by Meyer Eidelson
“A seventeen-year-old girl suddenly stands up beside her surprised father and leaves their train carriage, unwittingly saving her life. A starving man pursues a group of Uzbek peasants across a frozen landscape, seeking a desperate meal. A sixteen-year-old boy is forced to arrest his best friend, then secretly returns at night to break him out of gaol. A young woman travels miles in a storm to get medicine for a dying child. A wounded tank commander is sent to dig his own grave.
Meyer Eidelson’s parents survived war, genocide and starvation to make their way from Poland and Russia to Elwood, Australia. Through their eyes, we witness the tumultuous events of the mid-twentieth century taking place in Belorussian villages, the Warsaw Ghetto, Siberian gulags, Soviet communes, and the Russian battlefield. Their stories describe the courage, tenacity, energy and opportunism that created the miracle of survival in circumstances where most perished. Luck and chance also played a part: A girl’s love of books, two brothers’ skill with radio and a young man’s fascination for the Russian T-34 tank.
This autobiography pays tribute to Eidelson family elders. With courage and determination, they survived the bloodbath in war-torn Europe and established branches of the family in Argentina, America, Australia and Israel. We owe them a great debt. May we learn from their example and find the courage to fight injustice and racism wherever we encounter it. May their memory remain sacred for all time.
ALSO AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING: INTRODUCTION BY EVE AND JOE EIDELSON YOUTUBE:
To my mother Rita, to whom I owe more than I can ever say or repay.
She has been the most influential person in my life.
In memory of all those members of our family who perished in World War Two, in particular my grandmother Sarah Eidelson, who died either in Treblinka or in the Warsaw Ghetto. She was a gardener, herbalist, activist, midwife, seamstress, nurse, musician and guesthouse owner. In other words, a mother. All her talents and energies were directed to her fierce unswerving devotion to her family. May we all emulate her.
This book was also written for the third generation including Eve, Sarah, Joe, Sam, Lucy, Max, Hannah, Esther, Momo and Gill so that they may feel a connection to their grandparents and the events that dispersed the family to Australia, America, Argentina and Israel.
Putting the story together was a family affair. It would have been impossible to write without Rita Eidelson, who provided three of her wonderful written stories and spent many hours recounting her history and correcting the notes. My brother Aaron provided notes and photographs from his travels to Chomsk and Warsaw in 1992, including information from the Chomsk survivor’s group. He also provided his translation to English from Hebrew of the testimony of a witness to the Chomsk massacre. My eldest daughter, Eve, designed the family tree. My other daughter, Sarah, designed the cover. My partner, Amanda, edited the book. Stefan Goldfarb provided his documents and photos while his daughter, Yola, kindly checked the text. Her son, Kemal, provided his history notes about his Grandfather.
The flight from war and persecution dispersed the family over many continents. I received assistance from my mother’s first cousin, Larry Scheff, in Chicago and my first cousin, Noah Borenstein, in Philadelphia for which I am very grateful. Noah sent me a score of photographs from the album of his mother, Franka, and checked the text. My Aunt Franka died in 1995, but left three hours of tape recordings that provided much information about the tribulations of the Eidelson family.
Books, tanks and radios
Joe and Franka
Books, Tanks and Radios
‘Even for bad luck, one needs luck.’ Yiddish proverb
Poland has always been both a bridge and a battlefront betwee eastern and western Europe. On 23 August 1939, Stalin and Hitler made a secret pact to divide Poland between them. One week later, German troops poured in from the west precipitating World War Two. On 17 September, Russian troops invaded from the east.
Few Polish Jews survived the murderous German occupation in the western zone for long. Some like Joe and Stefan managed to flee to the Russian zone in the east where they were commonly arrested on various pretexts and sent off to slave labour camps in places like Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Imprisonment by the Russians was a blessing, in disguise, for many of those who survived the labor camps. When the Germans turned on their ally and invaded Russia twenty-two months later, these Jews found themselves far from the front line. In the hierarchy of disasters, it was better for many to be a communist slave than an inmate of the German death camps. As my father explained to me, the Russians weren’t anti-Semitic; they persecuted everyone equally. My mother on the other hand, although born in Poland, always saw herself as an ethnic Russian and for her own reasons crossed the border voluntarily at the age of seventeen.
The nightmare of political, religious, racial and nationalist hatreds that determined one’s fate in early to mid-20th century Europe seems bizarre to us over half a century later. The ferocity of the war between Russia and Germany cannot be grasped. It dwarfs any other conflagration in history. Two immensely powerful countries used every ounce of their intelligence, technology and energy to totally annihilate one another. No atrocity, cruelty, viciousness, torture or inhumanity was out of the question. In Russia alone, the equivalent of the entire population of Australia perished in a few short years.
I asked my mother why my father fled from Warsaw alone. She was amazed at my naiveté:
‘His family refused to leave; they thought they were safer where they were. No one can tell the future. And the Gestapo was looking for him, not them. When people want to kill you, you run very, very fast and if you stay alive you are one of the lucky ones. But don’t imagine it’s so much safer to run than to stay. The Russians soon arrested and deported him.’
For my mother Rita, I was looking for a rational course of action after assessing all the factors. I couldn’t imagine a situation when any course of action could equally bring disaster, where choices had to be based on little information, where chaos ruled.
This is one of the reasons that survivors have trouble explaining their experiences to others. Luck, fate, chance, wrong decisions that later turned out to be right, saved people’s lives? What were the key things that determined my parents’ fate at critical junctures? I have puzzled over this question many times as have the survivors themselves, often in an agony of guilt. My personal conclusion is that for my mother it was books, for my father it was radios, and for my stepfather it was tanks.
Books have always been my mother’s great passion, more so, because she was denied a formal education in Poland. At eighty-one she is reading as voraciously as ever and is probably reading as I write this sentence. Why did a seventeen-year-old girl, moreover the eldest of six children in an orthodox family, take a hazardous journey on her own into another country? Books created a restless teenager who felt stifled in a small town and led to that fateful moment on the train when she left her father on a sudden impulse. A teenage girl yearning for the life she had read about in her novels. Not long after, the world as she knew it ended.
Radios were the passion of my father and his talented brother, Bernard, who started Poland’s first radio repair business. In their time they were the equivalent of the young ‘IT start-ups’ of today. So much promise and potential lay before the handsome brothers. It was Joe’s connection with the radio industry that prompted him to flee for his life from the Gestapo to Russia in 1939. Radios were also Bernard’s passport to Australia where he eventually brought my father and mother.
Tanks were Stefan’s lifeline. His mechanical gift with tractors helped him to survive forced labour in Russia as a 16-year-old boy. The advent of war turned tractor drivers into tankists. Stefan’s love affair with the legendary T-34 tank led him to several kinds of hell and back but ultimately to triumph.
‘If I would be like someone else, who will be like me?’ Yiddish proverb
My mother, Rita Eidelson, was born Giselle Strawicz in Chomsk, Poland, the eldest of six children, three boys, and three girls. Chomsk was one of the hundreds of shtetls (small towns) in the region known as Belorussia or White Russia. The ancestors of the Strawicz family may have lived in Poland as long ago as the thirteenth century, when Jews first began to arrive in large numbers, eventually creating the largest Jewish community in Europe. In Hebrew ‘polin’ means ‘land of rest’, reflecting Poland’s initial reputation for tolerance, hospitality and opportunity. It would take several books to detail the history of the centers of Jewish culture and learning that arose in Poland. By the time Rita was born, however, this golden age had long been tarnished by revolution, war, and anti-Semitism.
Today Chomsk is in the Grodno district in the far south of the Republic of Belarus near the towns of Drohitchen and Kobrin. It is very flat low-lying country with many winding rivers, small lakes, marshes, woods and forest. Winters are cool and the summers damp. It is still common to see horses pulling carts between villages of wooden houses separated by fields of black soil.
The beauty of its landscape has not protected Belorussia from more than its share of man-made disasters in recent centuries. Unfortunately, the shortest distance between Russia and Poland is via Belarus. In the seventeenth century, Cossack troops destroyed three hundred Jewish communities, killing one hundred thousand of their inhabitants. After Imperial Russia expanded into Poland, laws were passed in 1795 and 1835 confining Jews to specific areas known as the Pale of Settlement. Belorussia was one of these constricted zones.
The year before Rita’s birth, the Bolsheviks ceded western Belorussia to Poland, in order to fight their civil war against the White Russians after the Russian Revolution. In 1986, seventy percent of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl explosion in neighbouring Ukraine fell on Belarus. Today, the country still struggles with the health of its people and its poisoned environment.
For centuries, the shtetl provided a tight-knit, collective bastion for Jewish people against religious intolerance of the Goyim (non-Jews). Shtetl communities spoke their own languages of Yiddish and Hebrew. Religious orthodoxy, study centres, habits, customs, humour and traditions, provided a protective structure for its members. In 1922, when Rita was born, Chomsk was still one of these traditional havens, despite the influences of the modern era. She still remembers how it was, before all was swept away forever, by the rising tide of war and racism.
‘My father, Meyer Strawicz, was a tall, thin, decent, hard-working man who cared for his family. He was also an intelligent man and often borrowed my books. But he worked too hard to have time to read books. By trade, he was a ‘katzav’ or butcher like his own father with whom he worked. His business was buying and selling meat by horse and cart to Jewish communities in other towns and sometimes to Warsaw. It was difficult and poorly paid work. He was poor but then so was everybody else. When he came home, he loved spending time with his children. My father was religious, prayed morning and evening and attended synagogue regularly.
My mother Meita Melamed died from tuberculosis in 1936. This is too painful a memory for me to talk about even today. A year or two later my father married Rivkah, a woman aged in her forties. It was a big responsibility to take over the care of a household of six young children, but she had never been married before and was happy to have her own family. Formerly she had been caring for her brother’s family who was acquainted with my Aunt Shayna.
Our family home was wooden with four rooms: the kitchen, the dining or sitting room, my parents’ bedroom and the children’s bedroom. The six children slept in the same room and shared the couch in the sitting room. There was a cellar where perishable goods were kept. The toilet was outside. Washing and bathing was done in the kitchen. Sometimes I shared the chore of milking the cow. There was a ladder to the roof where, in the winter, clothes were dried on lines.
The Sabbath, which commenced on Friday evening and continued all Saturday, saved the Jews. It made the end of every week a celebration. There was a kind of glory in it. Preparations began on Thursday night when the women placed wood in the stove and prepared dough for baking rye bread. It was left to rise during the night. In the kitchen was a huge floor to ceiling stove painted white. In its centre, two middle doors opened to the oven where bread was cooked. Early on Friday morning they lit the stove and cooked latkes for breakfast and prepared simple cakes like apples between pastry. When the oven was very hot the coals were put to one side and the rye bread was baked as well as white eggloaf bread called challah. I often helped make the challah, which was kneaded with yeast. Then the stove was cleaned out again and ‘cholent’ containing meat and potatoes was placed inside. The oven was sealed with lime to ensure no heat escaped and the cholent was left to cook overnight for the Saturday midday meal.
In the early evening, the men and boys went to synagogue. When they returned our family assembled together for a meal such as soup with chicken and fruit compote for dessert on a table set with clean linen and candles. This was the best meal of the week. After the meal I often went to the local youth movement to see my friends until late.
On Saturday we rose and put on our best clothes and the family had breakfast. No one could work on the Sabbath, the women couldn’t sew or clean, so they could relax from all their preparations. The men went to synagogue for the morning. At midday we dined on the cholt,, its meat roasted in its own gravy. In the afternoon visitors came and we enjoyed cakes. The day then drifted happily to its conclusion. Often I went off to the youth movement. For leisure many people promenaded in certain streets on Saturday afternoons to display their best clothes and their boyfriends. The children played nearby on two green hills. No one had any inkling that this peaceful place would one day become the site of the town’s destruction.
Almost the entire town of Chomsk was Jewish. On the outskirts of the towns, there were villages where mainly Ukrainian peasants or farmers lived. Few Jews lived in these places, possibly one family with a shop. The Jews were often the only people in these peasant hamlets who could read. The Ukrainians lived an entirely separate life from us. They grew produce in the fields, made their own clothes and shoes. On Sundays they went to Church and sold fruit and vegetables from their carts in the crowded market place in Chomsk.
Chaim Weizman was born 25 miles from Chomsk in a shtetl called Motele. He was a British scientist who was influential in creating the State of Israel and later became its first President.
Water came from a shared well a few houses away. You attached a bucket to a wooden pole connected to a wooden counterweight and lowered it. As a special favour to my grandmother, I would travel a distance to fetch better water from the new pump in the town centre, the latest in technology. For an extra special treat we would also buy her a lemon.
There were Jewish public baths for bathing. These baths included a ‘mikvah’ where women who had reached puberty bathed at the required times of month under the watchful eye of the woman employed by the Rabbinate. This person kept an eye out for women who did not attend strictly to the mikvah. This was rather personal as sexual activity within marriage was related to the ritual use of the mikvah. The mikvah attendant was a busybody. I remember overhearing my mother talking to her sister-in-law saying that the attendant had complained that her daughter wasn’t visiting the baths.
I was a bright student, particularly good at composition. The new Polish Savings Bank in Drohitchen invited the school children to enter a competition to write essays on how to save. I knew nothing about saving because I’d never owned a penny. But I researched and wrote an essay and a few months later the school announced I had won the prize of ten zlotys which was a lot of money for a girl who’d never had any. I later learnt that the bank had opened another competition to create the best advertising slogan. I wrote a couple of rhyming jingles something like “the more Drohitchen people save, the more they’ll prosper at the end of their days.” The Polish head teacher discouraged me from entering so I entered privately. Months later I received a letter at my home telling me I’d won yet another prize of ten zlotys. I rushed down to the school with the news but the headmaster simply turned his back to me without a word and walked away. I think he didn’t want a Jew to win any more prizes.
There was no high school I could attend after primary school. I was permanently at home during my teenage years, depressed and dreaming of ways to escape Chomsk. I had lived for my books and studies and the stimulation of other students. Being without opportunity to work or study was like being in prison. And if Poland was a prison, Chomsk was the most miserable part of it. My only salvation was reading books by authors such as Victor Hugo. I read constantly for five years until I left home.
Many Jews had already migrated to other countries because of poverty and anti-Semitism. My Aunt Frieda had left at only fifteen years of age. Zionism also encouraged emigration. I was a member of the Socialist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair(the Young Guard). This secular movement was self-led by youth with activities such as political discussion, singing, dancing and hiking. Many of my friends were also ‘shomrim’ or members. The movement encouraged ‘aliyah’ or immigration to rural communes or ‘kibbutzim’ in Israel. Model kibbutzim were even established in Poland as training grounds. When war broke out, my friends of my age were just too young to have gone to Kibbutz or to have left home. In any case emigration costs money and there wasn’t any. They were trapped. I can still hardly believe that of all the shomrim of my generation, I am the only one that survived.
I was a popular girl, lively, good-looking and well-read. Lots of boys were interested in me but I preferred older boys with whom I could have an interesting conversation. I had a close friend Shlomo Eisenberg who was nineteen and had returned from the Polish kibbutz where you prepared for life in Israel. If you entered a local kibbutz you had a better chance of getting a permit to emigrate. We spent a lot of time together talking before he left.
I commenced embroidery to pass the time. You traced your patterns on to the material with carbon paper. Thirty years later I passed an embroidery shop in the High Street in Armadale, Melbourne on a lunch break and began embroidering again. Framed embroideries now cover the walls of my home in Elwood.
My father was the only male child of six children and there was a close bond between himself and his sister Frieda. The other sisters were Sarah, Hinda, Feiga, and Shayna. Frieda helped to support my Grandparents, Nachum and Rachel Strawicz, with funds sent from America.
How Freida got to America was the stuff of family legend. At fifteen years of age she had gone to the railway station supposedly to farewell a friend and had not returned, having secretly arranged to elope to America with her boyfriend Hyman Scheffski. Hyman was the youngest of four children. When he was two years old, a drunken Russian Cossack was riding through Chomsk and struck Hyman’s father down with his sword, simply because of his Jewish features. It took another eighteen years for his widow Phyllis to save enough money to take the family to America where Frieda and Hyman had a son, Lawrence, and a daughter, Phyllis. Tragically, Phyllis died at 12 years of age after her illness was misdiagnosed, and Frieda died soon after while recuperating from appendicitis. My grandmother worshipped Frieda and no one in the family had the courage to inform her of her death but she knew because the letters from America stopped. I admired Frieda because she was prepared to take a risk and I guess her example encouraged me to take risks myself.
Hyman was a very fine man. He worked as the foreman in a clothing factory and during the Depression, he sent money from America to my father on Passover and other times of the year. We were suffering but it must have been hard for him too. When he found out I was alive after the war he said it was the happiest day of his life.
Nachum and Rachel, my paternal Grandparents, lived in the half-house at the front of our home. My Aunt Feiga lived with them and employed two girls to come daily to make clothes for clients. As Feiga was the best dressmaker in Chomsk, many people came to be fitted. They would ask her to make up clothes from the pictures they had seen in the Paris magazines. Feiga also owned a fabric shop. I usually spent my mornings sewing for my Aunt in my Grandparents’ house. I wasn’t paid; it was just something to pass the time.
My maternal Grandparents were Gitel and Abraham Melamed. They were also from Chomsk but were deceased by the time of my birth. My birth name Giselle or Gitel comes from my Grandmother. Their daughter Chaya had two sons Shiya and Mordechai. Her husband died in the influenza epidemic after World War One and she was remarried to a Rabbi Fidelman. The Rabbi had children in Israel who brought them there in 1936 where the family’s descendants now live.
Occasionally I tutored students in Hebrew to students. I was unable to attend my father’s second marriage because I was tutoring a family in Hebrew over the summer. They were relatives of Aunt Chaya’s husband. It was a chance to get out of Chomsk for a while.’
