The International Writers Magazine: Memories
A Personal Story about Holocaust
I did not travel anywhere to find this story. It lives within me, as it does within most Jewish people’s hearts and minds. These are our personal Holocaust narratives: pain and loss, lives interrupted, generations unborn, and post-war silence and indifference. Multitudes of these internalized narratives are recorded, but many are still untold.
No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people. (Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1961)
The Soviet Union and my family’s Holocaust narrative
I grew up knowing Yevtushenko’s poem by heart. He wrote it to expose the incomprehensible inhumanity of Babi Yar, a place in Kiev where the Nazis massacred the entire Jewish population there. My grandmother Sonia’s family from Vileyka was similarly murdered, along with all the Jews of that small town during the German occupation. In the early 1920s, when Sonja left Vileyka to follow her scientist-Communist husband Michael Kopeliovich to the Soviet Ukraine, Vileyka was in Poland. Stalin’s purges followed, when Michael, a Deputy Minister of Education, was arrested and soon executed by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB). Meanwhile, Sonia hid to avoid being arrested herself. My grandmother did not find out about her Polish family’s fate until well after World War II. By that time, Vileyka, annexed by the Red Army, became part of the Soviet republic of Belarus. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union, neither the Polish nor Soviet government ever recognized what happened during World War II to the European Jewry in general and to their own Jewish citizens in particular.
Even though the word “Holocaust” came into widespread usage at the end of the 1960s, it was only when I arrived in the US in 1982 that I learned about the Nazi’s “Final Solution” and heard the word for the first time. The Russians had their specific models for controlling historic remembrance both within their republics and the Soviet bloc countries. According to a 2012 study published in the Geschichtswerkstatt Europa (1), in Belarus, like elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the government completely rejected any notion of national identity. The official propaganda showcased the number of Soviet people killed by the enemy during the war but never specific atrocities done to the Jews as part of the Nazi’s extermination program. The very word “Jewish” was never used and instead, vague “Soviet patriotic citizens” were commemorated. In Poland, on the contrary, nationality – Polish, to be specific – was paramount for the Party. Stalin dictated his satellite country to build a stable ethnic society. In addition to prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes of Polish citizens who did not want their surviving Jewish compatriots to return from the camps, the Polish government saw Holocaust remembrance as a reminder of multi-national Poland, and therefore highly undesirable. The Soviets suppressed any hint of the Nazi “final solution” for the same reason they covered up other wartime accounts, such as the massive collaboration with the Nazis in Soviet territory and in the countries that would become members of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet government’s goal was to conceal the Nazis’ mass killing of the Jews, while blaming the Germans for their own atrocities like the Katyn Massacre when the Red Army’s executed more than twenty thousand Polish officers in the Katyn forest. The regime did not want questions about its own strategies of ethnic relocations, mass purges, and concentration camps. These strategies were learned well by the Nazis when they implemented their own genocide programs.
(1) Dunets, N., Kostrzewa, K., Binkin, G. Official Soviet Attitude towards the Holocaust in Homel and Wolomin, Geschichtswerkstatt Europa, April 2012.
In October 2014, Hanoch Ben-Yami, my Israeli cousin and dear friend, who is currently the head of the Philosophy Department at the Central European University in Budapest, decided to visit Vileyka while attending a conference in Eastern Europe. Hanoch’s mother, Ruth Ben-Yami was born in Vileyka. Hanoch’s grandmother Haya, traveled to Poland from Palestine to give birth to her first child in her parents’ house. Hanoch’s and my grandmothers were sisters.
My cousin is the first of our post-war family ever to visit Vileyka. Hanoch called his visit “quite authoritative” because his guide was the director of the local museum. The house where his and my great-grandparents lived was burned down long ago, but the street still exists, though under a different name. As the museum director explained to Hanoch, only a few old houses remain in Vileyka and even fewer among them are known to have belonged to pre-war Jews. The small town looked dull and unkempt. “Nothing there,” wrote Hanoch “commemorates the thriving Jewish community of the past.”
|Photo: Vileyka. Memorial at the Jewish cemetery dedicated to the martyred Jews of Vileyka. Erected in the 1980s, the memorial sign is in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.
Courtesy of Hanoch Ben-Yami
Hanoch drove to the Jewish cemetery located outside the town. He described to me the rusty gate to the graveyard that was hanging on the stone walls covered with patches of old plaster here and there. There was a small memorial for those murdered in the war. It was erected, he was told, in the 1980s. The wording was in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. Most Jews were murdered outside the town, but the memorial was placed in the cemetery, perhaps to make it easier to find. Hanoch tried to find the graves of our family members buried before the war, but there were only few tombstones left in the entire cemetery. There is no one in Vileyka that takes care of the Jewish cemetery. The locals took the tombstones to use as building material, grinding stones, or to pave town streets. The coffins, however, were made from a mixture of gravel and cement, and could not be used for much, Hanoch described, so they are still there, although most are broken, perhaps just from neglect. All the inscriptions were on the stolen tombstones, wrote my cousin, so “the dead are lying there now in total anonymity.” No one will know the exact location of the graves of our family members.
||Photo: Vileyka. Vandalized Jewish cemetery. The locals took the tombstones to use them as building material. The broken coffins were of no use to enterprising Vileykans and were left alone.
