A Return to Iwie

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To give some perspective: some of the places that were part of David’s journey. Iwie (Iuje) and Lida are on the far right of the map, part of Belarus today.

As is becoming my custom, I will begin by clarifying a portion of last week’s narrative. The Germans employed a strategy of kidnapping enemy soldiers to gather intelligence. The incident in the trench began as a kidnapping attempt, not with artillery shelling, as I described previously. It was nearing daybreak when two German soldiers infiltrated the trench, attempting to forcibly take two Soviet soldiers hostage. Most of David’s regiment had been asleep. Shooting broke out when the enemy soldiers were discovered and panic ensued. With soldiers running, David was confronted by a commanding officer, as I recounted in the last blog post. The rest of the story proceeded as described. David returned to the fighting, threw his grenade, killing the two German soldiers and wounding two Soviet soldiers. He was surprised to be recognized as a hero the following day and was rewarded with a furlough to visit his remaining family.

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David traveled by train to Lida, where his father and sister were then living, a railway stop about 40 kilometers west of his hometown. Although the Soviets had regained control of the region, Berl and Batya did not go back to Iwie. Much of the town had been destroyed and everything had changed. When David arrived in Lida, he insisted that they go back to their home, he wanted to see it for himself. Berl tried to dissuade him, but David would not be deterred. Perhaps David thought he could reclaim his treasured youth, but whatever the reason, he convinced his father and sister to make the journey with him.

David recalls making their way to their beloved house and finding other people, Poles, living in it. The occupants told him it wasn’t his anymore, but David did manage to go in to look around. He saw the familiar furnishings rearranged in unfamiliar ways. When he spotted the bed that his mother and father had shared, he was overwhelmed with emotion. He ran out of the house, overcome by tears. Berl told David it was a mistake to come back. There was nothing for them in Iwie anymore.

To this day, though, David thinks nostalgically of that house. David mentioned his wish to see it again recently when we visited with him. I suggested, “Maybe the house isn’t there anymore. It was built in 1935, maybe it’s been replaced?” David thought for a minute, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. It was such a good house.” I knew better than to argue.

In an effort to satisfy David’s curiosity, I did some online research. I used Google Earth to try and locate the house. While I could find Iwie (Iuje, Belarus on Google Maps), only random photographs were available, rather than the street-level function I can ordinarily access. Belarus remains a relatively undeveloped and closed country. I did locate a hand-drawn map of Iwie from 1932, which featured Yiddish labels for street names and the legend. I printed it out. We brought it to David on our last visit. He took out a magnifying glass and studied it closely. Many minutes passed with David hunched over the map at the dining room table. After a long while, he triumphantly pointed out the location of his synagogue, his home and the shoe store. He only stopped studying it when his eyes grew too tired. I asked if he wanted to keep the map. “If you don’t mind, yes. I’m going to put it away,” he said, as he got up to bring it to the bedroom. “I don’t want Paula to misplace it.”

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The map I printed out, with my notes, based on what David said

Sadly, one of the consequences of Paula’s dementia is that she finds things and puts them away in surprising places, with, of course, no memory of having done so. Many a frustrating hour has been spent looking for misplaced things

Over the 35 years that I have been part of the family, David has mentioned the possibility of going back to Iwie many times. Before age and infirmity took their toll, I think David seriously considered it. But, Paula, who was never an enthusiastic traveler, she has always been a homebody, was resolute in her refusal to go. She had no use for Europe. I remember her asking rhetorically, “Why would I want to go back there? There’s nothing for us there.” David wouldn’t go without her. It is no longer an option.

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David, Berl and Batya returned to Lida after their painful experience at the house. It was time for David to return to duty. Berl gave him some supplies, including canned meat, for his journey.

David went back to where his regiment was stationed when he left on furlough. When he reported for service, he found that his platoon had been redeployed elsewhere, replaced by another regiment. He was viewed suspiciously by the commanding officers who were unknown to him. To add to the surprise of a single soldier showing up, the supplies his father had given him were German rations that had been left behind when they retreated. As a result, the officers, who were unfamiliar with David, suspected he might be a spy. He was interrogated for days. After a tense and unsettling week, they were finally able to authenticate his story and he was permitted to join the new regiment. He again went back to carrying communication equipment and laying wire in the new unit.

David remembers marching 40 grueling kilometers a day, marching almost the equivalent of a marathon every day. It was a brutal existence, enduring pouring rain, soaking his wool overcoat so that it weighed heavily on his shoulders.

