[Pages 83-98 English] [Pages 146-162 Yiddish]
We realized, even early in the Occupation, what the Nazis had in store for us. The town was in the grip of terror. Placards began to appear on many walls, informing the Jews what they could and what they could not do. Any violation or infraction of a decree carried with it the death sentence. In town there appeared German landowners, former neighbors, wearing the swastika and taking over power. These same Germans who for many years had lived peaceably with their Jewish neighbors, were transformed overnight into savages. They installed the miller, Albert Fuss, as mayor and as his assistant -Wittenberg who taught German in the Polish school. They took over the town government and following Nazi directives, transformed the lives of the Gombiner Jews into a veritable hell.
From morning to evening started kidnapping to forced labor which was connected to hell of agony and sufferings. The payment was murderous blows. I was caught few times and every time I returned wounded and hurt. After day of misery I had to look for food. The Polish neighbors with whom we lived for generations together watched our sufferings with contempt and mockery. They lost their homeland within matter of days, but comforted themselves that the destiny of the Jews is worse. Every time when the Germans marched a group of Jews to forced labor, the Poles stood by , watching and enjoying "now is your turn zyd to work finally".
I would also like to note that right upon occupation, many Jews lost their livelihood, The Germans immediately confiscated the Jewish business. They took all the warehouses of those who run the trade of eggs commerce (storing in lime pools) and left many without sources for income. They ordered a decree which prohibit the Jews to appear in the market fares which were held once a week. On the other hand, they were forced to open their shops every day, if not they would have been accused of sabotage. In their shops they were the prey of any German passing by. And another common scene in Gombin was, right from the beginning, kidnapping the Jews in the streets and cutting their beards. Some of the Jews did not surrender and they wrapped their faces as if they were sick, to avoid the Nazi abuses.
One morning, it was a Thursday, the Germans issued an order for all Jews to assemble at the pig-market, threatening to shoot all those who failed to appear. That same day, my brother Hersch Nissen and I went out in the street to try and obtain some bread. As we made our way along the street, several Germans pounced on us and dragged us off to the Firemen's Hall, where we were put to work loading boxes of ammunition. There were in our work group about twenty five or thirty Jews. The "procedure" was the customary one, the work accompanied by abuse and blows. We were aware of the order to assemble at the pig-market and wondered whether we were better or worse off. Suddenly, at two in the afternoon, we saw smoke billowing from the center of town. I suspected the Germans set fire to the Large Gombin Synagogue. Taking advantage of a lapse on the part of those who were guarding us, I left the work group and ran toward the market. The sight that greeted my eyes was terrifying. Our shul, our magnificent wooden shul, one of the jewels in all of Poland, was enveloped in flames. Approximately forty Jewish dwellings, surrounding the shul, were also on fire. Standing nearby, but at a safe distance, were a group of Nazis who divided their attention between the burning synagogue which moved them to laughter and raining blows on Jews.
Later in the day, while the embers were still smoking, the Germans dynamited Jewish stores and plundered them.
Those who excelled in the burning and the plundering, were not the lowly privates but the officers. A large number of Jews were assaulted and murderously beaten. Among the seriously wounded, was my wife's uncle, Wolf Laski (who later shared the fate of most Gombin Jews, perishing with his wife and two daughters in Chelmno's gas chambers. Two of his sons, Shmuel and Mendl live in Detroit today). I too was murderously beaten that day. I managed to save my life by escaping into Faivish Prawda' house, the Germans firing at me, as I ran. All week long my body was swollen and I was unable to move. It was on that bloody Thursday that I made up my mind to escape Gombin and go to the eastern part of the country, occupied by the Russians.
There were, during that period, others, mostly young Gombin men, who fled "east." Lying swollen in bed, I discussed the matter with my brother, trying to induce him to go with me. But he would not hear of it. Russia, he argued was a "locked cage," and whoever crossed the border into that land, was lost forever. As for staying behind, one might hope, he said, after the war's end and the departure of the Nazis, Gombin would again be free.
