Translated by Jerrold Landau
Editor's note: The authors of the articles in this chapter were all from among those who were exiled with their families by the Germans from Sanok when it was conquered on the eighth day after the outbreak of the war. The exiles crossed over to the Russian side over the San River and were dispersed into nearby towns. The following lines will tell us about their wandering and suffering in their halting places in exile in Siberia and Asian Russia. What is told here is very little, only a small part of the bitter and cruel experiences that they endured from the time they left our city until they reached this destination and finally their liberation and aliyah to the Land [of Israel].
Our brethren endured long journeys full of immeasurable suffering and tribulations which left marks on their souls and emotions from which they will not quickly be freed. Snippets of memories of the events and life experiences from those days remain etched in the deep recesses of their souls where they will remain forever. These experiences are too numerous to be examined in their entirety. Life was too difficult and cruel for these memories to be preserved in the depth of their memories without some confusion and blurring. Their experiences there were so degrading and oppressive that they cannot be definitively collected and captured and given faithful expression, either orally or in writing.
If this was the case during their journey to Siberia, it was even more so in Siberia itself. Siberia here refers to the Siberian forests and the vast areas enveloped in snow and ice where they ended up after a journey of several weeks which was filled with tribulation. The orders of the echelons: Here, in this place, you will remain and live. This place was a vast area, empty in all directions and completely covered with snow and dense forests that could be seen along the horizon. Parents and adult family members were sent to cut trees in those deep forests which were frightening in their height and density. Then they had to cut them into planks, count them and organize them in accordance with the orders of the foremen, the commands of the supervisors and the scrutiny of the inspectors. These fortunate ones who went to their daily work in these forests received their filthy ration of bread, which they brought home to serve as the primary source of food to sustain their family.
It is easy to understand the spiritual and physical state of our brethren, natives of our town and other places, when they arrived there without any defense against the cold, removed from any orderly lifestyle and without strength under unbearable conditions. One could not think that the days that followed the first, second, third and so on would be any better or that they would bring any hope of an easier and more pleasant life in their wake. The opposite was true. The decrees became more severe with each passing day. Every day brought new tribulations, and the later, newer tribulations caused one to forget the earlier ones. Aside from the evil decrees - the restrictions of movement, the persecution and the hatred and enmity, the people themselves felt hunger, want, poverty, cold, diseases and weakness that ate away at body and soul. The suffering and tribulations enveloped everybody. There was no food, neither for the old nor the young. There was no clothing, neither for the adults nor the children. There was no medicine to protect against disease, neither for the elderly nor the babies.
The stories written about this period in the lives of the Jewish refugees in exile in Russia and Siberia are very few and sparse. The details and descriptions given to us by those who lived this life and suffered these tribulations with their own flesh are few and brief. Of those people, only a few succeeded in reaching us with their frail health still intact, with their breath still in their nostrils, with the strand of life still in their spirit, and the hope for renewal in their souls. They do not have the power and ability to review this entire period of life as it was. They do not have the ability to retrieve clearly from their memories the full details of the suffering and trials. We will therefore suffice ourselves with what is conveyed in this chapter, excerpts of dirges from the scroll of Lamentations about the great tragedy and deep crisis, tiny drops from the wide sea of pain and agony. These excerpts are dear and important to us for their own sake but also because they are the only stories that we could salvage from their mouths and writings
Along the Way
Transport trucks with an address:
A wagon with ten horses
On its floor there is now
Transport trucks along the way
Moving here and there.
To where there is no tomorrow
To where there is no name
And the fear hovers
Outside the lattice of the window
The train moves quickly
Slinking on its belly
Oh would it not reach
The crater of the chasm.
(K. A. Britani: Seven Poems of Siberia)
by Azriel Regenbogen
Translated by Jerrold Landau
During the first days of the Second World War, my wife, our two daughters, and I were caught in Lwów as refugees of the German air bombardment. I found work with a group of artists who carried out work ordered by the Russian Army for propaganda purposes, such as creating images of members of the politburo, various mottoes, etc.
