In the Ghetto of Riga and Popervalen, 1943-1944
Josh: It is now January 20, 1986. Yesterday we celebrated your eightyfirst birthday, and before that, we had a celebration in the temple, where you read the haftorah. There was a large gathering of people you have come to know already in San Francisco, even though you came to San Francisco less than a year ago. We would like to continue today with the recording. We left off in 1943 in the period in the Riga ghetto.
Jacob: Well, you are throwing me back about forty years, from 1986 to go back to 1943. Believe me, it's not so easy to go back to those dark years and start talking about that period of my life, of our life. But I am happy to do it for sake of the younger generation. Let them hear and listen and remember what happened to their parents, to their grandparents.
Well, you mentioned the Riga ghetto, the ghetto of Riga. For us, it was just a short period to stay there. From there, they sent us-I mean the Nazis, the government of that time-they sent us to other places. My destiny was, together with a few hundred Jewish people, inmates, to be sent to a place what they called Kaiserwald [near the Riga suburb of Meiaparks]. Kaiserwald was a transition camp. It means they brought us-in my time, there was maybe six, seven thousand inmates. They kept us for a while, and from there, they distributed the inmates to different labor camps, or-better, I would say-to different death camps.
In Kaiserwald, we didn't do anything, any work; just we were taken every morning-in the morning means with the sunrise-taken out to the square and trained how to take off the hat what we had, put on, take off, put on. Some expressions, how to turn our head to greet the high officers, the managers of the camp, and we felt more or less good. But the capos--they call them capos, I think that's an Italian name, headstried their best to keep us busy doing worthless work, just to be busy
and, certainly, to torture us with all kinds of torturing. I don't say they were killing there. That was not the camp where people were killed, but just keep us for a while.
I think we spent there about three weeks. One morning, all of us were taken to the square, straightened out in lines, and by the names or by the numbers what we had-every inmate had a number on his hand-we were sent, if I remember well, to four different work camps. The worst what we knew, what we heard from rumors, was to be sent to Estonia. The rumors were who is sent to Estonia will never come back alive-that is, sent to certain death. They torture you with all kinds of hard work, farvisn vos alas [who knows what].
The other camps were better. I would say okh un vey, how much better they were. There were three other camps: Dundaga I, Dundaga II, and Dundaga III. I am talking in Latvia. Kaiserwald was in Latvia, too.
I was sent in together with my friend, with my last best friend, Bobrov. I think I mentioned his name before. And I was praying in my heart at least to be sent in the same camp, Bobrov and me. We knew each other. So finally, after staying on the square in the crowd about half the day, I heard my name, and I answered my number. That was the procedure: to call your name, and you have promptly to say your number. And I heard a word; I am sent to Popervalen [marked A on the map]; in Latvian, Popvale. It's in part of Latvia what is called Kurland. And then I heard Bobrov's name, sent also to the same camp. So we were happy for a while; we are going together.
I don't remember exactly-oh, yes-how they sent us: transportation was buses. Buses, crowded. Not buses; I am sorry-trucks. Crowded in a truck forty or fifty people, and over dirt roads, and finally, they brought us to Popervalen. What was Popervalen? There was no camp yet. The camp has to be established in the woods-swampy, cold, wet-and here we had to build some barracks. I wouldn't say barracks; tents. They call it Finnish tents or Finlandia tents, and here we live, and we do some work for the Nazis. We start cleaning the ground, anyway. Anyway, for three days and three nights, we have no housing at all, even no camps, and we just slept on the ground, on the wet ground, and sleep the way you can do it.
Finally, we erected the tents, the Finnish tents. The tents was for, if
I am not mistaken, for twelve people, but we were placed about twenty people in a tent. They were round tents, and in the middle was a little stove, oven, to warm it, and around was put straw, branches, whatever we had-local material, so-called local material. And that was our dwelling in these camps. It was terribly crowded. When night came, and we had to go to the tent to sleep, it was hard to find a place. And whatever place you grabbed, you lay down on the floor for resting.
So in Popervalen we lived a long time, about a year, I would say. And what was our work? Our work was to make roads from one place to another place. It was senseless work. Nobody needed the road, just to keep us busy.
