Hebrew Version from the book written by Mina Sheinfeld for her 80th birthday: “Memories (1916-1996)”
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.
The way home
The long train crawled slowly, its cars packed with frightened people. Only a small part of young Poles joked at the expense of the Germans and the Jews. From time to time the train stopped because of the bombing, and the journey took almost a whole day. It was already dark when I saw the village’s houses, and in some of them yellow spots of Shabbat candles could be seen shining in the windows, I remembered it was Saturday night.
Many doubts arose in me as the train approached Warsaw. This was the first time in my life I drove on Saturday. Although the desecration of the Sabbath happened because of reasons that did not depend on me, since I’ve left Mardom early, nevertheless I decided to continue on foot after I got off the train. But at that moment when the train began to tread on Warsaw’ soil, I had many doubts about the previous decision. There were hardly any civilians on the street. Out of the total silence and gloom of the city, the voices of the Civil Guard and the police were heard, passing instructions on the loudspeakers.
With me in the car was also seated a Jew who, during his entire journey, was self-contained and kept silent. I went to him, and when it became clear to me that he was a resident of Warsaw, I showed him the note with the address and asked if I could go there on foot. He smiled and answered that it was impossible. He explained that he too was an observant Jew, and lived closer, but at such times he would have to get home by tram. It was hard for me to describe how I felt, how would I enter the home of a religious family in the middle of a Shabbat meal? But I had no other choice.
When the tram turned into the residential street, the results of the bombing on the first day of the war could be seen. Here and there were burned or destroyed houses, bomb craters on the sidewalks, but all in all, Warsaw was very similar to peace time, before the extinction threats of the Germans started coming true.
Having found the address and entering, I found to my surprise, apart from the Flato family, two additional guests: Yehuda Lacobitzki [Lavi], who remained stuck in Warsaw trying to arrange his immigration papers, and a member of the “Trei-Asar” kibutz, whose name I do not remember. I was greeted warmly and immediately fed, because I hardly tasted anything during the day. Everyone was curious and thirsty to hear what has happened to us in the Kvutza these days, and we were talking and telling until late at night, until an enormous noise of bombs forced us to go down to a safe place.
We heard rumors that it was very difficult to leave Warsaw nowadays, and it was necessary to stand in line for a whole day to get a place on the train. Shlomo Plato promised us his help on Sunday morning. The next day, all day Saturday, the bombing did not stop, and we already stopped going to the shelter, we sat together and brought up memories from the Kvutza days, and when dusk began to fall, we began to hum the same songs we used to sing during the “Oneg Shabbat” in the Kvutza.
On Sunday morning we got up early and headed for the train station. When we got there we found long lines of people in front of the cashiers. Warsaw had thousands of citizens from neutral countries and many refugees, and each of them wanted to leave. We too stood there, but we could not stand for long. Each time an alarm sounded and the streets were deserted from cars and people, because everyone ran to seek shelter. The planes would show up in groups and progressed slowly in the sky, and we heard thumps like thunder without lightning.
After the “all clear” signal, we went back to the line, listening to the radio and the various rumors, but it was hard to tell the truth. Hitler said that if the Poles refused to surrender Warsaw will be wiped odd the face of the earth, and the Poles claimed they pushed the Germans attacked, and advanced toward Germany. But the German bombings were so frequent that the first version seemed closer to the truth. We stood like that for a whole day, and only in the late evening did I get a ticket. I parted with heavy feelings from my friend, and left for Siedlce.
First bombings in Siedlce and the flight to the village.
Total darkness enveloped the city when I got off at the train station in Siedlce. Since I knew every road and path in this city, I had no trouble finding my way home. The streets were empty, only occasionally were figures seen by the gates of houses, and as they recognized me to be from somewhere else, began to ask what was going on there. I hurried home, and by the darkness and quiet that prevailed there, I understood that my parents were already asleep. I called them so as not to alarm them, and they immediately recognized me and their joy was endless. They told me how worried they were about my fate. I did not go to bed as usual, but went to Mother’s bed and we talked until late at night.
The next morning Mother began looking for various food items that were no longer easy to obtain, as if the house had been empty until now and only now was full of life. I immediately tried to establish connection with fellow-citizens who were members of the training camp, and were at that time on vacation – Rachel, Shlomo and Yosef. This period was described, with great talent, by Reb Shlomo Rozen in a pamphlet titled “Out of the debris” which was published. Since we were mostly in different places, I will try to describe what I went through.
There were two large army battalions in our town, so there was a special fear that the Germans would try to harm this city more than elsewhere. In the first few days the bombings were isolated, and in places far from the city, but in our shop (for kitchen utensils) we felt the surge of buyers especially of military personnel, as if before an escape. No one bargained, they paid quickly and didn’t even wait for change.
That was until September 7th, the seventh day of the war. It was 10 o’clock on Thursday morning, when suddenly a hissing sound became louder by the minute, and a sudden explosion shook the whole house. The parents managed to reach from the shop that was in front of our house, and both were covered with soot and dust. Glass was shattered, and through the window came voices and shouts from the street, and the bustle of walls falling.
We tried to go down to the basement, but most of the neighbors went to the neighboring tall building, which they said was safer, because even if the higher floors collapse – those on lower floors can survive. My mother and I followed them, even though my father remained in the cellar, continuing reciting Tehilim, because he said that one should not run away from God. New fires broke out in the city, spreading into a great fire. More flames appeared, and most of the city remained burning and still.