My brother was not the only one to entertain such notions. Nobody could remotely imagine, at the time, what the Germans had in store for us. But I became daily more determined to leave Gombin. I talked over this matter with the girl I intended to marry and she expressed a willingness to go with me. It was decided that we marry before leaving. The wedding took place in my bride's mother's house. Present at the wed-cling which took place in the after-noon, were my two brothers, Hersh Nussen and Mayer, my sister Ruzia, my bride's mother, Malka, Freydl Laski, her daughters Sarah and Chana Laski, her brother-in-law, ltzhak Bauman, Wolf Laski, Mayer Kesele and his wife, Mordechai Findik and Miriam Ettinger. We received the blessing from my bride's cousin, the sexton ltzhak Bauman. Moishe Niederman, was placed outside the house to stand guard, in the event a German came upon us and found a group of Jews assembled in one place.
On the following day, Sunday, November the 20th, we left Gombin, Moishe Shlang who had a "permit" to travel, drove us in his wagon. With us on the journey, was a son-in-law of Shekerka's (whose wife and daughter perished in the bombardment). He was a resident of Eretz-Israel who had come to Gombin on a visit only to be caught in the war.
The road to Warsaw was fraught with peril. We were stopped by the Germans several times and were pressed into work gangs.
Arriving in Warsaw we first perceived the full extent of the destruction. Whole blocks were levelled to the ground. Among the ruins, people moved like shadows. An acrid odor of smoke permeated the air. Two bridges, spanning the Vistula River were smashed and we crossed on the third which was crowded with German schutz-polizei and soldiers.
Approaching the Jewish section, we found the destruction worse than elsewhere. Every second Jewish house was a fire gutted ruin; in many places it was impossible to pass owing to the mounds of rubble. The Jewish faces one saw, were filled with sorrow and grief and - fear.
After only several hours in Warsaw, we learned that here, too - in Europe's largest Jewish community -the Nazis "caught" people on the streets and pressed them into work gangs. Every day fresh placards were pasted on the walls, announcing new disabling decrees. There was also widespread talk about instituting a ghetto. The prevalent mood among the Jews, was despondency.
We went to an address which we received from home, to the son-in-law of Manyale Wolman, Manek. We stayed there a few days and prepared to continue our journey.
In her house we met some Gombiners: Chaja Ajdel Mitzenmacher, Gitl Celemenski, her husband and son Brunek, Wowa Appel from Saniki. Also during the few days we stayed in Warsaw, we were grabbed to forced labor. Over there we saw for the first time the S.S. with the red skulls on their uniforms.
After three days in Warsaw, we left in a wagon. Among the passengers, besides my wife and myself, were Chaja Aydl Mitzenmacher, Chawa Appel, Gitl Celemenski and her four-year old boy. Our destination was the small town of Slovatich on the Bug River which divided Poland from Russia. The man who drove us was a Pole.
Arriving at the border town, we were surrounded by Germans who beat us mercilessly and locked us in a fortress. Inside, it was so dark, we could not see one another. When, later a German opened the door, we were almost blinded by the light. He let us go free, but we didn't know what path to follow. As if by some miracle, a Polish woman appeared and signaled us, with her eyes, to follow. Arriving in front of her hut, in a nearby village, she volunteered to row us across to the opposite shore of the Bug. She led us inside a large white washed dwelling, left us there and came back later carrying food for us to eat. She was very friendly and did not demand an exorbitant amount of money for rowing us across. She treated us decently. Considering our recent unfortunate experiences with the German barbarians, we were very moved and grateful. In the middle of the night, she led us to the river and we took seats in a little boat -in two's and three's - and she rowed us across. Nor did she abandon us on the other side, till we were shown the road to Brest-Litovsk. In parting, she wished us luck. May you never experience misfortune again, she said. Her wish did not come true.
Several kilometers from Brest-Litovsk, we happened upon a peasant who regarded us with a hostile expression and did not let us out of sight. Wherever we went, he followed. We realized he planned to report us and offered him some money to leave us alone. But to no avail. Spying the first Russian militiaman, the peasant told him about us and the other commanded us to follow him.
