A Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.

 

 

 

More to Come

I got derailed this week. Between two work assignments that demanded a great deal of time and the Judiciary Committee hearing this past Thursday, I had no opportunity to write. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Thursday, the day I could have spent writing, was instead spent in a rage. I am fortunate that I have not been the victim of a sexual assault, but listening to the testimony (and I didn’t listen to all of it in an effort to protect my own mental health), I was flooded with profound sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety about our country’s future and loss. I will likely need to spend some time processing and writing about this sad episode in our history.

In the meantime, I do have more to tell about the Bakst story, including a piece written by one of David and Paula’s granddaughters about a journey she took that was spurred by a photograph David shared with her. I  also plan to provide a summing up of what happened to everyone. Finally, I want to explore the threads of their story that reach through time and connect to me, my family and our collective history.

So, please stay tuned. I appreciate that so many have been taking the journey with me.

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

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Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.

 

 

New Beginnings

The Silberfarbs left Ranshofen, since it was closing, in 1948. They went to another nearby DP camp. Lea, based on Bernie and Sofia’s wish to go to Israel, was trying to make arrangements, but was not yet successful. She was also corresponding with her husband’s family in Cuba. Two of Samuel’s sisters, Busha and Mary, had settled in Havana with their respective husbands, Nachum and Solomon, before World War II.

Lea wrote to Busha and Nachum, explaining her predicament. The children wanted to go to Israel but she was unable to secure passage. Nachum, in response, wrote a heartfelt letter offering to sponsor them in coming to Cuba. He reminded Lea how difficult life would be in Israel, as a widowed mother without family to help. He suggested that they try life in Cuba, if in a year they didn’t like it, he would arrange immigration to Israel. He made the point that it would likely be easier at that point to immigrate, as post-war tensions eased, and the newly created State of Israel got on its feet. The Silberfarbs were touched by Nachum’s letter and generosity, and swayed by the soundness of his argument. They agreed to go to Havana.

During the conversations about their plans, Paula kept silent. In her heart, she wanted to go to Cuba, thinking it was her chance to see David again. But, she didn’t think it was fair to try and influence the family decision based on her burgeoning romance. She was beyond delighted when things fell into place.

Meanwhile, the Silberfarbs bided their time at the DP camp. Paula was back in school. She was grateful for the opportunity. She particularly liked math. A fellow survivor, a man who was an engineer by training, taught arithmetic and geometry. He was a volunteer at the makeshift school. He may not have known much about teaching, but that didn’t trouble Paula. She loved the precision and logic of the subject and took to it naturally. In addition to the academics, Paula took sewing. An organization, ORT, set up vocational training opportunities in the DP camps. Paula took full advantage.

The Silberfarbs were slated to sail to Cuba from France. They left the DP camp only to find that the ship wasn’t there. With the assistance of another organization, HIAS, which helped with paperwork, and with additional funds from Uncle Nachum, the Silberfarbs flew from Paris to Havana. Flying was unheard of among the survivors! It was another act of generosity by Nachum.

They arrived in Havana to a warm welcome. Paula’s aunts and uncles had set up a furnished apartment for them. Paula began working, first in Uncle Solomon’s store and then in Uncle Nachum’s. She liked the responsibility of work, completing her tasks to the best of her ability, and she treated the stores as if they were her own. She felt a loyalty to her uncles who continued to be so supportive of her and her mother and siblings. They settled into life in Havana, picking up another language, Spanish, along the way.

Paula resumed her correspondence with David, now that they were both settled. David was in a rooming house in Brooklyn near his Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose, and had a job at their pickle company. They agreed he would come for a visit. He saved his money and he went to Cuba in November of 1949 to see if they might have a future together.

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During David’s visit to Havana in 1949: L-R Paula, David and Uncle Nachum

One More Loss

The DP camps weren’t designed to stay open indefinitely. Ranshofen was slated to close. The Silberfarbs and Baksts were making plans for the next step. Batya and Fishel left for Italy. David said his good-bye to Paula, telling her that if her family went to Cuba, he would see her again. If they went to Israel, he wasn’t so sure.  Berl and David left for another DP camp, Hofgeismar, in the American zone in Germany. From there, they hoped to go to the United States. Berl’s brother in New York offered to sponsor them.