Even now it’s hard to describe the devastation in the burning city, the beams of the searchlights, and the buzz of the bombers’ engines. The smell of smoke grew stronger, and the people standing under the building huddled closer together. I suddenly heard a silent prayer “Shema Israel”. I looked up for a moment, and it was one of my young neighbors, and of “HaShomer HaTzair”. The city looked like hell, so I could understand his feelings. Around were blackened buildings and flames burst through windows, and all the time the airplanes’ noise and bombs’ whistles falling one after the other.
When the “all clear” siren sounded for a few moments we came out to check the situation, and it was a devilish sight. The destruction in the area was terrible. You could see twisted bodies among the rubble and flames and smoke. The house I lived in was standing, and I ran to visit my father. I brought him some food from home, (he sat in the basement) and we went to the street, for he requested to try and perhaps save someone or give some kind of help.
Many people wandered among the ruins and watched or rummaged in to find their loved ones or their relatives. There were people who accepted the losses in quite despair, others cried and refused to accept the bitter truth. One single block of buildings was not damaged at all, and the next one was half-shattered and with swaying walls and rooms hung in the air. It was an unspeakable horror. There were burning houses where there were no doors but black holes through which scared and sooty people fled, climbing piles of bricks. People cried and did not bother to hide their tears, and a sense of pain existed united all.
The Jewish population has suffered the most, of course; therefore they said that each bomb had an address. With regards to submission of aid or saving souls we were helpless. Anyone who did try to save a soul caused a bigger collapse. We could not stay out long, as the masses of bombers filled the skies again with trembling buzz like millions of bees, and we had to return to shelter quickly. The bombings continued with all their might, collapsing a building just in front of us.
With us were also my aunt Sarah Radzinsky (mother’s sister) and my cousin Hella, who lived across the street. Suddenly a friend of my cousin, the son of a Jewish doctor (Dr. Tannenbaum), who was drafted to the Polish army, approached us. His hair was messy, all black with soot, and told us how he tried to save a friend from the gymnasium (the granddaughter of Rabbi Nahum Weintroib, who was known in our town as a devoted Zionist) and her mother was killed in front of him. My cousin wept bitterly, for it was her best friend.
He also told us that he and his mother are going to go to one of the surrounding villages that evening, as his mother has special permission from the government that’ll facilitate their escape, and he asks my cousin to join them with her family. I hinted to my mother it will be very difficult to go through another such day, and asked her that we join them as well. The problem was convincing my father. After I told him we would take my grandparents who lived near the meeting place with us, he agreed to go with us. Now we were waiting for the darkness of night and for a break in the bombing.
When it got dark, we took the necessary things with us and set off. My uncle (Moshe Radzinski), who was a wholesale trader and one of the city’s wealthy people, managed to get a cart, and we were luckier than others by not having to walk. The sights we saw when we went through the city were so shocking and horrifying, it’s difficult to describe. Especially at nighttime, the sky was red with fire and smoke. Some tried to extinguish the flames, but there was also a water problem because most of the wells were damaged in the bombing. The narrow and dusty roads were filled with people, often walking. There were only a few wagons laden with children and parcels. Here and there one could also see squads of soldiers in helmets, peering disapprovingly at the stumbling refugees.
We drove in silence, huddled inside ourselves. My cousin Hela put her head on her friend’s shoulder, took his hand into her hand and they both dozed off. It was a cool moonlit night, and as we moved away from the city I calmed down a bit, seeing the darkness and the stars above again, instead of the billows of smoke and sparks of fire. When we reached the first village by the road, the doctor’s wife took advantage of her permit, and the Mukhtar opened the barn for us. That night we slept on bundles of straw instead of under the open sky. It was hard to fall asleep. I was hoping this might be only a nightmare, and in a moment all will clear up…
It was quiet all around, as if the night itself had been hiding with fear. I prayed in my heart that the night would last longer, for who knows what sights the morning will bring? It was a day that could shock all of humanity, and change the world for all. But the pale gray light dawned at the scheduled times, the birds broke out with their usual cheerfulness cries. Everything was strange and unbelievably unrecognizable. The door opened and the Mukhtar came in to inform us that the Germans were bombing villages along the road, and we had to go far to more remote villages because he did not want to take responsibility.
We didn’t have a cart now, and we continued our way on foot. Walking on the road was quite dangerous. Bombs fell here and there, and people jumped into the ditches on the way. On the road, charred figures who fled from fires appeared, women and children with bundles on their backs, looking around fearfully. Suddenly an aircraft formation appeared in the sky, and one of them flew along the road noise rattling in our ears and a mighty engine roar, and descended until you could see the swastika and its wheels. We all threw ourselves to the ground and waited for the airplanes to disappear in the horizon, and then continued to walk.
When we found the village that the Mukhtar directed us to, my uncle rented rooms for himself, and also a room for the rest of the family. Getting food, especially bread, was much harder. I remember that one morning I found a hoe near the house and tried to dig the ground after they had taken the potatoes out of it, and I did find some more potatoes.
I especially remember the New Year’s Eve. My uncle managed to get one loaf of bread, and we were allocated one slice. My father sanctified it in a voice choked with weeping. I could not help myself anymore, and I cried in order to unburden myself from the tense time. It was hard to get rid of discomfort and pain and the memories of horror I’ll never forget. We continued for several days until we heard that the Germans had conquered the city. The rumors were that there was confusion and betrayal behind the Polish lines. The Polish underground army fought alone for nearly five weeks, and then surrendered.
The Germans announced they’ll confiscate the property of anyone who did not return home by a certain date. My uncle who had many businesses returned to town, and my father R.I.P. decided to go home as well. Me and my mother stayed for a few more days.
