again followed a succession of incomparable Russian “blessings” with chin-swipes and many colorful insults and curses – all in order to hurt me more and more.

“Speak to the point – I have heard those friendly “blessings” of yours before,” I was courageous enough to say. “Ask me questions, and I will answer them.”

“How did you treat your employees? What kind of relations did you have with your workers, and they with you?”

“This is something you should ask them,” I replied.

“I asked you, you Jewish impertinence! You will answer!”

“Isn't their response sufficient? Is it so hard to believe them? Ask them … .”

“And how did you handle people when you were chairman of the folk-treasury, the Free Loan Society?”

“I did so properly, humanely, and honorably,” I replied.

Thus went his line of questioning, filled with rhetoric, and elaborately worded, but bearing not at all on my arrest and “investigation.” Night after night, I was plagued in this way, from early evening to four o'clock in the morning. I would be left alone for hours at a time in an investigation room, illuminated by a strong, harsh light. The others who were brought with me, like Jacob, were treated in the same way – kept awake when others were sleeping.

In the dark night of my “investigation,” two “witnesses” were led into the investigation chamber to testify against me. I had had absolutely no previous dealings with them. One of them was named Zazulke, and the second, Hoydzianik. The official pointed at me, and asked, “Do you know this person? And how do you know him?”

Both of them answered simultaneously, as though prompted, “Yes.” He asked me whether I knew these people. I answered categorically that I did not.

Again he turned to them with the question as to how and from where I was known to them. Zazulke said he had worked for me and that I had exploited him and underpaid him. (Like all the rest, it was false from start to finish. He had never worked for me.)

The second one, Hoydzianik, told that he had seen me going for a walk with the Polish police captain … (Is there a greater sin or a more dangerous crime?) This is how the trumped-up charges were heaped up onto me.

After these highly “reliable and trusted” witnesses left, they again left me in the investigation chamber – under the harsh light. Hours passed – possibly three or four, seemingly interminably. Then the N.K.V.D. chief appeared in the room, placed a paper on the table, handed me a pen, and asked me to sign. I refused to do so.

He yelled a number of threats at me, and hit me with his revolver. I said, “My fate is in your hands. You can do with me anything you want, but I refuse to sign anything about myself!”

“You are a swine, and your wife and children are pigs!” he shouted at me like a wildly inflamed tiger.

“Right,” I said to him. “You are well-schooled and knowledgeable. No denying it. But other than that, you are a great big jackass! That's easy to see: You have only me to deal with. Why bring in my wife and children? You call them by the vilest names – do you have “evidence and witnesses” against them too? How about it?”

“Silence!” he shouted, and rushing toward me, caught me by the collar, and gave me a rough shove. I fell down. He helped me up and led me back to my cell, locking me up.

About twenty minutes to a half hour later, another official unlocked my door, and with a saccharine smile, inquired: “How are you feeling?” I was tempted to respond, “What concern is that of yours?” But, after all, I was in his hands… Why aggravate the situation? I answered “Good.” He left, and in a short while, I was called out again, and again asked to sign. Naturally, I refused.

“Do you really think you'll get away without signing?” asked the officer, without anger. “Do you think you will be released? Never! We don't need your signature … Take him back to his cell!” This marked the end of my “hearing.”

On the tenth day, we were returned to the Vilayke prison by the same convoy that had taken us to the hearing. Back in jail, Jacob and I were separated, and placed in different cells. Four months passed during which no one called for us and no one asked about us. Suddenly, without advance notice, one Thursday, the chief warden appeared among our cells, and advised those inmates who knew the whereabouts of their families to get in touch with them. We prisoners were advised to request that warm clothes be sent to us. It soon became clear that we were going to be taken far away. I asked whether we could request food as well, and we were given permission. We were advised to ask for a minimum of fats.

Sheets of paper, envelopes, and pens were handed out so that we could write our letters. First of all, I wrote to my niece, Shosha, in Vilayke, so that the letter would arrive in the shortest possible time. In addition, I was completely uncertain whether my family members were still quartered in the same place. In the period during which I was interred, thousands of families had been deported to distant places. And if my wife and children still remained where I had left them, they would find out anyhow, through Shosha.

