June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Eastward Flight From Poland in 1941

And so one morning I took the train to Kletsk. After an hour’s traveling, the train stopped. I got off and looked around.

There was a small building where an old man was sitting behind a ticket window. I asked him how far it was to the town. “A 15-minute walk,” he answered. I left the station. There was only one road and I started walking. I was approaching the outskirts of Kletzk, when I saw an old woman coming toward me. She was carrying a basket and was walking with a stick. “The daughter of Meltzer” she was saying, over and over again. “Yes,” I answered. “Tell me do you know what happened to my grandmother? She never answered the letters we had written after Kletzk was freed by the Russians.” “Go back to the station!” she screamed. “You’ll find nobody in Kletzk.” And then she picked up her basket and continued on her way.

I remained standing there a long time. I was unable to turn back and afraid to go to town. I kept telling myself over and over again—I must see our house, just touch it once and then I’ll go back.

It was late in the afternoon when I found myself in the town’s square. It was very quiet. A monument to Russian soldiers killed in the battle for Kletzk was in the middle of the square. All over grew grass and forget-me-nots. Gone was the Russian Orthodox Church, the buildings, the stores. The square was deserted.

I ran to our street. Gone were the houses, the trees burned. I came to the corner. This is where our house was. The front steps were left, two walls and chimneys. I went up the stairs. Grass grew all over and forget-me-not flowers. The steps to the cellar were there and I went down. I found a couple of broken pots in the cellar. And two spoons. Someone must have been hiding there and maybe they had their last meal before they were taken.

I came up and walked in our backyard. The well was there but no water in it. My favorite tree all burned but still standing. I walked out of the yard and turned to the next street. A few houses were still there, smoke coming out from a chimney.

I knocked at the door. A woman opened. I told her I lived in Kletzk once, and that I am looking for the people. She invited me in. She was the wife of a Soviet official of the town hall, she explained. She offered me tea and told me that she will take me to the burial place of the Jews. They were killed by the Germans in two groups and buried in mass graves.

I went with her. Next to the Christian cemetery there was a ravine. Three mounds marked the mass graves. In the middle there was a separate grave with a cross on it. “There lies the director of the fire brigade. He stood up for the Jews and the Germans killed him.” I wished I could cry or scream, but not a sound came out of me. I just stood there, all life gone from me. The woman touched me. “Let’s go,” she said, “the train is leaving in half an hour.” I followed her back to the street. The sun was setting. Another day was coming to an end.

After the war, our family had survived, the only complete family in all of Kletsk to survive the war. One family out of 6000 Jews in Kletsk had survived.

Bobbe Beylke is buried in one of the mass graves outside her beloved hometown. We were later told by survivors that the deaf-mute sisters were killed on the same day as Bobbe Beylke. Some peasants still remember Bobbe Beylke, with her little store in the marketplace that sold her threads, needles, galoshes and boots. They even remembered her little book with the balance due.

And so we have ended the story of my mother, a teenager when she fled with her family from Kletzk, a mature woman when she returned a few years later, to view the ruins of her hometown. I hope the reader now will have a better understanding of the suffering, trials and tribulations that the Jewish people went through, even those who eventually survived.

The family then moved to Baranovichi (now in Belarus), where my mother met and married Alexander Karpov. His name had been Karpovitz, but he changed it since it was too Jewish for the Russian Army. The whole family spent about a year in Baranovichi.

They moved to Lodz for a while but did not feel safe there because of the pogroms against the Jews. They went to the Wegscheld Displaced Persons Camp in Austria because they had no money and no place to live. They stayed for one to two months. The Wegscheid camp was the largest and worst of all the camps in Austria. Variations on the name include Webscheid (Tyler). It was opened in June 1946 near Linz. Tyler was the first US Commander of the camp.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler of the Lakewood Yeshiva, a relative of my family, heard that they had survived and that my mother was at the camp. He sent a rabbi to take them out of the camp and he brought them to Paris.

In Paris the Vad Hatzolah paid for their hotel rooms and one meal per day in a kosher restaurant since there were no cooking facilities in the hotel.

My father, who had been an officer/engineer in the Russian Army during the war, worked for the Russian Passport office after the war. Among other things, he issued passports illegally to Jews originating from the Russian-occupied portion of Poland who wanted to go to Palestine. Unfortunately he got caught, arrested and was executed by the NKVD on February 10, 1947. My mother already had left Russia, and my father had hoped to follow her as soon as he could find a way out without arousing suspicion.

I was born in Paris on September 26, 1946, and in 1948 my entire family (except for my father) was able to come to the US.

In the Foreword to the above story I mentioned that Herzl, Dorothy’s uncle, and an active participant in the above story, has his own story worth telling. Toward the end of the war, as detailed in Part 10, Herzl is a Russian Army officer fighting the Nazis in the battles going west, through Russia and Poland into what was then Eastern Germany.

That is where my next week’s presentation will start—with Herzl, a hero to his family and dying a hero’s death for his adopted country. The narrative will start with a brief summary of how he got to that point, for the benefit of any reader who might only have joined recently. Dear Reader, be ready for a quite amazing story.

By Norbert Strauss, Dorothy Strauss, Dr. Ida (Melcer) Zeitchik

 Norbert and Dorothy Strauss are Teaneck residents. Norbert was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Dorothy worked as a senior systems analyst at CNA Insurance Company. Dr. Ida (Melcer) Zeitchik was Dorothy’s mother.

 

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