Siedlce during the Nazi occupation
When we returned from the village the city was difficult to recognize. The destruction was clearly visible in the streets, and most of the houses were damaged by the many bombings. Yosef Levy’s parents moved into our house because their house was damaged. My father also told us the sad news that Shlomo Rosen was taken to work by the Germans when he went to fetch water. Our shop remained intact, even though the house next to it collapsed completely. But the store gave us nothing but trouble, because the Germans would come in every day, and robbed almost everything with shouts and threats, so we finally had to close it.
The Germans were out in the streets everyday catching Jews for work, and if there was a bearded Jew among them, they would rip out the beard with the flesh. Therefore, my father hid all day in the attic with his neighbors, and hid the door with a closet. There were hardly any men in the streets, and the few women rushed with grim faces. There has been a shocking change in people. The confident expression gave way to a haunted and sickly appearance. It was also difficult to talk to each other when it was known that we had a dark fate. It was difficult to predict that it would be an unparalleled war, and this was only the beginning.
I missed the Kvutza life very much, even the blessed routine and the beneficial activities of necessity, and one day when sadness and despair prevailed everywhere, I gathered all the dirty laundry that was in the house, and I did a lot of laundry just as I used to do in the Kibutz. I boiled it well, and even went to the wheelbarrow to smooth the bedclothes. The mangle lady looked at me with astonishment as such visits were no longer regular these days. But before the weekend, when I arranged the beds with clean linen and the laundry closet I felt very satisfied, and I noticed the same feeling in the eyes of parents.
Crossing Pilsudski Street was difficult, with German army parades in front of city hall. The brass band was playing the “Deutschland Uber Alles” and the German crowd with arms raised in Nazi salute, and flags with swastikas at every step. We started getting rumors about deportation of Jews to the camps, and along with this other information also unfounded, we called them “news – A.oo.a.” (Eden Whelan azoi), such as the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel etc … Some Christians have helped the Germans quite a lot conducting anti-Semitic incitement aiming the Christian population’s rage against the Jews for the war’s disasters. Jews were beaten in the streets of the city and were the victims of the abuse of every rascal and bastard.
I remember one Saturday morning, when my father finished praying, and has not yet gone to the “hiding place”. Rachel (Rosen – Sidroni) lived with us, and she got up to go to her mother who lived with a neighbor because their house was hit. After a few moments she returned in panic and told that the Germans had closed all the streets and gathered all the residents in the courtyards. Several Germans immediately entered the apartment and ordered everyone to the courtyard. It turned out that they were searching the apartments to find money, merchandise, or military stuff. As we stood in the yard, we could see thick smoke in the distance. Rachel and I somehow managed to get out on a side road to see what was going on in the street. It turned out that the Germans burned the main synagogue with the Torah scrolls. We returned to the courtyard with heavy hearts.
One of the rumors that went by word of mouth was that under the German-Russian pact, our city had to be transferred to the Russians. And this rumor was true. In the first days after the Russians entered Siedlce we breathed a sigh of relief. The Jews, regardless of status and political outlook, accepted this army as a liberating army, and viewed its rule as a guarantee for their safety. The synagogues began to fill up again, and we thought that salvation was coming. But it did not last long. Within a week, Siedlce became a no-man’s-land between the armies of Germany and Russia.
After a week the Russians again gave way to the Germans, and then they left the border open for two days, and many Jews moved to the Russian side, including Rachel, Shlomo and Yosef. When I escorted them, I saw trainloads of people, and the stations were witnesses to Hasty farewells. I tried to convince my parents that we go as well, but my parents had no desire to wander as refugees, while home is still intact, and at this stage I did not want to leave them alone.
Preparations for the border crossing
And so we went on living, if you could call it life at all. I decided not to go alone just to save my life, and I would do it just in case a chance for immigration to Eretz-Israel came up. And now rumors started arriving, it is possible to cross the border from the Russian side to Lithuania which is a free country, and from where it will be easier to act regarding immigration.
The Holocaust that descended on Europe’s Jews surpassed anything that had ever occurred to the enemies and destroyers of the people. The ways of life in Europe were blocked for the Jews, and they awaited salvation. Therefore, the refugees tried to escape to the various countries to which the Nazis had not reached, and because of this, the number of refugees who had taken refuge in Russia and Lithuania was also great. Many groups of Zionist youth started reaching Siedlce, in order to cross the Bug River to the Russian side, and then go on their way to Vilnius.
Among the first visitors were Hanoch Khamil’nyk (Ahiman), Mordechai Riichart and his late brother, and one more friend from Warsaw. That’s when I first heard of what was happening in this area. We sat until late at night and talked about various issues involved in crossing the border. I and my mother went to sleep at the neighbor’s; father slept on the small couch that belonged to me, and we gave the visitors the two beds.
A week later, when I went to fetch water, I met a Jewish fellow in the stairwell who, according to his face, was not feeling well. I brought him home and handed him a cup of tea, then he told me he was here with some friends from the “HaShomer HaTzair” of the city of Kalisz, and they want to cross the border to the Russian side. When he went to look for a guide, he ran into a German guard looking for Jews for work. He got some blows from them, and in the middle of the road managed to escape and hide in our stairwell. He also said they had nowhere to stay. I received permission from the parents to invite them to stay with us.
That week Shaul Rosenberg (Raz) came with two friends from Zabirtze. I was especially happy to see Shaul, because it was just pleasant to meet someone from my Kvutza whom I missed so much. We were all together on Friday night. As usual my late father, coming out of his hiding, used to wear his Sabbath clothes and did not give skip any prayer including “Shalom Aleichem” and Sabbath songs. When I met the guys after a long time in Vilnius, everyone was asking about my father and said this Friday night at our house left a strong impression on them.