After a brief time, an announcement was posted stating that all refugees must come to register whether they wish to remain in Russia or return to their homes in Poland. Of course, almost all the refugees registered to return home. Even though they did this unanimously, they knew that they were placing themselves into the arms of the cruel German murderers. There had been a list of 600 important Jews in the city already from their first days of conquest of PrzemyŚl, and all were shot. However, they did not yet recognize the Nazi beast, and they attributed this shooting to the wartime situation with its upheavals. They thought and hoped that the matters would settle down within a few days, that the situation would return to its normal course, and that it would be possible to live with the Germans. On the other hand, it was difficult to think and believe that it would be possible to get used to regular life under the Communist guard, after they got to know it up close.
Nevertheless, we were in great tension at that time, wondering whether we would really be permitted to return to our homes, or perhaps this registration was just some sort of Russian trick…
The trick became clear after a few weeks. They began to arrest people, especially Jews, during the evening and night hours, as they were walking on the street. They deported them to Siberia as spies, without any trial. After several days, they began to broaden their activities regarding this by deporting entire families.
One dark night, the electric lights throughout the entire city of Lwów were suddenly extinguished, and a curfew was declared throughout the civilian population of the city. That night, masses of Russian soldiers appeared and spread out throughout all the streets of the city with lists of people in their hands. These were lists of Jews who had registered to return home. The soldiers went from house to house, gathered up these families, took them to the railroad station, and placed them on transport wagons to send them to unknown destinations.
The same thing happened in all the cities of Eastern Galicia, which were full of Jewish refugees from the cities of Poland. In this manner, two million people, Christians and Jews, were deported to distant Russia some to Ukraine, and others to the expanses of Siberia and the Urals. This was a hot summer day. People were thirsty for water to the point of fainting. We were transported in closed transport wagons, with Russian soldiers guarding us to ensure that nobody would escape. This served as an example for the Germans as to how to treat Jews! We shouted and cried. We wept to the civilian population along the way and begged for a bit of water for our children to drink. We were answered only with pitiful stares from these people, and no more. Nobody dared to endanger their lives by giving us anything, out of fear from our Russian guards who accompanied us.
Only later, when we crossed the border of old Poland and continued the long journey through the expanse of Ukraine, did our guard lighten. There was no longer any fear that we would escape, even though there were some attempts of escape from the railway cars even there, especially by solitary individuals without family. We were already permitted to purchase something at the railway stations at which we stopped. Something for only very few items were sold there, and the general lack of all merchandise was great.
This is how we traveled for two weeks, without knowing our destination. When we asked people we met along the way any questions, we were answered with only the nod of a head from pity and empathy. We realized from the looks in their eyes that we were not the first ones like this that they had seen.
That frightful night will never be erased from our memories. It was stormy, and the rain was incessant. The thunder and lightning did not stop. Our train crossed the bridge over the Volga River, literally next to the water. The bridge was very long. The journey over it took about an hour, and at times we thought that the train with all its wagons would overturn and suddenly fall into the water. The storm abated with the light of the day. The train stopped. We were in a large, deep valley, one of the desolate Ural valleys, next to a large, broad body of water… We were ordered to leave the wagons. This was the first time that we were given cooked food, in army rations.
Several boats approached after about two hours. We were ordered to board the boats. We carried out the order with pain and agony, recognizing clearly that we were being transported to some unknown, remote place. The boat trip also lasted a long time. We finally stopped next to a thick forest. We were ordered to leave the boats and enter the thick forest. Several transport trucks appeared. We boarded them with our luggage, and we again moved forward! Once again, there was an extended period of travel, through forests and desolate plains. A deep fear passed through us all: to where are we being taken and what fate awaits us. The trucks finally stopped in the midst of a dense, dark forest. We were ordered to get off, and were informed that this is where we would be living. Feelings of terror and hysteria overtook the people. Men, women, and children fell on the ground, wept, screamed, and groaned. Some people overcome with anguish and despair fainted.
We were informed that there was a small village set up by the German deportees a few steps from the heart of the forest. They had been deported onward in accordance with Russian custom, and that village would be our destination.
We began to calm down and get used to the thought that nothing would help us, neither screaming or crying. We approached the village and began to search for fitting dwelling places among the abandoned huts. After we found a fitting dwelling we began to search for left over boards and pieces of wood, table parts and chairs. We finally found several boards and planks, which we joined together to form a bed upon which to sleep. Of course, this night in our new home passed with groans and sighs.
