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From Yanoff, Vinnitsa in Podolia to the Golden Land: Ben Pennock's story

By Judy Dennen

Related to: Ivanov (Town)Stories


Time passes, from birth to death. Saying it so, means life is short. But - there is more to a person's life span than being born and dying.

My life on the earth began on December 10th, 1908. Born when only a woman known as a midwife, and the mother, were present at the birth of the child. The practice of medical doctors was limited, but if a doctor was in the vicinity, he would guide the mother in the birth and bring the baby into this world. When my mother brought me into this world, I was fortunate to have had a practicing physician present at this event.

My father had left Russia when my mother was two months pregnant with me. He decided to emigrate to the USA because he was afraid of being drafted into the Russian army. Being drafted into the Russian service was not bad, but Jews in the service were treated as slaves.

I was born in a small town in Russia called Yanoff. Vinitza was our Post Office. It was in Podolsker State or District in the Ukraine.

I was the fifth child my mother bore. The oldest child was a girl named Chaika, later known as Ida. The oldest boy, David, was ten years old when I was born. Gedalian, or Charles as he was later known, was the second boy. Then there was Yussel, who changed his name to Joseph. And then there was me, the youngest boy named Burick and called Ben.

Mother explained to us many times through the years that our father feared being taken into the Russian Army and that is why he went to the USA. As soon as he accumulated enough money he would send for us too and we would emigrate to the country of milk and honey.

Our father had earned money by selling merchandise that he carted from our town in his two horse wagon hitch. He would then buy loads of salt and bring them back to our town and sell them. At the time of his departure he left all his money with my mother except an amount he needed to reach America. He also brought with him gold coins in the amount of four hundred dollars to start his own business.

My mother soon ran short of funds. Not able to exist on the money left her by my father, she asked his family for help. Their answer was a definite "No." My father's mother, who owned and operated a restaurant and an ice storage plant, helped us a little, but it was not enough to live on. An ice storage plant is a place where you store ice underground. The ice is taken from the Denep River when it is frozen. The ice is sold all summer.

When I was two years old, my mother began a business similar to my father's. She took my oldest brother David with her on these trips. He was twelve years of age when she began taking him to these fairs. Mother began making money at these fairs and she would hire men to load the hundred pound bags of salt that she brought back to sell in our town. She would be away anywhere from four to five days. If her trips were delayed, I would feel something was wrong and always begin to cry at night. My sister as well as my two brothers tried to pacify me with candy or stories until I fell asleep. I grew up being watched and raised by my sister Ida, who was mother to us boys from my first birthday. When I was old enough to understand, my sister Chaika always told me about things of the past. When I first questioned my sister about my father, she told me he left for America and that someday when he earned enough money he would bring us to the golden country. I asked her why she called it the golden country. Her answer was, "you can find gold on the street". I wondered about that for a few years, that if you are able to pick gold off the streets, how come my father did not send for us with all the money or gold he could get from the streets?


Our town, as long as I remember, was always divided into religious sections. The center of town was our market place where on certain days farmers brought their produce or fruit into town and conducted a fair. There were other products sold - anything from hats to a full house of furniture. Our everyday business establishments were situated there.

I admired the town's surroundings. We had a forest to the south of us that always spread an aroma that I have never smelled or saw a resemblance to anywhere I have traveled. To the west of our town ran a river where we went bathing in the summer and where we cut blocks of ice in the winter to store in my grandmother's underground cellar for the summer. We would also cut out boards of ice and round them to fit our shoes, then add a wire thick enough on the bottom to use as an ice skate. We also dried sunflowers in the fall for the sunflower seeds, which we enjoyed eating in the winter on Saturday nights. In the fall early evenings were set aside for teenagers who on weekends had nothing else to do but walk on Main Street and eat sunflower seeds and talk about marriage in the future. We also dried out pumpkin seeds and polly seeds. So our fun and pleasures were derived from swimming in summer, ice skating in winter, as well as sledding from a nearby mountain in the nearby woods.

As long as I can remember, to play with children not Jewish was taboo. The gentile children always avoided us. The only place that we would meet children of other religions was on fair days. I always sat on my mother's wagon when she sold the salt.  And that was as close as I would come to children of other faiths.

