Peace and War
(pages 3 - 12)
Aboard a screaming train somewhere in Siberia, I learned my first lesson in strategy. I was eight years old, peering over the shoulder of my father who had encouraged me to do so. He was engrossed in a game of chess. His opponent was a brooding old man with hunched shoulders and long white fingers constantly stroking a bushy gray beard. Slowly the old man shifted forward in his seat, muttering to himself and showing a measure of passion.
"Shach!" he blurted in Yiddish as his knight snatched a pawn checking my father's king. The pause seemed forever. My father sat there, he later explained to me, searching for the best strategy between three options.
I do not remember how my father countered or who claimed victory. What struck me, however, was the calmness of the men and their focus as each methodically took his turn. They did not seem to hear the rattle of the train's wheels that vibrated through the car's frail underbelly. Nor were they bothered by the sleet slamming against the windows, then moving slowly down in rivulets.
Looking back to that day in late 1940, the scene seems almost surreal: two men playing chess, leisurely pondering each move as if they had all the time in the world, nowhere to go, and nothing to worry about except the chess game when, in fact, time was quickly running out. We were a train of nomads driven by a sense of survival, escaping for our lives from the Nazis. Ironically, we were pawns in someone else's game.
The scourge that had swept Europe turned everything upside down, severing the tether of genes, language, ideas, and ideologies and sending families like mine into exile. We were among the fortunate ones. The main part of my family was still together - my mother, father and I - and we were healthy though sometimes cold and hungry. I wondered about my grandmothers, my favorite Aunt Bobble, and friends who had stayed behind in Bialystok, unwittingly taking their chances with what the gods of war had to offer.
The trip was filled with the unknown and fraught with danger as we moved along Siberia's spine, the 5,800-mile Trans-Siberian Railroad, begun in 1891 to connect Moscow to Vladivostok among other Asian ports. The rickety train was a pinprick against the vast wilderness, utterly untouched, where you could travel for thousands of miles without seeing traces of man or beast. There was beauty in this frigid frontier, but a harsh and muscular beauty, where bear, tigers, sable, reindeer, and wolves roamed freely among some of the greatest physical treasures on earth. A cash cow, they said of Siberia, that accounted for one-fifth of the world's gold and silver, a third of its iron and timber, along with an immeasurable wealth of gas, oil, and coal. It was the largest region of the world's largest nation, four million square miles - the size of the entire United States - a bewildering kaleidoscope of marshy plains, dense forests, desolate plateaus, and craggy-peaked mountains where time and place were lost.
With few roads, the train, on its single track, was the ubiquitous carryall, the workhorse of the Siberian transport system, like the oxen-pulled wagons stacked with children and battered household utensils that were moving other streams of refugees in flight all across rural Europe at the time. While they fled in panic, somehow the oxen never realized just how critical time was for them. Nor, it seemed, did the engineer driving our train have much concern for our simmering anxieties. The train kept at a steady speed, its rhythm lulling us into a false sense of security, perhaps to conserve fuel, or because of weather conditions, or the fact that we were crossing treacherous terrain. There were no shortcuts. Indeed, because there was only one track, we would often spend lonely hours at designated switching points (at Oms, or Novosibirsk, or Irkutsk), waiting for our westbound sibling to pass so that we could continue our trek to Siberia's most Eastern point, the port of Vladivostok.
During the 1930s, men with shovels and wheelbarrows built steel mills as part of Joseph Stalin's plan to industrialize the Soviet Union. And when the war broke out, millions of workers and their factories would be transported to Siberia from the vulnerable areas, retreating like a turtle beneath its shell. It was also where Stalin banished criminals and political prisoners to work in mines and build in forced labor camps, and where untold millions died long before and after the war.
I don't, however, want to get ahead of my story. That's the trouble with memory; once it uncoils, it tends to race. But there's magic in memory. You can stop and replay it at almost any point, rubbing old images together for sparks of new meaning. And one thing more about memory in passing: it's a safety valve; you survive by memory.
Everyone sooner or later broods about the difficult parts of his or her life - the hurts, the failures, the injustices, all the things we like to believe we can let go to move on with our lives. But you can never really let go of personal history because it is what shapes you and shades wisdom.
