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

Paula’s Journey: The War Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Paula’s Journey Begins

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

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

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

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is the Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided her father’s livelihood. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it). They lived an insulated life.

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle, and they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, though they were able to communicate with each other. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernie, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

Paula described herself as coming from a nice, loving home. Their house was made up of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large apartment next door –  one room divided by a curtain – that they rented out. A beautiful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill. Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula felt cared for by her mother and father. Her mother, Lea, was the primary caregiver, she provided guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla River. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather to watch it launch. It was an event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business. (Gary is named in memory of Paula’s paternal grandfather, Gershon).

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

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one Orthodox synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family went Saturday morning to shul. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs, looking down at the men through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house, similar to the routine in David’s town. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula recalls playing with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw one further. She also particularly liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula had fond memories of one neighbor friend, Chaya. One time Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one, and she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even as a youngster and even 60 years after the fact.

Though she remembers being frightened of the Russians, Paula was eight when they invaded, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change in her life was school. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Russians came. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at the school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch and then the  Germans shot them in the back causing everyone to fall into the ditch. The father and son fell in just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Germans had left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – she thought it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but as a child she was shielded from it.

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

 

[Next week: Paula’s journey continues]

 

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.