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]

 

Displaced Persons

Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When World War II ended that was the task. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly, probably depending on who was included in that category. Prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from towns caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Berl, David and Batya were among them.

For some, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. By September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees went back to their country of origin. For others, including the Baksts, going home wasn’t an option. Out of the 4000 or so Jews that lived in Iwie, only about 50 survived. The town had been “cleansed” of Jews. The Bakst home was occupied by others.

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 areas 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 or a concentration camp survivor, 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 camps, 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 (there were some camps that only housed Jews, but most were a mixture of ethnicities).  The Baksts were assisted by Birchah and got to a camp in the American Zone. Berl had heard that concentration camp survivors were allowed expedited immigration to the United States, so he attempted to register as a camp survivor. Since neither he nor his children had a number tattooed on their arm, they were rejected. It was not uncommon for people to move among the camps since everything was in such flux. They went to another DP camp, this time in Austria, to begin the process again. It turned out to be a lucky thing that they did.

They ended up at Ranshofen. 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.  Berl, David, Batya, who had recently married Fishel (the man she met while they were with the Partisans), 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).

The other family assigned to the apartment included a woman, Lea Silberfarb, and her three children, from oldest to youngest, Bernard, Paula and Sophia. The families became close, sharing stories of their 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. Living as the Silberfarbs had through the war, stripped Paula of her childhood.

Paula was 10 when the Germans invaded her town, Serniki, Poland (now part of the Ukraine). She, her mom and her siblings lived, on the run, staying in forest encampments, moving from village to village, for over 4 years. (Note: I will share Paula’s story in next week’s blog post)

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David and Paula in Ranshofen

They were all in Ranshofen for about two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Berl 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 got to know each other, as well as take classes and participate in activities. David even played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won. Conditions at DP camps varied widely. Fortunately, Ranshofen offered comfortable accommodations and a range of services.

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 considering another option offered by family that was 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, Berl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to getting to the United States. 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.

(Next week: Paula’s experience during the war)

 

The War Finally Ends

Note: For the first time since I embarked on writing David’s story, I have no corrections to last week’s narrative! Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this.

The Soviet army continued its march into Germany. David’s unit was trying to establish a strategic position on an island in the middle of the wide Elbe River in Magdeburg. The Germans and Russians exchanged continuous machine gun fire across the river, as the Germans tried to hold the line on the advancing troops. The Soviets, having successfully gotten some soldiers to the island in the middle, needed to establish communications with the beachhead. Many soldiers attempted to bring communication wire across to the designated spot. They each failed, many died in the attempt. Though his commanding officer was reluctant to assign David the job since he liked and valued David, he had no choice. It needed to be done.

David waited until dark. He lay down flat, on his stomach, in a small wooden row boat. He set up the spool of wire at the back of the boat so it would unroll as he paddled. He propelled the boat with his hands and kept his head down, as best he could. He looked up every so often only to make sure he was heading the right way. He heard bullets whizzing by. He kept going. He made it to the island successfully, and connected with the others. Mission accomplished!

Now he just had to make it back. He still had the cover of darkness. He got back in the boat, laying as flat as he could while still able to paddle with his arms. Machine gun fire continued to be exchanged. David prayed as he paddled. He made it back to shore and emerged from the boat.

When he got back to the trench, he took off his heavy overcoat. He looked it over and saw that there were bullet holes through the pleat in the back. His coat had a gathering of material that ran down the back. Bullets had passed through it cleanly, leaving him unharmed. David believes that God was looking out for him.

The war grinded on, with the Soviet army making slow progress. They crossed the Elbe but were still in Magdeburg when David heard the sound of artillery fire and the rumble of tanks. As a communications officer, he was about to call in an air strike. He was told, though, that it was the Americans. American troops were closing in from the other side.

David described the joy of the two armies meeting. The soldiers did not share a common language, but they communicated effectively enough. The Americans supplied the chocolate, the Russians brought the vodka and they celebrated. Chocolate never tasted so sweet. Words were not necessary. David recounts this with a broad smile on his face. The long, arduous, painful war was finally at an end.