On the second day, we were gathered together by the head of the camp, a N.K.V.D. man who was also deported, who delivered a speech to us. He told us that we must remember that we had been deported by the authorities, and we must continue our lives there. We must not ever think about returning to our former places. Here we must
live, and here we will die. Therefore, here in Russia, if you wish to live you must work. If you do not work you will die here. You will receive food and other necessities in return for your labor. Every healthy individual must work. Therefore, you must register for work. You will be given three days to rest. At the end of your three days of rest, you must go out to work.
Many of us indeed registered for work, including me. We did not have a great deal of money, and we would not be able to live for long with the cash we had on hand. We reported for work after the three days of rest. We were taken through a thick forest for about seven kilometers. Large swarms of mosquitoes attacked us along the way. We could only protect ourselves from them with branches that we tore off the trees of the forest. We went to battle with them only by blowing at our faces and hands… This repeated itself daily on our way to work and back to the village.
At work, I was placed among the woodcutters. Our task was to cut trees in the thick forest, cut them into pieces, and arrange them into bundles of two by two meters. This was the daily quota for a worker, and the salary was 1.5 rubles per day. It is easy to imagine what percentage of this quota people such as ourselves would be able to fulfil. We were civilians from Europe. We were able to fill 13% of the quota…
When we protested about the large quota to the supervisors, a healthy, strong farmer was sent to the forest for this work. After working at woodcutting for an hour, he said, You see the work I carried out. If I could do this in only an hour, you can without doubt produce this quota within a work day. That was a strong, healthy Jew among us, who invited the farmer to continue his work alongside him, and asked him to do it with the same speed, and without a break, for one hour is not like eight hours. Not more than an hour passed before the farmer fell down and fainted. He pleaded with the Jews to spare his life. I do not want to be a witness, he said, and he fled. However, this fact did not help at all. The quota remained fixed, and continued as previously.
A week passed. This work weakened me, and I got sick. I began to test my powers of protekzia (favoritism) with the supervisor. I once met him and told him that I was an expert artist by profession. I asked him to give me work in the field of drawing, and in return for this I would make him a fullsized portrait…. I offered this because there were 125 huts in the village, and the population was more than 300, so it would be appropriate for the address of everyone to be known. Therefore, it would be good and proper if he would agree to give me the task of drawing signs that would include the number of every house in the village, and the names of the people who live in them. I added that I advised this because it would be fitting and proper for a commander of his level of intelligence, and it would raise his esteem among his supervisors.
The commander liked my recommendation, and I began to prepare for work more accurately, for the tasks of drawing the signs as well as the portrait of the officer. However, for this work, I would need two elementary materials: paint and a paintbrush but we don't have them! I suddenly thought of entering the command warehouse
in the village to look for paint. To my good fortune, I found simple paint that I decided to use. I then cut hairs from the tail of a horse, from which I made a paintbrush. With these two elements, I had all the equipment that I needed for my artistic work.
In truth: the portrait of the commander turned out not bad at all. I dragged out the work with the signs for a period of many months.
When I finished the signs with the names of the residents of the houses in the village I thought about other cultural work for our director work that would put him in good favor with his supervisors:
Our youth in the camp slowly got accustomed to their situation, and began to think about ways of spending their free time after work in the evenings. A cultural group was formed, which organized evenings of readings, music, and song, as well as small performances. The director liked this idea, and gave us a spacious hall for this purpose. I advised the director that I could prepare decorations for performances and the like. He willingly agreed to my recommendations, and I began to beautify the theater and produce various pictures for the hall.
