by Fradl Lewinson, New York
Translated from Hebrew by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
I came home and informed my parents that we could not get a wagon for any amount of money. My remarkable father answered thus: We will place ourselves in the hands of the Creator and stay. We will go to a brick building and the Creator
will help us survive the fire that is drawing near us.
My Escape with my Child to Cienchanowiec
I became very nervous from the bangs of the bombs that were heard all around. I had a neighbor, Borukh Hitsl's son, Henrik, who was a horse trader. I cried and said that I was a mother and I needed to save my child. He said that as he had a wagon, I should give him 50 zlotes and he would make a place for me and my child in his wagon, and that he was leaving Thursday at night.
This was a great favor because he would have received much more if he had said he would take someone. When I asked him to take our entire family, he said that this was impossible because the whole wagon was occupied.
When my father heard that I had said that I did not want to travel alone with my child,
he said to me, I decree that you should leave with your child. We will trust in God and you are so frightened. So go.
This was on Thursday night, four days after the outbreak of the war.
We left for Cienchanowiec in a wagon packed with people, with a few things.
I will never forget the trip. All of the bridges were burned; it appeared as if the entire world was in flames and we met almost the entire city on the road. We ran on foot with the small children who could not walk.
We arrived in Cienchanowiec late at night.
We stayed with people unknown to us.
We got boxes in Cienchanowiec and buried our possessions under the floor. The same confusion as in Czyzewo.
The sad news arrived in the morning from Czyzewo that the entire city was in flames. The Germans had bombed Czyzewo and no could enter the city.
Everyone who had left families in Czyzewo regretted that they had escaped.
Suddenly Meir Orkes arrived.
He reported that there were nine Jewish victims and others had saved themselves in the forests.
Meir Orkis [spelled Orkes above] told me that nothing had happened to anyone in our family.
I decided not to escape further and remained in Cienchanowiec until the Germans entered.
We were in a cellar for two days.
When the enemy, may their name be erased, entered, all of the Jews were afraid to stick their heads outside.
We were very dejected and afraid, but little by little we began to go out into the street. However, we immediately heard that they already were looking for ways to cause suffering. They ordered a baker to provide a very large quantity of bread. If not, they would murder all of the Jews. A gentile boy had cut some kind of telephone wire; they said that the Jews had done it. They demanded that the Jew who had done it be given to them. If not, all of the Jews would be murdered.
Many German colonists lived in Cienchanowiec and they got along well with the Jewish population. They convinced the German regime that this was not done by the Jews.
We relaxed a little.
A few days later my husband came to Cienchanowiec and spoke about the destruction.
We decided to bring our parents and sister to Cienchanowiec.
One of the most respected members of the middle class in Czyzewo gave us two rooms and our parents came to Cienchanowiec.
Many Cienchanowiec members of the middle class would come to see my father and the Cienchanowiec Rabbi brought my father a few religious books because of his [my father's] entire large library which he had collected for his entire life, he did not have even one book. Everything had been burned.
After a few weeks rumors began to spread that the Germans were leaving and that the Russians were coming.
No one believed this. It was felt that this was a provocation by the Germans.
It was erev Sukkos [the eve of the Feast of the Tabernacles] when I went, at the request of my father, to bake a few flat rolls for Lekhem Mishneh [two holiday or Shabbos Sabbath breads for the holiday].
The owner had a sukkah [temporary structure in which one has meals and may sleep during the holiday of Sukkos] and, going to the bakery, I saw [people] were running all over and Russian tanks were entering the city.
I ran home quickly to relate the happy news that the Russians had entered and we were no longer subject to various provocations.
My father accepted the news very coldly and said: What is the celebration? Previously the body was in danger and now our souls are in danger.
We knew that the Russians persecuted those who study Torah and how would we be able to raise children without Torah ?
The Decision to Travel to Vilna
Immediately after Sukkos 1939, a cold winter arrived of which I remember no equal.
Everything was burned after the bombing of Czyzewo, so that I had no shoes and no galoshes because I had left the house in a pair summer shoes. And a heavy snow had started to fall here. We walked in snow up to our knees and could not find any shoes to buy because all of the shops had been burned. We decided to go to Bialystok to buy shoes and galoshes. Traveling involved mortal danger. The bridges had been bombed out and we had to go by boat from Łapy in order to be able to go to Bialystok.
With great effort, we succeeded in reaching Bialystok. There we were able to buy something to wear on our feet so that we would be protected from the cold.
We met a few yeshiva [religious secondary school] men in Bialystok who informed us that Vilna was being granted to Lithuania and
that there still were a few days in which we could travel by train and that many rabbis were departing. The entire Mirer Yeshiva was leaving. As Lithuania was not yet in a state of war, we would be able to travel further from there.
