|Cover||Narrative||Bodaybo: 1941 - 1943|
|View of Bodaybo, 2008|
Bodaybo is the only port on the Vitim River for several hundred kilometers. The port was created more than a century ago, as a gateway to gold mines that are found further north in the wilderness. Even today Bodaybo has the feel of a frontier town: muddy streets, log cabins with smoke rising from the chimneys. The population of the town at the time my parents lived there was about twenty thousand.
|Steps down to the river|
[Tsivye] When we arrived in Bodaybo it was snowing and raining. We arrived in the evening; it was too late to go into the town; anyway we had no place to go. Mechel wasn’t there; he would still be a few days on the river. We got off at the vodna voksaal, a river station, where people used to wait for the ferries. Inside the station there were unemployed vagabonds, drunks, prostitutes – all the rejects were there. I had no place to put my child. I found a corner where it wasn’t full of spit and vomit – there were people throwing up there – oh how it stank! I pulled out a pillow from my bundle of things – I was like a real gypsy – and put the child on it. The others were down at the water. They made a bonfire all night; they pulled out their bedclothes from their bundles to keep warm. But I was in the vodna voksaal with Tsili, and she couldn’t sleep, she cried because of the stink. How I cried and howled! I felt so homesick, it was terrible. Mechel wasn’t there. The others were down at the water. I didn’t sleep the whole night. I sat on the ground because there was no bench to sit on. I held Tsili on my hands, the pillow was wet. In the morning I went out to look for something warm for her to eat, but there wasn’t anything to be buy. The others brought me tea they heated up on the fire, and a piece of bread. Later on a barge arrived and berthed for the day. It was possible to get away from the bums and drunks, and go out on the boat and lie down on the benches. Everyone arranged himself; two benches made a bed. I was waiting for Mechel to come. We’d been on a mail-boat, so it took us only three and half hours, but Mechel took two days and nights; what a terrible way on the water he had, snow and rain. He arrived on Sikkes.
I didn’t know anyone in Bodaybo. The next day I left Tsili with Grandfather and went to look for a place to live. I saw there were people with homes, lights were burning in windows, and here I have no place to go. I had a terrible feeling, I felt a homelessness I can’t describe. This or that Jew already has arranged himself, and I’m still outside, I haven’t a place to rest my head. At last Asher Barber found an apartment and I went in with him. I really didn’t want to join him, but Tsili got sick, feverish, so I had no choice, I had to go. Then Mechel arrived: this was a relief, but we had new distress: Tsili was running a high fever, she had an infection. I got a doctor but what could he prescribe? They had nothing. We looked for something to give her to eat, I don’t know how we managed it. I cried.
[Mechel] In the taiga, at least we had barracks for shelter and wood to keep warm. In Bodaybo we had to look for ourselves. We found a little room; Monye and I went into the forest many kilometers away to bring wood. We got ourselves a sled. I chopped down wood and hauled it home. The wood was wet and we had to dry it out. We had a brick oven, and we would lay the wood on the stove to dry out so we could burn it the next day. The wood stank, often we would choke from the smell. Every day or every second day, in the frosty cold, Monye and I would do this; we harnessed ourselves to the sled like horses. There was only so much we could bring out.
Once we had a room, we needed food, but if you didn’t work you couldn’t get food. There weren’t many jobs. Avrum was lucky, he got work with a shoemaker. Asher Barber had things with him, he could exchange or deal; his daughter Dora got work as a maid. The only work I could find was unloading barges at the port. But I lasted exactly one day. You were carrying sacks of 120 kilograms up an embankment from the water – it was like going up a mountain. The Russians were able to carry them, even women. They were used to working hard. I carried one sack, two sacks… but the third sack I couldn’t manage, I dropped it. It fell down the hill, split open, and the contents spilled out. I could have been put on trial for this. They could have said that this was sabotage, that I’d done it purposely. Luckily the boss was a Jew, he just fired me.
