Toward a More Human Life: in Latvia, 1945
In August, I left the woods and turned toward home. The road back was not a happy one; it led to graves. But I was pulled thereto, and I went. I went to drink the bitter cup to its very bottom.
I was dragging myself across roads and fields in my soldierly attire, with my backpack on my shoulders, and-there I was again on the very spot of the former Popervalen slave camp, my camp. Now there was only a flat, burned-out place overgrown with wild grasses, and the little hill containing the huge grave of unknown Jews. I was standing on the campsite, lost in my own thoughts, when I saw before me a human being. It was the fat farmer who lived nearby, a neighbor of the former camp. Oh, I knew him quite well. I went up to his chin in the proper fashion, one, two, three:
You, with the stuffed chin! You don't recognize me, but I know you! Do you remember how, a year ago, you complained to the Germans that the Jews from the camp wouldn't leave you alone, begging constantly for bread and potatoes? They were dying of hunger while you stuffed yourselflike a pig, and yet you begrudged them a piece of bread! Take that, you son of a dog! Out of my sight, you stuffed pig, or I will tear out your guts.
The farmer got away as quickly as possible, having been bloodied, and I realized that I had been out of order.To go do battle with everyone who had wronged me, to have arguments, complaints, and quarrels-! would have to fight it out with half the world! And however fast I could raise my hands, and however well I could berate and revile, in the true Russian style.... NO! I must curb myselfl This was no longer life in the forests!
I traveled further over the lonely roads, and there I was again in Zlekas. Of the former rulers, police, and murderers, there was no sign. I sought out one person I knew, the local shoemaker, Oginsky, and he
led me into the woods, to the grave of my four murdered comrades. Together, we threw enough dirt on the grave to make a small hill, and we placed a stone on it and planted some simple field flowers. I dug a hole for a thick piece of wood and wrote on it with a wooden pencil. Here lie in their eternal resting place Laib Bobrov, Gershon Yakovson, Laib Yakovson, and Benjamin Vospy, victims at the hands of Nazi murderers, the 12th of August, 1944. Respect their memory.
I came to the Latvian towns and villages of Sasmaken [Valdemarpils], Talsen, Kandava, Tukums, and others. I looked for people I knew, at least one Jewish face. There were none-no more Jews there! I went further and came to Riga, the capital city of Latvia.
The beautiful city had emerged from the war almost unscathed. I walked across the broad streets and parks, I went to the quarter where the ghetto had been, and I made inquiries. I searched, and-oh, a stroke of luck! I encountered a few Jews. With curiosity, I looked into their faces. I wanted to see into their souls. These were, after all, the first few Jews I encountered after the bloody Holocaust. The concept of remnant of the flight or remnant oflsrael was taking shape in my mind. I was also one of them, a remnant of the flight. Were they lucky, satisfied, glad to be alive, or the opposite? I looked at these Jews and saw that a strong instinct for life streamed and boiled in them: a tremendous drive to live, to fight. That is good, I thought. There is still some hope for us.
They told me that on Marshal Street, there was a kind of committee of the Jewish community of Riga. I went off to that place and learned that they had information on three to four thousand surviving Jews, both locals and people from other towns and villages. I made inquiries about my Riga acquaintances and friends, and I searched through the lists of the survivors, but I didn't find anyone, not one of them. But, I was told, surviving Jews were still coming back from the camps, from Germany, from Russia, from the forests, and from the Russian army.
I traveled on, toward Dvinsk. There were no passenger trains going there yet, only loaded freight trains. You had to have special permits, and without them, you couldn't get any tickets. I came to the Riga train station, which was crowded with thousands upon thousands of people.
Where did such a huge stream of people come from? Oh, I thought to myself, I will not get anything accomplished by waiting around.
I put on my worn-out soldier's cap, took my backpack onto my shoulders, and, pushing with my elbows left and right, pressed my way through the deep crowds, repeatedly calling out, Hey, citizens, let me through! I'm a military man! You can see, can't you, that I'm in a hurry? Let me through, let me through!
In the same fashion, I pressed my way into a fully packed freight car, created a little corner on the floor, spread out my military overcoat, and made myself comfortable.
Early the next morning, I got to Dvinsk, the city of my ghetto life and suffering. Had anyone survived, and where would one find them? Half the city and maybe more was devastated. Whole streets and neighborhoods were lying under ruins. Then I saw new ruins. That, it appeared, was what the Germans had done before retreating. Or perhaps the Russian cannonades and airplanes had caused the destruction. But of what importance was it to me? I wanted only to find a surviving Jew.
I wandered in the marketplace among the display tables and baskets. I looked into the faces, and there, I thought, was a Jewish woman-yes, an acquaintance from the ghetto, Mrs. Epshtein. I spoke to her, but she didn't recognize me. I told her who I was, and she cried out, ACH! That's who you are? I would not in my life have recognized you. See how you look; it's frightening to take a look at you. Well, come to our house! We live not far from here. You will get a bit of rest, and then we will talk.