We immediately decided that only my husband would leave because we did not have our child with us. The child was with my parents in Cienchanowiec. So we decided that the child and I would go later.
Arriving in Cienchanowiec, I told my father that my husband had left for Vilna. He was very happy. He said: We older ones will still be able to get by somehow, but the young need to leave because this is no place for a young rabbi.
The Czyzewo Jews who had escaped to the villages began to return. Everyone thought about how it had been organized under the Russians; some of them nailed together a bit of a house, some moved outside the city.
The Jews asked that the rabbi return to Czyzewo. They received a room from the brush maker and my parents moved there.
I left for Tiktin [Tykocin], to my mother-in-law's, as there was no room for me and my child in the one small room.
While I was in Tiktin, my husband sent his brother-in-law from Vilna to bring me and our child to Vilna.
He arranged for gentiles to take us across the border when we reached it. But when my brother-in-law told me the plan, I said that I must go to say goodbye to my parents.
Traveling from Tiktin to Czyzewo took three days because traveling then was difficult. I finally arrived in Czyzewo.
On a dark evening I said goodbye to my dear, dear parents and my youngest sister, Gitl, who accompanied me outside, and with the blessings of my great father. I left my dear and precious ones that dark night with a small package in my hand.
Arriving in Bialystok, we started on our way. This was in December 1939.
When we arrived not far from the border where my brother-in-law had hired the gentiles, it already was heavily guarded and the gentiles had been arrested. We saw that we could not cross; we went to the nearby city Oszmiana [Ashmyany] . We were advised to wait until New Year's Eve when the guards would be drunk. Then we would be able to go across. However, this idea was incorrect because a terrible frost began. The temperature reached -42 [Celcius; -43.6 Farenheit]. Such a frost had not be seen for more than 50 years.
My child was three years old. We had to go perhaps 60 kilometers [over 37 miles]. It was impossible to walk with such a child; we had to carry the child. I looked among those who were ready to sneak across the border, someone who would carry the child. I wanted to pay well, but it was impossible to find someone. Additionally, the news arrived that those who went with children had had their children freeze to death.
I decided not to go.
My child and I were in Oszmiana for three months and we could not cross the border.
There were extraordinary circumstances where people bribed the guard at the border and went across the border in a wagon at night.
Thus did my child and I arrive in Vilna after three months of wandering.
This was before Purim in 1940.
We were almost the last ones who succeeded in escaping from there.
Thus passed a few months and we believed we had saved ourselves from hell until the first day of Sukkos.
Suddenly, the news reached us like thunder that the Russians had marched to Vilna and we again were in the middle of fire.
Our running was useless. Our home [country] was again unified with Vilna. My brother Chaim, who had lived in Maladzyechna, which already was occupied by Russia, came to me after the outbreak of the war and someone also arrived from Czyzewo. Dworya Edelsztajn also came to me and gave me a message from home and we believed that we were destined to live under the Russians.
We began to think of getting citizenship and believed there was no possibility of emigrating.
At the time when we thought that we had to take [Soviet] citizenship, it became known that the Japanese Consulate, which was located in Kovno, was issuing visas to Japan.
It soon took on a mass character and every yeshiva [religious secondary school] person and a majority of the rabbis
who were in Vilna took out Japanese visas.
Having the Japanese visa, we had to have transit visas through Russia. No one believed that it would be easy to obtain so many transit visas from Russia. A miracle occurred. No one understands even today why we were immediately given transit visas.
Someone took a chance and went to obtain a transit visa and he was given one. Everyone who had a Japanese visa began to go and for a payment of 150 dollars received a Soviet transit visa.
When we asked at Intourist how we could obtain dollars, when we were not permitted to buy them, that we could be arrested, they answered that you will find a solution.
After paying the 150 dollars per person, we prepared to travel, but no one believed that we would travel safely and would arrive in Japan. It was thought, who knows if we were actually traveling to Siberia.
We traveled 14 days and nights locked in train wagons.
This was in February 1941 when we left Vilna. We arrived in Moscow two days later. We were treated very well there. As foreigners, we stayed in one of the nicest hotels, Novoia Moskovskaya.
We were given the best foods, but it should be understood that we did not eat them, except for fruit and sardines, because of kashrus [kosher dietary laws].
Seeing how we were treated in Moscow, we began to hope that perhaps they would really let us go.
We traveled for 12 days and night on the train from Moscow-Vladivostok and arriving in Vladivostok, we were all searched. Whoever
had money or jewelry had it taken from them. They promised that they would come back and return what had been taken.
They took expensive pearls from me, diamonds from someone else, money from another one, but we were satisfied, seeing that they were letting us go.
We arrived in Japan safely on the 24th of February 1941.
We were amazed by this enchanted land. It was spring in February, with wonderful weather, beautifully sunny.