At some point during the war, Berl developed a hernia. He was eager to get it repaired before the journey to America. He wanted to arrive in the New World strong and fit. David didn’t understand the rush, he wanted his father to wait until they got to the United States to have the surgery. Adding to David’s anxiety was the fact that he didn’t trust the German doctors. Berl could not be dissuaded. He wanted to go forward, and the surgery was scheduled to take place at the hospital in Hofgeismar.

The details of what followed are unclear. Berl made it through the surgery, but he had complications. Tragically, he died of those complications. David was devastated. After all they had both been through, they were finally on the cusp of a new life. He already lost his mother, brother and little sister. His other sister was enroute to Israel. He was alone to deal with this latest unexpected tragedy. He didn’t have Paula for comfort.  Paula and her family were still in Ranshofen, Austria. David made the funeral arrangements.

Berl was buried in a Jewish cemetery in the town of Hofgesimar. David observed shiva and mourned his loss alone.

David was at his lowest point. He didn’t know if he had the strength to go on. What was the point, he wondered? Why had he survived all that he gone through only to have this happen? He hadn’t received his visa yet and he wondered if he ever would. He wrote to Paula and shared his heartbreaking news. He waited and waited to hear back. She didn’t know what to say, how to offer comfort. She didn’t write. He never felt so alone

One night in the midst of his sorrow, he had a dream. His mother came to him. She reassured him, “You will be all right.” In the dream, she gave him a letter. It was postmarked the 8th. He awoke feeling hopeful for the first time in months. Even though it was a dream, he felt his mother’s presence. Throughout the war, during challenging and frightening times, he felt that his mother was protecting him. He felt she continued to look out for him.

On December 8th, 1948, he received a letter containing his visa. David sailed for the United States in January of 1949.

Paula’s Journey: The War Years

Note: First, today, September 3, 2018, is Paula and David’s 68th wedding anniversary. Theirs has been an extraordinary journey and I hope today’s post does justice to part of it. I wish them the happiest of days together and I thank them for all that they have given us.

One of the difficulties inherent in working from Paula’s recorded oral testimony is deciphering the names of people and places since they are either Yiddish or Polish. I have done my best to present the correct names and locations, but acknowledge that it is unlikely that I have captured all of it accurately. If any family members have information to share, please do! I don’t believe those potential inaccuracies change the meaning of the events described.

This week I pick up Paula’s narrative after a father and son came to Serniki with the terrible story of the mass murder of Jews in a town to the west.

After the two men shared their story, the atmosphere in Serniki changed, even if many didn’t believe the details. The townspeople knew the Germans were on their way. The Russians retreated, leaving a power vacuum. While some may have been hopeful that the Germans would represent an improvement over the Communists in terms of business climate, there was trepidation and uncertainty about what the future held.

Many Jews decided to hide their valuables, believing that they were vulnerable not only when the Germans invaded, but at the hands of their Gentile neighbors.  Some Gentiles took advantage of the power vacuum and appointed themselves police and meted out justice as they saw fit. Jewish homes were robbed, violence against Jews was perpetrated without consequence.

It was July of 1941 and the atmosphere in Serniki was getting more tense by the day. The Silberfarbs took their valuables to a farmer, who did business with Samuel, for safekeeping. The whole family went to the farmer and they were thinking of continuing on to leave town permanently. Before they could do that, they received word that Gershon (Paula’s paternal grandfather) had been murdered. They went back to Serniki to bury him.

A man named Danilo Polohowicz (Paula didn’t spell the name, so this was my best attempt to decipher it) was identified as the murderer. According to what the family heard, Danilo simply shot Gershon as he stood in his backyard garden in broad daylight. There were witnesses. Danilo wasn’t arrested or prosecuted for the crime.

Note: In doing research about Serniki, I found information about the trial of a war criminal in Australia. A man named Ivan Polyukhovich, who was from Serniki and was alleged to have participated in the mass murder of Jews there, had resettled after the war in Adelaide, Australia. He was tried for war crimes there in 1990. The last name seemed similar to the one Paula identified. Ivan Polyukhovich had 6 siblings. Perhaps, one of those siblings was responsible for the murder of Gershon Silberfarb, but this is conjecture on my part. Ivan was acquitted in 1990 of the war crimes because of lack of evidence and lack of eyewitness testimony.

