July 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Eastward Flight From Poland in 1941

Shelek via Moscow to Kletzk.

Destruction of Polish villages.

In the fall of 1944, many refugees embarked on their journey back. In order to get tickets for the train, one had to get permission from the authorities in Alma-Ata—a “propusk.” Father decided that I should go to the N.K.V.D. in Alma-Ata to get this “propusk.” I had with me a telegram from Father’s former boss back home saying that he had a position for him and a place to live for the family.

Early one morning, Father took me to the Chilik-Alma-Ata highway where I was going to try to get a ride to Alma-Ata. An army truck stopped for us and I was taken aboard. I remember the wind blowing hard (I was sitting in the back of the open truck); I was shivering. One of the soldiers gave me an army coat to put on and offered me some biscuits. After a few hours we arrived in Alma-Ata. I found out where the offices of the N.K.V.D. were and went straight there.

My papers were checked at the gate of the building by a soldier with a rifle, then I was ushered inside. A middle-aged man in an army uniform with officer insignia motioned for me to sit down. I stated my problem. I showed him the telegram and the postcards from Herzl. A family whose member was at the front received special consideration by the authorities. He took the telegram and called the telegraph office to verify its authenticity. It was authentic. A secretary was called in and told to give us the “propusk” with the permission to stop in Moscow. I had explained that Mother had brothers there whom she didn’t see for 24 years. Tears of joy were running down my cheeks as I left the N.K.V.D.

We were going home at last. I went to the post office and sent a telegram home and went back to the highway. My luck held: I got a ride back home with a truck bringing some dry goods to Chilik.

A month later we left Chilik forever. With the “propusk” we got tickets for a passenger train going from Alma-Ata to Moscow. My uncles had returned to Moscow and we had gotten in touch with them. The older one was married and had one son about my age. The younger one was a doctor and a bachelor.

My aunt met us at the railroad station in Moscow. She was wearing a fur coat, fur hat and fashionable boots. We came in our cotton-filled parkas, “ferfaukas,” atrocious shoes and sheepskin hats. We must have been some sight. I saw people on the streetcar staring at us with astonishment.

When my uncle’s family was evacuated to Siberia, his spacious apartment was occupied by people who, on the return of the previous owners, let them have only one big room with privileges in the communal kitchen. They were lucky to get even this much of living space. I remember sleeping on the dining room table my first night in Moscow, my older sister next to me. Mother, Father and Sima went to the other uncle’s house.

I couldn’t sleep long after the lights were put out. It was so exciting to meet these relatives spoken of by Mother over the years with so much love. I heard my cousin Arkady coming in quietly, taking a flashlight and getting ready to go to bed. Then I saw him holding an album with photographs. He was now whispering to his mother: “You mean these are the same girls, dressed so pretty and smiling so happily? It’s impossible.” Then I heard Arkady crying quietly.

In the morning we went to see our other uncle. He had a furnished room, leasing it from a family. A bed, dresser and desk were all his furniture. Bookcases lined two walls. On the windowsill was a box with perishable food. (The freezing temperature kept it fresh.) “So this is my uncle, the doctor,” I was thinking. “Such a sad and lonely man!”

When he left for work, I decided to surprise him. I dusted his room and tried to put his papers and books in order. When he came back, he took one look at his neat room and said: “There was order in my disorder and now there is disorder in your order.” I was crushed and tried to apologize.

We stayed in Moscow one week and were back on the train going west. Soon we realized that nothing was left of the cities and towns we passed on our journey three and a half years ago. On the passing stations there were no crowds; here and there was a lonely passenger. We finally arrived at our destination, Baranoviche. From there we planned to go home by hired coach, as our hometown did not have a railroad station. Baranoviche was in ruins, with only a few streets of it left, the rest bombed out. Predominantly Jewish before the war, it had now only a few thousand inhabitants, all gentile. Now and then a former partisan came back into the city to look for his family and found only ashes and graves.

Seeing all this we had lost all hope of finding our hometown intact. We were surprised when we found that our hometown had a railroad station, which the Germans built for their convenience.

By Dr. Ida (Melcer) Zeitchik, Dorothy Strauss 

(To be continued next week)

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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