|Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta Conference|
The shape of post-War Europe was decided by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at several conferences. Stalin outmaneuvered his Western Allies. He kept his promise to reestablish a Polish State, but at the same time he gave nothing back. The territories that had been annexed to the Soviet Union remained part of the Soviet Union. Instead, he induced the Allies to agree to compensate Poland for its losses in the east by annexing German lands in the west, lands that had never been Polish.
|Poland moves westward: lands annexed by the Soviet Union are not returned (today they are incorporated into the independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus); instead, Poland receives new territories in the west. Brest-Litovsk mentioned in the text is Brzesc; Stettin is Szczecin.|
A vast reshuffling of the ethnic mix of Eastern Central Europe ensued. Germans from newly Polish lands were expelled to Germany, and Poles were resettled in their place. Poles were removed from the Ukraine and Byelorussia to Poland, and Ukrainians were moved from Poland to the Ukraine. For the first time in its history, Poland became a truly one-national state. You will recall that in 1941 Stalin recognized a western-oriented Government-in-Exile of Poland. But when this Government began asking embarrassing about missing Polish Army officers, he broke off relations and nominated instead a Communist-led political entity to represent the Polish national interest, which eventually became a Communist puppet of Moscow.
It was during these confused times that my family was repatriated from Semipalatinsk to Poland. At least in this matter, Stalin kept his word. But the Poland to which they were repatriated had no interest in the returning Jewish refugees. Poland was on its way to becoming a single-ethnic State. Some Poles blamed their wartime suffering on the Jews – hadn’t Hitler gone to war because of the Jews? – and reacted with violence when Jews turned up again in Poland. Others said the Jews were bringing in Communism, in order to rule over the Poles. Many Poles had acquired Jewish property and didn’t want to give it back. There were pogroms on returning Jews.
[Tsivye] April 1946. It was already after Pessach. I don’t remember the exact date. From the Polish consulate we were notified that we should prepare for repatriation to Poland. Some people were assigned earlier and some later. We packed up our poor belongings. Our group consisted of me and Mechel, Tsili, my sister Scheindl, and Monye. Avrum was already happily married and was with his wife’s family in Sary Ozek. With us there was also an orphan boy, his name was Raphael. They gave to our disposal a big cattle train – more than one, because in Semipalatinsk there were a couple thousand Jews and also Poles. All of us had to go back on the same trains.
[Mechel] I left Russia with more money than I went in. We had to smuggle currency out. What did I do? People wanted big denominations, but I bought single dollar bills. Single dollars bills you could buy for half money, maybe even less than half. Nobody wanted to buy them, because to smuggle across the border a single piece of paper is better than so many. I bought them. I wrapped them up in spools of thread. A Jew suggested it to me. In Russia they knew all the tricks. I wrapped them not just in one place, but along the whole length of the spool. We had a lot of luggage in which we put the spools. I had several thousand dollars. And gold, and Tzivye’s diamond, I put in nuts. I took nuts, emptied them, and put in single gold coins – chazerlech – to give the nut the same weight. Then we pasted the shells together. This they also told me how to do.
[Tsivye] Before leaving we had trouble. There were going on things among our Jews, there were some very bad people. These people went to the NKVD and said we have dollars and gold. The NKVD promptly took away our passports, and said if you give us your dollars and possessions, we’ll give you back your passports. We knew who did it – the name was Levitan, two brothers, Litvaks,very intelligent people but very mean, and we knew they were the NKVD’s right hand. Monye went to them and told then, “If we don’t get out of here, you won’t either”. One of the brothers, Leybie, says to him, “If you give me a thousand rubles, you’ll get back your passports, if not you’re staying here.” Monye comes home and talks to Mechel, and goes back and says we’re willing to give it to you; but they say that now it costs fifteen hundred rubles. We had to pay, to borrow money from people. Finally on a Shabbat we got back the passports. It was a big excitement, mixed with much fear. Since Tsili was the youngest amongst us, she had the biggest share.
We left Russia Sunday morning early May, 1946. We took our belongings and went to the station, into the cattle wagons. There were bunk beds, and there was a big problem who will be up and who will be down. Finally we agreed that the child and myself will be up, and my bother and the other adults will be down. We started out. First we went through Kazakhstan – the most beautiful place, we saw the steppe, desert, and then we saw very beautiful green land, woods. Our problem was that after a few days going by train we needed water, there wasn’t enough. When we stopped at a station all of us would get out of the wagons like animals and if we saw a puddle or a well we’d wash ourselves to get rid of lice, and we also drank the water to quench our thirst. It was a nightmare, this going back. We passed the Urals, we were on the border between Europe and Asia. The mountains were beautiful, but through the whole region we saw huts, poor housing, people were in rags. Everybody could see how beautifully people live in the Russian paradise.
