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The Pelta Story – Escape to Barnovich (chapter 9)

Grandma ran away from Tomazow Poland to Russia with Szana Freida (and another sister). Brother in-law, Yakov Biderman refused to escape. He insisted that he would always have enough time to escape and run away in the future. Grandma left her mother Esther Sarah in the care of their Jewish maid, Yakov Biderman and Nesanyil Gerbicz. Grandma placed her engagement ring on a necklace and gave it to her mother, promising to return in three days to Tomaszow.

Her brother’s Josec and Izek successfully escaped to Baranovichi by this time. Grandma’s plan was to go to Baranovichi and find a proper shelter (apartment) for her mother and then bring her over from Tomazow to Baranovichi. She hired men to carry heavy sacks of materials to bring to Baranovichi. She brought clothing irons, meat grinders, nut grinders, and bedding.

Grandma recognized that G-d performed miracles for her and saved her life many times. They traveled by train from Tomazow to Warsaw. From Warsaw they went to the border town Malkinia Gorna on the Bug River. On the bank of the Bug River, they took a small boat. It was ice cold. As they approached the Eastern bank of the river, shooting broke out. The boat overturned and the all of the occupants of the boat fell into the ice cold water, however, the water was not deep. First the Germans shot at them and missed. Soon after this harrowing event, they landed safely in Russian territory.

Upon arrival, they were part of al crowd of around 1,000 people. The Russians put all of them in jail. After a brief interrogation, mothers with children were freed first. Szyfra remained in jail with brother in-law Cemach Bornstein. He had a six year old boy; his wife Tosia was freed with their child Benyek.

It was December 30, 1939. They were eventually let go with a group of 1,000 people; the lined up in rows of four people. She exited the jail in the crowd with Cemach and two other men. These men were hired by grandma to carry backpacks of valuables such as jewelry and clothing. Her two brothers Icek and Josec were already in Baranovichi. All of a sudden, pandemonium broke out. The Russians started shooting in the air and everyone began to run in all directions. All the people soon disappeared and Szyfra was left alone in the field of deep snow, near the railroad.  Szyfra was carrying two knapsacks with items for her brothers. She was in shock and could not move her legs; she was standing alone in a snowy field.

Out of nowhere, two Polish men came towards her. She thought this was the end and that she was going to die. They approached her and asked her, “Why are you standing here alone?” She replied that she could not move and does not know where her brother in-law went. It seems that Cemach and the two men were pushed back to the German side. Later on they found out that Cemach was killed by the Nazis, in 1942.

These men formed a chair shape with their arms and they carried her over to a local cottage. Inside she was fed hot soup. Afterwards, she was walked to the train station where she took a train with these men to Baranovichi. Szyfra remembers passing through Bialystok, along the way.

Upon arrival in Baranovichi, these men took her to her sister’s home. Josec, Szyana’s husband lived in Baranovichi prior to their wedding. He had a brother there named Shaya. Shaya was married with three children. He was a tree “specialist” who ran a lumber business. Josek or “Jasko” was a gold dealer in Baranovici at this time. He was called “The King of Gold”.

She never paid for a train ticket. These men paid for everything. They were like two angels sent by G-d directly to her; no one believed her story. She reunited with some of her family in Baranovichi and started settling in. Her plan was to stay for three days, find a suitable apartment in Baranovichi and then go back and bring her mother from Tomazow. For weeks she tried to return home to Tomaszow, but she could not, since the borders were closed. In this way, G-d saved her life. If she had gone back to Tomaszow, she would have been killed by the Nazis along with her mother.

Szyfra and Lejbus Pelta in Baranovich – January 1940

Grandma lived with her 2 brothers (Izec, Josec) and 2 sisters (Szayna, Toshia) in very cramped quarters. They rented a small room from the locals. Her sister Frania encouraged her (“talker her into”) getting married. Lejbus Pelta was also insisting that this is the time to get married. It’s wartime and no one knows the future. She resisted the idea to get married without her mother present to give her blessing. She soon gave into the idea of marriage without her mother present. They struggled to survive. Her brother was getting sick and in failing health.

Szyfra and Lejbus Pelta decided on a wedding date for a Friday, Erev Shabbis. Prior to the wedding she remembers was standing in front of an oven, used as a heater for the house, with a pile of wood in front of it. From the window she saw a large crowd of children being pushed in a crowd to be loaded onto trains. They were Catholic not Jewish children. Most of the Polish people were Catholics. These children were being punished from running away from the mandatory military service of the Russian Stalin Government. When she witnessed this, she fainted out of shock and fell down on the wood pile and got a huge bruise on her nose. The wedding had to be postponed for two weeks. This was the beginning of many fainting episodes in her life.

Eventually, in February 24, 1940, Lejbus Pelta married Szyfra (“Shefka”) Jurkewicz of Tomaszow Mazowiecki. They had a very poor simple wedding in Baranovichi. The wedding was in the apartment of her cousin Mayer Amshel and sister Tosia.