So where will I get bread? They told me to go back into the forest to work, to join a crew chopping wood. They gave me ration tickets at the beginning of the week before I went out. When I get out there I find there aren’t any barracks, they sleep in caves dug out in the snow, like animals. No way of heating. I was there for a week; this week was a lifetime. I couldn’t sleep because I had nothing to cover myself with. I wanted to daven but I didn’t have a place to daven, I had to wait till daybreak when the others went out to work. I went out there on a Sunday, and worked from Monday to Saturday. On Saturday you had to work. I went home on Sunday and didn’t go back. I was afraid they would come after me because I’d taken ration tickets for a month, but I didn’t have a choice because I couldn’t take it. In the end they never bothered me.
The month passed. Again, I have nothing to do. In the meantime, this is what was happening: 1941-2 was a terrible winter. After we were out of the taiga the hardships really began. Already on the mail-boat there was a man, Weinberger, who was very sick, he had diarrhea. He prayed with us on the first day of Sikkes, he said Hallel, and the next moment he was gone. He was the first. After that Jews were dying almost every day, from disease and hunger. Most of the Jews were housed in the high school. Epidemic broke out, people died of dysentery, typhus, and there was no one to bury them.
|Jewish tombstone from Czarist times, Bodaybo cemetery|
When someone died his family should to bury him. There actually was a Jewish cemetery in Bodaybo, next to the Christian cemetery. In the Tsar’s time there was a small Jewish community in Bodaybo, even a small schul, though this building was used as a warehouse now. But now it happened that a Jew died, and there was no one to bury him. I mentioned that my father always had a minyan in our house, wherever we were. One morning we are in the middle of davening when a Sanok woman whose husband died comes screaming into our house, her two children with her: we have to do something, she’s living with other families packed in a school, it’s so crowded people are stepping over one another, they are even stepping on her dead husband, she has no one to bury him. My father was so upset he said to stop davening; he said we wouldn’t have a minyan unless we went right then and buried this man. People always respected my father. I took some men with me and we buried the corpse. From then on, whenever a poor Jew died without relatives to bury him, they called me. Tsivye complained – I would bring germs into the house, I was exposing our child to disease. So I stopped this and went out to look for work again. I got a job at a tannery. Monye worked there too.
But it didn’t remain like this. One day I’m coming from work and see a circle of people standing around and arguing with two goyim. A Jew had died, this was also a Jew from Sanok, and his family hired these two to take the body out to the cemetery and bury it. As they left town the sled overturned and the body spilled out. The goyim left the body where it was, returned to Bodaybo and demanded more money from the family; it was too difficult for them. I got really upset – in the meanwhile dogs would come and tear the body apart. “How much money did they give you?” I yell at them. They say. “Give back the money!” I guess they were afraid we’d beat them up, they throw the money on the ground and run away. “Jews,” I say, “Nobody is leaving here. We’re all going together to bury this Jew.” I didn’t make any exceptions, even though we still had our rucksacks on our backs from work; we went out to retrieve the body and buried it.
After this, the Jews in Bodaybo went to the Mission – it still hadn’t gone back to Moscow – and demanded that I be taken from my work and made undertaker. So it was. I was appointed. But after the mission left we didn’t have anyone to give us what we need. And then one day Moshe Haas, a good friend of mine, comes to me and says, “Mechel, Shayeh Fogel’s father died. Shayeh asks you to bury him. Shayeh will get you everything you need.” I thought to myself that this was a chance to get things straightened out. Fogel was a rich man, so he had no problem coming up with material for his father’s burial; but most of the people dying were poor, we couldn’t bury them properly. I knew that Shayeh was on good terms with the police. I wanted him to speak to them about our problem and help us get materials, and I said so to Moshe Haas. Moshe Haas knew that I was right. He spoke to Shayeh. But Shayeh didn’t want to get involved. He sent word that he would give me any price I want so long as I bury his father. I refused, I said that we have to make arrangements that are good for everyone. Now, because Fogel was a rich man, I was afraid he would contact the other people of my crew and offer to pay them behind my back. So I called them all to our house and told Tsivye to cook up a good soup. I sat them down to eat, I gave them bread. I made them sit with me where I could watch them. We waited to see what would happen. Shayeh saw that he had no choice. Finally he calls me to go with him to Bogdanov, the Chief of Police. We come in and Bogdanov says, “Fogel, what brings you here?” “My father died.” “And?” This is my chance. “You know that Fogel has the money to pay for all the burial expenses; but what about all the other people who are dying and their families are too poor to bury them? What will we bury them with? There are no coffins, no horses to take them to the cemetery, or other things. Before we had the Mission, they provided us with what we need. But now they’re gone, so we came to you.” He thinks. “I can’t give you an answer. I have to discuss this with the City Government. Right now, go and bury Fogel’s father. Come back in a few days and I’ll see what I can arrange.” So we buried Fogel’s father. A few days later we went back to Bogdanov, and sure enough he’d worked things out with the Government. We were given ten meters of cloth for each body, to use for winding sheets and burial clothes; we got a horse; and an allowance for wooden boards to make into coffins. I also got a card as a worker, and rations coupons for bread. The labor card was the most important thing. Everybody had to have a card, otherwise they took you to the military. I was a big shot, a nachalnik. I had six people working for me, four men and two women. We had plenty of work. Because I was my own boss, I also had time to deal on the side.