The Silberfarbs were now back in Serniki to arrange the funeral and sit shiva for Gershon.  The Germans had still not arrived, but with the knowledge that they were on their way, and with the Gentile townspeople turning on their Jewish neighbors, it was a dangerous and tense time.

Samuel went to his father’s house to oversee the funeral arrangements and ended up staying there to rest. Lea and the children went back to their house, but instead of staying in the main house, they spent the night in the apartment next door. Lea thought, given the atmosphere in town, that the house would have been a more likely target of robbers. In fact, the house was robbed that night. The four Silberfarbs, Lea and her three children, huddled under the bed in the apartment, listening to the sounds of people breaking in next door. The next day they found the house in disarray, with the floorboards lifted. Apparently, the thieves were looking for hidden valuables.

The next day a German soldier on horseback came through the streets shouting, “Every Jew to the market!” Lea knew what that meant. She had no intention of taking her children to the market. Samuel still wasn’t home with them – as far as they knew he was still at his father’s house (or his Aunt Fanny’s house nearby), both houses were near the market, or he may have already been killed. Lea decided to try to escape with the children. She didn’t know what happened to Samuel, but she didn’t think she could do anything to help him so she turned her attention to saving her children.

They ran out their backyard through fields, across roads, towards the Stubla River. Bernie abruptly stopped, before they got to the river. Lea had initially persuaded him to come, despite his reluctance to leave without his father. Now Bernie was unwilling to go any further – he said he wouldn’t leave without Daddy. Lea couldn’t convince him. Bernie turned back and went to the market. Lea felt she had no choice but to continue. She took the girls to the farmer who hid their belongings. When they got to his house, he covered them with hay and told them to wait. He went to town to investigate.

The farmer came back and reported that the Germans kept the men to do work – to dig ditches. The streets of Sernicki flooded easily and in preparation for trucks and troops, they commanded the Jewish men of the town to dig drainage ditches. The women and children were sent home. The farmer told the Silberfarbs to go home, they would be safe. Instead of going home, though, they went to a cousin’s house. This cousin’s house was situated closer to the Stubla and offered a better route of escape (from their own house they had to go through Gentile parts of town to get to the river). By this time, it was dark out. They were relieved to see a light was on in their cousin’s house– if the house was dark, Lea was prepared to hide under the bridge by the river. They were doubly relieved to find that Bernie was also there. He had gone to the market, but since he was under 14 years of age, too young to be put to work, he was sent home. He, too, decided to go to the cousin’s house. Bernie reported that he hadn’t seen his father.

The next day, Lea went to the market alone to see if she could find Samuel. Instead she saw her nephew on a work detail. While she was near the market a Gentile townsperson gave Lea a message from her husband, “Say kaddish for me.” [Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.] Lea couldn’t allow herself to panic or be distracted. She went back to the cousin’s house and thought about what to do next.

That afternoon they heard machine gun fire. Later they heard what happened to Samuel. He was hiding in the garden of his Aunt Fanny’s house with his uncle, Avrumchik. They discussed escaping. Avrumchik agreed to run to the river first because he wasn’t married and he had no children. If there was no gunfire, Samuel would follow. There was gunfire, but unbeknownst to Samuel, Avrumchik wasn’t injured. Samuel stayed put. The German soldiers, combing the town for Jews, eventually found him in the garden and shot him.

That day 120 men, the town’s Jewish leaders, and one woman were executed. The Germans did not liquidate Serniki at that point. They created a ghetto for the remaining Jews. Families doubled up in houses located on just a few streets. The Silberfarbs lived in the ghetto with another family for a year. Uncle Avrumchik looked after them.

While living in the ghetto, Paula learned to knit and crochet (which turned out to be valuable skills). Fortunately, they had books – Paula remembered sitting by the window reading by the moonlight reflecting off the snow. Food was scarce – mother would make a soup with a few potatoes, mostly water. They were barely getting by and, in fact, Lea’s mother passed away while they were in the ghetto.