After their wedding they left Baranovici for Breast-Litovsk and registered to return to Germany controlled Poland. The night after their wedding, Szyfra took her brother Josec to the train station for him to travel to Lemberg. He was to barter wares for money.  Between Baranovichi, Lemberg (in German)/Lviv (Ukraine); they would smuggle pork, salt etc. It was a risky business; if caught one was sent to jail with the risk of death. Waiting for the train, Josec became very nervous and this precipitated extreme abdominal pain. She felt sorry for him and told him to go home and she went to Lviv in his place. Grandpa Leon was very upset for her doing this dangerous activity only one day after getting married! When she arrived in Lviv she got arrested by the authorities. They took her wares and let her free – another miracle. Grandma said that Grandpa never forgave her for this folly.

They did have some brief interludes of leisure time in Levov (Lemberg). They attended some stage shows at the Jewish Theater. They saw Ida Kaminska and Lola Folman in performances.

Ida Kamińska (September 18, 1899 – May 21, 1980) was a Polish actress and director. She was the daughter of Ester Rachel Kamińska who was known as the Mother of the Jewish Stage. In October 1939, in the early part of the Second World War, Kamińska and family members, including her husband, Melman, and daughter, Ruth, fled to Lwów (Lviv, Ukraine), which was under Soviet occupation. There she was able to direct a Yiddish theater funded by the Soviet authorities. Kamińska and her family subsequently migrated to various localities in the Soviet Union, ending up in the Kirghiz SSR, present-day Kyrgyzstan.

After the war, Kamińska and her family returned to Warsaw. Kamińska and Melman made the decision to try to reestablish the Jewish theater. A Yiddish theater reopened in Warsaw in November 1946. Ida Kamińska continued to direct the theater until 1968. In protest against the Polish government antisemitic campaign of March 1968, she left Poland forever in July 1968. She first traveled to Israel and then eventually settled in New York. Ida Kamińska died of cardiovascular disease in 1980, aged 80. She was interred in the Yiddish theater section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, New York.

Lola Folman (1908–1979) was a Polish Jewish singer and composer, popular in Poland in the 1930s. Folman married lyricist Yitskhok Perlov (who wrote the words to her famous Dos Baytshl Kreln). Her troupe also played in Odessa, from which it was evacuated to Kharkov and from there to Asia. It played for a short time in Ashkhabad and then ceased to exist. Folman gave performances in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1948. She immigrated to New York and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Queens, NY in 1979.

Lejbus Pelta aka Grandpa Leon, had a sister Manya, who was planning to escape with them. However, she decided in the end to remain at the Pelta home in order to protect their property in Konskie. At Grandpa Leon’s home were two sisters and one brother, none were married. Both of the parents died several years prior in 1937.

Her sister Toshia’s first husband was Cemach Bermyski; Grandma called him a “lazy bum”. Prior to the war he opened up a competing hardware store, across the street from the Jurkiewicz family store. He went back to Tomazow where he was eventually killed by Nazis by being shot in the street. Cemach knew where the family warehouses were located with valuable materials. He demanded money from Esther Sarah Jurkiewicz that she should pay him hush money, not to reveal the locations of their valuables to the local German authorities.

Brest-Litovsk (aka Brest), February 1940

Grandma wanted to get back to Tomazow in order to bring her mother over to Baranovichi. She needed to find a way to cross the border back into German controlled Poland from “White” Russia, occupied Poland. There was a city named Brest-Litovsk which was in White Russia where Poles, Germans, and Russians all lived in the same divided city. Those in the Russian section were Russian citizens; those in Polish section were Polish citizens and those in the Germans section were German citizens.

In the meantime, there was an exchange business in Brest-Litovsk. Whoever had $100 could go to the German side. But you also needed an official ID card. There were some wealthy people who were in the manufacturing business from Tomazow, who were located there. She recognized an Emanuel Bernstein from Tomaszow with his daughter; he was now a policeman under the Germans. Prior to the war, his family would march in the annual Polish May 3rd Independence parade. She made contact with his wife and his father in-law. She sent a message to her mother with him, asking for her to send her Polish ID card that she forgot at home. In this manner, Szyfra would able to cross the border back into Nazi Poland.

Signs were posted for all to register and to become Russian citizens. They were afraid to register. They did not want Russian citizenship. Since they did not registered as Russian citizens they were subsequently blacklisted and arrested; thus making legal travel very difficult.

He Polish ID card did indeed arrive, however, too late. When the ID arrived months later, Grandma was already shipped off to Siberia by the Russians. This is yet another miracle of how G-d saved her life.

Pelta Refugees

Szyfra and Lejbus were now considered refugees. There were public announcements being made in the streets by the Russians authorities, offering refugees to return home to the German side. Her mother was still in Poland (on the German side). Szyfra really wanted to return to Tomazow. Her mother was left at home alone with the maid. Her sister-in law, Golda Savitsky, said that she would not let Szyfra return to Poland. Grandma explained that she has left her engagement ring with her mother Esther, promising that she would return home in three days. She wanted to keep her promise. The borders were eventually closed and she was never able to return or see her mother again.

About the Author
Arie E. Pelta, M.D., a Board Certified General and Colorectal Surgeon from the USA , made aliyah with his wife and 7 children in 2013. Received Rabbinical ordination in 1997. He is also a active Medical Corps Officer holding the rank of Captain in the IDF Reserves. Currently practicing in Laniado Hospital in Netanya; speciaizing in the surgical care of all problems of the colon, rectum and anus.
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