The clouds of war over Poland burst after Stalin and Hitler signed their mutual non-aggression pact on 23 August 2003. The world was stunned when, within one month, Poland was partitioned between German forces and Russian forces. The Soviet’s reward was the re-occupation of their territory lost in 1919, including Belorussia. The Rivers Pisa, Narew and Bug became the borderline between the two occupying powers. By July 1940 the Soviets had also forcibly occupied Finland and the Baltic States.
Stalin’s strategies to create a compliant population included removing potential opponents from the army, church, government, schools and the general community. Thousands of officers of the Polish Army, who had been called up to fight the Germans, were massacred in the forests of Katyn near Smolensk. An estimated 1.2 million people in the Soviet-occupied territories were deported to gulags or concentration camps in Siberia where many died. However, in Belorussia, the majority of the populace welcomed the Soviets.
‘When the Russians came it was as if our own people had returned to us. Our area had been ethnically Russian until World War One and even in 1939 the population still regarded themselves as Russians. Although Polish was taught in schools, the only Poles in Chomsk were teachers and policemen. Learning Polish at school didn’t influence us that much because the Jews’ first language was Yiddish.
The Russian Army was happy to be with a population, which welcomed them and they treated us well. The Russians were also popular with the Jews because they rejected the anti-Semitism that had been steadily increasing in Poland. Under the military occupation however, there was absolutely no opportunity for work and there was little or no freedom of movement. I had a boyfriend who had left for America and who loved me passionately. But then war broke out and that was the end of that.
In November 1939, at 17 years of age, I went to Pinsk where I had two married aunts Shayna and Hinde with whom I stayed from time to time. One particular day I arranged to meet up with my father. After shopping to buy me a pair of shoes, we went to Pinsk railway station intending to return to Drohitchen and to travel from there by horse and buggy to Chomsk. A Russian soldier approached me and asked if I was a refugee from western (German-occupied) Poland explaining that refugees were entitled to an allowance of 130 zlotys. This was a substantial sum of money, at least to a penniless girl like me. I explained that I was not a refugee and boarded the train with my father. As the train was about to pull out I thought about the money. Why not? I got up suddenly and told my father, “I’ll come later as I have something I have to do.” I still don’t understand quite why I did it. It was like the hand of fate reached down, picked me up and put me down on that railway platform. I didn’t know then that this impulsive decision would ultimately save my life. That was the last time I saw my father alive.
I collected the 130 zlotys from the relevant office. More importantly, the Russians also gave me a job for several months to allocate registration numbers to the newly arrived refugees. People always tried to help me. A young pretty girl is no threat to anyone.
My work led to a friendship with one of the refugees, a girl who had belonged to an orphanage that had been evacuated from western Poland. She told me where I could obtain a ticket for a train to Russia that was leaving at a certain time and place. Few others were aware of this opportunity and were unlikely to have taken it even if they were. I thought my prospects for study or employment would be better in Russia and took the train to a Russian town called Hoyniki. I figured my Aunt Frieda had taken a chance and, anyway, escape from the confines of Chomsk had long been a fervent desire of mine.
I was one of the few to get out before the German invasion because it was widely believed that the Russian border was closed and that no one could leave without the Russians’ explicit permission. No one had anticipated the suddenness of the Russian occupation and anyway how could someone like my father have left with young children to care for? Everyone was set down in his or her place. Almost all the Jews who were saved were those deported by the Russians. People that went voluntarily like me were rare.
At Hoyniki station, an older gentleman approached me and asked if I was Jewish. He offered to put me up at his home. In one part of the house lived the gentlemen and his wife. In the other half resided his daughter and her son, aged twelve. I lived with the daughter. This family’s hospitality was freely given and they asked me for nothing in return for my food and board.
The daughter’s husband had disappeared suddenly about two years earlier. He had been the leading communist party official in Hoyniki and had attended a conference in Moscow at which Stalin was speaking. On return, he addressed a large assembly of all the local party members on the outcome of the conference. Refreshments followed and during it a colleague sitting beside him asked his opinion about Stalin’s speech. He responded: “To tell the truth I found it hard to understand him because he speaks with a strong Georgian accent.”
Shortly afterward the NKVD (secret police) came in the night and took him away. His wife conducted an energetic campaign for his return. She even went to Moscow and spoke to Kalinin himself who promised to arrange for her husband’s return. But no one could find him. He had disappeared, no doubt shot.’
Stalin’s rule was enforced by ‘red terror’ – regular purges, show trials, executions, and deportations to labour camps of dissidents, imagined or real. The notorious People’s Ministry for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and their secret police were the vehicle for this ruthless suppression of opposition and imagined class enemies. Of the 1,966 delegates that attended the Communist Party Congress in 1934, 1,108 were arrested over the next five years. Only seventy people were tried in public. The rest were tried in secret before being executed. Official figures suggest that between January 1935 and June 1941, the NKVD arrested 19.8 million people. An estimated seven million of these prisoners were executed.
Despite this, Rita recalls the public impression of Stalin as kindly and concerned ‘like your very favourite uncle or grandfather.’ This was the image beamed from universal signs, posters, pictures and newspapers until his death on 5 March 1953. Rita still believes that Stalin helped turn Russia from a primitive country into an industrialised power where people could work and study.
‘Poland was backward in comparison. In Poland there was nothing to do but the Russians provided people with jobs. Look at how the Russians resisted the Germans, unlike the French. They love their country. At all times the Russians treated me with kindness. Of course, this doesn’t justify Stalin’s actions. There probably wasn’t a family in Russia who was not affected by the arrests, executions and deportations.
The family’s advice to me was that ‘an attractive young women’ should seek an office position. I went to school for six months to learn to type and improve my Russian. There was a vacancy for a secretary at a local timber mill that made floorboards etc. I was advised that it would be impossible to get the job with no experience. But I was stubborn and travelled to the mill, which was located two miles into the forest.
The factory director’s position was vacant – possibly he was in gaol. The temporary manager was an elderly Jew who had left Lublin after the First World War and had worked himself up to second in charge in the factory. He was overjoyed to meet someone he could talk to about Lublin in Polish and Yiddish and employed me on the spot. I had always been good at languages (I could speak at least five when I arrived in Melbourne) and quickly mastered the local dialect.
While employed at Hoyniki, I met Yasha Fruman. He was good-looking, educated, and worked at a bank. We married at a registry office and lived for a year or more with his parents. Nobody from my family attended the wedding. It wasn’t a time for travel. I corresponded with them. It was a mistake to marry so young and particularly to live at home with your parents-in-law. I resented handing over my wages to them. I’d have been better off sending the money back to my own parents.’
Yasha was conscripted into the Russian Army and like the wives of millions of Russian soldiers, she never saw her husband again. Stalin’s defense of Russia relied on vast reserves of conscripts who were flung in endless human waves against German positions. The death rate was appalling, up to nine million soldiers.
With the threat of German invasion imminent (it occurred 22 June 1941), the Russians offered all Jews free evacuation on freight trains to Tashkent, a common destination for Poles, Russians and others fleeing the invasion. The weather was mild and it was thousands of kilometres from the front line. The girl, who had spent almost her whole life in one village, was now travelling vast distances into the Russian interior, in effect to the very end of the railway line. Her destination was a remote and exotic town located in a valley of the Himalayas near the borders of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
‘The evacuation of Jews was an act of great kindness by the Russians. They understood the risks to us. I travelled with my parents-in-law on red freight wagons for two weeks over the Russian landscape. We obtained food that was sold from the railway stations. Initially, we were taken to a kolkhoz or commune where I picked cotton all day. This was hard manual work bent over all day in the fields. Apart from a bread ration of a quarter of a loaf per day obtained with a 30-day coupon, we received no food. I applied to an office in the nearby town of Kokand and was employed as their second typist for six months. I visited the Frumans weekly until Mrs Fruman’s brother, who had obtained a well-paid position in Russia, wrote and offered his support. As there was little food in Kokand, they departed to live with their relative.’
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‘Worries are easier to bear with soup than without it.’ Yiddish proverb
1941 and 1942 were years of terrible crisis for the Russian people. The German invasion of Russia by over three million troops in 1941 hadtaken the Russian forces by surprise. Within four months, almost half the population and a quarter of European Russia were under German occupation and the country was engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. In November 1941 enemy troops were on the outskirts of Moscow. By 1942 Leningrad was under siege. The ferocious battle for Stalingrad commenced in June. Over 17 million Russians were forced to flee eastwards, many to Central Asia including Uzbekistan.
The resulting increase in the number of refugees in Kokand meant severe food shortages with the continual prospect of starvation. Weakened by a lack of food, many died from disease. Eventually sixteen million Russian civilians would perish in the war. Rita was in crisis. She was alone, only nineteen years old with no family support. Worse, she was ill with malaria, experiencing severe sweats and chills. Thirty years later, in 1972, she recalled this desperate period of her life in the following story. She intended it for publication but it found its way to an old photo album where it was re-discovered in 2003. She called it ‘Little Girl Lost:
‘To celebrate my birthday my friend Zanek Markov proposed taking me out to lunch to a restaurant in a mountain hideaway. I also invite my good friends Mr and Mrs. Gold to come with us and they cheerfully agree. They call on Sunday at noon and together we travel to the restaurant in the hills, about 25 miles from the city.
The day is warm and sunny, the atmosphere cosy and inviting and the lunch itself simply glorious It is a smorgasbord and there are perhaps fifty dishes to choose from. We have a bottle of champagne for toasts and a jug of good Aussie beer to wash the food down. After I have drunk and eaten I feel a bit hazy and sit there quietly.
“What’s the matter, Giss… why are you so quiet?”Zanek asks.
“Nothing, just listening to what people are saying.”
Zanek attacks a piece of fish on his plate.
“I like this smoked mackerel,” he says.
“Its not smoked mackerel it is smoked eel.”
Zanek stops eating and makes a face.
“You should have told me that,’ he says, “Now I won’t eat it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with eel, it is a fish like any other.”
“Don’t worry Giselle, if I don’t eat it there are so many other things to choose from.”
“Oh yes what an abundance of food, what a choice. I was just thinking, “God if someone would let me in here in 1942.”
“Yes,” Mr and Mrs Gold chorus in one voice, “And us to keep you company”. “At one time I was trying to eat the bark of a tree,” Zanek says, “That’s how hungry I was.
As if a button has been pushed in a hidden corner of my brain, I suddenly feel my mind racing back, back into time when the Western part of Russia was overrun by the Hitlerite hordes, fierce battles were raging in the vicinity of Stalingrad and Moscow and I was one of the countless refugees in Russian middle Asia in the State of Uzbekistan.
I had at least obtained work as a typist. On this particular day I am sitting at the typewriter trying to concentrate on my work but my fingers feel weak and cramped. There is a severe pain in my stomach as if an octopus had by some chance crawled inside and attached eight arms with the innumerable sucking cups to the inner walls of my stomach and is sucking, sucking, sucking the very life blood out of my body. I haven’t eaten completely for two days (apart from being chronically hungry for several months).
There is a shortage of flour at the bakery (that means the flour was stolen and siphoned onto the blackmarket) and the meagre ration of bread that is being distributed directly at the office hasn’t arrived for the second day in a row. I remember that I once noticed a crust of bread in one of the filing cabinets. I look but there is nothing there. Somebody else has got it before me, a rat perhaps. Everyone is hungry, so rats must be hungry too.
Oh, how I wish lunchtime would come. Of course, I have nothing to eat for lunch but I plan to go up to the little room that I rent from an aged Uzbek couple. Somewhere in a corner, a few handfuls of course dark rye flour in a little paper bag are hidden for an emergency. The thought of that flour makes my mouth water.
I arrive home and quickly collect some dry twigs of the cotton plant. I make a fire in the primitive little stove and boil some water in a saucepan. When the water boils I throw flour on it, it bubbles and turns into a kind of porridge that looks like the glue people use to smear on wallpaper before hanging it up on the wall.
However, now it looks to me like the most glamorous dish in the world. The aroma of it gives me cramps and I would like to encourage it: boil faster my friend, faster my friend, little Giselle is so hungry… Where is the salt? Never mind the salt. Oh no, this is a feast, it must have salt. Carefully I mix in the salt and taste it. Oh glorious. It scalds my lips and tongue but I don’t care. I eat spoon after spoon with the rapturous expression of a drug addict inhaling his favourite narcotic. All too soon it is finished. All finished. I look at the bowl. How good it would be to have one more like this.
But don’t be a pig Giselle… don’t complain. I don’t think even the Tsar has ever eaten a tastier dish. I reflect on that thought. Oh well I admit he may have eaten a tastier dish but never ever, I know this for sure, did he enjoy it more than the food I have just eaten. This is one dish I will never forget as long as I will live.
And I never have.
Another picture comes before my eyes.
Got my ration of bread, 400 grams. How I’d like to eat it up now, all of it, every succulent crumb. But I can’t. There is no money in my purse and I need it to buy something tomorrow. So I am planning to eat only half of it, sell the other 200 grams on the ‘tolkuchka’ which means the ‘pushmarket’ because so many people are attending it that you constantly push your way through with your elbows. You can buy anything on the ‘tolkuchka’ – a bowl of soup, a minute piece of butter, no bigger than a spoonful, or a piece of bread. You can get about 20 rubles for 200 grams of bread. Yessiree, if you swallow bread you push gold down your throat. So I am planning to sell half my ration of bread and use the 20 rubles to buy my future rations until I get my wages which come once per month but never last that long.
The 200 grams of bread I have designated for my own use slides down my throat before I know it and I still feel hungry. I could eat up a whole loaf of bread, even two (at this thought I simply close my eyes for the pleasure of it) and still feel hungry as this hunger in me is chronic. For perhaps a year I hardly tasted any butter or meat or an egg. My diet is practically devoid of protein. Even mosquito bites fester for weeks because the body has no material to heal itself with.
I live mostly on the ration of bread, a teapot of green tea bought at the local Chaihana (an Uzbek teahouse where the Uzebks spend most of their leisure time conversing with each other while sipping the green bitter tea from flat round little china bowls) and a handful of dried uriuk (the local name for apricots) when I can afford to buy them. They grow in great abundance in this part of the country and are the natives’ staple diet. They sell them fresh in the summer and dried in the winter.
There were practically at giveaway prices when we came here but now, what with rationing and so many refugees around the price of a pound of uriuk sometimes goes up to 50 rubles. When they become so dear, I can buy them only after selling one of my dresses or some trinket that I managed to bring with me. But I have already run out of these treasures and have nothing to sell anymore.
So skin yellow from an attack of malaria, eyes sunken, bony knees trembling, I am standing in the corner of the pushmarket holding the 200 grams of bread I am trying sell. A young boy comes up.
“Are you selling this piece of bread?”
“Yes I am.”
“How much is there?”
“Half my ration, 200 grams.”
‘It doesn’t look big enough for 200 grams, let me see.”
Quick as a wink, he pulls the piece of bread from my hand and runs off with it as fast as his legs can carry him. I look after him as if I can’t believe my eyes.
“My bread… My bread…”, I murmur, too weak to call out loud.
I was so hungry and I wouldn’t eat it and now it s gone. And I have no bread and no money. Merciful heavens what shall I do?
Slowly I return to my lonely little room, crying quietly to myself and smearing the tears with my fist all over my cheeks.
Thirty years have passed since then and how vividly I remember it. Was it really so long ago?
And where have those years in between gone? What happened to that lost little girl Giselle?
‘She is now a lost old woman,” snaps my sarcastic self (I often engage in conversations with myself, in my mind of course):
“Oh shut-up Giselle and stop spoiling my reminiscences.”
“I’d just like to wake you up from this sentimental mush and come back to reality. Look around you. What a selection. Hot dishes, cold dishes, roast beef and roast poultry, herrings, lobster, and all kinds of salads. And don’t forget the sweet dishes: trifles laced with wine, stewed fruits, fruit salad, pavlovas decorated with strawberries, pavlovas decorated with passionfruit, several kinds of cakes, coffee and teas. Go on eat and drink. After all it is your birthday.”
“Giselle do I detect a blush on your cheeks…Why are you feeling uncomfortable, are you guilty or ashamed of something?”
“Because I know no matter what delicious food is put in before me that I will never enjoy it as much as I enjoyed that bowl of rye flour boiled in water so many years ago when I was dreadfully, so desperately hungry. In fact some of this delicious food that I can easily reach for now might get stuck in my throat.”
Because I know that after all these years, and what with the progress of human achievements soaring so high that people are already landing on the moon (even if it costs them thousands of millions of dollars to do it) that there are still millions of hungry ones in the world.
Little babies with enormous eyes and bulging stomachs. Mothers covered in rags with twig-thin arms and ashen-colored cheeks, trying to feed their infants from empty shrunken breasts. Old men with wasted bodies, weak and dying from bloody diarrhea caused by eating weeds unsuitable for human consumption.
My heart goes out to you hungry ones of the world because, once upon a time, I was one of you.
‘He who saves a single life is as if he saved the whole world’. Talmud
Rita’s job as a typist in Kokand ceased abruptly when the Russian army requisitioned her typewriter. Eventually, she began work at a construction site. Within a fortnight of the German invasion, the Russians had begun a massive relocation of industries to zones distant from the front such as the Urals, Kazakhstan and Central Asia. As the industrialised Ukraine was particularly vulnerable, a Ukrainian sugar factory was dissembled and loaded onto trains for rebuilding in Kokand. Local farmers were told to cease growing cotton and commence growing beets for sugar. Many people were ordered to work at this factory including those registered as unemployed like Rita. The sugar factory would prove to be her lifeline.
‘My first job was stacking bricks while the factory was being built. Survival in Kokand depended on having a job where you could sell something. Even at this stage I could obtain and sell a few beets at the market. I was then taken off the bricks and given a job looking after workers’ clothes and lunches. My boss was an older married man who helped me get a job weighing sugar. This was one of the easiest and the most prized jobs in the factory. Sugar was worth a fortune on the black market.