The next day, Friday evening, I was called out and handed a package of food, still warm. I knew immediately that it had come from Shosha. Without any hesitation, I gave the package of food to the orderly in charge of my cell block, and told him to distribute the contents to my fellow-inmates. He gave me one-third of what the package contained, and two-thirds went to the other prisoners. He voiced his own thanks and that of the others most warmly. Several hours later, I was called out again. This time I was handed a large package of warm winter clothes. From this, I gathered that my wife, Hannah, and the children, were nearby.

And, much later, in the middle of the night, I was called out for the third time. I was told to take everything which I had in my cell, and was led down to a cellar. At a small table, a man dressed in officer's uniform was seated by the light of a small lamp. At both sides stood two goons – tall, broad-shouldered, brawny, armed soldiers. The man looked at me with a harsh, severe glance, and asked me for my surname. After I answered, the officer read the contents of a paper he had on the table before him. Three judges had sentenced me in my absence … My accusation was with reference to paragraph 54 in the Soviet Codex. Sentence: Eight years of hard labor in Siberia.

He handed me a pen and ordered; “Sign here!” I neither answered him, nor did I sign. He glared at me angrily taking me in from head to toe, and said: “I give you three minutes by the clock,” taking out his pocket watch and putting it on the table. “In that time, you are to sign this document.” The three minutes passed. Again he handed me a pen. There I was, pen in hand, now intimidated enough to waiver. I don't know what to do. I had noticed his glance from right to left at the thugs he had on either side – members of the Red Army. “Has he motioned to them?” I asked myself – “That wouldn't do …”

Then I said to him somewhat querously [querulously], “What was that you read to me? I don't think I heard it all … I don't know what it is that I have to sign …”

“Hmm … Are you deaf?” I concurred by silence. Again he read the document, loudly, this time. I signed my name. They led me away to another cell. This is the way in which I spent the rest of the night. In the morning, at dawn, I saw Jacob Katzovitsh sharing my quarters. We were both overjoyed to see each other. It turns out that we will both be going together. I looked around at the cell. Two stretchers stood in a corner, on which two people were lying and moaning. They cried out as in pain from time to time, “Oh, mama!” I found this to be so extraordinary, that I was moved to ask out loud: How is it that sick inmates are quartered in the same cell with healthy ones? Jacob knew the answer: These were people who had refused to sign, and were beaten up mercilessly by those two thugs I had noticed. They had been brought in during the night, bloodied up and injured. I asked no more. I only commented to Jacob that I came close to being treated the same way. But, after all, I did sign …

The following morning, shortly before the transport was to be sent out, I suddenly fell ill. I was taken to the sick bay. The doctor arrived, examined me, and said “No, it's impossible for him to leave with this convoy.” The transport did leave, taking Jacob with it. I remained in jail, where, after several days, I recovered. But it took about a month for a second transport to be arranged.

My dear wife, Hannah, (May the good Lord avenge himself for the innocent blood of our children and of hers!) discovered that I was ill, and thus was not sent off with the others. I have no idea how she managed to obtain permission to visit me for a few minutes.

It had been an especially frosty day. The cold air seared and burned painfully. They had called me out of my cell to the court-yard. How unexpected! … . In my great joy and surprise, I lost control of my emotions. I cried. My good Hannah comforted me gently, caressing and encouraging me. I asked her: “Why are you so pale and thin? How are the children?” Tears found their way and flowed freely.

“Don't worry about any of us. Think of your own welfare. We will find a way to manage, somehow,” she said. “But you, dear Szaie, will have to manage all by yourself, without us. Take care … . We've already had a letter from Jacob, and we sent him a package of food. We'll send you food as well, to Marinsk-Novosibirsk Oblost. Don't be afraid, Szaie, and don't lose your courage. We won't forget you … Now give me a smile, Szaie, that dear smile, just the way you used to, not so very long ago … It will still turn out good for us! As they say, the sun will shine into our window some day.”

She smiled gently and lovingly … Those were her last words. She had really believed in what she was saying. As for me, I was afraid, terrified of the long journey ahead of me … The guard motioned that visiting time was over.

We said farewell. I never saw her again.

On February 29, in a bitter, burning frost, accompanied by a wind storm, I departed with the transport.