Courtesy of Hanoch Ben-Yami
What we do know with some certainty is that in the 1920s and 1930s there were more Jews in Vileyka than Christians. Most were thriving, cultural, and assimilated like our great-grandfather, businessman Moshe Swirsky. Though agnostic and non-observant, he donated a lot of money to build the new synagogue and was one of the synagogue’s last presidents. Knowing that the war was imminent, Moshe Swirsky refused to leave his hometown. According to my grandmother Sonia, he thought he knew the Germans well from his and Sonia’s mother Miriam’s frequent visits to Baden-Baden and his business dealings, and considered them to be a highly cultural nation. Much preferred choice, Swirsky thought, compared to the Soviets. Both our great-grandparents were alive when the Nazis invaded. That summer of 1941 they were joined by their two daughters, our grandmothers’ younger sisters, Betya and Fanya. The sisters came from Tel-Aviv with their little children for a relaxed summer vacation. All of them were brutally murdered by the Nazis.
As documented by descendants in the book Jewish Community of Vileyka published in Israel years after the war, the annihilation of the Jews of Vileyka was meticulously planned and executed in three “actions.” The first victims were those reported by eager neighbors as Communists- they were shot in the woods of Malouny. In the second action, men, women, and children were dragged out of their houses and massacred in the place called Mayak (near Krivaya Sloboda)-their bodies were thrown into a common grave prepared in advance. The remaining Jews of Vileyka and surrounding villages were executed in the courtyard of the town prison, their corpses thrown into a deep pit and burned. This is how Jewish Vileyka was wiped from the face of the earth. The Swirsky family was probably murdered during the second action, but there is no way to know for sure. In our family’s Holocaust narrative, we do not have a survivor story.
My friend Raya does.
Raya narrates an untold survivor story
My friend of over 30 years is vivacious, funny, and beautiful. Raya is a highly positive person, optimistic and strong, a real pillar of support to her family and friends. She mentioned her mother’s war-time story while we were visiting an unfinished Holocaust memorial in Milan, Italy. Over a year had passed, when, while working on this book, I asked Raya for a detailed taped interview. She agreed, and this was the first time I heard my friend’s voice trembling.
Raya’s mother, Masha Rozenhous, was born in 1919 in Smolevichi, a small town in Belarus, some 22 miles east of the republic’s capital Minsk and about 60 miles from my family in Vileyka. When Masha was still a strong woman of 65, she was killed by a drunk driver. Her husband Yakov Weinstein witnessed in horror when it happened. At that time, the family lived in Minsk. Raya was 27 years old then, already a young mother herself. She remembered how shocked she was when during the funeral her father kept repeating through tears: “You survived through so much horror, Mashen’ka, awful horror…and to get killed like that by a stupid car…” Yakov was a decorated war hero, who served in the Soviet Army all five years during the war and went as far as Berlin. “He fought through the entire war, lived through blood and death around him,” Raya continued. “What horror that Mom had to go through was he talking about?” Raya also recalled her Mom’s’ best friend, Lisa, a librarian at the Minsk Public Library, saying at the funeral: “Masha was the only one who survived Smolevichi ghetto.” Ghetto? What?
Masha never talked about her life during the war, and it was Yakov who told Raya about the crucial events in her mother’s life. I did some research on the Yad Vashem database (2) and with available English-language documents, filled in a few historical gaps. Somehow, I found more factual testimonies about what happened in Smolevichi then I was able to uncover about Vileyka.
The Germans occupied Smolevichi on June 26, 1941. Immediately, they established a ghetto, gathering all the local Jews, about 2,000 people. Some documents I read pointed out that the Smolevichi ghetto was among the first established by the Nazis on Soviet territory. Liquidation operations began almost right away. All of Smolevichi’s Jews were murdered in a number of “actions” carried out by the Germans with enthusiastic local assistance between July 1941 and October 1942.
In early June 1941, Masha, who was a history major at the university, came home to spend summer with her family. So did her younger brother Boris, a student at the Conservatory of Music. Their older sister Ida arrived from Moscow with her little child. The two oldest siblings, a brother and another sister, stayed in Moscow where they lived with their families. The mother, Rahil, managed a dry goods store. The father, who Raya described to me as an intellectual and humanist who was educated as a Rabbi before the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, passed away in 1940. By the end of June 1941, the Rozenhous family of Smolevichi along with other local Jews was forced into the ghetto.