His motive was simply to help a pretty young girl. There was no inappropriate behavior. I had the naïve morals of a little Jewish country girl. Early on I had an offer from a NKVD officer to live with him. Naturally, I refused. Much later, I met him again. He was delighted to see me. He had remembered my name and was very concerned and I realised his liking for me was genuine. I must have been a fool. I could have lived very well instead of on the edge of death by starvation and disease.
Workers at the sugar factory would take out a small quantity of sugar each day to sell on the black market. As we were searched when we left our workplace, you had to bribe others at the door or they would claim they had found illegal sugar on you. One day I was slow to pay and as a result the factory prosecuted me.
My close friend Zina had been a nurse and by coincidence had tended to the presiding judge when he had been in hospital. He recognised Zina when he came to the factory. It was normal practice to select a worker as one of the three members of the judging tribunal and the judge selected Zina. As a result, I received only a year’s bond. If convicted I would have gone to prison. That would have been the end of me. You were lucky if you survived outside. In prison you had no chance.
The workers were housed in large dormitories owned by the factory. Zina’s bed was next to mine and we were close friends. Zina often referred to us as ‘husband and wife.’ She had been training as a nurse in Ukraine before she was sent to Kokand and then to the sugar factory, When she was allowed to return to nursing she chose to stay as she believed she had more chance of surviving where she was. After the war, when she received letters from her family indicating they were alive, she returned to Ukraine.
I formed a close friendship with a woman called Hella Waxman. She and her second husband were the caretakers of the dormitories and lived on the premises. They had both suffered a great deal. Hella’s first husband had died. They were given the job as caretakers because her current husband was an invalid, having permanently injured his leg in an accident on the kolkhoz. They had a small child called Paula who they adored, and they were devoted to me for many years because I saved Paula’s life on two occasions.
One day I had arrived at their house to find them unloading a wagon of coal. I asked for Paula who was about eighteen months old, and was told she was playing indoors. When I entered the house I found the child choking on a lump of coal. I held her up and pounded her back till the coal dislodged. Then I started screaming, “How could you leave your child alone?” They said, “What can we do, we have to work.”
On another occasion, Paula was severely ill with the flu one night. Her parents feared the worst and knocked on my door to seek help at one in the morning. Doctors were generally only available at public hospitals. However, by a stroke of chance, I knew a humanitarian doctor who had visited me at home when I was very ill from malaria. He was a wonderful man who was prepared to visit very sick patients at home after his work at the hospital and charge them little. It was two in the morning by the time I had fetched him and he had written a prescription.
I then walked several kilometers into town with Paula’s father. It was very dark, freezing cold, and a storm was blowing. It was definitely no night to be out. It was also very frustrating because the father walked slowly because of his limp. Hella had been too distraught to leave Paula with her husband and accompany me. At four in the morning, I raised the chemist from his bed who filled the prescription. It was a miracle that I knew a doctor who treated people privately and a second miracle that a doctor would come in those times to anyone’s home in the middle of the night.
The next day I stayed home to help Hella nurse the child. That afternoon I went to see a dentist to justify my absence from the factory. Under wartime regulation, it was not permitted to be absent from work. After the war, the Waxmans and I lived in the same town in Poland until they immigrated to Israel where I visited them many years later. Paula, now married in her twenties, came over to see me and hugged me. She said, “All my life my parents have been telling me about you, about the woman called Rita who saved me.” On a later visit to Israel, it was very satisfying for me to meet Paula’s children.
The town also had a cinema and a market. Uzbeks lived in one part in small cottages; Russians lived in larger homes in another quarter. The sugar factory was an important part of the Kokand and for all I know is probably still there.
Newspapers were rare but we all knew what was happening in Poland. We knew the Germans were killing all the Jews.
Sometimes I visited the picture theatre in Kokand. The most popular song of the war was Katyushka or ‘Little Katy.’ I first heard it from the Russian troops when they invaded Poland. It had special meaning for soldiers and their loved ones, as the song is a message of love sung by a girl Katyushka yearning for her beloved at the front. The Russians also named their favourite armament after the song. The Katyushka rocket launcher, a Russian invention, fired sixteen five-foot rockets from the back of a lorry with a terrifying screech and explosion. It inspired the populace to believe in victory. When the black and white newsreels featured this launcher, the audience would rise to its feet as a group chanting: Katyushka! Katyushka! Katyushka!
I remember a family who owned a pet pig to which they were very devoted. It grew to be of great size. People were dying of hunger and this family had a huge pig! It was at great risk, so they kept it indoors and watched it night and day, fearful for its life.
The local Uzbeks had a silk-making cottage industry. People would lay down mulberry leaves with caterpillar eggs or caterpillars in a room of their house. Over the season they would add more branches until the room was filled to the ceiling. The caterpillars would pupate into silver cocoons, the size of peanuts. These were plucked before the moth borrowed out, as the small exit hole would break the strands and destroy their value. The cocoons were then boiled in a large container. The cases dissolved and combs would then remove the silk.
The Uzbek women had very long lustrous hair that they kept in condition by washing it with yogurt. As my hair was also long, I took up the practice and even continued it in Australia for many years.’
Rita met her future husband Joe Eidelson and two of his friends at the 1945 May Day festival in Kokand. Afterwards, the three of them often visited her. Joe had made his way to Kokand when he was released from a labor camp in Siberia after the Polish-Russian pact. Like Rita, he was a Polish Jew who had fled to Russia. Before returning to Poland at the end of the war, he told her he had papers to immigrate to Australia waiting for him in Warsaw. He was fourteen years older than she was, but youthful in appearance.
‘I liked Joe, he was good looking and well dressed, different from most of the others. Joe was excited by the idea of me coming with him and I was excited by the idea of going to Australia. It gave me hope for the future. He believed his wife Tosia was deceased, because her sister Edda had written to him from Israel telling him that Tosia had not replied to her letters for several years.
Joe returned to Warsaw to seek news of his family but I had no papers to travel because, unlike most Jewish refugees in Kokand, I had already declined to be registered on the list of those requiring permission to return to Poland. My letters to Chomsk had not been answered and my cultural affiliation had always been to Russia. I was frightened to return to Poland. I had a previous boyfriend in Kokand who was an artist. He had returned to Krakow but I had refused to go with him. Also, my personal experience had been that emigration, particularly to America, had been almost impossible since the early 1900’s. I had lived in Kokand for about five years, was settled there and not unhappy.
I now, however, commenced actively seeking permission to travel but this was very difficult to obtain. One day I was visiting the home of my friend Riya, when a neighbour dropped by to borrow sugar. Riya told me that the neighbour’s husband was a senior NKVD officer. I asked Riya to arrange a meeting and offered five hundred rubles to this officer to stamp my papers releasing me from the sugar factory, which was still under wartime regulation. He asked me to attend his office but when I arrived at six in the evening, this NKVD officer was absent. His secretary then excused herself, left the office and crossed the road, anxious to get her bread ration.
Only the elderly Uzbek caretaker and myself remained. I pretended to the caretaker that I was in a hurry, casually picked up the two stamps I needed and stamped my papers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I then left the office, giving the caretaker a charming smile, walked to the post office, signed the papers with a false signature and sent them off. Shortly before departing Kokand, I bumped into the officer concerned and had to pretend to be highly relieved that my papers had arrived through the normal channels.
It was a risk but you risked your life every day anyway.’
This account was publicly aired in the 1970s when Rita appeared on a popular Melbourne TV show called ‘Tell The Truth’. The show’s format was that each of the three contestants claim to be the subject of a fascinating story. A TV panel asks questions of the contestants and votes for the person they believe is telling the truth. In this particular episode, Rita told the truth and the panel guessed incorrectly.
‘Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear’. Yiddish proverb
Armed with her travel papers, Rita returned to Poland, planning to visit her hometown of Chomsk when the train paused for a few days at Brest. This was a dangerous undertaking. On arrival at Drohitchen, 18 miles from Chomsk, she learned from the townspeople that the Jews of Chomsk no longer existed. Former friends of her family, who lived in Drohitchen, tried to persuade her not to travel further.
‘A Polish friend of my father told me, “Gitel, they could never have done it without the help of ours.” They were concerned about possible harm to me by the local Poles if I went to Chomsk. I later found out that my cousin, Shmuel, had visited Chomsk and disappeared. He was probably murdered. He was a very outspoken person. I advertised for him after the war but there was no answer.
A friend of mine also visited Chomsk after the war and managed to talk his way out of being murdered by a group of men who came to his house. He was always a smooth talker. This man’s life had been saved during the war by the Japanese consul in Latvia who issued hundreds of visas to desperate Jews and saved 2000 or so people. The Japanese government found out what he was doing and recalled him. The consul was still signing visas as he walked to his car and a man in the crowd shouted: “I will never forget you!” After the war this particular onlooker traced him and he is now included on Israel’s list of Righteous Ones.
While at Drohitchen I talked at length to the Polish carer of a small girl called Shoshka. A Jewish family from Chomsk had given the child as a small baby to this Polish woman with all the money they had, begging her to care for her. She told me that at the end of the war, an American relative had visited and had asked to take the child to America but she had refused. She had become attached to the child and said she would not part with her unless the whole of the carer’s family was brought to America. This young child was intelligent and provocative. She asked pointed questions such as, “Why are there so few of us and so many of you?”
During the war, the Polish carer had been imprisoned in an attempt to force her confession to harbouring a Jewish child. The child’s dark features, so different to the blonde children around her had attracted attention. However the carer steadfastly claimed to the authorities that Shoska was the result of an affair with a secret, dark-skinned lover. While I was talking to this woman, she frequently got up and went to the window to look for Shoshka. She explained that she was fearful that the neighbours would poison the child. They knew of course that the child was Jewish and were jealous that the child might be the family’s passport to America where they imagined they would all become millionaires. I left Drohitchen and never heard of the family again, but have often wondered what happened to Shoska.
Ignoring the advice of my friends, I travelled on to Chomsk to seek any living members of my family. I simply wanted to find out what happened to them. The once busy market place at Chomsk was now empty. One old woman stood selling apples where once a row of carts full of apples had once stood. Young people of the town gathered around me, full of questions as to where I had been and what had happened to me. One of them was the nephew of Sasha Maliefska, a gentile who had been known as a close friend of the Jews and who I had previously corresponded with. The nephew told me that Sasha had been arrested by the Russians as a collaborator. Perhaps the Germans forced him to cooperate and that was enough for suspicion to fall on him. I spoke to a girl who was a former classmate of mine:
“Is it better now that all the Jews are gone?”
“No, it’s much worse. Do you think they will come back one day?”
I didn’t respond to her incredibly naïve question. I thought bitterly to myself, “Not for a very long time.”
I passed the street where my school once stood. It was half-broken and the building next to it had been burned. Everything had burned down including the synagogue. It was terrible, not one single person alive. The only Jewish house left standing was the home of the miller located amongst gentile houses at the far end of the town. I believe that local people, who had looted the homes and feared retribution by the Germans, had burned down most of these places.
Just past the school were the two hills where the people used to promenade on holidays. It was here that the town children used to play on Saturday afternoon. Beyond were the two mass graves where the Jewish community had been massacred and buried. Gone were my grandparents, father and stepmother, my sisters and brothers Abraham, Hillel, Feigela, Hadassah and Ben Yitzchak, aunts and uncles, neighbours, friends, rabbis, teachers, shomrim. All gone. A Jewish population of over a thousand people turned to two mounds. I fell to the ground and cried.
There was one Jewish eyewitness who survived the Chomsk massacre. Yossel Ben Itcha survived by hiding in terror in the loft of his neighbour’s house. He lived to fight with the partisans and to serve in the Russian Red Army until the conclusion of the war. In 1992, Aaron Eidelson translated Ben Itcha’s written testimony from Hebrew to English:
‘On Friday evening, the eve of Tisha B’Av, the 2nd August 1941, several companies of the S.S entered Chomsk and ordered the residents to supply them within the next few hours with certain amounts of gold, silver, white flour etc. This order was carried out by a number of people amongst them Itcha from Antipoli. As soon as they arrived in the town they took several people and led them to Michal Levinson’s field at the edge of Halan Street, where they ordered them to dig pits. The digging continued all day and after dark. In the evening an order was issued: “All men of the faith of Israel are to assemble at the synagogue. And anyone who disobeys this order will be punished.”
The great synagogue began to fill immediately with the holy community, its rabbis, teachers and students and ordinary Jews. They all waited for their sentence. At this point, I must state that no one imagined that we were standing on the verge of destruction. We though they would separate the young from the old and send the young to do forced labour. But I could not reconcile myself to this idea either.
I decided not to report but to hide in the barn of my goy neighbour – without his knowledge. I hid in the haystack and looked out through a small window at what was happening outside. I was in fear all night. But there are no words with which to describe what took place in the early hours of Saturday morning on Tisha B’Av. Suddenly the sound of machine-gun fire accompanied by shouts and screams reached my ears and rose up into the sky. From my hiding place, I heard clearly the screams of the murdered and the massacre of my brothers, my people. Moreover, I saw with my own eyes, the confusion and madness that took hold of them whilst they were butchered and crushed.
Later I was to find out that same Sabbath day on Tisha B’Av, that the women and children were collected and taken to the valley behind the Christian Cemetery in Fabrika Street. There they were executed and buried. It was on the grass of that valley that the youth of Chomsk used to meet and sing. This valley was now turned into a valley of death and destruction.
Following this terrible and horrifying massacre, I saw from the window in the barn the action of the Am Ha’Aretz (ignoramuses). They entered the homes of the Jews and took out cupboards, tables, pillows and bed covers and all the valuables and belongings from the houses. From this obscenity and defilement, the Goyim took upon themselves to search out and catch the surviving Jews that were hidden in the attics of barns and amongst woodpiles. Shmuel Moshe Yitzchak was found in the attic of his shop on Tuesday and executed. The goyim also murdered Itzik, the son of Michal Levinson, who had escaped from the field at the time of the massacre, after they got a ransom from him in money and silver.
In spite of these horrors, I lay for three days in my hiding place. On the fourth night I got down and went into my home. The doors and windows had been broken. I didn’t find a living soul. I then decided I would take my life with my own hand. But for some reason I could not do it. I decided to head in the direction of Drohitchen and arrived there towards the morning. I was careful as I walked, as I did not yet know the fate of this town. I hid in a stack of grass and when I saw from a distance that there were Jews walking the streets, I went up and told them about Chomsk of which they were yet to hear the full story. Nothing had happened to Drohitchen. The massacre there was to take place a year later. In the meantime, about seventy survivors from Chomsk had made their way to Drohitchen. There they stayed for two weeks until ordered to return to Chomsk. These orphaned survivors returned to the city of death and gathered in the houses at the edge of Bazbiyo Street.
A few weeks later about five hundred families, all the Jews of Sharshov next to Progzney filled the town once again. Here they continued to live the life of widows and orphans with their lives hanging in the balance before their eyes. Yisachar Cohen’s house was turned into a police station where the police, made up of Am Ha’Aretz, murderously beat up any Jews caught walking in the evening. The Jews had to be careful not to leave their houses after dark.
Before Pesach, the Jews baked matzot and celebrated the festival.’
In 1991 Benush Becker of Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv visited Chomsk and placed a plaque in Hebrew and Yiddish at the massacre site. A Soviet inscription, stating that thirteen hundred Soviet citizens had been killed, already marked the men’s grave. Benush attached the newer plaque, using a hammer and nails, into the stone below the Soviet sign. The plaque reads:
‘To the memory of 1300 Jewish martyrs of the community of Chomsk who were murdered here by the German Nazis on Tisha B’Av 2.8.41. Consecrated by the Chomsk exodus and Diaspora.’
The women and children’s grave remains unmarked. The Jewish women, children and infants were machine-gunned into long rectangular pits, dug eighty metres from where the men were murdered, near the northern entrance to the town. Today, Polish children play on the grassy mounds formed by the bodies.
Benush, like most of the ‘Chomskim’ still alive today, had left Chomsk before the Nazi invasion. In 1991 two of Rita’s sons, Aaron and Meyer, attended a reunion of the Chomskim at the Chomsk memorial stone at Tel Aviv Cemetery. There are hundreds of other gravestones in the Cemetery, each one representing an entire town. A Chomsk plot also reportedly exists in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens in the Bronx, New York. Several Chomskim in Israel have created a list in Hebrew of the names of the families of Chomsk. The Chomskim also provided Aaron with a hand-drawn map outlining the position of the Jewish homes marked with name of each family. This material is now lodged in the Holocaust Centres in Melbourne and Israel. The following year Aaron Eidelson visited Chomsk and tape-recorded the testimony of an elderly Russian-speaking woman who was also a witness to the massacre in 1941.
Chomsk was just one of the hundreds of communities that were wiped out in a matter of hours. During the first months of Nazi occupation of Poland and parts of Russia, SS death squads (Einsatzgruppen) shot between 1.2 and 1.7 million Jewish adults and children with the assistance of German police, army units, and in many cases local collaborators. Belorussia took the brunt of the genocide losing an estimated 810,000 – 1,000,000 Jewish inhabitants.
Rita was 24 years old when she returned to Chomsk. She has carried the memory of this overnight visit for almost 60 years and its effects continue to reverberate today in the second generation. The story below was written by Rita for submission to a journal in the 1960s and was found many years later in the pages of her favourite recipe book, ‘Jewish Cooking.’ It records an incident from her childhood but is also an allegory of the effect of the nightmare of the Holocaust on her and her children.
