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[Page 433]

To Safety

Translation by Rachel Zetland

Donated by Jay Snider

 

[Page 442]

Two Stories

Aryeh Pinchuck

I first thought to contribute something from my memories of the town, good and bad, but I decided to abandon this, with great difficulty I must say, as I prefer to describe events that relate to the town and the family which I remember most of all.

I'd like to talk first about the circumstances that led to my migrating to Eretz Israel in the summer of 1937. The skies of our people had already been darkened in the eastern parts of Poland, on the border with the Soviet Union. The Polish government and People deeply hated communism and had considerable fear of their neighbor to the east and his assumed intentions, both physical (i.e., conquering the territories that were lost during WWI which included our area) and ideological (spreading the Bolshevik vision). Just thinking of this would make every Pole shiver.

This led to many odd edicts, targeted especially at the minorities, and sometimes specifically against the Jews, many of whom were suspected of supporting the socialist vision. Among these edicts was the extensive authority allotted to the police, which gave it the right to arrest suspects and imprison them for many years without a trial if they were suspected of supporting the Soviet Union or communism. The summer of that year, a few young Jewish men were arrested under these edicts. One of them, who's name unfortunately I don't remember, was arrested before my eyes while we were working together filling beer bottles in a small factory that belonged to my uncle, David Tennenboim of blessed memory. I was shattered and shocked by the incident, the circumstances, the handcuffs the policeman (sarvotke) put on his wrists. I was shocked by the glee with which he carried out his duty, and all this weighed heavily on me and upset me for weeks. The young people of Rafalovka, including myself, were organized at the time in a Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair center that contributed greatly to our yearning to have a Jewish state, to emigrate to Eretz Israel and to live in a lawful and just society. We were no doubt moved by the very difficult conditions of our lives with the government's heavy hand and the hatred towars us Jews harbored by Poles and Ukrainians amongst whom we lived. Thus, the hope for the day we would be free people in the state of the Jews under a government of justice and equality was an elixir of life for us, enabling us to continue living in a hostile environment.

[Page 443]

Just a few months went by since the arrests I mentioned, and on one dark night I was visited by someone and had an encounter that changed my life. That night I spent a few hours over at Lazer the carpenter. His sons and he himself were inclined towards communism and a few of them had impressive intellectual and argumentative skills. I used to meet with them and argue about socialism, communism, Karl Marx, Karl Coutzki, Otto Bauer, and their philosophies. We always argued late at night and this was the case that night as well. When I left to go home, after midnight, I remember I saw no one on the way and was accompanied only by the barking of dogs. When I reached our house and came up onto the front porch, I suddenly saw a man who I immediately realized was the police commander. He demanded that I explain where I had come from and what I had been doing that night.

I didn't close my eyes that night. I was hounded by thoughts and my heart was beating fast and loud. My mother felt my restlessness and began questioning me to find out why. After two days of deliberation I told her what it was about and said I must urgently leave Poland and immigrate to Eretz Israel. We discussed and clarified this matter for a whole week, because it wasn't a thing you could just get up and do. What made us make the decision was that one of the friendlier policemen visited my uncle's tavern, and while he was drunk, he let it slip that it would be best for the family to send “Leibke” to Palestine. The uncle was quite startled by the message and helped us make the decision that I should immigrate. At the end of that week I traveled to Warsaw and reported to the Palestine-emt. with my high school graduation certificate. I told my story and demanded that they arrange for my journey immediately, I decided not to settle for a promise that they'll take care of it, and stayed there for two weeks until the telegram from Jerusalem was received. I registered for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which had enabled me to get the immigration permit.

I have to say that when I got on the train in the Rafalovka station, on my way to Constanza in Romania, and from there on the ship Polania to the port of Haifa, that policeman came to the station and said goodbye to me warmly with a light pat on my shoulder. That was an exceptional gesture that is etched in my memory, because it was so different from our usual relations with the goyim. And so, without extraneous preparations and almost at a moment's notice, I left the town I had grown up in and went to a country which, despite the fact that it was the place I dreamt of, I knew nothing about. My mother and Leah my sister shed tears. My father arranged the suitcases I had with me on the rack, and didn't forget to ask me whether I had forgotten the tefillin. My uncle checked where I was keeping the 5 pounds sterling, which was all I had. All the town's Jews were on the platform to bid me farewell. I felt like a pioneer if not somewhat of a hero, about to take part in a great deed. Five years later, this feeling was replaced by feelings of guilt. I felt like a deserter who had abandoned his parents, family, and friends to their bitter fate during their most difficult hour, looking to save his own life. This feeling has haunted me for a long time, and though it has dimmed with time, something of it is still with me today. I believe I will carry it forever.