On August 24 (Yakov told Raya that her mother thought it could be the first days of September) 1,300 to 2,000 Jews from Smolevichi, mostly old people, women, and children, were ordered to march toward Gorodishche-Kaplitsa Hill, a few miles south of town. Some people tried to resist, realizing that they were being herded to their execution. They were shot on the spot. The rest were brought to the site, forced to undress, shot, and thrown into the pit. Small children were thrown into that pit and buried alive. The murder operation was carried out by the Teilkommando [sub-unit] number 2 of the Einsatzkommando 8b, under the command of Werner Schoeneman, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the local police force (according to other sources, the murders were also carried out by two either Lithuanian or Belarusian units). Also present was local Police Battalion 707/10. Then, 250 more Jews (according to other data some 1,000 Jews) were similarly massacred on September 13, 1941. This murder was carried out under the command of the town’s officer Mueller.
(2) Yad Vashem Database: “The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR,” http://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=552.
Raya did not know all the details I compiled from the Yad Vashem documents. Her father most probably did not know either. What Yakov revealed to Raya were a few crucial facts his wife shared with him, one heartbreaking story at a time.
Story number one: Feelings disappear. During the first few weeks in the overcrowded ghetto, Smolevichi villagers found the way to contact their former neighbors. “Give me your stuff (fur coat, couch, etc.),” they demanded. “You will be shot anyway.” Masha thought that people in the ghetto, herself including, were losing their normal ability to feel. She remembered been constantly hungry, but not feeling shocked or disgusted or scared. It seemed no one cared about anything. Everyone was just trying to get through the day, one hour at a time.
Story number two: An open gate. On the day of the forced march to execution, Masha walked with her family along with the others. Passing by one house, she noticed an open gate leading to a small yard. She ran through the gate and hid. She ran without thinking, without feeling- it seemed that her feet acted independently of her mind and carried her there. She waited till dark, and heard everything that what was taking place at the Gorodishche-Kaplitsa Hill. Then, when all became quiet, she got out and walked.
Story number three: A long walk to survival. Masha wanted to get to Minsk to find her non-Jewish friend Lisa (a librarian that Raya remembered at her mother’s funeral). Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Masha walked over 22 miles, through German and local police check-points, without being stopped. Masha knew German well and sometimes she felt bold enough to ask directions. She recalled experiencing no fear. Feeling nothing. Just an impulse to walk. Raya remembered one piece of information that her mother did share with her, almost like a joke: “I could speak satisfactory German during the war but had to watch not to slip into Yiddish!” Masha found her friend and stayed a short time with the family. She had to leave soon though because her friend’s family feared that Masha could be recognized by someone who knew her from the university. She left Lisa and walked to Orsha, another large Belarusian city. Orsha is 136 miles from Minsk. Raya never found out how Masha got there and how long it took her.
In Orsha, Masha stayed for a while with an old woman, someone Lisa’s family knew. Everyone there thought she was Belarusian by nationality. As I learned from the BLJews Database (3), Orsha had over 25,000 Jews; the ghetto was established at the end of July 1941. In September of 1941 when Masha stayed in Orsha, the ghetto was not yet liquidated. Undoubtedly, Masha knew about the ghetto. She also knew well how the ghetto would end. The old woman boarded a few German officers. Something compelled Masha to start a conversation with them, and against any reasons of self-preservation, she asked them about the Jews, trying to sound like a Jew-hater. One officer kept his eyes on her for a long time, and then said: “Not every German is a murderer and thinks that Jews have to be annihilated.”
Story number four: Working in Germany. The old Orsha woman had finally told Masha to “tikat” (Belarusian for “run”). She probably guessed who Masha really was. With other young Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Polish girls, Masha signed up to “voluntarily” go and work in Germany. She was assigned to work on a farm. There the girls were decently treated. They had to work hard, but so did the farmer family. They slept in a barn and were not hungry. Just like the farmers, they ate boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. “Only the Russians would use uncooked cabbage.” the farmers used to say. “Like pigs.” There also, the blond blue-eyed Masha passed herself for a Belarusian girl. She had nothing detrimental to say about the farmers. The young Polish women who worked on the same farm and slept in the same barn were the ones who treated her cruelly by ridiculing and ostracizing her. These Polish girls women made Masha’s life almost unbearable. They sensed something, Masha thought many years later. They called her “zhidivka” (a kike) and gleefully promised her total extermination of her “race.” These women would not earn themselves better food or more comfortable accommodations by treating Masha with brutality. They simply were aggressively anti-Semitic.
Yakov told Raya that the only strong emotion Masha recalled experiencing during the war years was hatred. She hated the Germans but most of all she hated the Belarusians and the Poles. The former were the invaders, the ultimate enemy who organized extermination of the Jews; the latter, often former neighbors, were the enforcers, the most cruel tortures and murderers. Raya later remembered what she called her mother’s “almost pathological hatred” toward the Poles.