‘When I was a child of seven I lived with my family in a semi-country area not far from the Russian-Polish border. At that time we had a tortoiseshell cat that used to have kittens several times a year and always in the same place – in the loft over the house. When the kittens were one or two weeks old, they started running around and we children used to climb upstairs and chase them all over the big loft. The kittens of course had never seen such a thing as big as a human child. They were terrified and in a wink would scuttle wildly in all directions. The mother cat was worried that we would hurt her precious kittens, and after we left she used to pick them up by the neck one by one and carry them a few houses away to the end of a narrow lane where an old women lived in a small cottage. And that’s why, although we had the cat with us for a long time, we were never troubled with a surplus of kittens.
We also kept a horse in the barn at the rear of the house. Not exactly kept as a pet, but the way people keep cars now, to get us from one place to another with the help of a buggy. We also had innumerable chickens and several geese.
Yet, at that time, we didn’t own a dog of our own. The reason was that on the other side of the far fence, behind the barn and the vegetable garden lived an old Russian peasant called Zakarka with his family. He was a very gloomy man. All the time that we were neighbours, I don’t ever remember someone from my family exchanging any neighbourly niceties with him. He was also very mean and that’s why his big black shaggy old dog was always hungry and jumping the low fence between our properties. He used to lie down in the buggy that stood in our backyard and wait for us children to come home. Then he would greet us most affectionately and walk with us into the kitchen where we were getting our dinner. A dish full of canine goodies used to be given to the dog. Afterwards, we would tumble together in the long green grass and generally have a good time. No wonder the dog loved to spend more time on our property than on the property of his gloomy owner.
One week an unusual thing happened. Someone broke into Zacharka’s farm and stole something. A policeman came round, and seeing the dog without a collar, imposed a fine on Zacharka. That was too much for the mean old peasant. To think that a lazy no good dog that allowed thieves to rob him of his property should actually cost him good money. He chained the dog to a post and clubbed him to death.
As I was coming from school sometimes skipping, sometimes slowing down to a crawl while dreaming about what seven-year-old children dream about and dragging my satchel with my books behind me, I heard the most horrible howls. Straight away I knew that Zacharka must be beating the dog. The howls were terrible, they cut into my brain like red-hot knives. Trembling, I ran into the house but no one was home but our elderly servant Tekla.
She told me that my mother had left by horse and buggy to the nearby town to collect groceries and had taken the younger children with her. I asked her if there was anything that she could do about the dog and she shook her head sadly. I then ran outside crying that I was going to throw myself across the dog to protect him. But the old woman ran after me, picked me up bodily and carried me back into the house, saying all the time, “No, no child, you mustn’t do that. You don’t know these peasants, he’s very likely to kill you too…….”
She sat me down at the table and put a plate of food before me. But the sight of it made me sick. All the times the howls kept coming, turning into one big shriek…… There was nowhere you could hide from them. I crawled in between my bed and the wall, stood on my knees with my face to the corner and put my hands on my ears. I put the pillow on my head. Nothing helped. The dreadful shrieks of the dog beaten to death without mercy were going on and on…..
I had the most horrible time for weeks afterwards, perhaps months. I used to have nightmares hearing the poor dog howling and, waking up in the night. But what I wonder at now is that the whole time I never told my mother of this haunting experience and what I was going through. Why, I don’t know.
Years later while living in Australia with children of my own, I took my children to a matinee film I thought would interest them. It was about the H.G. Wells book ‘War of the Worlds’ – the invasion of the Earth by creatures from the planet Mars. One scene shows a big slithering Martian, looking something like an upright green crocodile coming up quietly behind a girl and putting his ‘hand’ on her shoulder. The girl turns, gets a horrible shock of seeing this unearthly creature and screams…. Soon after we saw this film, I forgot all about it.
Some years later, my son told me that he used to have the most dreadful nightmares about a Martian coming up behind him and putting his hand on his shoulder. He said that he was afraid to leave his room at the night to visit the bathroom in case this would happen. I turned to him bewildered and full of pain and love and pity, said: “But why, Meyer, why didn’t you tell me about it, why did you carry it all by yourself? Don’t you know that I am here to protect you, to reassure you, to explain and to smooth things out…..” And then I remembered the frightful incident with the dog, only one of the other incidents in my childhood that I didn’t tell my mother about either.
What makes little children, when we imagine them peacefully asleep in their beds, hide their terrors in their hearts and not share it with adults? Perhaps because their feelings are precious to them as part of their personality. Perhaps it is fear that adults won’t take them seriously and in an effort to help them, will minimize what to them is so big and important. A funny thought has struck me: Perhaps those nightmares and fears of childhood are an important part of growing up, a kind of conditioning, so that when confronted in adulthood with the hard and ugly realities around us, we won’t, like the girl in the film at the sight of the Green Martian, scream, turn and try to run for our lives, – from life.’
‘I spent the evening of my first day in Chomsk at the home of Onufri, a friend of my father’s. He his wife and child were very helpful, even giving up their bed for me. The next day, Onufri took me on a cart from Chomsk to the railway station at Drohitchen. I was given many unanswered letters sent to Chomsk from American Jews seeking news of their relatives. Later I replied to them all. The people of Chomsk had been friendly to me but they were surprised to see a Jew there. We now belonged to their past.’
I returned to Brest and resumed my journey by train. I located Joe from a note left by him on a notice board in an agency. We stayed in Poland for a year and half, waiting for papers to be organised for me by Joe’s brother Bernard in Australia. We lived in Sudenitsa, a formerly German town in a furnished German flat. The Russians had forced the Germans to hand over the area to Poland at the end of the war and then forcibly expelled the German population. Many other Jewish families from Kokand also settled in the area. Hella Waxman, the former caretaker at Kokand, moved there with her family and attended my marriage to Joe in a registry office on 2 September 1946.
It was eventually arranged for us to go to Paris and then to depart for Australia by boat. Paris was a clearinghouse for refugees organising to go abroad with the help of Jewish welfare organisations. While in Paris for two months we stayed with Joe’s cousins. They had survived the German occupation with the wife staying in Paris while her husband hid in the countryside. I remember visiting with them, going to the pictures and visiting the Louvre. We used money sent by Bernard to support ourselves.
Many other Jews, as well as us, had purchased cheap tickets on a ship to Australia called the Ville D’Amiens. Women slept in one part of the ship, men in the other. It was a cargo ship that took passengers for additional cash. My impression was that the ship wandered all over the world doing errands and taking far longer than a trip on a passenger ship. Thinking back now it was pretty basic. I didn’t mind the crude conditions simply because I didn’t know there were better ships. We went to South America, through the Panama Canal, and to Tahiti. At Panama the local Jewish community hosted a dinner in our honour. It seemed to take forever to get to Australia. I felt seasick a lot of the time and then discovered I was pregnant with my first child Sarah Margaret.’
Photographs taken on the voyage show Rita and Joe relaxed and happy in holiday clothes. They are in transit from a war-torn country to their new home, experiencing leisure and the excitement of foreign lands. There is a marvellous photo of Rita standing girlishly on top of a large tortoise in Tahiti. Even the ocean voyage, however, was not without drama. In Tahiti, the local population apparently demonstrated on the docks to prevent the unloading of French troops intended to re-establish France’s colonial rule. The ship sailed away but returned secretly at night to another part of the island where the troops disembarked and then seized control of the capitol.
Finally, Rita and Joe arrived in Sydney and took the train to Melbourne to meet Bernard and his wife Nyuta and their two young children Doreen and Johnny. The new arrivals had experienced much in the previous few years. They had travelled across vast regions of Europe, had lost their families and partners, survived starvation and arrest and had voyaged across the ocean to a country they knew almost nothing about. Their new life was about to begin.
Joe and Franka
‘If one is fated to drown, he will drown in a spoonful of water.’ Yiddish proverb
My father, Joseph, (or Joe as he was called by his children) was born Jozef Ejdelson to Noah Eidelson and Sarah Gestern in Warsaw in 1908. He was the fifth of six children, three boys and three girls. His sister, Franka or Frymet, was the second eldest child and the eldest girl. Their parents were from a well-educated middle class background. The Eidelsons were originally German Jews from Bavaria. The Gesterns were Russian Jews who were in the lumber mill business. They were very pious especially Sarah’s mother.
My Grandparents were married in about 1898. Sarah was aged nineteen, Noah twenty-one. Soon afterwards they moved to Germany in order for Noah to avoid compulsory military service of twenty-five years duration. Russia had occupied Poland and needed conscripts to fight the war with Japan. As Noah was forbidden to work in Germany, Sarah supported the couple by working as a milliner.
Germany eventually ordered all Jews who had arrived from the east to leave. Regretfully they returned with their two children to Warsaw where Joe was born. He was a sickly infant and on doctor’s advice, the family moved to Falenica, a rural area in the hills eighteen kilometres southeast of Warsaw.
Noah obtained employment managing a country estate for a German landlord called Haniman. When the owner died, he sold off the land, timber and assets on behalf of the owner’s son who lived in Paris and as commission he received the family mansion with surrounding land. Falenica appears to have been a beautiful and idyllic location for the children.
Misfortunes dogged the family. Noah became severely ill and never fully recovered before his death in 1921 at the age of only 43. The burden of his medical care and the support of six children fell upon his wife. Sarah converted the family home to the guesthouse, ‘Splendide.’ The many relatives and friends who had visited now became customers. Franka describes her mother as intelligent, attractive, highly resourceful, very energetic, organised, able to sing, play the piano and an excellent cook. Her attendance at European health clinics with her husband gave her an understanding of health treatments in vogue. She maintained a large kitchen garden to treat guests on diets recommended by their doctors. Her reputation grew and the guesthouse prospered in the summer months that it was open. Other pensiones also opened but the premises of ‘Madam Eidelson’ remained pre-eminent. In 1987, Franka recorded a three-hour tape detailing the history of the family up to and including the Second World War. Franka idolised her mother. Her story is a testimony to the importance of family as a bastion against a hostile world.
‘My mother was intelligent and beautiful. She was well educated and had graduated cum laude from four years of Gymnasium (senior education) which was rare for a woman in those times. She spoke several languages. Our home in Falenica had twenty or more bedrooms with kitchens and balconies on three floors with all kinds of wood panelling. There was a large orchard. My father had sold many of the surrounding lots to family and friends who built villas and summerhouses. I vividly remember the day my sister Paula, or Polchka, was born in 1912. My father took us children by the hand and led us into the bedroom, which was very large with huge windows. The sun was so bright and lovely. My mother had that beautiful smile which we so rarely saw. We heard a noise like a miaow from a kitten. Our father lifted a blanket and there was Polchka. We loved her immediately and she became our favourite plaything tiny, blonde and beautiful. I remember this day vividly because of the smile, the sun and the miaow.
My father often drove buyers to the forest in Falenica to sell timber in his horse and buggy and would then return to drink hot tea in the house. Soon after Polchka’s birth, he was brought back half paralyzed from the woods after he collapsed. He never fully recovered. My mother now had six children to care for. Our house was full of gifts from friends and family who came often to visit but we could not eat presents.
After my mother converted our large home to a guesthouse, she advised all the family and friends that they now needed to pay when they visited. With the guesthouse, she commenced a tradition that continued another thirty-two years in Falenica. In the evenings she sat at the piano and sang with her warm lovely voice in Polish, Russian, German and Hebrew. She was popular because she provided the feeling of home. Guests arrived from Sweden, Germany, France and different parts of occupied Poland and she always tried to improve their comfort and happiness.
The guesthouse gave us financial independence, including bringing the doctors, dentists and teachers we needed. She met the famous Dr Kniepp when she visited his heath clinic in Bavaria with my father. His philosophy was similar to Christian Science and his tools were fresh air, pure water and natural foods. He wrote seventeen books on his health treatments and recommended three to my mother which she purchased and used all her life. If we were sick she would read the doctor’s prescription and then cure us from her herb garden. Doctors sent her patients recovering from operations, women recovering from childbirth and she helped them, as well as others suffering stomach problems, migraine and sores. She was loved and recognised and got great satisfaction from helping others. A rare pleasure, when she had a free moment, was to walk alone in the woods, to breathe the air, admire nature and pick flowers for the house.
Somehow, my mother foresaw our future. Every day we did chores straight after rising, even if there were servants. She would say, “You had better learn to make your life by yourself and not to depend on anybody. Do the right thing at the right time and you will be right.” Although she believed in entertaining yourself, the house of course had many records and a gramophone that could be heard for miles in the woods as well as a large library with classics and poetry. We didn’t have any toys but we were never bored nor am I ever bored today. We were bright, intelligent, self-sufficient children.
Bernard and I were our mother’s assistants, but Bernard was the child favoured to replace my father and she trained him intensively, ensured he had excellent schooling and taught him the piano. At a very young age he kept all the guesthouse books for her. Perhaps she made him too ambitious. He was always keen to invent or fix everything. She went for walks in the woods with him discussing business and teaching him about nature. He knew every kind of mushroom. When it rained he went with us into the woods and we collected many different kinds, some that I’ve never seen since. These were dried in the attic and eaten in the winter or given away as gifts. We made dozens of baskets from reeds from the lake for use by the guests and ourselves. We picked blueberries from which our mother made syrups, juices and medicinal remedies. Even tiny Polchka lent a hand. Cranberries were also dried for medicine and food. My mother also made many different kinds of cheeses. We lived on our preserves and savings in the winter that, with luck, would last till Spring.
I was trained for responsibility and accomplishments. It was a burden. Many times I would have preferred to play with the other children, but I often had to work in the house. The kitchen was incredibly busy in the summer and there were never enough hands. Even our elderly nanny would pitch in. My mother’s cooking was outstanding and she loved to create different dishes or variations on classic meals. We kept a kosher kitchen because some of the guests were religious. The food was served with perfectly white linen, always with flowers. Some staff worked with us for seventeen years, even handing on to their children. Others occasionally worked for us for free, simply to learn the skills with which Madam Eidelson ran her guesthouse.
My mother’s work commitments meant from an early age I was given Yuszek, or Joe, to look after. He was my responsibility. I sent him to school and ensured he was clean and well dressed. He was a very gentle boy, never fought, always surrounding himself with animals or digging in the earth. He reminds me very much of his son Meyer and granddaughter Eve. When he disappeared later during the war, I never imagined he would be tough enough to survive.
My other brother Arnold was a gentle, romantic boy, similar to Joseph. Neither were hard workers but they were deep thinkers. They would find and care for an injured bird or rabbit or kitten; they even liked to keep company with the cows. We also had our own vegetable gardens. My mother was possibly the first person in Poland to grow tomatoes as a vegetable, no doubt because she learned of their health benefits, although we didn’t like them. Arnold always kept the most successful garden. He was dedicated to nature and botanical research and read scientific papers instead of novels. He also played the piano well.
Nobody knew how poor we really were. We subsisted on the summer trade and struggled through the winter. My father’s medical bills were extensive as he visited doctors in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. As we grew older, expenses mounted and we sold part of the orchard and part of the land leaving the house intact but with reduced surrounds. As part of the sale, access by the guests was preserved. In those days you could walk through the pine forests for 150 kilometres from Falenica to Otwock without seeing the sun.
We experienced the Christian religion through our Nanny (Nyanya) who was a Roman Catholic but an important part of our family. She was in her seventies and we celebrated Easter and Christmas with her and she even took us to church. Our family was respected everywhere because we were an essential part of the local economy including local farmers, staff and shopkeepers. At night there would be a knock on the door and someone calling, “Madam Eidelson! Madam Eidelson! My mother is sick”. Or, “My wife is having a baby.” My mother never refused a summons even in the middle of the night. Once she was even called out because a cow was calving. Sometimes I think Falenica should have been called Eidelsonville. In Falenica there was also a small community of Jewish refugees from the persecution and the wreckage of other villages and my parents assisted in the obtaining of a shochet (kosher slaughterer), a Rabbi and Hebrew school for them.
Zionism, the idea of a Jewish homeland, was always a tradition in our house. My father, who was very handsome, reminded me in his features of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. On Friday nights my father used to play chess with Kowalski, the local priest. I was a mischievous child and was eavesdropping when I heard my father say to the priest, “Is it true that Jesus was a Jew?” and Kowalski replied: “You know it and I know it, let’s keep it at that!”
On a gloriously sunny July day in Falenica, the news arrived that war had broken out and that all the men were being mobilised. People were weeping as they packed to rush home on the train and say goodbye to their sons, fathers and brothers. Even the servants fled, leaving the pots boiling on the stove. The guests left without paying their bills. At the same time the local Jewish merchants arrived from Falenica seeking payment from us for their own bills. We were ruined.
The advent of the First World War was the end of our idyllic life at Falenica. Everything changed for the worse, and we eventually became like gypsies, moving from place to place. There were many Jews suffering from hunger during the early days of the war and my mother joined the voluntary auxiliary in Falenica to feed the poor. Care packages for distribution arrived from the Jews of New York containing flour in white linen bags, chocolate, cocoa, rice, tins of condensed and evaporated milk. The auxiliary would borrow a local bakery and work though the night making farfel (pasta) and boiling water in huge kettles to make bagels.
Russian troops soon arrived by train as well as refugees and people released from gaol – Charnosotniks – the worst kind of human beings, robbing stores and people. Wealthy Mr Weisberg who had left the guesthouse claiming he had no money, was beaten and robbed of a considerable sum. Falenica turned from a peaceful, congenial, happy place to a graveyard. My mother appealed to the Russians for security and they stationed two constables at our house. They asked why the man in the house couldn’t defend us – my mother was too embarrassed to explain that my father was unable even to walk. Then the Russians requisitioned the property and all its food and livestock and threw us out of our home and our life.
We left for Warsaw in a farmer’s truck pulled by oxen. For the first time we had to split up in order to survive and to ask for help from our extended family. But during war, everyone looks to himself. My father was sent away to relatives and I didn’t see him again until shortly before his death in 1921. He needed intensive care, including nursing day and night. The two youngest children stayed with my mother who hired herself out as housekeeper to a wealthy family, and the other children went to different families.