 

“Jews Everywhere Shall Pledge to Care for One Another”[1]

This time, I was the strong one in the partnership, with Jacob seriously ill. There in the tiny village of Ulu[2] where the Second Brigade was quartered, there was an empty hut into which we had been obliged to move.

Because of Jacob's condition, I was unable to go out to work, and so I remained at “home” with him. And without working, one was not entitled to receive the rationed bit of dry flour and the few rotting potatoes.

Fortunately, I still owned about ten rubles, and so, I bought some provisions from the village Cossacks – a bit of milk and a loaf of bread, and then I ran home. I do everything I possibly can – anything at all to be able to rescue Jacob! He doesn't improve … He keeps sinking, getting weaker. I sit with him and try to comfort him as well as I can. He is far away. My words of comfort do not reach him.

Suddenly, he turns to me and says: “Szaie, something is happening to me – I can't feel my left hand, and I can't feel my left foot either.”

In a panic, I sat up with him all night. First thing in the morning, I ran to the kolkhoz[3] chairman and brought him to the invalid. I attempted to communicate with him through sign language. He gave me a team of oxen hitched to a cart, together with a man from the kolkhoz to help out. Together, we managed to bring poor Jacob to the hospital, about four kilometers from the Cossack village, Ulu, where we lived.

Arriving at the hospital, we removed him carefully from the cart, and carried him into the corridor. A woman doctor came out and declared that [she] could not admit our invalid. All the beds were taken … No, she can't admit him. Take him back! None of my entreaties, complaints were heeded. Again I made an effort to convince: “There's no place where I can bring him!”

“Take him back to wherever he was before,” she answered. I went out and hid behind a tree to see what would happen. Perhaps, I hoped, seeing me gone, they would take him in and not dump him out on the street. But my ruse did not help.

He was soon carried out and put down right on the pavement. Seeing that there was no other choice, I put him back on the cart and tried again to speak to the woman doctor. She, however, had disappeared, or hid, and I was unable to find her. Nothing helped. We set out again on our drive home. Night had fallen, and it was a very dark night. A drenching rain grew stronger every minute – a deluge. It was horrible. Only after midnight, and after we had heard the cock crow, did we arrive back at our hut.

I heated some water, gave some to Jacob, and had a sip myself. He lay there silently and looked at me, with sorrow in his eyes. He did not sleep … Suddenly, he asked a question:

“Szaie, will you be able to let them all know at home?” His question disturbed me. Had he lost his senses? Is his illness affecting his mind? I was wrong.

The next morning, around ten o'clock, the woman doctor arrived together with another doctor. It turned out that she was, after all, a “living limb of a Jewish body.” I only learned now that she was a Jewish woman. She examined the invalid in silence. I heard her exchanging unintelligible terms which I could not make out, with the other doctor.

Finally, she turned to me, speaking in clear Yiddish: “Not good with him … A few days more is all he has left. He may have even less time than that … .”

I felt my eyes brimming with tears, and made no effort to control them … Poor, unfortunate Jacob! He has all his senses, and is aware of his sad state, and of what is going on around him …

The doctors left. Again the two of us remained alone. The end was drawing near, very soon. I sat up with him for hours at a time and talked about everything I could think of, so that he would not grasp, God forbid, how close things were with him … But he did, he knew and understood everything; however, he avoided talking about it – possibly to spare me … Thus passed the day as well as the night. Another day went by as well. At ten o'clock, he expired, breathed his last.

The good, dear Jacob is no longer … . I remained rooted to the spot. After a sleepless night, after a whole series of such nights, and now as well, no sleep. Many thoughts rose up and disappeared. I was incapable of organizing them … Finally, the dawn arrived.

First thing in the morning, I hastened to the headquarters of the kolkhoz chairman. I requested a cart and some boards and some help, in order to build a coffin. After all, I had an obligation to bury the corpse of my friend, Jacob. He did not refuse, and together we went to a hill not far from the kolkhoz (its name was “Tonkaruz.”) There we dug a grave. We sawed up the needed boards, and together drove back to the hut.

