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