The food we received was very little, not enough. Mechel had to go down to buy something; not always could we buy for money, we had to exchange, let’s say for clothing. Also we went through places where the region had no salt at all, and everybody was begging for a little salt. Then we passed another place and there were loads, hills of salt. Everybody promptly brought a pail of salt, took it into the wagons, and then we passed again to other places, we sold the salt, and exchanged for potatoes, or something else. When the train stopped we went down; we made campfires with stones and wood, and we cooked potatoes or a little cereal. For the little one this was a very bad time. Tsili was sweating. But although she was miserable, I think in comparison to other children she was very good off. Everybody cared for her. My brother Avrum had previously married in Sary Ozek and was already in Poland. Mechel, Rafael, Monye and Scheindl, how much we could we cared for Tsili. The travel took three weeks.
The border town of Poland was Brest-Litovsk. There again two very miserable men went to the NKVD and told them that we have dollars. They took us off the train with the child, everybody, even the orphan boy – we asked to leave him alone, but he had to go with us. They were searching us all over, in our belongings, in our hair, in unmentionable places. This took until late at night. We were thinking, who knows, maybe we are staying forever in Russia, that we’ll never go out from here. The feeling was very, very tragic. Finally, not finding anything on us, they released us. We had some people who were very mean to us, but the majority was very nice, they came running, picked us up and our belongings and carried us back to the train. We went to our wagon and we started out for Poland.
|Tsili at around the time of repatriation|
We learned about the destruction of the Jews after the war, from Russian Jews. I wrote a letter to a Gentile friend of mine from home, Lezhensk. As girls, we lent books to each other and helped each other with schoolwork, but we never ate together. I wanted to know if there were Jews left in Lezhensk, and she answered nicely that there were only a dozen Jews left in town, and that we should come back.
But what was our welcome in Poland? Most shocking. The Poles expected that there would be no more Jews. Since we came they looked upon us with regret, that they didn’t have us there during the War to murder also. We went to villages where once there had been Jewish life – the houses were empty, windows and doors broken; and in the marketplaces Polish women were standing selling Jewish belongings, furniture, all kind of things from households, without any shame or regret. We went further, we came to big cities like Lublin and Lodz, and in all the places the pattern was repeated. They looked on us terrible, and in the market they were selling the trousseaus of Jewish girls, selling furniture, etc. What could we do? We had to go further. We couldn’t go back to our places where we were born and raised, and Jews had lived for generations with their Polish neighbors. When a few Jews went back to their towns or villages they never came back, they were promptly murdered by the Poles. I’d like to make a note about two cities: Sanok, where Jews returned and were murdered; and also to mention the town Kielce, where Jews who had come out of hiding or had returned from Russia were murdered without pity – children, pregnant women – maybe forty – by the Poles, not by the Germans, after the War. People went back and were killed. Forty people were pulled off trains from Russia and murdered; our train was stoned. In Breslau a father and daughter who’d survived Russia went out into the market; a Pole told her to come home with him to do certain business, and she never came back. A certain Lachs was left in Poland while his family went off to Russia. His son was in the Russian army, after the War he came to the town looking for his father. The father supposedly had many Polish friends, and the son was certain they’d helped him survive. Instead the son was murdered.
Our train headed to the harbor of Stettin, near the border with Germany. We were stationed in the region of Pomerania. The whole city, which belonged before the War to the Germans, was bombed out. Only several streets were left, and among the ruins of this city we could see beautiful orchards and gardens full of vegetables and flowers. Most of the Germans had fled the city when it was bombed by the Americans. We were placed in the left-over houses where we could still find some rooms to put up our bundles and lay down to rest our bodies which were knocked-out from the prolonged trip home and from the excitement of how ‘’well’’ we were received by the Poles. We were living in a suburb of Stettin, and travelling into the city to look for other Jews. There were more Jews located there, and there was also a committee which took care of us. We couldn’t go by ourselves singly, because there were murderers like Russian soldiers who would kill you for a watch or a coat. If we had to go we were always going by groups. We were looking for food, and we also got food that was distributed by the American committee.
We were in Stettin two months. In the meanwhile my sister married Meyer Silberman. She was engaged from Russia. He had written home after the War, and a neighbor wrote him back that his first wife and children had been sent away to the death camps. We had a small party in the house. The house was a room, we had ten men – we had to have a minyan – and a few women. The ceremony – chippeh kedishin – was given by a talmid chuchum.
|A Jewish wedding after the War; Mechel standing at right, next to him Monye and Monye's wife Beila|