There, I heated some water, washed the corpse, placed him in the coffin, and buried him. I stood all alone at the graveside, and recited a eulogy as well as the prayer for the dead. In fact, I recited the “Kadish” for everyone …

Back to the cart – but my feet refused to obey. They wouldn't walk. My helper, the Cossack, helped me to the cart, drove me back to the hut, practically carrying me, and left. For hours, I just lay there all alone. No one came in. One thought, one fearful idea, kept me from resting: I am talking to my dear dead Jacob … For you, may you rest in peace, I was there to take care of doing whatever was needed to be done in your final hours on earth – washing you and burying you … But who will be there to do it for me? After all, my time is due to come. Not eating, not drinking, one's heart embittered, how long can a man endure and live this way? Is this how I will die, lonely and all alone? I remained lying down, I do not know for how long …

Suddenly the door opened. A child of about nine entered. He said “Good morning” to me in Russian. I had not heard a Russian word in a long time. With difficulty, I lifted my head and said, “Who are you, my child?”

“My name is Lifshitz, from Minsk,” he said. “My mother, together with my younger brother, sister, and I, are all stationed at the Third Brigade. We were told today that an old man had died, and that there was another invalid there. My mother told me to come to inquire.” Then the boy ran out. Of course, I knew immediately that this was a Jewish child. I will not die all alone – my heart lifted with joy … .

A short time later, the door opened again. Three women came in with the kolkhoz chairman in tow. They took one look at me and assailed him with loud complaints: “Is this how you bring people here, so that they will die from filth and hunger?”

He motioned them out, but in a short while they returned. This time, they arrived with a cart loaded with provisions. They carried me out to their cart, where they lay me down, and drove me to the Third Brigade. There I was given a warm bath, was supplied with clean underwear, and was put to bed. Every few hours, they brought me some food, and thus my recovery was begun.

In short, these women, and especially Fanya Lifshitz, the wife of a Red Army captain, rescued me from certain death … The Lord's providence had ordained that I was to remain alive. This is how three Jewish women saved my life.

Because, as it is said, “Jews everywhere shall pledge to care for one another.”

 

People Along my Wanderings

Again I arrived at the railroad station in the little town of Lienger-Ugol, Kazakhskaya Oblost.[4] It was from this place, where I had been brought together with Jacob, may he rest in peace, for the first time, in accordance with the decree – It was here that one of our most tragic chapters began – one that could easily have been my final chapter, my end.

This time, it was the place where I said farewell to the three Jewish women who had saved my life and put me back on my feet. They had not known me, nor I them, but see how our acquaintance demonstrated the power of humanity present among our Jewish fellow-men!

Fanye Lifshitz, the mother of three children (including the little boy who had found me ill and exhausted), had been evacuated from Minsk. She was the wife of a captain in the Red Army, but had not heard from him and had no idea of his whereabouts since he was mobilized. The other two women, also officers' wives. That is, their husbands were mobilized reserve officers. They were two sisters from Orshe (Orše).[5] They had received no word from their husbands since the start of the war. At the evacuation of Minsk and Orshe, and at [the] time of the occupation by the German people-devourers, the three women and their young children were brought to the kolkhoz – so that they would be relatively safe, and so that the organized farm community could support them.

During the two years of their internship, they had become bosom buddies, and had adopted the regional ways, even being influenced by the Cossack customs. And Fanye, especially, full of energy, and natural leadership, had become a chief in the power elite of the kolkhoz. It was she and her friends who brought me back to life from almost certain death.

One day, almost incidentally, the news reached Fanye that her captain was gravely wounded, and was in a hospital in far-off Siberia. A few weeks after this news, Fanye received a letter from her husband himself. He wrote that she should make plans, since he would soon be sending her money via a courier. She would be joining him, together with the children. Great was the joy at this news! The two sisters from Orshe, stated openly, that they would go along with her. Without Fanye, they could not remain on the kolkhoz. The three decided that they would under no circumstances allow me to remain there without them. They were certain that I could manage much better outside of the kolkhoz.

In this way, then, we all arrived at the little town, Lienger-Ugol. They took care of all kinds of details for me, and arranged for me to remain there well taken care of. They arranged connections for me, so that I should not, God forbid, remain all alone.