It was nearly a year-and-a-half before I ended up on that train in Siberia, a year-and-a-half of my family playing hide-and-seek with the Gestapo or the KGB. I was too young, or too shielded by my parents, to fully realize the consequences of being caught. But I sensed our plight. While at times it seemed like one glorious adventure, there was always the feeling we were running from something very evil, from a bogeyman breathing down our necks. Indeed we were. While most children my age, especially those in the United States, were busy learning the three "Rs," my early years were shaped by the three "Fs" - flight, fear, and fate.
I was the only child of Isaac and Faygl Melamdovich. Both were teachers in Yiddish-speaking schools. Mother taught first grade in the Grosser school, Bialystok's first government-approved parochial school sanctioned to conduct its entire curriculum in the Yiddish language. The Grosser Folks Shul as it was called, was named after the founder and first principal. My father taught mathematics in the higher grades and was the author of three books on the subject. His books became the standard mathematics works for grade school classes in the Yiddish schools of Poland. The schools were secular, in that there was no religious training. They were the showcase and pride of the modern Jewish society that was emerging throughout Eastern Europe. These schools had offered a full curriculum and were accredited by the Polish government. This meant that graduates from these schools could go on to gymnasium, high-school, or even in rare instances college, although Jews were seldom allowed to enter.
My parents would leave the house in the morning when the light was still soft and shadowy. They'd return late in the day. During that time I would wait under the watchful eyes of my maternal grandmother, or sometimes to my delight, my father's sister, Aunt Bobble, an exceptionally beautiful woman in her early twenties. Itke Cyrla Barakin was my grandmother's name, but to me she was "Babba." We all lived together in a house on Zieben (No.7) Fastowska street in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland known for the production of textiles and finished goods, near the Russian border and roughly midway between Poland's capital, Warsaw, and Lithuania's, Wilno (now Vilnius). Bialystok was a political football. Founded in 1310, it was annexed to Prussia in 1795, to Russia in 1807, and returned to Poland in 1921.
However, it wasn't the weavers of Bialystok but its bakers who exported a bit of the city to the world. Over the years, Bialystok would leave its gastronomical mark, especially on the United States, where bakeries, delicatessens, and food stores would sell the "bialy," a flat breakfast roll-the creation of Bialystok bakers. Unlike its more popular cousin, the bagel, the bialy had no hole in its center, giving more surface on which to slather the cream cheese. As a child in the city of the bialy, I loved bialys and ate them. with herring, the tail of the herring. I also loved my grandmother's homemade challa, a soft braided loaf of bread glazed with egg white.
Sitting in the middle of the kitchen, like a headless dark Buddha, was a potbellied stove that used coal and wood. Plenty of it. In the morning, well before dawn, my grandmother would stoke it up in preparation for breakfast. The wood burned like a miniature forest fire, crackling at first, then exploding into yellow flames that shimmered through the front vent on the door to create odd shadows in the darkened room. The stove did double duty. It provided our heat during the long winter months and cooked our meals. But we were fortunate; we also had a white brick modern oven that dominated the dining room. It was modern because it had its own brick chimney built into the wall. At times, a huge pot of cholent would be simmering inside its mysterious door, which I was admonished never to touch. Cholent was a thick stew made with pieces of beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, and a host of spices mixed with water, and cooked. And I mean cooked. Babba cooked cholent overnight and until noon the next day, careful never to stir the concoction during the entire time. It was manna.
Bialystok: The Melamdovich family
A teacher's life was relatively comfortable and carried a certain amount of prestige in the community. My father was one of the few elected Jewish city councilmen. We lived in a small wooden bungalow that had been inherited by my mother from her father, who died before I was born. There was one bedroom, a large dining room with a daybed, a kitchen, an upstairs attic where my grandmother slept, and a seldom-found luxury in Jewish homes, an indoor bathroom. My father, who I was convinced could do everything, had installed the plumbing himself and took great pride in showing me how to pull the chain that released the muffled explosion of gushing water from the overhead box.
As a preschooler, I was pretty much left to my own wits. Most of the children on my street were older and were in school during the day. I would wander around outside, living in my mind and letting my imagination soar to wherever it would take me. I made up games and acted out stories my mother had read to me at night. Sometimes the daybed would be a ship at sea with pirates bearing down on me. Other times I would become an explorer and sneak about the narrow opening between our house and the next.
