ONLINE NEWSLETTER (No. 1/2010 - January, 2010)
This article is about the experiences Ruth Marcus had and people she met in researching her family's roots.
© This article is copyrighted by Ruth Marcus.
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Old Records Brought Two Grodno Survivors Together
by Ruth Marcus
During the last seven years I have been researching the life of the Jewish Community of Lunna before the Second World War and its bitter fate in the Holocaust. The town of Lunna, the place where my father was born, belongs today to Byelorussia, and is located about 38 kilometers southeast of the city of Grodno. Between the First and the Second World Wars, the region belonged to the Bialystok district in Poland. My father, Yitzchak Eliashberg z"l was born in 1910 and grew up in Lunna. After graduating "Torah Ve'Daat" ["Torah and Knowledge"] elementary school in Lunna, he attended "Tarbut" Gymnasium in Grodno until he graduated in 1930. He was active in HaShomer HaTzair youth movement and between 1930 and 1932 was one of the leaders of HaShomer Hatzair in Grodno. In 1932 he made Aliya to Eretz Israel.
In recent years I have also become interested in collecting material about the "Tarbut" Gymnasium and "Hashomer Hatzair" youth movement in Grodno. Therefore, I have been trying to trace children of persons who were classmates of my father at "Tarbut" Gymnasium and also children of his friends from HaShomer HaTzair youth movement in order to find out whether they have photos, documents or any other relevant material about this subject. My father's cousin, Moshe Alperstein, who was born in Grodno and now lives in Israel, provided me with further information about this subject. He also suggested that I contact with Chasia (Bielicka) Bornstein who was born in Grodno and now resides in Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan in the Upper Galilee in Israel. Furthermore, Moshe Alperstein told me that the family name of one of my father's classmates at "Tarbut" Gymnasium was Cheszes (his first name he did not recall). Searching for "Cheszes" at The Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names at Yad Vashem came up with a person named Abraham Cheszes who in 1999 submitted testimony pages for the memory of his Chezses family relatives from Grodno murdered in the Holocaust. Abraham Cheszes listed his address and phone number in Toronto.
Chasia (Bielicka) Bornstein
Following the advice of Moshe Alperstein, I called Chasia (Bielicka) Bornstein and had several interesting phone conversations with her. Chasia was born in 1921 and grew up in Grodno. She was a member of HaShomer Hatzair youth movement in Grodno and provided me with more information about HaShomer Hatzair, and particularly about the place where the "ken" (see note 1) was located in Grodno in the 1930s.
After the Nazis invaded Grodno (June 22, 1941) Chasia and her family were sent to Ghetto no. 1 created by the Germans in Grodno. She enlisted in the combat resistance in Grodno and in 1943 was sent to Bialystok. There, masquerading as a simple Polish girl, she lived on the Aryan side and became a liaison with the partisans, moving ammunition, medicines, food and information in the Bialystok forests. Together with other colleagues, she gathered intelligence about the positioning of the German forces, thus assisting the Red Army to conquer Bialystok in August 1944. A few days later Chasia and her two friends - Ania Rod and Lisa Chapnik returned to Grodno which was liberated by the Red Army on July 14, 1944.
After the war Chasia was involved in opening the first children’s home of the Koordynacja for the Redemption of Jewish Children in Liberated Poland. For a year and a half, she moved around with the children along the route of the "Bricha"(see note 2 ) to Germany, France, and then to Eretz Israel. In 1947 she settled with her husband Heini Bornstein in Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan. Chasia Bornstein-Bielicka is the author of the book: "ONE OF THE FEW – A Resistance Fighter and Educator, 1939-1947" (in Hebrew, 2003; in English, 2009).