Whereas I succeeded in extricating myself from the backbreaking work of cutting trees in the forest and the like by engaging in artistic work, my wife and older daughter were forced to go out to work in the fields and gardens every day, to toil with backbreaking work in the intense heat of the summer, and the minus 38degree cold of the winter. During the summer, they were sometimes sent to faroff places to harvest fodder. However, this situation did not last for long. During those days, an edict was issued that all the deportees to Siberia were permitted to request family unification in cases where members of a single family were deported to different places. My wife had a brother who was deported with his family to the city of Krasnouralsk, a large city in the Urals not far from our camp. I turned to the Ministry of the Interior of Molotov with a request to transfer us to Kransnouralsk, where my brotherinlaw lived, under the law of family reunification. In my request, I noted that I was a professional artist who worked at government tasks in the Artel (cooperative) in Lwów, and I would be able to continue my work in Krasnouralsk, for in the tiny village there was no possibility of engaging in productive work in that field. I added that I had two talented daughters who are very eager to study, which is also impossible in the village with no school.
There was no post office in our village. We had to send the request as with other postal matters via the director. Due to the concern that the director might open the letter, read the request, and disturb us regarding this, I had to walk to the nearby city, 15 kilometers away, to mail the letter to Moscow. A few months later, in the middle of the winter with the temperature being minus 40, I was called to our director late at night. (In Russia, it is known that everything happens at night.) He asked me if it was I who sent the request to Moscow about being transferred to Krasnouralsk, and why did I do so knowing that all requests to the government must be done solely through the camp directorship?! I justified myself to the director by saying that I did not know about this. His response was:
If you want to go, it must be immediately tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, you will never be allowed to go. I immediately responded that we want to go tomorrow.
The next morning, the director sent his deputy with a winter sleigh. We reached the nearby railway station after a journey of 30 kilometers. There, we were met by a surprise: a veritable N.K.V.D. delegation from Moscow who received us and accompanied us to Krasnouralsk. One of the members of this delegation had a file with the private details about us. In Russia, every resident has a file with the details of his life, and all that happened to him from the time of his birth. When we reached Krasnouralsk, the delegation handed us over to the head of the local N.K.V.D. We immediately received a respectable dwelling in the neighborhood of people of culture: physicians, engineers, and the like. After a few days, I received work as an artist in the Artel. My wife did not have to work anymore. My older daughter obtained work in the clothing factory, and my younger daughter registered in school and began to study. My task in the Artel was to draw primitive pictures designed for the simple folk. My quota was seven to eight pictures in a workday. There was someone there who could produce 15 pictures each day… I tried to make the pictures in accordance with my style, and they wanted to fire me for this. The pictures were later sold on the market day in openair exhibitions.
My professional work in painting pictures ended after two weeks. There were political reasons for this: Moscow did not approve of the free Polish government in London, and all the refugees from Poland had become enemies of Russia… It was clear that cultural work could not be given to such people. I was then transferred to another job painting. At first this job was very difficult for me. After a brief time, we received work in painting all the windows and doors in a large government house. The wooden doors were to be given a steely appearance. I was especially expert in this work, for I had prepared to make aliya to the Land of Israel a short time before the war, and I mastered this type of work. My situation improved greatly due to my expertise, both with respect to the work, as well as with respect to a raise in salary.
When the Polish government in London decided to set up a large Polish army to fight against the Germans under the command of General Sikorsky, and volunteers from amongst the Polish deportees in Russia were drafted, we refugees became free people with rights to live and travel throughout Russia. We received special identity papers and began once again to move from place to place in confusion. Indeed, we did not know where to go. Because of the war, which was at its height, we could only travel to east or south Russia. We decided to travel south, for na´ve reasons. First, we were sick of the life in the northern cold climate of Russia, which often reached minus 40. Indeed, we knew that the cold climate in the places that we lived was a healthy climate. In the north, people did not die from various diseases, as they later died in the tropical climate. Another reason, albeit erroneous, for our new destination, was that living in Southern Russia, near the Persian border, might make it possible to cross the hermeneutically sealed border of Russia… We were not the only ones to talk up our walking staff once again, but to where? This time, it took two full weeks of suffering and difficulties that are hard to describe. This was the period of the fierce war in the east. Many citizens of Russia fled from the enemy, who had already reached Moscow .
