Lessons Learned

A visit with Paula and David in Florida

After spending the last few weeks going over Paula’s survival story, I am struck by so many things. From the mundane: I wonder if her enduring love of chocolate has anything to do with the comfort and pleasure it brought her when the Russian army shared the treats as the war was finally ending. She and her family must have felt some relief, there was light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Paula continues to crave chocolate and perhaps she finds comfort in it. Of course, she could simply like the taste.

I also think of the profound: how having her world turned upside down when she was just a child left her fearful for the rest of her life. She was able to take pleasure in life, she had loving relationships, but the cautiousness and the need to protect herself and those she loved was right at the surface. It was a huge price to pay as a child, an innocent.

I wonder how much of that reticence was who she was, even before the war. She described herself as an obedient child. She was likely shy before being thrust into the uncertainty and chaos that came with the Nazis. We will never know – she will never know – who she might have been, what she might have achieved. She was a smart girl with a sharp mind, good with numbers, a fast learner, quick to pick up languages. But she was growing up in a shtetl culture that didn’t encourage higher education for girls. I don’t know whether she felt that she hadn’t reached her potential or if she felt frustrated by her limited opportunities. Paula poured her energies into her family and they benefitted from that. I think her granddaughters feel an obligation to take up where she left off, to make the most of their opportunities and they have done just that. It is a blessing and a burden for them.

I can’t help but think of the many people, not just survivors of the Holocaust, but survivors of war crimes and oppression throughout history, who were and continue to be stifled. Not only is it a loss for that individual, but the world has been deprived. Paula and David were able to build constructive lives, so many others were not. Many were overcome by their sadness, their loss. We pay a huge price for humanity’s cruelty. Can’t we do better?

I think about the price she paid. About eight years ago we were visiting Paula and David in their condo in Florida. Paula was already on her Alzheimer’s journey, but she was still Paula. They didn’t need an aide yet. I sat at the kitchen table with her while Gary chatted with his Dad in the living room. Paula told me she was feeling troubled. I asked her what was on her mind.

“I keep wondering about my father,” she said.

Samuel had been killed by the Nazis more than 70 years before.

“What is it you are wondering about?”

She sighed, stirring her tea.

“I worry that he was buried alive,” she said.

I didn’t respond for a bit, taking it in, feeling so sad for her. Eventually I responded.

“I’m so sorry, Paula. That is an agonizing thought…but there is no reason to believe that’s what happened.” I said it almost as a question, wondering if she knew something she had not previously revealed. She mulled that over and shrugged.

I imagined her thinking about the story of the two men who came to Serniki, how they climbed out of the pit of corpses to escape. How could she not wonder?

“But what if he was alive?” she asked.

“We’ll never know…. I’m sorry.”

I knew I was out of my depth. I just wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.

“But,” I continued, “I know you have good memories of your father. Let’s think about that.” I asked her about the stories he told her when she was a child. She didn’t mention her fear again, but I don’t imagine the thought left her.

Though the war took an extraordinary toll, Paula did reap the benefit of unexpected helpers, starting with the assistance provided by a Pole, Dimitrov Lacunyitz. I think about those Poles who stepped forward and those who collaborated and what made the difference. What pushed a person to choose to be on the right side of history? Unfortunately, in Poland today, there is a right-wing government which seems intent on whitewashing their history. They are making it increasingly difficult to acknowledge that there were collaborators. The mass executions could not have happened without local assistance. At the same time, we need to acknowledge those who overcame their fear and did the right thing. The Silberfarbs would not have survived without them. It is a tension that we in America face, as well. The impulse to ignore or sweep under the rug the ugliness in our history is strong, but we do that at our own peril. We all need to reckon with our past. We can’t only celebrate the heroism because it denies the experience, the reality of those who were mistreated.

I think about the importance of family. The Silberfarbs depended on each other; Lea was a tower of strength.  There were times when there were tensions between them, but the bond was stronger. Their extended family offered support through the ordeal in Serniki, too. They regularly sought shelter with cousins during the unrest in town. And, in the ultimate act of generosity, Uncle Nachum opened his home in Cuba to his wife’s sister-in-law and her children. He gave them a new start. My father-in-law, David, also got support from his family – they may not have been quite as warm and welcoming, but they made a new beginning possible. Where would we be without family?

