|View of Semey (Semipalatinsk)|
My family spent its last year in the Soviet Union in Semipalatinsk, a city that since the breakup of the Soviet Union is within Kazakhstan, and is now called Semey. This was a major industrial and commercial center. Mechel and Tsivye learned from close up what the economy of a Soviet city is like, and this only strengthened their hatred of Communism. To survive they continued in various trading activities. In Semipalatinsk there was an office which took care of the interests of Polish citizens, and this encouraged hope that my family would at long last be repatriated.
We still didn’t know if we would get out of Russia. We tried not to think about it too much. The support of the American Jews gave us hope; also, because we were Polish we were separate. We had separate schools. Of course the NKVD ruled us, but socially as Poles we were separate.
Semipalatinsk was a big city with heavy industry. They used to say about Semipalatinsk, blatnoy gorodok – a thieves’ city – meaning live and let live. There was a tank factory where a few thousand people worked. There were factories of leather, wool, a big meat plant where they made conserves for the military. There was good stuff to deal with in Semipalatinsk. You had what to do there. There’s nothing I didn’t deal in, whatever was going. In this way I survived. If you didn’t deal you went under. I was one man alone, I looked after my father when he was still alive at the beginning, and Tsivye and our child – one man in Russia, to hold out and not to starve – that was really something! I also saved my mother and my sister, altogether a family of five people: Mother, Ratse, Binyumin, Dvorale and Surale. If I didn’t send money to them they wouldn’t have held out. Pessach and Sikkes I sent them money.
Tsivye also helped out. There were things that it was better for women to do than men. Women weren’t bothered like men. If we needed to deliver goods, like textiles or leather, Tsivye and Sheindl would do it. They delivered alcohol. They would carry it in a pail, like water, as if they were bringing water home from the pump. There was a time when it was a fashion to drink whiskey, not clear spirits like vodka but colored. It was a time when things were coming in from America, whiskey too, so everybody wanted whiskey. What did we do? We cooked up tea and poured the essence into a pail of vodka and it became whiskey; we sold it as whiskey. What did people know, as long as it was drinkable? It was good.
[Tsivye] I was even arrested once. There was a Russian woman, Tamara, who worked in the Army recruiting office. She helped keep Monye and Avrum out of the army. (Mechel didn’t have a problem because he was a starik.) Once I was standing outside the police station; I was waiting for Tamara to get out of work so I could talk to her. I saw there was a Jew who was arrested and they were leading him into the station. There were black items on him. In Yiddish, I yelled to him, “Throw away your stuff!” He didn’t understand what I was telling him to do. Once the prisoner is inside they come out for me. They thought I was his accomplice. But in fact I didn’t know who he was. A boy ran to tell Mechel. They cleaned up our house of black items in case the police came to search. I was in the prison overnight, until the next afternoon. There was a policeman in the station who worked with us, and when he saw me there he got scared, he was afraid I’d let on about him. He came over to me and asked what happened. I said, “Ask your buddies.” He went out, and then came back and told me I could go. Later we made a big meal for that policeman.
[Mechel] Here we got a lesson in the Soviet system. We saw wool lying around rotting, wagons-full. Nobody cared. People just did things for themselves. The amount of fish we saw, also rotting! In the end they’d just throw them back into the water. At the same time, people didn’t have what to eat. You didn’t have the right to go fish for yourself. If you caught a fish you had to give it to the Government. If you had a cow, you had to pay a quota of milk, more than half. If chickens, a quota of eggs – whether or not they laid eggs. So people didn’t want to keep animals. Who believed an empire like this could exist? There was nothing. There was terrible hunger. There were only a few families that didn’t suffer hunger. Every day there was a death; there wasn’t a day that there wasn’t. People died in the street, their bellies were swollen with hunger. Hunger – here is a picture I always see in my mind: One of the times I was traveling between Novosibirsk and Semipalatinsk, people were crowded in the train like herrings. They were sitting up on top on the luggage racks; they were sitting on the bottom, on the floor. The floor was covered with spit and mud and dirt, from all the people who were traveling. A girl was carrying a bottle of milk; she dropped it and it broke on the floor and all the milk spilled. There was a man who was lying on the luggage rack on top; when he saw the bottle broke, he sprang down, pushed his face into the glass splinters and all the muck, and licked up the milk with his tongue just like a cat. That’s how hungry he was – who knows how many days he hadn’t eaten? Millions died of hunger. Men more than women; women survived better than men. Nobody wanted to work; because if you do work, and you grow something, and you harvest it, they dump it away somewhere and eventually it rots. But no one is allowed to touch it, and eventually it’s thrown away as rubbish. There’s no economy, there’s no authority. No one has an interest. Or let’s say they harvested potatoes. To get the harvest in they drove people into the fields, they drove them to death. They took children out of school, they took mothers away from their children. So instead of bringing the potatoes inside they leave them in piles out in the fields. Then it rains, the potatoes got wet, and then there’s a frost, and in the end the potatoes are ruined, and they have to throw them away.
In Semipalatinsk we bought gold and sold it to the Government. In Russia it was like this: there was a government place called the Zlotyskop; this was a store where you brought any gold you had, and received ration coupons for flour, butter, bread. They didn’t have the right to ask questions. This was because the Russians needed gold for the War, and they wanted to encourage people to come and bring their gold. For example, let me tell you a story that happened in Bodaybo. There was also a Zlotyskop in Bodaybo. Near Bodaybo there were gold mines. The miners who worked there were forced laborers. People stole if they had the chance. Once a Russian working in a mine found a gold chunk; he hid it, and later brought it to town. For some reason the police begin trailing him. He sees they’re following him, so he starts to run, heading for the Zlotyskop. Once you’re inside the Zlotyskop, no one has the right to do anything to you, or to ask you where you got your gold. He’s running, they’re running after him; when he reaches the Zlotyskop he throws the gold through the window. The police couldn’t do anything. He went inside and sold it.
