In August 1941, all Polish citizens in Soviet labor camps were released. This was based on the “Sikorski–Mayski Agreement”. This was a treaty between the Soviet Union and Poland that was signed in London on the 30th of July 1941. The signatories of the agreement were the prime minister of Poland, Władysław Sikorski, and the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ivan Mayski. Stalin agreed to declare all previous pacts that he had with Nazi Germany null and void , he also agreed to invalidate the September 1939 partition of Poland and to release tens of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war held in Soviet camps. Pursuant to an agreement between the Polish government-in-exile and Stalin, the Soviets granted “amnesty” to many Polish citizens on the 12th of August 1941, from whom a 40,000-strong army (Anders Army, later known as the Polish II Corps) was formed under General Władysław Anders.
Kolkhoz Collective Farm – Russia
My grandparents were sent to Kolcholtz, a commune where they worked in fields of cotton and they had to eventually picked cotton and carry it in large cotton bundles. There was lots of disease in the fields. At times grandma had to carry bags of mud or fertilizer on her shoulders. She could not handle this type of heavy labor. She smuggled and went into to the local towns between the kolkhoz and Rejon. During one of her smuggling trips my grandmother acquired a 100 year old small silver Kiddush cup; they held onto this cup even after the war. This was her payment, for protecting another female smuggler when she was sleeping on the roads.
After fourteen grueling months, Grandma and Grandpa were allowed to run away from their Siberia prison which was called Pazhaleh Chosh, located near Ekaterninburg in the Sverdlovks Oblast area. This occurred after the Nazis occupied Baranovichi, which was Russian territory. Now the Russians needed men to fight and push the Germans out of Russian territory. The Russians decided to form a Polish army on Russian soil and people were signing up to join. The Russians freed these prisoners so that they could now enlist in the new Polish army.
Grandpa Leon was on crutches, they had a baby; thus he was not even considered for conscription the Anders Army. Everyone ran away. Grandpa Leon was able to rent a wagon and a horse. The roads were extremely bumpy and Szyfra could not tolerate sitting in the wagon due to the discomfort. Leon decided to sit with the baby in the wagon while Szyfra walked on foot.
Along the way saw villages full of cottages. Grandpa Leon did tailoring work for some families in the villages and Dorfin (farms); in this manner he made some income. He worked both for money and food. The Russian local people were good people who were sentenced there as a punishment by the government; they were not allowed to leave. Occasionally, they were chased through fields. It was a very dangerous business.
She started to now smuggle salt, bacon, matches, flour, and raisins, from one city to the next. This type of business was considered illegal. Those who were caught smuggling were arrested and jailed. Leon expanded his tailoring business and started to also make military uniforms
At one time Grandma got sick from measles; the weather was very hot. There was no clean drinking water to be found, all the water that drank was a yellow color. The lived in unsanitary conditions and slept on the floor, they had no furniture.
Once my grandparents were on a train, with no documentation or identification cards; they were caught and were removed from the train by the police. This was another overt example of G-d helping them. All of their money was confiscated; however, their lives were spared.
Szyfra met a man from Warsaw named Mr. Grossman, on the train. His wife and two children were waiting for him in Warsaw. The authorities were searching for him; he was running away from them. At the same time, he also was trying to make a living. My grandparents offered him to stay with them and hide. He accepted and stayed with them for two weeks. Eventually, he returned to Warsaw and was subsequently arrested and sent to a Russian jail, located in Angiezam Gelibad. One month after his capture, he died in that jail.
Granma started to look for her sister Tosia. She found her with her son Benyek. They decided to all live together. Soon after this they heard rumors of an imminent pogrom. The injured Soviet soldiers were returning home from the front lines. The Russians and Ukrainian soldiers were angry and said,
“We have to slaughter the Jews!”
Stalin was trying to prevent this mass slaughter because he had a lot of Jews in his army and government. The Pelta’s were spared from this pogrom.
In Russia if a child got mad at his parents he would go to the NKVD (KGB) and report that his parents were doing illegal activities. This was enough of a reason for the NKVD to arrest the parents and put them in jail. A parent could also report on their own child to the NKVD and they would arrest the child and place him in jail as well. There was no freedom in Russia, it was one big jail. Someone informed on them to the authorities about their smuggling activities; so they had to escape to Uzbekistan in order not to be jailed. Leon was in the middle of making a custom tailored suit for a customer. He left in the middle of the job. The locals were sad to see them go.
They heard that that if they travel to middle-Asia Samarkand, then they could gain visas and entry to the USA; later on, they found out that this information was not true. The plan was to go the USA where Szyfra had an Uncle in San Francisco. Her uncle Abe “Murphy” Hirshberg was her mother’s only brother who went to the USA in 1901 at the age of eighteen.