I think about luck. While their survival was made possible by their own strength and ingenuity, luck was a critical element, too. When bombs fell, the Silberfarbs were spared. When Lea chose to go right instead of left in the woods, they avoided violence. When she knocked on a door begging for food, she wasn’t killed. Was that luck? Intuition? Fate? So many times, things could have gone differently. All of it had to fall into place for them to make it.

I think about faith. One might emerge from the ordeal with faith shattered or strengthened. My father-in-law believed God had spared him. That faith doesn’t come naturally to me, but understanding how meaningful it was to David, certainly gives me food for thought.

There are so many lessons to be learned by studying the Holocaust. I wish more people would take the time to learn.

Displaced

When World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945 most of the continent bore the scars of bombed out villages, millions dead and millions more displaced. Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When the war ended that was the task. So many cities had been destroyed; millions needed to be resettled. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly depending on who is included in that category: prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from places caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Lea, Bernard, Paula and Sofia Silberfarb were among them.

For some DPs, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. They could either reclaim their property (if it still existed) or start anew in their hometowns; they weren’t afraid to go back. In fact, by September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees did go back to their country of origin. For others, including the Silberfarbs, going ‘home’ wasn’t an option. Serniki, reclaimed as part of the Soviet Union, held painful memories and they knew they were not welcome there. Their future lay elsewhere.

In order to establish order and begin the process of repatriating DPs, the Allies divided Germany and Austria into zones. Great Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Union each controlled sectors, and all but the Soviets set up camps to house the refugees. The USSR had a policy of expecting all its DPs to reintegrate into Soviet society, irrespective of their status as a former prisoner of war, a concentration camp survivor, or refugee and therefore no DP camps were set up in their zone. The other Allied countries utilized abandoned military barracks, hospitals, apartment buildings, private homes and other assorted structures to establish DP camps. In December of 1945 the American zone had 134, and by June of 1947, they had 416 sites. Great Britain had 272, while the French hosted 45.

An organization called Birchah (the Hebrew word for ‘flight’), which was a semi-clandestine Zionist network, helped Jewish survivors get to DP camps.  With their assistance the Silberfarbs left Pinsk and ended up in a camp in Ranshofen, Austria.

Ironically, Ranshofen was located near Brunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The DP camp was made up of brick buildings that were each two stories, with two two-bedroom apartments on each floor.  The Silberfarbs were assigned one bedroom in an apartment, and another family was assigned the other bedroom. The two families shared the common spaces (living room, kitchen and bathroom). Although the accommodations were not spacious, it was a welcome change from the instability of the prior four years. They had a roof over their head, shelter from the weather and food.

The other family assigned to the Silberfarb apartment included a man, Beryl Bakst, and his two adult children, David, who was 23, and Batya, who was 20, and her soon-to-be husband, Fishel. The families became close, sharing stories of their harrowing experiences. David was particularly taken with Paula, who despite being 9 years younger, was a good listener, sympathetic, smart, pretty and mature well beyond her years.

Paula and David in Ranshofen circa 1946/47

They were all in Ranshofen for the next two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Beryl and David were trying to get to the United States. The paperwork to get visas and arrange travel was a bureaucratic nightmare that took patience and perseverance. In the meanwhile, Paula and David spent a lot of time together, as well as taking classes and participating in activities. David played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won.

One of the factors that determined which camp a refugee went to was where they wanted to resettle. For example, the best chance to immigrate to Palestine was from a DP camp in Italy. After some time at Ranshofen, Batya and Fishel went to Italy, since that was their goal. The Silberfarbs didn’t because they were still considering the option offered by family already settled in Cuba.

Immigrating to Palestine was very difficult and conditions in the Holy Land were challenging as the area tried to absorb survivors and build a new country in a hostile environment. In 1939 Great Britain, which exercised authority over the area, severely limited Jewish immigration. After the war, 69,000 survivors attempted illegal immigration, less than half were successful. Others were arrested and interned on Cyprus. Batya and Fishel were among those waylaid in Cyprus. In fact, their daughter, Rochelle, was born there. Once the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigration flowed more freely. Batya, Fishel and Rochelle finally made it to a Jewish homeland, and faced another war, the war for Israeli independence.

Meanwhile, intent on getting to America, Beryl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to their goal. David and Paula agreed to correspond by letter. David told Paula that if she ended up going to Cuba, they would meet again. Paula held on to that thought.

