Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mom and Dad's Short War Story

Mom and Dad’s short war story:

Mom and dad were born and lived in Poland until Germany and Russia invaded their homeland in 1939. Mom and her family were immediately captured by the Russians and deported to Siberia. They were kept alive because my grandfather was a country doctor which the Russians needed and valued in the desolate frozen territory.

Dad was separated from his family who he believes were all killed by the Nazis or immediately sent to concentration camps. They were his mom Rivkah, dad Jacob and sister Sarah. His brother Isaac was conscripted into the Polish army and was sent to the “front” and never heard of again. Dad’s other brother Morris emigrated to the US years earlier. We’ll get to that in a moment. Dad was alone when captured by the Russians and placed on a freight train to the Siberia. The cold and congested ride took weeks with the only view of white snow as far as the eye could see.

Each freight car was given a bucket to be used as a toilet and another for water. One loaf of stale bread passed among them once a day. Many became ill and died along the way and were summarily dismissed from the train without ceremony. After a few weeks the train stopped in the white snow bound wilderness and all exited. They dispersed into different groups. Dad, being young and strong, was part of the forced hard labor group and had to construct shelter from the wilderness frozen trees using just a handful of crude and decaying wood working tools.

The next years were barely survivable. Many died of exposure to the cold, while others would die after catching a common cold. Malnutrition was another story altogether. They ate stale bread and potato peel soup with bones as a rare treat which they cooked on a small wood fired stove. About half of the prisoners perished from cold, starvation, malnutrition and disease.

Between the cold, snow, rain, mud and wind, it was not surprising that less than half the prisoners survived each unforgiving winter. They slept on the hard rock earth soil with a thin blanket between they and the earth.

A couple of years before the war ended the Russians were betrayed by the Germans and released the prisoners in the hard labor camps. However, organization wasn’t in the Russian vocabulary at that time so millions of displaced persons were dispersed all over Russia.  Most headed south where it was warmer and eastern Europe. After hitching rides on Russian freight trains Dad wound up with many other Jews in Uzbekistan which at the time was part of Russia. They lived on the streets, ate what little scraps they could find from trash and built a temporary hut made of earth and straw in which he and his friend would sleep. Dad, Nathan met mom, Genia and her family on the train to Uzbekistan. They stayed together in Uzbekistan where they got married.

Living in Uzbekistan was no paradise. It was a hard life for all. The only consolation was the weather. The spring and summers months were warm enough that sleeping in an earth hut on the ground or out in the street was bearable. But lack of decent food, living conditions and shelter was despicable. So after a few years in Uzbekistan many like my folks ventured back to their homeland of Poland where they were met with vicious anti-semitism from the Poles who brutally attacked them, stole their possessions, took over their shops and businesses. It was apparent they were unsafe in Poland so they traveled on to Germany where they heard the US Army were setting up refugee camps as shelters for the displaced persons.

First they traveled to Berlin but there were no camps to accept them. Then they moved on to Munich where they stayed in make shift Army tents temporarily; and where my sister Rivkah was born. We finally settled in Bad Reichenhall a major and influential DP camp where I was born.

The US Army and the German people helped us get settled with nutritious food, clothing and shelter. We slept on Army cots in sparse rooms at a tent barrack structure. They were clean, organized and offered a small wooden fuel stove in each small room with shared bathrooms down the hall. Not surprising, there was a lot of black market trade going on between immigrants receiving red cross packages in exchange of other more badly needed goods from the Army supply store. Evidently fresh fruits and home made cakes went a long way in those day. But my folks never saw or ate any of it. Basic staple food was served daily at he Army commissary. Finally a little stability.

All this time dad was sending letters to his brother Morris in the US but evidently was never received. In the interim there was a Jewish organization called the HIAS: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society where their representatives visited DP and concentration camps around Europe but mostly Germany, Poland, Hungry, Russia, Romania and France. The HIAS would take down names of the immigrants and make sure the information was published in Hebrew and Yiddish language newspapers around the world. One day my uncle Morris saw dad’s name in the newspaper and the rest is history.

Cousin Ann who was English literate began the long process of making the necessary document arrangements to enable the Stark family to emigrate to the US. Cousin Ann recently sent me a letter which I’ll share another time where she tells this part of the story from a different point of view and in more heartwarming and elaborate details.

Once the years of red tape and documentation were completed the final arrangements were made to allow us to travel to Bremen where we boarded a US ship named the General Moore brimming with immigrants bound for Boston where mom was sea sick for the for entire ten day journey. Until the day she died she refused to set foot on board any size sea going vessel.

We landed in Boston and Cousin Ann recognized Dad as he looked just like his brother Morris, her father, and we all hugged and cried. We stayed in a one room apartment with or near Morris, Ann and her mother Rose for a short time before we moved to Webster Avenue. Our first real apartment in the heart of the Jewish ghetto of the south Bronx. be continued...

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