It did not take too long, before the courier from Fanye's husband arrived. I accompanied the women to the railroad station and said my warm and grateful farewell to them and to their children.

And so, I was alone once more. I headed back into town, where several hundred Jews lived. They were chiefly refugees and exiles. There were some Russians as well, who had been evacuated from the regions occupied by the Nazi hordes. By this time, those good women had helped me to make acquaintances, so that I was not entirely lonely. I had entree into many good homes, and could pass the time pleasantly with social contacts. – But one thing has nothing to do with the other. It was necessary to get some work, to earn a livelihood.

Jobs were not hard to find. But only Soviet citizens were being hired. There was a law in effect at that time, forcing all refugees and evacuees to become Soviet citizens. All those who refused to do so were to be interned, and jailed.[6]

Some of my acquaintances (Polish citizens) stated that they refused to take on Soviet citizenship, since doing so would prevent them from ever being able to leave the Soviet “paradise.”

However, I did decide to become a Soviet citizen, for the following reasons: First, I felt that if I held out stubbornly, and landed in jail again, I would not be able to tolerate it. Second, I argued mentally that the war was not over yet and nobody could predict what conditions would be when it did end. Only time could tell.

Thus, I became a Soviet citizen and got a job working in a saw-mill. At first I was put to work planing boards. This lasted only two days. Before long – in only two weeks – I was elevated to an important position in the saw-mill. I was actually put in complete charge of the entire saw-mill. And this is how it happened:

By my third week, I was put practically in charge of the entire management of the saw-mill. Only on the second day after I had begun to work there, a “brigadier” showed up to check up on what I had done. He made entries in a book, made measurements, and much to his surprise, he found everything completed satisfactorily. He asked me whether I had ever had experience working in a saw-mill. Of course I answered, yes. He left pleased, and the next day, he had put me to work at saws and crosscut saws, and pretty soon, I become a kind of foreman. Is this any wonder? After all, wood and saw-mill work had been my specialty. I had once had my own saw-mill in partnership with Shlome-Haym, may he rest in peace, in Vilayke.

As a whole, skilled labor was in short supply. The war had taken large numbers of employees to the front. It was especially the young and strong who were missing. The saw-mill had to service the coal mines nearby, where about 16,000 people were employed. In addition, the town had to be supplied with telephone poles, building materials, etc. For all this, it was essential to have responsible and knowledgeable leadership. In short, this was a good earnings situation for me. Thousands could have wished to be in my position.

However, there was one matter which gave me no rest – worries about my family members. I had no peace thinking and wondering about where they were. I had had no news at all from them during the entire duration of the war and the Nazi gains on all the fronts. I had plenty of reason to be seriously worried. This was 1944. Leningrad had been liberated from its siege and blockade. The Red Army had already retaken large areas of White Russia, and were daily approaching our own vicinity. I made inquiries, wrote letters wherever and to whomever I could reach – to no avail.

Once I read a newspaper account that an organization had been founded in Moscow to help establish communication lines between Soviet citizens and their relatives abroad. I wrote at once, hoping that I could learn the addresses of my brother and sister in the United States, via telegraph. About eight days passed, when I received a request for fifty rubles to pay for the telegraph charges. I did this immediately. And again two months elapsed, until one fine day, I received a telegram from Moscow – containing specific information: Two addresses, those of my sister and of my brother, in the United States. A few days earlier, I had received two packages of food from America. This had already indicated to me that I had established contact. It was a faint ray of hope amid the despair … . I wired my brother at once: “I am feeling well. Many thanks for the packages. The fate of my wife and children, as well as the rest of the family, not known. Am worried and desperate.”

Early in July, 1944 our Kryvitsh was liberated from the Nazi fiends. At that time, I wrote to the postmaster of the Kryvitsh post office – his name was Oksiyuta, and asked him to notify me whatever he knew about my family's whereabouts and their condition. Apparently, he lacked the courage to do so. It was his father, Joseph Oksiyuta, a liberal Pole, who wrote me, broken-heartedly, the bitter truth. No one had survived, not my wife, my children, my sisters, brother-in-law, their children, and no one from Jacob's family.

At once, I wired my brother in Brooklyn, that “No one remains.”… Now I knew that I was all alone, and was totally unnerved at the tragic news. I fell ill and did not recover for six months.