Ranshofen was slated to close in 1948. The Silberfarbs had no choice but to move on. They went to another nearby DP camp. Lea, based on Bernie and Sofia’s wish to go to Israel, was still trying to make arrangements, but was not yet successful. She was also corresponding with her late husband’s family in Cuba. Two of Samuel’s sisters, Bushe and Mary, had settled in Havana with their respective husbands, Nachum and Solomon, before World War II.

Lea wrote to Bushe 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 pointed out that life would be difficult in Israel, as a widowed mother without family to help. He suggested that they try life in Cuba. If they didn’t like it after a year, he would arrange immigration to Israel. He wrote 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 were swayed by the soundness of his argument. They agreed to go to Havana.

During their family 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 decision based on her burgeoning romance. She was very excited when the decision was made.

Meanwhile, the Silberfarbs bided their time at the new DP camp. Paula was back in school. 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 planned 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 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 both a warm welcome and warm weather. Paula’s aunts and uncles 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, enjoying for the first time tropical fruits like mangos, going to the beach and 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 factory. They agreed he would come to Havana 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.

Survival

NOTE: We pick up my mother-in-law Paula’s story, as the place where they were sheltering became unsafe. It is early in 1943.

Lea gathered her children and they moved on, grateful to Dimitrov for his generosity, but well aware that they had no choice but to leave. This would be the pattern for the next two years. They would find shelter, an abandoned hut, or a farmer who supported the Partisans who let them stay in his barn, or a camp in the woods with other Jews, and stay in that place for as long as it seemed safe. It could be days or weeks, inevitably, though, the danger of German soldiers or collaborators closed in. Lea could not let her guard down.

After leaving Dimitrov’s farm they met up with a group of Jews in the forest who knew where there were other Partisans. They went through the dense forest to find them. At night Lea would venture out of the forest to knock on doors to beg for food – some gave; others didn’t. One night a dog bit her on the foot. When she got back to their camp Lea boiled pinecones and used the water to clean the wound, unfortunately it became infected and it hobbled her.

Lea did her best to keep up the pace as they continued their trek through the woods, but eventually she needed to stop to rest her throbbing foot. Bernie, fearful that they would be caught and angry at his mother’s injury, left them and went ahead. The girls stayed with their mother. After a long while, he came back – he realized he couldn’t leave his mother and sisters. Fortunately, with time, Lea’s wound healed.

They came across another farmer who took them to a hut. Lea sewed for that farmer. During the war everything was in short supply, anything that could be repaired needed to be. Lea’s skills were put to use and in return the farmer provided food. They stayed there for about 6 weeks. Paula had reprieve enough to notice the beauty of the surrounding green forest. 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 they heard shooting, so they changed direction. They later heard the Partisans where they were headed got overconfident, got drunk and careless; a gang of Crimeans attacked them. Jews and Partisans were killed. Fortunately, once again, Lea’s good sense kept them away from danger.

While on the move, they crossed paths with a neighbor from Serniki, Natan Bobrov. 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,” Paula remembered. They huddled together for warmth and kept going.

They came to a clearing in the woods and saw a house. Knocking on the door was always a risk, but Lea used her best judgment. Unbeknownst to her they came upon a village that supported the Partisans. Paula was asked to crochet a huge scarf with scalloped edges– she didn’t actually know how to do it, but she persevered and 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. They helped with farm chores. The family’s son was also in the Partisans. Lea and the children stayed the whole winter. If company came to visit, Paula went to the barn to join her mom and siblings.

At this point, the Russians began to turn the tide of the war. Slowly the Soviet army reclaimed the parts of Poland they had occupied before the Nazi invasion. Serniki was liberated from German control, but the Silberfarbs were about 100 kilometers away. The front moved but the war was not yet over.

Lea and her children were on the move again and they came upon the Soviet army who shared canned goods and chocolates with them. Paula could not remember the last time she had chocolate. She delighted in the rich, sweet treat. They were relieved to be in a bigger town, though bombing continued, they felt safer in the company of the army.

Life was improving, but then Sofia got typhus. Lea tried to treat her but thought it was serious enough that she brought Sofia to the Russian infirmary. Sofia was cared for there. Each child, in turn, got ill. Paula was admitted to the infirmary, as well. Bernie didn’t trust the doctors, and despite his illness, refused to be examined. He went so far as to jump out a window to avoid his mother’s efforts to get him to go with her to the doctor. Lea worked in the infirmary, cleaning, emptying bedpans in return for the care of her children. After the children recovered, the army gave them a ride to Pinsk. They sat atop barrels of kerosene on the back of a truck for the bumpy ride, but at least they weren’t walking.