If they remained in Sverdlovsk, Siberia, there was a chance they may not have been able to leave Russia later on. In the Lager, her sister in law Sarah Pelta took care of grandma’s daughter Gitel in the nursery. If they had stayed in Siberia, maybe her baby would have survived. She could not nurse her baby, since she had no milk. Many children died. Baby Gitel got infected from the other babies during their traveling. The fleas and rapid dramatic changes in temperature were harsh on their health. An epidemic broke out on the way from Siberia to Samarkand. Lots of babies died. 1/5,000 survived. Szyfra’s baby was eleven months old when arrived at city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
Grandpa Leon was extremely exhausted from their traveling and fell asleep in the train station after they arrived from Stylesk(?). They were on their way south to Wortishkin(?). Szyfra took the baby by herself to the hospital while grandpa Leon stayed with their suitcases in the train station. It was cold, however grandpa had made them custom fur coats with a fur collars. Baby Gitel was very sick with pneumonia and measles. Upon entering the hospital they disinfected her coat and burnt the fur, for fear of infection and spread of disease. Gittel was hospitalized at the Andijan Uzbekistan Hospital.
When Grandpa Leon woke up in the train station he was in a panic, all of their belongings were stolen! Leon was in a deep sleep from extreme fatigue. He was also in grief over the baby being ill and going with his wife to the hospital. Now that they had no possessions, he went to the hospital and told Szyfra that everything was stolen! He had suits to sell, but they were all stolen! Prior to this event, he did not find any customers to buy these suits yet. Until now all potential customers said that his suits were too expensive – now all of their merchandise was gone. They also had money sewn into some of the clothing for safe keeping that too was stolen. On day two of her hospitalization, Gitel died. She was buried in Andijan on November 1941. They now had nothing – no baby, no money, or clothing. It felt as if their entire world came to an end.
Arrested in Jalal-Abad (Kyrgyzstan) On the Way to Samarkand
They were in Jalal-Abad Kyrgyzstan (the Kyrgyz Republic) also known as Kirghizia. My grandparents were on the train, Grandma was the only woman present on the train. Grandpa Leon was caught with a prayer book in his possession and was promptly arrested; they got separated. Grandpa was conscripted into the Russian army with 500 other men as a forced slave laborer, not as a soldier.
Grandma Szyfra went with her sister in-law to the Russian camp were grandpa were located. She was successful in bribing the appropriate officials and was able to secure his release. Afterwards, she purchased a document changing Grandpa (Leon) Lejbus’s name “Pelta” to the fake name “Lejbus Misner”. For a short while, they lived in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) with a man named Dim.
Samarkand (Uzbekistan) 1941-1945
From Tashkent they moved to Samarkand. In Samarkand, some of the customers of Grandpa Leon’s were Stalin’s officers from Moscow. He tailored their suits and uniforms.
In Samarkand she started working for a Ukrainian (the Ukrainians murdered Jews along with the Nazis). She revealed to the woman of the house that she was a proud Jew. This destroyed Leon’s career as the local tailor. He faulted Szyfra for the mistake of revealing herself as a Jew. She did not realize the repercussions of her actions at that time.
During World War II, the physical conditions in Samarkand were exceedingly harsh. Literally thousands of refugees swarmed the streets, starving and bereft of the most basic necessities. The lack of food was so severe that people simply languished of malnourishment and dropped dead in the streets. It was quite common to awake in the morning and discover dead, skeletal bodies of Jews lying discarded on the road or in the local hospital (respublikanskaya bolnitsa). A man by the name of Rav Aharon Yosef Bilinitzky was known to identify the Jewish dead, pile them onto a wheelbarrow he had prepared for this purpose, and ensure that they received proper Jewish burials.
During this time, due to severe vitamin deficiency Grandpa Leon went temporarily blind. Szyfra was able to slowly nurse him back to health by giving him limes to eat (source of vitamin C).
January 1, 1945 – Yakov Berish Pelta Born
In Samarkand, their son (my father) Yakov Berish was born on January 1, 1945. My father was named in memory of Yakov Pelta and Berish Jurkiewicz . He had a Bris Milah performed in secret. The nurses said to her:
“Your son brought luck in the war and the front, they are taking back city by city; Lodz is already in our hands”.
Grandpa Leon purchased a hand operated sewing machine and started working as a tailor for prominent Russian Jews. With these connections they got pediatric care and penicillin medication as needed. A local Doctor taught her how to make carrot juice, as a nutrition supplement.
In Samarkand they slept on mattresses placed on the floor. The houses were built out of lime mud. The houses would actually dissolve and fall apart in the winter rains. In June 1945, they decided it was time to return to Poland from Samarkand. The war officially ended three months later on September 2, 1945.