During the time of my illness, negotiations were taking place – between the Soviet government and that of the Lublin-Polish regime (strongly pro-Soviet) regarding a repatriation of all Polish citizens. It concerned those Polish citizens who wished to return to their homeland in order to “build a Socialist Poland, a people's democracy.” Finally, a written agreement was arranged. Even those, who because of circumstantial pressures, had become Soviet citizens, could be included in the repatriation process. Quite understandably, I wished to avail myself of these benefits.

The preparations concerning the details of carrying out the repatriation agreement dragged on interminably. My brother from Brooklyn wired: “Don't travel anywhere.” (He meant Kryvitsh. Unfortunately, I had no one there to go to.) “However, go to Warsaw, without fail.” It seems he was arranging to go there to see me.

By the time everything was arranged, and troop trains were coursing, I had recovered, and was “on my feet” to make this long-hoped-for journey. It seemed that I was about to leave this land of despair… But I was even more certain that I was to traverse a land that was even more blood-drenched and filled with tragedy. How could my brother come this way to see me? It would be better for him not to come … Things are far from quiet here … Attacks against Jews are still taking place.

 

Encounters in Warsaw

“One mountain will never meet another mountain, but one person can meet another person.” (An old folk-adage)

In the Spring of 1946, I set out on the troop transport bound for Warsaw. Stopping at Saratov (now Kvibishev[7]), I wired my brother in Brooklyn: “Greetings from my journey. I'm on my way to Warsaw. Not necessary for you to meet me there. You will hear from me again after my arrival there.” In the train along with me, there were many Jews, a small number of Christians, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Among all of these was a good friend – a Jewish woman, Fenshikova, the sister of the well-known diplomat of the new Poland, who was a representative at the U.N.[8] – Professor Katz-Suchy.

Our train sometimes dragged along slowly, and at other times, went quickly. It went directly to Upper Silesia, with a short layover in Warsaw. On the twelfth of May, 1946, we arrived at the Vilna station in Warsaw-Praga. I had decided beforehand, in accordance with my own plans and my brother's wishes, to remain in Warsaw. The reason for this was that it was relatively simple to communicate with the United States from Warsaw. It was also the reasoning of Frau Fenshikova. She wanted to be near her brother, after her long exile so far away.

As already mentioned, our train stopped only briefly at the station. We tossed off our few meager belongings, and Frau Fenshikova and I got off the train and remained standing on the platform. The train started up almost immediately. A soldier on patrol noticed us, but I bought him off with a bit of a bribe.

And so we were left at the “Vilna Dvazhetz” – just a crudely put-together barracks built of wooden boards. I took off immediately to look for Professor Katz-Suchy, leaving Fenshikova in the barracks-style station.

Warsaw, which had been such a beautiful city before the war, was in ruins, filled with rubble. Despite all of this, I somehow, with a minimum of trouble, found the indicated address, but the Professor was not in. An armed soldier, of the diplomatic guard, informed me that the Professor and wife had left. He does not know where they went nor when they would return. I left a written message stating that the Professor's sister was waiting at the Praga station, where she had arrived at three o'clock in the afternoon on the transport train from Kazakhstan.[9]

After I left the note, I returned to the station, and sat down with Fenshikova to wait for her brother. Hours passed. It was getting dark, and the brother had not arrived. We looked for a place where could spend the night, but to no avail, and so we were forced to spend the night sitting up in the barrack-like station. Frau Fenshikova was exhausted, and dropped off to sleep. I remained awake, waiting. It was ten o'clock at night, and no one had come. Fenshikova was fast asleep. It was already after eleven, when I noticed a man and a woman looking around, peering into the faces of everyone there on the station platform. Were they Fenshikova's brother and sister-in-law? I stirred her gently. When she awakened and put on her glasses, she recognized them immediately. He too had noticed her.

Is it possible for me, with my prosaic and limited means of expression to portray this sort of reunion, after seven years of separation, filled with such tragic and bloody events? No, I am unable to do justice here.

