Mr. Avrum Aryeh Bejell passed away recently in Jerusalem.

Aspects of his autobiography put a human face on the recent history of Israel and the Jewish people.

Summer of 1939. The air was saturated with the smell of the storm of the approaching war. The policy of appeasement by the superpowers of Europe, Great Britain and France did not satisfy the appetite of Hitler the Furer of the Third Reich.

After the conquest of Czechoslovakia Hitler presented his demands to Poland which meant surrender of its independence.

Great Britain and France declared their readiness to protect the independence and integrity of Poland. These declarations and warnings didn’t deter Hitler from his plans of aggression. Soon after signing the non aggression treaty with the Soviet Union, Germany invaded Poland. On the First of September 1939 World War II began.

With the start of the war the Nazi propaganda also preached the destruction of European Jewry.

The Polish army was no match to the German armor. In a matter of days Polish defense was shattered and forced to surrender. The German army advanced with great speed toward eastern Poland.

My hometown of Maciejow, where I was born and raised was in the region of Volynia in Eastern Poland, today part of the Western Ukraine. The area was part of Poland between the two world wars.

With the advance of the German armies there began a flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Eastern Poland. Anticipating the complete defeat of Poland, they hoped to find refuge from the Germans in the Soviet Union. The majority of refugees were Jews. They told us of the atrocities committed by the invaders against the Jews under their occupation. As the Germans came closer concern and fear of the future heightened. The only hope for shelter and salvation was to the East, in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the non-Jewish Ukrainian population in the area saw the Nazis as their saviors. They were led to believe that Hitler would declare the Ukraine an independent state. From day to day tension grew.

On Sunday the 15th of September the people of Maciejow awakened to find that we were left without the local government. There was no form of law enforcement at all. Word also spread that the Red Army had invaded our region from the East. Later that day we were showered with leaflets from a low flying Soviet plane telling us that the High Councils (Parliaments) of the Ukrainian and White Russian Republics had decided to liberate and annex the western parts of the Ukraine and White Russia as parts of the Soviet Republics. We understood that this action was part of the Ribentrop-Molotov Agreement. The German army was not to enter the region east of the Bug River. The Jews were somewhat relieved though they were far from total relief. A new period of wait and see began. For about a week we lived in a lawless state. Certain Polish unit, which withdrew from the Soviet frontier, hid in the forests and plotted to kill Jews. They accused them of collaborating with the Soviet enemy. Luckily, no such incidents took place in Maciejow.

It took the Soviet armored units a week to reach Maciejow on their way westward to the Bug River which was the new frontier with the rest of Polish territory under German occupation.

I remember the jubilation of the people in our town who came out en mass to witness the entry of a tank column. The commander of the unit declared in his short speech, “We are liberating you from the rule of the Polish nobility forever”.

The next day members of the Polish communist underground, many of whom had spent years in prison, filled the political vacuum and organized the local police and municipal authority.

This period was one of deep crisis for our family. My father had died in 1925, when I was just two years old. My mother headed a one parent family with four young children. The oldest of three boys was just nine years old. The youngest, my sister, was born a few months after my father died. My mother was very capable and talented in running the business she was left with while managing the household with the help of her mother. With the new situation the business as well as other investments collapsed. My plan to join my older brother in Eretz Yisrael was shelved. Mother was constantly concerned about the fate of my older brother who lived in Western Poland under Nazi occupation.

The economic situation in our region deteriorated to full bankruptcy. The inventories in businesses dwindled to nil. The supplies reaching from the Soviet Union were minimal and of poor quality. Lines formed at the stores for daily necessities even bread grew from day to day. The farmers were only interested in bartering products. Inflation was rampant and the ruble depreciated from day to day.

The dreams about the Soviet Garden of Eden dissipated. Promises for better times did not materialize. The symbol of the hammer and sickle turned to be a symbol of hunger and poverty.

My mother was of great help in tutoring me in the Russian language. Thanks to her help I was accepted to the ninth grade of the high school in the town of Kovel. I commuted to school by train. At the same time I got involved in bartering to help support our family. Any spare time I had was spent bicycling to Kovel with produce to exchange for all kinds of necessities. This lasted for about ten months when I entered tenth grade in my hometown of Maciejow. Our family didn’t experience any food shortages. We were not hungry for bread and the cow we owned supplied ample dairy products.

Our greatest concern was my brother Yosef who was living under German occupation in the city of Radom in western Poland. The news that reached us was of ghettos being created for Jews, forced labor, Jews being treated as sub-humans and murders of innocent civilians only because they were Jews. All this caused my mother anguish and sleepless nights. In our region we didn’t experience official anti-Semitism. There were Jews in the local government.

We lived in our home which was a two family house built in the late 20’s. With the arrival of the Soviets the tenant that shared the house with us was evicted and the local council moved its office there for a short time without paying any rent. Afterwards the police moved in for a period of six months. We were warned by the commanding officer to see, to hear and to keep quiet. Non-compliance would mean eviction from our own home.