A few years later when I was already in Eretz-Israel, my father died of Typhus in the ghetto, and Shaul Raz wrote a ballad in his memory, called “Rescuer”, which described this Friday night. It was also published in one of the magazines of “HaMizrachi” and I received a copy from Shaul some time ago which I copy here as well:
Shaul Raz – the Rescuer
A ballad in memory of Mordechai Kramarz z”l
Start a joyous song
Open your heart and see,
What miracles were in those days.
This is my home, the remaining one,
Shall light the night of your wandering! “
In completely bombed Siedlce
A wall remained and a rescuer,
A wonderful Jew of Jews.
And his tone draws like a flute.
He moves and lead the boys.
And only the rescuer was not saved.
To the walls came the marchers,
On their way to Zion,
Carrying and walking in line.
In the completely ruined Siedlce
A wall remained and a rescuer,
My songs will sound.
On the Sabbath day,
They lit candles in one wall,
And the voice of the rescuer as the voice of the angel.
Start a joyous song
Open your heart and see,
What miracles were in those days.
Shalom Aleichem wanderers!
You may trust me among the borders.
It is my home, the sign of God.
On my last visit in Warsaw and I stayed at Reichart family, where Dvora A., Mordechai’s friend, also lived. That evening, her sister Miriam visited her, and I found out that most of the Krakov Gar’in crossed the border to Russia, and I resolved to do the same.
Meanwhile, the situation on the German-Russian border worsened. The German border police had so far been bribed with large sums of money. Now they have changed their policies. Every day we heard about groups returned from the border, beaten by the Germans and robbed. In such a situation, it was difficult to leave the parents, because not only did they refuse to join me, but they also did not want to send me alone because they feared for my safety. Various acquaintances, and especially my sister-in-law Ester’s father, who already was in Eretz-Israel, tried to convince my parents that in these times sending a daughter alone to cross borders will be dangerous. Therefore I was very surprised when I heard my father try to convince my mother that there is nothing to lose, as if he knew in advance what awaits them … it was not easy to find a friend to travel with. Everyone feared the dangers lurking on the way. I tried to convince Haim Gothalf my friend from “HaShomer HaDati” with whom I was on good terms.
The German-Russian border
I’ll never forget the day I left for the border. An atmosphere of despair enveloped us all. All the arguments I made for myself, which were so logical, now seemed foreign and unfit, accompanied by guilt feelings standing face to face with reality, in the form of a broken and crying mother, but turning back was impossible. I remember my father’s blessing for the road: “Just as God had done great miracles on Chanukah, let’s pray he will perform miracles for you, which you need so much now “, and so off we went.
The wagon drove slowly via back roads, trying to get around the road leading to the river Bug, trying to avoid the German guard. We waited a long time the way thinking we heard voices, and only in the evening we got to the countryside, where many refugees have been waiting to go through the river at night. Meanwhile, we put our backpacks on the floor, lying next to them, and waited for the signal to get out to the boats that will take us the Russian side of the river Bug.
Outside, large snowflakes fell, everything was covered with a thick, white layer, and the signal was given … We were ordered to leave quietly, so the parents put pieces of sugar in babies’ mouths so they don’t cry. We went into small boats, about five people per boat. White foam could be seen on the river under the stars. Everything was so white and fresh-looking, as if the whole world was new and pure, and nothing bad was likely to occur in it, and all the stories about the figures dressed in white, lying in wait for us across the river in order to arrest us and send us to Siberia, are nothing but fiction.
We sat in the boat crouched, as if we wanted to be swallowed along with the boat, to unite with the water. The coastline showed white in the distance, where our goal awaited in the darkness: the town Drogotzin on the other side of the border.
When we arrived, we went quietly to the beach and began to walk following the guide. Suddenly we stopped … in the night were seen two huge searchlights. The guide ordered us to lie down on the ground. We lay stretched out in silence till all around was dark again. We got up and continued walking, groping our way in the dark. The guide slowed his steps and told us to lie down and wait. At the end the guide whispered: “Follow me”, and after ten minutes we reached the edge of town. My uncle had an acquaintance in this town, where we spent the night. He gave us the last room, out of fear of Russian guards, who searches for fugitives.
At ten o’clock in the morning we had to leave for Bialystok, and so we decided, Haim Gothalf and I, to visit Eliezer Robinstein who was here with his family. We managed to find him and talk to him. He also expressed a desire to cross the border to Lithuania, but did not know when he could do it. When we left for the train station we were surprised to be stopped by Russian guards. I was interrogated (my uncle managed to escape) and had to prove we are not black marketers. After searching our backpacks, which had personal belongings only, we were released and boarded the train to Bialystok.
- The Russian-Lithuanian border
When we got off the train in Bialystok, we started to look for Rabinska Street, where our Kvutza’s member, Shulamit Birenboim (Lavi), lived. In the city streets we saw queues trailing by bread shops, synagogues full of refugees, so it was hard to know that this place was intended for prayer. There were a lot of mattresses, and a lot of tired people, unshaven and at different ages.
Yet Bialystok was completely different from our town. I was amazed to see Jews walking on the street and laughing together. In Siedlce such a sight was impossible. When we got to Shulamit we were greeted warmly, and her mother served us hot soup which flavor I remember to this day. This was actually the first hot meal since leaving home.
