One: Abe Zeideman
The following is a social study of the era leading to World War II, as well as an analysis of the war years through the accounts of four people living in three different areas of the world at the time.
Section one recounts the story of Abe Zeideman, a Polish Jew, now living in Brooklyn, NY, Whom I was fortunate enough to meet through my mother several years ago. Mr. Zeideman's experiences brought him to such remote areas as western Poland, eastern Poland, the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union and the Siberian Republic.
The second section depicts life in Mineola, Long Island during the years lending to the war, as well as perceptions of the war itself. Mr. Marino, an Italian-American, and Mrs. Marino, a white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant, who traces her roots to the Mayflower, are my former employers, having recently closed a successful music studio in Williston Park.
The third section is an account of the life of my father, whose stories of the past have been consolidated, via a series of interviews, into an essay which depicts how various family members and acquaintances reacted to and were affected by Fascism. Today my father, Dante Venturini, is a organist in the New York City and Long Island areas.
Having lived the first forty-five years of the twentieth century under the anti-Semitism of the Poles, the rage of the Germans and the domination of the Soviets, Abe Zeideman is living testimony of the worst evils of this time period. If anyone can describe life under tyrannical rule it is Mr. Zeideman, whose conveyance of the harsh facts appears to be fueled by a need to both inform others and express his own thoughts. My interview with Mr. Zeideman, conducted in three separate conversations, in conjunction with the reading of his vivid article, "Survived in Soviet Russia," enabled me to gain a significant amount of insight into the social aspect of years leading into World War II in Poland, as well as conditions in central and eastern Europe during the war.
Although Mr. Zeideman's experiences are not presented as exemplary of the experiences all Polish Jews, they may be viewed as an honest portrayal of one ordinary human being living in a typical Jewish town in Poland. Some of the experiences which follow, as well as the perceptions described, may or may not be common to other Polish Jews who survived under similar circumstances.
Mr. Zeideman was born and resided, until the age of twenty-three, in a small Polish town called Gombin. Located about ninety miles west of Warsaw and seven miles south of the largest river in Poland, the Vistula, the town is half-way encircled by an ancient pine forest. Provided with the fresh, constant scent of pine, were the town's native inhabitants, which numbered from 4,000 to 5,000 (an accurate census was never quite conducted) and consisted of two-thirds Jews, one-third Poles, and a handful of minorities, such as Germans.
How did Jews and Poles coexist? According to Mr. Zeideman, the anti-Semitism was ever-present and perennial as the grass. There was segregation in schools, while the few Jews who were lucky enough to attend the university were always relegated to seating on the left side of, the room. There was tension between Polish and Jewish businessmen.
Sectors of the town which were particularly anti-Semitic were Polish shoemakers, whose inferior ready made shoes had to compete with Jewish shoemakers' superior workmanship, slaughterers, poor Polish farmers, who had been well-off land owners, and civil servants, such as teachers and government officials. While there was outward harmony, with Poles and Jews doing business together and maintaining friendships, a barrier always existed, perpetuated by the Polish government, as well as the Polish Church, which constantly incited the Poles to fury by its allegation that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.
Although Mr. Zeideman states that every Jew's ultimate desire was simply to leave Poland, he does remember having Polish acquaintances which he played with as a young boy as well as being happy as a member of the boy scouts. Mr. Zeideman states that although his standard of living was inadequate, his diet was relatively good, with meat once or twice a week and the standard Polish diet of bread, potatoes and cabbage. Still, a Jew's ultimate desire was to leave Poland and when the opportunity -arose, Abe Zeideman's brother, in 1929, left his family and immigrated to Brazil.
Since Mr. Zeidemans mother had been deceased since several months after Mr. Zeidernan's birth, the death of his father, a hatmaker, in 1930 left him alone in his Gombin home with two brothers and a sister. The four Zeideman sibblings. were, thus, young adults living alone when news that Germany would invade reached their ears.
Actually, German invasion came as no surprise, according to Mr. Zeideman. The Poles knew that Germany would invade; however, how does one deal with, or rationalize such knowledge? The Poles anticipated that Germany would invade and quickly be put down by the British, and eventually the French and the U.S. Yes, Germany was perceived as strong, however, they were certainly not perceived as strong enough to defeat the entire western world. This was the state of mind of the Pole, according to a Polish Jew in Gombin. The fact that Hitler had been granted Czechoslovakia did not have a significant impact on Poles' perceptions of British dealings with the Germans with regard to the question of Poland. Poles' optimism in handling the crisis is demonstrated by their reaction to the invasion at the onset. Although the Polish government was perceived to be corrupt, Poles responded nationalistically, eager to fight for their homeland, or against German aggression. Had the Poles not perceived eventual British and French assistance, there would not have been any cause for optimism. When German presence became a reality, the rosy picture of the future faded to hopelessness and Polish faith in British assistance revealed itself as having been nothing more than a needed self-deception.
did not need very much time to realize that German occupation would change
their lives drastically. Immediately, September 1939 brought placards on
walls, informing Jews of what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Death was the punishment for either a violation or an infraction of stated
laws. Those German Poles who had been quiet, respectable citizens, a minority
in Gombin, immediately began to wear swastikas and taking positions of
power. The Jewish mayor was replaced by a German mayor, a former miller.