The regiment approached the German border. They were near Danzig (now Gdansk), which sat on the coast of the Baltic Sea. His unit was taking some rest, sitting below huge, majestic trees. David and two other soldiers were leaning against the wide trunk of the tree. Their break was coming to an end, David got up to get his rifle from the other side of the tree.  Suddenly shelling began. The Germans were firing from ships in the harbor. A blast exploded right next to David’s head, knocking him out. He came to with his ears ringing and with the right side of his face paralyzed. The two soldiers who had been sitting right next to him lay dead, the shell landed exactly where he had been sitting moments before. He was stunned. David wondered how many times he could escape death.

He was examined by a doctor. He was concussed, but the doctor said he would recover. He was told to eat, drink and rest. David did as he was told. He went into a barn, found a bucket of eggs and ate every last one of them. Eventually his hearing and muscle tone returned. He attributes the slight downward curve of his lips on one side of his face to the incident, but otherwise he bears no visible scars. He returned to duty yet again.

I noted in this blog post that I have been part of the Bakst family for 35 years. Today, July 30th, is our wedding anniversary. I am so grateful to be sharing my life with Gary, and proud to be part of this enduring legacy. Happy anniversary, Gary! I hope we get to celebrate another 35!

 

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July 30, 1983 (L-R: Paula, Gary, me and David)

Next week will cover the end of the war and the immediate aftermath.

More Miracles: David in the Soviet Army

Last week’s blog post began by explaining more about the communist takeover of Iwie and then the early part of World War II when the Germans invaded David’s town. It also recounted David’s involvement with the partisans. I misplaced one element of the story. It is important  that I get this telling as accurate as possible. As I explained previously, these stories have been told in drips and drabs over the course of many years. It wasn’t told as a chronological narrative. In addition, as Gary and I continue to have conversations with David, new details emerge. It is a race against time, David is 95, to document the family history. It is a responsibility Gary and I are sharing.

For example, David recently revealed that when they lived in the ghetto, they attempted to create some kind of normalcy. They conducted Sabbath services. His aunt, his mother’s sister, got married there. Those details give a fuller picture of the experience. I want to share those pieces, even though I already covered that part of David’s story. This is a ‘living’ process, so to speak. I hope my telling it in this way, doesn’t detract from the narrative.

Now, back to the events that I misplaced in last week’s blog entry. When the Bakst family escaped to the woods, when first Berl and then David carried young Gussie through the snow drifts, I wrote that they were not able to connect with the partisans. Actually, David’s younger brother, Eliahu (they called him Ellie), joined the Bielskis at that time (I mistakenly thought he went back to the ghetto with the rest of the family and joined later when David and Berl joined Iskra).

The Bielskis were a just-forming Jewish partisan brigade. Lead by two brothers, the mission of the Bielskis was to save as many Jews as possible. Their members swelled to about 1200 by the end of the war in 1945. They set up a community deep in the Naliboki forest. They carried out other missions, as well, including sabotaging German rail lines. Ellie, who was 14 when the Soviets came to Iwie, would have been 17 at the time. He participated in those activities. Ellie and another partisan were on a mission to get supplies from a farm when they were surrounded by German troops. They tried to shoot their way out. Ellie was killed on January 5, 1943 as he tried to escape. (Our son, Daniel’s Hebrew name is Eliahu in memory of David’s brother.)

The remaining Bakst family, now just Berl, David and Batya, soldiered on in spite of the mounting and unrelenting losses.

Now I will return to the thread of David’s story. He and Berl, and the recently rescued Batya, continued their activities with Iskra. Iskra was a Russian partisan brigade that was initially resistant to accepting Jewish members. Antisemitism wasn’t the sole province of the Germans, unfortunately hatred of Jews was shared by many in Eastern Europe. A fellow Iwie resident, Motke Ginsburg, had previously joined Iskra and proved to be a valuable asset. He vouched for Berl and David. Over time they were accepted.

The efforts of Iskra and other partisan units were coordinated to some extent with the Russian army. Intelligence was shared. Slowly, with the sacrifice of many Russian lives, the tide of the war turned. The German army was repelled and fell back from eastern Poland. The Soviet army came to Iwie. This time the Soviets, due to Berl and David’s partisan efforts, greeted them as heros, not undesirable capitalists.