We had barely rested from the trip, when Naftali Greenspan from Kibbutz Slabkob whom I met him for the first time came to us. He told us the next evening a large group plans to go out, to cross the border to Vilna. I asked if it was possible to join, and he replied directed me to Mordechai Reichart, who dwelled at Kaplanski family. That same day we turned to him, but we found out that travel expenses are so high we barely had enough for one of us. We were forced to sell personal belongings, to finance the expenses of the journey. It was agreed that at nine o’clock the next morning we shall meet next to the cash register at the train station.
When we met the next day I noticed a tall guy, very similar to Abraham Shnor, and found out it was his brother Natan. I’ve heard a lot about him from group members and we later became friendlier. The group also included Ben-Zion Grodzensky, Yaacov Frish, Naftali Grinshpan and others. That evening we reached the town of Lida, and waited at the train station all night. In the morning we had to reach a certain village by train, and then go out on foot to where the guide who was supposed to lead us across the border lived.
When we finaly boarded the train, we scattered to different sits to avoid the suspicions of Russian military police which mingled among passengers searching for suspects. Even when we reached the village we scattered in all directions, because the police got off the train together with us. Each one looked for a hiding place and at the end when it seemed to us that the place is quiet, we looked for a Jewish home to wait in until dark.
When we started to walk, we had no idea how long the road was. The long walk and tiredness took their toll. Short of breath from hard and fast walking, our eyes fixed on the ground running under our feet. The rising moon shone and made the walk a bit easier, and we arrived to the farmer’s hut.
Within the cabin, in a warm room lit by a small lamp, we found another group of “HaShomer HaTzair”. We were surprised to discover that although we paid the guide in advance as per the agreement, and he was supposed to lead us across the border at no additional charge, the farmer now began telling us about the dangers that lurk in the way in order to extort more money from us. We had no choice, but to negotiate over the remaining personal possessions we had. After negotiations, he received the additional salary and we were off.
The road wound through the woods and had many dangers. We were tired and exhausted, breathing grew shallow, and each slight rustling of a dry branch on the windy night seemed like an ambush.
I had no sense of time; only walking existed, only feet. Sometimes I felt that my legs were not, that they were moving levers, I had only one thought in my mind: Somewhere there is a border which I must cross. We walked without speaking following the farmer, and did not notice how our hearts stopped beating when only a hundred meters away appeared a group of bandits shouting “Stop!”
The guide and the other team were gone and we were left alone with the robbers. Again began the arduous negotiations. One gave a watch, the second – a gold ring, and so on and so on … at the end we were abandoned in the middle of the field, not far from the main road to the town Aisisok, which was our destination.
Suddenly we saw ourselves helpless, lonely and abandoned. Why were we caught? There was danger of Lithuanian soldiers suddenly appearing on the main road taking us back to the Russian border. Suddenly, we saw a little house, from which shone a narrow light line, crossing the darkness. We started to move forward the point of light, and we saw before us a square cabin with an arched awning and a stone wall. In the wall facing us I saw a small square that lit up, and it was a small hatch.
I asked the guys to wait at a distance, and I approached the hatch. I looked through it and saw an old farmer inside the room standing next to a burning oven baking bread. I greeted him in Polish, and I asked if we can talk to him. He came out to me, and was probably already used to the sights of those refugees wandering the roads.
The farmer told us his cabin is only four kilometers from the town Aisisok, so it’s dangerous to stay as Lithuanian soldiers occasionally show up. We asked him to take us to Aisisok using back roads. According to the farmer it was very dangerous to go with backpacks, and somehow without a second thought I consented to remain with the package during the night, and my friends promised to bring me and the package to town the next day.
When the men went off, I went with all packages into the other room where his wife lay sick. They also had a daughter, who was about to return from town. I lay down on the floor to rest, but it was difficult to fall asleep. It wasn’t lying on the cold floor that kept me awake, but the growing anxiety for the welfare of my friends. And, indeed, half an hour later there were footsteps and the farmer came in sulking, and told us that my friends were seized by Lithuanian soldiers on the verge of town. He himself received a few kicks and returned home. This was a hard blow for me, and I began to plan how to get out of the strait.
Aisisok has been known as a town inhabited by warm and kind-hearted Jews. Jewish community activists would redeem the refugee captured by the Lithuanians soldiers. The only question was whether these activists know that our friends were caught? At that moment I decided not to worry about the packages now, but try to reach town, to inform the Jewish community about the capturing of my friends.
To appease the farmer and his family I took out a bag of sugar and a jar of jam that my mother gave me for the trip, and were scarce during the war. I suggested that they give me farmers’ clothes and basket of vegetables and this appearance may get me to town safely. I promised them that I have relatives in town, and I will pay them their due – after all, they got to keep the packages. I had the impression that a feeling of pity was in their hearts, and they even tried to convince me that to eat bread and milk they brought from the cow. They also agreed that their daughter will follow me so she could guide me in time of need, so off I went…
I had the feeling that the people I met on my way looked at me with suspicion, and I tried, to wrap up a big scarf to cover his face, as though because of the cold,. Suddenly a wagon approached me, in which sat a farmer and it stopped by me. My heart stopped beating for a moment out of fear, but only for a moment. The farmer asked in Yiddish: “are you Mina?” When I answered “yes”, he asked us to return to the house. It turned out that the Lithuanians soldiers led my friends through the town, so they could get money for them from the community’s activists.
When my friends were released they began to worry for my safety. It was hard for them to understand how they agreed to leave me alone, and also feared the farmer will send me away after getting beaten by the soldiers. They were hosted by a local resident named Baruch Folittzki, a shop general store owner, a wonderful warm-hearted Jew, and he assured my friends he’ll take care of everything. Indeed, he found a man who knew the area well, and he rode the wagon dressed as a farmer. He knew me by my friends’ description, carrying a Polish identity card with a picture that Haim Gothalf had, by chance.