The office of the police interrogator was adjacent to our room. Interrogation of suspects hostile to the Soviet regime, both Jews and non-Jews would take place late at night. The interrogations were conducted aggressively with beating until blood ran. Screaming, abuse, insult and crying was heard when the interrogated insisted he was innocent. One night I was awakened by screaming and I heard the suspect begging his interrogator to stop torturing him and to do away with him by hanging. The answer was: “We do not hang our enemies we shoot them like dogs. I couldn’t stand any more of the horror that night and I ran out of the house.

And so we adhered to the warning and kept our mouths shut. After six hard months the militia moved out and joined their offices with the NKVD. In its place we got new tenants: the family of the deputy of the head of the NKVD and the family of the deputy of the head of the militia. The rent was not paid and no reimbursement was made for services rendered. The relations with our new tenants were cordial, especially with the wives. The children were our guests mainly at dinner time. They loved my mother’s cooking.

In December 1940 we received a letter from my brother Yosef from Radom. From the hidden style of the letter we understood that the situation in the ghetto was deteriorating by the day. Yosef was ready to cross the border illegally. He wanted to know what the consequences would be when he was caught by the Soviet authorities. My mother went to consult our tenants. The answer was that they would no be able to help. They cited the law which stated that any person illegally crossing the border would be sentenced to three years of “educational work” in a labor camp. Mother answered Yosef’s letter but we didn’t know if the letter reached him. After the war I learned that he perished in Aushwitz.

In the spring of 1941 reports penetrated from abroad about the impending invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany. Officially the Soviet government denied the possibility of a German attack stating that they were a provocation by France and Britain aimed at damaging the relations between the Soviet Union and Germany. Despite the Soviet denial, we soon learned from foreign broadcasts that these reports were true. We heard about spies and gangs of saboteurs who crossed the border and organized a Ukrainian underground to fight the Soviet regime when the time came. Our two tenants were involved in a battle with saboteurs and they were both badly wounded. This event was not reported in the official press.

It was no secret that the Soviets were fortifying the new frontier along the Bug River. When the school year ended in June 1941 I was sent to work on the construction of an aerodrome in the vicinity of the village Novosilki, about 7 km from Maciejow (Lukiv). My job was to receive building materials that were transported from the railroad station by horse and wagon. I traveled to work by bicycle. The work was carried out by thousands of prisoners, brought in from the Soviet Union and was supervised by military personnel.

On Sunday June 21, 1941 I was up early to travel to work. My mother walked in and told that all night and in the morning there was a lot of air activity. Heavy planes were flying back and forth from the frontier. On my way to work I passed by the camp of an armored unit located in the buildings that once housed the monastery. I saw that the unit was moving out towards the frontier.

As I came closer to the camp I heard the sound of approaching aircraft followed by bombardments and explosions. I realized that the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union had begun. I returned home. After a few hours we heard officially from the Soviet news agency Tass of the invasion and of the bombardment of large cities in the western USSR. About noon-time we heard about the seriousness of the situation in a speech delivered over the radio by Stalin. Needless to say, the Jews were especially concerned.

Our town was of no strategic importance. On the first day of fighting the German armor advanced with lightning speed on the main highways. Our immediate area was bypassed by hundreds of kilometers. We were left in a vacuum. All we saw was truckloads of wounded being transported eastward.

At noon-time a large army truck pulled up to our house. The two families living in our house and their belongings were loaded onto the truck. They left without saying goodbye. Had they offered to take our family along we would have seriously considered it.

Maciejow was left without any authority and without any security for anyone.

The following days were very fearful for the Jews. There were German commando units in the area and we expected pogroms. On the night of June 23 a unit of German soldiers entered Maciejow and took over the town administration. Representatives of the Ukrainian population welcomed the new occupier. Their request to attack the Jews was nor approved.

From the first day of the war a trickle of young people began leaving Maciejow with the intention of reaching Kovel which was still in Soviet hands. On Wednesday morning I went out to meet some of my friends to organize a group to leave town at night. I was not successful. When I returned home I found my mother, grandmother and sister crying. A Ukrainian schoolmate who lived in our neighborhood had passed by our house and told my mother: “Avram- we shall cut his throat and hang him”. My mother told me: “If you desire to run away to save your life – do so”. I had expected this kind of reaction from her and I made my plan. I never really thought that I was about to leave my family and home forever. My mother also suggested to my sister Sima that she go with me. Sima didn’t want to leave and my mother didn’t have the strength to convince her that leaving was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure either that it would be good for her to come with me. She was 16 years old, I thought, “How would she be able to cope with the situation if I was drafted into the army?”

Mother sent me to say goodbye to our family members in Maciejow. They all had the same remark: “Avrum, think about what you are doing. You are leaving your mother, sister and grandmother on their own. My answer was that my mother told me to run.

