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. Lead 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.]