Survival

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

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

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

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

They came across another farmer who took them to a hut. Lea sewed for that farmer. During the war everything was in short supply, anything that could be repaired needed to be. Lea’s skills were put to use and in return the farmer provided food. They stayed there for about 6 weeks. Paula had reprieve enough to notice the beauty of the surrounding green forest. To Paula the woods came to represent safety.

At the end of the 6 weeks, the farmer told them where there was a Jewish encampment and they started in that direction. But they heard shooting, so they changed direction. They later heard the Partisans where they were headed got overconfident, got drunk and careless; a gang of Crimeans attacked them. Jews and Partisans were killed. Fortunately, once again, Lea’s good sense kept them away from danger.

While on the move, they crossed paths with a neighbor from Serniki, Natan Bobrov. He told them that more Jewish Partisans were in Lasitsk, a town north and east of where they were at that point. They made their way there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day at the market, as she was selling bread, she spotted someone who looked familiar. She studied the man at a distance and slowly it dawned on her. She approached cautiously, but as she drew closer, their eyes met. It was Dmitrov Lacunyetz, the farmer who first hid the Silberfarbs. Neither of them could believe their eyes. They hugged in relief, absorbing the fact that each had survived the war. It was a tearful reunion. “Now I can die in peace,” he told her. Throughout the war he wondered if he had really helped them. Lea shared some yeast and salt with him as a gesture of appreciation, though she felt it was little compared to what he had done for them

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

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

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

A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.

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

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

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

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

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

Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

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

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.

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

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

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

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