by Shoshana Yakubovitsh
Translated by Leonard Prager
Appeared previously in The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language, Vol. 10.006 [Sequential No. 171]
I have taken pen in hand many times. I wanted to write about beloved and good-hearted Vitye Fomienko. I'm sorry I can't remember the names of all the people he helped so much, but the faces of the Jews whom he saved are clear before my eyes.
I saw Witold (Vitye) Fomienko for the first time after all our families in the Lutsk Ghetto had been killed. I stayed alive due to chance and escaped to a small village by the name of Podhayets. Quite a few Jewish boys and girls worked in the fields there and Vitye Fomienko visited them often. He helped them get needed documents and medications. Among other things, he brought oxygen-water for the Jewish girls so that they could dye their hair blond, flee the village and save themselves.
I was then eleven years old and looked like a little blond gentile child. At Vitye's request, his mother took me in despite the fact that he was already hiding three Jews in his home.
Living with them I noticed how persons of all ages filed into their house in the evenings and slept there as though it were a hotel. With the exception that in a hotel you pay your bill, and here the Fomienkos risked paying with their lives for their hospitality. Fomienko found hiding places for terrified and hunted Jews with a number of Christians, not once by paying from his own pocket. For hiding Jews he promised the world to these Christians when the war ended. Unfortunately, the war went on longer than people thought it would and neighbors of the good Christians began to see they were shielding Jews and reported them to the police. Often this led to arrest of the Jews and their subsequent execution. Then new troubles arose for Vitye and his family. He was up day and night and kept watch through cracks in his door fearful that his home would be searched for Jews. Luckily no one informed on him. But frightened Christians who managed to escape from the police and whom he had urged to shelter Jews began coming to him for help. And Vitye had to find alternative hiding places in other locations for those he was already hiding.
More than once a Jew managed to escape the clutches of the Germans and returned to Vitye, who with renewed energy began to search about for a new place to hide him.
Vitye's mother was also a fine, good woman; his father was a fine and gentle person. I loved them very much. I myself received from Fomienko's family the best of food and clothing. I owe my life to them.
Vitold Fomienko -- Mayn Reter ('Witold Fomienko -- My Rescuer'), an account of a young girl saved by a courageous gentile, is corroborated in the records of YadVashem in Jerusalem. Together with Shoshana Yakubovitsh's personal testimonial we cite the official recognition of Witold Fiomenko's actions as recorded in YadVashem:
Witold Fomienko hid scores of Jews in the Lutsk region of the Ukraine, braving threats from Germans and hostile local kinsmen. [cited from Yad VaShem's Righteous Among Nations website].
There are over 30,000 recognized Righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem memorial. They constitute a tiny minority of the gentiles of Europe among whom millions of Jews were murdered, yet how much they strengthen the human spirit by their example. In assessing their deeds we must keep in mind the conditions under which they lived. Here is a typical Nazi declaration against assisting Jews:
The Penalty for Helping a Jew in Occupied Poland:
The following proclamation was issued by Dr. Ludwig Fischer, the German district governor of Warsaw, on November 10, 1941: Concerning the Death Penalty for Illegally Leaving Jewish Residential Districts...Any Jew who illegally leaves the designated residential district will be punished by death. Anyone who deliberately offers refuge to such Jews or who aids them in any other manner (i.e., offering a night's lodging, food, or by taking them into vehicles of any kind, etc.) will be subject to the same punishment. Judgment will be rendered by a Special Court in Warsaw. I forcefully draw the attention of the entire population of the Warsaw District to this new decree, as henceforth it will be applied with the utmost severity.
by Yoyl Perel
Translated by Leonard Prager
I traveled to Lutsk in 1945 in a mood of one visiting a parent's grave, deep sadness in my eyes, looking indifferently at everything and everyone about me, my heart grieving
I wandered along the main thoroughfare, Jagiellonian Avenue, and looked for a familiar face, for someone I knew. Through clouded eyes I still saw the blood-stained words of the inscription on the coarse painted sheet-metal memorial slab supported by two steel rails on the improvised mound in Polonka: 18 thousand Hebrew residents of the city of Lutsk murdered by Hitler's murderers. Eighteen thousand! Among them my mother, four brothers and three sisters! Is there really not a single survivor?
Crossing the Bazilyaner Bridge, near the cathedral I noticed a few Christian market-wives setting out their wares. One of them looked familiar a slender woman with a pale face, deep dark expressionless eyes, thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes, thick black hair with a wide streak of gray that was almost white and I tried to fix who she was and where I knew her from. She noticed me looking at her and seemed about to move towards me when she suddenly hesitated and, pulling back as though she had forgotten something, she lowered her eyes in a bashful manner. I now remembered who she was, approached her and whispered, Don't you recognize me, Bashe? I recognized you, she answered in a voice lower than my whisper. But seeing how the other women stared at them with great curiosity, she quietly said, You can visit us this evening. I live She gave me her address.