We were taken to the militia headquarters, where a heavy-set N.K.V.D. lieutenant sat behind a desk and questioned us in Russian, through a translator. He asked us who we were and where we planned to go. GitI Celemenski and her husband and child were allowed to go to Brest-Litovsk, as he had been born in Byalistok and was thus a citizen of the "Liberated Territories." But the rest of us made the mistake of telling him the truth - that we were Gombin Jews who suffered untold agonies at the hands of the Germans; but now that we were in the land of the Soviets, we were hopeful of finding protection and freedom. The N.K.V.D. lieutenant heard us out calmly and just as calmly informed us we would have to go back where we came from, in view of the fact we crossed the border illegally.
And that is how it was. After spending the night under arrest, a militiaman put us inside a train (for which we had to pay) and we returned to the Bug. There, a Russian peasant, whom we had to pay, rowed us across to the Polish side. Fortunately when we crossed, there was not a German in sight. We came upon a tiny Jewish village, Swislowicz, and found an inn that was crowded with Jews who had run away from German-occupied towns and villages. Now they were waiting for an opportunity to cross into Russia.
The owner of the inn brought us food and put us up for the night. In the morning, he found a Polish woman who, like the peasant woman before her, rowed us across the river. This time we were lucky and made it to Brest-Litovsk without untoward incident.
Our first impression of Brest-Litovsk was shattering. People walked about in the streets without fear or hindrance. Jewish children, clutching books, were on the way to school; business establishments were open. Soldiers promenaded on the sidewalks, engaging passersby in friendly conversation. It seemed incredible that only a few kilometers separated us from the gehenna, where the Nazis stalked their prey like animals, where each and every Jew had a death sentence hanging over him.
The Russian soldiers had a popular song about Russia, where one could "breathe free air." Our initial impression was, after the German nightmare, that this was indeed so. Everything we saw that in ordinary times would be considered as a natural state of affairs, we held to be a wondrous revelation. Even the fact that we could appear in the street without fear of being assaulted by a hate-filled German who could torture and kill us at will, we deemed a miracle. We entered an inn and spent the night. As our money soon gave out, we went to the "tolczok" (free market) and sold a few of our personal belongings.
Although we felt good in Brest-Litovsk, it was not our plan to remain there but to go on to the small town of Yanov, near Pinsk, where, we hoped to find my wife's brother, Moishe Gelbert, who at the start of the war, had been a soldier in the Polish army. After the invasion of the Germans and the rout of the Polish forces, he returned to Gombin where he stayed only briefly. He left for Yanov, where a friend of his, a former Gombiner resident, Benyomen Baruch, a locksmith, lived. From Yanov, my brother-in-law sent regards to us through another Gombiner resident. Noah Zielonka who had come back with his wife. We, therefore, decided to go to Yanov and settle there with my brother-in-law.
Before the departure to Yanov we phoned and talked to Baruch who informed us that my brother-in-law, Moishe Gelbert decided once again to return to Gombin, but he offered us to join him in Yanov. Only later it was discovered to us that my brother-in-law, Moishe Gelbert was caught before arrival to Gombin, murderously bitten. He lied a few days afterwards with destroyed lungs and died from the blows.
Travelling to Yanov was not a simple matter. To begin with, it was difficult to get a railroad ticket. But even after standing many hours in line and finally obtaining a ticket, you had to force your way into the train which was frightfully crowded and did not run regularly. But in the end, after much effort, we found ourselves inside the train. There were only my wife and myself, Appel and Aydl Mitznmacher having stayed behind in Brest-Litovsk. On arriving in Yanov, several militiamen were on hand to take charge of the refugees and find quarters for them in private homes. We were put up with a couple, Moishe and Brayne who ran a small bakery. They treated us in a friendly manner. Yanov was not far from the small town of Motele, where Chaim Weitzmann, the eminent Zionist and first President of Israel, was born. The town was very small but colorful. It consisted of a large rectangular market and little streets that led out toward open meadows. The early weeks in Yanov were for us a transition from a nightmare to sunny reality. The little town Yanov was quiet and Jewish and after the ordeal of Gombin everything appeared as though it were a pleasant dream. But the dream did not last long.
