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Chapter V


Evacuation to Soviet Russia, Life on the Front,
Episodes of Plungyan Jews in Combat


It was already chilly when we were brought by truck to the Novosibirsk train station in Siberia. The trip was bitter and odious. We went hungry and experienced many discomforts along the way. Making the journey in train cars filled to capacity, men, women, children, teenage boys and girls were forced to wait until the train (the type used to transport troops) came to a full stop in order to take care of their physical necessities. Having lost their shame, people ran from the cars, boys and girls men and women could be seen squatting together. They were actually more fearful that the train would leave without them. In the train cars there were chamber pots and other vessels for the children, the elderly, or the infirm for whom it was impossible to leave the car. Those in the car managed whatever way they could. Later a hole was chopped into the floor of the train car and this eliminated the bad odor. To insure some privacy, a curtain of sorts was fashioned.

The sleeping accommodations consisted of unfinished rough boards. There wasn’t enough room for everyone. The first to be accommodated were the children, the sick and the elderly. The teenagers and younger people had to make do with sitting on an unoccupied spot on the floor and sleep there, or leaning on each other back to back. From the beginning of our trip from the town of Pechora, until our final destination going to that one station where the train used to stop, we were given one bucket of soup per car along with warm water. We always prepared cold drinking water for trips, but we didn’t have any of our own provisions. Some were able to trade with a Russian woman who purposefully waited for the passing evacuation trains aware of the demand. People traded away clothing, rings, watches or other pieces of jewelry for a loaf of bread or for other food items. Not everyone had this option. Transports were arriving with loads of refugees from far-flung towns near the front lines, some of whom had the opportunity to take with them many provisions and other items. While they were stopped not far from our train, our children ran over to them to beg for whatever food they could spare for those who were left without in the train cars. One time my little sister Hene joyfully returned carrying a couple of loaves of bread in her little hands. She was so happy with her achievement. The children were the sustainers of life. The adults were too embarrassed to go out and beg. Money was another thing people didn’t have. Evacuation trains frequently stopped to let other trains pass carrying soldiers or munitions to the front. For this reason it took us nearly two months to reach Siberia. To describe the entire trip until we reached Novosibirsk is not possible at this juncture. It will suffice to deal with the more important events.

From Novosibirsk we went to the Bolotnoje region. There we experienced various ordeals. We were given temporary lodgings. For a time we were forgotten about. The independent council was obviously not concerned about us. We were forced to survive by whatever means we could. Having no money to buy food we suffered a great deal from starvation, especially the young children. We set out to look for food. Once, I was able to find a bunch of potato skins that had been left in the basement where we were living. After cleaning them off we roasted them on the stove, and there was enough for us all. And how tasty they were. Our life there, such as it was, lasted a few weeks. They probably remembered us at this point because we were given a little money. So we went to a restaurant where they sold soup and a piece of bread for a cheap price. They wouldn’t sell you bread without the soup. The little piece of bread weighed 100 grams and if you wanted more of it, you had to also pay for the soup. But it was worth it because a 100 grams wasn’t enough to fill you up. For us, that bread was more delicious than cake. One time I was arrested in the street. My appearance and unfamiliarity with the language had apparently raised some suspicion. My hair had grown to shoulder length and it was curly to boot, which added even more to my startling appearance. My shoes had almost completely fallen apart and were full of holes. One foot was held together with string. You could see paper sticking out of the holes (paper keeps your feet warm). What I was wearing was also horrible: A loosely fitting torn jacket, and my trousers didn’t look much better. I was taken to the base by the militia men to ascertain who I was. I attempted an explanation in a sort of jargon mixing together the Lithuanian and Russian words I knew. They seemed to have understood because I kept repeating the words "evacuation" and "refugee". They said something to each other and then pointed to a chair, an indication that I should sit and wait. About an hour later, a Lithuanian man appeared who turned out to be a special evacuation representative for Lithuanian citizens from the Lithuanian government. I told him the whole story. I let him know that I didn’t have any documents and gave him my family name along with where we were staying. He then told me to go and promised that the location of our permanent residence will soon be determined. Shortly thereafter, people from the Kolchoz (collective farm) arrived with sleighs to take us to the Kolchoz in the Balontnoje region. Various families had discussions concerning who wanted to stay together with whom. Everyone expressed the desire to be placed together, close families, friends and acquaintances together with a couple of our families. Our family was taken to a Kolchoz located about 10 to 20 kilometers from Balotnoje. In this way all were accommodated. The other families were settled in other places in the Bolothoje area.