Finally, it was my turn to go to school. In August 1939, shortly before we were about to be swept up in the turmoil of war, I entered first grade. I had just turned seven and very much anticipated seeing my parents during the course of the day. But they had other plans for me. It wasn't proper, they explained to me, to go to the same school where they taught. They didn't want students, parents, or fellow teachers to perceive me as having an advantage or to be perceived as a "teacher's pet." Thus, to my dismay, I was enrolled in another Yiddish grammar school. The pangs of separation were painful. For the first time, I was away from my parents and my Babba. I felt fear and, to some degree, rejection. When I was introduced to my new teacher and she offered her hand, I did an unthinkable thing; I slapped it. My mother was terribly embarrassed and furious with me.
Nearly three and a half million Jews lived in Poland in 1939, making it the world's second largest Diaspora community. They were heirs to a Jewish culture that had thrived in Poland for a thousand years. Of Bialystok's denizens, some 40,000 were Jews. We were integrated, although Jews generally lived in what became Jewish neighborhoods. There were no ghettos, but there was anti-Semitism. While it wasn't notorious, even as a child I often heard, "Jiyd, go to Jerusalem." I recall my puzzlement at the slur. Where was Jerusalem? Why should we go there? But it was tolerable. After all, my father was a Jew and a member of Bialystok's City Council - Poland was trying to enter the "enlightened era."
To the south of Bialystok, about a hundred miles, was Lublin, the "Jewish Oxford" known throughout Europe for its Talmudic and Cabalistic scholars. One of the first Yeshivas was established there in the sixteenth century. In 1939, Lublin with a population of 2.4 million also boasted a Jewish community of 40,000. After the war, there wouldn't be enough Jews in either city to make a "minyan," the 10 Jewish males needed to form a quorum for prayer in accordance with Jewish law. Poland had always been bullied by its neighbors. Poland's name comes from the Polaine, or "plains people," a Slavic group that settled in Europe before the birth of Christ. With few natural mountains and rivers on its borders, Poland constantly fell victim to the territorial ambitions of the surrounding countries. In 1795, it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria - erasing Poland from the map altogether. It reappeared as a sovereign nation at the end of World War I in 1918. Then, in 1939, came the German invasion of Poland to spark World War II. Again, Poland was overrun. First it was the Germans, then the Soviets. (In the wake of the war, Stalin would end up moving Poland westward by annexing more than 50,000 square miles of eastern German territory under Polish rule and another 100,000 square miles of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union.) During these periods, when Poland ceased to exist, it was the Roman Catholic church that became the bastion of Polish nationality and the protector of the language and culture.
Similarly, the Jewish community and culture were kept intact through its synagogues and Rabbis and scholars. However, I was born into the secular Jewish movement that had taken hold in Europe since the early 1900s. My parents were emancipated Jews. They had left the "shtetl" ways of their parents to become the new Jewish intelligentsia. They were rightful citizens of the world. They were worldly Jews who had the inherent right to live as citizens of any country. In their world ideal, race and religious distinctions no longer mattered. All humans were equal. One of the first songs I remember my mother singing was Friedrich von Schiller's words to Beethoven's Ninth, Alle Menchen Seinen Breeder, "All Humans are Brothers." (How ironic that this monument to equality was written by a German poet.) Indeed, in our home, I was raised to believe this philosophy as gospel. It wasn't until much later in life that I learned to my chagrin that the world wasn't really quite as my parents taught me.
Thus, orthodoxy and religious rituals were not part of our daily life. They were replaced by worldly precepts - intertwined with Jewish ethnicity, its history, literature, culture, holidays, and especially its Yiddish language. My mother and father were fervent Yiddishistn. Following World War I, the Polish government, under a treaty guaranteed by the League of Nations, recognized Yiddish as a language and granted Jews the right to use it in their primary education. It also assured the Jews civil and political equality as well as their cultural autonomy.
Although among the gentiles we spoke Polish, Yiddish was the first language I learned. We spoke it in the house, and in school, and on the street. But it was a literary Yiddish - that is, pure and grammatically perfect - after all, my parents were Yiddish teachers of the highest order. (It wasn't until I became an adult that I learned to my amazement that Yiddish contained swear words.) My parents were the products of Eastern European Jews who for hundreds of years were subjected to poverty, persecution, and harassment by czars, Cossacks, and a host of local officials whose favorite pastime, it seemed, was to plan organized riots known as pogroms. Despite the poverty and violence and the fact that Jews were forced to live in designated areas called the Pale, they clung to God, a memory of greatness and a messianic hope. "For them the Bible was a living reality," is how historians Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo put it. "It was a token of promise, a source of wisdom, a guide to conduct."