David, now 19, was conscripted into the Soviet army. Another difficult chapter of his war time experience began. He left his remaining family and was assigned to a regiment. The Soviet army was an inhospitable place for Jews. David, with his strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, and unaccented Russian language skills, didn’t share his semitic origins. As a quick, intelligent and strong young man, David was assigned a role as a communications officer. He carried equipment and laid communication wire near the front.

On one occasion, David’s regiment was hunkered down in a foxhole when they started receiving shelling and artillery fire. The foxhole was actually a series of connected trenches. Panic erupted with soldiers running trying to escape. David was last in a line of soldiers, running away from the onslaught. He was confronted by an officer, who asked, “You, too, David?” The officer was disappointed that David was retreating along with others in his platoon. In the Russian army if you were caught retreating you risked being shot by higher ranking officers. Knowing this, David stopped and turned back. He had no weapon other than a grenade, having left his rifle in the scramble to escape. He ran back into the fray and threw the grenade, killing several German soldiers and wounding one Russian. David survived.

The skirmish ended and David’s regiment regrouped the next day. The captain of the unit called David out during roll call. David feared that he was facing punishment, he had no idea why he was being singled out. To his great surprise and relief, he was heralded as a hero. The commanding officer asked him what he would like as a reward. He asked for a furlough to visit his father. His request was granted. David journeyed back east across Poland to Lida, where his father and Batya were living.

[The story will continue next week with David’s return to Iwie and his continued service in the Soviet army.]

A Miracle: Part II of David’s Story

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Berl Bakst, David’s father

When Gary and I got together a process of melding two very different Jewish-American families began. My parents were American-born (even my grandmothers had been born in this country); my Mom and Dad had master’s degrees; and, we weren’t religiously observant. Gary’s parents were European-born; formal education was abruptly stopped by the war; and, they went to synagogue every Sabbath, and kept a kosher home. It was this last piece, being observant Jews, that was initially most perplexing to me. Until I attended services with Paula and David, and until I understood the source of David’s faith, I couldn’t relate to keeping all the rules and regulations that Judaism requires. Turns out my father-in-law believes in miracles. It took a while for me to understand that.

I left off last week with the Russian invasion of Iwie. David and his family had been enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life until the Communist takeover. Not only did his father lose ownership of his home and business, but Berl was taken for questioning by the KGB repeatedly. He was subjected to interrogation nightly for weeks, with the family worried that he would be whisked off to Siberia, never to be seen again. People disappeared and rumors about being sent to the gulag pervaded the air in Iwie. Fortunately, after each interrogation Berl returned home.

As a result of being labeled ‘capitalists,’ David was shunned by friends. His fortunes, and that of his family, changed on a dime. Now they were almost destitute. Berl barely managed to provide, it was quite a fall in status. Berl’s business, which was comprised of a leather factory and shoe store, was still operating, but under Russian supervision.

Things went from bad to worse over the next few years. The Germans invaded as part of their plan to take Russia.  Jews from surrounding towns and villages were rounded up and sent to Iwie. A ghetto was created. The Bakst family lived in the ghetto, but were allowed to leave to work at the shoe factory. This gave Berl and David access to information and other townspeople. They heard rumors of ‘actions,’ actions were when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them, or deport them on trains to concentration camps.

Upon hearing rumors of an impending ‘action,’ Berl, Rachel, David, Eli, Batya and Gussie (David’s sisters were born in 1927 and 1932) escaped to the woods. They tried to hook up with partisans (fighting groups that lived in the forests surrounding Iwie – and other forests in Poland). David remembered walking through thigh high snow in the bitter cold. His little sister, Gussie, was carried by Berl until the point of exhaustion when David took over. They weren’t successful in connecting with a partisan brigade. It was winter and they feared freezing to death. The Bakst family made rendezvous plans at a spot in the woods in case they got separated and had to run again in the future. They went back to the ghetto.

That first ‘action’ resulted in the killing of the leadership and intellectuals of the Jewish community in Iwie, others were spared, for the time being.

The adult Baksts continued working at the factory. Berl arranged for his wife and Gussie to be hidden in a farmer’s barn about ten miles outside of Iwie, thinking they would be safer there. They, along with about 10 other Jews, including David’s cousins, were crowded into a space under the barn floor. Food and supplies were brought to them.