We must have made a fairly pitiful impression on the residents of Siberia. They looked at us as one looks at unfortunates, forced to leave their place of birth leaving behind everything they have spent an entire lifetime acquiring. Most likely, we recalled their parents and grandparents, banished to Siberia after the Russian revolution. Some of them were still living. Our family was settled with a Ukrainian calling himself "Tsaldon" who was sent to Siberia after the revolution. He had 45 hectares of farmland. It wasn’t just by accident that collective farms were established in 1936. When we first arrived we actually spent the first few days in the office of the Kolchoz. We were surprised with the kindness and empathy of the other residents. They learned that we were Baltic refugees and seeing us in our half-starved condition, began bringing bread, milk, eggs and butter. Our children didn’t know what to grab first. They ate with a huge appetite. The sight of the children brought tears to their eyes. More and more people arrived with food encouraging us to eat and saying that again tomorrow they would bring more food. They caressed the children’s heads. We bigger children and the grown-ups also began eating with a huge appetite, but only after we were sure there was enough for everyone. They served us cheese and potatoes with sour milk in their uniforms. The plates were not collected. We were instructed to keep them for ourselves because we would need them.

Our family consisted of six people including me, my father and mother, a younger brother and two small sisters. We were given a bathroom dubbed izpushka,"the little house" or "little room," in which to live. The room itself measured 3 by 2 meters, obviously too small for us. The little ones slept on top of the very wide oven. The rest of us slept where ever we could. My bed was on top of two tables that had been pushed together, the same tables at which we ate. At night I would prop my head up with a couple of pieces of wood putting my winter hat on to soften the hardness of my "pillow". My own clothes served as under bedding and blankets. Next to the walls of the "Little House" stood narrow benches on which our parents slept. When my father and I were taken into the army there was more room. Provisions and other items were sold especially for the refugees. We were starting to return to a normal life. They didn't give us any heavy labor (in the summer working various farm jobs). There was a shortage of workers because many were fighting on the front.

My father and I tended the horses the entire night. It was our job to feed them. Early in the morning the horses were taken out to perform various tasks, giving us a chance to go home and rest. These horses were unlike the ones we were accustomed to seeing in our town or in Lithuania. They were covered with long hair. They might as well have stayed outside the entire winter. The frost was really bad and the barn was an unfortunate sight to behold with its roof full of holes and its Jerry-rigged doors and windows. The warmth from the horse manure protected us to a certain degree from the cold. I have to admit that those long fur coats kept us cozy and warm and well covered on those cold nights. The winter of 1941 was exceptionally cold. There was plenty of wood for heating. Whoever wanted could go into the Taiga woods and take as much your heart desired. We carried wood on sleighs and sometimes borrowed someone’s horse for the job. The thick Siberian cedar forests helped us survive the summers, providing cedar nuts, berries, mushrooms and the so-called Siberian apples along with various other things that served as food. And what did the Siberian people eat? It was their custom, for everyone big and small, to sit together around one table and place in the middle a big bowl of soup. They would draw out the soup with wooden spoons while holding a piece of bread under their lips to prevent the soup from dripping on the table. Pieces of meat, pork, and fat were added to the soup. There lived in the surrounding Kolchozy of the Bolothoje region several families and a few single women from Plungyan. There were my uncles, the family Ril, his father-in-law and the Fish family. Our friends with their five sons, the Olshvang family; also our acquaintance, a single blind man named Dibke, Arke Hirson and his mother, and a single Ruvke Dimant, with whom I used to cut wood for the people of the village. There was also Elie Glickman and his family. Later, Elie and his son Leibe were conscripted into the so-called Working Army Front. Elie was discharged after a short time, having been deemed unsuitable for such work. Leibe became ill shortly after his return to the collective and died, and was buried there. Years later, at his brother's request, I carved a wooden sculpture portrait of Leibe in oak. They took it to Siberia where it was placed on his grave.