My visit to Toronto
In November 2009 I was invited to present a lecture about the town of Lunna during the Holocaust Education Week in Toronto. My visit was organized by my cousin Orah Buck who lives in Toronto. When I arrived in Toronto, I called Abraham Cheszes and spoke with him over the phone. He told me that the person named Cheszes who was my father's classmate at "Tarbut" Gymnasium was most likely his relative, presumably a first or second cousin. Unfortunately Abraham could not provide any specific information about this person. Abraham and his wife, Anna Cheszes, attended my lecture about Lunna which was held at Temple Sinai in Toronto. Abraham was excited with my presentation which included many photos of the Jewish people who had once lived in Lunna. He told me that back then he had friends in Lunna and they used to get together either in Lunna or in Grodno. That same evening, my cousin Orah Buck arranged a reception at her home and invited the Cheszes couple together with several other Holocaust survivors. The next day Abraham Cheszes and I met again at Orah's place to spend two-hours together. I had a most interesting interview with Abraham.
Interviewing Abraham Cheszes
Abraham Cheszes was born in Grodno in 1919. He attended Yavne elementary school together with Moshe Alperstein (my father's cousin). He knew Chasia (Bielicka) and her family from Grodno before the war. In the beginning of the Second World War the Grodno region was annexed to the Soviet Union according to the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. In 1940 at the age of 21 Abraham joined the Russian army. On June 22, 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. After six months the Russian front collapsed. Later the Russian government with the assistance of the communist Poles organized a special unit of soldiers who were Polish citizens before the war. Abraham was sent to the Polish Second Army, also known as the Wanda Wasilewska Army. He served in this unit and was in the front, in Moscow and in 1944 arrived with the army to Lublin, which was by then liberated. According to Abraham, at the end of 1943 he still did not know about the bitter fate of the Jews during the Holocaust and in particular the fate of the Jews of Grodno. At that time Russians newspapers published news about the fascists without mentioning the Holocaust of the Jews. When he came with the army to Lublin and saw Maidanek Death Camp, it was the first time that he realized that a Holocaust had occurred to the Jews.
After the liberation of Grodno by the Russian army, Abraham sent a letter to Grodno inquiring if any of his family members survived the war. At about the same time, his older sister Miriam, who escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war and therefore remained in Russia, also sent a similar letter to Grodno. Abraham and Miriam lost contact during the war and none of them had any information about the other. In August 1944 Chasia Bielicka and her two friends returned from Bialystok to Grodno. They used to go to the post-office at Pocztowa Street in Grodno, in order to check if any letters were received from Jewish survivors. They would reply to the letters. It turned out that exactly at the same time that Chasia was replying to Miriam, informing her that no one from her family survived, the letter from Abraham was brought to Chasia. Thanks to Chasia, Abraham Cheszes and his sister, Miriam, were able to find each other.
In 1946 Abraham Cheszes was released from the army, which was stationed in Warsaw. After a short stay in Poland, he left for Germany and stayed in New Ulm, a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany. In 1947 he emigrated to Sweden and in 1951 he received a visa to Canada and settled in Montreal. Later on he brought his sister Miriam and her family to Canada. Years later, after the death of Miriam in Canada, Abraham found among her personal effects the letter she received from Chasia in August 1944. Abraham kept this letter at his home.
Renewing contact in 2009
During the years Chasia (Bielicka) Bornstein and Abraham Cheszes lost contact. Chasia and her husband Heini visited several times Toronto, but they didn't know that Abraham was living there. Abraham and his wife Anna visited Israel several times but they didn't know that Chasia was living there.
When I went to Toronto in November 2009, I took with me the Hebrew book by Chasia Bornstein-Bielicka (the English translation of her book was not yet published). While interviewing Abraham Cheszes, I showed him the book and opened it on a page with a photo of the group "Bitzaron" of HaShomer Hatzair taken in 1937. His younger sister, Keila Cheszes, is shown among the members of group "Bitzaron" as well as Chasia's older brother, Avreml Bielicki who was the leader of the group at that time. Abraham got very excited when he saw the picture as he didn't have any photos of his sister Keila who was murdered in the Holocaust. Abraham and his wife, Anna, gave me a photocopy of the letter sent in August 1944 to Miriam in Russia from Chasia in Grodno. They have been keeping this letter and asked me to forward it to Chasia in Israel.