My mother had a brother and three sisters, one of whom was a millionairess. War wasn’t bad for everybody and her husband’s paper business prospered. As a good friend of my father, he had promised to look after us. It was arranged for Bernard to live with them and work in their business as a messenger boy. He was now fifteen or sixteen but small in stature. They had a beautiful flat with seven bedrooms and a marble floor. Unfortunately, my aunt was a selfish woman: stingy, angry, jealous of our mother. She did have money and the love of her husband but that was all. She was very ugly to look, at with an even uglier character. Her two daughters were princesses but Bernard slept in the kitchen on that marble floor and was fed rotten leftovers.
He became ill and began to wet himself from stress. He was too proud to tell my Uncle why he smelt so bad. He disappeared and turned up two days later wearing the same clothes now clean and dry. Where did he go, nobody knows. Perhaps he washed them in the Vistula River. By the end of the year he had become reduced to a smelly beggar. It left an imprint on him for the rest of his life. Bitterness, vengeance and hate drove him to be self-reliant and financially independent no matter the cost.
‘”Guten morgen kinder. We are now Germans!” I’ll never forget that morning in 1915 when my mother woke us wearing that beautiful smile we saw so rarely. The arrival of the German Army in Warsaw and their expulsion of the Russians enraptured her. She who loved German culture believed that civilization had finally come to Poland. How bitterly disappointed she must have been to see that very different arrival in 1939.
In those days the Germans were far less anti-Semitic than the Poles. As Bernard spoke German fluently, he approached them seeking work and was employed by a bureaucrat responsible for distributing and printing essential ration cards. By stealing cards and becoming a little gangster, he provided food for our whole family. Even the ugly aunt had to come to him to obtain special items.
In 1917, my mother decided to start all over again in the guesthouse business. Food in the city was hard to get and smuggling was rife despite the threat of jail. The Russians had destroyed much of Falenica. She rented a small place in the country in Merszeston, halfway between Falenica and Warsaw, where we went to school. Her business was popular with the Germans because she knew their language, customs and culture. They paid us in honey, chocolate, spice, potatoes, brown sugar and clothing. Eventually they rented the whole of our place as their headquarters. One day they gave us a new Singer sewing machine to make clothes for them. This was our household’s greatest treasure for many, many years from my mother down to Polchka who eventually used it as a teenager to become a fine seamstress.
My father’s family was wealthy, but they lived a long way from us and we rarely saw our grandparents. My mother’s parents were in Warsaw, although not as wealthy. They were, however, successful business people with wood mills that had supplied wholesale construction to the Russians. Grandfather or Djadja doted on my mother and had lavished the best schools on her education in culture, arts, and dancing. He became our substitute father and for years was our greatest help. In return she adored her parents and never abused their generosity or trust.
The effects of the war came closer. Jozef Pilsudski, the great Polish nationalist, began forming the Polish Legions.  Bernard, almost eighteen, was swept up in the rising tide of Polish patriotism. At the same time, my mother contracted deadly Spanish Influenza and became seriously ill. From her bed, she instructed us as to what treatments to give her, how to feed and wash her. Being children, we didn’t realise at the time how close we were to losing her. Bernard had secretly joined the Legion by falsifying my mother’s signature. He was popular and handsome, spoke beautiful Polish as well as Hebrew, German and Russian. Conditions in the Legion were poor – one day he turned up in a corporal’s uniform, filthy and lice-ridden. We washed and cleaned his clothes and he returned to the front. Soon after he was reported missing in action. Mother could find no peace of mind and rose from her sickbed to search from town to town until she found him ill in hospital with dysentery. As there were no medicines or doctors, she volunteered as a nurse and stayed there, looking after all the patients for six weeks.
Arnold supported the family during this crisis. A kind man had employed him in his printing business and every weekend he returned home carrying potatoes, bread and even salami on his back. My neighbour taught me how to make potato soup and somehow we survived the hunger around us.
My brother recovered and returned home. It was 1919. Poland was a free country and, not partitioned for the first time in one hundred and fifty years. There was rejoicing but for us our hardships were just beginning. We lived like gypsies in different places from season to season. In summer we rented guesthouses. In winter we retreated to a small place with one room and a kitchen. We never recovered financially from the loss of ‘Splendide.’ The middle class had disappeared and there were only the rich and the poor. We had pioneered the guest house industry but now the rich frequented the newer guest houses and the regular hotels being built by owners with plenty of money.
Anti-Semitism was always present. I remember the funeral of my grandfather, which was a small affair to avoid attention. The Poles threw stones at us anyway, hitting Bernard, even though he was wearing a Polish Army uniform with the rank of corporal and had served with the great Pilsudski.
The battle for survival strengthened our ethos of care and love for one another. Whether we had two or six potatoes, we shared them equally. If we had one pair of shoes, one sweater, one coat then the brother or sister who had to sit an exam would wear them. My mother took on work as a cleaner but it was the Singer sewing machine that saved us. Rich people visited with expensive cloth for my mother to turn into clothes and hats. She’d cut three hats from material provided for two and sell the third. A wealthy woman asked her how she could cut three hats from a piece of cloth that another milliner had told her was insufficient for one. My mother replied, “Perhaps that milliner needed to cut more hats from it than me.” She had a knack for making something novel and fashionable. She showed us children how to attach ostrich feathers to a hat with an invisible knot and how to thread beads and after our homework we’d all sit and work together to finish garments. A teacher was recruited for a local class of six children. I was an avid reader but mathematics was a new invention I had trouble with.
At the end of each week my mother travelled to Warsaw to sell her goods and returned at night always with a gift for us. Our home was in an unlit area near an isolated stop on the railway line. We waited up for her no matter how late or dark it was. One night our mother missed our gate three times in the dark. How happy we were when she finally arrived and sat with us while we ate something delicious, how we loved her, our closest friend.
In 1923 we saved enough to buy an old villa. It had an internal bathroom, an unheard-of advance. We repaired and sold it with enough profit to buy an even bigger guesthouse. Almost overnight inflation soared to unbeleivable levels. You needed a suitcase of money to buy a bag of flour. We were left with nothing. To help us out, a friend of the family rented us a villa without advance payment – hopefully we could pay when we had money.
At this time my mother began a relationship with a Mr. Hantover, a widower and real estate broker with eight children of his own. With fourteen children in both families, marriage was never a possibility. I disliked him greatly. Nobody liked him.. He was very short, coming up to her shoulder, and not at all handsome. When I reached eighteen I had a suitor of my own. One day I overheard a conversation in which my mother was described as Hantover’s mistress. I was dreadfully upset. When my mother heard, she broke off the relationship. She loved him but she knew that in respectable Warsaw society, it could create scandal and harm my marriage prospects. I was jealous and angry and I didn’t understand the need for her to have companionship, some happiness, and even sexual activity in her life. At some point, I think she had an abortion. Now, of course, I do understand and I forgive her. She still loved Hantover but she loved her children more.
I hated our gypsy lifestyle and started my own pensione in the summer using my mother’s reputation to get a foothold in the business. One day the mayor and a Mr Bulgowski arrived to discuss our permits. Mr Bulgowski was tall and handsome and seemed more interested in my mother than the permits. In fact, he seemed to visit rather often to discuss such permits and licenses for things like connecting electricity. He was a successful manufacturer who travelled from France to Venice designing quality gloves to meet the needs of fashion and commerce. Eventually he and my mother married
Our youngest Polchka was now a teenager studying fashion design, involved in sports clubs and courted by a socialist boyfriend. On a cycling trip to the mountains, she crashed and hit a tree and was taken unconscious to the Jewish hospital in Warsaw. I read about it in the newspaper the following morning and rushed to her side. Her back and arm were broken and her face was lacerated. My mother was galvanised into action and consulted many doctors. Eventually Dr Luxembourg, a young Viennese surgeon, operated. She needed plastic surgery and made a full physical recovery, but lapsed with schizophrenia. For two years she was in the mental ward. My mother haunted the wards of that hospital talking to the director, Dr Bornstein, every day and even consulted a spiritualist.
One day I visited Polchka in my most fashionable clothes because I had been visiting the parents of my young man (I did not care for him, it was a way of not being alone and hoping to ease the burden on the family. I resented him keeping me away from the family and Polchka. Later we later parted.)
Polchka, a fine seamstress, caressed the coat I was wearing. It astonished me when she spoke to me coherently.
“How beautifully this coat fits you, Franka.”
“Would you like to try it on? Please, please Polchka try it on.”
She was a tiny size six and I was size twelve but I told her it fitted perfectly. I put my fur hat on her shaved head and showed her the mirror.
“You look wonderful, Polchka. Would you like me to go home and bring you some beautiful clothes of your own to wear?”
“Franka, I had such a terrible headache for so long I could not think but now it is gone. Yes, I would like a nice dress.”
I ran home to mother, “Polchka is coming home!”
My mother moved to a flat in Warsaw and we all moved with her. About 30% of Warsaw’s population was Jewish, some 360,000 people. Sometimes referred to as the Paris of the East, it had an active Jewish cultural life with theatre, schools, journalism and the arts. Our most important mission was to keep the family together. Our luck seemed to be changing. Eventually, we all began working, earning our way to independence and mother had the pleasure of seeing us prosper. She and Polchka worked together, sewing, embroidering and designing clothes for wealthy clients. I had the summerhouse and was teaching elementary school as well as studying. Hella was in love with embroidery and her work was featured in a well-known journal. She later married a doctor who had fled from Nazi Germany and had landed in my house seeking refuge.
Bernard opened perhaps Poland’s earliest radio business servicing the Polish aristocracy who could afford these glamorous devices. He was in love with this new technology and one of his inventions won a prize at a Belgian exposition and was featured in the newspapers. Bernard developed a strong friendship with a young man, Solomon or Stashek Borenstein, who helped him to purchase radio parts from Berlin and he introduced him enthusiastically to me. I was keen to please my brother. We began to court and eventually married.
Joe also worked in the radio parts business. A large fee could be extracted from the wealthy to change a simple bulb as no one had any idea of what was involved. In 1936 he married Tosia, his second cousin, the sister of Edda. They were very much in love. As a wedding present, I catered for the eighty guests. He had a love of soccer and captained a local Hakoah (Jewish) team.
Anti-Semitism was increasing and we could all sense the approach of another war. We began to think about fleeing Poland, but it was not easy as countries everywhere were closing their borders to immigrants. Arnold had already made his way to Argentina with his wife Esther, who had well-connected relatives there. He was working in his trade as a printer and they were anticipating a baby.
Bernard was making arrangements to immigrate to Australia. Mr Bulgowski had arranged for his son, who was a known businessman in Melbourne, Australia, to obtain a work permit for him as a radio technician. Later, Bernard with his wife Nyuta, would open an electronics business that prospered with contracts from the army during the war after he invented a device that the Australian Government needed. He would also change his name to Edson because of the stigma of German origins.
Unfortunately, the relationship between my mother and Bulgowski had failed. She was too occupied with family crises such as Polchka’s illness and they were just very different people. They went to a Rabbi and got a divorce. I don’t believe she ever found love again. Despite their differences, I never changed my opinion that Bulgowski was a very fine man. He certainly saved Bernard’s life and, possibly Joe’s life, as well.
Hella and her cousin Edda Eidelson (Tosia’s sister) were both swimming athletes and planned to flee Poland by attending the Maccabiah Games in Germany. Hella was unable to get papers but Edda travelled to the Games and then made her way to Israel where her descendants now live.
Borders everywhere were closing unless you had contacts overseas. I visited twenty embassies unsuccessfully seeking permission to enter their countries. Anywhere would do. I also applied for a visa to Palestine but this was refused. It seemed hopeless. One day I remembered Stashek still had an old permit to travel to Argentina, kept as a souvenir from a trip he had taken years before. I could have thrown it out a dozen times but I had a premonition. With it, I managed to get permission to travel and then the many documents we needed because we were Jewish.
It was a stroke of fortune to escape to Argentina but how could I face my mother and tell her that I was leaving her knowing that she never wanted to be separated from her children, they were so important to her? When Arnold left, she had cried every time she made up his bed. I came to her and said, “What would you say if I told you that Stashek and I could be admitted to Argentina? Would you like us to go, would you let us go?” And my mother said to me, “What can I tell you my child? For survival, save yourself, save yourself, I cannot do anything, I cannot leave the girls alone. You go and save yourself.”
Bernard’s secret arrangements to travel were then also revealed. However, before we could depart, another family crisis erupted. While awaiting the birth of his son Albertitio, Arnold was taken to the same hospital suffering from gangrene, a result of lead in his bloodstream. In those days little was known about the risks of lead poisoning in the printing trade. To save his life, his foot was amputated at the ankle to save his life. Unfortunately his recovery did not progress well, perhaps because of the warm climate. Our mother travelled to see a specialist in Vienna who advised bringing him to Europe for treatment and to fit him with a prosthesis made from new materials as light as aluminum and strong as steel. We were shocked at Arnold’s appearance when we collected him at the docks. My handsome blonde brother had turned to skin and bone.
My mother gave him the love of the family. She gave him back his life. With food, rest and treatment by the specialists he began to recover and was fitted with the prosthesis. One proud day we took a photo of him looking sensational in a new suit, and sent it to Esther.
Stashek and I were due to travel to Argentina, but I told Arnold, honest to God, to wait the six weeks he needed to get a spare prosthesis. He refused to consider any delay because he was desperate to see his wife and child. .
My mother was engaged in a frenzy of packing boxes. There were eleven kinds of china service of the Eidelson brand, ‘Gish’, with pieces for up to twenty-four people. There was a set of silverware for one hundred and twenty persons. She gave her heart away and I could not refuse her.
Travel was still a dangerous undertaking for Jews. Overland there were hostile borders. We felt the safest port to leave from would be Gadynia. We were only allowed to take five hundred pesos or about fifteen dollars per person. Unfortunately, our crates attracted so much attention that Stashek was called in the night to search one gigantic trunk, and returned ashen-faced the next morning after a long interrogation. Once aboard, there were eight of us, out of a thousand passengers. The Captain was a Nazi and made life uncomfortable for us. We were terrified that Arnold would be refused entry as a result of the medical inspection by the port authorities at Buenos Aires. When we finally were ashore, I knelt down and kissed the ground of my new home, ignoring the stares of other passengers.
The morning after our arrival, Arnold insisted on returning to collect the luggage himself. At the docks he slipped on a banana peel and fell, breaking his prosthesis. He had to suffer the indignity of being carried into the room where many guests were waiting to celebrate lunch in his honour. Everything humanly possible was done to repair that prosthesis. My mother even had the design details translated into French and mailed to us so that they could be read in Argentina. At her suggestion we enlisted the help of local army doctors who had much expertise in artificial limbs. Nobody could repair that device. They took it apart and couldn’t even work out how to re-assemble it. Arnold felt he was unable to be a proper father and husband. His condition deteriorated and he experienced depression and pain. Facing the prospect of further amputation he committed suicide. He shot himself.
I wrote to Mama, “Mother I am heartbroken, I cannot find my way, I am so lonely, I miss you so.” She replied, “My child I know how you feel, it is because the tragedy falls on you alone, you have no one to share it with. If we were together, everybody could take part in the sorrow and it would be easier on you.” I remember that letter as if it were yesterday. It comforted me so much that my mother did love me and care for me. Oh, she was a wonderful mother.
Other letters came every day from family and friends in Warsaw. I begged and encouraged them to leave. I told my mother I would send tickets for her and my sisters from funds we had placed in Palestine and England. But she replied, “I cannot leave, it is too late, I am too old to travel, be healthy be happy.”’
Germany invaded Poland on 23 August 1939. For almost three weeks in September, Warsaw was under attack from shelling and aerial bombardment. On 27September, the Wermacht crossed the Vistula River and occupied the city. On 5 October, Joe witnessed the arrival of Adolph Hitler in Warsaw, when he came to review the German troops.
“I was in the crowd when Hitler was driven past in a motorcade, not far from me. There was incredible security. They cleared every building en route and facing outwards from the windows of every building were armed soldiers with heavy weapons. If I had a gun, I could have killed him. I should have killed him.’
For the first few months of occupation, life was more or less bearable despite several decrees creating forced daily labour teams of Jews in the city, restricting Jews on public transport and forbidding kosher slaughter. Although there was periodic violence from both Nazi Germans and Poles, the initial occupation was designed to lull the Jewish population into a false sense of security.
Joe was asked to report to the Gestapo. As a radio technician, his compliance with this order would have meant likely arrest and execution. He made immediate plans to flee with Tosia but her parents opposed this as too dangerous. The escape route was also arduous and she was in the later stage of pregnancy. An agonising decision had to be made quickly. It was decided Tosia would stay with Joe’s mother for the time being.
According to Rita: “Wives had to be left behind. The escape route was too risky. You had no idea how you would get there or whether you would succeed or be arrested. You just ran for your life. If you got out, you were lucky.”
Many other Warsaw Jews were organising in small groups to flee east to the Russian occupied area of Poland seized on the 17 September under the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. News of German atrocities later increased the flight to a flood. Some Germans accepted bribes of money, gold, jewellery or clothing to transport Jews hidden in German Army trucks to the frozen River Bug, the border between the Russian and German zones. There they were hid until it was safe to cross the frozen river. On the other side they were picked up by the Russians or walked in the freezing weather to Bialystock, the nearest city. Although borders between the zones officially closed on 20 October 1939, refugees continued to cross until June 1941.
While in Bialystock, Joe received letters from home. They gave the impression that life wasn’t so bad and that thing had settled down. Food, housing and employment in Bialystock were in short supply. He decided to return home to his wife in Warsaw. However, at the train station the NKVD (Russian secret police) lay in wait, arresting those attempting to return to the German occupied zone. He was jailed and subsequently deported to the far north. It appears that his sister Paula may have visited him in gaol before his deportation, bringing clothes and supplies. How she got there and whether she returned to Warsaw remains a mystery.