Story number five: Liberation. The part of Germany where Masha worked on the farm was liberated by the Americans. She could have easily chosen to go to the US but decided to return back to Russia and find her surviving siblings in Moscow, the only loved ones she had left. She stayed in Moscow for a short time and returned back to Minsk in Belarus. “I never liked Moscow,” she used to explain. Raya did not want to speculate on her reasons, but I thought of at least two. Masha’s siblings could have unconsciously caused her to feel survivor’s guilt: after all, she was the only one left alive when the rest of the family was slaughtered. In addition, she could have been easily found out and arrested in Moscow as a “traitor,” the fate of most Soviet returning POWs and those forced into slave labor in Germany.
Raya recalled that her mother had strange moments, when she would suddenly “disappear” into herself: with her face frozen and eyes blank, she seemed to listen to something inside her own mind. These episodes might happen when she walked along the street with her children. Then she would stop right in the middle of the crowd and turn around with a strange expression, as if fearing somebody lurking behind her back. Perhaps she saw or imagined something that triggered her disappearance into the depth of her mind or into her past.
When Raya paused, I asked her: “Did Rahil, Masha’s mother, notice the gate first? Was Masha pushed there by her mother?” Raya said: “I don’t know. And I don’t want to guess. Mom just ran there and hid.” I felt deeply ashamed for even asking this question, which suggested an easier accepted situation, and passing, alas unconsciously, judgment. The Holocaust defies understanding. And who are we, going through out lives in safety and comfort, to judge any victim of the Holocaust? Would Masha’s story be “prettier” if she died along with her mother, brother, sister, and sister’s child thrown alive into the pit? Then my friend Raya, her beautiful daughter Julia, and the funny, always smiling, eight-month-old grandbaby Benjamin- would never have been born. Sometimes it takes tremendous courage to choose life.
Masha had that courage.
Soon after the war, Jews from different locations in the Soviet Union erected a monument at the Jewish cemetery of Smolevichi to commemorate their relatives and friends. The monument carries an inscription in Russian that reads: “To the memory of our loved ones murdered by the German invaders…” As was the sign of the times, no Jewish connections were mentioned. Many years later, on June 26, 2000, a memorial stone was placed at the site where the Jews of Smolevichi were massacred. The stone was funded through a donation made by the Lazarus family of England.
The Pit (Yama) in Minsk
When Masha returned to Minsk, I am sure she heard about the fate of the local Jews. According to “The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust,”(4) the Minsk ghetto was the largest ghetto the Nazis established in the occupied Soviet territories. Between 80,000 to 100,000 Jews of Minsk and the vicinity were forced into that ghetto - most were murdered. In 1947, a modest obelisk was erected near the place where thousands of Minsk Jews were massacred. The Minsk memorial is considered to be the first Soviet memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazism. For many years, it was also the only one that dared to proclaim openly in Yiddish: “Dedicated to the Jews, victims of Nazism.”
Photo: Minsk. First Holocaust memorial erected in the Soviet Union and the first one openly dedicated to Jews. Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
At the end of the 1940s –early 1950s, during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign against “cosmopolitism,” both the poet Chaim Maltinski who wrote a verse in remembrance of murdered Jews and the stonemason Morduch Sprishen who chiseled these words on the obelisk were arrested and sent to the Gulag for their “bourgeois and nationalistic” tendencies.
Photo: Minsk. Dedication of the Holocaust memorial obelisk in 1947.
Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
(4) Donald L. Niewyk, Francis R. Nicosia. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, 2003.
Long time after Masha’s death, in the year 2000, a sculptured group was added to the old obelisk. The added group was created by Jewish Belarus architect Leonid Levin and Israeli sculptors Else Pollack and Alexander Finski. The entire complex is now called The Pit (“yama” in Russian). Placed at the site where Minsk Jews were killed, the monument is indeed a deep pit with a long granite staircase leading to the bottom. A bronze group of twenty seven emaciated naked human figures is descending along the steps toward their violent death. A violinist, pregnant woman, and children are among the group. Faces are not detailed, just an overall expression of horror.
It took eight years to complete the addition to the monument. All work was done by hand. The memorial, which I believe to be one of the best visual expressions of many families’ Holocaust narratives, is a target for repeated vandalism.
Photo: Minsk. The Pit (yama).
Courtesy of Alla Abrukin
Perhaps some things never change: there will always be those who are bent on destruction and those who are inspired to create. Let our families’ Holocaust narratives, oral, written, or chiseled in bronze, be the creative force that preserves memories and builds bridges between the horrific past and the future in which inhuman atrocities should not be repeated. May we always choose life. L’Chaim.
Photo: Minsk. The Pit (yama).
Courtesy of Alla Abrukin
© Irene Shaland September 2015
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