In the summer of 1942, I was told by my mother and sister upon returning home from the war (my father and I were already in the army – the Lithuanian Sixteenth Division) that life had become a little easier for the Jewish refugees.

Women and children went into the woods to gather berries to sell, often walking 20 kilometers in one day (back and forth). The men who weren’t taken to the front did various types of jobs on the farms. We really lived fairly well there in comparison to the other places where Jewish refugees were being settled. My sister and the others recalled tales of gruesome events that they had witnessed with their own eyes in the Caucasus.

Most Jewish refugees went to the Caucasus thinking that the warmer climate would make survival easier. There were tens of thousands of Jewish refugees there. There were various epidemic outbreaks, no food, and people were dying in the streets from starvation. My sister was there with her husband, a former Yeshiva student from Poland who escaped to Plungyan in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Initially, we went to Siberia together but lost each other along the way. They ended up in Tashkent (Caucasus). He had a weak constitution and didn’t hold out, dying of starvation in the street. She then went to look for someone to help with the burial. When she returned, she saw that her husband’s pants were missing. People had removed whatever they could from the dead man. Perhaps they would sell or trade the pants for any scraps of food. This kind of thing was a common occurrence there. In a trick of fate, Jewish children were forced to become thieves. One such Plungyaner child came from a wealthy family. When his father was sent to the front, he told me that he used to steal from the market place in order to sustain his mother so she wouldn’t starve to death. On one occasion he was caught, given a few slaps, and released as an under aged minor. One particular time he was locked up for an extended period. He returned to find his mother had already died. There were a lot of tragedies of this sort. Siberia, on the other hand, looked like heaven compared to the Caucasus. In Siberia you were sure to survive until the end of the war.

*

On February 21, 1942 I was separated from my family, friends and from the good-natured Siberian people. The poignancy of the separation from my mother, little sisters and brother can’t really be described. My father and I had been mobilized with our division, the Lithuanian Sixteenth. We had quite a send-off as does everyone who goes off to war. People found it hard to believe that they would never see each other again. And if so, when? Tears were shed the entire way, especially on my mother’s part. Almost half the village accompanied our departure. Everyone wished us a safe return, and to come back alive. (Sadly my father was killed March 8, 1943 and my brother later fell on March 12, 1945). I was wounded twice and discharged in April of 1947.

We arrived at the place where the Lithuanian Sixteenth Division was beginning to fall into formation. I met my two uncles, Chaime Leib and Zelig Ril, who had already arrived, and my cousins and other friends and acquaintances from Plungyan. We were all very happy to see one another. Everyone was trying to find out who got away from Plungyan and where they were now located in Russia.

I was designated for a Special Machine Gun Battalion. I became a machine gunner. My father was in a regiment with some 168 foot soldiers. He was 47 years old whereas I wasn’t much over 19 at the time. Over a given period we were taught martial arts. In the beginning of 1943, we left Bolotno where our division had been established and began the pullout toward the front. That year was particularly cold and snowy. It was difficult enough to trudge through the snow, let alone carry the heavy ammunition and the machine gun equipment on your back. Your feet would sink into the deep snow. Raging winds and blinding snow would often make it difficult to see where you were going. At times, the snow created such a fog that you could scarcely see the person walking next to you. The young soldiers helped the older and weaker ones by carrying some of their equipment. But we still had ten days to go until we were to reach the area from which we would begin to make our push forward. These were probably the most difficult days of the campaign, if not of my entire life. During the whole time we were moving, excluding the occasional flour mixed with hot water, we almost had nothing to eat. Driving wind and snow had prevented the unit (that was responsible for supplying us with food) from reaching our unit with provisions. Nevertheless, we continued on, everyone deep in his own thoughts: What’s going to happen at the front? Am I going to live or die – or maybe end up wounded? What’s life going to be like after the war? What about everyone you left behind waiting for you to come home, their sobbing when they get ‘the notice’ and read the words "your son was heroically killed in battle fighting against German fascism in defense of the homeland." These and other thoughts were going through our heads. Between us we discussed our desire to take revenge on the enemy for lives robbed and for the victims among our people and for their desire to exterminate the Jewish people.