Every morning was cold and still dark. We heard already they called, Aufitehen, aufitehen - Get up, get up, in German. We went up, put in a line, two, three lines. And by the way, we were about three hundred people in Popervalen. And then came out the oberyude. jude means a Jew. Oberyude-how to translate it?-the upper Jew, or leader Jew. His name was Steinberger, and he checked us, counted if we were here, and we were waiting until the German officer will come, the manager or the head of the camp. We sometimes had to stay for an hour, an hour and a half, and even two hours in the cold-it was beginning of the winterand wait until he'll come.
The same Steinberger. Who was he? He was a Latvian Jew, and once upon a time, he was a lieutenant in the Latvian army. He knew German, and he was appointed by the Nazis to be our head. He was an unpleasant person, rough, and himself dressed nicely, in nice boots. We were dressed terribly. Some had coats, some didn't have any coats; some, hats, some not. It wasn't the problem. And counted and then appointed: a group goes here, a group goes there, and to spend the day.
Concerning me, luckily, I learned how to talk about your background, how to say to What is your background? What are you doing?
Oh, carpenter we need.
So I was appointed with two, three Jewish inmates to build the barracks for the Nazis. Again, luckily, the head of this group to build barracks was German, an elderly person; he was already in the upper fifties,
maybe sixties, a professional carpenter and a kind man. He was not a Nazi, a kind man. We quite often came into conversation with him, and he said, What can I do? That is the destiny. Do you think I want to be here? I want to be home. I have my werkstube. It means a workplace, workshop. I have my land. I am a little farmer, too, and I would rather go home than stay here.
Anyway, I was in good relationship with him, and that helped me a lot later on. My friend Bobrov was unskilled, and he couldn't do anything with his hands, but with the help of this German-I think his name was Eric-we took him into the group, and he was working with us together.
Well, it's a long time we spent there. Oh, yes, an episode-one day, we had rumors more inmates are coming to the camp. Who were the new inmates? Hungarian women, separated from their families, separated from the children, husbands, and they are coming to this camp. And about evening time one day, we saw a group was brought by trucks, and their appearance was terrible. The hair was shaved, the women, and they are put in a group, and they are standing lost like sheep, not knowing what to do and crying, certainly.
Where are your husbands, your children?
We don't know. Separated.
Anyway, to make place for them. How could you make place? But there were people who did it, who gave up their places in the tents and let them in to warm up a little bit around the oven. I was among them who initiated to let them in, and we will sleep somewhere. We were in our tent about twenty people, so I would say more than a half, maybe twelve or fifteen, gave up their places. Some of them said, We are sick, and we cannot do it. Anyway, it was ridiculous to look at them and to see their misery. For a while, for a short while, we forgot our own misery, looking in what condition they are.
Now we spent the winter. It was a hard winter, exceptionally cold winter, in the woods with snow, melting snow. That is on the shore of the Baltic Sea, so the climate is a sea climate. So we built some barracks.
It came spring, and I told some people, and people knew about, that I am an agronomist. I know about gardening, about doing things, and
they've been looking for such a person. Who are they? About two kilometers from Popervalen was another big estate, established with houses, with all buildings around, and there was the German headquarters of this region, the German headquarters. So they needed vegetables, they needed food, so they established a garden they put on. It was probably in the month of April already, and the head of their garden department was looking for a man who could do. So they found me, and I was appointed to work there. We called it in German language the stab. I don't know in English if it is the word. Stab means headquarters for the official. So I was working every day with the group-two, three men and a few women-and we are starting gardening there. I knew how to do it, and the Germans were happy having me as their laborer.
Later on, when we started developing the garden, I tried to take more and more people out of the camp into the headquarters. They were happy. Going to the headquarters, we had a lot of food, food left over from the German kitchen or from the table. That was the main thing, to have a morsel of food. And when the garden start producing-it was already in May, June-we had something for ourselves to take. Especially the women liked-how you say it? - tsibeles, onions. The leeks or the onions, they grow fast, so they had plenty.
I said, Take as much as you want. I don't see it; it's not my business. So they praised me as much as they could. I was like an angel for them. And they put in their pockets or in bags and bringing them in.... Well, so I was a gardener at that time. [Laughs] I just wished the Germans, they should choke with the food what they'll find in the garden.
Josh: What year was this?