When they got to Pinsk, they shared a house with another family. Lea baked and sold bread to try to 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, she spotted someone who looked familiar. She studied the man at a distance and slowly it dawned on her. She approached cautiously, but as she drew closer, their eyes met. It was Dmitrov Lacunyetz, the farmer who first hid the Silberfarbs. Neither of them could believe their eyes. They hugged in relief, absorbing the fact that each had survived the war. It was a tearful reunion. “Now I can die in peace,” he told her. 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 she felt it was little compared to what he had done for them

Striving for normalcy, Paula went back to school in Pinsk. The war finally ended in May of 1945 while the family was in Pinsk. Paula was now 14 years old and had spent three years moving through the forest with her mom and siblings in a quest to survive.

The Silberfarbs knew they couldn’t go back to Serniki – there was nothing for them there. They wanted to go to Israel even though they had family in Brazil and Cuba. They wanted to live among Jews. Lea weighed their options. The first step was to go to a displaced persons (DP) camp, which was where transit arrangements could be made. What they found at the DP camp would change Paula’s life.

The red dot is Serniki in Belarus – too small to merit a label. Even today there are no large towns or cities nearby.

Paula’s Journey Continues

Note: This is the next chapter in Paula’ journey. I have continued to research her story and the Holocaust in general since this was originally posted over two years ago which has allowed me to add more information and to improve the clarity of the narrative. If you have read this before, I hope you will choose to read it in its updated form. If you are new to it, I hope it both broadens and deepens your understanding of the personal tragedies experienced by survivors.

As I noted last week, most of the story comes from Paula’s Shoah testimony. One of the difficulties inherent in working from that 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 recognize the potential for error. I don’t believe those potential errors materially change the truth of the story.

As a reminder, Paula’s immediate family, the Silberfarbs, included her mother (Lea), her father (Samuel), her older brother (Bernard or Bernie), and younger sister (Sofia). Her paternal grandfather was Gershon. One other piece of information for context: Serniki was a town of about 5,000 people, about 1,000 were Jewish.

After the two desperate men who escaped death shared their horrifying experience, the atmosphere in Serniki changed. Townspeople learned that Pinsk, the closest and biggest city, 19 miles to the northwest, was overrun by the Nazis on July 4, 1941. It was just a matter of time until they continued their march across Poland. As invasion by the powerful German army loomed, the Russians retreated, leaving a power vacuum in Serniki.

Some Gentiles took advantage of the absence of leadership and appointed themselves police, meting out justice as they saw fit. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Where previously the communities peacefully coexisted, now Jewish homes were robbed, violence against Jews was perpetrated without consequence. Many Jews hid their valuables, believing that they were vulnerable not only when the Germans invaded, but at the hands of their Gentile neighbors. 

The Silberfarbs took their prized possessions to a farmer on the outskirts of town who did business with Samuel. The whole family went because Samuel and Lea planned to leave Serniki permanently, continuing on after securing their things. While they were with the farmer, they received word that Gershon (Samuel’s father) had been murdered. Devastated, Samuel felt they had no choice but to go back to Serniki to bury him.

Upon their return they learned a man named Danilo Polohowicz was the murderer. They heard Danilo shot Gershon as he stood in his backyard garden in broad daylight. There were witnesses and fearing no consequence, Danilo boasted about it in town.  He was right to fear no punishment; he wasn’t arrested or prosecuted for the crime.

Samuel went to his father’s house to oversee the funeral arrangements and, in keeping with Jewish tradition, stayed with the body until the interment. 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 be a likely target of robbers. Lea was right. The four Silberfarbs, Lea and her three children, huddled under the bed in the apartment, listening to the sounds of burglars ransacking their house. The next morning, they cautiously returned to their home to survey the damage and found it in disarray, with floorboards lifted.

That 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 – as far as she knew he remained at his father’s house. Lea decided to try to escape with the children. She didn’t know where Samuel was or how to get information to him, but she didn’t think she could do anything to help him, so she focused her attention on saving her children.

They ran out their backyard through fields, across roads, towards the Stubla River, avoiding areas they suspected had police activity. As they approached the river, Bernie abruptly stopped. Lea had 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 to town. 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 all with hay and told them to wait while he went to town to investigate.