We left Vilna in heavy frosts and arrived in a country that was wonderful. The sun shone, warm, light, clean and magical. The people were sympathetic, welcomed us with smiles, with warmth. This simply amazed us. We had left a civilized land with so much evil and arrived in a barbaric land, where we imagined we would live in a frightening atmosphere and it was such a surprise there.
I remember riding on the autobus; looking through the windows, we saw the esthetic displays in the shops. We could not hide our great amazement and kept admiring the cleanliness and refinement of the manner of treating foreigners by the Japanese.
Although they were preparing for a war and there was not enough food, they shared it with us and when we came and stood in the ranks to receive various food that was distributed with [ration] cards, they would move back from their spot so that we would receive [the food] first. This was a piety that must be shown so that it can be seen how they welcomed a stranger and we had so much thankfulness for them that we will never
forget. They would pat our children, give them fruit and acted with extraordinary sincerity.
While in Kobe we received a letter from home. The parents were very happy that we had safely completed the journey and hoped we would arrive in America, and as we had all survived the difficulties we would also achieve this. I wrote to them until the sad news arrived that the war between Russia and Germany had broken out and every contact with home was cut off.
News arrived after our departure that more people had applied for transit visas and the issuing of visas had stopped and no one could leave anymore.
We tried to send queries, but without success. It was no longer permitted to leave. There were still many learned men who had missed the opportunity. Many of them were later sent to Siberia.
From Japan to Shanghai
Our visas to Japan were valid for only 12 days. Arriving there we immediately met with representatives of the Joint [Distribution Committee] and they helped us extend the visas, each time for a few months, and provided us with housing. It should be understood that there was one room for each family, not so comfortable, but it was a great help in a strange place. There also was financial support from which to live frugally.
Everyone communicated with their relatives or friends in America that they should send us papers of support so that we could travel to America.
Those who were the first to receive affidavits were given visas by the American Consul and they traveled to America.
Later, an edict was issued that whoever had relatives in Poland, which now belonged to Russia, could not get a visa. As we had received an affidavit after the edict, they refused to give us a visa. Nothing was of help. They did not want to admit anyone.
Our transit visas for being in Japan were extended for 11 months. Then they did not want to extend them and we had to leave for Shanghai where various illnesses and epidemics raged.
In Shanghai we met many of those who had left previously for Japan. Some of them were sick with dysentery and malaria.
The terrible climate and filthiness that reigned then in that city, affected us very badly.
In Shanghai we took a residence from one of those who had come earlier and had been able to obtain a visa to Israel.
Life was very difficult. There was great scarcity. But my husband succeeded in getting a job in the slaughterhouse as a rabbi [assuring the observance of the laws for kosher meat], with a very small salary that barely maintained the soul. We ate meat once a week and this was just the smell of meat, three-quarters of a pound for three people. A guest would also sometimes share in this. But fish was cheap.
My child, who was then five years old, had not tasted a cup of milk for a year. Later, we searched for and received a glass of milk for the child. Sometimes during the weeks I would buy two half ounces [14 grams] of butter for the child. Thus passed
a year until 1943 when the war broke out between Japan and America. The situation then became worse.
The Japanese in their own country who had been so good, now being in power in Shanghai, began to show great cruelty to the refugees. Possibly because they were under pressure from Hilter, may his name be erased. One morning an edict was issued that all Jews must live in a ghetto in the quarter that was being designated.
There was a frightening panic and, as the time was short, all of the refugees went to look for apartments in the ghetto and the prices there rose a great deal, although they were the worst residences in the city.
Many did not have any money to rent an apartment, so a committee was created and ruins were bought and small houses were nailed together and everyone was given a room. We also had no money to rent an apartment and we took such a room and when the period had ended for living in the previous apartment we had to move to the ruin. Everyone became afraid when we saw that the Japanese were getting worse from day to day.
Rumors began to spread that we would be taken to forced labor and we lived in fear. The houses were cold, without heating ovens. We had to put ovens in ourselves and it would cost a lot. The circumstances were such that for the first winter we were without heat. There were no heavy frosts during the winter there, but the kind of cold that was worse than frost.
My child caught the measles in the terrible cold. I stood over him constantly, not allowing him to take his hand out from under the quilt.
Then my child got sick with dysentery.
We suffered hardships without end until we all pulled ourselves out of it. Then the war began to come closer.
Shanghai was bombed by the Americans, airplanes flew over our heads and we were in great danger again. And in addition to the hardships of illness and need was added the deadly fear of the bombardments.
In one case a bomb entered a house with refugees. Several people perished from bombs that day.
Thus we had new fears every day. We did not have any contact with our home, but rumors went around about the terrible things that were taking place in Poland.
The news came from Russian sources. No one wanted to believe it. It was considered Russian propaganda.