I packed a backpack with some clothes and mainly with bread and water. I took all our valuables like silver and gold jewelry and buried them in the barn.

We sat down to eat supper. Each bite was soaked with tears. But I didn’t imagine that this was going to be the last meal I ate at my mother’s home. I hoped that a Soviet counter-offensive would begin soon and I would be able to return home.

As darkness set in mother accompanied me on my way out of town. We passed by the home of my friend Yakov Sobel. He joined me as we had made up to leave town together. As we walked we spoke about the situation. At the moment of parting we hugged and kissed and cried and mother said to me, “When this time of anger comes to an end don’t forget to come home as a Jew”. This was her last wish. From that moment Yakov and I were alone on our way to the unknown.

On the horizon all we could see was fire. We could hear the explosions which shook the ground. Flares lit up the skies. We walked to the side of the main road about 100 to 200 meters from the road in order to avoid gangs of German commandos. We walked quickly as we wanted to reach Kovel by early morning. In the dark of the night we came upon a relative of my father. He had deserted the Soviet army and was on the way home to his wife and children. I told him that I had left home with my mother’s blessing.

Past midnight we reached the railroad overpass near the military camp at Cherkasy. As we tried to cross machine gun fire was directed at us from the forest. We heard the bullets hitting the rails. We ran for cover into the forest where we decided to go to sleep. We were tired and we fell into deep sleep not feeling the mosquito bites. We were up with day break. Our water was finished and we were very thirsty. From far we could see a clearing in the forest and in its center a farmhouse with a well in its yard. We decided to walk over and ask for water. The Ukrainian farmer came toward us and said” “Jew boys, what are you doing on my land?” “We are thirsty. All we are asking for is some water to drink” was our answer. His face turned red and he began screaming: “Water? Water? My God cursed you and condemned you to die, I should give you water to drink?” He pointed to a pitchfork and screamed:” Get off my land or I’ll kill you!”

We started out again and came across a puddle in the forest. We drank the water for breakfast with some bread. While eating we heard the oncoming bombers. Their target was the munitions stored in the forest. The bombardments lasted a few minutes. The ground shook and the sky was dark from the smoke. We were frightened. We continued towards Kovel. We walked with branches attached to our bodies, camouflaged from the German pilots who entertained themselves by shooting at civilians. At about noon we reached Kovel which was still in Soviet hands but in a state of panic. After securing bread and water for the way we slept in Kovel. At dawn we started out again. Kovel was in disarray. The governing institutions were not functioning. The prison was open for the criminals to leave. Political prisoners were not so lucky. They were executed in the prison yard.

We were on the road to the city of Luck (Lutsk) which we were told was in Soviet hands. The road was packed with remnants of military units in a disorganized retreat from the front line. After covering about 20 kilometers we found ourselves in a wooded area on the banks of a river in the midst of Soviet military. There was much confusion. We could hear the voices of German soldiers on the opposite bank of the river. We were told that Luck was encircled. We were depressed. We asked for help from an officer and he advised us to return in the direction of Kovel and find our way eastward through the marshland. By sunset we were back at the outskirts of Kovel. We were extremely tired and we found our way into a wheat field. Without taking off our back packs we lied down to rest. In no time we were sound asleep. We woke up at dawn and started to make our way eastward again. It was a difficult journey in the woods and though the marshes, full of suspense. We were determined not to fall into the hands of the Nazis.

After nine days of wandering, on the night of the fifth of July, we were discovered in the dark by Soviet military police. We were already on the Soviet side of what was once the border with Poland. Their first question was, “Who are you? How did you cross the front lines? We showed them our Soviet ID cards and we told them that we ran away from the Germans and that we hadn’t crossed any front lines. They suspected us of being German spies. We were put on a military truck and we were taken to the headquarters of the NKVD in a Kiev suburb. After a short interrogation we were given food and drink and a corner to rest in. After a few hours of rest we felt much better, both physically and mentally.

In the morning we were told to take the train to the botanical gardens in the center of Kiev and to join the thousands of refugees, mainly Jews. Under the circumstances we were treated humanely.

We lived in tents and were given bread and soup three times daily. We were also able to but all kinds of necessities. The tense situation in Kiev was felt in the air. On the front lines the situation was deteriorating day by day. The German armies came closer and closer to the city. Kiev was preparing for a siege. In the streets we felt the hatred of the Ukrainian population for the Soviet regime. Graffiti appeared in praise of the German army and of Hitler. We decided that we should leave Kiev quickly. We were fortunate to find a train in one of the suburbs that took on refugees desiring to be evacuated to the east. We reached the Poltava region, about 250km east of Kiev. We didn’t want to go too far because we hoped that the situation would change for the better. We were sent to work in a sugar refinery. The work was very hard. Fuel was in short supply. We were fed semolina with milk and sugar three times a day. After three days we felt we were losing our strength. We hadn’t seen a slice of bread since we arrived there. We decided to run away from there at night. We reached Poltava. This time we were sent to work on a collective farm. We worked hard but we were fed well.