The trains were packed, with no space. The crowding, hunger, thirst, filth, three to four day waits in the railway stations to switch trains, illnesses, especially among the children and elderly, without possibility of obtaining medical attention, and many other torments that we endured during this journey made the continuation of the journey odious to us. Therefore, as we passed the district city of Dzhambul , we stopped our journey, and decided to go to the city to search for a place to live. However, the waiting room in the Dzhambul station was closed due to the refugees that streamed there during those days. We were forced to remain outside in the pouring rain and cold. Only in the morning did we go into the city to search for dwelling places. To our good fortune, there were already several people from Sanok there. I will never forget the fine, warm conduct of Mrs. Felder, who offered us to enter her dwelling and remain with her until we could find our own place. Indeed, we lived with her for two weeks. Living here meant: sleeping on the floor (along with the 10member Felder family) in one small room. We finally found a dwelling place in a clay house. We had to cover our bodies with all sorts of rags on rainy nights as a protection from the clods of clay that would fall from the ceiling, which was also made of clay. We found another, more spacious place only after some time.
In Dzhambul, I obtained work in the Artel for drawing and children's toys. We made various portraits and signs. Our salary was of no value, for we were not able to purchase anything with it. Every working person received 600 grams of bread for a small payment. Unemployed individuals received only 400 grams. The value and price of bread were higher on the black market: 200 rubles for a kilogram of bread. My monthly salary was 250 rubles per month. I was forced to work Chaltura , that is: other jobs aside from my official work for the Artel. I made all sorts of pictures and placards of Russian military life in the war for schools, and images of war heroes and of politburo members. I also worked for the local factories and flour mills. I requested in natura payment for my work that is, payment in foodstuff such as flour, grits, and the like. I did not want to work for money due to its lack of actual value. Of course, all this was illegal, and one could receive a stringent prison sentence for this. I recall one incident in that regard, unimportant itself, but which typifies civilian life in Russia from a specific eyewitness viewpoint. This was before the celebrations of the October Revolution in Russia. An N.K.V.D. official came to my home to order various publicity works from me, such as images of the giants of the Russian Revolution, and the like. I made a peppered bill, as appropriate for the times, and with my knowledge that there were not many artists who could carry out such work… Expressing his astonishment about my brazenness, he said to me, You know, my friend, that I, as an N.K.V.D. man, can force you to carry out these works for free, with no payment?! I answered him quietly, Yes, I know that. Therefore, if you force me to do all these things for free, I will do them. But if you come to me as a private individual, as a proper human, and want to order ‘Chaltura’ work from me, timely artistic work, I must ask the price that a private person must pay. He remained standing, thought for a bit, but then agreed to my price. When I finished the work, he paid me down to the last coin. My acquaintances, who found out about this incident, were very surprised about the strength of my spirit in entering the mouth of the lion and exiting whole…! In truth: more than strength of spirit, there was necessity: the necessity of life and existence, that is not always praised, but never denigrated… The necessities of life determine the conditions of life in accordance with the wisdom of life and society in Russia.
Many refugees from Poland, mainly Jewish, lived in the district city of Dzjambul. A delegation was formed, called delegatura from the Polish free government, whose job was to nurture the cultural and social life of the refugees. Through this government body, elementary and high schools were formed, which indeed stood at a high educational level. My daughters studied there, and my older daughter even took her matriculation exams. (Incidentally, my brotherinlaw, Dr. Shomer, also served as a teacher in the high school.) The delegatura also arranged a distribution of foodstuffs from time to time. This was to make up for some of the great lack in our food basket.
A certain period passed under the described conditions. Then the Russian government declared that all the Polish refugees must exchange their identity cards for a Russian passport. This news afflicted the hearts and caused perplexity amongst the refugees, for accepting a Russian passport meant remaining in Russia forever. All of us hoped and waited to return home to Poland immediately after the war. This was still before we found out what happened to the Jews who remained in Poland, to our relatives, and our property that we had there. Each of us procrastinated in receiving our Russian passports to the extent possible. After a brief time, the Russians began to perpetrate snatchings outside the city from time to time. Anyone who did not have a new Russian passport was brought to the police, and was forced to sign on the spot to receive his Russian passport. If anyone refused, there would be a brief trial, and the criminal would be sentenced to two years of prison. Some people accepted the verdict and went to jail. Two of them, close acquaintances of mine, died in prison. We then endured several days of tension, deliberations, and hesitation. Should we receive our Russian passports and immediately become Russian citizens with everything connected to that? The question bothered us and caused us worry. On the one hand, our personal situation and politicalcivilian status would enable us to move around and live anywhere in the country after the war, and would open up the possibility of being able to leave the country. Along with this, we knew that our rights to receive our daily bread ration would be canceled if we refused. There were other considerations, both light and heavy, regarding this problem. After consulting and conferring with various people, including longtime Russian citizens, as well as veteran comrades of the Communist party there, my wife and I decided to accept the passports. Many others did likewise.