Here is where my father departed from his ancestors. While he fervently believed that the central value in Jewish culture was learning, he saw no glow of messianic hope. He was an agnostic, and as such felt no spiritual pleasure in the reenactment of ritual. My mother, although drawing the line with respect to eating of non-Kosher foods, was among the early emancipated women in Jewish Poland. Indeed, unlike most women of that day and age, Faygl Melamdovich was an equal co-worker in our household and a professional member of the teaching fraternity. She, no less than her husband, embraced the new emancipated philosophy with zeal and fervor. In their crowd, some of whom would occasionally gather around our dining room table, there seemed to be little distinction between the rights of women and men - all were considered equal. Everyone bad a right to voice his opinion, and did, as they drank tea from glasses, ate my Babba's honey cake, and discussed the dawning of a new era for Jews in Poland. Still, it was an oddity of cultural European life that, in company, a woman referred to her husband by his last name. Thus, when my mother spoke of my father, she would speak of him as "Melamdovich." First names were reserved for private conversations. My mother called my father by his middle name, Moishe.
I am uncertain at what exact age my father rejected religion, since his early youth was spent in the religious upbringing of a cheder. (Indeed, he was steeped in religious lore.) I suspect it was sometime in the early 1920s when many of Europe's young intellectuals with a sense of idealism turned from the dogma of religion to science and humanism. They wrestled with the conflict of traditionalism, as embodied in a Hassidic inheritance, and modernism, the trend of secular-progressive thought that was sweeping through the world of East European Jewry - a legacy of eighteenth century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Together, these two pioneers of modern Jewish thought forged the concept of Jewish emancipation and were first in denouncing Jewish separatism. Moses Mendelssohn, a little hunchback from the Dessau ghetto in Germany, the grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn (who was born a Christian), made it his mission to lead Judaism out of the ghetto and into the new Enlightenment in which the practice of Judaism would not conflict with life in a non-Jewish world. Mendelssohn's revolutionary thought evolved into the modern Jewish secular movement whose by-product gave the world artists, writers, musicians, and scientists - the numbers of which were out of all proportion to the tiny percentage of Jews within the general population. In the early 1900s, this secular movement, although still in its infancy, was an irresistible force to the young generation of European Jews, snaring the likes of my father and mother in its current and causing them to leave the ways of the shtetl. My father graduated from the University de Liege on November 26, 1923, having completed a full course in modern studies, mathematics, and humanities.
Thus, it wasn't surprising that my father's favorite writer (and later mine, too) was the Yiddish author Itzchok L. Peretz, regarded as one of the giants of Yiddish literature along with Mendele Mocher Sforim, "Mendel the Bookseller," the pseudonym of Shalom Jacob Abramowits, and Sholem Aleichem, "Peace be with you," the pseudonym of Salomon Rabinovitch. Peretz was a so-called maskil or enlightened, who had deep-rooted love for Jewish history and its folklore, but found bridges and commonality between traditional religion and the growing new secular cultural movement of the emerging Jewish masses. Indeed, Peretz gave new meaning, new interpretation, and new practical application to age-old religious precepts and rituals. Like Peretz, my father no longer believed in divine metaphysics or in the orthodox concepts of heaven and hell, or in the notion that there was subsequent reward and punishment for a person's acts in life. Rather, my father believed in an even higher morality than that contained in the Ten Commandments. Indeed, my father's morality was embodied in Peretz's short story, Oib Nisht Nocb Hecher, "If Not Higher." Morality for him was an inherent necessity of one's being, as was the concept of equality between human beings.
My father was a idealist, a mathematician, and teacher by trade; a skeptic by nature. On top of that, add stubborn. Taking a stand in what he believed became a leitmotif in his writings and personal philosophy. Small in stature, but ramrod-straight with receding hair, he was an independent man who followed his own conscience throughout his life. Sometimes that path took strange turns, as it did shortly before the Nazis marched into Bialystok.