Frau Fenshikova left at once with her brother and sister-in-law. I remained sitting in the barracks all night until the dawn. That morning I went to the “Central Committee” concerned with the welfare of survivors of the extermination camps. It was there that one could obtain a night's lodging, look for relatives, friends, to learn the latest news, etc. In fact, a few days later, the committee helped me to reopen contacts with my brother and sister.

It was here that I was supplied with a temporary lodging. The secretary informed me that two women had been looking for me, and that they would come back the next day at eleven o'clock. From the description, I gathered who these women were …

The next morning, I arrived promptly at the agreed “rendezvous.” Frau Fenshikova and Frau Katz-Suchy were already waiting for me. Frau Katz-Suchy, a splendid Jewish woman, a native of Grodne, apologized profusely, yet modestly, for leaving me alone on the station. They could not have avoided doing so, with all the goodwill at their command. They have only one small room. And she gave me the address of her husband's office, in case I should be in need of help or of advice. He would never refuse. They simply did not leave my side from then on, until I promised that I would come to see them. They only left after reminding me again of my pledge. I kept my word. A few days later, I called on them, and was received most graciously. We sat in their tiny room and conversed pleasantly. Professor Katz-Suchy was also at home. And, what's true is true! I admit that, later on, when I needed it, he helped me with all his heart and soul – from an exit permit, to a visa to France, to the special permission to fly on a military plane to France, as well as the plane ticket.

Several days later, I came to the “committee” again. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, someone called out my first name: “Reb Szaie, Reb Szaie!” I turned, and saw the friend of my older daughter Mira, Malke Shimentshik! (She was a sister of Joseph Shmir, now in Australia.) She ran to me with tears and kisses, embracing me and falling to my feet. She too had arrived not long ago together with her mother and brother from the far north (Siberia) on a troop train, for repatriation. After I had recovered from the shock of meeting her, I asked Malke about her mother and about Joseph. Her answer was that Joseph was on his way to Israel (Palestine at the time), and that her mother was there with her in Warsaw. We went to visit her mother, Frau Sonia Shimentshik. Again, a crumb of joy in the vast landscape of despair – a celebration and an unexpected reunion, amid the misery of the circumstances in which we found ourselves. We spent several days visiting together and reminiscing.


Here, then, is the tragic reckoning: There was once a shtetl – a life-style, carried on for generations. Nothing remains. All is ashes and ruins. The few survivors have scattered to the four corners of the earth, even as far as Australia. I went to Paris, Joseph Shmir, as mentioned above, Malke's brother, to Palestine. Lazar and Reyeh (Turek), the other two children of Sonia Shimentshik, did not survive. Lazar had been murdered by Beria's agents in the woods near Katyn[10] along with 12,000 Polish army officers. Reyeh shared the fate of the six million Jews. Together, like the rest of the Tiktin community (near Bialystok), she perished along with her little daughter, Sonia's first grandchild. The Jews of the Kryvitsh congregation, shot up, burned out – and we, the remnants, wandering shadows, float over the silhouette of a world that once was, which has disappeared.

At long last, the Kryvitsh family members, both in Israel and in the diaspora lands, woke up – decided to establish an “eternal light,” a burning flare to light up the spirits of all of our dear ones, and to transmit our values and our roots to our grand-children and great grand-children, to continue forging the chain of the people of Israel! Blessed forever be the hands that toil! Long life to them!

Footnotes

  1. Talmudic quotation Return
  2. A small town in Siberia, south of Jakutsk Return
  3. A collective farm Return
  4. Southwest of Novo-Sibirsk Return
  5. A city near Minsk Return
  6. Author's footnote: The situation described stems from the political dispute between the Soviets and the Polish government-in-exile headquartered in London. Matters had become intensified until the time of the breakdown in diplomatic relations, caused by the revelation of the murder of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn by Beria agents. Return
  7. Alternate spelling: Kujbysev. Both are cities along the Volga River, north of Volgograd. Return
  8. Translator's note: These were among the earliest days in the history of the U.N. It had started as an anti-Axis declaration signed in Washington, D.C. on January 2, 1942. The international organization consisting of 122 countries, headquartered in New York, was formed in San Francisco in 1945. Return
  9. Southwest of Novo-Sibirsk Return
  10. Alternate spelling: Katun, a town southeast of Novo-Sibirsk Return

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