In 1945 when the war in Europe ended and Japan continued the war, we thought that we were all lost because the Japanese had a principle of not surrendering, but to commit harikari and to fight to the last soldier. We were all very despondent and then the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
The news arrived during our great despair that Japan had been defeated.
The joy among the refugees was very great. We saw that we had been saved, but the joy did not last long.
Newspapers began to arrive from America as soon the war had ended: the Forvets [Forward] and the Tog [Day] and there we saw that the unbelievable was true and the destruction was very great. We almost lost our minds.
Had no one survived?
We began to run to HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], where lists of survivors had arrived.
At this sad time, other Czyzewo landsleit [people from the same town] in America learned the Czyzewo rabbi's daughter and son-in-law and child were among the survivors in Shanghai. They immediately got in touch with us and began sending packages of food and clothing and money.
The Czyzewo landsleit in America showed so much interest in us, even more than relatives.
This was an expression of the great respect that they had for my great father who occupied the rabbinical seat in Czyzewo for 36 years.
The Czyzewo landleit in America immediately began to think about ways to bring us to America, but as they did not have their own synagogue, they asked the neighboring landsleit, those from Jedrzejow, to invite my husband as their rabbi.
The Jedrzejow [Jews] were required to pay a fee for two years to assure that the rabbi would be able to provide for his family.
The Czyzewo landsleit collected 5,000 dollars in a week and deposited this money and simultaneously mailed the necessary papers with an invitation [for my husband to serve] as a rabbi.
We received visas on this basis.
We came to America in the month of September.
We did not have to use the money that we had put away.
There was an extraordinary warmth that the landsleit showed us and I will never forget it.
My husband was the rabbi in the synagogue for eight years.
While in America the sad news about Czyzewo began to arrive.
In 1947 Reb Zisha Slucki, who miraculously survived, came from Czyzewo and was a witness of the complete destruction of Czyzewo. I learned the tragic truth from him about the death of my great father, the Czyzewo Rabbi, the rabbi and gaon [genius], Reb Shmuel Dovid Zawladower, who was known in the rabbinical world as a great gaon and tzadek [righteous man], may his merit protect us - and my dear mother, Yekhoved, and my sister, Gitl, who perished together with the Jewish community of Czyzewo on the 28th of Av 5701 [21st of August 1941] and were buried in a mass grave in the village of Szulborze near Czyzewo.
After the sad greeting I did not have any hope that a miracle could still happen and that I would find someone, including my brother, Chaim, who had married six months after the war in Maladziecna [Belarus] and my oldest sister, Tsvia, and her husband and two children, who lived in Warsaw. I do not know what happened to them. It is possible one of them survived. I have searched for years with no success.
Such a tragedy spread over our generation.
Although we go on with life, we cannot truly enjoy any happiness because our hearts constantly cry for our precious and beloved [ones] whom we will never forget.
This is written by Fradl, the daughter of the Czyzewo Rabbi, who was saved with her husband and their only son, Hershl, may he be healthy, who walks in the path of his magnificent grandfather. We are now in New York.
by Sheva Lubelczyk, Tel Aviv
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
There is unease in the shtetl.We loaded our things and returned home, which was simmering with various prophecies and predictions, pessimistic and optimistic.
This unease lasted an entire week. A mobilization began that was declared in great haste. Heartbreaking cries were heard from the mothers mixed with the screams of the young wives who accompanied their sons and husbands.
My husband was busy for an entire week preparing reserves of merchandise, following to the instructions of the regime organs. He already had filled the kerosene reserves and the warehouses with various articles; only sugar was lacking. His last order could not be fulfilled by the Bank Cukrownictwa [Bank of the Sugar Industry] because of a lack of wagons, which had been taken over entirely by the military. He had to go to Warsaw to place an order at the nearest sugar factory, which turned out to be a sugar factory near Amniszow. From there my husband brought the sugar by automobile, which later served as the only reserves for those who had not already been annihilated.
Peasants came to the market Friday morning and said that strange bombs had fallen that had made giant pits in the fields. They did not want to believe that a war really had broken out. But the sad fact that the war had happened already was clear to us.
There were those in the shtetl who began to speak of evacuating, going further from the shtetl, further from the battlefield, somewhere to a village.
We wanted to be far away from Czyzewo, but there were no means of transportation.
Help came unexpectedly from Leibl Krzanczki, who had horses and wagons and
took us the village of Biali, 10 kilometers from Czyzewo.
We spent several turbulent days and nights there. We heard the bombardment, saw the fire at the train station Czyzewo was burning, particularly our kerosene reserves, and with fear we thought of all of those closest to us who had remained.
Several hours later the peasants came with the news that the Germans were entering the village. Our [hosts] began to be scared stiff. They were afraid of being punished for hiding Jews.
We had to pack our things and go back to the shtetl.