It became clear that the passport did not change the relationship of the authorities to us one iota aside from the fact that we would be able to receive bread at the official price, as has been stated. The passport did not save us from trials or tribulations, or any other restrictions that afflicted us as refugees especially as Jewish refugees! We could not escape from the traps and snatchings that were perpetrated by the authorities at certain times toward passersby on the streets. Innocent people would be snatched on the streets and sent to unknown places. I also endured such an incident a short time after receiving my passport… I was arrested on the street and taken to the police to be sent to work somewhere. Only through a miracle did I manage to escape from their hands…
The days of tribulation and suffering, the struggle with daily life, the concern for our physical and spiritual wellbeing, and the hope for the day when we could leave the slavery of Communist justice and the darkness of truth associated with that justice continued hoping for the redemption of a normal life of minimal personal comfort in our homes and with our families.
by Berel Rabbach
Translated by Jerrold Landau
A. The Miracle by the Volga
I do not recall in which month this took place. I only remember that this was in the year 1944, the year in which the cold reached a level that was rare even in Siberia. No potatoes could be found in our home or in any other home for some time. In our place of residence at that time, the Siberian village of Podlesnovski Soboroz near Saratov, we had almost forgotten what a potato looked like.
Once on a Friday morning, as I was going from my house to a well in the courtyard in order to fetch two pails of water, my eyes suddenly stumbled upon several large potatoes lying outside next to the well atop a cover of white snow. It was obvious that potatoes would be frozen as hard as rocks in the negative 45 degree temperature. I brought them, the cold diamonds, home as a present for my wife… When they melted a bit and were no longer frozen, they became soft and sweet. With this, a suspicion arose in my heart, and a thought went through my mind: how good would it be if at least one egg and one morsel of onion could be found in the house. Then we would be able to prepare a proper Sabbath meal with one of the most typical Sabbath foods! I immediately went to the home of an Uzbeki woman in the village, gave her a kerchief, and received four eggs in return. We now had one of the ingredients of the meal in our hands. But where could the onion come from? I suddenly remembered that there was a stash of several onions at the home of my sister, who lived in a different kolkhoz [collective farm] six kilometers from where I lived! Without thinking much, I set out to my sister and returned home. After walking about 12 kilometers by foot in deep snow, I returned with one large onion in my hands!
It was worthwhile. After several years, that day we again tasted - there in Siberia of all places! - we again tasted the finest of Sabbath delicacies: onions and eggs - tzibiles mit eyer!
B. With What Do we Light
This too took place in the same cold winter of 1944. At home, there was not even one morsel of wood for fuel. Everyone was lying curled up in bed all day. Anyone who had a blanket to cover himself up was fortunate, and woe to those who did not have one. Anyone who did not have a blanket was forced to cover up in rags, for if they were not to cover up, they would freeze from the fierce cold in this unheated room. The room was not heated for a simple reason: There were no forests and no wood for fuel anywhere around the village in which we lived. All the trees of the area were small shrubs of various types, with thin, light branches, some of which were hollow like reeds. Any of these that had been set aside in the autumn for the winter had been used up during the first two months of winter, November and December, and the wood storehouse was empty of any inventory. What should be done throughout the rest of the winter months of January-June (in this area, the snow only melts in the month of May)? To freeze to death? - There is no great desire for that. It is worthwhile to push that off for a bit. Perhaps not all remnants had been used up. Perhaps we could still search for some means to combat the tribulation whose name is cold?
Perhaps we had to try to find some solution to the problem of fuel. Perhaps it would be possible to find, or more accurately - to invent - some solution to the question: With what do we light? That is to say, with what, finally, can we heat the room in a winter such as this, with cold temperatures such as this, and in a situation where there was a complete lack of wood and any other fuel?