After about a week we were sent on military orders, together with many others to build fortifications and anti-tank trenches on the Denieper River. Tens of thousands of people worked on the project. We were fed knaidlach boiled in water with no salt, three times a day. They were as hard as rock and I remember them as Poltaver knaidlach. After being there a week, when we neared our place of work near the river we heard explosions and artillery shooting. It was a battle between Soviet ships on the river and German military on the Southern side of the Denieper. Soon shells began to fall near our work places. Instantly, tens of thousands of people ran in a panic towards the North. At night when we were already far away we could see the flames and the red sky on the horizon and we could hear people screaming. Days later we found out that the screaming was from the refugees, mainly Jews from Kiev who were bombarded on the ships on the river and were burned alive. Later at night we reached a railroad station. We got on a train that was loaded with grains and machinery that was evacuated to the east. We covered ourselves up to our necks in the grain so as not to be discovered by the authorities. This time our goal was to reach the border of Iran or Afghanistan. The feeling was that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. In such a situation we should try to reach the Near East and Eretz Israel. Our train was moving very slowly as priority was given to military transports on their way to the front and to trains loaded with wounded traveling in the opposite direction. After a week of very slow movement we reached the railroad station of Kuibyshev. The place was congested with refugees, most of them Jews. Here we met other Matzevers: Srul Shtam and son, Leibel Teper and Gershon Sznaiderman. After sitting it out at the railroad station for two days we were approached by an army officer who told us that he was on his way to Tashkent and he would be glad to arrange transportation for us too. He gathered a large group of military age youth. We were given a separate freight car. We were given rations that were to last us till we reached Tashkent after seven days. We were supposedly army conscripts on our way to an army camp in Uzbekistan. We realized that he was a deserter and that he was on his way to Uzbekistan to find his family which had been evacuated from the Ukraine. When we parted he said to us, “Children, you don’t know me and I don’t know you. I wish you good health.”

We arrived in Tashkent in mid-August. We registered in the office for refugees. A large group of us was sent to the regional city Kokand in the district of Fergana. Our group of seven was sent to a collective farm. The governing body of the collective received us very nicely. We were given a large room. Each of us got a bed with a straw filled sack as a mattress and a blanket. The climate was very extreme. In August and September the mid-day temperatures were in the 40’s C. Our first jobs were in the cotton fields and with vegetables. The work began at 6AM. We had our mid-day meal with the locals between 10-11AM in the field. The meal consisted of a slice of bread, vegetable soup and a fruit. After lunch we would rest in our room and at 4PM we returned to the fields to finish the day’s work. Between 10AM and 4PM the heat was unbearable.

In October we finished harvesting the crop and we began to prepare the land for the next season. They assigned the most strenuous jobs to the refugees such as digging irrigation channels with very primitive equipment. We worked a six day week. Each day we were given four pitot or 600 grams of bread. We received a miserable monthly pay and some products from which to prepare hot meals. We bought milk and dairy products from the locals. We were starving as the amount of food we received was not enough to sustain our bodies. We were forced to supplement by stealing food. We knew where the fruit and vegetables grew. When we came to the warehouses we also helped ourselves. Stealing was the Soviet way of surviving.

The situation on the front lines during 1941-42 was very bad. It seemed that the great Soviet Union could possibly collapse. We already heard about the atrocities the Nazis were committing in the territories they had occupied. We knew that the murdered were Jews. After the war I found out that my family was murdered in the first Aktzia in Maciejow in the beginning of August 1941. In the spring of 1942 I became ill with Malaria and Dysentery. There was no medicine available. I was in very bad condition. Through “protekcia” I got to the head of the local hospital. She was Jewish and had been deported to Uzbekistan by Stalin in the mid 1930s.

When I came to her I was in serious condition on the verge of collapse. The doctor was a good human being with a Jewish heart. After she gave me a thorough examination she said, “My child, if I don’t hospitalize you, you will die. I am taking you into the hospital and until a bed is available you will be on a straw mattress in the corridor. “After a week in the hospital I was on my way to recovery. Over the next month I was at the clinic a number of times where the doctor personally took care of me. Thanks to her I survived this horrible illness. After another month I returned to work, fully recovered.

When I first came to Uzbekistan I wrote letters to my older brother who had left for Eretz Yisrael at the age of 16 in 1936 and to my mother’s sister and her family who lived in New Jersey. After a year I still had no responses.

One day in July of 1942, I came home from work and I found a notice to report that same evening to a particular interrogator at the regional office of the NKVD. As soon as I sat down opposite him I noticed on his desk an airmail letter from the Royal Air Force with my brother’s name as the sender. The first question I was asked was, “Who do you know in the Royal Air Force or who in the Royal Air Force knows you?” Then he asked me if I recognized the name of the sender of the letter. I said that I did and that although he addressed me as his dear brother we were not related but only dear friends from the same town in Poland. My explanation was plausible because my brother left Poland under a fictitious adoption and he kept that family’s surname.

