Rabbi David Fainsilber
My Bubbie Tauba died quite young, leaving my Zaidie Joe as the only survivor left to tell his family’s story. Yet, like so many others, my Zaidie rarely spoke of his time during the war. Even for me, two generations and 70 years later, it is not east to retell their story. If “a picture speaks a thousand words”, this picture of my Zaidie in his Polish army uniform could still not capture the experience of the horrible journey my Zaidie and Bubbie traversed and the loss they endured of family and friends and home.
Here captured in this picture was a proud young man, as he was throughout his life. In his young life, though his family was religious, he did not fit that mold. He would sneak out on Shabbat in order to play soccer with his friends, hiding that fact from his parents. Born in a small town named Stoczek, he left at a very young age, to go and live with his sister in Warsaw so he could study a few short years in yeshiva. He was a man with little education, who began working as a child, yet was very smart and sharp.
My Bubbie’s mother made the shiduch/match between her own daughter Tauba and my Zaidie Joe. Tauba’s mother loved Joe. It was hard not to. He was a charmer. Tauba was late in getting married (for those days!) at 29, stealing a younger man, Joe, who was 25. They were married February 1, 1939.
So much for a “honeymoon period”: the war broke out September 1, 1939. My Zaidie Joe had a vivid memory of being on horse back in a Polish field, being bombed by the Germans, planes overhead. There was nowhere to go. How could a horse back army beat the terrifying, technologically advanced German army? They were vastly underprepared and ill-equipped to deal with this onslaught.
His commander said to his troops: “Get out of here, save your lives, go back to your families and tell them to evacuate.” The commander knew there was no chance of winning. Joe ran back to his town, told them what was happening, yet his parents and many others refused to leave.
Thank G-d, Joe and Tauba left within days, traveling with Tauba’s sister Perele and her then boyfriend Izak. They traveled to a border town named Bretzletov. They were there for a few months. Living between Poland and Russia, there we bombs falling all the time. At some point, they did travel back to visit Tauba and Perele’s parents. Tauba was quite attached to her parents. It was very difficult for her to leave.
One night, in the middle of the night, the Russians evacuated a 4-5 block radius, and told everyone to get on the trains. They had no choice. The trains took them to Siberia and that’s where they spent the rest of the war. The sisters Perele and Tauba, Joe and Izak spent the rest of the war in a small house together. My father was born there in August 1940. One can imagine the difficulties (and yet joys too) of having a young child under such circumstances. They had enough to eat, but not a lot. It seemed that the women didn’t work. Joe did a couple of jobs. He repaired pots and pans; and he also helped clear the forest, chopping down trees.
In my own teenage years, my Zaidie would take me on long walks after dinner very often. One night he recounted to me that while chopping down trees in the cold of Siberian winter, they would give him a roll to eat during the day. He told me that he had to keep the roll in his armpit throughout the day so that it wouldn’t freeze.
When the war ended in 1945, they were permitted to leave Siberia. They went to Tashkent. They spent the next two years in Displaced Persons (DP) camps. They reunited with one of Tauba’s brother’s Chayim. Chayim somehow used what money he had to bring them together.
In the DP camp, Joe was an organizer, a socialist Bund member, one of the major political forces within Polish Jewry. Joe’s main goal was to go to Israel. But he was asked by the organizers to stay on and to help their cause, so he stayed for some time. My aunt Bracha was born in January 1948. Joe finally got fed up and asked to be put on the next boat, wherever it was going. Joe was asked if he was a tailor. He put his hand up, knowing nothing about being a tailor. But Izak was a trained tailor and he taught Joe how to sew. They ended leaving in September 1948, and coming through Halifax, the main entry port into Canada, and finally onto Montreal to raise a family. In the early years, he did piece work, being paid per garment he sewed. Izak and him later owned and operated a fruit store. My parents and my sisters and I would benefit from the fresh fruits and vegetables he would bring over each week.
My Bubbie and Zaidie lost a great deal of family in the camps. My Zaidie lost his entire family, over 200 relatives. My own father’s namesake Hersh Yankel, named after my Zaidie’s father who perished, and the ever growing family tree, are a testament to the enduring family line and my grandparent’s perseverance, luck and charm in making their way through this horror. Zaidie Joe would call his eyneklech/his grandkids his “millions”. In even later years, we became his “billions”, his investment and pride constantly growing.
Now there is yet a newer generation.
What a miracle!