In the first days I started to work at a private tailor workshop Zanwel. After a week of work I asked for my salary and he fixes payment which you couldn't live on it. I left him and started to work by my own as a private tailor. I succeeded. Work was not missing. People were afraid to leave material for fear of confiscation. Everybody wanted new clothing. So income was sufficient for both me and my wife in those days.
When we stayed in Yanov, I was in contact with our Gombiner Jewish friends from Gombin, who escaped also and lived in the surrounding towns and villages. Some of them even came themselves to visit us, like Jazik Zaliszynski, Welvek Friedland, Lajzer Cohen, Fawisz Bol, Menasze Ber and others.
In January arrived and settled with us the brother of Benyomen Baruch. He enlisted to the Polish Army afterwards, survived and killed afterwards in the Independence War of the State of Israel.
I traveled a few times to visit Gombiners in Bialystok and Brest-Litovsk. In Bialystok on Kazikowa Street 16, lived 30 Gombiners. I remember Moshe Wolman, Rachel Lajzerszteyn, Natan Schwartz, Lajzer Cohen and his sister Rivka Cohen, Natalia Fuks, Mendel Wruble, Jazik Zaliszynski, the two Rogozynski brothers, Muniek Laski, Itzhak Wirobek and others. They all lived in a small room with a kitchen which looked terrible and frightening from poverty, dirt and hunger. The little bread they found they used to hang on the ceiling so that rats will not eat it. They fought hard and sold some clothes in the market, to gain some money. I met them in most depressing situation and they were all desperate and home sick, longing for the relatives who stayed behind in Gombin. Some of them had thoughts to go back to Gombin, and so it was. Part sent deep into Russia and the others who returned to Gombin were liquidated.
Second time I traveled to Brest-Litovsk to visit group of Gombiners who fled to that town. I found there the former chairman of the Jewish Community of Gombin: Chaim Lurie. Also he told me he is desperate and wish to go back to the home town. And he did return, and shared the bitter fate with all the Jews of Gombin.
Several weeks after our arrival in Yanov, a new decree was issued by the local authorities, evicting the local "rich" from their homes. One such person, a Jew named Pomerantz whose mill and store had been nationalized earlier, was quartered with our landlord. It was therefore necessary for us to find a new place to live. We moved in with an old Jew who had a much smaller and poorer house than the baker. The second change was a 'social" one. The local Jewish communists discovered that I worked privately as a tailor; they came with the intention of forcing me to open a large workshop specializing in ladieswear (there were many Soviet officials in town with their wives). I tried to beg off and made a counter-proposal that my wife shall be employed in the workshop. They agreed. But soon a third change occurred, a radical one, destroying all our previous plans. Some time ago, the authorities had come to us with a choice: either we accepted Soviet citizenship or registered for the purpose of returning to Poland. Owing to the fact that both my wife and I had relatives in Gombin, we decided to register as Polish citizens desiring to go back. Morever, we knew if we accepted Russian citizenship, we would, as my brother once said, get 'caught in a trap." We registered and for a long time heard no more about the matter. But one Friday evening a large number of Russians appeared in the town and we became suspicious something was afoot. But we did not know what it might be; there was not one among us who had an inkling of the misfortune that was in store for us.
In the middle of the night, we were awakened by a knocking on the door. Several N.K.V.D. members entered, guns in hand. They were here on an inspection, we were told. But instead of inspecting they told us to get dressed and accompany them. We had not the slightest notion, at the time, that the scene unfolding in our house was being repeated a thousand-fold throughout the "Liberated Areas" of former Poland. Permitted to take along a few personal belongings, we were led outside, where a horse and wagon was waiting. Only now we saw that we were not alone. Horse and wagons were strung out in front of virtually every dwelling. Refugees, like ourselves, were being led out of the dwellings, carrying their personal belongings. We were ordered to climb in and driven to the railroad station. It was summer, the end of June. We were put inside the cars and spent the whole day here in the unbearable heat. Towards evening, soldiers sealed our doors and put huge locks on them.
We spent ten days in the sealed freight-train that moved slowly across Russia's vast and endless steppes. We did not have the slightest notion where the train would stop and let us out. At each railroad station we saw throngs of people who gazed at us from a distance, tears of pity in their eyes. Toward the end of the tenth day, the train stopped and soldiers removed the locks. Now, for the first time after so many days and nights in the airless, fetid, unsanitary cars, with all of us on the point of being asphyxiated, we emerged to breathe the free air.
