2. Into The USSR
Having survived the tension and horror of crossing the border from the Nazi to the Russian Sectors, Abraham, Esther and Jonah spent the rest of the night and most of the following morning standing in a courtyard, waiting with perhaps 100 other people who had braved the crossing that night. A Soviet Officer went down the line, asking people where they were from and where they were going. He wanted to know why they should not be sent back.
The refugees discussed among themselves why they were fleeing and what to say to the Russian. Jonah’s parents were given lots of advice.
Tell them that you come from the East.
Tell them that you have family in the East.
Whatever you say, don’t tell them you are from Warsaw.
Esther, Jonah’s Mother, would have none of this.
What do I know of Eastern Poland? I’ve always lived in Warsaw. Better to tell the truth. She had always prided herself for being from Warsaw, she was no provincial. Furthermore they had a trump card: a certificate that their house had been destroyed.
The Russian listened impassively to their explanations. They were separated. Jonah and her Mother were put in a cellar, or perhaps it was a stable; the ground was covered with straw. They shared the room with other women, all anxiously hoping to be allowed to stay in Soviet-occupied Poland. Jonah and Esther spent the rest of the day and the following night in that room, with those women. Occasionally a woman would be called out, and there would be a little more space. The Russians fed them herring. Jonah was hungry and she ate up the herring, but it was very salty, not like the herring she was used to enjoy at home. It made her thirsty. They were not given anything to drink. (A favorite tactic used by the Soviets)
Eventually, early next morning, they were summoned by the Russians.
Oh, they are going to send you back, the chorus of fellow detainees wailed. They were taken to an office, and asked to sit down.
Well, you are free to go.
Where’s my husband?
Laughing, the Soviets told her to be patient. Soon Abraham joined them, and their possessions were returned, intact. The Soviets took them to the train station and gave them money for the train journey to Brest.
At Brest, The Jewish community had set up a refugee center, not far from the station. Here Jonah’s mother established a routine which she religiously followed all through their travels. Bedding was spread on an empty table, making a bed for Jonah. Jonah undressed, put on her pajamas and was tucked into bed, just as if she was in her own home. Her parents cat-napped in chairs.
The next morning Abraham and Esther made arrangement to continue their trip to some distant relatives who they hoped would provide shelter. Meanwhile, they told Jonah to stay put. Jonah did not stay put but wondered around, exploring the large building, so full of activity until she got lost. She became so upset with her parents for getting lost and searched franticly for them, throughout the building, up the stairs and into different offices, down the stairs back to the main hall where she found them again.
They went to the train station waiting for a train to Luck. They spent long hours sitting on the platform, surrounded by their meager possessions. Jonah wondered around, enjoying the freedom to explore after two days of confinement. There were many Soviet soldiers at the station, also waiting for their trains. They enjoyed the curiosity of a small girl, eager to make friends and ask questions. They gave her things—candy, bread, sausage—which made her smile and laugh. Another refugee woman saw all this and sent her son to try to get some goodies. But he came back empty handed.
One time Jonah was invited into the carriage filled with soldiers, where they made a big fuss over her. And gave her lots of nice and tasty and pretty gifts. One soldier had a handsome, large watch. She pointed to that lovely trinket.
I want that watch.
The soldiers burst out laughing. But they did not give her the watch!
By late afternoon, their train arrived, a proper passenger train, with comfortable seats for everyone. Jonah enjoyed looking out the window as they travelled up the valley, past farms and small neat villages until it was too dark to see anything. Jonah slept in her Mother’s lap, until she was waken when they arrived at Luck.
At Luck they were made very welcome by an old childless couple who lived in a large house. They gave up their second story, happily. Here both Abraham and Esther found work and security, and Jonah was sent to a Yiddish school. When she was not at school she played in their large overgrown garden, which had lots of hidden nooks and large trees Their hosts, especially the old woman, loved having their young relatives live with them, and more than anything else loved having the small child who brought life and hope to their old age. Jonah felt like a princess, in her own magic garden, with a fairy Godmother as provider and protector.
