July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Eastward Flight From Poland in 1941

Hiding from the Nazi planes. (Credit: Drawn by Sima)

Mapping the journey from Mogilev to Borisoglebsk.

Part V (continued from last week)

As soon as we approached Mogilev, we sensed a mood of panic. The residents were getting ready for a siege by the enemy. Many stores were being boarded up, shutters on houses were closed, and the streets were very crowded with people running everywhere, carrying bundles of their belongings and shouting to each other. Everyone was moving in one direction. We inquired about the situation and were told that an evacuation was announced by the authorities, and after the trains have left the station, the railroad tracks will be destroyed.

We saw the station house and a train in the process of being boarded. We had made it to the station just as the last train was leaving to Bryansk. The cars looked pretty full, so with great difficulty we ran toward the last car, hoping to get in.

Suddenly, Father realized that we had a horse and wagon that did not belong to us but to the Russian government. Afraid that he might be held responsible for them, he motioned to Herzl to unload and turn the horse and wagon around. Together they headed for the center of town in the hope of finding a government agency that would still be open.

In the meantime, we managed to board the last car with our meager possessions. We settled in and anxiously awaited the return of our father and brother. All of a sudden, we heard the loud noise and a screech, and the cars slowly started moving. We were frantic. There was nothing left to do but pray…We strained our eyes looking in the direction where Father and Herzl had gone, and then we saw two figures running fast toward the train. When they got nearer, we recognized them and motioned frantically. They managed to jump onto one of the middle cars and made their way toward the last car. It was a miracle.

After a few hours we got off at Bryansk, which seemed to be a quiet city. It turned out that most of the population of Bryansk had already left. An old man offered us to stay in his house. His sons were at the front; his wife was killed just a few days ago, when she was standing in a bread line, by German planes flying low over the queue of women. He had nothing left to lose. We knew we could not stay in Bryansk for long, but decided to spend just one night here and get some rest. The old man had tea and baked potatoes for us, and put us up for the night. The beds had clean sheets and pillows; there were curtains on the windows and plants on the windowsills.

During the night we heard explosions nearby—the Germans were bombing the city. We went outside to look. The old man had not left the house during the raids, and when we asked him to go with us his answer was, “They can’t hurt me anymore.” In the morning he urged us to go on, giving us some baked potatoes and apples from his apple tree. We left some of our clothing with him and he put it in the attic, telling us to pick it up on the way back home. He stood on his doorstep waving to us till we couldn’t see him anymore.

We boarded the open freight cars. The train was moving very slowly when German planes appeared. I heard a terrible noise and smelled smoke. The car next to ours was burning. We were being bombed. Then the train stopped and people were jumping down from their cars and running into the cornfield. The plane came back and we heard shots from the machine guns. I kept on running, following the others. Then I lay still in the cornfields and waited. It was quiet again and people were getting up and running back to the train. We were lucky again; all of us were unhurt. As we boarded the train we saw so many people lying at the tracks; the journey was all over for them. When the train moved again, nobody in our car spoke. People were sitting just holding each other’s hands, their faces aghast with fear. Nobody spoke.

It was late afternoon when the train arrived in Borisoglebsk, a city located not far from Voronezh, south of Moscow. Here life seemed to proceed at a normal pace. Women were walking with their baby carriages, children coming home from school. Soon after we disembarked we were approached by government officials. They assured us that we had reached a safe destination. We were taken to an Office of Relocation, where we were given an address of a family who was assigned to take in refugees.

We were assigned to a small house on the outskirts of the city and were taken there by truck. We were greeted by an old woman with a round, kindly face. After handing her the paper from the Relocation Office, she let us in.

“Byehentsivish” she said to her husband. It meant refugees. The house consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. They gave us their living room-dining room, a big room with a large sofa, big table and chairs and handmade rugs on the floor. The woman got busy putting up the samovar while we made ourselves comfortable. We drank tea and ate black bread with preserves served by the woman. She spoke softly and you could feel kindness in every one of her gestures. Mother and my younger sister went to sleep on the sofa, all the rest of us on the floor. She gave us a few pillows and old bedspreads for blankets. This was our first peaceful night in about 10 days. I was almost happy; we had each other and those people willing to share their home with us.

Early in the morning, my older sister and I went to town to look for work. She knew bookkeeping and I typed fairly well in Russian. After inquiries at many offices, we found no vacancies, but came home with ration cards for the family. Altogether, we spent two months in Borisoglebsk. The weather turned cold, the streets covered with ice, which made it treacherous to carry the pails of water from the well located downhill. My brother Herzl and younger sister Sima were thinking of enrolling in school in September.

Then one morning I couldn’t get up. I had chills and a terrible headache. The chills were followed by a feeling of heat, alternating again with chills. A neighbor from across the street was called by our “landlady.” She was a young woman, married just a couple of months before her husband was taken to the army. She brought in a doctor from the local clinic, who prescribed quinine. He diagnosed my illness as malaria. The young woman filled the prescription and offered to take care of me since my mother, who was never of good health, was feeling weak from the exhausting journey.

Then my older sister Fanya became sick with malaria. For a few days I was hallucinating, thinking that Father was a former school friend. I was told later that I was conjugating Latin verbs aloud and repeating some historical dates over and over again.

In a week’s time we both recovered, but I felt extremely weak. The young woman from across the street brought us eggs, butter and sugar that she was receiving on her rations as an army wife. I will never forget her kindness and humanity.

(To be continued next week.)

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

 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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