In Bodaybo there were two thousand five hundred Jews. About twenty percent died. Just yesterday you saw him and today he’s not with us anymore. At one time we had to take out twenty-one bodies from the hospital. It took more than a week. According to the Law, you’re not supposed to dig a grave before a person dies. But in Siberia we had no choice, in the winter the ground was frozen, so we had to prepare graves in the summer. Even then, you can only dig a little at a time, and you have to let the exposed soil thaw before you continue, bit by bit. After you have the grave dug out you fill it in with leaves. It happened that six or eight of us once went out to bury a man during the winter, and we didn’t have a grave prepared; it was impossible to dig the grave, we had had to leave his body in a grave in the Gentile cemetery. Months later we went to rebury him. We couldn’t let him lie in the Gentile section, with Gentiles on all sides. I was afraid the smell would be terrible, and I brought along a liter of spirit, which we drank before we began to work. But his body was as fresh as the time he’d died. The winding sheet was starting to tatter, but the body was intact.
This is how the body is prepared. It’s cleaned – the eyes, the nose, nails, ears, the inside with an enema or suction: whatever you can take out from inside you take out. If blood comes out you collect it with a cloth and bury the cloth with the body. The body should be washed in a ritual bath, a mikveh; but since we didn’t have a mikveh we poured nine measures of water – kabim – over the body, in a continuous stream. One of us filled up and handed over buckets, another poured, and before he was finished a third would begin to pour from a new bucket. It was a chain. The body has to be standing – this was very easy in Siberia because the bodies were frozen and you could hold them up. You say, “You were born a Jew, you go away a Jew.” And you a formula, “Israel, how fortunate you are! Before whom do you purify yourselves, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven.” There is more.
You bury the dead in especially made clothes, sewn by hand: a shirt, pants have socks sewn on, a kittel, and a yarmulke of course; all made from the same material. Also if you have his tallis you wrap a man in the tallis that he davened in; finally you wind a sheet on top of all of this. On the eyes you put shards, pieces of broken china. Why? Because the eye never has enough, there is always jealousy; the shards keep the eyes closed. You put twigs in his hands so that life will grow from him. You take egg white and vinegar and sprinkle it on the sheet.
When people died of hunger, their bellies were swollen but their arms and legs were thin as sticks. We had many cases of dysentery. My father Aryeh Leib died of dysentery. He couldn’t quench his thirst. There was a place in Bodaybo where we took water. It was closed at night. In the morning, Aryeh Leib sat next to that well waiting for it to open. He didn’t want water from yesterday, even though it was boiled, only raw water from the well. He had dysentery for three months.
In the hospital in Bodaybo there was a cold chamber where bodies were kept until they were taken for burial. If a body remained in that chamber overnight it froze into whatever position it was lying in. It would be hard as a bone. Afterwards you couldn’t straighten it out. If the hands were stretched out you couldn’t bring them to the sides unless you broke them. So we were careful that as soon as someone died we took over the body. If we came too late there were problems. We would have to bathe the body in warm water to thaw it out, but then it would lose its shape altogether. There were problems, but we were careful. That wasn’t always the case with the Russians.