Joe was one of about 250,000 Jews rounded up by the Russian secret police, mostly in the second half of 1940. They were mainly refugees who had registered their intention to return to Poland and had refused the offer of Soviet citizenship, fearing it would split them from their families. Members of non-communist organisations such as Zionists or Bundists were also liable to be arrested. In contrast, Jews who accepted work and the Soviet citizenship extended to eastern Poland in November 1939, were given funds and free transportation to places like ‘sunny Tashkent.’
Those arrested were transported to labour camps in remote areas and treated as criminals. Many had only city clothes to wear and froze in the Siberian winter. Each morning they were taken to the camp perimeter to cut down trees under armed guard, ‘One step to the right or one step to the left will be regarded as an attempt to escape and firearms will be used.’
Those who survived the Soviet work camps were better off than those in Warsaw. By September 1940, Jews had been effectively excluded from the life of the city and their businesses and bank accounts had been confiscated. Polish collaboration, particularly identifying Jews in hiding, was encouraged by harsh penalties for protecting Jews and rewards for handing them over. Some Poles made a living out of blackmailing, robbing or informing on Jews. During September, notices appeared in German and Polish on the streets of Warsaw and in Polish newspapers addressed to the Jewish population, decreeing that all Jews move to specific streets within Warsaw by a given date. The Eidelson family apparently moved to a flat they owned at 6 Garwolinska Street which was located within the defined Ghetto area.
Conditions rapidly deteriorated after the Ghetto was sealed off with a ten-foot wall on 15 November 1940. Over a third of the city’s inhabitants were now enclosed in 3.5 square miles or just one fortieth of the entire area of Warsaw. By March 1941, refugees from the surrounding area had swelled the population to 445,000. Between January 1941 and May 1942, some 66,000 people died of starvation and associated diseases.
After the German occupation, it would have been difficult if not been impossible for any of the remaining members of the Eidelson family to emigrate, even if Franka’s pleas for them to leave had been successful.
‘The last letter I received from my mother was in June 1943 through the Red Cross. It indicated that she had left the family apartment and was living in a tiny flat with my blind father-in-law (Stashek’s father), as well as Tosia and her baby Alexander, then only a few months old. I answered but received no response. This was our last communication. I could only hope that her energy and resourcefulness would keep her alive.
The Ghetto was reduced to ashes but eventually some survivors arrived in Buenos Aires. I found out from them that my mother was very active in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising, helping and doing things. Knowing my mother, she was an excellent and conscientious worker. She was a good Jewess in that she cared for other Jews. This is how I lost her. All that is left is my love for her and my feeling of guilt that I left her. What can I say, I live with it every day. There is not one day that I don’t remember my mother and the many things she did for me. She showed me how life could be met.’
Over a seven-week period between July and September 1942, Warsaw Jews were rounded up and deported for ‘resettlement.’ The primary destination was the Treblinka II death camp, located in a sparsely populated area beside the Warsaw to Bialystock railway line only 62 miles from Warsaw. German and Ukrainian guards and Jewish prisoners manned the camp. At the entrance, a sign in Hebrew proclaimed, ‘This is the gate through which the righteous pass.’
As trainloads of five to seven thousand people arrived at Treblinka, an SS officer would inform the deportees that they had arrived at a transit camp. Prisoners were then moved through a selection process in which women and children were separated from the men. Those too sick to walk on their own, unbeknownst to the others, were taken to a pit near the infirmary and shot. The rest were taken to a barracks where their hair was shorn. Postcards were often written by the prisoners, and were sent by the camp personnel to encourage more Jews to move east for ‘resettlement.’ Between 23 July and 21 September 1942, 265,000 Jews from Warsaw plus another 112,000 from the surrounding Warsaw district were murdered at Treblinka using carbon monoxide gas pumped into three gas chambers designed to look like shower rooms. The bodies were then stacked and burned on a grid of old railway tracks.
On 18 January 1943, Jewish fighters in the Ghetto attacked the Germans at the ‘Umschlagplatz’, the notorious yard where Jews were assembled for deportation by rail to Treblinka. On 19 April 1943, the Germans entered the Ghetto, on the eve of Passover, to liquidate the remaining population, but met armed resistance. The Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB), led by Mordechai Anielewich of Hashomer Hatzair, fought heroically from bunkers and burning buildings. Eventually, the Germans used artillery and aerial bombardment to level the entire Ghetto. The fighters’ underground command bunker at Mila 18 was destroyed, with all its defenders, on 8 May. A few remaining ZOB fighters escaped from the ghetto through the sewers. The Germans had intended to destroy the Ghetto within three days, but the fighters held out for more than a month. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest and, symbolically, the most important Jewish uprising. It was the first urban uprising in German-occupied Europe.
A remnant of twenty thousand Jews remained hidden outside the Ghetto in greater Warsaw and the surrounding district, despite the risks of blackmail or disclosure by Polish szmalcownic or bounty hunters. Incredibly, there was even more bloodshed to come. In August 1944 the Polish Home Army, encouraged by the arrival of their ‘allies’ (the Russian Army on the opposite bank of the Vistula River), rose up in Warsaw. The Germans slaughtered another 150,000 people and destroyed most of the city, while the Soviets looked passively on, calculating that it would make their post-war occupation of Poland easier. The ruined city was finally liberated on 17th January 1945
In Siberia, Joe, with thousands of other slave laborers, was put to work constructing a railway from Kotlas via Uhkta to Vortuka in the Arctic Circle near the White and Barents Seas. Enormous deposits of coal needed for industrialisation and the war existed near Vorkuta but could only be transported by ship to Archangel during the few weeks of summer when the coastal waters of the Barents Sea were not frozen. The new railway, two thousand kilometres in length, was intended to transport coal and oil south all year round as well as bringing people, building materials and machinery north. It was completed in 1945.
One of the camps, where Joe was incarcerated, was near that of another deportee, Menachem Begin, later to become Prime Minister of Israel. Begin worked at the enormous Pechora camp on the Pechora River near the Urals Mountains. He has described his arrest, deportation and life in the camps in his 1957 book ‘White Nights. The Story of a Russian Prisoner.’ Begin was sentenced to eight years in a ‘correctional labour camp’ because he was the leader of the Betar Zionist movement in Poland, an ‘element dangerous to society’. Previously, he had been a member of Hashomer Hatzair.
Begin describes how the NKVD broke prisoners down by intense interrogation. This could include threats to arrest and execute members of the prisoner’s family. After several days and nights, most prisoners became so exhausted and disoriented that they signed confessions agreeing to acts of treason or disloyalty. Even conniving to flee the Soviet Union was an offence. Joe was probably convicted of this particular ‘crime’.
Before transportation, prisoners were allowed to nominate one visitor who could bring supplies such as clothing but not food. This apparent act of decency saved the Soviet Union the cost of providing garments themselves. Prisoners were then transported north on overcrowded freight cars converted to prison cells. The small windows were barred and a double tier of bunks, made up of wooden planks, lined the sides. Armed NKVD soldiers with dogs supervised the embarkation. The journey of two to three thousand kilometres took several weeks. En route, the men were fed only salted herring and bread and water was always in short supply.
Conditions were tough in the camps. Estimates of prisoner death rates were as high as one person for every metre of line. The earliest transports (including Joe) had the greatest challenge, as they had to build their own huts and prison stockades on the frozen taiga or tundra. Seasoned inmates advised new arrivals, ‘The climate is ideal. The winter only lasts nine months and then it is summer to your hearts content.’ Some prisoners mutilated themselves rather than work in temperatures that often ranged 70-100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Food was desperately short and the sparse daily food ration was linked to the output of each worker. Criminal prisoners or Urki preyed on the political and other prisoners.
Other hazards included plagues of lice and stinging flies, frostbite, and chronic diseases. In summer, the sun rose again soon after sunset, creating permanent arctic daylight. In the winter the northern dawn lit up the night, creating the beautiful Aurora Borealis. Complete control of all works was by the NKVD whose universal reply to all complaints was, ‘You’ll get used to it and if you don’t you’ll die.’
Joe gave much of the following account to his son Meyer in Caulfield Park, Melbourne on a spring day in 1984. Joe regarded his survival during the war as a personal triumph. Almost thirty years after the war, he was still recalling for his children the glory of a life-saving meal of Uzbek rice and bemoaning the loss of the Czar’s watch. Coincidentally, both Rita’s and Joe’s stories include disaster at the hands of a thief in the Kokand market place. Perhaps it was the same one?
‘When we arrived at the labour camp in Siberia near the White Sea, the Russians just dropped us off in the snow to build the railways lines. These were needed to help in the transport and construction of goods and industries far from the German lines. There was absolutely nothing there when we arrived. First we dug foxholes to live in. Then we built barracks. Then we built the railway line.
It seemed impossible to survive in such a place. So I asked a NKVD officer, “How do you get used to it?” and he said, “You will get used it or you will die.” And he was right. After a while, you didn’t even think about it.
We had to choose work parties. I looked at the Jews. They were blowing on their fingers, shivering in their city overcoats. I realised my best chance was with the Ukrainians. Great big lads they were. I was a flea compared to them. These hefty Ukrainians were anti-Semites who had been fighting for Vlasov, a Russian general who had defected to Hitler. Even better, the Ukrainians worked at 150% of the quota and were fed top rations. By joining them I knew I wouldn’t starve. With me in their ranks they were safer from recriminations by their NKVD supervisors. I was their token Jew. The Russians opposed anti-Semitism. If you called someone a filthy Jew, you could be shot.
The Ukrainians treated me well except for one who hated me and tried to kill me more than once. We were handling a huge log and he deliberately dropped his end. I was lucky not to have been killed. I attacked him immediately. It was just for show. I knew the others would pull me off. This Ukrainian taunted me frequently. He used to say to me, “All these big fellows are dead. Ivan is dead, so and so is dead. You’re just a little fellow, how come you’re still alive? When are you going to die Eidelson? When?”
I said to myself, “After you, you bastard.” My work method was not to stand near the fire but to keep warm by working. Working up a sweat kept you warm all day and earned the respect of the Ukrainians who were all much stronger than me. Near the fire you were always chilled on one side or another. The Ukrainian who hated me spent too much time near the fire, caught pneumonia and was dead within a few days.
One night, in Siberia, they called our brigade out of our foxholes. A train had buckled on the line and tipped into the swamp. Our brigade was called out because we were the strongest. Stakhanovites they called us. We went out to the swamp and stood in water up to our knees. It was cold but not yet winter. More like the coldest night someone living in Melbourne could remember in a lifetime. In a Siberian winter, men would thrust their hands under heavy loads to amputate fingers or even feet. Anything to be released from work in conditions of up to 42 degrees centigrade below zero. A day’s work in a Russian prison camp was like ten years labour in Melbourne.
We had not yet been issued work clothes and I was standing in the water in an expensive overcoat I had brought from Poland. The work didn’t go well. The Russian in charge was beautifully dressed. Polished knee-high boots and a fine tunic. He yelled at us and urged us on. We were lifting iron rails from beneath the freezing water and heaving them onto a 25-ton truck. But some of the prisoners were only pretending to lift. With a curse the Russian leaped into the mud and began to heave. In an instant, the work was done.
I returned to a charred heap. The foxhole covered in branches had caught fire. The men I had paid to guard my belongings had only time to rescue the belongings of the brigade leader. Such a disaster could mean the difference between life and death. It was a bad time for me. All my clothing and money had been destroyed. The finest silk shirts. With a shirt, you could buy food. Money couldn’t buy much in that camp. It cost a hundred rubles for a small piece of bread. Later we moved to an engineering camp that had engineering tradesmen from Moscow. They had plenty of food to sell and prisoners being released were desperate to buy clothes. A single ruble would buy bread and I had nothing. It is hard to starve but harder to starve amidst plenty.
Hah! What’s a ruble! Nothing! But to get a ruble in that camp you would have had to kill someone. I was desperate. I told the cook that if he gave me a bowl of soup I would bring him a shirt tomorrow. It was a bad move, but I was too hungry to care. The next day I was too frightened to go to the window to ask for more.
When we were released from the labour camp in Siberia because of the Polish-Russian Pact, they gave us a choice of three zones in Russia to live in. I asked which one was the warmest. Central Asia, Uzbekistan, they said and pointed to the train. I got on and travelled forever – hundreds, thousands of kilometres across the vastness of Russia from north to south. There was plenty of bread at the stations. They fed us ahead of the queues when they realised who we were. In the end we ran out of railway line at Kokand. We were as far from the Nazis as we could go.
Although we were assigned to a kolkhoz, there was little food. A whole day’s work in the field for a miserable bowl of soup. Many people eventually wandered off to survive as best they could on their own. One day the NKVD arrested me at gunpoint and carted me of to a dam project where I had to carry stones all day on my back like the slaves from Egypt. After a week I escaped and joined another kolkhoz by promising them I would work hard at cutting grass for them.
I was in the market one day, hungry like a dog. For several days I’d been living on edible grass and old onions I scavenged from the fields. I saw some Uzbeks sitting on a stack of bread and realised that they must be going to work and that the bread was intended as their payment. They set off through the fields. I followed behind. It was pouring down, freezing weather and the ground was flooded. But I was persistent. Several times the Uzbeks looked back, muttering, obviously puzzled why a ‘Russkie’ persisted in following them.
But I knew that they had bread and I followed like a cur, a thin hungry dog, sniffing at their feet.
After several kilometres the Uzbeks came to a hut. I followed them inside and sat on the floor. They had a big cauldron of rice and milk boiling. Out of a sack they removed huge loaves of bread. White bread, real white bread! Several Uzbeks had turned back because of the bad weather. They weren’t starving like us, you see as they all had some land to farm. But now ten Uzbeks had bread for fifteen. You can’t imagine the effect of the smell of the rice on me.
They muttered between themselves and came to a conclusion. Evidently my persistence had impressed them. And they supposed that I could work too. They gave me a bowl of rice and I bolted it down. Unbelievably they gave me three-quarters of a giant loaf. I wrapped it in a rag to take back to the other boys in the hut. There was some discussion about the task of cleaning the pot. Incredibly they decided to give this honour to me. I was now one of them. On the bottom of the pot was a thick layer of burned rice. I scraped and ate till I was fit to burst.
Then we all went out into the field to build an irrigation ditch. Each man worked on his allocated section. I worked hard for hours, the sweat pouring off me. I was determined, you see, that they not think that I was taking their bread for nothing. By the end of the day each Uzbek had completed a deep and beautifully cut V-shaped trench. Mine was a shambles. One Uzbek took pity on me, seized my hoe and finished it off.
I returned to the hut I shared with nine other lads. I whistled for the mangy dog that used to run around the place. I told them where I had been but they didn’t believe me. They had been eating and had left a small piece of meat for me. It was all that remained of the dog. One of the boys offered to buy it from me. “Keep it”, I said. When I produced the bread, it caused a sensation. They hadn’t seen bread for months.
Some of the boys were eager to join the Uzbeks the next day. I told them to forget it, they would have too work too hard. If they didn’t work hard the Uzbeks would kill them. But one of the boys insisted. I told him it was his funeral. Those Uzbeks were savage. They would not hesitate to kill a ‘Russki’ if they found him stealing from or cheating them.
In all, there were nine of us young men living together, all Polish Jews. Three, perhaps four of us made it back. The others died of starvation.
Once I was lucky enough to gain possession of a valuable pocket watch that was inscribed with the name of a member of the Czar’s family. I went to the market to trade it for food or money. I showed to a young street boy. Soon after I was horrified to find it was missing. My pocket had been picked. I looked desperately for the thief but there was no hope of getting it back.
In May 1946, Joe returned to Warsaw to seek the fate of his family. The city was a scene of indescribable destruction, a vast acreage of rubble. Fewer than ten percent of the buildings had survived the onslaught. Poland’s most beautiful and sophisticated metropolis was now the worst ravaged in Europe. His search for his mother, Sarah and his sisters, Paula and Hella, was unsuccessful. Almost certainly, they perished in the Ghetto or Treblinka. He visited the site where the family flat had been located in the Warsaw Ghetto. Franka received a letter from him shortly afterwards:
‘He wrote to me, “I am walking around, I am sure that this is the place where our house was. But all that I find is rubble and ashes. There is not even a landscape to see anything or recognise the place but I know that this is the place and I didn’t find anybody.”’
After she received his letter, Franka immediately sent him a cable. ‘I said, “Stay where you are, help is coming.” I also cabled my brother Bernard who was more powerful than me because he worked for the Australian Government. He obtained a permit, a contract for him to work as a radio technician and that’s how we saved Joe from Poland. If he had remained in Poland a little longer they would have killed him. There were Pollacks who killed Jewish people who came back from Russia after escaping from the Nazis. They were robbed, they were attacked and they were killed. Later he wrote again to say that he was now remarried. And again I cabled Bernard from Argentina to Australia to send an additional permit for Rita. He was already in France at the time, which was a safer place to wait than in Poland. I sent him money; I sent him packages.’
Joe later described how he learned the fate of his precious wife, Tosia, and his son.
‘I eventually discovered what had happened.Tosia had been in hiding and was bribing a Pole to protect her identity as a Jew. However, he apparently became concerned at the risk he was taking. He told Tosia and another Jewish woman he was protecting that he needed to move them to a safer place in the countryside. On the way he stopped in the forest. He ordered them to take their clothes off and shot both of them and left them for dead. Miraculously the other woman was still alive and struggled to the road where she was found. Somehow she survived the war and I traced her through a notice board. She told me the whole story including the name of the murderer. My eldest son’s middle name is now Alexander in memory of my first-born son who I never met.’