We arrived at the positions from which point we would begin our front line drive to take part in the battle. For the first time, frozen loaves of bread were distributed, one loaf per four men. The soldiers' outer clothing was so stiff and wooden-like that you could stand them up. A damp night had been followed by a slight March frost, causing the thick damp coats to freeze. It wasn’t long before we received the order to take up our indicated positions. Many didn’t have time to get their share of their loaf of bread that had to be cut up in portions. As soon as the frozen bread was distributed, the soldiers placed it inside their coats, next to their chests to unthaw it. Later on it would be divided up between the four men.

The battle was really a bloody one. Later it was said that the division commanders of the first battle were found to be at fault and were duly punished.

Those who took part in the battle will never forget it. The location of the battle field was a wide-open spot in front of the enemy. Whenever possible, snow embankments were built as protective walls. The heavy machine gun, which we nicknamed Maxim, was set up behind one of these scant protective walls. Very little ammunition was given out to the soldiers. Some of them didn’t even have guns, but only a few grenades. And there weren’t only a few of these soldiers who didn't have guns in my machine gun unit. Despite everything, they fought heroically. There were heavy casualties. There were many killed and wounded. That the Jewish contingent of the division fought heroically is supported by the fact that out of the 12 heroes from the Soviet Union, almost half of them were Jews, including the famous Jewish commander Vulfe Vilensky.

According to Soviet statistical counts, Jews fought in numbers that put them in second place after ethnic Russians. Also according to statistics concerning decorations, order and medals, Jewish fighters scored very highly, which proves that Jews fought bravely on the battle field. There was a saying that there was no other way for a Jew to fight except until the last enemy was gone. Under no circumstances could a Jew become a prisoner of war under the Germans. Jews and Politburo members were immediately shot.


*


I would like to mention a few episodes that were made known to me by various sources concerning how Jews fought on the front. Around 72 men and a few women fought on the front against German fascism in the 16th Lithuanian Division as well as in other anti-Hitler regiments. Killed in battle were 42 Jews from Plungyan. Many others remained invalids for the rest of their lives.


*


In September, 1941, the Nazi fascist murderers with swastikas on their sleeves, pounding loudly on their drums, marched their way towards the Arch de Triumph. A Jew from Plungyan, who was a member of the French anti-fascist movement, was executed in France. Michl Rolnik faced death together with other Frenchmen from the movement. Michl Rolnik lived in Paris and was a lawyer, as was his brother Hirshe who was living in Plungyan at the time. Michl belonged to the Resistance during the time of the Nazi occupation of France. He and two members of the committee fell into Nazi hands. The names of the other two were: Gabriel Feri and Jarja Mirtarda. There on a hill, the site where the glorious French Patriots lost their lives, stands an old Ford with the plate Mai Valerian. When they were brought there (to Mai Valerian), it turned out that the prison guards forgot the keys for the shackles and decided to shoot them with bound hands. "We will wait," said the French patriots. Go get the keys." An hour and a half passed and the guards returned with the keys. Before the execution the guards wanted to blindfold them, but they protested. The guards then removed the shackles from their hands and the prisoners marched to their death singing the "Marseillaise". This laconic tale was recounted by the French writer, Levy Arogan during his brief stay in prison. He promised Michl Rolnik to send a letter written in prison to his wife. Arogon did in fact send the letter to Rolnik's wife. Michl writes:

"This evening in Sainte prison they came to make an announcement in this, the place where I once carried out my professional duties. They said they were going to shoot us tomorrow morning. You know what my life consisted of. I am certain that I will die as heroically as I lived. But everything is so difficult when all that remains is but a few hours to live. Especially when you still feel so young: 33 years old, when your heart is still so full of joy and a will to live. Tell my friends that the bullet that will pierce my heart will not kill the ideals for which I fought, (ideals) that have imbued me with courage. Please tell them that I implore them, as heroes and as a men, to bear the pain. Seek solace and happiness in the collective, as I once did and still do."
In 1950 these freedom fighters were honored and their remains moved from Mai Valerian to the Pere Lachaise cemetery where the French people paid their last respects to the heroic fighters. Marchel Kashen and Morris Torez marched ahead in the first row.