It felt like an eternity until 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 it was safe to return. Instead they went to a cousin’s house. This cousin’s house was situated closer to the Stubla and offered a better route of escape than their own home. 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. She spotted her nephew on a work detail but could not locate her husband. While she was near the market a Gentile townsperson gave Lea a message from Samuel, “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. Samuel was hiding in the garden of his Aunt Fanny’s house with Lea’s brother, 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. German soldiers, combing the town for Jews, found him in the garden and arrested him.

Later that day 120 men, the town’s Jewish leaders, and one woman were executed. They were marched to a ditch near the cemetery, lined up and shot from behind. Among them was Samuel Silberfarb.

The Germans did not liquidate the entire Jewish community of 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. In Samuel’s absence, Uncle Avrumchik looked after them.

While living in the ghetto, Paula learned to knit and crochet (which turned out to be valuable skills through the war years). Fortunately, they had access to books – Paula sat by the window reading by the moonlight reflecting off the snow. Reading gave her rare moments of peace. 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. It was now April of 1942 and there were rumors of an ‘aktion.’ (An ‘aktion’ was 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.) The Silberfarbs snuck out of the ghetto 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. Lea studied his routine and advised Bernie, and an aunt and uncle when to sneak across. Lea and the girls planned to go the next day. Later that afternoon 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. 850 men, women and children, the remaining Jewish population of Serniki were murdered and buried in a ditch on the outskirts of town.

As Lea and the girls fled, she 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.  When they arrived 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 all to a forested area on his property to hide. He kept them there for 16 weeks.

Dmitrov supplied them with food once a day. After a while, he sent his son-in-law to deliver the provisions. 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,” thinking it was the lesser of two evils.

There was a Partisan brigade (a group of people resisting/fighting the Nazis) in the area. Though the Silberfarbs weren’t part of the brigade, Lea felt they were safer when they were near them. Unfortunately, there was a dispute with a farmer over a cow and the Partisans killed the farmer’s son in the confrontation. The farmer vowed to inform the Germans. The area became unsafe. It was now the end of 1942. The Silberfarbs had to move on.

Lea Silberfarb on the left. Paula on the right.

A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

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.

Paula just after the war, in her early teens, but no longer a child.

A Summing Up

What is left to tell? Paula and David began their life together in Queens, New York. David continued working at the pickle factory. Paula was a homemaker and managed their finances. She was very frugal and even with David’s modest earnings, they were able to put away some money. Eventually they bought a car, and a few years after that (in 1963), they were able to buy a house in Rosedale, Queens. Rosedale bordered Nassau County, Long Island and had the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood, even though it was in the New York City limits.

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The Bakst house in Rosedale, pictured in 2018. Photo captured from GoogleMaps. David sold the house in 1990 (give or take a year).

Their oldest child, Rochelle, arrived 18 months into their marriage. Paula’s mother and sister, Lea and Sofia, flew up from Cuba to meet the newest generation of their family. Four years after that, in 1956, Paula and David’s first son, Steven, was born. Lea and Sofia came north again, this time on permanent visas. They stayed and lived with David and Paula. It was tight quarters, six of them, in their small apartment with one bathroom, but it was nothing they couldn’t manage given all that they had been through.

Gary arrived in 1959 and was the baby of the family for 8 years, until Doreen entered the picture. Now the Bakst family was complete. David, as he envisioned when he spoke to Uncle Nachum years earlier, moved up to become the general manager of the food distribution company that the pickle business grew into.

In their early years in New York, David and Paula attended night school to learn English and, in time, they became United States citizens. They straddled two worlds. They were a product of their Eastern European shtetl childhoods, a world that had been destroyed by the Nazis, and they bore the scars of that trauma, and now they were trying to fit into the modern American society of the 1950s and 1960s. They embraced much of what America offered, but were also anxious about their ability to understand American institutions. They continued to seek out the company of family and friends that shared their shtetl experience. The generation gap, a common experience of that era, was alive and well in the Bakst household.

Not too long after her arrival, Sofia met and married Marvin Bressler, and began her own family. The Bresslers also settled in Rosedale. They had three children, a girl and two boys.

Lea continued to live with Paula and David, until her death, of a brain tumor, in 1973. She was 80 years old. She was the only grandparent the Bakst children would know.