The man told me it will be safest if I keep the same clothing I started walking in, and I have to try and get to Baruch Folittzki’s store, where the farmer’s daughter will receive back the clothes and the payment, and he will take care of transferring the backpacks. When I arrived in town, I saw a group of soldiers. I went into a stairwell to wait for them to pass, just in case. I remember how I got to the general store and a woman approached me and asked in Russian what I wanted. When I told her my name she started kissing me as if I were her lost daughter.
When my friends saw me their delight was boundless. Again I have to mention the kindness and devotion of the Folittzkis. They gave me a warm and delicious meal, they gave the bedroom to my friends, the sofa in the dining room was given to me, and they themselves slept in the kitchen. The landlord came donstairs at night and gave me another blanket lest I be cold.
The next day we were leaving Aisisok. At that time there were many youth groups in Aisisok. We rented a truck together to bring us with the darkness of the night to Vilnius. The error was that we were too large a group, and when we were about to get on the car, we were caught by Lithuanian police after being informed on. We were extradited by Jewish communists and led us on foot to the police station. There they began searching our clothes, to check if the smuggled money or other things. I was a bit scared, because my father put some foreign currency he had in the soles of my shoes, as provisions for the journey. I was among the last waiting to be searched because they waited for a policewoman to search my body. When we left, we stayed in a small group, Naftali Grinshpan, Natan Shnor and Haim Gothalf. Since we were the last, we were not redeemed by Jews from the town and the soldiers decided to return us to the Russian border.
We were desperate, and again started to negotiate with the soldiers, using the rest of the remaining things we had. At the end they accepted and led us in some way towards the border, and ordered us to continue without them. We were abandoned without even knowing where. We made an error when we into a farmer’s hut found on the way, and after a few moments troops entered again. They managed to squeeze some things out of us again, and left us where we had come. There was no point to stumble in the dark … Near the farmer’s hut was a horse stables (or pigs), and there we went to wait for the morning. It was bitter cold, and we all stood shivering in one corner against the wall.
I could not stand it, hadn’t I believed that this is not only about saving lives, but also the achievement of my dreams and reaching the desired shore. It was not a journey without a destination, we all knew exactly where we ultimately want to reach. The wind died down a bit, but through the cracks of the barn we could see the snowflakes that fell all night. We prayed for a better day after the terror of the night.
At dawn, before we could get out of the stable, the farmer entered and angrily drove us out. When we left, we saw a single soldier not far from us, the rest of the members dispersed and managed somehow to hide, only me and Haim Gothalf were caught by the soldier. I tried to convince him (they understood the Polish language) that if he brought us safely to the town, he’ll get some money from us, but he refused to do so. He showed me a safe way to get into town, and promised that if they bring him money to a place he described, he will release Haim Gothalf. Having no other choice I walked this way Aisisok, I went to Baruch Folittzki, and told him about the money I have in my shoe, and asked for his help. He went with me to the shoemaker, and also found a young man who rode his horse with the money, to release Haim Gothalf.
The activists of Aisisok decided then not to endanger us more after all the hardships we went through. One of the activists decided to accompany us to Vilnius, and in case something happens, he immediately redeem us. Meanwhile, the rest of the friends arrived at the scene. We agreed to wait at night at a nearby synagogue, where the man of the Community Council will come to take us to the train station. To our surprise, we found Shulamit and Yehuda in the synagogue, and we were very happy with this meeting. We have not changed our plan, and when the man showed up we parted from Shulamit and Yehuda and off we went.
- Vilnius and Klinbh
Tired and exhausted we finally got to Vilnius. We felt a strong yearning for home, shelter and rest. This city was for several centuries a Jewish spiritual center of Eastern Europe and at the outbreak of the war the best people from all corners of the pioneering youth in Poland concentrated there, and crossed the border through Russia to Lithuania. Collective-absorption centers were established there, and everyone, tired from wanderings, found a kind of home, warmth, family and friends.
We came to a place like this too, Kiobskh Street in Vilnius, then called “Kibutz on the way”. I remember receiving the first letter from my late father, in which he wrote to me he was very moved by the name “Kibutz on the way”, because it brought a feeling of hope. At first we were very crowded. About 15 girls slept in a small room, in six beds side by side, and we arranged the sleeping accommodation in shifts.The boys which numbered many more, initially slept on a table, or on a door taken off its hinges, until the Joint supplied us with furniture and the rest of the necessities.
This Joint actually funded, indirectly and directly, most of the rescue operations, and also fulfilled the mission of American Jewry. Our life slowly became normal, and a few months later the members “Reshit” and Salbakob moved to a more spacious apartment on Spatitzkago Street. Kibutz “Trei-Asar” and others (among them Haim Gothelf ) moved to the city Fonibiz.
The first thing I was able to do, and it made me very happy, was to reconnect with my brothers in Eretz-Israel. Eventually I started getting letters, which I later forwarded to the parents in Poland. At the same time the feelings of longing and anxiety for the fate of the parents, who were already in the ghetto, increased. I often received letters from them which have expressed their joy that I’m away, and that there’s a spark of hope in me to move to Israel.