Yet, Esther could not feel secure. She wanted to get as far away from the Germans as she possibly could. We must move on, she told her husband. Her husband was unconvinced. Abraham was content, he had done enough traveling for a while. Esther remained discontented, and slowly wore away her husband’s resistance. Soviet officials were recruiting people to come into Russia. They promised housing and work in their own profession. Less than a month after they arrived and had found a haven, they signed up with the Soviets, prepared to travel once again, not quite knowing where they would be going.
Esther wanted to leave even though—or perhaps because—she was pregnant.
The relatives were most upset, and pleaded with them to remain. They said that all that they possessed would be for them, and they would set them up however they wanted. Our home is your home. But no argument, no amount of love or generosity, nor tears could smother Esther's sense that Poland, even Soviet-occupied Poland, was dangerous for Jews.
The arguments, the entreaties, the tears continued right up until their final day in Poland, as they boarded the train that would take them far from their home, far from the warm embrace of family and familiar sounds. Jonah's last image of Poland, and of a childhood where time had no meaning, was of that small white haired old lady standing on the platform, tears streaming down her face.
This couple, like all the relatives in Warsaw, the whole family of at least 200 did not survive the Final Solution.
For the three travelers, their life, for the next four, perhaps six weeks, in the winter of 1939-1940 was spent inside a cattle car of a slow moving train. There were 4, perhaps 8 families in the cattle car, each family taking a corner, one family on the floor, another family on a platform above. With a stove in the center. Each family was responsible for its own food and preparation, as they shared the discomfort and tedium of a long slow train journey, shunted on sidings, waiting, slowly moving towards their destination, not quite knowing what awaits them at its conclusion.
Every night Jonah undressed, put on her nightgown, her Mother prepared a bed, comforter of goose down. Probably the whole family slept under that one down comforter.
At each stop, each station, they would get out and search for food. Usually Jonah jumped off the train as soon as it came to a stop, to be free of the confines of the cattle car, to explore, to search for food. One time Esther saw a picture of apples in a store, her mouth watering, she went in asking for apples. They had no apples, the clerk shrugged, all they had was a picture of apples. Esther got very angry with the store, complaining in her Polish to the uncomprehending Russian.
On a cold January afternoon in 1940 they arrived at the small town - an overgrown village - of Nerechta. At the station, they were greeted, this small group of refugees, by an official delegation, officials, party leaders and perhaps some townspeople. A band played. A small woman, welcomed these refugees with a kiss on each cheek. She had a sweet round face, blond hair, a smile, and wore a fur hat. She warmly embraced the children. And gave them gifts. Jonah received a large teddy bear, a jewelry box made from shells and a tiny dining set, carved from wood, and beautifully painted, — a small table, chairs, cups, plates, pots and a samovar.
The refugees were taken to their new homes, a recently built wooden barracks on the edge of town, next to some woods.
I loved exploring those woods. My first introduction to nature. Especially in the spring, they were so beautiful, filled with flowers.
[In 1990 we visited this town, a very sad and depressed town. That apartment building is still there and it is still next to some woods.]
Jonah, her Mother and Father, had a room to themselves, a fully furnished room, with beds, bedding, pots and pans, everything they needed to start their new lives. Here with her toy dining set, Jonah could set up house; and in her jewelry box made from shells, she stored her dining set and all her precious possessions. In time, through her various moves the dining set was lost, but that box made from shells, that she kept and treasured.
The following day, Jonah went to school, and according to her age, she was taken to the kindergarten class, She was put in with other seven year olds even though she had already had 2 years of schooling, Russian children start school much later than the children of Poland.. The children knew all about her, that she had fled the war in the West, was homeless, and had come to live amid them, in Nerechta. They clustered around her, and tried to draw this strange girl into their world. But she could not understand them, and neither could they understand her.
They brought their toys to her, and named them. And she told them their polish names:
meeshka teddy bear
dom dolls house
When they had shown her all their toys, they took her around the room, and named everything in the room:
Then they led her out into the courtyard, and showed her everything in the courtyard:
Jonah no longer felt a stranger. She had been welcomed and had found a new home. Though she spoke no Russian, she became a part of Russia.
She started the process of learning a new language, her third, and become a part of a different culture.