The place where we stopped was called Kotlas, on the River Severnaya Dvina, Archangelsk region, Siberia. As evening settled, it did not grow dark. Even later, in the middle of the night, it was so light, one could read a newspaper under the open sky. Towards nightfall, we were divided into small groups and put in small open wagonettes. My wife and I and several other refugees were taken to a place about twenty-five kilometers from Kotlas to a village surrounded by an impenetrable forest, named Basharova, where exiles were held. We arrived at our destination at three in the morning. The insects were unbearable. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed over us, stinging our faces, hands and all exposed parts of our bodies, It was impossible to drive them off; they appeared determined to eat us up alive. When we reached our destination in the middle of the forest, the insects were even worse. The place consisted of several wooden barracks, subdivided into one room compartments. Two families were crowded into each room. Entering our "dwelling," we were horrified by the sight of red worms covering the walls. These live, squirming objects were soon in our clothes, on the table, in our beds, in our food.
The barracks were furnished with little iron beds and crude tables and benches. Owing to the bright light, the worms and the insects, crawled out of the walls; sleeping was out of the question.
At dawn, we were summoned to a meeting. There were several Russian families in our camp who took charge of us. At their head was an N.K.V.D. official, Bayoff who had an assistant, named Samsonov. Bayoff greeted us with cold harsh words. "You were not sent here for a certain period," he said, "you will remain here forever. You declined to become citizens of the Soviet Union; you declined to accept Russian passports offered you; you are, therefore, traitors to the Fatherland. Those of you who want to live will have to work. All others will be buried here, under the firs. Here, in Russia, we firmly believe in the principle that he who does not work, does not eat."
Many of those present began calling out their skills. One man declared he was a doctor; others called out they were tailors, cobblers, tin-smiths. But the commander dismissed them all with a wave of his hand. "Here," he said, "you will forget what you were in the past. Here, you will chop down trees." As the work was being assigned, I was put in with a group of "Drivers" whose task it was to haul the logs from the forest with horse and sled. The work was much more difficult than cutting wood in the forest, but the commandant promised us we would be better fed than the others. However, the difference between their portions and ours, was two hundred grams of black bread.
Our work-day began at five in the morning; we returned to our barracks twelve hours later, exhausted and hungry. There was only one break during the whole day, during which we received a piece of bread and a liquid they called "soup," for which we had to pay. It became apparent during the very first day that being a "driver" was extremely hard work. In the first place, it was very difficult to put the felled trees on the sleds; but our real trouble started when the horses tried pulling the loaded sleds. The horses were skin and bones, perennially hungry and exhausted. The Russian had told us we could use the horses for work only, not, under any circumstances, for pleasure. The life of a horse, they told us, was to them of greater value than a human being. We heard this refrain many times. It was true, the horses were more important to the Russians than human beings.
The food we received, barely appeased our hunger and we were forced to seek additional sustenance in the forests. In the summertime it was bearable, as the forest provided berries, mushrooms, roots and certain vegetables with which to still our hunger. But the winter was insufferable. In the first place, it was numbing cold and none of us had the proper clothing. We still wore the clothes in which we came in the summer. Now, during the numbing winter nights, when the wind knifed through the barracks, we covered ourselves with all the belongings we'd brought along from Yanov. But even worse than the cold, was the hunger. The berries and mushrooms of the summer months were gone and we were forced to live on the rations we received for "fulfilling the norm." This consisted of a piece of pasty bread and thin, unappetizing soup.