Lea knew that they would not be permitted to stay in the ghetto indefinitely. The Silberfarbs snuck out and went again to the cousin’s house closer to the river. Across the Stubla there was a small group of wealthier homes (some Jews lived there – Paula thought perhaps they were allowed to stay by paying bribes). Those homes provided an even better opportunity for escape. The Silberfarbs had a relative in one of those homes – they decided to try to get there. Though there was a guard at the bridge, they studied his routine and Bernie and an Aunt and Uncle managed to sneak across. Lea and the girls planned to go the next day. During that time, there was a call for Jews to re-register. Lea understood what this meant and told her children “We are not going! We will not go back to town.” Uncle Avrumchik did go back to investigate (they never saw him again). That night Lea couldn’t sleep. She sat in the window looking out. She saw headlights coming across the bridge– she understood that this meant that more of the German army was arriving. Lea woke everyone in the house (more than just the Silberfarbs were there) – they went out the back and fled across the river and into the woods. They dispersed in different directions, though Lea, Paula and Sofia stayed together. The next day they heard the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire coming from town.

Lea thought of a man that Samuel used to do business with – they would try to make their way to him. His name was Dmitrov Lacunyetz (??).  They made it to him – he cried like a baby when he saw them and heard what happened to Samuel. Bernie, and the aunt and uncle had already arrived at Dmitrov’s farm. Dmitrov brought them to a forested area on his property to hide. He kept them there for 16 weeks, during which time the Serniki ghetto was liquidated. 850 Jews were murdered.

Dmitrov brought them food once a day. After a while, he sent his son-in-law to deliver the supplies. In order to avoid bringing suspicion upon themselves, they varied the routine. The son-in-law, now that it was getting colder, built them a little hut out of young birch trees. There were 8 of them in hiding. They had two spoons. Two people at a time would eat from the kettle that was brought to them. There would be some arguing over the food – “Don’t eat so much! Leave for the others!” It was usually a soup with millet (a grain used frequently in the region). At one point, Bernie was so hungry he couldn’t take it anymore – he went begging. He had some success and brought back and shared whatever he was given. On his rounds, he was asked “Are you Gypsy or Jew?” He said, “Gypsy.”

There was a Partisan brigade in the area that was in touch with the Russian government. Though they weren’t part of the brigade, Lea felt they were safer when they were near the Partisans. Throughout the war, she moved her family according to where Partisans were active. This particular brigade was made up of Jews, Russians and other Gentiles. Unfortunately, there was an incident involving a farmer where, in a dispute over a cow, the Partisans killed the farmer’s son. The farmer vowed to call the Germans. The area became unsafe. It was now the end of 1942. The Silberfarbs had to move on.

They met up with another group of Jewish people in the forest who knew where there were other Partisans. The group stayed hidden in the woods as they traveled. Lea would venture out and  knock on doors at night to beg for food – many gave; others didn’t. One night a dog caught her by the foot and the wound became infected. According to Paula, Lea boiled young pinecones and used the water to disinfect the wound.

People in the woods would scatter when it became unsafe. At one point, while Leah was hobbled by her foot injury, Bernie left them, he was angry at his mother’s perceived weakness, and went ahead. After a while, he came back – he couldn’t leave his mother and sisters. Eventually Lea’s wound healed.

Another farmer took them to a hut. Lea sewed for that farmer and they provided food in return. They stayed for about 6 weeks. During this period of relative stability, Paula noticed the beauty of the green forest that surrounded them. To Paula the woods came to represent safety.

At the end of the 6 weeks, the farmer told them where there was a Jewish encampment and they started in that direction. But then they heard shooting, so they changed direction. Apparently the Partisans there got overconfident, got drunk and another group came (Crimeans?) and attacked them. Jews and Partisans were killed. Fortunately, the Silberfarbs weren’t among them.

Again in the forest, a man on a horse, Natan Bobrov, who was from Serniki, found them. He told them that more Jewish Partisans were in Lasitsk, a town north and east of where they were at that point. They made their way there.

During all of this, Lea fed her children positive thoughts. “The war will finish,” she reassured them. She reminded them, “We have family in Brazil and Cuba.” She kept their spirits up as best she could. She was always thinking a step ahead, of ways to escape. “We had hope,” explained Paula. They huddled together for warmth and kept going.