The answer came, and the solution was found. This was on such a night as this, of the cold night, when one asks How and what? Behold: we left the house late at night and spread out through the different edges of the village. What happened then?
We came across a wooden fence. We dismantled it, cut the boards and planks into small pieces, prepared them for lighting, and actually lit them…
We found a cattle barn, took down the door, dismantled it into sections, and cut each section into small pieces. We now had good firewood that was fit to light even the oven of the Czar…
We encountered a wooden staircase at the entrance of the office of the Natshalnik [village official]. We moved it slightly from their place, dismantled it, and within an hour, we had already produced the material for firewood.
In this manner, on one occasion, we solved one of the most oppressive problems in exile in Siberia. In this manner, we found an answer to one perpetual question of the masses of questions that were asked day by day hour by hour, by the wretched, oppressed Siberian exiles, refugees of the Second World War. If anyone would come to think about new, additional questions, that is, questions about the quality of the answer that was given then - the final, profound, response will be (this time, a characteristic, Jewish response - with a question!): Was there any other choice at that time? Was there any other way of lighting the oven in order to warm up the room in such cold, on such a night when a daughter was born to the writer of these lines in that room -- during those hours of the night, when the baby and the mother required and awaited a warm room, warm air, and a bit of warm water?!
by David Shmarlobsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
A. Hewers of Wood Observant of the Sabbath
Among the work groups that were made up of Jews who were sent to point 38 in the Siberian forest, there was one whose task was to prepare strips of wood and to cut them into very thin planks. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski was among those at the center of this group. It seems that his diligence in his work caused the work director and the supervisor of security who was responsible for the entire camp to place their faith in him and turn to him for most issues that arose in the camp. Reb Mendel gathered into his group those people who had difficulty in other jobs - especially with work in the forest. Every day, the men of the group gathered in a bunk that was partially broken, and attempted to meet the quotas imposed on them. In the evening, the work director would appear, count and mark the quantity produced, bind them with ropes, and record and authorize the amount of bread that the group was to receive based on the quota produced. The
paltry quantity of food and other living conditions began to oppress the spirit of the people. Expressions of bitterness increased. The worm of despair began to gnaw at some of them.
Reb Mendel encouraged the spirit of the people by organizing communal singing that included Sabbath and festival songs, reciting prayers by heart, and quoting verses and statements talking about the redemption that was to come. The Russian work director, who at first behaved in an oppressive matter, began to hold the group in esteem after some time, whether because of the quota that they produced or because of the morale that pervaded it.
Reb Mendel, who was dedicated to them at all times and every situation, succeeded in avoiding the desecration of the Sabbath when he had been a soldier in the First World War, as well as during the most recent tragic transport to Siberia. He found a way to keep it even in that place, by promoting the Talmudic adage, Whoever toils on the eve of the Sabbath will eat on the Sabbath. He influenced the group to act in accordance with this adage. On Friday, they prepared a larger quota of planks and left them scattered on the floor without putting them in order. At night, when the work director came to tally the quota, Reb Mendele would claim that they did not have time to bundle up the piles, and promised that the next day; they would bundle up what had been produced over the two days. On the Sabbath, the group in the bunk spent the day in communal worship and in reading the weekly Torah portion from a Chumash. They sang Sabbath hymns during the meal Then, You rested on the Sabbath Day, Blessed be the Name day by day, he will grant us salvation and redemption - and others. In the afternoon, close to the time when the work director would come, they began to bundle up the piles. When he came he found a large quantity bundled up, as promised.
The group earned praise from the camp leadership on more than one occasion. They especially praised the center of the group and its living spirit: Comrade Mendel Moisivitch Shmarlobiski. The Jewish members of the group were proud about their two achievements: fulfilling the quota and observing the Sabbath.