Bernie didn’t leave Cuba until after the communist revolution in 1959. He was a businessman enjoying his life in Havana, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Batista government, Bernie made a lot of money. With some reluctance, he, along with Nachum, Bushe, Solomon and Mary, left for Florida. The aunts and uncles, and their children, settled in North Miami Beach, a community of Cuban-Jewish exiles. Over the years, Paula and David would visit when they could. Nachum lived a long life, well into his nineties.

Bernie eventually moved further north and became a successful businessman, marrying, and starting a family in Woodmere, on Long Island (a short distance from Rosedale). He and his wife had two children.

As a result of their extended time in Cuba, Bernie and Sofia, in particular, developed an affinity for its culture and maintained a connection with it throughout their lives. As part of his business in America, Bernie owned a warehouse in Union City, New Jersey (a community with a lot of Cuban immigrants). Gary worked there a couple of summers and has vivid memories of the experience. Gary commuted from Rosedale to Jersey, with his uncle. Bernie drove like a maniac, waiting until the last minute to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit of the highway. And, Bernie would play a game with the tolls at the bridges, tossing one coin at a time, hoping the wooden arm would go up before the full fare was paid. Bernie employed a number of Cuban men at the warehouse. Gary remembers the men cooking a communal lunch, pork spiced with garlic, pepper, onion and coriander, as well as the smell of strong coffee. Gary also picked up some Spanish words that weren’t taught in high school.

David’s sister, Batya, lived in Israel for 7 years, with Fishel and their daughter Rochelle. Batya left Israel and came to the United States to get a divorce (she wasn’t able to get a divorce in Israel). She lived with David and Paula while she waited for it to go through. After a year, Rochelle joined her mom in New York. Though Batya regretted leaving Israel, she felt she had no choice. In time, she remarried and had a son, Ben, and she became an educator. She and her family lived blocks away from the Baksts in Rosedale.

Batya carried her own brutal memories, one of which she shared in a speech she delivered at the Rosedale Jewish Center, where she was being honored as a woman of valor. With her children, Rochelle and Ben, in the audience, Batya recounted her time in the work camp (the one she was miraculously rescued from by the Iskra Partisan Brigade). She told of one particularly horrific experience. She was walking across the camp compound and she heard a slight thud and a small mew as a piece of balled up laundry fell to the ground nearby. Batya didn’t see who had dropped it and thought it might be a kitten so she bent down to see what was in the bunched-up fabric. She found an almost newborn baby girl, barely alive, seemingly frozen. Without thinking, Batya quickly scooped her up, held the bundle to her chest and hurried to her bunk. She tried to warm the baby. Over the next day or so, Batya smuggled water and milk and fed her as best she could. She seemed to be reviving, and Batya named her Ilana. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her, she was just going from moment to moment trying to protect the baby. At one point, much to Batya’s distress, Ilana started to cry, bringing a German soldier to investigate. The soldier grabbed the baby, and to Batya’s everlasting horror, he plunged a bayonet into her. Batya shared this memory from the bemah in the synagogue. It was the first Ben, who was about 14 at the time, had heard the story. Though he knew his mother had endured suffering during the Holocaust, he didn’t know the depth of her anguish until then. Batya died of a rare type of cancer in 1982, she was 57 years old. Her daughter, Rochelle, lovingly cared for her in her final days. When Ben became a father himself, he and his wife named one of their sons after Ilana.

Paula and David didn’t often speak of their wartime experiences with their children. For the older children, Rochelle and Steven, the impact of the trauma was more apparent. Paula was still having nightmares when Rochelle was young. Gary and Doreen were more removed from it, as Paula and David healed and as their economic circumstances improved. All four of the children, though, were acutely aware of the legacy they carried.

Out of the ashes of the destruction of Ivye and Sernicki, new generations took root in America. The Baksts and Silberfarbs had 11 children, who in turn had 15 grandchildren and, to date, two great-grandchildren.

Laura Bakst: A Granddaughter’s Journey

Note: One of the greatest sources of pride and joy for Paula and David are their four grandchildren, each accomplished in their own right. Laura, third oldest and the daughter of Gary’s brother, was kind enough to contribute this piece. 

