|Cover||Narrative||In the Russian Zone: 1939-1940|
In the Russian Zone: 1939-1940
|From Wikipedia: Soviet propaganda poster depicting the Red Army's advance into Western Ukraine as a liberation of the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian text reads: ''We stretched our hand to our brothers so that they could straighten their backs and throw off the despised rule of the whips that lasted for centuries.'' The person thrown off the peasants' backs, shown wearing a Polish military uniform and holding the whip, could be interpreted as a caricature of Piłsudski|
The lands in the east of the Second Polish Republic – the Krasy in Polish – had mixed ethnic populations – Byelorussian and Polish peasants in the north, Ukrainian and Polish peasants in the south, Jews in towns and cities throughout, as well as a Polish elite living in the cities. When the Soviet Union annexed these lands, it acted to eliminate their Polish, western-oriented identity, and to turn them into provinces of the USSR. The Polish ruling class was decapitated. Many thousands of Poles were murdered, hundreds of thousands were deported, especially in two massive transits in February and April 1940. Occupied eastern Poland became the Republics of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, and were joined the Soviet Union.
Local Jews were now, by dint of annexation, Soviet citizens; by and large they weren’t suspected of harboring Polish nationalist sympathies, as ethnic Poles were. But in the chaos of the first month of War, tens of thousands Jews had flooded into the Soviet sector. The first administrative action was to remove them from the frontier area. But even as the earlier refugees were evacuated, a stream of new refugees came across the border, despite the fact that the two armies had taken up positions and were guarding their frontier. (There were also some crossings in the other direction as well, from east to west: refugees changed their minds, convincing themselves that the worst days of murder were now over; or the longing for loved ones left behind became too strong.) The earlier refugees had been, like my family, mostly family groups, with women, children, and old people. They were less suspect. The new refugees were mostly single people, since the crossings were harder and more dangerous now. The Soviets suspected there might be German spies planted among them. Since it was too difficult to figure out who was what, the simpler expedient was to send them all away.
The Germans and Russians divided Poland. Jews kept on coming over from the other side, especially youth, to escape from the Germans. The Russians suspected them and interrogated them. They wanted to know their political allegiance. And right away they were sent to Siberia. They were asked, “What are you, who are you?” So they said they’re Poalei Zionists, this or that movement; but whatever they said they belonged to, it was no good. If they were Socialists it was no good, if they were Zionist then they were nationalists and certainly this was no good. The Russians suspected everyone. So they arrested them and deported them all. These were the first deportations, the first victims who were sent to Siberia. Fifty percent didn’t survive, and fifty percent of those who survived couldn’t rehabilitate their lives. As for us, we were told that we were too close to the border, that we should get away from where we were. The single men they arrested and sent away, but at this point they didn’t touch the families. When the families were finally sent to Siberia they had better survival chances; the singles had much higher mortality. Their camps were much harder. They had to build their own barracks, they had no food, no clothes.
Those who remained were asked to declare what their intentions were: did they agree to settle on the Soviet side, and take up Soviet citizenship, or did they want to return to their homes on the German side? For a while it looked as if the second option was possible: a joint German-Soviet commission was established with the ostensible mission of repatriating refugees, although this was never taken seriously. For some Jews, especially the young, becoming a Soviet citizen was an opportunity to step up in life; the Communist Party at this time had a philo-Semitic streak; for someone with ambition there seemed to be no bars to what he could become. While he was living in Horodok (Greiding in Yiddish), and struggling to earn some money by illegal means, Mechel had a run-in with one of these men.
We began to gyp in tobacco and cigarettes. We had a connection with the manager of a tobacco plant in Lemberg, and he gave us goods to sell. Once, Monye and I were carrying tobacco and cigarettes from Lemberg to Pshemish. On a bridge in Pshemish a policeman stops us. He asks us what we’re carrying; we have to show him, and he sees it’s contraband. “Let’s go,” he says – he has a weapon – and takes us off in the direction of the station. We go quite a way. We try talking to him, to get a response from him and see if we can work something out, but nothing doing, he refuses to talk to us, he pretends he doesn’t understand us. We’re in big trouble. Then we pass under a street light and I get a better look at him – and suddenly I realize that this guy is Yonahle! Yonahle, a friend of mine, a young boy from my own home town! I say to him, “Yonahle, a plague on you! You think you’re going to arrest me? I’m gonna give you a shot in the mouth.” I didn’t know it, but Yonahle had become a policeman for the Russians. He recognized us of course, but he didn’t want to let on to us who he was. He was going to catch these big black-marketers and show his bosses what a good Communist he was. He wanted to show that he knows how to do his job. But with us he wouldn’t get anywhere. He wasn’t going to shoot us, and we weren’t going to go with him. So he says, “Gimme a pack,” and lets us go.