I continued my walk. The Prakov Cathedral still stood. Opposite it were the ruins of my parent's demolished home where I had spent my childhood and youth. The house near the main highway where my sisters Freyde and Reyzl and my brother Bentsien lived still stood, though the lower wall, the firewall, had fallen in leaving the kitchens exposed. (It seems that during the night that I arrived in Lutsk the wall caved in.) In that house hung my brother's tapestries; his furniture, sewing machine, even his radio were there. I saw the fearful and yet insolent glances of the Ukrainians who had squatted on the properties and I quickly moved on.
Almost all the Jewish homes in the vicinity lay in ruins. The little side streets were covered with trash and with pieces of glass that reflected the sunlight. It was like a desert wasteland.
The wooden, tall-windowed Karaite Synagogue stood intact. Of the Great Synagogue only the walls remained, the roof having caved in. The Tailor's Synagogue and the Morning Synagogue were also ruined.
In my mind there echoed the melody with which we recite the Book of Ecclesiastes. Lines from Bialik's In the City of Slaughter came to mind: The sun shone and the shokhet slaughtered.
Turning back I walked along the bank of the Styr River. Suddenly there faced me a young man, Yoshke Liberman, Shmulke's younger brother. We kissed and he took me home with him and introduced me to his wife, a blonde German woman, much older than him, and to his little daughter. His wife, who was once his nursemaid, had saved his life. She received me warmly, speaking to me in a passable Yiddish, telling me many things of ghetto life which I was eager to hear.
My mother, she explained, did not want to leave with her children and remained at home. She insisted that this was where she had given birth to her fourteen children and here she would die. She met death in her black satin dress.
Going by the outer wall of the Krishtalke home, built by a father for his daughter with so much effort, I thought of the woman I had earlier recognized Bashe, Bashe the Apostle. I recalled how she looked as a girl with long pigtails. They were five sisters two blonde and three black-haired. The oldest sister, Hannah, blue-eyed and with long blonde pigtails, was a friend of mine. All the sisters played mandolins and guitars. Their home was like a club, always full of young people. They had an older brother, Yekhiel, dark-complexioned and with heavy, masculine negroid facial features; he had a deep bass voice and sang in the synagogue with Cantor Rosmarin.
Bashe was the youngest. Boys had not yet begun to notice her she was still a child. But unobserved by anyone she grew up and developed into a mature young woman. She was a pupil in the seventh class of the Powszechnie ('Public' ) School.
People used to whisper that she went around with gentile boys by the Lyubart Castle.
She fell in love with a Polish boy, a musician who played the saxophone. Her parents and sisters tried to influence her to break off with the sheygets ('gentile lad', used contemptuously) so as not to disgrace the family. Weren't there plenty of Jewish boys? But nothing helped. Her father used to call her names and even tried to beat her. Her mother walked about like a shadow and found no rest anywhere. Home became a hell for Bashe. One night she did not return home. It turned out that the sisters in the nunnery were teaching her the Catholic prayers. She went to church with them and prayed with them.
Her older sisters hurried to marry. Mother and father observed the traditional seven-day memorial period for the dead (shiva), as though she were dead. It was forbidden to speak her name in the house.
This is how my day passed.
In the evening I cautiously rang the doorbell. Someone stepped quickly on the other side of the door. A young blonde-haired man with bright catlike eyes opened the door. The manner in which he greeted me told me that he was Bashe's husband and that she had told him of our meeting earlier in the day.
Bashe got up, put down the spoon with which she was feeding her daughter, walked a few steps towards me and held out her hand. She held my hand longer than mere greeting required, as though wishing to assure me of her friendly feelings towards me. I saw how pale she looked, how tearful her eyes were, how measured and slow her movements.
-Let me introduce my husband and daughter, she uttered in Polish.
-Happy to meet you, I replied to her husband, shaking his hand. Turning to the bright-blonde child with little blue eyes and a turned-up Polish nose like her father's, whom she took after, I asked, What is your name?
-Zosyenka, Zosyenka Shtsherbinska, she answered with a hearty child's smile.
-Tell me, Zosyenka, what is your father's name?
-My father? Vladislav.
-And your mother?
Bronislava Shtsherbinska, she answered proudly, pleased with her successful performance.
-Vladislav, be so kind as to put the child to bed, Bashe asked of her husband. It's time.
The young man lifted the child into his arms and said to her: Now say goodnight to everyone.