Jacob: '44. Well, I can stop to mention at this point a man by name Levin. You know, I published a book later on, in the United States, and I devote to him a whole chapter: the tzadik Levin. Tzadik, the righteous man, Levin. I never saw a man like him. He was a young man, probably in the mid thirties, blond, always thinking; you can see on his face. And he knew a few languages: perfect German; he knew Russian; certainly, Yiddish he knew. And he was a lawyer, I heard from other people, and he studied also Judaica. So he knew a lot, a man of
knowledge. And in the camp where I met him, I saw he devoted his life for others, to help others, not thinking about himsel£ The Germans kept him in their headquarters, what I said. He used to come every day with a group of people, of inmates, cleaning up the kitchens, the chambers, the rooms where the Germans lived. And he was the head of the group. All the hardest work he took upon himself, not asking any help. And I was wondering; he looks so tiny and lean, but he was strong. I saw him carrying bundles or carrying wood or something. He was very strong.
And the Germans discovered that he is a man of knowledge, so they kept talking and discussing with him for hours all events. The Germans, some of them were educated men. Just I couldn't figure out how men like them become Nazis and become something like this. He was discussing with them biology, discussing with them literature-he knew German literature like an expert-discussing political questions, and the Germans listened to him. Listened to him. I heard a few times.
Levin. That's what they called him; I don't remember his first name. What do you think about this? What do you think about that? And I was surprised, hearing him giving dear-cut answers what he thought, not what the Germans thought. And he predicted their end without fear, without fear. Another man would be shot at once, and they listened to him.
I happened to talk to him a couple of times after work. Levin, be careful. You talk like you talk to other people. Don't forget they are beasts, Nazis. He said nothing.
Well, and one day it came the end to it. Probably some higher officers heard about this; they knew about. And the rumors were that they accused Levin of being a spy for the Russians. A spy. And the people who worked in his group-there were about ten, twelve people, probablywere afraid to go with him. If Levin is accused, they will be accused, too. And they protested his going, and they begged him, Levin, find a reason and say something you cannot go. You are sick or something.
We were waiting every day that Levin will be arrested, and then that's the end of him. But like a miracle, they didn't do anything to him, and just he stopped going to the headquarters, not to abuse and not to bring into danger the other people with him.
What was the other good thing? He used to bring every evening German papers from the headquarters, and whoever could read German could find a lot of material, a lot of answers to some questions, political and other ones. I developed a habit to read the papers what Levin brought from the headquarters. The other good thing, and even the better one, was that Levin, working in the kitchens and in the eating place of the Germans, was used to gather all the waste of food what was left to put into pails or cans. And they gave it to us, to my group, to the gardening group, or to his group, to bring it into the camp.
And certainly, in the camp, people were hungry, starving. We used to bring the food, and people already were waiting, hundreds of them, especially the women, the Hungarian women. And he or somebody else distributed all the food what was left over, and Ithink it kept people alive for time being. When he stopped working at the headquarters and working every day, I did the job with my group. But I couldn't compare to Levin. I couldn't get as much food as he did. I could get maybe a half of this only, and we carried it in pails or in cans. Officially for the Nazis, it was we were carrying water. We didn't have fresh water in our camp. We were carrying water to the camp. It actually was food, and we continued to feed the hungry people.
To finish about Levin, when the camp was already dismantled, we were sent-that was already in July, beginning of August-we were sent to Windau [Ventspils]. That's the name: Windava in Russian and in Latvian; in German, Windau-to the seashore to be sent to Germany. That's already later on, when the Russians starting approaching this area. I occasionally met Levin in one stopping place.
What will be the destiny? And he said, Some of us will
see the end; some of us will survive and see the end of the Nazis. I can't say that all of us.
Occasionally, I had food somehow. I'll tell you later how we got the food, how we used to get the food. It was a special jargon name: organized food, to organize. So I had a few sandwiches. I gave to him. Levin, that's for you. I'll have other one. That was bread with butter, cheese, maybe. He took the sandwiches; he thanked me. And I was just turned around, I see a group around him, and he's giving him half a sandwich, a half a sandwich to the people around, and not left for him a morsel, even. Can you imagine? That was Levin. And we separated, and I haven't seen him, and I haven't heard from him anymore since then.
Certainly, he could not survive. To survive means to have food, any food, starting with potatoes. It could be frozen, could be rotten; it was food. Waste food from the garden, roots, and organizing food. Organizing food means getting from farmers around. If somebody had still what is worthful-a ring or a watch, anything-exchange for food. Other way is to steal food. We didn't call it stealing. We called it organizing. I did myself, I confess, many times. That keeps me alive.
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