At some point, perhaps because a collaborator reported them, or because the Germans saw unusual movements around that barn, they came to investigate. Normally the barn floor had hay strewn about. It was Spring and the floor was bare. A German soldier’s boot heel sunk into a hole in a floor board. A child underneath made a sound. The soldier tossed a grenade into the hole. One of David’s cousins tossed it back. Two cousins climbed out to fight and were shot immediately. The Germans continued to shoot as they set fire to the barn. The remaining people, including David’s mother and sister, were burned alive.

The farmer, who himself was now on the run, got word to Berl about the fate of his family.  No miracles saved Rachel and Gussie, but the remaining Baksts continued on. They still worked in the factory, but as the war dragged on and German fortunes were fading, their lives became more precarious. They wondered how long the leather/shoe factory would be continued. Berl would have David go across the street to the Polish shoe store to visit and try to gather information.

One day German soldiers came to the factory while David was at the store across the way. David saw the soldiers. The Polish storekeeper gave David an overcoat so that his yellow star would be covered. David put the coat on and ran out the back. Two soldiers saw him and gave chase, shooting at him. David remembers zig zagging down the alley, rolling and getting up, darting back and forth to escape. Gunshots sprayed around him, but none hit their target. He got away and went to the rendezvous spot.

Berl and Eli also escaped the factory that day. Eventually they showed up at the rendezvous spot to meet David. Batya didn’t come. Berl wanted to go back to find her. He felt he couldn’t leave his daughter behind. David argued that Berl couldn’t leave them either. In an emotional exchange that still pains David, he convinced his father to stay with them.

This time in the woods, they were able to join partisan brigades. David and Berl joined Iskra, a Russian regiment. Eli joined the Bielskis (a Jewish regiment, whose story was told in the movie Defiance).

David was a fighter in the regiment and Berl supported the group by repairing shoes and working with leather. David recalls various missions including sabotaging a German military caravan where they were able to capture weapons and ammunition.

Iskra also took measures against collaborators. When they became aware of Polish families who were cooperating with the Germans, they wanted to send a message that there would be consequences. The partisan brigade took vengeance on those villagers, and captured any food, weapons or other material that would be useful. At this point, David described himself as living like an animal –  there was no right or wrong, there was only survival and he did what he had to do.

While they were with Iskra, Berl and David got word that Batya was alive. She was in a camp outside Lida, which was about 40 kilometers away. With the assistance of the other members of the brigade, they came up with a rescue plan. Using coded messages, they managed to communicate with Batya.

Batya had a routine which involved crossing the camp to bring food to the German soldiers. This was done at the same time each day. One of the partisans, a Pole, intercepted Batya, ripped the yellow star from her clothing and covered her with his overcoat. Somehow, they walked out of the camp without being detected.

Batya joined David and Berl and became part of the Iskra brigade. To have his sister back was a miracle to David. That the rescue plan worked was unbelievable. David still gives thanks for it.

He would need more miracles to continue to survive.

Part of the Story

I try to imagine how it would feel, but it just isn’t possible. I can’t put myself in his shoes. It is important to try, though. The more I learn, the more astonishing his story is.

We were sitting in a luncheonette in Saugerties, Gary, David, my father-in-law, and Paula, my mother-in-law, as part of an ordinary Thursday afternoon visit. We lingered while Paula painstakingly ate her cream cheese on bagel. The rest of us had long since finished our lunches. But, I felt no impatience. David was telling us about his childhood. David grew up in the vanished world of the shtetl, in a town called Iwie (pronounced Eve-ya), in what was then Poland (today it is Belarus, and the spelling of the town varies).

“It was a beautiful youth,” David explained. Almost like the scene from My Cousin Vinny, I ask, “Beautiful what?” David repeats the word, then asks, “That’s the word, right? Youth?” All these years later, he still questions his English. “You said it perfectly, I just didn’t hear you,” I replied with a smile.

I hadn’t given much thought to what shtetl life meant to them. We have had many conversations over the years, but it mostly covered things like: Did you have running water in the house? (No) Did you have electricity? (yes for David, no for Paula). Those kinds of things are interesting tidbits, but don’t paint a picture of their lives. This conversation offered more insight, perhaps because Gary asked, “Did your father think about leaving for the United States earlier?”

David’s parents, Berl and Rachel, were comfortably established in Iwie. Berl’s brothers left for America in the 1920s. They appealed to Berl to come with them. He declined. His business, making and selling leather shoes, was growing. He was making a name for himself based on the quality of his product; he was becoming more and more successful. He was providing a good life for his growing family. David was born in 1922, another son, Eliahu, was born in 1925 and two daughters followed.