Here is the worst thing I ever saw in Russia, the worst picture: In that chamber I saw the body of a woman who died giving birth to triplets; they were dead too. She was lying on a board. She was smeared with blood and her afterbirth, everything was raw. She was white; when bodies freeze they become white, except there was the blood and the afterbirth. Her babies were next to her, new born babies, raw, frozen like stone. She was completely naked, not even covered with a paper, as if they had set down a sack of potatoes. They could have covered her, at least put a piece of rag, but nobody cared. Such neglect! She wasn’t a criminal, certainly not her children. There was no one to take her body. In Russia it was the system to move people from one place to another, so that people wouldn’t know each other. This was done deliberately, they keep changing places. If she had her own people there they wouldn’t have let her stay this way. Maybe her husband was in the military; maybe he was already dead. What a terrible picture! It was terrible to go into that room. I saw that woman a whole winter, every time I’d go to that chamber to take out one of ours. More than half a year she lay there, she and her children.
The names of my father, grandfather, and my uncle Asher appear on a list of Jews trapped behind Soviet lines, compiled by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the "Joint") during the War. American Jewry did not forget their kin and countrymen. Please see Notes, "Committee of American Jews". Thanks to my nephew Benjamin Kaufman for locating this document.
|Old houses in Bodaybo|
I got acquainted with the residents of Bodaybo, and I began to deal with them. Sometimes they gave rations of salty, rotten meat. Jews didn’t take it, because the meat wasn’t kosher, but the goyim loved it. I got acquainted with a woman, and traded her a few kilos of meat for a pail of potatoes. This woman was an old-time resident of Bodaybo; she was Jewish, her husband was Russian and a big-shot in the Party. She felt sorry for me, she gave me odd jobs like chopping wood or cleaning out garbage. When I was at her place I saw that she’s well provided for. Sometimes she gave me bread, and good meat for Tsili. I thought I could trade with her. I asked her if she needs any clothes. She always said no. But then one day she said, “You know, tonight some people are coming to us. Come back tonight and we’ll see if they want anything.” I went to her that night and saw that that these are prosperous-looking people, from Moscow. They said, “Show us something good.” I went back and forth a few times with different things, but they didn’t like anything I showed them. Then I thought about Sacher, a Jew I knew – he had the best things. I was already tired of going back and forth with goods, so I said, “Listen, Sacher, I have a customer for nice things. Let’s go there together.” He brought a suit and coat, and they liked it. I asked Sacher how much he wanted, and when he said the amount, I asked the people two or three times more. They bought. When Sacher saw this, he spoke to them directly, and asked them what else they need, but I said, “Sacher, they’re my customers, not yours.” I took more things from him, but for these he charged me double. I saw what these people wanted; I was able to sell more stuff to them. I made nice business.
That same Jewish woman told me about a man who was in charge of distributing ration tickets. She told me to be careful with him: he was very high up in the Party. I went there with her introduction. I gave him a present of vodka. I asked him if he needs anything, and he says, nothing, he’s a Party man, the Party provides him with everything he needs. After a moment he says, “But if you’ve got blue serge material, I’d be interested.” What happened was this: There was a committee of American Jews who knew there were Jewish refugees in Russia. Russia and America were allies then, and it was possible to mail letters and packages. The Americans learned there was a demand in Russia for good textiles, good textiles could save lives; so in the parcels of food they sent us they also sent textiles for trading. We made a market with them. This was the serge material this Party man wanted; he knew we had this material. At the time, the price was one thousand rubles a meter. I tried to get serge for the man, but I can’t find anything; only one Jew has it, and he wants two thousand. I went away to look somewhere else, and when I came back to him he said that now the price is two thousand five hundred. I said to him, “Listen, you and I both know that the price you want is crazy, but let’s do this: Give me the goods and let me try to sell them. If I succeed, fine, you’ll get your price. If not, I’ll return them.” He said he wants an answer in twenty-four hours. Later in the day he comes running to me and says he wants the goods back. I told him they were already out of my hands – I didn’t want to give them back. I brought the stuff to the Russian, and he loved it. He asks me, “How much?” I say, “Nothing. I need bread.” “Bread?” he says; “I can’t give you bread. But I can give you ration coupons. Only I don’t have them now. Come back to me at the beginning of next month and I’ll give you.” What should I do? He was a Party official and he could make me trouble. But I decided to trust him. I went back to the owner of the stuff and paid him. He screamed his head off; he didn’t want money, he wanted the stuff back. At the beginning of the next month the Russian gave me the coupons he promised; I had more than I needed for myself, I had also had extra coupons to sell; with the extra coupons I made back the two thousand five hundred rubles.
