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The Pelta Story – Russia War Crimes (chapter 10)

Russian War crimes – Deportations of Polish citizens from the Eastern Borderlands of Poland

On 17 September 1939, the Soviets invaded Poland with an army of 600,000 soldiers that included 24 infantry divisions, 15 cavalry divisions, and nine tank brigades. They immediately set about carrying out their policy of ethnic cleansing.

They came with previously prepared lists and ordered that all Kresy (Eastern Polish border) residents, Polish military, police, civil servants, civilian farmer settlers, and well-to-do land-owning peasants (Kulaks) have their property appropriated and their bank accounts frozen. Homes, businesses, and farms were ransacked. Personal property was destroyed, and its owners were imprisoned. This included many thousands of Jews.

The deportees were forced to endure long train journeys, sometimes up to several weeks, under brutal conditions in appallingly overcrowded and unhygienic boxcars. They were kept locked in, with only a tiny, grated window at the top so it was dark and stuffy. There was a stove for heating food, and for occasionally boiling snow to wash themselves, and a hole in the floor as a toilet.

They were very rarely let out into the fresh air. Once in a while they were given watery soup, maybe some bread or cereal. Many died especially small children and the elderly. The dead bodies were merely thrown off the train and left in the snow.

The overwhelming majority of those civilian deportees who were arrested were never tried or convicted of any crimes.  Many of them were to disappear forever, probably murdered. The families of those arrested and other civilians were deported to Posiolki (family work camps), collectives, construction projects, and lumber camps in isolated areas of Siberia, Kazakhstan and East Asia.

The Prisoners of War, convicted criminals, including many political prisoner’s aka Jews (were arrested on fake trumped up charges) and were sent to Gulags in places like Vorkuta, Pechora, Uktha and Magadan. These were already established as part of the Russian prison system for convicted criminals. Stalin’s terror was on a far greater scale than Hitler’s; it was also incomparably more lethal. Stalin killed more people and Jews than Hitler!

To Siberia, Yekaterinburg – June 1940

Szyfra waited and her ID did not arrive.  At this point, they decided to exchange all their Russian rubles to Polish zlotys, in preparation for their return to Tomazow. They could not get on the train to Tomazow without her ID card.  Subsequently, all this converted money was lost, because they had to leave Brest-Litovsk and go back to Baranovichi; they never made it to Poland.

Grandma and Grandpa refused to sign up for Russian citizenship. They had no money since they exchanged all their rubles for Polish money. But Szyana had 200 rubles of her brother’s money. Her husband, Josec Jurkievitch, acted as adviser for the Jews of Baranovichi.

On June 30, 1940 Friday at midnight, the NKVD (KGB) banged on the door of their rental house in Baranovichi, and woke them up. The Russian military and police stormed in with their guns drawn. They claimed that they were looking for illegal guns hidden in their mattresses. The NKVD forced everyone out of bed. Of course, no guns or ammo were found; it was a ruse, my grandparents never owned any weapons.

They were given orders to get dressed immediately and take all that they can with them and march outside to the train. Children were being sent in another direction. The NKVD went house to house the entire night and took 1 million Polish Jews to Siberia for forced slave labor. Tosia and her son Beniek, were also arrested that night.

Szyana, grandma’s sister, now arrived with her husband and child, while they were being taken by wagon the Siberia bound train. They came over to grandma’s wagon in order to say good  bye. First the Russians took the single members and then the families. Szyana and her husband Josek were scared, since they were not legally registered to be in Baranovichi. Szyfra begged them to come with her and Lejbus on the train. Josek refused to go and stood there crying next to a tree. Local residents advised them not to volunteer to the NKVD (KGB) and go on the train if they were not forced to do so.  So Szayna and her husband Josec/Yosef remained in Baranovichi. In the end, this also saved my grandparents lives, since Szyana remained in Baranovichi, she was able to send my grandparents food and care packages, when they were in Siberia.

However, my grandma lamented, that all those family members who chose not to listen to her advice ended up being killed in the end. They all went through a living hell. However, again in this manner, G-d saved my grandparents from being killed by the Nazis. Nonetheless, the Russians murdered their share of Jews, including her brother Josec.

My grandparents had lots of Polish cash Zlotys. Prior to going to Russia from Poland she had to burn all of their Polish money.  Leon made a fire for cooking while travelling in middle-Asia, they cooked outside not inside. He surreptitiously had to burn and destroy the Polish Zlotys. They were questioned many times and searched while they were traveling, being accused, or suspected of smuggling. When some Russians saw her with the Polish money, the Polish Zlotys, she was derogatorily called a “Polski-pani“, which means a “Polish Lady” or a “Polish Princess”; she was teased that she would never see Poland again. They were scared of the Russians, so they subsequently burned up “millions” of Polish zlotys which they previously exchanged from rubles. This Polish currency was worth nothing in Siberia.