They came to another house where they were allowed to stay. Paula was asked to crochet a huge scarf with scalloped edges– she didn’t actually know how to make it, but she figured it out. Paula stayed in the house, she knit or crocheted all day, making gloves and socks to support the Partisans. Lea, Bernie and Sofia stayed in the barn. The Silberfarbs helped with farm chores. The family’s son was also in the Partisans. The whole town supported the resistance. Lea and the children stayed the winter. If company came to visit the family, Paula went to the barn.

At this point, the Russians began to turn the tide of the war. The Silberfarbs were about 100 kilometers from Serniki when the area was liberated from the Germans, but the war was not yet over. They came upon the Russian army who shared canned goods and chocolates. “It was such a simcha (celebration)!” Paula exclaimed. They were in a bigger town, and though the bombing continued, they felt safer being with the army.

Sofia got typhus while they were in that town. Eventually Lea thought it was serious enough that she brought Sofia to the Russian infirmary. Sofia was cared for there. Each child, in turn, came down with typhus. Paula was admitted to the infirmary, as well. Bernie didn’t trust the doctors, and despite his illness, refused to go. He went so far as to jump out a window to avoid his mother’s efforts to get him to come with her. Lea worked in the infirmary, cleaning, emptying bedpans in return for the care of her children. After the children recovered, the army brought them to Pinsk. They sat on top of barrels of kerosene on the back of a truck for the ride.

When they got to Pinsk they shared a house with another family. Lea baked and sold bread to try and bring in some needed money, even though doing so was illegal under the Communist system. She was questioned by the NKVD, the secret police, numerous times.

One day at the market, as she was selling bread, Dmitrov Lacunyetz, the farmer who first hid the Silberfarbs, saw her. Neither of them could believe their eyes. They embraced, it was a tearful reunion. “Now I can die in peace,” he said. Throughout the war he wondered if he had really helped them. Lea shared some yeast and salt with him as a gesture of appreciation, though it was little compared to what he had done for them. He had risked his life.

Striving for normalcy, Paula started to go to school. The war finally ended in May of 1945 while the family was in Pinsk.

The Silberfarbs knew they couldn’t go back to Serniki. They wanted to go to Israel even though they had family in Brazil and Cuba. They wanted to be among Jews. Lea weighed their options. The first step was to go to a displaced persons camp, which was where transit arrangements could be made.

 

Next week: The Silberfarbs arrive at the DP camp and meet the Baksts and plan to emigrate.

 

 

Paula’s Journey Begins

Note: Much of the information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children and grandchildren (myself included), went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project, following the making of Schindler’s List. Paula and David were interviewed separately. Although Paula’s dementia has made it impossible to ask her questions now, we are fortunate to have her story recorded.

Paula’s journey to Ranshofen was quite different than David’s, but harrowing nonetheless.

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The red dot is Serniki (Sernyky), Ukraine, very close to the Belarus border. Paula’s home town was (and still is) too small to merit a label.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is the Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided her father’s livelihood. 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). They lived an insulated life.

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle, and they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, though they were able to communicate with each other. 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, Bernie, 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.

Paula described herself as coming from a nice, loving home. Their house was made up 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 apartment next door –  one room divided by a curtain – that they rented out. A beautiful 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. Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula felt cared for by her mother and father. Her mother, Lea, was the primary caregiver, she provided 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 River. 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 to watch it launch. It was an 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. (Gary is named in memory of Paula’s paternal grandfather, Gershon).

Gershon 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; his wife, Paula’s grandmother, died when Paula was two. Paula described Gershon as having an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. She characterized her family as middle class, while her paternal grandfather may have been wealthier. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki. The various locations of their homes became relevant when the Nazis invaded.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one Orthodox synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family went Saturday morning to shul. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs, looking down at the men 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, similar to the routine in David’s town. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula recalls playing with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw one further. She also particularly liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula had fond memories of one neighbor friend, Chaya. One time Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one, and 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 as a youngster and even 60 years after the fact.

Though she remembers being frightened of the Russians, Paula was eight when they invaded, 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 in her life was school. 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 Russians came. 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 the 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 and then the  Germans shot them in the back causing everyone to fall into the ditch. The father and son fell in just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Germans had 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 – she thought it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but as a child she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made a difference.

 

[Next week: Paula’s journey continues]