With the arrival of winter, hunger began to exact its toll. Many of us became ill and bloated with swelling. It became a vicious circle: the weaker one became, the less work he was able to perform; the less he worked, the less food he received, the weaker he became. Realizing that some of our people were on the point of dying from hunger, we organized a secret group whose task it was to help the weaker ones in every way possible. But the commandant found out about it and warned us that forming such "secret" organizations could lead to severe punishment. The position of those who received occasional packages from the outside, was less intolerable. But there were only a very few of those in our barracks. Another way of acquiring a little food was to sneak out of camp and go to a kolhoz (collective farm), about ten kilometers away, and barter clothes for something to eat. This could be done only on Sunday, our free day. But not every Sunday was free. The authorities "invited" us meetings and tried to prevail on us to "voluntarily" give up our free Sunday for the "Soviet Union." It goes without saying everybody "volunteered." The medicinal care we received was minimal. They did not provide us with a doctor altogether; we were dependent on a Russian woman who claimed to be a qualified nurse. On her "diagnosis" depended whether a sick person would be allowed to remain at home a day or whether, in his indisposed state, he would have to drag himself to the forest to work. Under such circumstances, a number of people collapsed and died. A number of infants also died.
There wasn't any school available for the children; but there was a prison. People were imprisoned for the slightest infraction of rules, put in a cold cell and received nothing to eat, as 'those who did not work, did not eat." As for the outside world, we had not the slightest idea what was happening. Often we spent nights on our iron cots, thinking about Gombin and what was happening there, how our relatives fared. Only the Russians in our camp received an occasional newspaper, but there was little in them about the events transpiring in the world. The winter, arriving early, increased in severity, bringing with it heavy snows and arctic winds. And just as on our arrival, there had been tweny hours of light and four of darkness, there were now no more than a couple of hours of light, the rest, pitch-black night.
We kept track of Jewish holidays and when Yom Kippur came, we decided to go to the forest but not to perform any work. The leader of our brigade was a Jewish attorney from Warsaw, named Glicksman.
Came Yom Kippur, we rose and went to the forest. But nobody made an effort to work. The commandant flew into a rage, summoned Glicksman and took away part of his pay. In the meantime, the temperature continued dropping. After a period when the thermometer stood at fifteen and twenty degrees below zero, it fell precipitously, reaching forty below. It was hell to get up at five in the morning on such days and wade through the deep snows. The forest was a little more congenial than the open, the trees providing a little protection from the winds. Moreover, we built fires in the forest, enabling us to thaw out.
However, the hunger was unbearable. Everyone of us hoped fervently that with the passing of winter, conditions would improve. But when winter finally bowed out, we were beset by new troubles. With the arrival of the spring thaws, we were forced to stand deep in water for days on end, performing our work. The dampness, the work and the inadequate diet, brought on a rash of illnesses. Many of us lost our teeth; some had swellings; virtually all of us suffered of chicken-blindness, the latter caused by a vitamin deficiency. Often, on the way to work, our sight was so deficient, we held hands and probed our way cautiously, led by those who managed to see a little better than the rest of us. The camp administration, moved by pity or concern for decreased production, one day brought in a wagon of old and rancid liver. After we ate the liver, a miracle occurred - our blindness disappeared.
Thus we worked and slaved in that distant, snow-bound, God-forsaken camp in the Siberian forest, removed from the rest of the world. One day, one of the refugees heard indirectly about a startling bit of news that appeared in the newspaper the Russian received, called "Severnaya Zvezda" ("Northern Star"). The news, according to our informant, was that the Germans invaded Russia, precipitating a war between these two countries.
Our first reaction was delight. Such a war, we were confident, meant an eventual defeat for the Germans and their withdrawal from Poland. We had heard so much about the might of the Red Army, we now firmly believed it would prevail over the Germans. Secondly, we were hopeful the new war would somehow bring about a change in our desperate condition, one we could not much longer survive. One day our prayers were answered and our hopes realized. The commandant summoned us to meeting and informed us that the Soviets signed a pact with General Sikorski. As a result, we would be freed from exile and be permitted to go to designated areas. Understandably, we were overjoyed. After repeated threats that we would be "buried under the fir trees," there was a new hope now of survival, perhaps even of eventual return to our homes, our families and friends.
Our commandant who only recently ruled us with an iron hand, now kept his distance from us as though he wanted nothing more to do with the refugees. We went to our work, as in the past but the administration's control over us was relaxed. Upon receipt of permission to go to south or middle Asia, we packed our few remaining belongings and left the camp. We started, on foot, toward the railroad station and boarded open wagonettes, similar to the ones that had brought us to Siberia. The train started and we were off again across the vast and endless Russian land. It was summer and the heat unbearable. The train was crowded and filthy and we had to provide our own food. And so, at each stop, we were forced to get off and exchange a garment for food.