*


One can’t forget the heroic deeds of Jews who fought in the ghettos, in the battle fronts, in partisan units and even in the trenches A Plungyaner, David Chest, with a small machine gun unit was on the edge of a small forest. They found themselves amidst the noisy racket of German warplanes and the unending sounds of guns, cannons and heavy artillery volleys from the German side. They impatiently lay in wait as their return cannon fire reached the enemy infantry. It was at this point that the first commander of the machine gun unit was killed by a land mine. German foot soldiers with automatic weapons were already showing up in big numbers. Mines were still exploding preventing them from lifting their heads. The Germans took advantage of the circumstances and surged toward the spot where the machine gun unit was positioned. Lieutenant Chest took notice and dashed over to the machine gunners, the first of whom had already fallen (i.e. the gunners. The others crouch down beside them and feed the bullet belts to the gunners.) They waited for the Germans to come a little closer.

Then, as 80 men approached, he opened fire. Chest also ordered the other gunners to fire and they all started shooting from all sides. The fascists weren't expecting such a huge resistance and began retreating. About fifteen minutes later the Germans with reinforcements again stormed the trenches where the leaders were to be found including Lieutenant Chest. He and the other gunners again made the Germans hit the dirt. They were again forced to retreat with even greater casualties. When they attacked a fourth time, they were again stopped in their tracks and were unable to break through the defensive line.

When the sun went down, the fighters were able to breathe a little easier. There were a few dead and some wounded as well. For bravery in protecting a strategic point, the fighters were awarded decorations and medals. The Jewish Lieutenant, Dovid Chest, was awarded one medal of the highest order: the Alexandernevski.


*


Bentse Olshvang from Plungyan also fought bravely on the front. He was an artillery fighter. He was seriously injured fending off many a German attack, never abandoning his cannon post, until artillery reinforcements arrived. Later his hand had to be amputated. They said if he had received immediate medical attention, he would have saved his hand. He was later awarded the order of the "Red Flag."


*


During one of the battles on the (Arioler) front while serving as a machine gunner, I was severely wounded and had to be transported deep into Russia to the little town of Slataust located in the Ural mountain region where I was taken to recuperate. One day we were waiting for new wounded to arrive at our hospital. We always had high hopes of finding friends or family among those newly arrived wounded. And lo and behold, I recognized the Plungyaner, Ruvke Tsimbler among the wounded. (I later found out from him that he had been with my father in the same unit when he was killed). This is how the meeting happened: Having progressed in our recovery, we were moved from the 21st ward, which was located on the second floor, to a higher floor. The more seriously wounded were housed on the second floor and afterwards moved to a higher floor, when their condition improved. The wounded, who had just arrived, took our place on the second floor.

In the meantime, we weren't allowed in to see them. Only the day after were we given permission to enter the ward. A lot of them were sleeping, exhausted from the long journey. With the exception of small intervals to eat, take medication or change dressings, they slept. (I also slept for 4 days in a row.) Going from one bed to the next I noticed someone with a shaved head and sunken cheeks. He was asleep. The upper part of his body was in a cast. An arm that stretched in a forward position was also in a cast. This type of cast was called samaliot (airplane). On the plaster was written the date the cast was set, as well as the patient's family name. Something in his face looked familiar to me, and when I read the family name, I couldn't believe my own eyes. What a rare coincidence to happen in such a huge country as the Soviet Union. I read the name over and over in disbelief. Could it really be Ruvke Tsimblev from Plungyan? As he was asleep, I just had to wait until he would open his eyes and recognize me too. It was just like in the movies. A certain time passed. When he awoke, I was standing right at his bedside. Sleepily he looked at me, then shut his eyes again. Then immediately, as if he had just remembered or seen something incredible, he opened his eyes, but this time wider and suddenly let out a yell: "Yoske?! It's me Ruvke!" He hugged me with one hand and shed a few tears. I felt a strange mixture of happiness at our having met this way as well as a sense of sadness that my father didn't make it. We were in recovery for a few months. It was clear to Ruvke that he was going to be handicapped. A commission determined that I was still fit for military service. I was then sent by the arriving representative of the Department of the Military to a collection point for the bodies of those who died on the front. (After my discharge I later met up with Ruvke in Plungyan).