I got coupons from this Party man every first of the month, for six months. He trusted me. I brought him shoes, butter, etc. He gave me a livelihood. I knew all I had to do was come to see him the first of every month and I’d get bread coupons. Every month a bundle of coupons arrived, and he’d give me some. I also had some other dealings on the side.
But then one day I come to see him and he says to me, “You know, Beck, I’ve thought it over. I’m a Party man, I should be catching people like you, and here I’m dealing with you. This is wrong. No more.” When he says that to me I break out in a sweat.
How will I provide for my family? What will I do about bread? I went home. These were my father’s last days, he was in bed, dying. I was very down. My father knew me, he saw there was something wrong, and he asked me what it is. I tried to shake off his questions, but he persisted: “I see something’s bothering you.” So I told him what happened. He said, “Don’t be upset, Mechel. The Lord helped you until now, and He’ll help you also now. You’ll find somebody else.” The very moment when my father said this, a name shot into my head – Bartovitch. It’s like the Almighty spoke this name to me, though my father.
Who was this Bortovitch? It’s like this: There was a bazaar in Bodaybo where trading was done. Normally goods belonged to the State, but the Communists allowed you to sell old things you owned. People traded in clothes they had from home; I also did. Now, once it happened in the market there was a woman who had a pair of pants, woolen pants with pinstripes. I saw a Russian circling near her, he looked prosperous and well fed, and I see he really likes these pants; but I realize that he doesn’t speak to the lady because he’s afraid to buy in public; someone might see him and this is Russia after all – where did he get the money? People were afraid of their shadows. When he stepped away I went over to him – I didn’t know him, it was the first time I saw him – and I said to him, “Sir, you like the pants? You want to buy them?” He said yes. I said, “Tell me where you live and I’ll bring them to you.” He told me where he lived. His name was Bartovitch.
The lady who owned the pants was a Jewish woman, from Jaroslaw. I went to her home and asked her how much she wants. She tells me. I asked her to give them to me and if I sell them I will pay her. She says okay. I take the pants and go to the man’s house. When I come in I see he has cows, chickens, pigs, milk. I say to myself, “Oh, this is a place I have to get to know.” I give him the pants. He asks me what they cost. I tell him, “I don’t need money, I need food.” So he gave me a chicken, milk, five kilo of kasha which we cooked as a soup for my father. But Bartovitch didn’t have bread. So I’d stopped going to him because in the meanwhile I’d fixed my arrangement with the Party man I mentioned. But now I lost my connection, so I thought I’d go to Bartovitch and ask him to help me. He asks me, “What did you do until now?” I didn’t want to tell him about the Party man, so I made up a story. He says, “Listen, I don’t have tickets, but my friend, So-and-so, he has them. I’ll have a word with him. Come here tomorrow and I’ll tell you how things are.”
Good. I go home. On the way a Russian stops me. He tells me he asks me if I have vodka. This wasn’t a good sign, to be stopped in the middle of the street like this. This meant there were people who knew that I was trading. I was afraid, I could get arrested. I said I didn’t have any and think to walk away. But I ask him, “Why did stop me, what makes you think I have vodka?” He says, “I remember you. Once I was by Bartovitch and you came and brought us spirits.” I realize that this was the very man Bartovich wanted to speak to, he’s the man who has coupons. He was high up in the military reserves. I had fallen on the very man who could help me. So I said, “Oh, it’s you. If it’s for you then of course I have alcohol. I’ll bring it to you later.”
