Translated by Jerrold Landau
Editor's note: The authors of the articles in this chapter were all from among those who were exiled with their families by the Germans from Sanok when it was conquered on the eighth day after the outbreak of the war. The exiles crossed over to the Russian side over the San River and were dispersed into nearby towns. The following lines will tell us about their wandering and suffering in their halting places in exile in Siberia and Asian Russia. What is told here is very little, only a small part of the bitter and cruel experiences that they endured from the time they left our city until they reached this destination and finally their liberation and aliyah to the Land [of Israel].
Our brethren endured long journeys full of immeasurable suffering and tribulations which left marks on their souls and emotions from which they will not quickly be freed. Snippets of memories of the events and life experiences from those days remain etched in the deep recesses of their souls where they will remain forever. These experiences are too numerous to be examined in their entirety. Life was too difficult and cruel for these memories to be preserved in the depth of their memories without some confusion and blurring. Their experiences there were so degrading and oppressive that they cannot be definitively collected and captured and given faithful expression, either orally or in writing.
If this was the case during their journey to Siberia, it was even more so in Siberia itself. Siberia here refers to the Siberian forests and the vast areas enveloped in snow and ice where they ended up after a journey of several weeks which was filled with tribulation. The orders of the echelons: Here, in this place, you will remain and live. This place was a vast area, empty in all directions and completely covered with snow and dense forests that could be seen along the horizon. Parents and adult family members were sent to cut trees in those deep forests which were frightening in their height and density. Then they had to cut them into planks, count them and organize them in accordance with the orders of the foremen, the commands of the supervisors and the scrutiny of the inspectors. These fortunate ones who went to their daily work in these forests received their filthy ration of bread, which they brought home to serve as the primary source of food to sustain their family.
It is easy to understand the spiritual and physical state of our brethren, natives of our town and other places, when they arrived there without any defense against the cold, removed from any orderly lifestyle and without strength under unbearable conditions. One could not think that the days that followed the first, second, third and so on would be any better or that they would bring any hope of an easier and more pleasant life in their wake. The opposite was true. The decrees became more severe with each passing day. Every day brought new tribulations, and the later, newer tribulations caused one to forget the earlier ones. Aside from the evil decrees - the restrictions of movement, the persecution and the hatred and enmity, the people themselves felt hunger, want, poverty, cold, diseases and weakness that ate away at body and soul. The suffering and tribulations enveloped everybody. There was no food, neither for the old nor the young. There was no clothing, neither for the adults nor the children. There was no medicine to protect against disease, neither for the elderly nor the babies.
The stories written about this period in the lives of the Jewish refugees in exile in Russia and Siberia are very few and sparse. The details and descriptions given to us by those who lived this life and suffered these tribulations with their own flesh are few and brief. Of those people, only a few succeeded in reaching us with their frail health still intact, with their breath still in their nostrils, with the strand of life still in their spirit, and the hope for renewal in their souls. They do not have the power and ability to review this entire period of life as it was. They do not have the ability to retrieve clearly from their memories the full details of the suffering and trials. We will therefore suffice ourselves with what is conveyed in this chapter, excerpts of dirges from the scroll of Lamentations about the great tragedy and deep crisis, tiny drops from the wide sea of pain and agony. These excerpts are dear and important to us for their own sake but also because they are the only stories that we could salvage from their mouths and writings
Along the Way
Transport trucks with an address:
A wagon with ten horses
On its floor there is now
Transport trucks along the way
Moving here and there.
To where there is no tomorrow
To where there is no name
And the fear hovers
Outside the lattice of the window
The train moves quickly
Slinking on its belly
Oh would it not reach
The crater of the chasm.
(K. A. Britani: Seven Poems of Siberia)
by Berel Rabbach
Translated by Jerrold Landau
A. The Miracle by the Volga
I do not recall in which month this took place. I only remember that this was in the year 1944, the year in which the cold reached a level that was rare even in Siberia. No potatoes could be found in our home or in any other home for some time. In our place of residence at that time, the Siberian village of Podlesnovski Soboroz near Saratov, we had almost forgotten what a potato looked like.
Once on a Friday morning, as I was going from my house to a well in the courtyard in order to fetch two pails of water, my eyes suddenly stumbled upon several large potatoes lying outside next to the well atop a cover of white snow. It was obvious that potatoes would be frozen as hard as rocks in the negative 45 degree temperature. I brought them, the cold diamonds, home as a present for my wife… When they melted a bit and were no longer frozen, they became soft and sweet. With this, a suspicion arose in my heart, and a thought went through my mind: how good would it be if at least one egg and one morsel of onion could be found in the house. Then we would be able to prepare a proper Sabbath meal with one of the most typical Sabbath foods! I immediately went to the home of an Uzbeki woman in the village, gave her a kerchief, and received four eggs in return. We now had one of the ingredients of the meal in our hands. But where could the onion come from? I suddenly remembered that there was a stash of several onions at the home of my sister, who lived in a different kolkhoz [collective farm] six kilometers from where I lived! Without thinking much, I set out to my sister and returned home. After walking about 12 kilometers by foot in deep snow, I returned with one large onion in my hands!