The interrogator asked me for my internal passport. He also told me to tell my friend Yaakov that he should come with his passport. A week later our passports were returned. We noticed that different codes were written into them. We realized that because of the letter we were suspects. About 10 days later we received notice to report for induction into the army. We passed a medical and we were drafted into the army. We were brought to the railroad station in the town of Kokand. Here we were loaded with 800 draftees into cattle wagons and we began a journey that lasted a month, Northward to the Ural mountains – the gulag region. We were packed in, 30 people per car. We slept on platforms of boards with a blanket to cover us. We received 600 grams of bread daily and whenever we stopped at a station we got some hot water to drink. At the stations we bartered food products. We traveled 30 days without a shower. We left Uzbekistan in August where the temperature was 40C. At our destination in the Urals winter had begun and it was 20C below zero with a lot of snow. During our journey we had no heating. Many of our people fell sick and some died.

Our first destination was the city of Serov. Serov was a big industrial center specializing in steel production. Our train was put on side tracks which had no exit. We were told that there were no barracks for us and that we would be living in cattle cars. Each car was given a small metal stove. We had to bring in our own firewood for the stove from the nearby forest. We brought water in buckets from the nearby river. Our job was to develop the railroad system of the huge industrial city. Our biggest problem was the shortage of proper clothing which could withstand the bitter cold weather which we had never before encountered. Instead of boots we were given wooden shoes and rags to wrap around our feet. Our work day began at 6AM, hours before sunrise. Three times a day we were fed watery soup seasoned with vegetable oil. The main course was mashed potatoes with a piece of salted fish or a tiny piece of meat. Our bread ration was 1kg a day. The bread was of poor quality as it was loaded with water like a sponge. Each evening we had to line up to receive our bread. Often there was a shortage and we had to go to bed very hungry. We were never compensated for the bread not received. The bread was our main source of nourishment.

I was loosing weight and my health was deteriorating. In December 1942 I took ill again with Malaria. The attacks were coming every other day. They always started in the afternoons at work and I was carried to our car on a makeshift stretcher in a state of unconsciousness. The next day I had to go out to work or I wouldn’t receive my daily ration. I was loosing my strength and I was hardly able to walk. I decided not to go to work and not to worry about the consequences.

The head engineer in charge of our unit came to see me. He found me in a sad physical state. He ordered the doctor to free me from work until I recovered and not to cut off my food ration. After about a month the attacks stopped. I was very weak and feeble -a skeleton. I needed a richer diet. This wasn’t available. I was starving. The lower part of my body swelled up. My feet were heavy, I couldn’t lift them. The swelling kept on advancing to the upper part of my body and I had difficulty breathing.

One evening I felt that I was choking because of shortness of breath. My heart beat was very weak. My coworkers called for the doctor. The doctor told my friends that he was sorry but he couldn’t help me because there was no medicine available. From what I understood, he told them that this might be my last night. I was thinking of my home and my mother and how great her disappointment will be when I don’t return after the war is over. (Then I was not aware that my family was no longer among the living.) I cried myself to sleep. I dreamt about my mother and my family.

In the morning I woke up and felt my chest and I realized that the swelling was down and that I was breathing easily. I burst out crying – this time from excitement. The doctor came in to see me and he was also glad to see my change for the better that took place over night. He said, “Yes, a miracle has happened”. The doctor referred me to a medical commission and suggested that because of my physical state, caused by malnutrition, to free me from work for six months and allow me to go to the southern regions of the Urals. He thought that in the South I would be able to find work in a collective farm where I would have enough food to recover completely from my illness which was caused by malnutrition. The medical commission decided that I should have a medical leave of only three months.

In order to leave the Gulag region I had to have the consent of the company head and it commissar. The commissar told me that he would not consent to let me go for that period. He said that if I got leave and my health would improve I would be drafted into the army and the company would loose a worker. He decided to free me from work for three months and to continue giving me rations as if I were working. I was disappointed but I had no choice but to accept his decision. I had to find a way to improve my physical state. I suggested to my coworkers that they give me their daily bread coupons and I would deliver their bread so they would not have to wait in line after work. They agreed.

I became friendly with the person on charge of the bakery in Serov. I got to the bakery every early morning with the bread coupons. Instead of 15 kilos of bread I received 7.5 kilos of cookies. I would the stand next to the milk counters in the farmers market where the workers of the nearby steel mills would frequent. They were my main customers as they liked to have a cookie with their milk. I never took more than half an hour to sell all of my goods. With the cash I took in I secured the bread for my coworkers and with the profit I bought myself all kinds of food products that until that time I could only dream about. From time to time I also bought some clothing. This was my fight for survival that lasted for more than three months. There were many risks. Had I been caught by the authorities I would have been in a lot of trouble. The risk paid off – I fully regained my health. In April 1943, I was sent with a large group of workers to the southern Urals to plant potatoes for our consumption. This was done because the potatoes supplied to us from the south were usually not edible by the time they reached us.