All of the roads in the direction of Brisk were filled with Germans in vehicles and on motorcycles.
We walked with hearts beating in fear that they would stop us. However, they did not bother us, only made do with mockery and insulting shouts.
Exhausted, we arrived in Czyzewo and did not have anywhere to go. We wandered from one spot to another. We met a Christian acquaintance, Bralinski, by chance, who later was a real big shot with the Germans. He gave us a house, abandoned and dirty, where the mice ran around freely and were not afraid of people.
For a month we made due with only fear, until the Soviets entered.
The battles in Poland stopped. Warsaw already was defeated and a form of Soviet life began on the territory of western Ukraine and western White Russia [Belarus]. Little by little, the evacuated Jews began to return to Czyzewo, which was included in the composition of the western White Russia. Czyzewo began to revive little by little.
Soviet Power in Czyzewo
Autumn ended very early that year and an early and severe winter appeared and was added to the hardships. There had not been such winter frosts as there were in 1939-40 since 1928.
Life in Czyzewo was very difficult during the first weeks of the Soviet regime. The new administrators and managers of the shtetl
could not cope with the improvisation and they began to seek tradesmen. Fate then fell on my husband who received assignments from the new communist bosses to provide the necessary goods to the shops. One of the most important articles was kerosene and my husband received instructions to provide kerosene for the population and particularly for the authorities.
Berl met Reb Yehiel-Asher Pravda, whose sister was a fervid communist in Bialystok, and in her name he told him [Berl] the secret that he should protect himself because there was a decree to arrest him. Reb Yehiel-Asher told him not to return to Czyzewo, but to wait in Bialystok until the fury ended.
Berl could not grasp why they would arrest him. He did not feel guilty. In addition, he saw that the Soviet regime in Czyzewo bestowed trust on him, trusted the providing [of kerosene] to him. He saw before him the Jewish shopkeepers who were waiting for his help and he decided to return to Czyzewo.
He barely succeeded in crossing the threshold of our house. A Jewish militiaman entered at the same time and politely asked him to go with him to the Narkom (people's commissariat).
I began to beg him to eat something. But the militiaman hurried and said they would come right back. I just managed to tell him to take a fur with him.
Several difficult hours passed in bitter suspense. Berl did not return and it soon was clear to me that he had been arrested.
This was on the 17th of October 1939. We did not see him until November 1941.
Lonely, broken, I went out to the street for help. I found locked doors everywhere. There was no one to beg, to ask.
Walking, I met Klar, the teacher from the People's School, for whom my husband always had showed a warm respect. No one knew that behind his hypocritical grace was hidden a fervid communist. He answered my tearful plea that he give me advice about Berl with a sarcastic smile.
You will never see him again.Later, I learned that this Klar was one of the denouncers and coworkers of the NKVD [Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs], who had pointed out my husband as a terrible element, a [Jewish] nationalist and Zionist leader.
Days dragged by, full of suffering and tears. Agitated, I
did not stop looking for where my husband had been taken. Finally, in the middle of 1940, I succeeded in sending the first package to the Bialystok jail where the other Czyzewo Jews were located, but one person did not know of the whereabouts of another.
The Jews who had not been exiled organized little by little, traded, worked in nationalized enterprises. Several state haberdashery and knitwear stores, a central cooperative and so on were opened.
It continued this way until April 1940 when the families of the arrestees and uncertain elements who had been shown as unsatisfied with the Soviet regime began to be exiled.
My two small children and I were loaded into a freight car with 60 more people. We were first given food after a few days, bread and herring. Thirst tortured us more than hunger. From time to time we succeeded in receiving a little bit of kipyatok (boilied water) and we saved it for the small children.
Frightful scenes played out on the road. The weeping reached us from the other train wagons of the large transport that carried the innocent name resettlement, people being taken to live in another place.
After eight days we arrived on the distance steppe. They said this was Kazakhstan. We descended from the train wagons and stood in the emptiness, afraid, despondent. There was no one to ask about our future fate. It seemed like there was no more distant end of the world than this.
After standing thus for several hours in the cold steppe, trucks finally arrived and we were told to load ourselves onto them. The Russians, our guards, were somberly quiet for the entire time, not wanting to say where they were taking us.
In the Kazakhstan Steppe
We again traveled into the unknown, until in the dark we finally arrived at the kolkhoz [collective farm], where a wooden barracks stood. There was not enough space for everyone and many remained outside in the cold for the entire night.
It was not much warmer in the barracks. Despite our tiredness we could not fall asleep. We only waited for the day to begin and we could see where we were being taken.
In the pale dawn we saw poor, small houses made of clay and straw. The first people appeared,
shaggy, dressed in torn fur hats, walenkes [felt boots] and papakhes [Astrakhan hats, wool hats]. These were the Poles and Ukrainians, exiled from the border areas. They looked at us with sympathy and tried to console us, bringing us into their only room where there was a lack of even the most primitive facilities. They provided an iron bed and the strange clay house became more familiar.