Germany's attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, all along its frontier brought on World War II. And though Bialystok was hardly a military threat to the Third Reich, German bombers were sent over the defenseless city. Their bombs were randomly dropped on "to whom it may concern" targets. One of them was City Hall, an early nineteenth century edifice, which had been reduced to cinders. It was only a matter of time before the Blitzkrieg would be storming the city gates. The mayor hastily called a meeting of the city council of which my father was a member. There was only one problem: There was no longer a city council chambers. The city's major synagogue, Die Groyse Shul still stood intact, and the mayor asked its rabbi if the council could gather in its hall. The rabbi consented on the condition that all the councilmen wear hats or yarmulkes, skullcaps, as a sign of respect before God as prescribed by Jewish religion when entering a synagogue. The mayor and the other councilmen all agreed. There was only one holdout. My father, who happened to be one of a handful of Jewish councilmen, refused to enter the Shul if he had to cover his head. In principle he wouldn't acknowledge any form of religion, and to wear a hat was to reenact ritual. Vintage Melamdovich.
Although he boycotted the meeting, he went along with the consensus for an escape plan. The mayor and the entire city council, which made up Bialystok's political backbone, intended to leave the city along with the other prominent citizens before the Nazis showed up. The city fathers had been advised that the Nazis would use Bialystok's prominent citizens as hostages. If anything went wrong, the hostages would be held responsible. In their naiveté, they believed families left behind would be safe. What we didn't know was the Nazi scheme to isolate Jews from the Poles by expelling them from small towns and villages, forcing them to make their ways to the larger cities where eventually they would be concentrated. Bialystok along with Warsaw, Lublin, Cracow, Wilno, and Lodz would become the major cities where Jews were confined to ghettos, and later six million of them would be transported like cattle and exterminated in the death camps. But this was long before the world had heard of Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek, Bergen-Belsen, or Treblinka. By late September 1939, Germany and Russia would divide Poland. While Stalin was banking on his non-aggression pact with Hitler, Russia concluded pacts with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, obtaining rights to set up military bases. In return, Russia ceded Wilno, which had been part of Poland, back to Lithuania. Wilno, hard on Poland's border, had been Lithuania's historic capital. Europe's geopolitical machinations were in high gear.
I, of course, knew nothing of my father's escape plan until the middle of a moonless night, a few days after the council meeting. My mother woke me and dressed me.
"We are going to say goodbye to your father," she whispered, taking me by the hand and leading me out into the deserted and totally blackened streets of Bialystok. While I couldn't see any traces of war, I could hear them: the constant echoing throughout the buildings of the ack-ack of gunfire around us.
On an empty lot we came upon a group of people milling around a large canvas-covered truck. There were other children, wives, and family members of the councilmen saying their goodbyes. I saw my father and ran to him. There were tears in my mother's eyes. There were tears in everyone's eyes. My parents clung to each other for a brief moment. Then my father and his fellow councilmen piled into the truck and left. No one knew their destination.
I don't remember my father's precise words that night, but he said his goodbyes in a tone that tried to be reassuring. Politics had driven him away. Perhaps it would bring him back. But the world in the 1930s didn't work that way. The norms of safety, the norms of self-respect no longer mattered. Europe had been swept up in the momentum of politics all right, but power politics backed by the machines of war-tanks, planes, and mobile armies-swept across lands like the Mongol hordes that once stormed out of Asia.
Before I heard the bombs, my own vision of war at that time centered more on the swashbuckler than on the swastika. I imagined the war would play out as sword fights in the main streets of Bialystok. The brave Bialystokers against the barbarians, up one avenue, down another. But the war would take place only on the big streets. Life on the side streets, such as the one I lived on, would carry on as normal.
Such childish thoughts were soon jolted by reality. Suddenly the world was noisy and frightening. The noise of church bells. The noise of air raid sirens. The noise of rumors. The noise of bombs and gunfire echoing throughout the streets. The dark and shrouded nights. The fear evidenced on faces. The tumult of agony and despair with the crushing armies of the Nazi war machine.
My child's vision of a fantasy war, it turned out, wasn't that far-fetched. Unfortunately, the Polish military machine was a relic of the nineteenth century like many of the buildings in our town. Slogging through mud and cold rain, the Polish cavalrymen charged Nazi tanks with lances and sabers. Poland fell in 27 days.
Now we could only wait for our conquerors and our fate.
Last Updated October 30th, 2003