Perhaps as important, Rachel’s family lived in Iwie, too. Every Shabbos, after services, aunts, uncles and cousins, came to the Bakst (spelled Bakszt) home to visit. The adults schmoozed and talked politics, the children ran around outside. There was warmth and affection – there may have been arguments, too, but nothing serious. Berl was to the right politically of some of his family, a supporter of Jabotinsky, while others were more mainstream Zionists. They enjoyed the give and take.

David observed, “The family was close. Not like what I see in America. It is different here.” I said what he described sounded a lot like the family I grew up in (minus the observance of Shabbos) – with aunts, uncles and cousins coming in and out of my grandmother’s upstairs apartment. But, I had to agree, it probably wasn’t typical of American families.

Without saying it explicitly, the picture David painted made it clear why Berl didn’t leave in the 1920s. And, it would have been up to Berl, as the head of the household. David was in awe of his father. “I thought my father was the smartest man in the world,” he said, with pride all these years later.

David’s idyllic youth ended September 3, 1939 (he remembers the date), he hadn’t celebrated his 17thbirthday yet. After the Soviet Union and Germany signed the infamous Non-Agression Pact in August of that year, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east. The Russians took over Iwie.

A lieutenant and a captain in the Soviet army commandeered rooms in the Bakst house. Their shoe factory was confiscated by the state. Their passports were stamped ‘capitalist.’ Berl was permitted to work at the factory, but he could no longer claim ownership. They were persona non grata in the communist system.

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David, in the family shoe store, around 1939.

As bad as things were under the Russians, it got worse when Germany violated the Non-Aggression treaty and made their move to invade the Soviet Union. The German army invaded Iwie in June of 1941.

It was far too late to decide to emigrate to America, it became a question of survival for Berl and his family.

Note: I will continue the story in future blog posts. If family members have more information to add, please do. If I have gotten anything wrong, please correct me!

Life’s Little Ironies

Random ironies I’ve been thinking about:

The thing you most need to do when feeling lonely or depressed is the one thing that is hardest to do: call someone, reach out to another person. Taking that step requires more energy than I can muster in those moments.

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Money makes money; the more money you have, the more you can accumulate. The system is unfair and conspires against those who don’t have it. I was struck by this, in a small way, when I went to the bank to get certified checks (bank checks?) for our closing the other day. As a perk of being a ‘privileged’ customer, I didn’t have to pay for the checks. There was a woman being served by the teller next to me who didn’t have a checking account and needed to get a bank check. She was charged – I think it was $5.00 per check. There’s an irony there. The person who could afford it wasn’t charged, the person who could least afford it was. I know why the bank does that, from a business perspective it makes sense. From an ethical perspective, perhaps another model would be better for society. What if bank customers with the financial wherewithal paid more for their services so that people with less resources paid less? Is that blasphemy in our capitalist economy?

Another example – a person with great credit and solid savings gets a low rate on a loan to buy a house. That person pays less for their house and can continue to save and build their financial resources. Another person, with a less strong credit history and less savings, gets a higher interest rate on their loan. They pay more and are likely to continue to struggle to make ends meet. What would happen if the system was reversed?

I can’t imagine the system changing given the vested interests in keeping it the way it is. And some might think it is fair the way it is – they may believe that the rich have earned their perks. I’m not so sure.

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I think she was just trying to be helpful, but she wasn’t. A woman was explaining to me how she manages her diet. She limits her carb intake, loads up on fruits and vegetables, virtually eliminates fats and makes sure she gets her 10,000 steps daily. I was nodding along. She is rail thin, I am not. When new information comes out about diet and exercise, she incorporates it into her routine. I think she was sharing her approach in hopes that I would see the light. As if I didn’t know all of that stuff.

For some of us, eating is mostly about fueling our bodies. Gary is able to approach it that way. That’s not what eating is about for me. Hunger has little to do with it. It is about comfort, boredom, frustration, grief, and joy, too.

Maybe I’m being unfair in assuming that it is easy for the rail thin woman. Maybe she is working hard – actually, I’m sure she is. But, the discipline of regulating her eating comes more naturally. Perhaps it is another of life’s little ironies – those of us who most need to separate emotions from eating, have the hardest time doing it.

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I came across a post on Facebook, from Julian Lennon, though I don’t think he wrote it himself:

Life is so ironic, it takes sadness to know what happiness is

Noise to appreciate silence and

Absence to value presence.

 

It seemed to fit with the way I’ve been looking at things lately.