It was worthwhile. After several years, that day we again tasted - there in Siberia of all places! - we again tasted the finest of Sabbath delicacies: onions and eggs - tzibiles mit eyer!
B. With What Do we Light
This too took place in the same cold winter of 1944. At home, there was not even one morsel of wood for fuel. Everyone was lying curled up in bed all day. Anyone who had a blanket to cover himself up was fortunate, and woe to those who did not have one. Anyone who did not have a blanket was forced to cover up in rags, for if they were not to cover up, they would freeze from the fierce cold in this unheated room. The room was not heated for a simple reason: There were no forests and no wood for fuel anywhere around the village in which we lived. All the trees of the area were small shrubs of various types, with thin, light branches, some of which were hollow like reeds. Any of these that had been set aside in the autumn for the winter had been used up during the first two months of winter, November and December, and the wood storehouse was empty of any inventory. What should be done throughout the rest of the winter months of January-June (in this area, the snow only melts in the month of May)? To freeze to death? - There is no great desire for that. It is worthwhile to push that off for a bit. Perhaps not all remnants had been used up. Perhaps we could still search for some means to combat the tribulation whose name is cold?
Perhaps we had to try to find some solution to the problem of fuel. Perhaps it would be possible to find, or more accurately - to invent - some solution to the question: With what do we light? That is to say, with what, finally, can we heat the room in a winter such as this, with cold temperatures such as this, and in a situation where there was a complete lack of wood and any other fuel?
The answer came, and the solution was found. This was on such a night as this, of the cold night, when one asks How and what? Behold: we left the house late at night and spread out through the different edges of the village. What happened then?
We came across a wooden fence. We dismantled it, cut the boards and planks into small pieces, prepared them for lighting, and actually lit them…
We found a cattle barn, took down the door, dismantled it into sections, and cut each section into small pieces. We now had good firewood that was fit to light even the oven of the Czar…
We encountered a wooden staircase at the entrance of the office of the Natshalnik [village official]. We moved it slightly from their place, dismantled it, and within an hour, we had already produced the material for firewood.
In this manner, on one occasion, we solved one of the most oppressive problems in exile in Siberia. In this manner, we found an answer to one perpetual question of the masses of questions that were asked day by day hour by hour, by the wretched, oppressed Siberian exiles, refugees of the Second World War. If anyone would come to think about new, additional questions, that is, questions about the quality of the answer that was given then - the final, profound, response will be (this time, a characteristic, Jewish response - with a question!): Was there any other choice at that time? Was there any other way of lighting the oven in order to warm up the room in such cold, on such a night when a daughter was born to the writer of these lines in that room -- during those hours of the night, when the baby and the mother required and awaited a warm room, warm air, and a bit of warm water?!
by David Shmarlobsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
A. Hewers of Wood Observant of the Sabbath
Among the work groups that were made up of Jews who were sent to point 38 in the Siberian forest, there was one whose task was to prepare strips of wood and to cut them into very thin planks. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski was among those at the center of this group. It seems that his diligence in his work caused the work director and the supervisor of security who was responsible for the entire camp to place their faith in him and turn to him for most issues that arose in the camp. Reb Mendel gathered into his group those people who had difficulty in other jobs - especially with work in the forest. Every day, the men of the group gathered in a bunk that was partially broken, and attempted to meet the quotas imposed on them. In the evening, the work director would appear, count and mark the quantity produced, bind them with ropes, and record and authorize the amount of bread that the group was to receive based on the quota produced. The
paltry quantity of food and other living conditions began to oppress the spirit of the people. Expressions of bitterness increased. The worm of despair began to gnaw at some of them.
Reb Mendel encouraged the spirit of the people by organizing communal singing that included Sabbath and festival songs, reciting prayers by heart, and quoting verses and statements talking about the redemption that was to come. The Russian work director, who at first behaved in an oppressive matter, began to hold the group in esteem after some time, whether because of the quota that they produced or because of the morale that pervaded it.
Reb Mendel, who was dedicated to them at all times and every situation, succeeded in avoiding the desecration of the Sabbath when he had been a soldier in the First World War, as well as during the most recent tragic transport to Siberia. He found a way to keep it even in that place, by promoting the Talmudic adage, Whoever toils on the eve of the Sabbath will eat on the Sabbath. He influenced the group to act in accordance with this adage. On Friday, they prepared a larger quota of planks and left them scattered on the floor without putting them in order. At night, when the work director came to tally the quota, Reb Mendele would claim that they did not have time to bundle up the piles, and promised that the next day; they would bundle up what had been produced over the two days. On the Sabbath, the group in the bunk spent the day in communal worship and in reading the weekly Torah portion from a Chumash. They sang Sabbath hymns during the meal Then, You rested on the Sabbath Day, Blessed be the Name day by day, he will grant us salvation and redemption - and others. In the afternoon, close to the time when the work director would come, they began to bundle up the piles. When he came he found a large quantity bundled up, as promised.
