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

The Life of Herzl Melcer AKA Lt. Iwan Siemienowicz Pidlowskij

Members of the Moscow Association of Jewish Veterans. (Credit: Blavatnik Archive Foundation)

Some of the estimated 350-500,000 Jewish soldiers who fought in the Red Army during World War II, 10 percent women. Over a third were killed in combat. (Credit: The Jewish Week)

Arriving at the house, which consisted of two rooms and a kitchen, they were greeted by a kindly woman and her husband who gave over their living room to the family. Herzl’s older sisters the next morning looked for work, and Herzl and his younger sister thought about enrolling in school in September. Two of Herzl’s sisters came down with malaria, and a neighbor across the street gave them eggs, butter and sugar from her rations as an army wife.

Mother finally heard from her brother in Moscow, telling them that he was being evacuated to Kazakhstan, and suggesting that they meet there. Meanwhile, the Germans were coming near, and shortly an evacuation order was given to leave Borisoglebsk. They requested and received permission to go to Kazakhstan as well.

Once again the family was on the move, again in freight cars. For four weeks they traveled at a slow pace, stopping at every small town. Meals consisted of hard bread dunked in boiling water that they were able to receive at the train stops after waiting in a long line. Mother was becoming very weak from lack of food, her face was ashen and her hands were shaking. At the next stop, Father and Herzl got off the train to try to find some food, but then missed the train when it left suddenly without them. They caught up at the next stop by walking quickly. That is how slowly the train was moving from station to station. But they brought along some smoked fish, cheese and bread and the family had a feast.

Finally, they arrived in Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, their destination, but there was no mail from Mother’s brother about his location. It was announced that all those who had arrived on that train would have to leave the next morning on a boat for the countryside. Nobody was allowed to stay in Alma-Ata. The trip on a dirty freight boat took three days of hot weather during the day, freezing at night. The boat took everyone down the river to Malybay, a village close to the Chinese border in the south of Kazakhstan. The family was shown a clay hut with two windows, a bare room with a big pot in the corner serving as a stove and a straw mat on the floor. That was going to be their home for the time being.

Father became a mailman in town, Herzl and his older sisters were assigned to work in a tobacco plant, and his younger sister was registered for school. Mother was excused from working because of her poor health.

One day, Father came home from work and said there was a town by the name of Chilik 20 miles away where Russian is spoken, with a hospital, a library and a cinema. The family decided to move because Mother was in such poor health. Also, they had great difficulty communicating with the residents of Malybay since they did not speak Russian at all.

Chilik turned out to be a much better place to live. The houses were made of wood instead of straw and the streets had sidewalks leading to a hospital, theater and library, as had been promised to them.

Everybody who could work got a job, and that put food on the table. After a few weeks in Chilik, Herzl received a draft notice since he was now 18 years old and was being called up to serve in the Red Army despite his being a Polish citizen. Father got him a certificate from the representative of the Polish government stating that he was Polish. Herzl took the document with him when he left with the other inductees, and also took the document with him showing that he had graduated from the seven-year elementary school in Poland.

The first letter that came from Herzl said that when he showed the commanding officer the documents stating that he was Polish, he was left behind and instead was sent to the “labor front.” Everyone was happy with the good news, until two weeks later the second letter arrived from Herzl. He wrote from Tonisk in Siberia where he was working in the mines. Letters kept coming full of despair and blackness, until one day he wrote that he was no longer working in the mines, but that, based on his education in Poland, he had been accepted to a technical school where he lived in a dormitory and received better food. But happiness at the good fortune lasted only a few weeks, when another letter told the family that he could not live on the rations he had received, he was always hungry and cold, and that he had decided to join the army, where he was being trained in an officer school. He wrote: “I am well fed and have good boots and a warm uniform and coat and hat. I am very happy. Please don’t worry; the war will be over soon.”

The family received two communications from the lonely soldier Herzl. One was a postcard, date unknown, in which he wrote: “Hi my dear mother, father, Fanya, Eda and Sima. I am healthy. I wait for letters. I hope you get my letters and I wait for letters from you. I miss you a lot and want to hear news from you.”

The second communication was a letter, also with date unknown: “My dear Momma, how is your health? I am healthy. I was thinking about you. How are you doing? How is work? Dear Momma, we know it’s a difficult time but we have to overcome. I try to inform you that I received, by telegram, 100 rubles, 9 November, but still did not get the 150 rubles. My dear, I am worried about this. I ask don’t send more money because you will need to feed my dear mama. Some problem with…. (?). Get resolved. I will try as hard as I can… (?).”

Herzl was sent to the front in the summer of 1944, where he was happy to be able to participate in the liberation of the occupied territories. He wrote home: “I will fight to avenge the death of our grandmother, other relatives and friends who had been killed by the Germans.”

And then the letters from Herzl stopped.

By Norbert Strauss

 Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and has volunteered at Englewood Hospital for over 30,000 hours. He was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Prior to Englewood Hospital he was also a volunteer at the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital for over 30 years, serving as treasurer and director. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

 

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