It was a period when all Russia appeared in motion. All trains and ships were crowded. Millions of people were fleeing from west to east to escape the invading German armies. We saw, along the way, large numbers of Russo-Germans who had been uprooted from their homes near the Volga, where they had their own republic, and driven into exile in Siberia because the Soviet government did not trust them.
Our train moved slowly across the face of Russia. Two weeks later we arrived near the Volga and stopped in a little town called Volsk, in the Saratov region. The whole surrounding area consisted of German villages that bad been emptied of their inhabitants. At Volsk, where we got off the train, we found large quantities of food. The abandoned villages were all amply stocked with food and live-stock and fowl. We decided this was a good place to get off. After many months of starvation in exile, we began the slow process of recovery. For the first time in a long time we ate our fill. We slept in genuine beds and enjoyed long periods of rest. But our paradise was of short duration. The front moved closer and soon we heard the distant rumble of heavy guns. Many of us, the women in particular, became concerned about again falling into the hands of the Nazis. Learning that it was possible to escape to Afghanistan, we boarded a freight-train and got off at a station near the border. The little town's name was Karushi. We were seven couples and our arrival aroused the militiamens' suspicion. In the end they sent us back to Uzbekistan Guzari. The town was crowded with many thousands of refugees, the majority of them Jews. All the little houses and tearooms were thronged. People slept in the streets. Hunger and sickness were rampant. We decided to leave without delay and took a train to Khazakstan, in the direction of Alma Ata. We arrived at a very attractive and well-lighted station, at the town of Djambul. The station being bright and clean, we were certain the town itself must be modern and well-kept.
We left the train with our belongings and started for the town. We soon realized our mistake. What we saw was a dirty, muddy town with muddy huts, many of them windowless. The place was inhabited by Khazaks, a primitive people, who had not heard of such things as beds, spoons or forks. The Revolution changed nothing. The people lived now as they did hundreds of years ago. The town was full of refugees. We succeeded, after expending a great deal of effort, to move in with a poor Khazak family, who let us have a "room," in the middle of which was a place for a cooking and warming fire. Owing to the fact that we had no money, I began immediately to look for work. A tailor workshop hired me but it was twelve kilometers from where I lived, a distance I was forced to walk every day. As a qualified worker, I was paid 300 rubles a month. This sum was barely enough for one day's subsistence. All of us received the same pay. We worked thirty days and were paid for only one. There was no other alternative than to look for other means to earn more money.
The whole of the Russian people were forced to look for other means, to keep from starving to death. This other means was to deal on the black market. This was done by the menial worker as well as high official. Those who did not resort to the black market, died of starvation.
In February, 1943, my wife gave birth to our first child, a girl whom we named Hannah. Pregnant women were treated with a little more consideration than the rest, receiving on their ration cards some butter, fine flour and white bread.
With the creation of Polish committees, there began the registration of citizens of that country for General Anders's army. Soon discrimination against the Jews set in. The Christian Poles, in charge of the registration, refused to accept into the newly constituted army Polish citizens of Jewish extraction. A small group of Jewish refugees went to Kuybishev, headquarters at the time of the Anders army, and prevailed upon the leaders to be taken in. But their number was small. The Poles, by and large, did not long conceal their anti-Semitic bias; they soon began to carry on as though they were home, in Poland. The situation became even worse when the Russians instituted raids, seizing refugees and pressing them into work-battalions.
