The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought back a lot of memories. This is the story, roughly, of my life during World War II and later. In many ways it parallels the situation now going on in Ukraine. Even the territory is similar.
I was born in Poland, in the South (Galicia), in a small town called Rudnik. When the war broke out, my father listened to the radio. He announced: “When the Germans hit Krakow, we are going East,” and so it happened.
My parents packed hastily. I remember he packed a stack of stiff shirt collars, which he never wore again. They did take all the pictures and other necessities, like bedding. When it was time to leave, my mother kissed the doorstep goodbye, never expecting to see it again. That part came true. We left in horse-drawn carriages. There was no gasoline and very few cars.
Along the way, we were bombed. The horses panicked and ran away. I had been riding in my uncle’s wagon and had fallen asleep. I woke up in the dark. The wagon had turned over on top of me, everyone ran away and forgot about me. Terror does not begin to describe what I felt. I was five years old at the time. I was kicking and screaming. Bombs could be heard all around us. After a while, the planes passed overhead, and it was quiet. Some men came, lifted the wagon, and got me out.
The next thing I remember is that we were hiding in a cellar of a bombed-out house. My parents were there, my uncle, his wife, and their six-week-old-daughter. There were also two other families. The only thing edible in that cellar was a barrel of pickles. My aunt had no milk left to nurse the baby. Everyone was terrified that if the Germans heard the baby crying, we would all die. So, every time she cried, someone stuck a pickle in her mouth. That quieted her.
Two days later, we were in a foxhole my father dug in a field. When it got dark, my father went foraging in this farmer’s field and came back with some carrots and potatoes. We ate them raw. Miraculously, our possessions were still with us. My father was very capable.
Somewhere along the way, we ended up in Bilgoraj, Poland. We were staying with a family. My mother was not pleased with how unsanitary the conditions were. For example, newly baked challahs were put on the bed. Two things happened that left an impression on me. My grandmother died (my father’s mother). She was a religious woman, always covered up, so I had only seen her face. When she got sick, the doctor came. He gave her a shot in the behind. That big, white behind really made an impression!
The other things that left an impression were the air raids. My mother insisted that when we hit the ground, my face would go first, my father on top of mine, and hers last. That way, if there was a direct hit, I would live a fraction of a second longer. I didn’t believe her. I thought she just didn’t want to get her face dirty. As it happened, there was a direct hit just on the other side of the fence. An entire family was killed.
One night, the landlady invited a couple of German soldiers for dinner. They were very friendly and appreciative; they even showed us pictures of their families! After a few weeks, we continued with our journey east. My father continued the foxhole routine…
In this fashion we got to Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). We lived there about a year and a half. Then Germany broke the agreement with Stalin and Germany was advancing eastward. As the Russians were retreating, they wanted everyone remaining to declare Soviet citizenship. I suppose, in 20/20 hindsight, it was a ruse to later claim that part of Poland as part of the Soviet Union. My father refused. He said: “The Russians are barbarians. We’ll stay right here and wait for the nice, civilized Germans.”
All our relatives who became citizens, went up in smoke in the concentration camps. We were sent to Siberia as “enemies of the state.” This is why I am alive today. They actually saved our lives! I was six at the time, but still an “enemy of the state.”
Life was tough in Siberia. My father lost a toe due to frostbite. All winter, I was kept indoors, because the snow was so high that if I slipped off the path, they wouldn’t find me till spring. Sometimes the snow was so high that it was above the top of the windows. We were literally buried. Each working person got a kilogram of bread. Non-working people were allotted half a kilogram. In the summer, the mosquitoes were huge. I used to pick berries and mushrooms in the woods. We, the kids, used to pick “tobacco” for our fathers. It was just assorted leaves that we shredded and dried in the sun. Then they were rolled in cut up newspapers. Still, no one died from disease.
Later, Poland formed a communist government-in-exile, and we were no longer enemies (but not citizens, either). There was another government-in-exile in England run by Wladyslaw Anders.
After being released from Siberia, we left by freight train for Uzbekistan. We settled in Kokand, which is on the border with Afghanistan. The idea was to steal across the border and through Turkey or Iran, get to Palestine. That never happened, because it was extremely dangerous, and my mother wasn’t up to it. I was too young. My dad didn’t want to leave us like some other men did. We stayed in Kokand till the end of the war. Those years are a story in itself.
After the war, we returned to Poland. It was like a dirge. People would get off in different towns. Everyone was dead. During the war, everyone thought the horror stories were Russian propaganda. We went as far west as possible, to Szczecin, in northwestern Poland, then to Sweden. This time my father was right. He said if we don’t leave soon, we’ll never get out. From Sweden we came to the US.
We ended up in Brooklyn. Compared to Sweden, it seemed dirty. I wanted to go back. (One of the families actually did go back.) I finished high school, went to college, got a degree in Chemistry. By age twenty, I was married. I got my PHT (putting hubby through). He did his stint in the US Army and went to medical school. We had three children. They are all grown now and married with children of their own.
I want to mention my cousin Benjamin Siegel. He also ended up in the Soviet Union. When he found out what happened to his family, he didn’t care if he lived or died. He enlisted in the Russian army and all he cared about was revenge. Bullets passed between his legs, he had over 20 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. By the time he was 24, he was a major. After the war, he was in the Polish army. They wanted him to be a career army person. He was a big hero. There was just one problem. His name. They wanted him to change it to sound more Polish. His response: “Thanks, but no thanks!” He packed up his family and moved to Israel. There he became a fearless prosecutor and judge. His name was synonymous with justice. Once I was in the movies in Ramat Gan with my friend. It was a locally made cops and robbers tale. When the good guys were winning, the audience started yelling “Siegel, Siegel” and stamping their feet. I asked my friend what is going on. She said it is your cousin!
On March 15th, 2022, my first great grandson was born. Coincidentally, his name is Benjamin. This is the beginning of a whole new generation. As they say, where there is life, there is hope…
Today, Hadassah, which I am a member of, is providing Ukrainian refugees with much needed help through the joint effort of its three sister organizations, Hadassah International; Hadassah, The Women’s Organization of America, the first Hadassah organization founded 110 years ago; and the Hadassah Medical Organization, whose doctors and nurses are providing critically needed medical care for Ukrainian refuges in Poland and at the Hadassah hospitals in Israel.
Please support Hadassah’s humanitarian mission. You will save lives at risk. Learn more about Hadassah’s life-saving work with Ukrainian refugees here.