My grandfather Yitzhak, my mother’s father, saved our entire family during the First World War as German and Russian artillery shells flew over the shtetl of Rubashov in Poland.
The expression on my mother’s face said it all as she described it to me, saying, “It was like the sound of death coming!” Yitzhak gathered the whole family and told everyone that they could no longer remain in the house. He explained that if the Germans or the Russians came through the shtetl they would probably all be killed. He made everyone understand that their only recourse was to leave everything, go deep into the woods, and stay there until it was safe to return.
Leaving their home and shop, with all their sewing machines, equipment, and material for making coats and suits, was not easy for Yitzhak. But he made it very clear that they would have to take as much water and food as they could carry, along with clothing and blankets, because he didn’t know how long they would have to be away.
My mother’s grandma was frail, with the usual aches and pains of the elderly, and Yitzhak gently said to her, “Dee mist zein shtark!” “You must be strong!” And they carried her on a “light weight” chair, and kept her warm. They mustered all their strength and took the supplies that they needed. Yitzhak saw to it that the older children brushed their tracks clean with broken-off tree branches, leaving no trace on the ground as they walked deeper and deeper into the woods. He whispered as he told everyone not to utter a sound while walking because they had to be wary of anyone nearby.
My mother said that all the while he spoke like a general and his strength and command gave them all courage. They followed his lead without question.
The door to the house and shop he left unlocked on purpose, so if anyone wanted to go in they could without breaking the door down or destroying the house if nothing valuable was found. My mother told me that he also left a bottle of whiskey on the front table as a peace offering.
I don’t know how long they stayed in the woods, but I remember her telling me that after a while they needed food and were worried because they hadn’t eaten enough in days.
She and her brother Shloime were told to go into neighboring fields with sacks and glean whatever they could. They started walking in one direction for what seemed like an hour until they came upon a field covered with potatoes. This was a godsend! They were 13 brothers and sisters, besides the elders and the young children, so they wanted to take as many potatoes as their sacks would hold.
She filled her sack and her brother helped to place it on her back over her shoulder. After Shloime filled his, they started walking back. It was quite a distance and they had to stay out of sight. At times, where the trees were sparse, they crept close to the ground to keep from being seen. She didn’t allow herself to think about the consequences if they were caught or the pain she was enduring; her only thought was to get this precious food to her family.
When they finally got back and were within sight of everyone, the family ran to them and gently took the heavy sacks from them. When they saw the potatoes they knew that they would all survive and hugged and kissed my mother and Shloime. She hurt when they touched her back, so they pulled her clothes up to look and, as she described it to me, they saw that every potato that had rested on her back left an indentation.
I recall her telling me this like it was yesterday. I remember as a child thinking how it might have felt having all those holes in your back and at the same time the euphoria of knowing that you helped to save your entire family. I am so proud of my mother’s part in this!
When the shooting and the cannon fire finally stopped, Yitzhak went back home alone to see if it was still standing. As he was walking he kept thinking, “What if the house and shop were blown up and destroyed by fire, where would we live, how would I make a living?”
As he came closer to where they lived, the anticipation overtook his thoughts, so he began running to where the house was. Then he saw it, all of it standing there in the sun and looking the same as he had left it. Going up closer he found everything intact. It was the greatest gift he could ever have gotten.
As he was about to open the door, he saw a folded note wedged in near the door handle. It was from someone they knew, a Polish soldier. The note read that he had stood guard there for two days to stop anyone from looting, and that he prayed for all the family to survive.
When they all returned, my mother said there were casualties and wounded lying in the streets and they helped them as best they could. I recall this one incident she told me about a soldier who was seriously wounded lying in the road. He whispered to her to take off his boots and she did. As she was holding up his head talking to him, he died in her arms.
They all survived that war, but the mental scars they endured always remained. Had it not been for my mother relating this event to me, it would have never been known. I am so glad that I always kept asking my mom to tell me more.
I feel now that by my telling their story I’m helping to honor and keep alive the memory of all their souls … including the Polish soldier who had stood guard and prayed.
By David Weinstein