Meeting with Anna (in the middle) and Abraham Cheszes in Toronto. Notice the book "One of the Few" (in Hebrew) placed on the table (November 2009)
Letter sent to Miriam (Abraham Cheszes' sister) in Russia from Chasia Bielicka (Grodno, August 23, 1944)
Translation of the letter:
Grodno, 23 August 1944
I am afraid that I am the one writing to you, a school colleague from ORT (see note 3), and not somebody from your family. A very harsh fate has fallen upon us here. I have to inform you that from 23,000 Jews in Grodno, only 100 survived. Nobody from your family survived. From my family, I am the only one who has survived. I lived in Bialystok as a Polish woman. I will write to you more in the next letter when and how people were killed.
Your colleague, Chasia Bielicka
I have just been brought a letter from your brother, Abraham. The letter came from the following address [listed].
When I returned to Israel from Toronto, I sent Chasia the letter she wrote to Miriam in 1944. It turned out that when I was in Toronto, the book "One of the Few" was published in English. I immediately ordered a book from "Yad Vashem" and sent it to Abraham Cheszes in Toronto. A few days later I received a phone call from Chasia telling me how excited she was when she received the letter she wrote to Miriam in 1944 and how happy she was to renew contact with Abraham after so many years. A few days later, on December 4, 2009 an email message from Anna Cheszes was sent to Chasia and to me, thanking Chasia for writing the book, thanking me for sending the book and telling us that: "Abram has been reading and crying all day. The children are coming for supper tonight, so it will be an opportunity for him to talk about family and Grodno. It means so much to Abram, words cannot describe."
At that point I felt that I had already met Abraham Cheszes in Toronto in November 2009. I also had several conversations with Chasia over the phone, but have never met her. It was time to meet Chasia "face to face" in Kibbutz Lahavot HaBashan.
Visit to Lahavot Habashan
On a nice day in December 2009 I went together with two friends to Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan. On the way to Lahavot we stopped at Kibbutz Kinneret. In Kinneret I interviewed a woman named Ruchama (Katzenelson) Lanuel, born in 1914 in Ein-Ganim, near Petach-Tiqva. Her mother died when she was 4 years old and she was orphaned. In 1919 she grew up at the same orphanage at Ethiopia Street in Jerusalem where my mother grew up. Ruchama showed us several photos taken at the orphanage and also photos taken at "Lemel" elementary school which she attended in Jerusalem. Her house is filled with history and she is full of energy. I spent an exciting morning with her, talking about Jerusalem in the 1920s and about many subjects related to the history of Eretz Israel.
We then continued to Kibbutz Lahavot HaBashan where we met Chasia (Bielicka) and her husband Heini Bornstein. We spoke about Grodno, the Hashomer HaTzair youth movement, and saw several photos from Grodno taken before the war and other photos taken during the visits of the Bornstein family in Grodno in 2000 and in 2006. Chasia and Heini told me that Abraham and Anna Cheszes had already called them from Toronto and they spoke over the phone. I felt very happy that I could serve as a "catalytic agent" between Chasia and Abraham and enjoyed every minute with the Bornstein couple at Lahavot HaBashan.
Chasia (Bielicka) Bornstein visits in 2000 the place where the former "ken" [headquarters] of Hashomer Hatzair was located, at 44 Vitoldova Street, Grodno.
The carpentry division of the army was now located there (2000).
The building was destroyed sometime before 2006.
What an interesting and exciting day it was. Half of the day we spent at Kibbutz Kinneret which was devoted to memories related to my mother's childhood in Jerusalem. The second part of the day we spent at Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan which was devoted to memories related to my father's youth in Grodno.