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Rather than wait for everything to get sorted out, David took fate in his own hands. He didn’t know what plans the Soviet army might have for him and he didn’t want to find out. Though he had managed to survive the ordeal to that point, he was well aware of the anti-Semitism that ran rampant in the Soviet army, and Soviet society as a whole. He just wanted to get back to what was left of his family. He went AWOL (absent without leave). He rode the rails back to Lodz, where Berl and Batya were now located.

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David’s family, long before the war, and before Gussie was born. R-L: David standing (with Berl’s arm around him), Berl, Rachel, Ellie and, in front (seated), Batya.

David and his father had devised a method for coding letters so they kept each other informed of their whereabouts. David knew that Berl and his sister were now in Lodz so he made his way there. Since he was AWOL, he needed to keep a low profile, and the trains were packed, so he rode on top of the train, only coming down to stand between the cars when a tunnel approached. David had an address for his family, and he found his way to them. Though they had endured many losses, the three were relieved and grateful to be reunited. Other survivors had no one.

Berl gave David a pair of pants that were too big for David’s lean waist. Fortunately, he had a belt.  Berl took David’s uniform and stashed it under the window sill in their apartment. David put on civilian garb and tried to escape notice. Today he wonders if his uniform would still be in the hiding spot.

Now they had to make plans. Where were they to go? It wasn’t an option to stay in Poland, there was nothing for them there. Berl and David wanted to go to the United States. Two of Berl’s brothers, Ike and Willie, were already established there, having left Iwie long before the war. Berl had been a successful businessman before, he looked forward to the opportunities America offered.

Batya had met a fellow partisan who she planned to marry, and they wanted to go to Palestine (in 1945 the state of Israel had not yet been created). They wanted to be part of establishing a Jewish homeland.

Of course, getting to either of those destinations, the United States and Palestine, was not a simple task. Their first stop on their respective journeys was a displaced person’s camp.

Next week: The DP camp experience and meeting Paula.

A Return to Iwie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

More Miracles: David in the Soviet Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Miracle: Part II of David’s Story

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Berl Bakst, David’s father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would need more miracles to continue to survive.

More Questions

Note:  Since I have been traveling over the last several weeks, I have not been able to devote as much time to this blog post as I would like. Please consider it a work in progress. (the whole blog is actually a work in progress!) I want to continue exploring Brody family history and its implications but my life gets in the way. Bear with me as I continue the journey.

After reading the letter from the priest, I felt a need to see if the events described had been recorded; to see if history had taken note of the massacre. I did some research, mostly on the Internet. I also looked at a couple of books, including Jewish Roots in Poland by Miriam Weiner.

I also wanted to find the towns listed in the letter. In addition to looking at maps online, I poured over a world atlas.

I did find most of the towns, though it was challenging. The translation of town names, and my total ignorance of Polish, made finding these locations difficult. Several still exist and can be seen on a current map of Poland (Jaslo, Dukla, Nowy Zmigrod), all in the southeast corner of the country. By the way, Stary in a town’s name means ‘old,’ while Nowy in a town’s name means ‘new.’ Oddly, to me anyway, Zmigrod (without Nowy or Stary attached) appears to be miles away to the west and slightly north of the towns mentioned in the letter.

In looking for mention of the massacre in Halbow, I found another massacre exactly one month earlier, June 7, 1942, in the same area. At first I wondered if it was the same incident, perhaps the month was mistakenly recorded. After further exploration, it appears that there were actually two separate incidents (or “actions” in the language of the war) exactly a month apart. On one level it is hard to believe that there could be two (intellectually I know there were many “actions”), but the scope and horror of the Holocaust is still hard to comprehend, even all these years later.

I did find the July 7th genocide noted in several places and it appears that there is a monument erected to memorialize the lives lost in Halbow.

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Monument to the victims of the atrocity in the forest in Halbow.

In the 1990s many children of Holocaust survivors visited Eastern Europe searching for their parent’s hometowns and gravesites of family members. Some of those travelers documented their findings. As a result, I was able to find a picture of the monument (see above). The monument was funded by Zmigrod survivors’ families in America. I was relieved to find that at least there is a monument, but another issue emerged from my research.

The priest’s letter indicates that 1434 people were buried in the mass grave in Halbow. The sources I found on the Internet reported 1250 .(archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/Galicia/2009-07/123905001; www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/nowy.zmigrod1/now065.html; kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/zmigrod/zmigrodholo.htm).