In May we returned to Serov and I was healthy enough to return to my regular work of building the railways. The end of my sick leave coincided with my return to health. While I was away, Yaakov was transferred to the North with his unit to work on improving the railways near the town of Boguslovsk. From time to time we used to travel on our days off to visit each other. During the second half of 1943 the situation on the front lines improves. The Red Army went over to a counter offensive and regained lost territories. Shipments of food from the US reached our region too and our nutrition improved.

It was now the period of the High Holidays. We, a group of Jewish workers, decided not to go to work on Yom Kippur. We assembled in one of the barracks and conducted prayers. We forfeited our breakfast. Between 8 and 9 AM we had a surprise visit from NKVD plainclothesmen. They came in for a few minutes and walked out without saying a word. About an hour later the head of the company walked in. He was a Jew. He greeted us with a holiday greeting and then said, “I want you to know that I know the religious laws.” (We Knew that his father was once a rabbi in Leningrad.) He told us that he was given the task of making sure we go to work. He continued, “If you refuse nothing is going to happen to you but I will pay with my head. Do as your conscience tells you to do.” He added, “If you finish praying around noon-time and go out to work, I promise you, you will receive the complete food ration for the day.” We were confronted with a problem of mortal danger (פיקוח נפש). At 12 noon we went back to work.

This was not the only time he revealed his Jewish identity. We knew from hearsay that he was transferred with the railway building company from Leningrad to the Urals and that he had brought his parents and brother with him who were observant (שומרי מצוות).

In October 1943 we were transferred to a new work project. We were placed north of the town Karpinsk in the vicinity of coal mines. We were building new railways to the mines. It was 6-7 kms from the place where Yaakov was stationed. In Karpinsk I discovered Leah Kelmises who was married to Yehoshua Dashut. They were sent to the Urals from Kazachstan.

Whenever I came to Karpinsk on the days of the farmers market I was a welcome guest of theirs. I appreciated Leah’s cooking. One Sunday, on my way back to my base with a loaf of bread under my arm I was stopped by two young Germans from the Volga region. At the beginning of the war they were exiled to the Urals. They worked in the coal mines. They offered to exchange the loaf of bread for a lambskin coat. This turned out to be the best deal in all four years on the Urals. The coat served during the day as a warm wind breaker and as a warm blanket at night in the freezing railroad car.

In the town Karpinsk a new prison was being built in a central location. This prison was to detain suspects under investigation for all kinds of crimes. Here prisoners were kept for the duration of their investigation and then transferred to labor camps while waiting for their trials. No fence had yet been erected around the installation. There was a public path alongside the building. One day I was brought a note from my friend Yaakov. Unbeknown to me, he had been imprisoned in this facility. Yaakov wrote that he had been arrested when he was found in the farmer’s market and was being investigated on suspicion of being involved in the black market as they found 15,000 rubles on him. (This was the value of 15 kilos of bread.) I knew that Yaakov was no black marketer. He got the money from the sale of his leather jacket which he brought with him from home. He sold the jacket in order to buy food. In the note, Yaakov asked me to bring some food which will have to be sent up to him by rope to the third floor. Officially, he was not allowed to receive anything while his interrogation was in process. He said that a rope would be lowered to me to attach the package. At first I didn’t agree to do it as I knew what was awaiting me if I was caught. A few days later I received another message from Yaakov asking for food again and saying that if I didn’t do it he would die of starvation. After this message I consented. I went to the prison. The rope was quickly lowered, I attached the package and ran. A Russian woman who walked behind me and witnessed this clandestine operation said to me, “My son, had they caught you your punishment would have been harsher than awaiting the person in jail. Luckily I was not caught. A week later I received another message asking for more food. I came again with another package. It went up speedily. At the same instant I heard a whistle and a call to halt. At that moment I felt that all hope was lost.

The guard brought me to the office of the interrogators and reported that he caught me talking to a prisoner. I relaxed and tried not to show signs of anxiety. “With whom did you speak?” I was asked by the interrogator. I answered him that I didn’t speak to anyone. I said that I was walking on the path close to the prison wall and I heard my name called and that is when I was stopped by the guard. A body search was done on me and a photo of Yaakov was found. They asked me whose photo it was and I said a friend of mine. They asked me his name and I answered, “Yaakov Sobel”. They asked me where he was and I told them that we both worked for the company building the railroads in different locations, I in Karpinsk and Yaakov in Bogoslovsk. The interrogator said to me, “He is the one who called your name”. He also told me that he was under suspicion of being involved in the black market. He suggested that I try to convince him to talk and tell them who was giving him the goods to bring to the market. I tried to tell the interrogator that Yaakov was not involved in black marketeering and where he got the money from. He didn’t accept my explanation. I was released with the warning that if I was caught again I would get 5 years in a labor camp.