Tosia’s murderer was a Polish policeman. Corrupt police and collaborators were in an ideal position to exploit the possessions of desperate Jews by extortion and murder. It is unclear what happened to Alexander, the boy. Most likely he perished with his mother. In later years Joe believed that his wife’s murderer could have made his way to Australia as a migrant.
In 1992, Joe’s son Aaron travelled to Warsaw. He discovered that on 28 May 1946, his father had recorded details in a Warsaw register to alert others to his survival. The short, bare entry belies the emotional trauma of what Joe must have been experiencing at the time.
‘Jozef Ejdelson 1908 Noah, Sarah Warszawa 6 Gawoluska’
Like his father before him, Aaron visited the location of the former flat of the Eidelson family at 6 Garwolinska Street. Another building had replaced the original. Painted on the wall was a slogan, ‘Death to the Jews!’ Graffiti like this was common in Warsaw in 1992. Even the Warsaw synagogue bore such racist slogans.
From Australia, Bernard responded to Franka’s cable and sent funds and papers to Joe and Rita to bring them to Australia in 1947. Initially the new arrivals lived with Bernard and his wife Nyuta. Eventually Joe and Rita moved to a flat at 3/731 Punt Road, South Yarra where they raised their four children Sarah Margaret, Meyer, Aaron and Noah (Nicky). They separated in 1961 but continued to share the responsibility for the upbringing of their children. Joe died of heart failure in 1986 at seventy-eight years of age.
Franka, Stashek and their son Noah immigrated to America from Argentina in 1951. Noah now lives in Philadelphia with his wife Eileen and son Max and writes in April 2003:
‘I have been captivated by the history of Joe and Rita. I will tell you what I know and can remember from anecdotal stories my mother would tell me.
For the most part, Franka (Frymet in Warsaw, Francisca in Argentina, Frances in US) did not like to talk openly about her past. It must have been very painful for her to revive memories of her lost family back in Poland. She had bought this thick, lined, hardbound notebook back when we were still in Argentina before 1951 and told me she was going to write the story of her life and that of the Eidelson family. Unfortunately, she never put pen to paper and procrastinated so that nothing ever was recorded except for her three audiotapes.
I don’t remember ever hearing about how Polchka (Paula), Hella, or our Grandmother Sarah met their ultimate fate. However, I do recall Franka believing that her mother was such a ‘strong’, confident woman that she imagined that she fought bravely at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and probably died then and there. I do not know if this is true, but it somehow gave Franka some solace.
I do not know either of the fates of Tosia and her and Joe’s son Alexander, and what I know of Tosia’s murder came from the tales I remember from your father, when he visited the U.S. with Renya and the video of him made by yourselves, which we still hold dear. I seem to recall that Tosia managed to escape the camp where she was held, but was later re-captured by some Pole and killed. When Joe was repatriated back to Poland, he tried to hunt down the perpetrator who he somehow learned his identity, but was advised to leave the country or he would also be killed.
My father Solomon or Stashek Borenstein had been a very good friend of Uncle Bernard back in Poland. I assume that is how my mother met him. Stashek was born in 1898. My parents and I emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina in December 1951 and initially lived with my father’s sister, Rose Siegel in New York City and later in 1952 moved to Vineland, New Jersey. My parents were separated in 1953, and Franka and I moved to Boston, Massachusetts. My parents divorced in the mid-1950s. My father died in New York City in 1961 at the age of 63 after a long illness.
My mother re-married Sidney Borkow in January 1958. Sidney’s parents were Joshia Borkow and Annie Jashinowsky. Sidney’s family was also from Poland, possibly Warsaw. I do remember Franka say that the reason she became interested in dating Sidney, was that she was familiar with the family name, and knew some members of his family, back in Poland and she consider them a “fine” family. It was apparent that back in that generation, people placed a lot of stock on the reputation of the family name and made important life long decisions based on that fact. Sidney was a good person. He had children by former marriages. He died while I was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966.
In Franka’s photo album there are pictures of many persons who are not identified by name. I am sure that there are cousins and uncles in there. The Eidelson name has German origins. My mother once told me that it meant “noble son”. The German word is actually ‘EDEL’, and means: noble, kingly and lordly.
I have very fond memories of Uncle Joe from the one time I met him in person on his visit here. I felt he was a remarkable man. I would have expected him to be a bitter person based on his horrible life experience. On the contrary, he was totally charming, loving, and full of life. He certainly was proud of every one of you and your accomplishments. I was proud to have met him even just that one time and immediately became very fond of him.’
‘If one soldier knew what the other thinks there would be no war.’ Yiddish proverb
Stefan Goldfarb, our stepfather, was born in Brest, Belorussia on the 14th November 1924, one of six boys in a Jewish family. His parents were Adam and Helena Goldfarb. At thirteen years of age he learnt a lesson about political affiliation when a communist offered him one zloty to climb the town hall and raise the red flag. When he got down the police were waiting to beat him. When Stefan arrived home his father beat him again, complaining that he could have cost his father his job.
The next time Stefan raised a flag was seven years later when he entered the town of Legonova and, as commander of a victorious tank brigade, raised the Polish flag that had been hidden in a cushion by the town’s mayor during the German occupation.
In September 1939, the Russians occupied Brest after they invaded eastern Poland as part of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. Stefan’s brother gained employment as the driver for a Russian commander. One winter day, the water in the car’s radiator froze and he couldn’t get the car started. As a result, he was arrested for sabotage and sentenced to fifteen years hard labour in a mine, although he was later released to fight in the army. The remaining family was punished by association. The NKVD secret police arrived at their home in the early hours of the morning and told the family they had half an hour to pack. An officer wrote something on a scrap of paper and gave it to them – a receipt for the house and all its belongings. Of course this was worthless. They family were deported in red railway carriages to Akmolinsk in northern Kazakhstan where they were assigned work in a commune or ‘kolkhoz.’
Between 1927 and 1939, Stalin forced the collectivization of Russia’s farmlands, creating tens of thousands of communes controlled by communist officials. His goal was to industrialise Russia overnight. To achieve this, the Communist Party deliberately destroyed the peasantry or ‘kulaks’ as a class. Five million farmers died in Kazakhastan and Ukraine as a result of starvation, execution or deportation to labour camps. Agricultural mass production was introduced using tractors and fertilizers, sometimes with little understanding of their use. Stefan’s commune, like other co-operatives and factories, was under intense pressure to achieve quotas. He tells of one unforgettable incident during his time in the kolkhoz:
‘I had always loved machinery. No one else on the kolkhoz had much understanding of mechanical equipment. In fact I was so adept at driving and repairing tractors that, although I was barely sixteen years of age, I was appointed head of the tractor brigade when the supervisor became ill. My best friend Witek persuaded me to let him join the brigade and work with me. Like myself, he had been deported from eastern Poland by the Russians to this godforsaken hole of a kolkhoz in Siberia named (by some comedian, no doubt) ‘Industrial Progress.’
The members of the kolkhoz worked under the watchful eye of a representative of the regional communistic party who was there to ensure we worked constantly to fulfill the ‘Plan’ (whatever that meant). One rainy night, Witek came and woke me up where I was sleeping in the communal hall. A tractor had broken down and he asked me if he should fetch a replacement part from the machinery station eighteen kiometres away. The weather was appalling and I wouldn’t have let a dog out in those conditions. I told Witek to go to sleep and to fetch the part early the next morning.
The Party Representative, a woman called Polyzaeva, was in the adjoining room and overheard our conversation. She immediately concluded that we were plotting to sabotage her sacred ‘Plan’ and rushed to alert the Director of the Kolkhoz. She demanded that he arrest Witek and I immediately. The Director begged her to let me off, as there was no one to replace me as head of the tractor brigade. She agreed but on the condition that I immediately escorted Witek to the militia station, twelve kilometres away.
I refused to do so, arguing that Witek was totally innocent but Witek begged me, “Please Stefan I want to go. Prison can’t be worse than here and you shouldn’t risk your freedom for me.”
When we arrived at the militia station on that cold and blustery night, there was nobody there but an old caretaker. It was already one in the morning. I said to the caretaker: ‘Give me a receipt for delivery of the prisoner as I have to return to the kolkhoz to work the morning shift on the tractors.’ I helped him tie Witek to a chair and he gave me a receipt.
I went outside and sat in the truck for half an hour. I then took a heavy spanner and potato sack and returned inside. I saw that the caretaker had fallen asleep with an empty vodka bottle in his hand. I hit him on the back of the head with the spanner, stuffed a rag in his mouth and pulled the sack over his head. I then untied Witek and together we bound up the caretaker with the same rope. We jumped into the truck and drove to the nearest forest. There we said a hasty and tearful goodbye. We were both only sixteen years old. Witek said he would try to make his way to Archangelsk where he father had been deported.
I returned to the tractor house and showed Polyzaeva my receipt for delivery of the prisoner. By this time it was already morning and time to take the tractors into the fields. When I returned from work that day, I was told that Polish bandits (six hefty men according to the caretaker) had broken into the militia station that night and taken away Witek, who, like them, was a dangerous terrorist.
In 1943, as a soldier in the Polish Army under Russian command, I met Witek again by sheer chance in the town of Sielce near Moscow. Over a glass of vodka we had a good laugh remembering the ‘terrorists’ of the ‘Industrial Progress’ kolkhoz. We raised a toast to the health of those same terrorists and then it was time for good-byes again before each of us went his own way to plunge his life into the indescribably terrifying horror of war.
Before the war had finished, I was the commander of a tank brigade and had been wounded four times. As to what happened to my friend Witek, I guess I’ll never know.
Stefan’s ability to act decisively in a crisis and his rare skills in repairing and managing tractors, was to lead him into amazing experiences in the coming years. Tractors are similar to tanks in that they are heavy all-road machines. As a result many Russian tractor factories were eventually converted to tank manufacture, as tanks were critical in responding to the revolutionary strategy of armoured warfare used successfully by the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ in France and Poland.
On 22 June 1941 the greatest force ever assembled in history, over three million troops, eighty per cent of the entire German Army, launched a Blitzkreig against Russia. The result was devastating, pushing the Russians back to the outskirts of Moscow within four months. By the end of 1941, four Russian armies had been captured, some 3,000,000 Russians were dead and almost half the population was under occupation. Hitler believed that the defeat of Soviet Union was all but achieved.
It is often overlooked that many Jews fought bravely with the armed services of various countries. The overwhelming disaster of the Holocaust has sometimes given the impression that Jews were passive civilian victims and not fighters. Stefan’s case is one of innumerable examples that disproves this. He voluntarily joined the remaining Russian Army and his mechanical skills led him to the tank brigade where he proved a skilled and courageous commander of T-34’s.
Most Red Army equipment deployed during the German invasion was obsolete except for the T-34 tank, which proved to be the best all-around tank of the war for speed, firepower, and manoeuverability, especially on ice. The first model, made to a revolutionary design in 1941, weighed 27 tons, carried a five-man crew and had a top speed of 31 miles per hour. The Germans discovered that their shells bounced off the T-34’s sloping frontal armour. Russian soldiers, including those like Stefan assigned to tank crews, also proved to be resolute and self reliant in the critical battles that followed.
After almost reaching Moscow, the German advance made a fatal mistake when it turned south to support other German forces taking Kiev. This provided a breathing space for Russian efforts to raise new armies, re-arm with American aid and relocate more industries away from the front. It also extended the German campaign into the notorious Russian winter for which they were poorly prepared.
The war was an utterly brutal and bloody affair with no quarter given. Hitler and Stalin took personal command of their armies. Each army’s goal was the total annihilation of the enemy. Human life was of no consequence in a titanic death struggle between Nazism and Communism. Hitler ordered his troops to fight to the death, while Russian commanders shot their own soldiers who retreated. Most prisoners of war on both sides did not survive treatment by their captors. To deny essential supplies to the invaders, the Russians destroyed their own villages and crops, resulting in mass starvation.
On 5 December 1942 a massive Russian counter-offensive began. In 1943 the destruction of the German Sixth Army after the battle of Stalingrad became the turning point in the Second World War and broke the back of the Third Reich.
Like Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army of 1812, the Germans had been fatally drawn into the vastness of Russia to fight an enemy that was often the landscape itself.
It seems a miracle that Stefan survived the maelstrom that killed nine million Russian soldiers and sixteen million civilians. He saw active combat throughout the war and survived the destruction of at least two tanks with most their crews. A small man, he proved adept at escaping through the narrow exit hatch in the floor of the tank. He was wounded on four occasions and still bears large scars from shrapnel, pieces of which remain in his body. The last T-34 he commanded is in a Warsaw museum, famous because under his command, it destroyed 18 German tanks.
On one occasion he was pulled out of his tank with his clothes burning. At the field hospital, the doctor assessed him as too injured to survive and placed him under the hospital building with the corpses of dead soldiers. In a short while, he would have frozen to death, had not his commander arrived inquiring as to his whereabouts.
‘Where is Goldfarb?’
‘Goldfarb is dead.’
‘Goldfarb dead? Impossible! Show me the body!’
He was hauled out, the commander found a pulse and ordered the doctor to operate. At gunpoint if necessary. Stefan recovered.
On another occasion, he was the only crew survivor when their tank was destroyed. He escaped and, under the cover of darkness, emerged to put on a German uniform to replace his own that was ripped and torn, retaining only his helmet. He was apprehended by local Russians who tortured and questioned him for most of the night, refusing to give his military details. Next morning they kicked him down the stairs of the building and marched him to the cemetery to dig his own grave. En route, they met a Russian patrol. Stefan recognised the sergeant, called out and was rescued.
His courage and skill in combat earned him many distinctions including about thirty medals. These include the Grunwald Cross (Poland’s highest decoration for heroism), the Walecznym Cross and the Russian Gvardi medal. He remains one of the most highly decorated Jewish or Polish soldiers alive.
The Grunwald Cross, equivalent to our Victoria Cross, was awarded when Stefan, leading two other soldiers, went on reconnaissance and captured a German soldier repairing a tank, returning with both to the Russian lines. The prisoner provided invaluable information on German positions. On another occasion, he achieved distinction when he defended his position from attack by paratroopers, after running out of ammunition, by relentlessly flinging hand grenades from a sack.
By the end of the war, Stefan was a brigade commander of hundreds of men at the amazingly young age of twenty. He continued his career as a senior military commander in the Polish forces under Russian control. In 1973 Russia actively supported Egypt during the six-day war against Israel and, soon after, began purging their armed forces of potential Israeli sympathisers. Stefan eventually obtained permission to migrate to Australia but his medals were taken from him on the train to the border.
He travelled to Italy with Yola, his twelve-year-old daughter, and then joined two of his brothers in Australia. Hanya, another daughter, joined him in Melbourne with her family in about 1990 after sponsorship by the family of his partner Rita Eidelson. A third daughter, Theresa, remains in Poland.
When Solidarity successfully gained power in an independent Poland, Stefan was invited to return. He and Rita travelled back to the country where they were born (see Postscript). He was given full recognition for his years of service, provided with new copies of all his medals and awarded a military pension.
Today, Stefan still recalls his old ‘T-34’ with great affection. Rita once discovered an eloquent love poem amongst his memoirs and was highly amused when she realised it was an ode from Stefan to his tank. He has written an extensive memoir of his history in Polish but it is yet to find a publisher. In 2000 the Spielberg Foundation recorded his story on film and audiotape.
At the annual Anzac Day March in Melbourne, his small, erect figure and the great display of medals that cover his uniform, attract the attention of the media. On one occasion he appeared with his granddaughters in a full-length picture on the front page of the daily newspaper.
Stefan marches with members of his family and not with a military unit. He doesn’t fit in with other Poles because they mainly served with the Allies outside Russia or in the Polish Army within Russia. Perhaps it is also that his decorations make theirs seem paltry. Nor does he belong with the Russians. He is in a rare category, a Polish soldier who fought successfully and with valor under Russian command against the Germans who were murdering his people, the Jews.
In 2002, at seventy-eight years of age and fifty-seven years after he last saw combat, the Polish government honoured him with a promotion to the full rank of full Colonel with three stars and two stripes.
‘The truth can walk around naked, the lie has to be clothed.’ Yiddish proverb
The first of Rita’s and Joe’s children, Sarah Margaret, was born in 1948 soon after their arrival in Australia. Their three sons arrived in succession soon afterwards – Meyer, Aaron and Noah (Nicky). Ten years after their arrival, Rita separated from Joe and became the primary carer of the four children. Joe continued to play an active parental role in his children’s lives until his death in 1986 at the age of seventy eight. Rita returned to her occupation as a typist that had served her so well in Russia and Uzbekistan.
‘With four children, I badly needed a job. I studied typing at Stotts secretarial college in the city. Normally a migrant wouldn’t consider typing if they didn’t speak English fluently but I had always been very good at languages. I sat for the public service exam. One had to complete a set amount of work in ten minutes. My first attempt was unsuccessful and I burst into tears. The man in charge suggested I sit it again. When I arrived he sat me in a room, went out and didn’t come back for an hour! Naturally, I passed easily. I began work at the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. There was a senior boss there, rather grim in expression, who was widely feared, even disliked by the staff. One day I noticed that the elbows of his cardigan were worn so I insisted on taking it home and patching it for him. Sometime later I was told I was being let go because my typing wasn’t fast enough for the executive section I was in. I went to see this boss and he arranged to have me transferred to a section where the work was less demanding and I worked there successfully for twenty years.’
In 1984, at the age of sixty-two, Rita obtained the education she had yearned for so earnestly as a teenager in Chomsk, when she graduated from Victoria University with an Arts Degree having majored in Jewish History. Two of her sons are barristers and the third is a social worker. She has six grandchildren: Gill, Eve, Sarah Joe, Samuel and Lucy. Migration to a new country, however, has brought many challenges, some more difficult than those she faced in Russia. In 1981 her daughter Sarah Margaret died of pancreatic cancer.