I am disturbed by the discrepancy and wonder what it represents. As mentioned above, in doing the research I found two separate incidents, each with 1250 victims recorded. But it seems odd that the number would be exactly 1250 in both cases. Were they estimates? How were the numbers documented?  Could the 1250 represent only the Jewish victims? Or, could the priest’s information be incorrect? It raises so many questions about how history is documented.

Which led me to another question: Does the number matter? My gut reaction was, of course it does – we are talking about 184 souls not ‘officially’ counted.

But, then, I don’t want to obsess about the actual number. The number, whether it is 1250 or 1434, is too many to accept. Either way it is roughly the size of the suburban high school in my community. It is almost half the population of the town I live in. The number is important, but it isn’t the central point – the central point is that humanity was lost in every sense; in the lives cut short and in those who perpetrated the crime. Those who were responsible for the crime discarded their humanity.

We struggle today to identify and agree to facts. Sometimes when the numbers are in dispute people take the opportunity to dismiss the larger issue. Especially for those with an agenda. That these atrocities were committed is a fact that cannot be denied. My family bore the weight of it, in the loss of life, in the loss of faith and the silence that followed.

I wish I had an answer, though, for reconciling discrepancies in records (data) that sometimes lead us to lose the forest for the trees.

 

 

 

 

A Very Different Experience

The legacy of the letter from the priest is many layered. Of course, there was the profound impact of the loss on Leo Brody, my grandfather, and thus on his immediate family. I had not considered the ripple effects of the atrocity and the silence surrounding it through the generations until now. My family stands in stark contrast to Gary’s family experience – where the impact was more obvious.

As I got to know the Bakst family, when Gary and I started dating in 1979, I was aware that Gary’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Our shared Jewish identity, and the differences in our experiences, was a subject we talked about quite a bit as we got to know each other. My parents were American born and college educated. As I described in prior blog entries, we were culturally and ethnically Jewish, but God was conspicuously absent. No one in my family attended synagogue regularly and when we did it was obligatory, certainly not heartfelt. The Holocaust was discussed, but in a more scholarly way, despite my grandfather’s tragic loss. It was at a remove from our day-to-day experience.

Gary’s parents, while not Orthodox Jews, were far more observant – religion was part of their practice, they kept a Kosher home, didn’t drive on the high holidays and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Gary’s Dad believed in God despite his harrowing experiences – or maybe because of them.

While I would not say that their Holocaust experiences were spoken about often, they were not shrouded in silence either. They attended the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C in 1993, were involved in the organization (Holocaust Survivors and Friends) that was instrumental in establishing the museum and attended the annual meeting of the Iwie Society (a group of lansleit from David’s hometown in Poland). Their status as survivors was an essential part of their identity and of Gary’s (and his siblings).

As I got to know Gary’s family I came to recognize some of the scars from their Holocaust experience. Paula, Gary’s mom, who was about nine when her life in the shtetl of Sarnik was upended, was anxious and fiercely protective of her children. The first time Gary and I went on a date when we were home from college, Gary drove to my house using Paula’s car. This was long before cellphones. When Gary arrived in Canarsie (20 minutes away), he asked to use our phone to call home and let Paula know that he had arrived safely. Years later, when I was pregnant with Leah, my doorbell rang one evening in Albany. I went to the door to find my brother. He had come to deliver a message, “Call your mother-in-law. She hasn’t been able to reach you and she is worried.” Apparently our phone was off the hook and I didn’t realize it. Paula, ever resourceful, long before the Internet, found my brother’s phone number, called him and dispatched him to check on me. Needless to say, I called her immediately.

To say Paula didn’t trust easily would be an understatement. Years before he met and married Shari, Gary’s older brother, Steven, was dating a woman, Jenna, who wasn’t Jewish. I sat at Paula’s kitchen table in Rosedale while she shared her fear that if Steven was to marry Jenna, she might kill him in his sleep. I was at a loss as to how to respond. I asked her why Jenna would do that. She shrugged and said, “Because she is Christian and he is Jewish.” I began to understand the depth of the damage done by her traumatic childhood.

Gary and I were together for four years before we married and had children (at least another 5 years later) before I felt I had earned her trust.