Two weeks later I received a letter from Yaakov by post telling me that the interrogation was over and that on a specific date he would be sent to a labor camp until his trial. He asked that I come to the departure and bring some food.

I came to the prison as Yaakov asked me. The weather was very stormy, snow mixed with rain. I found Yaakov with a group of 50 prisoners on their knees, deep in the snow shaking from cold. Yaakov was very pale and had lost a lot of weight. I was given permission to hand him the package but not to talk to him. The same day I visited the Dashut family in Karpinsk and told them the story of Yaakov’s detention.

A month later I received a letter from Yaakov telling me of the horrors of the camp. He was assigned to work with a shoemaker. He was exposed to temperatures of 40-60 below zero.

Six weeks later I received another letter telling me that he would be brought in a week to Boguslovsk for his trial. The trial was to take place in a movie theater. He asked me to be present at the trial.

On the assigned day I witnessed a wholesale trial, open to the public. Te suspects on trial sat in one line along the width of the theater. They were guarded closely by NKVD personnel. I sat down behind Yaakov. As soon as he realized that I was there he began to speak to me in Yiddish. I listened without answering. He told me about the horrors of the work camps and that he did not believe that he would survive. He asked me that if I survived I should tell his family what happened to him. He told me the address of his aunt, which came to him in a dream, who lived in Brooklyn, NY. The policeman watching thought that Yaakov had gone out of his mind and that he was talking to himself. The prosecutor had requested that Yaakov be sentenced to 15 years at hard labor (no one could survive such an ordeal). The judge sentenced him to 3 years. When Yaakov heard his sentence he burst out laughing. Those present thought he had really lost his mind. We parted that day with a feeling of sorrow and disappointment. The same day I got to the Dashuts and told them about Yaakov’s conviction. I asked Leah to write to Yaakov’s aunt and tell her what happened. Leah was prepared to do it because she thought it would help her establish contact with he own aunt who lived in Brooklyn.

May 1945: World War II came to an end in Europe and the Nazis were defeated. Yaakov writes that in accordance with the amnesty declared by Stalin he is being released after two years of gruesome incarceration in labor camp. He was given the opportunity to pick his destination. I suggested that he go to Maciejow, our home town, and learn in person what happened to the Jews there, including our families. I told him that before he leaves he should come to me and I would help him financially and with food. He agreed and upon his arrival we went to meet with the Dashuts. There awaited us a pleasant surprise; The day before Leah had received a letter from her aunt in Brooklyn. Her aunt’s address helped me in 1946 when I returned from the USSR to Poland to make contact with our own family the Mandelbaums’ and through them with my brother Chanoch.

Yaakov reported to me on the Shoah of the Jews of Maciejow. The reality and his despair caused him to consider suicide. I wrote to him telling him that that was not what his parents had intended when they sent him away to save himself. I told him that he must overcome his feelings and concentrate on rebuilding his life. I told him to continue westward. Yaakov left the USSR for Poland and then he went further to the west. I met up with him the following year in Italy. From Italy Yaakov immigrated to Canada where he had family. Contact between us was reestablished when I reached the US. We were very close. We visited each other and Yaakov always attended our family celebrations. Yaakov passed away in1983 as a result of illnesses he contracted while in labor camp.

In 1944, soon after the Red Army liberated the Western Ukraine, I wrote to the local authorities in Maciejow inquiring if there were any survivors from my family. The answer that reached me was short and clear: “There are no survivors from your family.” The handful of survivors left Maciejow soon after the liberation. The hope I lived with was that Chanoch was among the living in Eretz Yisrael.

In 1946 I found myself in the same displaced persons camp in Italy as Leon and Elka Newmark, survivors from Maciejow. Leon was a friend of my brother Yosef and Elka was my classmate. From them I found out that my family was murdered among 400 Jews during the first Actzia in August 1941. They were buried in a mass grave behind the monastery in Maciejow.

The time I had spent in the Urals between September 1942 and February 1944 seemed like an eternity. The harsh climate, the inhuman living conditions, shortages of food, medicine and proper clothing, the diseases and above all the totally negative attitude of the people who were in charge all took their toll. People died of disease, starvation, work accidents and suicide. Every morning the dead were collected from the cars and buried in common graves. Every day I reminded myself of the warning we received when we were brought to the Urals: “You will have to get used to the new circumstances. If you don’t you will die.” I was close to death but I didn’t surrender. The will to survive did not leave me. I was determined to survive and return to my mother and family. It took all kinds of risks. At times I conformed with the Soviet system at other times I broke the rules in order to survive. My mission was to overcome all the difficulties and to survive. When possible I also helped others.