The family and friends who got on the train with my grandparents was: Tosia and her son Beniek age 14. Tosia‘s sister in-law named Helen. Icek Pelta and his wife Sara and twenty other people that grandma knew from Tomazow.

Friday night they were arrested and placed on a train. However, at 6am on Shabbis, Szayna, and Josek her husband returned to Brest-Litovsk.  Grandma Szyfra found out later on, that her brothers Josec and Icek were arrested by the Russians in Brest-Litovsk.  These were the same brothers who were previously arrested by the Germans and then freed with bribes. However, this time they were arrested by the Soviets. No money could bribe the Russians to free the brothers.

The Soviets eventually sent them to a forced labor camp in Komi. Josec was murdered by the Russians in the Komi camp; he probably was starved and allowed to freeze to death outdoors; as punishment for not meeting a work quota. Icek somehow survived the camps and was eventually drafted into Ander’s Polish Army.

It was a one-week long trip on the train. They eventually they arrived at the Sverdlovsk Oblast (Yekaterinburg) labor camp in Siberia Russia. The ride was not pleasant. Szyfra discovered that she was pregnant with her first child, she admitted that initially she had suicidal thoughts about jumping off the train, in order to abort her pregnancy.

This was the beginning of the next chapter of their lives. They were to be slaves in Siberia for fourteen months.  Grandpa Leon shared with us the fact that they had no wine to made Kiddush on Friday nights. Therefore, for years he made Kiddush on challah bread.

One year and two Months in Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Sverdlovskaya oblast  – Gulag 

Soviet forced labor camps (known in Russian as the “corrective labor camps”) of the Gulag. Most of them served mining, construction, and timber works. It is estimated that for most of its existence, the Gulag system consisted of over 30,000 camps, divided into three categories according to the number of prisoners held. The largest camps consisted of more than 25,000 prisoners each. Medium size camps held from 5,000 to 25,000 inmates. The smallest, but most numerous labor camps operated with less than 5,000 people each.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (Russian: Sverdlovskaya oblast) is a federal subject (an oblast) of Russia located in the Ural Federal District. Its administrative center is the city of Yekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk Yekaterinburg , aka  Ekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk from 1924–1991, is the largest city and the administrative centre of Sverdlovsk Oblast and the Ural Federal District, Russia. The city is located on the Iset River between the Volga-Ural region and Siberia. Sverdlovsk, it was the home city of President Boris Yeltsin.

Polish citizens (like my grandparents) and members of other nationalities who were imprisoned at the Soviet forced labor camps during World War II worked also for the Soviet Army, digging trenches, employed in lumber and cement works, airport runway construction, and unloading of transport goods. It was over Sverdlovsk that the American U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960, while on a reconnaissance mission.

Grandma Szyfra insisted that G-d saved their lives on many occasions, in order for her to specifically to do the mitzvah of charity חסד and help lots of people. She was very proud of her generous donations to Boys Town Jerusalem, Girls Town, and Amit Women of Israel. She was especially proud of her huge donations to Hadassah Hospital and Shaarei Tzedek hospitals in Yerushalayim.  She clearly stated that because of her large donations she was a designated “founder” at both hospitals. Unfortunately, there is no recognition plaque to her memory or for her many donations, at either Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem or in Shaarei Tzedek hospital.  However, in my grandparent’s merit I was able to make Aliyah to Israel in 2013 with my wife and seven children. In this manner we are fulfilling our Jewish destiny and mitzvah to settle and build up the Land of Eretz Yisrael.

In Siberia, Grandma Szyfra eventually gave birth to her first child Gittel. Grandpa Leon told his wife Szyfra not to go to work. She hid herself and her baby under blankets, from the Gulag authorities, in order to avoid being sent to forced labor. She was scared of being bitten by all the mosquitoes. Workers had to wear nets on their faces and masks, but it did not spare them, including Grandpa Leon, from the painful mosquito bites.

As time passed, Shayna was able to send them occasional food packages from Baranovichi. They were in Siberia Sverdlovsk. They were living in a forest like jungle. Men and women were assigned to chop down trees, but not Grandma!  They worked in a Kolchoz, also known as a communal farm.

In Siberia they lived in a home with thirty-seven other people from her hometown. They lived in one big room there was no privacy. Lice infested everything. When her baby was born, they split the area among four families. One couple had two young children one was only one-years old. Their father refused to feed them. Whatever he earned he ate himself. Szyfra took from her own food and fed those children soup and then she fed Leon her husband. Their mother inquired how long she intended to feed the other children. She told her as long as she can.