[Page 444]

Meeting with my sister Lea

In 1942 I volunteered to the British Army. This was the only way Jewish youth could take an active part in the war against Hitler. I was attached to the Jewish Brigade when it was formed and was fortunate enough to fight the Germans and have a piece of the real action under the national flag and the Jewish Star of David. In 1942 we began to hear about the extermination of Jews from Rafalowka and the area. From the news that reached me I had little hope that anyone of my family members had survived.

At the end of the war the Brigade sent emissaries all over Europe to locate survivors and organize them to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. A comrade who served in the same battalion was sent to Poland and came back a few months later with a sack full of hundreds of notes containing names of survivors who were looking for relatives in Eretz Yisrael. They emptied the sack on the floor of one of the barracks and organized the notes alphabetically. In the middle of arranging the notes one of the soldiers hurried anxiously to me. He told me that among the notes they found one with the name Lisa Pinchuck and that she is looking for her brother, Leibel. The note did not mention where she was. This was the case with the majority of the notes, for the refugees were constantly on the move from one refugee camp to another. Giving an address had no meaning, for the person would probably not be there shortly afterwards.

I was, of course, tremendously excited by this and immediately started thinking about my departure, but I had to think how exactly I was going to leave. Many low ranking soldiers left units to look for relatives. They could do so with great ease because their direct commanders, the commanders of the platoons and the companies, were mostly Jews from Eretz Yisrael and covered for their absence. An officer was in a completely different situation. It was inconceivable for an officer to be absent from the battalion for a few weeks without the matter being noticed by the commander who was English.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that the commander of the battalion I served in, Colonel Gofton Salmond, was very sympathetic to his Jewish soldiers and understood their special situation. He used to turn a blind eye away to our various activities aimed at saving the refugees, activities that intensified at the end of the war. I was among a small group of officers who had a special and close relationship with the Colonel, a relationship based on loyalty and trust. He reciprocated by acting like a father to us. Under these conditions I did not dare 'disappear' from the battalion for an unknown length of time. I consulted with my best friend in those days, the battalion adjutant Captain Yitzhak Vartzman (now known as Almog), and confided in him. He promised he would talk to “the old man” and get him to help

I was deeply moved by the Colonel's reaction. He instantly declared he is sending an urgent personal telegram to the British Army of the Rhine (B.A.O.R), asking for official authorization for my departure to Eastern Europe to look for my sister, the only survivor of my family.

[Page 445]

It was only two days later that a battalion headquarters runner came to inform me that the old man was urgently looking for me. I entered his office and found him and the adjutant. I saluted and he gave me a document which turned out to be the telegrammed reply from Headquarters. The telegram had two lines. For obvious reasons I remember them to this day. They read: Captain A. Pinchuck will NOT repeat NOT proceed to Eastern Europe.

As was the custom in the British army and in telegrams of this kind, the word NOT was capitalized, underlined, and repeated twice to avoid any doubt or mistake. I believe there is no need to describe what I felt at that moment. I stood there for a long time, unable to utter a word, not knowing how to react. The somewhat long silence was interrupted by the Colonel's astonishing question, which took me completely by surprise: “When are you ready to leave?”

Now I was really confused. I felt like I had been taken out of burning heat and thrown into freezing cold, like I had just come out of a boxing ring where I was pounded from below and above and all sides. Another long moment passed before I answered him: “In a week, Sir.”

To that he answered immediately: “Why not tomorrow?”