One morning at the end of February 1944 we reported to work. We were told that that day we were not going to do the regular work. Instead we were going to dig out our train from the deep ice and snow. We sensed that something important was happening. There was talk that we were about to be turned over to military command. On that day we were given our monthly food rations and we ate well. Towards evening the train was placed on the main track. We started moving as the dark set in. Our destination was not revealed to us. Our train was given first priority all the way and we hardly stopped at all. After two days we realized that we had passed Moscow going west. We were told that evening that the Red Army had begun a counter offensive on the Leningrad front and that the Germans were in disorderly retreat. We were told that we would be restoring the railroad tracks that the Germans had destroyed while retreating.

By the next evening we reached the place which had been the front line just two days before. The next morning we got off the train with our equipment and began a two day march along a path which the army had cleared of land mines. We reached the town of Pskov which had been totally destroyed. We were to rebuild the destroyed railroad station there. Five lines in different directions originated from there. I was appointed head of a 15 man crew. We found living quarters in the surrounding villages within a radius of 2 to 3 kilometers of our place of work. We walked every day to work and back. Each day the engineer in charge of our group would outline our crew’s quota for the day. The work was very hard and my crew was not able to fulfill the assigned daily quota. The main reason for our failure was the poor physical condition of the workers and the lack of proper tools. One morning I was asked by the head engineer, “Abrasha, please tell me why your crew doesn’t fill the daily quota?” I answered that it was because of the lack of tools, appropriate clothing, food and the poor physical state of the workers. “If so”, he said to me, “come with me to the head of the company and we will tell him that we don’t like the Soviet regime”. I responded, “I answered your question without political intentions, as far as the Soviet regime, I am in love with it”. He understood my cynical reply and said to me, ”You will die like a dog!” This is how the superiors related to the workers.

Within a month the main railroad tracks were restored. Freight trains with supplies to the front were going through and returning with the wounded and units on short leave. Among the military were many Jewish soldiers and officers. From them we heard about anti-Semitism in the army, about slogans: “Kill the Jews and save Russia”. Some of them were very angry and hurt and they felt that there was really no reason for them to fight.

Our train was eventually brought up and placed on a side track of the Pskov railroad station. We went back to living in our wagons.

With the reconstruction work progressing and the weather improving we were getting more and more visits during the day time from German reconnaissance airplanes. The bombers came at night and the bombardments intensified from night to night. Despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire the loss of life and property was tremendous. We were forced to leave our wagons and to move into the bunkers previously used by the Germans. In August 1944, our reconstruction work was completed and we were about to return to the Urals. We were given two days leave before the trip. We spent the time in the nearby villages bartering and stocking up with food products. For my fur coat which I bought with a loaf of bread I received 80kg of flour and cereals which lasted me for a year.

We returned to the Northern Urals at the beginning of September. Our crew remained close to the railroad station in Bogoslovsk. We were transferred from the railroad cars to barracks.

My crew was given the task of preparing firewood for the winter. Every morning we would go deep into the forest to cut down trees and then cut them to smaller pieces to fit into the furnace. This continued until the end of October when we became maintenance crews for the rail lines during the winter. At this time a new engineer was put in charge of our crew. He was not a party member. We found a common language concerning our obligations to our jobs. We came to an understanding that I should be let off work as soon as I filled my daily quota. This arrangement gave me an average of two hours of free time each day. This gave me a chance to go to town to drum up some additional income. My supper was always waiting for me. I supplied the raw products and my friend did the cooking. There were times when I had to be released from work for a day or two – Ivan arranged it for me. He knew that he would be compensated for his favors. This situation lasted for almost a year. My economic situation improved, I didn’t suffer from lack of food and I was able to dress like a human being. My physical well-being improved considerably though I was left with chronic bronchitis since the winter of 1942-43.

On the front line the Red Army was advancing each day coming closer to Germany itself. I registered for repatriation to Poland. On May 8, 1945, two days before my twenty-second birthday, World War II came to an end. We knew that we had no homes to return to. Though the Allies were victorious for us Jews it was the greatest defeat in the history of mankind. I knew that Poland would just be a transit station. I hoped that my brother Chanoch had survived the war and that we would be reunited in Eretz Yisrael. We departed from the Soviet Union and arrived in Poland on Erev Pessach. We went from slavery to freedom.

This is a short summary of my survival in the Soviet Union. I am thankful to the Russian People for giving shelter to Jews when they fled from the Nazis. The greatest part of the remnant of Polish Jewry survived in the Soviet Union and not in Poland despite the great difficulties.

When we returned to Poland we found ourselves among an anti-Semitic population which continued to murder the survivors of the Holocaust. I left Poland soon after the pogrom in Kielce.

While in Poland I was able to quickly establish contacts with my brother Chanoch and with the family in the US.

The credit for my survival is to be given to my mother, zal, who through her death promised me and you, my children and grandchildren our lives. We are all Holocaust survivors.

I closed the circle when I returned to Maciejow in 1993 to erect monuments on the mass graves where the Nazis and their local accomplices murdered the 5200 Jews of Maciejow and the surrounding area for no other sin but for being Jewish.