In the northern part of our town, about a mile away, were the suburbs. There you would find farms and residential sections of all gentiles. In the eastern suburb, as far as the eye could see, you would see nothing but farms. There also was a railroad station. The railroad station was used mostly for loading grain on freight cars. We were a large wheat district and from mid-summer to late fall, freight cars were always rolling into our town loading wheat for granaries in other parts of Russia.


When I was six years old, my mother continued in the same business, but now she had three helpers, because she took my other two brothers with her. About this time we began hearing rumblings of war. I began seeing soldiers and guns, heavy cannons, cavalry moving through towns. The Russian army under the Czarist rule was a beautiful sight. I saw them everyday moving towards the front. A month or two after', I saw other soldiers entering our town, but they were raggedy looking. Some were on foot, some on broken down horses. I ran home because I was frightened of these so-called soldiers. My oldest brother, who was sixteen years old now, and quite a rawboned young man, informed me that these so-called soldiers were bandits who were trying to rob and rape, and for me to avoid them.

My brother had acquired a gun, as did other young men in our town, to protect us from these bandits. When David heard they were in town, he immediately ran to alert the others, if there should be trouble. The total young men in this security force was twenty-two, but they were brave. When the bandits grouped in the market place, they informed the people that we were to bring them food, clothing, horses, and wagons to haul their booty in. My brother David instructed his small army to spread in a circle around the market place and to hide. When he shot his gun, everybody was to shoot all together repeatedly. All the youngsters were told to go home and hide until all was clear. There were very few older people in the market place. They also ran home. The bandits, seeing the town empty of people, thought they were going to fulfill their demands. They circled around in a group and suddenly the shooting began and their men were falling dead. Seeing this, they ran towards the woods where they had come from.

We were left alone for almost two weeks. Then on a Tuesday we saw a band or small group riding into town. We disappeared, for we knew that our town army would soon chase them. After hiding for almost an hour and not hearing any shooting, we came back to town. What we saw scared us half to death.  Thesoldiers we saw riding into town were now reinforced with cannons beingpulled by horses, lined up as far as the eye could see. We all turned and ran, but were stopped by some of these soldiers and asked where the adults were hiding. They made us march toward the center of town where we were made to sit. One of the youngsters was dispatched with a note to be given to the leaders of our town. They also sent a group of soldiers to the outlying sections where the farmers lived, to state their demands. The boy who delivered the note was told to hide and that they would do what had to be done. Two hours after they sent the boy for their demands, the soldiers became impatient and began to have meetings as to their next move. The soldiers who were dispatched to the suburbs came riding back with two wagonloads of food and other items. The leader of the band suddenly turned towards my group and made us walk into the residential section of town. When we arrived, they yelled out their demands, and said if they weren't met they would shoot us all.

The few soldiers who were with us suddenly found themselves surrounded by the young men who were our security guards. Their guns were taken away and they were led to a large barn where they were made to lie down. While we were being led into town, one of the youngsters had noted that the cannons did not have ammunition anywhere near the pieces of artillery. Our security guards sent one of their men into the suburbs that surrounded the town with binoculars to try and get a count of the soldiers. The remaining soldiers became restless when their men did not return. They decided to send half their band to search for the soldiers who had failed to return. Our security guards, seeing them come on foot as well as horses, decided to hide behind barns and homes so as to shoot them when they reached the residential section. The guard who went to take a count of the soldiers in the market place also warned the gentile people that the town guard was preparing to do battle with the soldiers occupying the market place. They became frightened and told him that if they should be beaten the soldiers would kill everybody including them.

In the meantime, the soldiers who were surrounded in the residential section were so surprised by the guard, they gave up without a shot. They were tied and hidden in the barns and some brought to the woods. The guard, after getting the news from their spies that there were only about fifteen soldiers left in the market place, decided to surround them. But this time they were to shoot in case there was fodder for the cannons so they would not get the chance to load them. It took one hour to get them to drop their arms and surrender. Eight were left of the fifteen. My brother David found out later that this group they captured were a band controlled by a leader who tried to capture and take over all of Russia. They were given authority to escort the remaining prisoners to Moscow. They did and were compensated for their heroism. They were also given ammunition for the captured cannons as well as more guns and ammunition. For almost six months we had no problems.