It took me a little over a week to get ready for the journey because I had to take a vehicle that didn't belong to the battalion. I got a hold of the car with the generous assistance of a Canadian sergeant major from the discharge camp of a Canadian division whose soldiers had been sent home. It took me time to prepare the vehicle because I knew the journey would be long and difficult and I would be far from our base. The way I got the vehicle was this: The Canadian SM explained to me that the vehicles they leave behind after discharge are divided among four bases according to their condition. Each camp was marked with capital letters: A – vehicles in good condition; B – vehicles that could be fixed locally; C – vehicles that could be fixed only in the shop at the base; D – vehicles that could not be fixed and from which any military driver could walk in and take parts. He promised to take a good jeep from base A and put it in a certain spot in base D for me during the night. And, indeed, when I came to the place we had fixed early the next morning with a driver from the battalion, I found the jeep. I started it and a few moments later I was on my way to the battalion base. And thus, one bright day, after eating lunch in the officers' mess with the Colonel and the adjutant, who were the only people who knew about my trip, I quietly bade them farewell and set off on my journey which lasted 6 weeks.

I knew the general direction of the mass of refugees. I knew they were moving west through Austria and Chek and then south to Italy where the Brigade was located. I left Holland where the Brigade was sitting at the time and reached northern Italy after many difficulties, including two road accidents, one of which caused the driver and myself serious injuries that necessitated hospitalization. I started to comb the camps going north, then east through Austria and in the direction of Poland. I was wearing the uniform of a captain in the British Army, with the blue and white Star of David on my sleeve, a uniform that enabled free movement and which drew the attention and sympathy of the Jewish refugees.

[Page 446]

Wherever I went I met with the Jewish Comitat. In Zaltsburg I stayed at the building that housed the superior Comitat of all the camps, and they were very helpful. They had representatives everywhere and they knew all the camps. If I had the ability and the emotional strength to do so, I would tell the detailed story of this journey, which is worthy of a complete book. During this journey I was helped by a colonel in the Red Army to reach Vienna, which was a separate zone controlled by all the four powers, Russia, France, Britain and the US. It was difficult to get into the area. A young (Jewish) Soviet officer in the superior headquarters of the Red Army in Vienna also helped me get from Austria to Poland aboard a train that was returning repatriotted people to Poland. I met hundreds of Jews in the camps. They would all gather round me, pushing and shoving to touch my uniform and see that they were not day dreaming, that I really was a living Jewish officer.

In one of those camps in Austria something special happened to me. Surrounded by hundreds of Jews who were asking me about the Brigade, about their relatives in the country, I suddenly hear a sharp yell: “Leibel!, Leibel! It's me, Simha Brat from Rafalowka!” I turn my head to where the voice came from and I see an old man at a distance making his way to me, shoving through, pushing everybody aside. I am also trying to get closer to him and after a moment we meet and embrace – embrace and cry. He is a neighbor from my hometown, hugging and kissing me, and all the people around are looking on in silence. Still sobbing, he started telling in detail how the Jews of our town including my parents were led to their death, shot and pushed into an enormous mass grave outside town; how he and a few others including my sister Lea managed to survive; where he saw her last and where he suggests I look for her; and more and more. And so we stood in the middle of the camp. It was my first meeting with someone from my town who had come back from hell.

It was now almost six weeks since I had left the battalion and I still did not come up with anything. The jeep had eaten up thousands of kilometers, but nothing. I came back to Salzburg, the city where I began my journey, to the Comitat headquarters. It was close to midnight but there were still people up. One man came up to me and told me that one of their emissaries had located Lea in a distant camp called Binder Michal Zidlong near the city of Lintz. I called my driver immediately and we set out for the place. It was way past midnight when we got there and the place was pitch dark, the roads unpaved. The houses along the roads were gray and intimidating, the windows were shuttered and dark. It was nightmarish. I decided to get in the jeep and wait until morning. In the first light I could see that this was an enormous camp with refugees from all nationalities and territories. The first residents who came out told me where I would find the Jewish refugees. When I got there I saw lists at the entrance to every building with the names of the residents.

[Page 447]

I stated going from house to house reading the names and on one of the lists I saw Lisa Pinchuck. I ran up the stairs and looked on one of the doors. I used my military pocket flashlight to read the sign. I found her name. It was early and the camp was still sound asleep. The darkness had only began to disperse. I knocked on the door full of excitement, my hand trembling, and was astonished to hear my sister's voice from inside the room: “Leibi, is that you?”

Less than an hour later my sister Lea, now dressed in a British uniform, and I were on our way to the Brigade base in Holland.

 

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