In 1985 Rita, and her partner Stefan Goldfarb, visited Poland after the fall of the communist government. They returned in order for Stefan to receive recognition for his military career cut short by the Russians. They also went to assist Stefan’s family in their application to immigrate to Australia.
What was it like to return to Poland, the country where her entire immediate family had perished forty-three years earlier, and a country often described by Jews as a ‘Jewish graveyard’? In a letter to her first cousin Larry and his wife Dorothy in Chicago, she expressed her feelings.
‘Dear Larry and Dorothy,
The reason I wrote so little from Poland and also after returning to Melbourne is that I am genuinely confused and find it hard to put anything on paper. It is that I really liked these people. They are cultured, have good manners, dress well, including hairdos and manicures, look after their children beautifully and are good neighbours – eager to help each other.
They are not snobs but work as taxi drivers, engineers and factory workers. They like to celebrate – use any excuse for an occasion, starting at 8 p.m. and finishing at 4 am, vodka flaming, of course. They might get happier as time goes on and have a little song or two, but there’s no drunken behavior, at least among those that I met. But I am afraid that they don’t like me, that is not exactly me personally, but they simply don’t like Jews. I personally never met such an attitude in my life – I never lived among Poles. When we lived at home the people were mostly Ukrainians and although there was that ingrained religious prejudice, they accepted the Jews.
But here, there is no question of why? They simply dislike the Jews, like perhaps white Americans are prejudiced against the black people, or is it different now? Would you believe that all through the three months In Poland, I didn’t meet a single Jew. That is in a country where there were millions of Jews. The Nazis with the help of the natives, I suspect, practically eliminated the Jews. Also thousands of Jews, who returned from Russia after the war, left and went to Israel during Gomulka’s time, when they were removed from their jobs. They write in their papers that now Poland is 99% Polish.
Deep in their hearts, they are thankful to the Germans. Time and time again you hear people say, “The Germans were better than the Russians.” No thought for the millions of people who were tortured and slaughtered before their eyes. It is a closed chapter, not mentioned ever, as if it never happened. There is no feeling of guilt. They still hate the non-existent Jews and blame them for the badly handled economy. When I say I didn’t meet a single Jew I mean I didn’t meet anyone to talk to. Sometimes when I went into a shop, I suspected the owner was a Jew, but I simply couldn’t go up to them and ask about it. I believe they are treading the earth softly, like on glass, and the less the dreaded word (Jew) is mentioned, the better.
We once went to a jeweller’s shop. When we came home I asked Stefan’s son-in-law (a Pole), “Was the jeweller Jewish? It seemed to me that the man was a Jew.” With an embarrassed smile, he answered, “Well…something like that…” “What kind of animal is something like that?” I said. He replied, “Well he is a Jew, but he is a good man.”“Why does a Jew need an apology and the compensation of being good.” I received no answer to that. It simply is that way. We were at Stefan’s daughter and son-in-law at a party where they admired Stefan for being a Polish war hero with 30 medals to his name. So why did he leave Poland? “Because Gomulka dismissed him from his high position simply for being a Jew.” I answered. There was dead silence. I didn’t know this remark would have such an impact. I was learning!
One evening there was a loud banging on the door. I looked at Stefan’s daughter and she was holding her hand on her heart, as pale as a sheet, leaning towards the wall and almost fainting from fear. The son-in-law went cautiously to the door. Well it was only the son-in-law’s alcoholic father. So he went out to his father and everything became quite again. I said what I thought was a joke: ”Someone found out there were Jews here and they came to kill us.” I looked around – nobody smiled. Perhaps it was not a joke at all – it was what they thought was happening. That night, Stefan told me not to wave the flag so much because in this city in the district of Kielce, there was a pogrom after the war (notice, after the war) on the Jews who returned from Russia and forty were killed. It is a very anti-Semitic district. I was horrified and we left as soon as possible to go to the other side of Poland where Stefan’s other daughter lived.
I decided for the time that I have to be here, I would conceal my Jewish identity. This land has soaked up enough Jewish blood. At the other place everyone accepted us as Poles. Many people remarked what a beautiful Polish I spoke after so many years out to the country. Since Stefan’s first wife was Polish, his children and grandchildren are being raised as Christians.
There was a big book in the house about the Warsaw Ghetto. The ten-year-old granddaughter picked it up and showed it to me saying, “Look Auntie, this book tells how the Russians came to Poland and tortured the Poles.” Should I have told her the truth? I thought it might antagonise the parents. I took the book to my room and cried. I asked them to give the book as a gift and brought it back to Melbourne for the Holocaust Museum.
We went to visit Majdanek, one of the Nazi concentration camps, which is about 50 kilometers from Lublin. This city was a great centre of learning and study of the Torah. By coincidence, at the same time we were there, busloads of Israeli students arrived with their teachers. They were accompanied by a busload of police to look after them. They were all over the camp with Israeli blue and white flags flying. Some asked me to translate the writing on the buildings. They were overwhelmed and shocked by the displays of personal belongings of the victims of the crematoria. They lit candles, which they put in the ovens, where some of their grandparents may have been burned. One young girl came up to me, put her arms around me and cried like a baby. We cried together and I gave her a little ring I had on my finger, and we parted with a kiss. We didn’t even know each other’s names. Afterwards, I felt very weak and we had to go back to the bus, which took us home.
Stefan took many pictures of the concentration camp, which we took to a photographic studio for development. When we got the pictures back, the photos of the concentration camp were gone. Only one single photo remained – that of the black tall tower flying the Israeli flags that had been carried by the students. When we returned to the shop to complain, the proprietor’s wife turned to us full of hatred saying they resent such pictures and we are only telling lies, a well-known trait of our nation. The funny thing is that I am practically certain that her husband was a Jew.
I feel that most of the younger Poles have never seen a Jew and so they hardly think about them. It’s just that the church strongly influences the current leadership and dominates the television, newspapers and the minds of the people since they little children. I am sure they are carrying on active propaganda against the non-existing Jews in Poland, smearing with this Jewish brush all the better elements like Marovieck, Karan, Michnik, etc. There is also a hateful criticism of everything that has to do with Israel. Forty years of communism has not made one tiny dent in their fanatical beliefs, perhaps it even strengthened them.
I have many more stories to relate, some funny and some sad. We took a tour of a 12th-century castle. The tour leader took us to a room with many paintings focussing on one of a blond, longhaired man. He explained that this was Samson, who was lured by the Jewess Delilah. The Jews advised her to cut off his hair to destroy his strength and then threw him into prison. In prison, his hair grew and his strength returned. But the Jews didn’t know that, so when they were celebrating their big holy day, Yom Kippur in their temple, they brought Samson over to make fun of him. In the temple with his renewed strength, Samson shook the columns of the Temple, which fell down and 3,000 Jews, were killed that day.
I was so flabbergasted to hear this story that I turned to the tour leader and said, “Samson was captured by the Philistines who were the traditional enemies so the Jews. They captured him because he was a leader and judge of the Jews and not vice versa.” “Weren’t the Philistines one of the Jewish tribes?” he asked. I said, “No, they were an ancient Greek tribe.” He looked confused, turned on his heel and left.
Well, enough, enough. We are all surprisingly well after our escapades. All these fantastic stories – yet all of them true – and only part of what I can tell you.’
Love to you always,
Barkow, Frances Mama. Oral history tape recording by Franka Barkow 1987.
Begin, Menachem White Nights. The Story of a Prisoner in Russia, Steimatzky’s Agency Ltd, Tel Aviv 1977.
Borenstein, Noah Correspondence and Photographs 2003.
Cooper, Leo In the Shadow of the Polish Eagle. The Poles the Holocaust and Beyond, Palgrave, Melbourne, 2000
Eidelson, Aaron Chomsk File in Jewish Holocaust Centre, Melbourne, Catalogue No. 861
Eidelson, Rita Oral History 2003
Eidelson, Joe Oral History 1984
Goldfarb, Stefan Oral History 1995
Kogos, Fred Book of Yiddish Proverbs and Slang, Poplar Books, USA (undated).
Moynahan, Bryan The Russian Century. A Photojournalistic History of Russia in the 20th Century, Chatto and Windus, London 1994
Rotem, Simha Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter. The Past Within Me, Yale University Press 1994
Meyer Eidelson is President of the Middle Park Historical Society and the author of fifteen books. He lives in the City of Port Phillip with his partner Amanda Palmer and his three children Eve, Sarah and Joe. His two brothers and their families live nearby. In 2003 he was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for his contribution to community heritage.
The Russian revolution in 1917 temporarily weakened Russia’s hold on its Polish provinces. In 1920 Marshal Pilsudski in Poland drove the Russians out, demanding that Poland’s eastern border of 1772 be restored. As a result, the Treaty of Riga of 1921 awarded Poland large parts of Belorussia and of Ukraine. It was nullified by the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Rita’s home was in this volatile region of historic pass the parcel.
 In 1953 Rita belonged to a group of parents in Melbourne, which established Hashomer Hatzair in Raglan Street, St Kilda where all four of her children – Margaret, Meyer, Aaron and Nicky – eventually became madrichim or youth leaders. In 2003 Hashomer celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Melbourne.
 Lawrence or Larry still resides in Chicago with his wife Dorothy and their large family. In 1974 the two cousins Larry and Rita met for first time while on a mutual visit to Israel and their two families have corresponded and visited each other on many occasions since.
 In 1943 the Nazis exhumed the Polish dead and blamed the Soviets. In 1944 the Soviets exhumed the Polish dead again and blamed the Nazis. In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Stalin had ordered the NKVD in 1940 to execute 25,700 Poles, including the 4000 at Katyn. The exhumations continue.
 Today Hoyniki is in southern Belarus. Tragically, the town was severely contaminated with fallout from the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, causing high death rates, especially amongst children.
 Joseph Stalin was born to Georgian peasants who spoke no Russian. Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (1875 –1946) was an early Bolshevik, co-founder of Pravda and formal head of the Soviet Union from 1919 until 1946. His promise to save an arrested man was probably a lie. Only total subservience to Stalin saved him from the same fate.
 Lenin and Stalin terrorised their enemies and purged their own party of potential opposition using secret police agencies known variously as the Cheka (1917), GPU (1922), NKVD (1934) and KGB (after 1945). After Leon Trotsky was murdered In August 1940, only Stalin remained alive from the original fifteen Bolshevik leaders. Ten had been executed and four had had been murdered or died mysteriously. Stalin’s purging and execution of senior army officers between 1936-1941 contributed to the German Army’s initial successes in its attack on Russia.
 A third of Belarus is still covered by forest. Timber continues to be a huge industry with 146,000 employees engaged in over 5000 enterprises.
 Known as the ‘Roof of the World,’ Central Asia is dominated by the vast mountain systems of the Hindu Kush, the Pamir, The Tien Shan and the Himalayas, extending over 2,400 kilometres from Afghanistan to Tibet and Bhutan. Many great civilisations – Alexandrian, Greece, Imperial China, the Indian empires, the Turks and Mongols – came together in this isolated region.
 Kokand (pronounced Kukant) is an ancient town in Eastern Uzbekistan in the heart of Central Asia. It was once a major trading centre on the famous Silk Road connecting China with Western Europe. From 1770 to 1820 it was the western capitol of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Until Russian control in 1876, it was a great Islamic centre. The Bolshevik Revolution caused significant bloodshed in the town. Many refugees, like Rita and Joe, were attracted to its remoteness from the front, the warmer climate and its location in the fertile and populous Fergana Valley, the ‘garden of Uzbekistan’. It contains oriental bazaars, teahouses, mosques, royal mausoleums and the ruined Khan’s palace in central Muquini Park.
 Amazingly, all the industries described by Rita continue today in the Kokand region. A new state-owned sugar factory, using locally grown sugar beet was even built in 1998 and its produce finds its way into American candy. Cotton and silk industries also continue. Silk has been produced from before the time that Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road through the region to China and back.
Tisha B’Av is a traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar in memory of historic national disasters. For the descendants of the Chomskim today, Tisha B’av has an additional significance.
 Millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from their homes in Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia after World War Two, in retaliation for the war.
 The Polish i and English j are exchangeable. Franka stated in 1991 that variations to the family name included Ejdelson, Eidelzohn, Ajdeslon (Poland), Idelson (Tel Aviv), Eidelson (Australia). She stated that Eidelzohn were glassmakers (Sluta Saklana in Polish) in Bavaria and that Ajdelson family in Rudo Opalin, south Poland owned a shop in an area that produces clay for ceramics. Archives held by Jewish Records Information (JRI) lists known families in Warsaw that include: Ejdelson, Ejdelsohn, Edelsohn, Ajdelson, Ajdelzon, Edelson. Franka believed that the family was somehow related to Elijah ben Solomn (1720-1797). Known as the Vilna Gaon, he was a very famous authority on the Talmud and also wrote treatises on algebra, geometry and astronomy.
 The Russo-Japanese War, deliberately provoked by Tsar Nicholas II for internal political gain, ended in disaster and the 1905 Revolution. Although thousand of Jewish soldiers were killed, injured or captured, the war caused a massive increase in Russian anti-Semitism, forcing many Jews to emigrate. The most decorated soldier of the war was Josef Trumpeldor who formed the Zionist youth movement Betar, of which Franka Eidelson was a member. Trumpeldor’s motive, as was Bernard Eidelson’s when he enlisted in 1918, was to prove by his actions in battle that the charge of Jewish cowardice was false.
 Franka’s son, Noah, writes from Philadelphia in March 2003: ‘I will tell you one anecdote. As you mentioned in your history, Franka was tasked with taking care of Joe when he was a small boy. My mother was always very protective of her little brother Joe and I am sure must have considered herself his caregiver. I remember my mother would frequently have Freudian slips and address me as Yuszhek (Joseph). “Yuszhek, I mean Noah” she would say. This happened often and I came to accept the slip as a sign of her special close relationship with your father.’
 Jozef Pilsudski was a revered Polish nationalist hero whose legions fought with the Germans and Austrian-Hungarians against Russia. On Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, Marshal Pilsudski disarmed the Germans and declared an independent Poland for the first time in 150 years. In 1920, the Polish Legions destroyed six Russian armies in the battle for Warsaw and pushed the Polish frontier one hundred miles east into Russia. A proponent of equal rights for all, including the Jews, he formed a very popular government after a coup in 1926.
 After the death of Marshal Pilsudski, ‘the protector of the Jews’ in May 1936, anti-Semitic attacks increased in Poland supported by some political parties, professional groups, and the media. Between 1934 and 1938 more than 500 Jews were murdered and about 5000 injured as a result of pogroms, assaults, boycotts and bombings of Jewish businesses designed to force emigration. In 1936 the Jewish population called a general strike in Warsaw to protest the continued acquittal of Poles involved in murderous pogroms and their treatment by some media and associations as national heroes.
 After Poland regained independence, Gadynia was created as a Baltic Port in 1922, to provide access to the sea. It was a lifesaver for those leaving Poland or escaping from Russia to Poland after the war. In 1970, Gadynia shipyard workers were shot while rebelling against the government during the events leading to the rise of Solidarity.
 Sarah Eidelson would have been sixty years of age in 1939.
 Franka probably erred in this date. It is likely to have been June 1940, given her mention of Alexander’s age. By 1943 most of the Jewish population of Warsaw had died either in the Ghetto or Treblinka.
 The story of General Andrei Vlasov’s indicates the quicksand of wartime allegiances. A hero of the Red Army at Stalingrad in 1941, he was captured by the Germans at Leningrad in 1942. Disillusioned by Stalin’s abandonment of his men, he turned collaborator and recruited prisoners to fight the Russians. In 1945 to avoid Russian capture he turned on the SS and appealed unsuccessfully to the Czech resistance. He fled with SS troops to the Americans who handed him back to the Russians. He was hung in the Lubyanka in 1946 after a year’s interrogation, no doubt to provide the names of other collaborators for execution.
 Stakhanovites were named after a legendary Soviet worker who exceeded his quota. To attain this heroic title was an honour earned by extraordinary physical labour and rewarded by extra food. Joe was always proud of having been a Stakhanovite.
 These self-mutilators were called the ’chleno-rubi’. After recovery, they received an extra months imprisonment for damaging state property i.e. themselves.
 After the treacherous attack by their German ‘allies’ in June 1941, the Russians found themselves allies of the British and therefore the Poles. They began to reconsider their friends. On 30 July 1941, the Polish Government-in-exile negotiated agreement with Russia (the Polish-Soviet Pact) to release Polish citizens like Joe from the gulags. It stated: ‘The Soviet Government grants amnesty to all Polish citizens now detained on Soviet territory either as prisoners of war or on other sufficient grounds as from the resumption of diplomatic relations.’
 In July 1946, forty-two Jews were killed in a pogrom in the town of Kielce, Poland.
 This disaster turned out to be fortuitous for the Goldfarbs. On October 15th 1942, 50,000 Jews from the Brest Ghetto were murdered by machinegun fire in trenches after being transported by cattle cars 114 kilometres northeast to the village of Bereza Kartuzka. In 1944, when the Russians recaptured Brest, there were only nine Jews left alive.
 Akmolinsk, today re-named Astana, is the capitol of Kazakhstan and is located on the Ishim River. It was a famous trading fair for central Asia in the 19th century. Ak mol means ‘white abundance,’ because of the many national milk dishes and beverages available – kumys, airan, kurt, shubat, kaimak. In 1960 it was named Tselinograd (Russian for ‘Virgin Land City’) in association with the ‘Virgin Lands’ program promoted by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to open up northern Kazakhstan to permanent cropping.
 Operation Barbarossa (‘Red Beard’).
 Russia is almost unimaginably huge. The fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union stretch from the Polish border to the Bering Strait, spanning eleven time zones, 9,600 kilometres and a landmass of 23.4 square kilometres that wraps itself around half the globe.