Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.
Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided for her father’s livelihood as a boat-maker. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it).
Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle; they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, but they were able to communicate. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.
Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernard, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.
The Silberfarbs made a loving home. Their house consisted of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large one room apartment next door that they rented out. A lush, colorful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill and Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.
Paula was lovingly cared for by her mother and father. Lea was the primary caregiver, providing guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather at the riverside to watch it launch. It was a community event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business.
Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.
Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.
Paula played with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw it further. She also especially liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula was particularly fond of one neighbor friend, Chaya. Once Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one which she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even 60 years after the fact.
In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.
In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch only to have the Germans shoot them in the back, causing everyone to fall in, one on top of another. The father and son fell just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Nazis left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran.
The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but she was shielded from it.
It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made all the difference.