June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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An Eastward Flight From Poland in 1941

Old Alma Ata (Almaty)

Rural Kazakhstan

Part 8 (Continued from last week)

We spent the first week in Malabay getting acquainted with the village. We took long walks along the unpaved streets lined with tall poplar and palm trees. The air was crisp and clear, the leaves were turning colors. It was autumn 1941. Mother was excused from working when a doctor certified that her health was poor. She was physically and emotionally exhausted from the journey. I was allowed to take care of her while other family members worked, but was told to look for a job in the evening, when they returned from work.

My youngest sister, Sima, who was 10, was registered in the local school, but Herzl, 16, and Fanya, 21, were assigned to a tobacco plant in the kolkhoz. Father became a mailman, and I stayed home taking care of mother and doing housework.

One day I met a tall, thin girl dressed in an army coat. She told me she was from Lvov (Poland) where she studied philosophy at the university. She now worked as a secretary for the chairman of the village counsel. He was good to her, she said, and provided her with special rations and found her a nice room to live in. She typed Russian papers that were sent to the main government office in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. Her name was Rosa, but the chairman called her Rosa-han. She advised us to find some office jobs, or else we would be forced to work in the fields or in the tobacco plant.

That night, thinking about Rosa, I lay restless on the straw mat, the clothes rolled up for a pillow, covered with my thin coat. The patch blanket was given to Mother. Whenever one of us got sick Mother used to say, “You need the blanket more than I do” and there was no use arguing. The blanket seemed to have some healing powers. Light was streaming in through the window, and I still could not sleep. I was so thankful that, unlike Rosa, we had each other, and prayed to God to preserve our family and give us sustenance and strength to prevail.

In the morning I gave Mother her breakfast and went to look for work. Luck was with me. In the post office they were in need of a night telephone operator. The telephone operators worked in three shifts, and one of the women was leaving to work in the fields, where the salary there was higher and the rations were better. I worked the third shift, from midnight to 8 a.m.

The switchboard in the post office had only 10 numbers, five for the Kolkhozes, one for the district office in Chilik, one for Alma-Ata (the capital of the republic), and three for the local militia office, party office and administrative office. I soon learned the mechanics of connecting the phones and the few words in Kazakh required to know as a switchboard operator. They called me “Kzonka,” which is equivalent to “miss,” and always thanked with “Rahmed.”

That day I met Galina, a pretty girl from the Ukraine who worked in the second shift. Galina was later married to the principal of a local desiatiltka (10 grade school), an educated Kazakh who spoke Russian fluently. She worked in order to be able to feed her parents and two little brothers.

Many callers just inquired about the time, and in a few days I was able to give them a correct answer, looking at the old clock in the post office. The “nachalnik” (manager) of the post office was a war-veteran, walking on crutches, since he had lost a leg at the front. He drank a lot and sometimes spoke about his young wife whom he left pregnant when he was taken into the army. She was left behind the enemy lines, in a village east of the city of Minsk in Byelorussia, and he never heard from her again.

One day as I came to work, I noticed a funny smell in the post office. The “nachalnik” was still up (he lived in the back room of the post office), drinking straight from a bottle. I asked him about the smell. “It’s the cat,” he told me, “I cooked it for dinner. She was too old anyway, and didn’t catch mice anymore.” All of a sudden I felt sick, short of breath, perspiring all over my body. The “nachalnik” must have noticed something. He told me quietly, “Go home, you look sick. I’ll take the switchboard tonight.”

My legs felt weak, but I made it to the door. It was a winter night. I inhaled the cold, fresh air and felt better. The streets were deserted; the snow was melting. A cracking sound echoed under my feet. Somewhere a dog barked. The village seemed so God-forsaken, and I utterly alone and old at age 19. I looked up into the sky; it was studded with stars and a new moon was among them. To me the moon signified a new beginning. I decided I would never go work at the post office again.

Father was successful as a letter carrier. For every letter he delivered from the front he was rewarded with a couple of eggs, a piece of cheese, sometimes some potatoes or dried fruit. He also got a few bites from dogs, and when he came home he put iodine on them and didn’t talk about it.

In his spare time he built a small clay stove in our room, which was covered with a piece of tin. We were able to bake our bran leprochkas on top of it. Father’s main worry was the condition of our mother. She was terribly frightened and depressed, always holding her prayer book, looking very fragile and pale. She had lost a brother during World War I, and was now worried about her only son. We tried to save for Mother anything that was nutritious: an egg, a little butter, sometimes milk, hoping she would survive.

We were allotted a very small patch of land, which was a couple of miles from Malabay. We planted corn there, and when it grew we ground it and cooked “mamalyga,” a type of cereal. We saved it mostly for Mother, but she would give some of it from her plate to my younger sister Sima, who was only 10.

Sima attended school, which was taught in Kazakh and Russian. She walked to school barefooted, holding her only pair of shoes, which were getting small, in her hands. On reaching school she put on her shoes, made sure her braids looked like the other girls, and mingled with them.

My brother Herzl did not register for school. He claimed he was 18 and finished his schooling at home. This way he was able to work in the tobacco factory and earn some money and a worker’s rations. At night he went with my father to the nearby woods where he cut branches from the trees and hauled them home for the stove. In the winter they brought big chunks of ice, which we had to melt for water.

(To be continued next week)

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