My campaign took me through White Russia and Poland until we reached Germany. It was there that I participated in the storming of Berlin with a particular Russian army unit called The Thundering Cavalry Guardsmen. It consisted of two Cossack corps with the Twenty-first Cavalry Regiment and a squadron of mounted scouts within the Third Division. These were the same scouts with whom I rode into Berlin, February 2, 1945. Before that, however, I was wounded a second time near the town of Frankfurt an der oder. I was placed in a Polish Lazaretto in the little town of Bydgoszcz. I was what they referred to as the "mobile wounded." (I was shot in the face.)

One time while walking in the street, I encountered some Jewish women who were liberated from a camp in Poland where they had made train rails and grenades for the Germans fighting on the fronts. One of them, despite being younger than the others, was weaker and somewhat ill. All three were still wearing prison clothes. They had been placed in a house located in a swamp. I helped them as much as I could. It's a shame I can't recall their names. I only remember that one of them said she was from Memel (Klaipeda) or thereabouts. They didn't know what was going to happen to them. I was then taken to a hospital in Lodz and never saw them again and don't know what their life was like from then on. I think they probably took the emigration route out, as did many from the ghettos and camps. After a certain time I returned to my military unit, the Dansk Cossack Corps. There I waited out the remainder of the long difficult war. The end came on May 9, 1945, a day I consider to be my second birthday. But on that day we were to experience yet another strange feeling. This is what happened:

As with all orders, this one was delivered with considerable clamor. The trumpet resounded with the familiar tune followed by the appropriate orders. The order was as follows: "All are to assemble with horses on the field at the Summer Pavilion, on the double." We were wondering what was going on. Some of them said we were going again to battle. (There were still pockets of German military units that continued the fighting.) Others thought we were being transferred to another place. No one really knew what to expect. And so standing to the right of our horses, as is proper, we saw the commander of the squadron galloping at full speed. In Russian it's called "Aliur tri kresta" because of the inscription on the envelope of urgent telegrams to be quickly delivered on horseback. The commander brought the prancing horse to a halt facing us. He looked at us in silence for a few moments. Suddenly with a strange cry, he shouted, "BROTHERS, THE WAR IS OVER!"

All of us had awaited this moment for so long that we also were silent for a few seconds. Then everyone began to shoot his gun in the air. Even the horses began to jump around as if they too understood the war was over. Hugs were exchanged and tears of joy were shed. We still couldn't believe that death had passed us by, that we had survived to see our loved ones, our friends and acquaintances who had accompanied us to war with tears. On the front we were well aware of what happened to our Jews in the countries occupied by the Germans. The joy continued for a long while. But then we were ordered to assemble. We were given papers and something with which to write, and told to write to those who were waiting to hear some news from us as soon as possible, to put an end to their worries about us, and to share with them that we were alive and healthy. It was also to let them know that they should expect our return and would see us again. I wrote to my mother in Siberia. I was her only remaining son – survivor but not an invalid. A year after the war I happened to go to Germany yet again as part of the so-called "Russian Occupying Military in Germany." In April 1947, my military service ended.

After almost five years in the Lithuanian and Russian armies, I was discharged, and I returned to Plungyan. My mother and two sisters, as well as a few other families, had already returned from Siberia, the few who were able to survive. A few Jews had been saved by Lithuanians who hid them for the duration of the war. People had to start life all over again. Finally, people were able to settle down and begin life anew.

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