Meanwhile a Zionist rescue committee was founded, including members of “HaMizrachi”, “HaPoel HaMizrachi” and “HaShomer HaDati”, the most active member was attorney Zerach Warhaftig. They began investigating the possibilities for immigration and indeed after six months or so were able to organize quite a large group of rabbis, Aliyat Noar and others who immigrated to Eretz-Israel. Among them were Shulamit Lavi, Ahyva Halevi-Levin, Shaul Raz, Hella, Hanoch Ahiman, Yehoshua Lewinobitz, Shoshaan Merhavia and others.
At the same time group “Reshit” and part of the Salbakob group decided to move to an agricultural farm in Klinbh (near Kaunas). According to the plan we had to study agriculture for a half-day, and work the other half-day. Another part of the Salbakob group, including Natan Shnor, Naftali Grinshpan, Shalom Granek, Ben Zion Grodzensky and others remained in Vilnius.
Klinbh was an isolated estate in which lived the owner – a widow at the age of forty or so, and an Agronom who managed the estate. The house was surrounded by trees, flowers and lawns, with windows overlooking at the fields and the gardens which contained seedlings and plants of all kinds. The farm was about four kilometers away from the town Garliabh, and ten kilometers from around the city of Kaunas. All here was quiet and calm, and it was really difficult to imagine that another region of the world had such terrible war raging, and horrible events occurring at the same time.
I remember a play we put up in which when we presented pieces of our lives training before the war, and singing a Yiddish song popular in those days, which reflected the reality of refugees’ life.
vi ahin zal ikh geyn, ver ken entfern mir, vi ahin zal ikh geyn, es iz fershlusn yeder tir, es iz di velt groys in sheyn, nur far mir iz zi tsu kleyn, vi ahin zal ikh geyn, az ikh vis nisht aleyn
(Where shall I go, who could answer me,
Where shall I go, all doors are locked,
In a world so big and beautiful, there is no place for me,
Where shall I go, I truely have no idea)
We found some peace, for a while, in this farm. But it did not last long. As per the Russian-German pact, the Russians entered Lithuania, and everything changed. We were told that it is too dangerous to live in large groups, and we must disperse into smaller groups and also move all “Zionism” underground. We were especially worried about the fate of the immigration. Having no choice we had to act quickly. It was decided at the end that “Reshit” group will relocate as one into a small apartment we rented in the nearby town Graliabh.
Graliabh and preparations for immigration
In Graliabh we had a large room where two-storey beds were arranged for the boys, and a kitchen which had a stove, two beds, mine and Rachel (Rozn-Sidroni) and a small oven. I remember how we were collecting small pieces of wood, and push them inside to warm up the cold room. Although we were in a group, each one was immersed in his world, his work and his memories of the past and no one tried to cling to an unknown future.
The friends were usually out to chop wood, and didn’t always manage earn a living. I remember election day under Russian regime, the neighbors advised us to go along with the demonstration, with a red mark on our lapel and shouting with everyone: “Long live our father Stalin”, in order not to arouse suspicion.
Although under great mental stress, we nevertheless tried to keep the flame going, and we used to spend Sabbath and holidays as usual, although we sang the usual songs using Russian tunes. We were also advised to hide the Hebrew books out of sight.
Often a sense of loneliness, despair and doubts arose in us. There were moments when we felt as if we were abandoned by the whole world, and no one would stir and shake the complacent sitting in their homes where the war have not yet reached. There were only a few spots of light in a continuous sheet of routine, and occasionally sparkled yet some kind of hope that perhaps we can somehow get out of it. There was an intense longing for a successful conclusion. The reality was difficult, and existence demanded many hours of effort, yet we realized we should fight this reality, hoping for a better tomorrow. And this moment has come.
Chances for immigration began to emerge, and a committee was created, which should provide candidates according to seniority in the movement, training etc … Our active members were: Shalom Granek, Ben Zion Grodzensky and others. We were told that the Russians agreed to transit through Russia, provided the Joint will finance the travel as first-class tourists. There were of course difficulties in applying for a passport and exit permit, and we had to be very careful with the content of the request so Russians not invalidate it. We had to fill out questionnaires, and we knew that the answers were to be examined by a special committee of the GPU.
We waited in silence for the committee’s invitation, and our nerves were tense as wires. What will be the fate of those who will not receive the long-awaited passport – no one dared to think and no one dared to even hint at it. I once spent 45 minutes, as long as an eternity, fearing of the results of the meeting with Russian officials. It was known that not everyone will have the option to receive the permits, so everyone tried to find a way in every nook and cranny, and thousands of refugees, including MK Zerach Warhaftig, Shlomo Rozen, Shlomo Shmidt, Haim Gothalf and others arrived as far as Japan in their wanderings.
There was a strong yearning for the homeland, and the hatred around further deepened this emotion. We were prepared for immigration in all ways and in all conditions. Distant Eretz-Israel was now adorned with a special glow.
The licenses were handed out to couples, in general, or, as it were called – “fictions”, and I was given a single certificate on behalf of WIZO. I well remember the feverish preparations for the trip. Once, we had to be at the Soviet office in Kaunas on Saturday. All throughout the night we walked to Kaunas on foot, all the way singing Hebrew songs with Russian melodies, so as not to arouse suspicion. The next day I stayed with one of the friends from “Bnei Akiva” who was my friend, named Raya Kaplan. She was a great girl and the fiancée of Abraham Melamed at the time.
The day of departure approached … with me then traveled to Moscow Rachel Rozen, Naftali Grinshpan, Itzhak Shpargal and others. Abraham Shnor, Alexander Naiger and others left a few days earlier. Eliyahu Epstein did not get the license for some reason, and I left him depressed and feeling heavy. I mailed my parents the address of Tzvi and Shoshana Rozenbortzel who got married and stayed in Kaunas, so that they could send me mail through them.