I understood that the difficult time for me and my children would continue and I did not think too much about the terrors, but thinking of Berl did not stop. I thought how fortunate I would be if we were together now in this clay house in the steppe, which appeared endless, without a border, sandy and endlessly lonely.
Thin hazes spread in the mornings and nights. The cold subsided and damp winds began to blow. I began to go out to work in the garden. However, a snowstorm fell in May. Wild winds began to blow with clouds of snow. The small house in which we lived was deep, a few steps down in the ground, and the snow which had fallen the entire night completely covered the small house in the morning and we could not leave the house.
We were confined for four days as if in a cave. The owner did not appear too overwhelmed. In his large fur hat on his head he walked around the burning iron oven, watched the fire like an ancient figure in an ancient cave, shaped bricks made of cow dung and made water for drinking out of the snow. The days merged with the nights and were endless. On the fifth day the neighbors cleaned off the snow and we could go out into the sunshine.
I again left for work in the orchard. The shovels were large and heavy. My palms became full of blisters that burst, which gnawed with sharp pain when I worked.
With our arrival the authorities decided to build their own bakery. I was assigned to the construction work that consisted of kneading lime mixed with straw and cow dung with my feet and with my hands simultaneously pasting the walls, which grew.
Later they took me to thresh the wheat and load it into the high-wheeled wagons.
At night, when bonfires were lit in front of the thresholds to drive away the misquitoes,
I returned to the hut, tired, made something to eat for the children and in the growing darkness began thinking about Berl, about whom there had been no news. Fruitessly, I looked for a hint, a clue, for information in every letter and package that came from Berl's parents and from his sister, Fayga-Faya.
I knew how difficult it was for them to send a package. The post office in that area did not accept [packages]. They had to travel to Baronowicze and this was very expensive.
The days and the weeks crawled wearily and arduously on the steppe. Every letter from home drew me out a little from the oppressiveness. My sister Gitl and her husband, Yehuda, wrote that they were getting ready to build, had already bought wood and other building materials because the war would end soon and everyone would return. The thought Would it also end for me? did not stop torturing me.
The last letter I received from my father was dated the 10th of June 1941. He wrote that storks were flying in who were throwing eggs. I saw in this a hint that something terrible was beginning there and I developed severe anxiety.
We received no further letters.
I did not stop writing. In addition to letters home, I also wrote to Moscow to [Vyacheslav] Molotov, to [Mikhail] Kalinin, to various ministries, describing for them the suffering of a lonely woman whose husband had been taken away and only asking for his address.
I did not receive any answers, but I did not tire and continued to write. Once I was even called to the NKVD and an officer asked me what kind of letters I was writing. I explained to him and in a categorical tone he said to me:
One does not write!Sparks began to fly in front of my eyes. I stood confused for a while. But I immediately became painfully infuriated. I declared with all of my resolve:
No power will stop me from writing. I will write until I prove that my husband is innocent.The officer looked at me with sullen eyes and roared:
You will be badly removed.His words now did not frighten me and I seethed:
Shoot I will still write. For as long as I do not know where my husband is and why he is under arrest.[Column 1085]
My children were waiting outside and they cried hearing my shouting. But I drowned this out with my own shouting. I saw how the face of the officer was changing. Had he experienced a stab from his own conscience or was everything previous pretense? He began speaking in a different tone.
Listen, citizen. Your husband is in Bialystok; he was sentenced to many years. This is all I can tell you.Suddenly desolation began to press on me and I wanted to shout, to lament, but the pain was too great. All sources of tears were shut by the oppression.
In 1941, after the pact between [Wladyslaw] Sikorski and Stalin, the attitude of the NKVD to us became much, much milder. We received permission to go more than three kilometers from the poselok (settlement) and we made contact with other settlements. People began coming to us who recruited workers.
We were not paid with money for our work the entire time in the kolkhoz [collective farm]. The great wage was the food. Now we were considered free people and they proposed that we work at building the new train line and they promised therefore that, in addition to the stolovaya [canteen], bread and cloth, we would receive money. Therefore, I decided to go there. Others went with me, most of them Christians, exiles like me.
At the new place we began to build a new train line a distance of 700 kilometers [about 435 miles] through the Russian Kazakhstan steppe to connect the Karaganda coal basin with the metallurgical basin of Magnitogorsk.
We had to travel 13 kilometers with oxen to the Taiantsha train station. It was the end of October. The steppe was empty and a cold, north wind blew. We were dropped off at the Taiantsha station and they told us to wait, that the high official would be there soon and show us where to enter and what we had to do.