-Dobranoc, mother! The child said goodnight to her mother with a strong kiss. Father and daughter left the room immediately. He evidently understood that his wife wished to be alone with me.
-Is your name really Bronislava?
-That is my Polish name. It is the name the priest gave me, she answered simply.
-That name surely proved useful. Thanks to it you stayed alive.
-It was not the name that saved me, nor my being a Polska; it was my sister Hene who saved me.
-I don't understand. How did your sister save you?
- This is how it happened, she began. It is unbelievable but true. During the occupation my husband and I and our child lived as Christians outside the ghetto. 'Lived' if one could call that a life. My husband entertained the drunken German officers in restaurants and earned enough to feed us. But I was dissatisfied. A great longing for my parents, sisters and brother who were suffering behind the ghetto walls gnawed at my heart like a leech and gave me no rest. During the six years in which I was separated from my own family, I hardly missed them. Occupied with my husband and child I forgot them. I lived in a different world. I became an ardent Catholic, at the outset from pressures but later with my whole heart. In my prayers I prayed too for my family, prayed they be forgiven for casting me away, All my former acquaintances and relatives distanced themselves from me. Everyone has their pride. I understood that not only was I dead for them, but they were dead for me as well. There is no road back to the past, but now that they were suffering so hopelessly I missed them. I could neither sleep nor rest. I felt pity for all the Jews who begged to die behind the ghetto walls. I used to go to church every day to pray for them, but not even my prayers lightened my pain. I saw how the murderers transported wagonloads of people, half-skeletons with glassy eyes, to murder them some place far away. My heart almost burst with hurt.
Once, after a long night of anguish and of thinking matters through, I left home, left husband and child, and went to join my parents in the ghetto. If I was to die, then better to do so together with them. My parents received me with open arms as though I had returned from a distant land. With tears in our eyes we kissed and were silent. My sisters, however, were angry with me for abandoning my husband and child. But they showed such warm feelings toward me, so much concern and consideration that it was hard for me to bear.
It was hard to recognize them,they were so thin and emaciated-looking.
In a few days time, our turn came. My parents and my sisters with their husbands and children filled a vehicle.
In the last moment my sister Hene grabbed me and pulled me up into an attic where we hid for several days. The Ukrainian police rummaged everywhere and finally found us and threw us into an empty store off Weissman's wall near the church. They squeezed many others into the same space. We were there for three days with no bread, without a drop of water, with no fresh air. We prayed for death and envied those whose agony was behind them. On the fourth day we were transported to a mass grave. We were forced to undress and lie down on the rows of corpses of those who had preceded us and not been covered. I lay near my sister Hene. I was half-dead, indifferent to all, but thirsty for death which took too long to arrive. Suddenly my sister Hene raised herself and with a force unlike her own, cried out: Whom do you want to kill? A Catholic Polish woman lies here. There has been a mistake. Why does she deserve to die?
The murderers answered her outburst with drunken laughter: Well then, out with the Polska, we'll attend to you separately.
I remained where I was. I did not want to crawl out, but Hene, with her last remnant of energy, pushed me out of the grave. Soon I heard a resounding volley. After that I saw and heard nothing. They revived me and handed me a dress to put on. I answered questions mechanically. Who was my husband and where did I live? How long all this took I don't remember; I lost all sense of time and place. When my husband came running with our child in his arms I looked at them with indifference and resignation as though they were strangers.
Since then years have gone by. I live, I eat and drink. But I have lost all joy in life. I have lost the human smile . I have lost my belief .
The two selections I have chosen and which I give both in their original Yiddish and in English translation, struck me in particular. It is overwhelming to consider that the memorial literature of the Shoa, a large proportion by untrained writers, is dense with such powerful narratives. We will never fathom the full horrors of the Shoa, but we can avoid a coldly statistical approach by listening to individual narrators relating their own experiences. Bashe's heart-rending story as perceived by Yoyl Perel (about whom, incidentally I as yet know nothing) documents the reverberations of a normal Polish-Jewish domestic tragedy under the extreme and unsupportable pressures of the Shoa.
The teller's description of the Ukrainian squatters as both fearful and insolent corroborates Jan T. Gross's view of Polish post-Holocaust antisemitism as a special case (see his recent Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz). The Jews are afraid of the gentiles who in turn are afraid of the Jews, afraid of losing Jewish property they have requisitioned. Post-war Lutsk is a wasteland. The somewhat literary teller thinks of Ecclesiastes, of Bialik's BeIr haHarega ('In the City of Slaughter'), of broken glass reflecting the sun with total indifference. But the physical wasteland of Judenrein Lutsk is less terrifying than the battered soul of Bashe, who was once a charming young girl with long pigtails and played guitar and mandolin.
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