Grandpa Lejbus/Leon was a highly skilled furrier tailor. He was assigned to chop down huge trees in the forest. The day Grandma gave birth, Lejbus was not present; he was chopping trees in the forest. When baby Gittel was two days old, he came home after an incident where he was almost killed. A tree fell on him and fractured his leg. A lot of people died in the forest from falling trees cut for timber. He was taken to the local hospital.

She tried to breast feed; however, she was not able to produce any milk due to severe malnutrition. After Leon got injured, they received gas for their lamp. There was no electricity.

Leon returned from the hospital on crutches. He was given a relatively easier job working in the brick factory. He stood with his feet in water all day. He developed kidney issues because of this. The bone in the leg was never set straight properly. He suffered from this injury his entire life. In 1951, living in San Francisco, the local orthopedic surgeon offered to repair his leg by surgically re-breaking the bone and then perform a reconstruction. Grandpa Leon refused, because he was unwilling to go through a one-year rehabilitation process on crutches. My son Moshe Leib is also named for my grandfather Leon/Yehuda/Lejbus. Ironically, in 2021, Moshe was hit by a car here in Israel and his femur leg bone was fractured. His injury was fully repaired after two operations; thank G-d ב”ה.

Yekaterinburg was a slave labor camp, not a German concentration camp; however, may people died in this place from disease and starvation. They were told that they must work on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Grandpa Leon said that he would rather be killed than work on Yom Kippur. He did not work on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, so they deducted his meager his wages.  As a consequence, they could not even afford the black bread they received; it was disgusting. It was made of a consistency like lime clay that could be pasted on a wall. Interestingly, Szyana and her mother Esther sent packages to Siberia; they even sent clothing for her baby Gittel.  If they had not received food packages from her sister Szyana, then they would never have survived, but rather wound have died from starvation.

 Two-Hundred Dollar Potatoes – ($3,000 value in 2021!)

During the war they received $200 in the mail from Uncle Abe (Murphy) Hirshberg from San Francisco. Grandma sent him telegrams from Russia. They were able to find someone to send telegrams in English. They warned Uncle Abe not to send money. The fee to translate messages to English cost more than $500 (?) in Russian rubles. They wanted Uncle Abraham to know where they were located, so they did not spare any expense.

She sent inquiries by telegram to Iran and the Polish Red cross in attempts to track down her brother Icek. Eventually, she located him in England. He was a British prisoner in the slave- labor coal mines.

The authorities forced them to accept the $200 dollars that arrived in the mail from Uncle Abe Hirschberg. In exchange, they were forced to buy two 2 kilograms of butter and 20 kilograms of potatoes for $200! Leon Pelta refused to accept dollars stating that they don’t need 20 kilograms of potatoes. He was making money doing his tailoring. But they were forced to pick up the $200; otherwise, they would be jailed for not accepting American dollars. The Russians wanted the dollars for themselves, so Grandma Szyfra accepted they money and gave it to the Soviet authorities. They had no choice.

In Siberia, they lived together with 37 people and then with 4 families. In the beginning, she refused to learn how to sign her name in the Russian language. After a year in Siberia, she was compelled to learn Russian and started signing he name in Russian. She picked up the Russian language like a native speaker. She spoke Russian fluently her entire life, however, she forgot how to write it.

She naively sent many letters to Stalin and to the Jew “Iron Lazar” Moiseyevich Kaganovich. Kaganovich was a Soviet politician and administrator and one of the main associates of Joseph Stalin. She asked them for assistance to send her brothers to Siberia in order to unite her family.

One day she was called into an office with the good news that they located her older brother Josec. When she heard his name, she fainted in shock. But she later on got the tragic news that he would not be able to come to Siberia, because he was dead. He was killed in the Komi Vorkutlags forced labor camp, by the Russians.

Joseph Stalin with Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich (aka Kahanovich)

 The Vorkuta Gulag was established by Soviet authorities in 1932, on a site in the basin of the Pechora River, located within the Komi ASSR of the Russian SFSR (present-day Komi Republic, Russia).  It’s approximately 1,900 kilometers (1,200 mi) from Moscow and 160 kilometers (99 mi) above the Arctic Circle. The city of Vorkuta was established to support the camp, which was constructed to exploit the resources of the Pechora Coal Basin, the second largest coal basin in the Soviet Union.

There were approximately 132 sub-camps in the Vorkuta Gulag system during the height of its use in the Soviet prison system. From 1939, Polish prisoners were held at Vorkuta following the Occupation of Poland until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Vorkuta was then also used to hold German prisoners of war captured on the Eastern Front in World War II as well as criminals. During the Soviet era , Soviet citizens and those from Soviet-allied countries deemed to be dissidents and enemies of the state, were also imprisoned in Vorkuta. Grandma’s brother Josec was one of many killed in this camp by the Russians.

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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