For most of the refugees, however, the decision whether or not to become Soviet citizens was agonizing. It was clear that this was a life-or-death decision. If they refused, and they were repatriated, they would be back under Nazi control. But life under the Communists was impossible too.
The Russians ordered us to register, whether we wanted to be Russian citizens or return to the Germans. We didn’t know what to do. We saw what the Russian system is like, how they take everything away, everything is collective, you can’t get anything, you can’t get bread or wood for heating, everything is scarce. So we refused citizenship.
My parents could not know it, but this decision saved their lives.
|Detail of area under Soviet control, where my parents lived for half a year. The international border dividing Poland and Ukraine now runs east of Przemysl; during 1939 - 1941 the line dividing German and Soviet zones ran slightly to the west, through the middle of Przemysl|
In this section Mechel describes the roundup to the deportation transports. Tsivye and Mechel, their daughter Tsili, Mechel’s father Aryeh Leib, Tsivye’s sister Scheindl, and her brothers Avrum and Monyeh, as well as Mechel’s brother-in-law Asher and Asher’s son Benno and daughter Dora were all on one transport from Horodok to Bodaybo; while Mechel’s mother Pesche, his sister Ratse, Ratse’s husband Binyumin, and their children Dvorah and Surale were transported from another town. (Benno’s wife Henna had traveled to the US before the outbreak of the War, and remained there.)
It happened on Motse Shabbos – we’d just blessed the new month of Tammuz. We were out walking – me and Tsivye and Asher and Dora – and I still had my shtreiml on my head. Suddenly we’re stopped by police. “Dokumenti!” They want to see by our papers. Are we citizens or not? We weren’t, and they didn’t like our papers. Asher and I were led away, and Tsivye and Dora were released. They took me to the train station; there were wagons waiting for us there. I was locked in. The train was crowded with Jews. I didn’t know what they wanted to do with us, where they wanted to take us. Would I see my family again? Did they know where I was? We were kept locked up in the wagon overnight and all the next day. We couldn’t see outside, but we could hear truck motors all the time, so we understood that they were bringing more people. More and more people were packed into our wagon. And then I hear a voice outside that I know – it’s my father, he’s yelling, “Mechel! Mechel!” He’s looking for me all over. I fight to get to a small opening at the top of the wagon near the ceiling. There’s a grill, but I can see outside. I call back to my father. He comes over. I can see he’s holding my tefilin bag, and Tsivye and Tsili are with him. And so I understood they were going to deport us all.
I start shouting. A Russian officer comes over. I’m still calling from the window at the top of the wagon. “Look at them, these are my dependents: an old man, a woman, a little girl! You arrested me without warning, on the street! I didn’t have a chance to prepare anything! You have to release me so I can go home and get things!” He listens to me and understands. He tells me to wait until the roundup is over and all the wagons are filled, and then he’ll help me out. And he kept his word. In the evening he released me, although the others had to wait on the train. They gave me a car, and there was a policeman who guarded me. We drove to our home. And so I could pile things into the auto – bedclothes, clothing. The things that I was able to take then are what eventually saved our lives. I took what I could, but I had dollars hidden in a wall in the apartment and this I couldn’t take, the policeman was watching me and I would have been arrested for holding so much foreign currency.