I go searching for alcohol, but it’s impossible to find. There’s only one person, a woman from my town Dbetsk, a Melber, who has, and she’s asking ten times the regular price. She knows she’s the only one in the market. I look everywhere, I realize I don’t have a choice. I took a liter of spirit from her, paid her price, and went to the man and gave it to him. “What does it cost?” “Nothing,” I say, “I need bread.” “Bread,” he laughs, “where do I have bread?” “No, coupons.” “Ah, coupons? Hah, I can give you as much as you want. Come see me tomorrow after work.” Fine, I left him the alcohol and went.
The next day I go see Bartovitch and tell him about the officer. “What did you do?” he says to me. “Why did you speak to him? The guy’s an informer, he’ll denounce you!” I was scared, although I wasn’t sure if it was true, or just that Bartovich wanted to be the middleman. I could hardly live the day out. I decided to go to that officer’s house early, and watch from a place where I couldn’t be seen. I’m standing there watching and I see him coming, but there’s another man with him – he’s walking with a policeman! They’re coming for me! I’ve dug my own grave! They go into his house. They’re probably waiting for me to come so they can arrest me. I stay outside. After a while they leave and walk in the direction of my house. I didn’t come to them, so now they’re coming to me to arrest me! I follow them from behind. But when they come to where I live they don’t stop, they keep walking.
What should I do? That night I didn’t sleep in my home, I was afraid they’d come for me while I’m sleeping – after all, it’s Russia. But next day, what should I do? Okay, I can hide – but I need to get bread, we can’t live without bread. I decide to go back to his house and knock on his door very early, when he’s still sleeping. I’ll catch him unprepared. If he intends to arrest me, I’ll run away.
(I was younger then by what, thirty-five years? During the War there was a time when they led me off under armed guard and I ran away. Once I was caught with false talonen – these were ration coupons for meat. Tsili wasn’t well – I wanted to get meat for her. You only could get talonen at your place of work, and I wasn’t working then, so I bought some. But they were counterfeit, and I was arrested. I was led away by an armed policewoman – men were in the military, so women filled their places. She had a weapon. But one moment she looked the other way and I ran. In Russia I saw the Angel of Death a thousand times.)
I knock on the door. He lets me in. He’s surprised. Why didn’t I come yesterday? I give some excuse. He picks up the pillow and pulls out a mountain tickets and gives them to me. When I brought them home and she saw them, Tsivye was frightened. “What did you do to get so many?”
So this was an even better source. I brought that officer more alcohol, and other things. And I got things from him. He had access to produce from sofkhozes and kolkhozes. He showed me where to get meat – I didn’t eat, but Mother and Tsili did. I found out about places to get potatoes. I want you to understand how precious potatoes were – all potatoes belonged to the State; even after the potato harvest, if you went into the field and found a potato that hadn’t been harvested and took it for yourself, they sent you to prison. There was a Jew who went looking for potatoes in a field which had already been harvested. He found six potatoes. A policeman caught him. He got six years. He didn’t last six days in prison – the bandits and murderers there killed him. While in my case, because I was dealing with officers, they said, “Come, take as many as you want.” The workers in the fields and on the farms worked and they got nothing, while I brought a sled in and piled it with potatoes. The workers saw what was going on and they grumbled among themselves, but they couldn’t do anything, they knew that’s how it goes.
I filled a basement with potatoes and cabbage. Food was so scarce that if I gave people a few leaves they would be happy, they would bless me. We had what to eat. There was always bread and butter in the house. I was the luckiest of men. The other children envied Tsili, they wanted to be Mechel Beck’s child. People knew that by us there always was a soup cooking on the stove; we had baked food; hungry Jews knew they could come in and Tsivye would feed them. On Pessach I knew who the Jews were who wouldn’t eat hametz, I sent each one a few potatoes. Potatoes then were more precious than diamonds. We had them. When we left Bodaybo we still had potatoes left over. I went out to the market and sold them, and bought textile, which was cheap in Bodaybo. Where we went to next, potatoes were plentiful, but there was no cloth.