Here it should be noted that not all had legitimate passports. Forging documents was necessary as a means of salvation, and this task was performed with good conscience, to save the refugees and get them out of Lithuania. Yaacov Mandelboim RIP was one of the activists in this work.
The stations of the way to Eretz-Israel
The train to Moscow was designed for long journeys, and had sleeping cars. We went to Moscow by land, as at the sea was strewn with mines at that time. We were tourists in the first class in our poor clothes and backpacks containing only the most necessary personal things. The first-class was paid for by the Joint, of course, as per the demand of the Russians. I heard the iron chains stretch, the engine panting as it started to pull, and the train began to move. It made its way through the rocky and winding terrain, between forests and farms. We were all silent with excitement, and the time passed by without us noticing. Outside the window nothing stirred on the endless snow surface other than the black telephone poles passing by.
Men in uniform checked the tickets, and were amazed to see the tired faces of these young people, with their miserable backpacks, sitting in first class designed for wealthy tourists. Most interesting was when we arrived at the border and customs inspection went into first class, to check the valuables of the rich tourists, and to their amazement found only scant clothing in old knapsacks.
I stared out the window of the first-class car, and had a strange feeling – tense but also vital, and I felt an elation rising in me that came from the hopes for the future. I continued looking out the window, wrapped in silence. Large areas of the vast forests and fertile agricultural areas appeared in front of me. We finally got to the biggest city in the Soviet Union – Moscow, the first stop on my way to Eretz-Israel.
“Intourist” hotel, where we had to stay is one of the largest luxury hotels in Moscow, to which the richest and most important tourists are brought. This was a multi-storey building, with a huge and beautiful dining room on the 15th-floor. Uniformed waiters passed carrying trays with a variety of food. The menu was printed in Russian and English, and was decorated with the hammer and sickle. We of course debated a lot in terms of choosing a kosher menu, and it mostly contained fruits and vegetables. Instead of money we paid with coupons we had at our disposal. We sat around round tables while dancers appeared on stage performing folk dances.
The next day we went on an organized tour in groups of six. Black cars were waiting to collect us in front of the hotel, with drivers and escorts standing beside them. We went through the squares and wide streets of Moscow. People peered curiously at the cars. Outside, the snow was fresh and the people of Moscow were going about their business as usual, and some of them especially the elderly and youths walked toward the Red Square. Even our cars were heading in that direction. The cars were inspected, one by one, by armed guards, tough-looking, tall in impeccable uniform.
In the center of Moscow rises the Kremlin fortress, which houses the top government offices of the Soviet Union. Next to the Kremlin stretches the Red Square, in which large and luxurious demonstrations are held. The Red Square also bears Lenin’s burial building, with two soldiers looking like statues standing on both sides. Around massive crowds of visitors passed in quiet, and we joined the procession and followed them.
We visited other famous places, accompanied by appropriate course of one GPU. For the same reason we couldn’t seek Jews in the crowd, especially as everyone looked the same, and bore no sign to distinguish them. The rest of the time was spent arranging visas to Istanbul.
We left Moscow on the way to Odessa, to get on a ship that should lead us to Istanbul. This was my first time sailing. Since I knew the trip would last only two days, I went out occasionally on deck, leaning on a railing at the back of the ship, in order to satisfy my eyes with the wonderful sights around. I gazed at the wonderful mix of sun and sea, and felt complete relaxation. I swallowed the view of the magical landscape that surrounded me. As I was told before, I was afraid of getting seasick, but I didn’t feel any. I felt great the whole time and the trip was very pleasant for me. As we were about to get closer to Istanbul I went on deck. Istanbul was seen as wonderful images, the likes of which can be seen only in glossy postcards. And here we come to the 2nd important station – Istanbul.
When we got to Istanbul we went straight to the hotel, where each group of friends who had appointed rooms. We found out that we would have to wait in Istanbul for two weeks, and the first explanation we received was that the British regimes requested proofs that we aren’t communists, because we came from Russia. Each of us is required to provide the address of relatives in the country, and only later we learned that there were other reasons entirely. Even friends who left Kaunas before us, including the late Abraham and Alexasnder waited in Istanbul for immigration to Eretz-Israel.
In Turkey messengers of the country worked in collaboration with local friends. Many rescue operations were directed from there throughout the war, actions that were significant and important, although relatively small compared to the power of the Holocaust. Turkey was neutral during World War II, and as such served as a sort of crossroads for survivors from Europe, and was the only bridge between the refugees and emissaries of the community, working for the rescue.
Istanbul was a little different compared to previous places we visited. We got money instead of coupons, and we could plan our meals ourselves. this was the first country to achieve oranges for cheap, and many of us were satisfied with eating bread and oranges, and the excess money was spent on clothes and shoes. We visited many beautiful places in Istanbul. We also learned we could send small packages of fruit, containing figs and dates, to our parents in Poland, under the trade publication: “Samples without value”. I managed to get a letter from my parents sent via Kaunas, and they wrote to me they received the package in the ghetto on Thanksgiving Day, and my joy was big.
One evening they told us the happy moment came, and the next day we will go with a taxi through Syria and Lebanon straight to Haifa. It’s hard to describe this trip. We were all so excited in those moments, it was hard to simply absorb experiences from the road. I remember just when we approached Haifa, and I saw the first Hebrew letters on a certain sign, I gave vent to tears that started running indefinitely. Through the windscreen of the taxi I’ve seen the buildings, factories, refineries, and in particular the rising sun.
It was the first bright spot in our long way…