All sorts of people were passing through Semipalatinsk, and they brought gold from different areas. I would pay for a gram one hundred rubles, then I’d turn around and sell it to the government for one ruble. How could I do this? For this one ruble the Russians gave me goods – flour, butter, oil, shoes, textiles, tea – and then I went out and sold them in the black market. I wasn’t allowed to do this, the goods they gave me were supposed to be for private use, but the government didn’t have the right to ask what I’d done with the goods either. I could take out a wagon of flour, and the next day they couldn’t ask me where it was. “Go back to where you came from,” I could say to them. But if they caught me selling a kilo of flour to someone, we’d both get ten years. So I sold the goods the government gave me on the black market, and with the money I bought more gold. Every month, every two weeks I sold them gold. A lot of people were doing this. We had someone on the inside who told us when is the right time to sell the gold, when better goods would be coming in. We got to know the manager, and we gave him something. The government also had a jewelry store, we bought a lot from them – with protection we were able to buy from them chains, rings, a watch if they had one. We would melt the jewelry down – we also melted gold dollars – and we sold the raw gold back to the government, and they made jewelry out of it again. It went on like this continually. It was worthwhile for me to pay a hundred and to sell for one, because the goods I got were worth two hundred on the black market. The Government was trying to raise as much gold as it could, but there was no sense in what was going on.
There was a goy, a very fine man, he made pastries, waffles for ice cream. I sold him all the time. Once I sold a sack or two of flour, and I don’t know what happened, someone denounced him or what… the police came into his place and confiscated the flour, and eggs and honey, stuff that he needed for his bakery. It was all contraband. He wasn’t at home at the time, and his wife said she knows nothing. He came running to me, because he wanted to know what he should say, how did he get the goods? Now, this man had a horse. I said, “Tell them that the goods are mine. Tell them I was keeping the goods with you temporarily. Why? We needed a horse to transport our stuff from the Zlotyskop, and you have a horse, and since we don’t have room for the goods at our place we asked you to hold them for us.” He went to the police and told them that. The police really didn’t want to give it back – they’d already planned to divide it among themselves. Such a tasty windfall – flour, eggs, honey! Monye went to the buyer at the Zlotyskop we did business with – she was a fat lady – and told her happened. He told her to tell her boss that if this is how things are, we won’t be able to give them any more gold. She went to him, and he wrote an order to the police to release the goods. They still didn’t want to give the goods back. We go again to the nachalnik. He tells them, “If you don’t return the goods I’m going to call the NKVD; you’re traitors. There’s a war going on, we need gold to win. I’m going to call Moscow.” They gave us back everything.
In Semipalatinsk we met Meyer Silberman, the man who would be Scheindl’s husband. Meyer was from Strzyzow. Meyer was alone. At the beginning of the War, we lived next to the border, so our whole family ran to the Russians. He lived further away, so from where he lived only the men ran away. They left their families behind. They thought nothing would be done to women and children. Who imagined it? He left a wife and two children. The single people were taken before the families, their conditions were much worse than ours, in mines or forests.
Meyer wasn’t in good shape. The single people mostly didn’t survive. Part of the reason was cleanliness – they had no one who could wash their clothes. A second reason was that you always needed to hide things, some item that wasn’t legal. As a family we could hide things among ourselves – but a single person, where could he put things? Meyer was working in a hospital, as an orderly. He had a pair of oxen, and he brought whatever they needed at the hospital – water, wood – whatever work needed to be done he did. People were lying in hospital without food to eat. They would ask for food, but all he could give them was water. It began when we invited him for Shabbos. He was davening before the amud at our minyan, and we got to talking. I found out that he’s a widower. This was in the beginning of 1945. By then he’d learned that his wife and children were killed. He wrote a letter to neighbors, goyim, and they answered.
He was hungry. He didn’t have where to be for Shabbos. I invited him to eat with us. He was very depressed, neglected – but when we talked with him he cheered up. He didn’t know how to care for himself, he had no initiative, he just did what he was told to do. Scheindl was attracted to him, and he to Scheindl.
Here are some concluding remarks from Mechel:
The worst period was the winter of 1942-1943. After that people adjusted to conditions, they made business; and even if you were caught you could buy your way out for money. And if you didn’t have the money, others would make a collection. We didn’t let anyone rot in jail. In the beginning it wasn’t like that – in the beginning, the first year and a half, if you were in you never got out. But after that we got to know the system, we got to know the people, we saw that for alcohol, or something else, we could help ourselves. The people who were dealers, merchants, they survived. But the professional people were helpless, some of them survived, but most of them went out like flies.
I had adventures. I did enjoy them a little, but maybe I took too many risks. I had moments of sadness, depression, like the times I was being led away by armed guard, or when I was sitting in prison in a strange city. I didn’t choose to go to Russia, but once I was inside and I managed to survive and get out, I’m proud, it supports me. It made me stronger, but it also took the marrow out of my bones. It did both things. I will never forget the time I was traveling on the train with arrested people, and then the officer shouted to release me, this is always before my eyes. How we got out of there took a whole mountains of miracles.