B. High Holyday prayers in the Siberian forest
A short time after their arrival to the settlement in the depths of the Siberian forest the men of faith and deeds began to organize Jewish life. Despite the careful supervision by the leaders of the N.K.V.D. (the Soviet security force), they began to organize the little that was possible in the area of religion and tradition. With constant physical and spiritual danger, they organized prayers, guarded kashrut through kosher slaughter, and even attempted to disseminate Torah to schoolchildren. Major efforts were directed toward organizing communal prayer on the approaching High Holydays. The police commander found out from several Polish Christians about the holiday preparations of the Jews. On the eve of the festival, the police increased its supervision on the residents of the bunks and even warned them about organizing prayers and gatherings, which were against the laws of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, preparations were made. Prayer leaders were designated, a place for the prayers was chosen, and scouts were set up - lads who would look out on all sides and whose job was to inform the worshippers about the approach of police representatives. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski of blessed memory and Reb Chaim Schwerd of blessed memory were among the prayer leaders, Torah readers, and shofar blowers. The services of the first night of the holiday passed more or less with no disturbance. In the morning, the worshippers gathered again, aside from those who were not permitted to refrain from going to work. Reb Mendel Shmarlobiski led the Pesukei Dezimra, and gave over his place to the leader of the Shacharit service. This was Reb Chaim Schwerd, the well-known shochet and prayer leader of the large Beis Midrash of Sanok, who had weakened somewhat from the tribulations of the long journey and the poor nutritional situation. Nevertheless, he summoned his remaining strength and began the Shacharit service, as is done on the High Holydays, with the call of Hamelech. The call of Hamelech was uttered
with a great cry that shook up the hearts of the worshippers. I recall that at that moment, images and feelings of the days when Reb Chaimel the Shochet served as the prayer leader in the large Beis Midrash of Sanok passed before my eyes. In my imagination, I once again saw myself standing beside my father, who was enwrapped with his tallis over his head, taking care that I not miss one word of the prayers, as I was surrounded by my brothers and good friends. However, the bitter reality quickly spread before me: The scouts appeared and informed us that the police commander and his assistants were running toward us to look into the shout that they had heard. All the worshippers quickly dispersed in different directions. When the danger passed, the worshippers gathered again to continue their prayers. This services remains etched on my heart, and I will never forget it!
C. Two Loaves
When I was a small child, and I listened to the descriptions and memories of my father of blessed memory from the period of the First World War in which he participated as a soldier on the line for four years, I was always impressed with his ability to arrange things with respect to the demands of religion so that it would not be harmful to him. A common thread throughout all of his stories was the description of how he succeeded in preparing the double loaves in every place and every situation so that he could recite the Kiddush on the Sabbath. And now, the tribulations of the Second World War transported him to a Siberian village. Here, the primary food for a person was the bread, albeit in small quantities that was distributed in set portions. In the harsh winter of 1942, Father was forced to make great efforts in order to ensure that he had the two loaves for the Sabbath, as was his custom. That winter, there were days when there was no distribution of bread, with the excuse that the path from the town to the village was closed due to snow. At times, the residents of the village were left without food for several days. This is how it was that week. The distribution of bread was unorganized, and it was already Friday. Father was full of indescribable sadness that he did not even have an appropriate loaf of bread for the Sabbath. He got ready to prepare dough and bake several matzos from the stash of flour that he had kept for a time of trouble. As he was preparing them the person in charge of bringing the bread burst into the bunk with loud screams. Dadushka, a disaster happened, and they say that you are able to save! The wagon driver explained that, as she was driving from the nearby town with the bread wagon, the horse began to rebel, and the wagon eventually collapsed. The horse also fell, and it seemed that it no longer had any signs of life. How can I help? responded Father, I am not expert at all in matters of wagons and horses?! With the concern that he might not be able to prepare the matzos for the Sabbath, he pushed off the pleas of the wagon driver to go out to the place of the incident. However, she searched for a way to convince Father that she was talking about a serious incident, and said, You are a religious man, and you should concern yourself that an entire community will be left without bread, and that I will be punished severely. Father responded to her pleas and cries, and speedily walked the several kilometers. He arrived at the place that the horse and wagon had fallen. After all of Father's attempts to stand the horse up were for naught, he utilized the final resort. He freed the horse from its harness. When the horse sensed that it was free, it stood up on its legs and showed signs of strengthening. Then they started to set the wagon upright. When they succeeded, they hitched the horse to the wagon again, and it galloped to the village. Many people were waiting, calling out, The bread arrived! Long live Dadushka!, and other cries of joy.
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