When Steven Spielberg, as a companion to Schlindler’s List, undertook the Shoah Project (the effort to record the testimony of all living survivors before their numbers dwindled), the Bakst family participated. We went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills and waited in the lobby while Paula and David were interviewed separately. Then all ten of us – Rochelle and Doreen (Gary’s sisters), Steven, Shari, Laura and Jordan (Gary’s brother, wife and two young children) and our family (Gary, me, Leah and Daniel) – went in to be filmed as a coda to their testimony.

Over the years I had heard the stories of their survival. David fought in the Russian army and with the partisans in the woods in Poland. Death was all around him. Paula survived by the guile of her mother and, for several years, with the assistance of a gentile Polish farmer. They told how they met in a displaced persons camp and of Paula’s resettlement in Cuba where she had family and David’s in New York. Ultimately David went to Cuba to propose marriage and a year later, on September 3, 1949, they were married in Havana. David brought Paula back to New York and they settled in Queens and started their family. Paula’s mother, brother and sister survived, her father was murdered as they fled their town. David’s father and sister survived the war, though his father, having navigated the war itself, tragically died from complications from hernia surgery in Germany just before they were to immigrate to America. There is so much more to their story than can be told here in a blog entry.

Despite his travail, David’s experiences reinforced his belief in God. He felt he was spared by God’s hand on several dramatic occasions. Over the years I attended synagogue many times with David and Paula and it was impossible not to be moved by his faith, in particular. He chanted the prayers from his heart. Paula also took comfort in the rituals. They felt part of a community that shared beliefs and customs. It was very different than the synagogue experience, limited as it was, that I had growing up.

The process of integrating our two families and creating our own is still a work in progress.

A Tragic Turning Point

My last blog post (No Easy Answers) told of my grandfather, Leo, and his time staying with us in Canarsie. Comments from my brothers and mother prompted a deeper examination of his life.

The Brody family story is not unique among American Jews, but it is still important to give voice to it. Grandpa may not have shared his story; at least to the best of my knowledge he didn’t. I believe it merits telling. There are important gaps that I don’t know if I will be able to fill. Many of the people who could offer insight are no longer alive, and some, who are elderly, are particularly subject to the vagaries of memory (as I’ve noted before, memory is a funny thing under the best of circumstances).

This is what I know: Leo Bruder (he changed his name to Brody, perhaps to fit in with other family that had come before) came to this country from Poland. Specifically, he came from Galicia, an area of southeast Poland that changed hands many times throughout history, in the Carpathian Mountains. He came to America with an entrepreneurial spirit. He made the journey alone, not in steerage like most immigrants. He had enough means to buy a ticket that allowed him to arrive in New York City without going through Ellis Island. He was 18 years old and the year was 1921 when he arrived. He left his parents and sister in Europe.

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Page 1 of a copy of the translation of the letter Grandpa received

In November of 1945, about six months after World War II ended, Grandpa received a letter (picture above), in response to his inquiry by cable, from a priest from his town about the fate of his parents and sister. The original letter was in Polish. My brother Steven has a copy of the translation of the letter. In order to read it more easily, Steven transcribed it into a Word document that I have posted below.

When I was growing up the letter and the tragedy it describes was not spoken of directly. I knew that Grandpa’s parents and sister had been killed by the Nazis. I also knew that, from that point on, Grandpa didn’t go to synagogue unless there was a specific celebration like a bar mitzvah or wedding. He lost his faith in God. The events described in the letter and Grandpa’s life in Europe were not spoken of otherwise and it was understood that questions weren’t to be asked. Late in his life, after Grandma died, he seemed to be more willing to talk, but the legacy of silence was still strong.

I think it is important to share this letter because it provides documentation of the atrocity. I want to give fair warning, though, that it is graphic and disturbing and I understand if you choose not to read it. I did want it posted, though, as it is an essential part of my family’s history. It made its mark on us in a myriad of ways.

I’m not sure why I didn’t ask more questions about this letter when my father was alive. I knew of its existence from sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. I don’t believe I ever saw it with my own eyes until this past week when Steven scanned it and sent it to me. I have so many questions now. I am hoping that I can find some answers. If I am successful in finding insights that add to our family story, I will share them.

