April 18, 2024
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April 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Eastward Flight From Poland in 1941

Moving from Malybay to Shelek (Chilik).

Home and transport in Chilik.

Taking the sheep to Alma Ata.

One day, Father returned home from work very tired but you could sense from the spark in his eyes that he had something new and exciting to tell us. “There is a town called Chilik, 20 miles from here,” he explained to us. “A lot of people living there are Russians, descendants of the exiles sent to Siberia during the Czar’s times. They have settled after the Revolution in Kazakhstan and, among other towns, in Chilik. The housing is supposed to be much better there, Russian is spoken and there are better opportunities for work.” As an afterthought, Father added, “There is a hospital there, a cinema and a big library.” Mother’s health was failing, I was starving for books and my older sister was often saying, “If only I could see some movies.”

So it was decided. We will ask the authorities permission to go to Chilik. The doctor from the local clinic gave us a paper, saying that Mother required medical care at a hospital, and we got the coveted permission to move. We packed our belongings again. I went outside to take a last look at the village, where we had found so much warmth and hospitality under very primitive life conditions.

It was a brilliant morning, the sky was again the bluest blue, the snow-covered peaks of the mountains shining like silver in the sun. You could hear the “baa” of the sheep going to the pastures. An old man was riding his donkey. I returned to the hut. Everybody was in our “landlord’s” room saying good-byes to the people who for so many months tried to help us live in this strange place. The old woman gave Mother a beautiful patch blanket. It was a present from them to us. When she handed it to her she had a broad smile on her face that told us about their compassion for us, their wishes for our return to our home and, most of all, for peace for all of us.

Chilik did look different from Malybay. The houses were mostly wooden as opposed to straw. There were porches in front, the streets had sidewalks and there was a movie theater, hospital and library as we had been told.

We rented a room in a house on the outskirts of Chilik. It had a wooden floor and a big Russian stove. The landlady was a young Russian woman with three young children. She lived with her husband’s mother, who took care of the children while she worked in a local factory. We were given a very small plot in the back of the house; it was supposed to be our vegetable garden. It was all very businesslike; the kindness of Malybay was missing here.

Father got some boards and built a couple of beds. Fanya and I were to sleep on top of the Russian stove, which is built of bricks and had a big flat top. It was a good place for winter nights, but in the summer I missed my “bed” on the straw mat spread over the clay floor in the Malybay hut. After a few days, Fanya got a job as a bookkeeper in a government office. Father too became a food manager of Zarotscot, an office supervising the delivery of cattle from the vicinity to government authorities in Alma-Ata. He learned to ride a horse, and with a few local boys would go away with the herd of sheep for a week at a time to Alma-Ata.

The pay wasn’t much, but he was given precious food for the journey—bread, butter, canned fish and other things. Part of the food he left home for the family, and this was a great help. Father’s job was to give out the food to the workers. He made sure to make a lot of crumbs while cutting the loaves of bread to put them on the scales. He was allowed to take the crumbs home and we had crumb soup on those days (crumbs in salty hot water).

I stayed home and took care of Mother and did the housework. With great difficulty I learned how to get water out of the well. Many a time I lost my pail in the well and had to ask a neighbor to get it out. The well was a place of social gathering for the women. They were telling each other last night’s dreams there and asking for interpretations. “I dreamed my tooth was pulled.” “Your man is dead at the front,” said the listener matter-of-factly. “And I saw blood in my dream,” said another woman. “You will see a blood relative soon,” decided the listener.

While I was doing the family’s wash in a big wooden tub, rubbing it many times with a cloth bag filled with ashes (when we didn’t have soap), a memory came back to me.

I am a little girl of 8 in a pink, starched dress, pink ribbons in my hair, getting ready to go to a birthday party. I spill hot cocoa all over my dress and have to change.

Our maid is upset. She just ironed my dress and it had so many ruffles. I cry because I can’t wear my favorite dress, without giving any thought to the maid who washes our clothes in a big wooden tub, rubbing it on a board, hanging it on the roof of our house, ironing it.

I don’t think that I understood, even when I was older, how hard the maid worked—carrying all those pails of water from the well, chopping the wood for the stoves, etc. Mother was good to her, giving her presents on holidays and treating her kindly, but we kids took her for granted. It’s now too late to say thank you.

The cooking wasn’t an easy task in Chilik either, and especially the baking of bread. We didn’t eat non-kosher meat, so we had to do with dried fish, if we were lucky to get it in the bazaar. The bazaar was conducted on the principle of “barter”—food for things. Grandma Beylke’s silver candlesticks fed us for a big part of the winter. We got a big bag of corn on the cob, a bag of potatoes, some butter and dried fish. From our vegetable garden we had some onions, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Wood for the stove was a big problem in Chilik, too. Father had to go with Herzl to the woods to cut branches from trees. They were fir trees, and when I put the wood into the stove, I got splinters in my hands.

One day, Father found a wooden gate encircling an abandoned building. On many nights he brought wood from that gate, taking a big risk. (Caught, he would have been arrested and sent to jail.) The wood was dry and burned fast, and as I was watching the fire I just hoped that I could keep that fire going for our whole family for as long as it will take to return home.

(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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