And now, for the first time since the war, I was once again in a Jewish home, with a Jewish family. She was a fortunate woman, this Mrs. Epshtein. She had only lost a husband and two children, a sister and brother, and one other person. Now she and her daughter, who had also survived, were living with her brother-in-law and his sister and both their families. They, the relatives, had come back from Russia, and Mrs. Epshtein and her daughter had come back from separate concentration camps. All of them, ten to twelve people, lived in three rooms with a kitchen. Yes, there is no lack of food to eat, they said; bread they have. It could be better; certainly, it's far from being really good, but...it's good.
I met up with a few other friends and acquaintances from the ghetto years, including Mod Krom and his whole family. About Mod Krom, I thought, Now, there is a lucky and heroic Jew. To be able to hide out in Dvinsk itself and save his entire family, his wife and two children!And I remembered how skillfully and boldly Mod Krom and his wife used to maneuver. They would sneak out of the ghetto, hide the children with Christians they knew, wander around in disguise, stuffing money and gold wherever it was possible and necessary, and...what did they not do!
A satisfied person, with his round, laughing face and his impudent little eyes, Mod Krom was now sitting and telling me about his experiences. He wanted to get back his house with the brick wall. It had survived almost completely, but it had been taken over by the Russians....
No, he said, he could do without the brick wall. He would rather leave Dvinsk and settle in Riga. In Dvinsk, everyone looked into his mouth to see what he was eating and what he was doing. Yes, he did have a good position as a buyer for the Russians; he could make a lot of money, to be sure, but he was tied down. The Russians wouldn't let him go; it was not that easy to tear yourself away from them. You had to sit where they told you to sit; but then again, for money you can do anything.... You see, with Mod Krom, I am not downhearted. He is a clever operator and knows how to handle himself I hope that he is now one of the nouveaux riches in Dvinsk, unless he finds himself in Riga, or maybe a little bit further away than that, in Siberia.
Other Jews I met in Dvinsk included a few dozen survivors of the ghetto, camps, and woods, and hundreds more who had saved themselves in Russia. Later, many of them set out on new, uncertain paths. I encountered them in my later wanderings; they were looking for new homes to take the place of the ones that had vanished.
But I myself was not, at that time, looking for a new home. I made my way to the former ghetto in the old fortress across the Dvina River. I saw again the thick, gloomy stone wall, the local water wells, the barracks and stalls, and I thought for a moment that I was seeing bloodied figures, human shadows of those who had been tortured. They were moaning, shouting, and calling for help, but there was no help, not even the prospect of help. The gates of heaven were locked, and there were
no more hearts in the human bodies. And now they, the shadows, were being driven uphill to the slaughter-men, women, and children, very small ones, older ones...and mothers with little children....
I rubbed my eyes and shook my head to dispel those images; I took a closer look and saw the present reality. Thousands of German prisoners of war now lived in the old fortress. The sons and brothers of the murderers, and maybe the murderers themselves, were locked up and driven to hard labor, and they walked around half hungry, with cooking pots hanging from their worn-out, gray-green uniforms. They chased after a bit of bread, a potato, peelings, exactly the way we, the Jews, had not long ago. But they were not tortured, and they were not shot.
And I noticed that the Jew Hellerman, a former ghetto inmate, was the chief of staff of the prisoner camp. The Germans trembled before him, they flattered him, they polished his boots, they grabbed a bit of cigarette that he had thrown away. The surviving ghetto Jews of Dvinsk rejoiced at this, and saw in it a great revenge. They saw in it the finger of God. But for me, the question arose again: How could there be a revenge great enough for the horrible crime that had been perpetrated against us?
Finally, I was drawn to the blood pits of Dvinsk, to the mass graves. I had, after all, a share in them, quite a very large share of my life, of my flesh and blood. For an entire day, I wandered around in the neighborhood of Pohulanka, around the places of the gigantic brother-graves. The ground was already smoothed out, overgrown with grass, yet I still felt how the earth moved, and heard how the blood in the pits cried out. It was as though souls were fluttering around in the air, weeping and complaining like children. I heard the lament of the souls of my own two children, cut down in their youth....
I had not wept for a very long time, my heart having been turned to stone, but now the accumulated suffering and pain tore open and broke out in a stream of lament and tears. I wept, bitterly wept, over the fate of those who were tortured and those who survived-over the bitter fate of all of us.
I spent an entire day among the mass graves. I thought and thought and could not find my way through the main thought that somewhere moved my mind. That evening, when I had become exhausted, I wrote
something on a piece of paper. Later, in Lithuania, in the village where I was born, I wrote it over again, changing it. Here is what I wrote:
|Come down to our forefathers' grave,
Jew from distant homeland!
No more danger: the angel of death Has already wiped clean his hand....
You will see what has become
Of your people in their old home.
Do not suppose, Jew, you were born
There, far from here, from a stone!
Your grandfathers had already been
Now Jewish life has been wiped out,
They have, after all, killed off a whole people
|Bloodied up, weak and small,
Must perhaps fundamentally reconsider
Our path upon which we are embarking?
Perhaps our path is not the right one
Perhaps we are building on sands
Are we deeply rooted in the earth,
Perhaps after all...we are foreigners?
And there also be able to fall to the ground,
But not like sheep, but rather still able to give
Blow for blow, with fist and sword?!
Come down to our forefathers' grave,
|(Written on the great Jewish forefathers' grave after my
return from the woods, August and September 1945)
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