When the Jews of Greiding heard that Jewish refugees were being deported, they all came to the station, bringing cholent and chalah – it was after Shabbos – to feed us, and whatever else they could spare that would help us on our journey. We were being sent off – who knows where? – to hardship and danger – and who knows if we would return? They called up to us from the platform: “Who knows which of us is better off? Who knows if some day we won’t envy you?” They wanted to comfort us. They didn’t mean it, they were just saying that in order to make us feel better. They didn’t understand what they were saying. In the end most of them were murdered by the Nazis, and we were saved.
|List of tranports found in KGB archives by the historian Gurjanov; Becks were probably on Train Number 205|
|By rail from Ukraine to Zima, Irkutsk Oblast|
|Artist's rendition of railcar carrying deportees to Siberia|
The way that leads from European Russia to Central Asia and Siberia is called the Sibirski Trakt, the Siberia Route. Over three centuries millions of prisoners and deportees have been sent down this route. In earlier times prisoners went by foot, chained to each other; the way could take years. In the Twentieth Century, after the Trans-Siberian Railway was built over the Trakt, prisoners were sent in converted cattle cars. The train my family was on ran through Ukraine and European Russia; crossed the Volga River and climbed the Ural Mountains to reach Asia; entered the land of the taiga; it skirted the Kazakh steppe from the north, reaching the geographic middle of Russia at Novosibirsk; and from there, it pushed on through upland forests to the Angara River, which flows north out of Lake Baikal. The distance they covered was the same as a trip from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska; the progress was slow, torturous, with sudden stops and starts. Here Mechel describes the way.
We were on the train for three weeks. There were two thousand five hundred people on our train. We were shut up in cattle cars. There were maybe fifty or seventy people in our car. We had bunks, one on top of the next, there was no privacy. There was no sanitation either, we couldn’t wash ourselves, the lice passed from one to the other, they ate us up. Our toilet was a hole on the floor; we ate and defecated in the same place. The smell was terrible. They gave us almost no food, but at least when we were still in Europe, and we got to a station, there would be Jews waiting there and they would do what they could for us. Word traveled ahead. Once the train passed into Asia the guards relaxed, they knew we had no place to run to; when we stopped at a station some of us rushed out with pots to get water, while others looked where we could buy milk or bread. But you never knew when the train would get going again, there was no warning. Once when I returned to the platform the train was gone. We were a group of three men and two women who’d gone off in search of food. We didn’t know what to do – we thought we’d lost our families forever. A train came along and people told us to take it: it was headed in the same direction as ours. But this train was packed, at each door there was a guard. They wouldn’t let us on. When the train started moving again, someone yelled, “Let’s go, boys!” and we yanked a female guard off the stairs and pushed ourselves on. Whistles blew, the train stopped. The police come, and some people translate for me: I say, we’re strangers here, our train pulled out, if we don’t catch up with it we’ll lose our families. The police say, “Don’t you know it’s a State crime to attack a guard and stop a train? Do you know what you can get for that?” But in the end they accepted my explanations, and they let us get on the train. The train keeps going, but whenever we pull into a station, our train has just pulled out. Then at one station a Russian tells us that it’s no use, our only chance is to get off and instead catch an express train to Novosibirsk. So this is what we did. It took us twenty-four hours to catch up. When I finally got back to our wagon I got a tongue-lashing from my father and Tsivye like I never had before. Tsivye said that all the time I went missing Tsili was crying, “Where’s Abba? Where’s Abba?”
|Up the Vitim River|
But at this point the trip was only half over. They would proceed now by river transport, going ever deeper into the interior.
The train continued until almost before Irkutsk. We were taken off somewhere near the Angara and left out on an empty field for several days. We were waiting for barges. We lay around like gypsies or Bedouin. By day the flies destroyed us, by night the cold. And then we traveled for another three weeks, two thousand kilometers at least. First we went down the river to Zayarsk. At Zayarsk there was a land portage; they put us on trucks fueled by burning wood; the way was crude, the trucks could hardly pull, we got knocked around by all the bumps. We drove a day and a night until we arrived at Ust-Kut, on the Lena. There we got on other barges, and they took us downstream a long way, several days. When we reached the Vitim we changed again, this time to a barge that went upstream. We arrived at Bodaybo. They took us to Sinyuga, ninety kilometers further upstream from Bodaybo, and there we had to get out and walk into the wilderness another eighteen kilometers. We were carrying our stuff on our backs all the time. We were barefoot, always guarded. But once we got into the wilderness there were no more guards, because we couldn’t run away anywhere. Beyond our camp there were bears and wolves, and no marked ways. The only way to get out of that wilderness was by boat, and all the landings were guarded. The two thousand five hundred Jews of our train were spread out in camps in the taiga surrounding Bodaybo.