Six weeks after my wife gave birth to our daughter, two N.K.V.D men entered our room and demanded to see my passport. They well knew I did not have a passport, being a refugee. They arrested me and took me to jail. The cell, where they took me, was large enough for twenty people, but there were two hundred in it now. The conditions were unbearable. As though counting on our being despondent, the authorities again offered us a choice - that of accepting Soviet citizenship, or staying in jail. The majority declined the offer, fully aware that the moment one became a Russian citizen, he severed the last tie with his past. Several days after entering the overcrowded, filthy cell, I came down with a virulent sort of dysentery. The prison doctor doubted I would survive. The prison authorities, convinced I would soon die, called me in the office and said they would release me, temporarily, until such time as I recovered. Then I would have to come back to prison. The distance between the prison and the house in which we lived, was only four kilometers, but it took me eight hours to get there, It was twelve weeks before I could rise from bed. The doctor who came to see me, declared it was a waste of money, my ailment being incurable. But we were able to obtain a woman doctor who used to come to see me at dawn and bring medication she bought on the black market.
In the end, after three months, I recovered, though my body was weak long afterward.
Owing to the fact that the N.K.V.D. raids had not stopped, we decided to go away from the town, to a kolhoz which was about seventy five kilometers away. There we were "made comfortable" in a windowless stable, on a mound of straw alive with insects. Plagued by the filth and the hunger, we decided to return to Djambul, in spite of the raids. Back in town, I succeeded in obtaining a job in a tailoring workshop, connected with the railroad. It was said the workshop was "secure" from raids and work-battalions. But one day, during work, several N.K.V.D. men entered our shop, took away all our identification papers, sent us to the "voyenkomat" (military headquarters), then by freight train to some unfamiliar destination. Only later did we discover that our destination was Karaganda's coal mines.
We rode one hundred and twenty kilometers before I decided to jump off the train. After walking several nights (I did not dare move during the day as I did not possess identification papers) I returned home. I went immediately into hiding and stayed there. I slept in an attic and thus avoided the raids. In due time we made the acquaintance of a woman who was the head of the passport division and through her, with the aid of graft. of course, obtained a Polish passport. This made it possible for us to come out of hiding, to register and receive a bread-card. But this did not make me immune from raids. I was caught in the net several times, but each time I managed to escape. On one occasion they even fired at me, but I was determined not to fall into their hands, come what may.
Time passed and 1944 stood on the threshold. Our condition took a slight turn for the better when wounded soldiers began trickling back from the front, bringing with them all manner of objects, including material which could be used for sewing clothes. Trade increased as soldiers came to the open market to buy, trade, sell. The town revived. One day, a tumult spread through the town. People poured into the streets, shouting and waving. We soon found out: the Germans capitulated, the war was over.
The scenes that were enacted, are indescribable. All of Russia celebrated and wept, at the same time. The outpouring of joy was for the bloody war finally concluded, and the sorrow was for the loss of millions of husbands, sons and brothers. In the hearts of the refugees hope was reborn to come out of the ordeal alive, to go home eventually to our towns and villages and after these many years of suffering untold agonies, be reunited with our families. While in exile, bits of news would reach us about the German outrages, but none of us, even in his wildest nightmarish dreams imagined what had taken place during our absence, the total destruction visited on our people.
Although the war was over, our condition did not improve. The raids continued unabated and it was necessary to hide from the N.K.V.D. Soon we began to hear of Jews who crossed illegally into Poland. Through a friend of ours, a Polish Jew who was the head of a committee, we managed to get on a list of "military families" picked to return to their homeland. We left Djambul in one of the early transports, riding by freight-train again, in the direction of Poland. Among the passengers were many Poles who appeared friendly enough while we were on Russian soil. But no sooner did we cross the border into Poland than their true anti-Semitic colors surfaced. They accused us of being responsible for the war and all their suffering. According to them, we worked hand in glove with the Russians.
Arriving at the Polish border, we were subjected to an inspection, the last one, after which the train was put in charge of Polish officers. Without losing any time, the officers took charge. They decreed that the Christian passengers on board were free to go where they pleased, but the Jews were ordered to Wroclaw in Lower Silesia.
Arriving at our destination and emerging from the train, we were confronted by a Pole who said derisively: "Moishe, you still alive?!
This derisive question was hurled at us wherever we went. When in the end we found out that our Gombin had been emptied of Jews and that in this land of our birth the lives of those who miraculously escaped the Nazi assassins were not safe, my wife and I said to ourselves: we will not rear our child in Poland which is a mass-grave of our people. We will go elsewhere.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Gabin, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2021 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 25 Sep 2020 by LA