The group earned praise from the camp leadership on more than one occasion. They especially praised the center of the group and its living spirit: Comrade Mendel Moisivitch Shmarlobiski. The Jewish members of the group were proud about their two achievements: fulfilling the quota and observing the Sabbath.
B. High Holyday prayers in the Siberian forest
A short time after their arrival to the settlement in the depths of the Siberian forest the men of faith and deeds began to organize Jewish life. Despite the careful supervision by the leaders of the N.K.V.D. (the Soviet security force), they began to organize the little that was possible in the area of religion and tradition. With constant physical and spiritual danger, they organized prayers, guarded kashrut through kosher slaughter, and even attempted to disseminate Torah to schoolchildren. Major efforts were directed toward organizing communal prayer on the approaching High Holydays. The police commander found out from several Polish Christians about the holiday preparations of the Jews. On the eve of the festival, the police increased its supervision on the residents of the bunks and even warned them about organizing prayers and gatherings, which were against the laws of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, preparations were made. Prayer leaders were designated, a place for the prayers was chosen, and scouts were set up - lads who would look out on all sides and whose job was to inform the worshippers about the approach of police representatives. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski of blessed memory and Reb Chaim Schwerd of blessed memory were among the prayer leaders, Torah readers, and shofar blowers. The services of the first night of the holiday passed more or less with no disturbance. In the morning, the worshippers gathered again, aside from those who were not permitted to refrain from going to work. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski led the Pesukei Dezimra, and gave over his place to the leader of the Shacharit service. This was Reb Chaim Schwerd, the well-known shochet and prayer leader of the large Beis Midrash of Sanok, who had weakened somewhat from the tribulations of the long journey and the poor nutritional situation. Nevertheless, he summoned his remaining strength and began the Shacharit service, as is done on the High Holydays, with the call of Hamelech. The call of Hamelech was uttered
with a great cry that shook up the hearts of the worshippers. I recall that at that moment, images and feelings of the days when Reb Chaimel the Shochet served as the prayer leader in the large Beis Midrash of Sanok passed before my eyes. In my imagination, I once again saw myself standing beside my father, who was enwrapped with his tallis over his head, taking care that I not miss one word of the prayers, as I was surrounded by my brothers and good friends. However, the bitter reality quickly spread before me: The scouts appeared and informed us that the police commander and his assistants were running toward us to look into the shout that they had heard. All the worshippers quickly dispersed in different directions. When the danger passed, the worshippers gathered again to continue their prayers. This services remains etched on my heart, and I will never forget it!
C. Two Loaves
When I was a small child, and I listened to the descriptions and memories of my father of blessed memory from the period of the First World War in which he participated as a soldier on the line for four years, I was always impressed with his ability to arrange things with respect to the demands of religion so that it would not be harmful to him. A common thread throughout all of his stories was the description of how he succeeded in preparing the double loaves in every place and every situation so that he could recite the Kiddush on the Sabbath. And now, the tribulations of the Second World War transported him to a Siberian village. Here, the primary food for a person was the bread, albeit in small quantities that was distributed in set portions. In the harsh winter of 1942, Father was forced to make great efforts in order to ensure that he had the two loaves for the Sabbath, as was his custom. That winter, there were days when there was no distribution of bread, with the excuse that the path from the town to the village was closed due to snow. At times, the residents of the village were left without food for several days. This is how it was that week. The distribution of bread was unorganized, and it was already Friday. Father was full of indescribable sadness that he did not even have an appropriate loaf of bread for the Sabbath. He got ready to prepare dough and bake several matzos from the stash of flour that he had kept for a time of trouble. As he was preparing them the person in charge of bringing the bread burst into the bunk with loud screams. Dadushka, a disaster happened, and they say that you are able to save! The wagon driver explained that, as she was driving from the nearby town with the bread wagon, the horse began to rebel, and the wagon eventually collapsed. The horse also fell, and it seemed that it no longer had any signs of life. How can I help? responded Father, I am not expert at all in matters of wagons and horses?! With the concern that he might not be able to prepare the matzos for the Sabbath, he pushed off the pleas of the wagon driver to go out to the place of the incident. However, she searched for a way to convince Father that she was talking about a serious incident, and said, You are a religious man, and you should concern yourself that an entire community will be left without bread, and that I will be punished severely. Father responded to her pleas and cries, and speedily walked the several kilometers. He arrived at the place that the horse and wagon had fallen. After all of Father's attempts to stand the horse up were for naught, he utilized the final resort. He freed the horse from its harness. When the horse sensed that it was free, it stood up on its legs and showed signs of strengthening. Then they started to set the wagon upright. When they succeeded, they hitched the horse to the wagon again, and it galloped to the village. Many people were waiting, calling out, The bread arrived! Long live Dadushka!, and other cries of joy.
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