We were delayed for two weeks at the station and waited for the high official But no one was interested in us. The people murmured gloomily: They apparently have a lot of time. Alas. It is miserable with such [people], and continued to wait with resignation.
When the hunger and the cold grew very annoying, the talk of the people began to become passionate, on edge. Someone proposed me as the representative to the high official, whom
no one knew and that I should demand work from him. Everyone supported this.
I was gotten rid of very quickly when I went to see the high official. Wait, we will soon call you. But anger and bitterness was sown in me. This and the long days and nights of being quiet and oppressed by my suffering added to my boldness. I needed a humane attitude from him toward those who were suffering.
This helped. In the morning a freight-wagon was supplied in which we spent three weeks until we were let out at the Batali train station.
Here we built a new train line and all of those newly brought here were employed at unskilled labor, dug, carried beams, unloaded stones from fully loaded wagons that arrived mostly in the middle of the night and we were immediately awakened because fines had to be paid for every hour that the wagons were held.
The days were bleak. A cold rain poured and we were soaked to the bone.
The frosts pushing me with each day pressed even deeper in the steppe. Poverty was not a novelty to us and we bore it easily in addition, they gave us 800 grams [about 28 ounces] of bread per person.
In the evening the working groups marched home with their spades on their backs and we cried with longing and I wrested myself from the marching group of women, running in front. Perhaps there was a letter, some news from Berl. I thought Rukhl was running next to me with joyful news.
Rukhela was everyone's darling there. She would write letters for wives to their husbands and relatives in their distant homes and they believed that her letters were lucky because they received an answer immediately. Rukhela was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, they would say with honest thankfulness.
The child felt my quiet pain at that time and not mentioning it she also poured [the pain] into the letters that she wrote for strangers to their closest people.
The end-of-November cold was even sharper; it wore away the people driven together to the most distant border. The ache of separation that burned the heart added to the pain
The weeks extended in over-exertion and toil like a nagging nightmare. I wanted to escape from it with the dear memories of my old home. The nightmare had pressed, drowning the soul like a swelling and here Robotat! Work! There was not even a day of rest. All of the holidays were thrown in the garbage. A world without
holidays! Sometimes an exceptional day came and we were not taken to the steppe. It [the exceptional day] spread in the hut exactly like a long night and the sadness, the longing, grabbed one by throat.
We rarely had a day of rest. Removed from the world, we felt as if we were totally condemned. One longed, another grieved and everyone lamented and worried about the fate of their closest ones.
Suddenly we were told that the work had ended and we needed to travel further.
We did not work on that day and prepared to leave. But the news arrived here that the locomotive had left the tracks and they were waiting for another one. The next day someone came running and said a passenger train was going to pass through. This would happen once every three weeks. Everyone ran to see it. An internal gnawing drove one to see if a miracle had sent a close [relative]. My Rukhl grabbed her fur and began running in the direction of the station. Wanting to hold her, to have her remain in the house with small Shmulik, I myself wanted to take a look. Perhaps I would just see the former arrestees who had met Berl somewhere in a jail.
By chance, a [female] Christian neighbor, who walked by, looked at me with good eyes, shook her head and said:
Let her. Let Rukhela run. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouthI went back into the house. I thought I heard someone shouting my name. I did not pay any attention. My mind was occupied with only one thought: when would this nightmare end?
Suddenly, someone was knocking on my door and two Christian neighbors called out together:
Why are you sitting? Your husband has comeI heard a frightening shriek and did not know that this was my own screaming. I ran out as if dazed. I saw Rukhl walking in a cluster of illegal people with an old man in a torn jacket with a sack on his back. This was Berl. I fell on him, wanted to speak, to cry: Berl, Berl, but my brain could not comprehend. A strange noise, as if from the far sides, reached my ear, started high, higher and finally sank under the waves. I lost consciousness.
When I woke up they told me that I had lain in a faint for several hours. Berl sat near me. His elongated, bony face was unshaven. He said:
Sheva, my Sheva! I am with you. Do you not see?I still could not comprehend the great good fortune and murmured:
It cannot be Is it you?Little by little I sensed in myself our great joy.
We were together again.
In the morning we both left for work. The grey morning hours woke us up and the late evening hours brought us back home.
Our house consisted of a fifth of a regular 15-ton freight wagon, which according to regulations could only hold eight horses. We were five families who made up of 15 people.
The End of November
There already was heavy frost in that area of southern Siberia. The residences and wagons became unbearable. My husband began to demand that the foreman designate permanent quarters as well as permanent work.
The new residence consisted of a corner in a lime hut where in addition to us lived another Polish family of four people, a Russian woman and her children and Russian girls, altogether 14 souls in one room.