Nearly five years ago, I made my way across rural Germany to visit my great-grandfather’s grave. While the trip itself took only a few days the process started months earlier in New York, when my Poppy (grandfather) presented me with a disintegrating photograph of his father’s tombstone and the knowledge that it was located in a Jewish cemetery near Kassel, Germany.  I could tell that at the age of ninety Poppy was still haunted by not knowing what came of the grave that he last saw over sixty years ago. I also knew that given my upcoming travels to Israel and Europe it was likely the only opportunity I’d have to locate the grave in the near future, and possibly in his lifetime.

Over the next few months I sifted through archives, including multiple visits to Yad Vashem (Israel’s holocaust museum), attempting to find records on my great-grandfather.  Eventually I stumbled upon a German database of abandoned Jewish cemeteries. With the aid of Google Translate, I managed to obtain location information for a gravestone that appeared identical to the one in my grandfather’s photograph. It was in a cemetery in Hofgeismar, a small town in Northern Germany.

Fortunately, it was relatively easy to tack on a detour to Hofgeismar between trips with friends to Berlin and Amsterdam. Nevertheless, I was still nervous to be traveling across Germany on my own; I was the first in my family to return to the country since WWII, did not speak the language, and was traveling in areas not frequented by tourists. Fortunately, the kindness of others made the process a bit easier: I had made a few German friends while I was studying in Dublin who helped me book trains. Julia, a woman who volunteered at the Jewish Museum in Hofgeismar, was generous enough to not only respond to my cold-email inquiring about the cemetery, but also coordinate my entire itinerary for the day in Hofgeismar (unfortunately I was not able to meet her in person as she was traveling for a conference in Israel at the time).

Around 6:45am on a brisk October morning, I left my friends in Berlin and anxiously entered a metro station. True to Germany’s reputation, the four separate trains I took were impressively prompt. After making it to Hofgeismar, I met Mr. Burmeister, the Jewish Museum’s director, who drove me to the cemetery.

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I didn’t really know what to expect, but I recall being surprised by the beauty of the place. Though obviously aged by the elements, the gravestone was completely intact, with the inscription still easily readable.

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The small cemetery was in a lovely location, overlooking gorgeous valleys and blanketed by colorful leaves.

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Following the Jewish tradition, I left several stones on behalf of my family on the gravestone. Across from my great-grandfather’s grave there was a small hill, below which a number of stones from the 1800s once stood. Unfortunately, they were destroyed during WWII (the cemetery houses Jews from after the war and pre-1936), so Mr. Burmeister showed me the memorial stone erected in their memory the prior year (2012).

Mr. Burmeister gave me a tour of the small but substantial Jewish museum, in which we had an interesting conversation about the Jewish history in Hofgeismar and his interest in the subject as a non-Jew. While there are no longer any Jews in Hofgeismar, before the War it was home to one of the highest percentages of Jews in Germany (10%).

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Julia’s friend, Gabriele also showed me around Hofgeismar. We walked down to where the community temple once stood, now destroyed. We also drove through where the displaced persons camp used to be, the same camp that my grandfather stayed in after my great-grandfather died from surgical complications. The grounds are now being used for a school and police station.  The town center was exactly as I’d have pictured it, with lovely sculptures and traditional German buildings.

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Gabrielle pointed out some of the homes where Jews once lived, in front of which small metal squares note their names, dates of birth and death, and what occurred to them during the war. I remembered seeing similar stones in Berlin, and Julia explained that they are becoming more common as people are more open to uncovering that their homes may have been taken from Jews.

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While the entire trip was extremely meaningful, what struck me the most was how seriously modern-Germany takes addressing its history. Unlike in America, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust, display Nazi symbols, or otherwise incite hatred based on religion or ethnicity. All schools deeply educate students about the Holocaust, leaving my German peers more knowledgeable about it than me. People like Mr. Burmeister and Julia chose to dedicate their time to preserving the Jewish history in a small, now Jew-less town. Mr. Burmeister’s parents had no familial connection to Judaism, but rather his interest in the subject was peaked as a schoolboy studying German history. A teacher from a neighboring town told me how she believed it was important to expose her students to Jewish culture early on, bringing her class of 8-10 year olds to the Hofgeismar Jewish cemetery and Museum for a three-day workshop. Through tears she explained that she educates others about Nazism because her daughter has a disability and likely would have been killed had she been living during WWII.

Note: Laura is quite correct in saying that David was haunted by never having gone back to see his father’s grave. In going through the effort of locating and visiting the site, Laura did a mitzvah (good deed) that brought her grandfather comfort. Thank you, Laura, for doing that and for sharing this story on my blog.

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.