The next invasion of our town was orators expressing their desire to overthrow the government because, as they stated, the Czarist regime made slaves of all of us. Some people, as well as the guard, decided to align with them. The older people tried to warn the Jewish of the town, that to become a Bolshevik was to give up their religion. Some became followers of the Reds and soon were sent to other parts of the country taking most of the cannons and other arms as well as most of the ammunition. Out of about forty of the guard only five were left. As soon as the guard left, the gentiles who turned Bolshevik began robbing the Jews and killing them.

Things began to happen that often frightened us to death. Like one night in February, we were all home and sound asleep, when someone began knocking hard on our door and demanded to come in and check how many men were in the home. When they saw my oldest brother David, they made him lie in bed and measured him for height. He was six feet tall. They told him he would have to join the army.


So that David wouldn't have to be part of the Russian army, we lived through the pogroms and decided right after the first World War to migrate to the USA. We wrote to my father in 1918. By the time we received our notice it was the beginning of the 1920's. My mother changed whatever money she had into 5-10-and 20-dollar gold pieces. My father sent us a note telling us that as soon as we received our papers for our leave, he would send our steamship tickets and money. My mother found out from the Bolshevik government that we could not leave Russia until everything was changed over to the Bolshevik government and that would take at least five years.

My mother sold our home and all our furniture and made arrangements to sneak out of the country. She wrote my father about her intentions and told him he was not to write us until we contacted him. We were fortunate that our postal system was not yet organized and the mail went through.

We left early September 1920 at midnight on a Sunday. The wagon and driver she rented came about ten p.m., the driver left his wagon and took his horses to a nearby barn. We packed enough food to last for the trip. At midnight the horses were hitched and we took off. We were hidden under blankets so as not to be noticed. We drove at night only. During the day we found woods or other hiding places. We drove almost two weeks before we reached the Russian Polish border. The town we hid in was named Walochisk on the Russian side. On the Polish side it was called Pidwilochisk. We had to make arrangements with a middleman who then made arrangements with the Russian and Polish guards so we could cross the bridge dividing the two countries.

Ten o'clock on a Wednesday late in December, our turn came to cross the bridge. We were led by our man, who advised us, do not talk, walk slowly, walk softly, and do not turn back if we drop anything. He had a man following us to see that we left no telltale marks. One hour later we were crossing the bridge while the guards feigned sleep. My mother wore a black shawl over her head. We began crossing, as we reached the middle of the bridge, my mother's shawl caught on the barbed wire. She tried to unhook it, but twisted it more on the wire. I grabbed the shawl and ripped it away. I told mother the man following would remove the rest of it. When we reached the other guardhouse, the guard on duty stepped out and told us to halt. Many things ran through our minds at the time. My brother David watched and waited without fear. The man who led us told the guard he had no more money to give him, the guard told us he would have to lock us in a shack built on the Polish side, because we were sneaking across the border. My brother became angry and made a motion as if to strike the guard. The guard lifted his rifle and hit David on the head, causing it to bleed. Before the guard brought his rifle down, my brother, who was very strong, grabbed the rifle and wrested it from the guard and beat him to death and threw him into the creek.

We then ran into Poland and were led to a home a distance away from the border and were hidden in the attic. We were shifted from one place to another until things quieted down. We were then told that we were able to leave for Germany. Arrangements were made by buying passes for us and tickets for a train. Germany was disorganized after the First World War, but the American Embassy could receive and dispatch letters to and from the USA.

My father sent us steamship tickets and money to come to America. It seemed at the time that anywhere you wanted to go, you were able as long as you had money in front of you. We received our passports and our ship was to sail from Amsterdam. We were to embark on the Reevsam Holland American line.

Now for the first time in many months, we traveled during the day instead of at night. For the first time we were enjoying our trip.

Submitted by:Judy Dennen

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  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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