After enrolling Shmulik in school, life went on in need and in want, in longing for our distant home. We established letter connections with Eretz Yisroel and with America. The warm letters from those closest to us encouraged us a little. We received a food package from Israel, which consisted of canned goods (which we hid for Passover), several pieces of soap and several packages of tea. After giving a package of tea and a piece of soap to the foreman, our conditions greatly changed for the better.
Suddenly, my husband began to be counted among the Stakhanovces and occasionally he also received a free day, which was used to carry out the necessary trade transactions in the neighboring kolkhoz [collective farm], such as, for example, exchanging several needles for potatoes, a piece of soap for a pail of milk and for tea we could receive whatever the heart longed for.
They did not want to take my husband in General Anders' Army. A worsening relationship between the regime and the Polish refugees developed after Anders and his army left Russia.
One morning they ordered that we get Soviet passports. At first they spoke to us nicely, later angrily. Several Polish citizens were arrested and the bread [ration] cards were taken from the others; we were not told to go to work and everyone was taken out of their residences to the empty, wild steppe. This was in March when the weather in this area was still -20 to -25 [Celcius, -4 to -13 Farenheit]. We wandered around the steppe with our children for several days and nights. Some moved in with local residents in their huts in exchange for an article of clothing or some other things. And finally we were persuaded of their justice and took a passport.
Mama Russia, your goodness crosses borders. In other nations, one must live for three to five years before receiving the right to become a citizen, learn symbols, where citizenship is only given
at birth. And you gave us the privilege of having the merit to become a Soviet citizen.
Life flowed slowly for us in the large Kazakhstan steppe. However, in the larger world, the political situation changed as if in a kaleidoscope. And on one morning my husband was called as a Polish citizen and asked to enter the army that was being organized by the Polish [female] writer and fervid communist, Wanda Wasilewska.
Again I remained alone with the children, but as the wife of a military man I had certain privileges.
With the withdrawal of the Russian Army, we were also permitted to resettle closer to the west.
In 1944 we were in the Kiev area where we worked at heavy labor waiting for the war to end. And at the beginning of 1946 I saw my husband again in liberated Poland.
Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau
Shearim, 7 Elul, 5700, August 16, 1945
The atrocities, murders, death wagons, gas chambers. All these words, that filled the pages of the newspapers for five years to give expression to the terrible cruelty of that evil man have stopped and have moved aside.
Now there is a new, exhaustive idiom.
We do not need to look for a translation in the lexicon of terrors. To make efforts to clothe the unusual forms of deaths of millions of us in the garb of appropriate expression is not necessary.
There is one word and this is everything.
It is etched in our memories for generation after generation. We know how to mention it among us with anger and wrath. The eyes of our daughters will well with tears when it comes to their lips, and as our surviving brethren return from the fire of the burning of millions, to that town next to the destroyed, ruined Lublin.
The feet become stone. The clothes are torn to the heart. That gate that is never locked will open wide and be beaten from its great oppression.
For you, every shoe, the thousands, six meters high is the skull of a corpse.
Every particle of ash in the heaps is like a grave that is not a grave, of millions of brethren.
All those rooms that stand as a memorial to the pillar of shame so high for all the nations.
For there was a time, in their lives, for these five consecutive years.
The daughters of the covenant decided that the factory of unusual death will remain built up, as a museum, a house of the handicapped.
Every clod of earth around us will be protected. Every scorched bone that has not been burnt by the fire of the furnace will be embalmed in a container. Officials will be placed in the room of thousands of shoes, so that they can be guarded in their emptiness so that they will not become smudged with dust.
The tins of gas, thousands of photographed passports, children's games, disinfection rooms, change rooms, etc., etc. with all the originals.
And around us, this is acceptable
How many tens of benches for waiting will there be. Surviving trees will be transplanted, and flower groves will be planted so that the visitors can wait in a pleasant fashion.
The visitor, that hardheaded American doctor, will stand for a few moments and survey all these things. He will take a shoe in his hands and feel it from all its sides. He will take interest in the type of shoe, and as he leaves he will murmur:
An interesting museum.
The coldheaded English gentleman will enter. He will go from room to room. He will tarry for a moment next to the balls among the children's toys. Are they appropriate for basketball? Then he will go on his way.
That Russian Tobriszcz will make the rounds through the rooms as a person doing his own thing, with enjoyment and satisfaction, as if to say:
All this is from us it is thanks to us that this museum exists. We discovered this place!
And on the benches for waiting, next to the trees, near the flower groves, that blood sated, wicked Nazi, may his name be blotted out, will sit. He will breathe in the pleasant air, and grumble with his mouth:
There, in some city on the fact of the earth, a potbellied professor will sit, hunched over the manuscripts of the new lexicon he is preparing, as he writes the following lines.
A small town next to Lublin in the State of Poland. During the great war with Hitler, a museum was set up there by the governments of Russia, England, and America atop the place where people were killed.
And in in the margins of the page, the following word will be written in large letters.
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