[A note about the letter: Steve and I did our best to transcribe the translation, but as you can see from the picture above, it is not a clear copy. In addition, the original translator was not able to decipher some of the Polish. Fortunately, these difficulties do not impact the meaning of the text.]

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Translation from Polish of a letter dated 11/21/1945

Zmigrod Stary 11/21/1945

Dear Mr Leon,

Your cable was delivered to me only today, though it was received in Zmigrod on November 12th. The post office delivered it to Wohlmuth, who turned it over to me only today. I am answering at once. I am sorry but I cannot write you something good. Your parents and sister were killed by the Germans on July 7th 1942 in Halbow, near –Rempno. On the same day and in the same woods all Jews from our town and the neighborhood with the young rabbi Halboratwa. Your family was killed, family Weinstein and family –estreic from Lysa-Gora.

But before it came to this terrible tragedy, your family suffered a lot. Your mother used to say always why did they not go to USA with their son, why they have to suffer?

To start with all their belongings were taken away from their house and farm. Then they were deported to the town where they lived at Lembik’s house. In the beginning they left with me some of their personal belongings asking to hide them, but before the deportation they took everything with them. They had very bad time there, as they had nothing to eat. I used to send them bread and milk and flour. I saw them a few times and tried to console them and reassure them that nothing will happen to them, that they will be sent to a camp, because nobody could think of such a tragedy. On July 6th I saw them, and they asked me to write you about everything. They gave me your address, but I lost it during the evacuation and the fire of the village. Still in the last day of their life my house-keeper Salka went to see them and to comfort them, but alas it was too late, as they knew already that death is near. The Gestapo patrols were already in the streets. With moans and tears they prepared themselves to the saying of last prayers. On July 7th 8 o’clock in the morning all Jews were gathered on the meadows across the bridge. There they were ordered to surrender all their money and valuables, after this they were by trucks brought to Halbow. There, before dug out trenches, they were ordered to undress and stand up in rows. They were killed by shooting from behind. The children were killed by smashing their heads with rifle butts. Altogether 1,434 persons were killed in this day and buried in the trenches. It is possible that Americans will not believe in such a horrible murder, but it is true.

It is quite impossible to describe what we went through during the war. All villages, Zmigrod Stary, Lysa-Gora, Glojsce, Iwla, Siedliska, Makarowaka, Nienaszow were destroyed and burned down. . Only chimneys and rubble remained. Zmigrod Nowy, Dukla and Jaslo were in ruins. 153 bombs and grenades exploded over my church and in the parsonage and barns. We were hidden for a month in the cellars, later we were removed to some other place. When we after 6 months came back, we found only ruins, without roof and doors, and, what was still worse, nothing to eat.

The house of your parents and of Weinstein are not damaged and at present homeless families live in these houses. The farmland is not tilled. You have to apply to the court to be recognized as heirs after your family. Same apply also to Weinstein, or send me power of attorney legalized at the Polish consul authorizing me to do it on your behalf, as well as giving me right to manage your property, as I presume you do not intend to return. Tell Wallach to do the same.

I have to add that you sister (name illegible) and your mother used to come often to the parsonage. Many times before an imminent danger they used to come to me in order to find shelter and protection. But from death I could not save them. Only Sommer, house painter, son-in-law of Wrobel from Lysa Gora saved his life.

I cannot write more today, though I have many more things to write that would be of interest to you. I am not sure even that this letter will reach you, as the conditions are still not normal (illegible) conditions are better and better, and we hope soon will everything will be in order.

I would ask you do me a favor. I have a brother in USA by the name Maoiej in Carteret, NJ Hudson Street, 18. I do not know if he is alive. He does not write to me. Maybe you would go there and find out what is with him, and would let me know.

I finish this letter with my deepest sympathy on the death of your parents and sister. Let God comfort you.

Best regards,

Priest Juljan Beigert

Zmigrod Stary

District Jaslo, Rz.

Regards to Weinstein, Wallach, also family, and especially Hashek Wallach and Mortek. Please answer this letter immediately

_________________________________________________________________

I hereby certify that I am thoroughly familiar with the Polish language; that I have read the attached document in said language; and that the above English translation was made by me and is a true and accurate translation.

Samuel Birger

 920 Riverside Drive

  New York 32, NY