One Thursday morning the Germans ordered that all Jews should assemble at the pig market. The Germans warned that anyone who failed to appear would be shot. Mr. Zeideman and his brother, on their way to get bread, were intercepted by a few German soldiers and dragged to Firemen's Hall. At Firemen's Hall Mr. Zeideman, his brother, and twenty-five or thirty other Jews were, ordered to load ammunition, beaten and verbally abused. The group of Jews wondered whether or not they would suffer the fate the Germans had initially intended to those who had not assembled at the pig market. Mr. Zeideman, managing to leave the work group, ran to the pig-market and observed a scene which he would never forget. Gombin's beautiful shul, along with about forty adjacent Jewish residences which surrounded it, was being burned. Nearby, the Nazi officer8 stood, inflicting blows on nearby Jews and laughing at the sight of the burning buildings.
Later in the afternoon Mr. Zeideman would witness burning and plundering of Jewish property, as well as murderous beatings of Jews. Mr. Zeideman remembers that his future wife's uncle, who would later.-... -perish with his wife and two daughters in Chelmno's gas chambers, was seriously wounded that day. Mr. Zeideman's own beating, on that very
Day, which ended when escaped from German officers firing at him, resulted, in one week of immobility from the injuries sustained, as well as the decision to flee Poland.
Mr. Zeideman told his brother of his plans to leave Gombin for the Russian occupied sector of Poland. Perceiving Russia a cage from which no one ever emerged after entering, Mr. Zeideman's brother was obviously not willing to leave German occupation for Russian occupation. In addition, Mr. Zeideman's brother felt that there was hope for Nazi defeat by the Allies. In short, Mr. Zeideman would leave without his brothers and sister, accompanied by the woman he would marry prior to his departure from Gombin.
On November 20th, 1939, approximately two and one half months after Germany's invasion of Poland, Mr. and Mrs. Zeideman left Gombin in a wagon driven and owned by an acquaintance. The wagon driver had been visiting Gombin when the Germans arrived and was now returning home. On the journey the group was stopped repeated1y by Germans and put into work gangs.
Upon arriving in Warsaw the Zeidemans saw a city in ruins. People moved about in an apparent dream-like state amidst the haze and odor of smoke. With, their homes leveled to the ground, the Jews of Warsaw moved about despondently with a combination of sorrow and fear-in their faces.
In Warsaw the Zeidemans were joined by another couple and a four year old boy. The group continued their journey by wagon, setting off for Slovatich, a small town on the Bug river, which divided German occupied Poland from the Soviets. Upon arrival in Slovatich, the group was captured by Germans, beaten and locked into a dark fortress. For no apparent reason the group was set free however, they knew not where to go and wandered directionless for a short while.
Miraculously, a Polish woman approached the group of Jews and, after feeding them, offered to row them across to the opposite shore of the Bug River for a small fee. Once across the Bug, the woman even showed the group the road to Brest-Litovsk. The Polish woman's kindness was further imparted by her parting message that the group of Jews should never experience misfortune again.
The group of travelers, once on the Russian side, were spotted by a peasant and reported to the authorities. The N.K.V.D. lieutenant interrogating the group determined that the Zeidemans would have to return to German occupied Poland by train. The other couple and their son could remain in Soviet territory because the father was from Byalistok and this made them citizens of the "liberated territories." The other couple and their son went on to Brest-Litovsk while the Zeidemans returned to German occupied Poland.
Upon arrival across the Bug, the Zeidemans managed to find refuge at an Inn where many other Jews had been sheltered by the kindness of a Polish inn-keeper. After staying one night at the inn, the Zeidemans departed, encountering another Polish woman who rowed them safely across to the Soviet side. Luckily and carefully, this time the Zeidemans made it to Brest-Litovsk.
The Zeideman's experiences in Brest-Litovsk and later, Yanov, can best be illustrated by Mr. Zeideman's description that he had gone from a nightmare to a sunny, pleasant dream. In Russian occupied Poland Jewish children walked undisturbed to school; Jews did not need to fear beatings at every corner; apparently,life seemed to go on undisturbed. The Zeidemans lived for about two months in what would be called Byle-Russia or White Russia. The Zeidemans were granted refugee status, given adequate sleeping accommodations and allowed what seemed to be a significant amount of freedom.
At the end of the two months the Soviets issued a questionnaire to the half-million Jewish refugees, In essence it was an ultimatum, either the Jews accept Soviet citizenship and stay in the Soviet Union or register for an eventual return to Poland. Because the Zeidemans had family in Poland, they sought an eventual return to their native land. In short, all Jews who requested a return to Poland were banished to Siberian labor camps. Unfortunately, of those who accepted Russian citizenship, 90% per cent would perish later at the hands of the invading German Nazis.
After a seemingly endless, asphyxiating train ride, the Zeidemans, along with many other banished Jews, arrived in Kotlas, on the Severnaya Dviria River, in the Archangesk region of Siberia. Various groups were separated, with Mr. and Mrs. Zeideman led to a village surrounded by the Basharova Forest, about twenty-five kilometers from Kotlas.
A barrage of mosquitoes, which virtually threatened to eat them alive, greeted the Zeidemans nearby their forest dwelling. The wooden barracks were separated into one room compartments which would house two families in each section. Inside the compartments, covering the walls, was the terrifying sight of crawling red worms, which would soon find their way into the Zeidemans' clothes, food and beds. Needless to say, much discomfort and lack of sleep would follow.
Life in Siberia was simply an effort to stay live, with dreams of a little more bread at dinner occupying the tired minds of most laborers. The day began at 5 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. There was a seven mile walk to work in the morning and evening. Breakfast was boiled water and dinner was a piece of bread with minimal flour and an occasional bit of watery soup, usually fish. The amount of food one received was directly proportional to the amount of work one did. Thus, he who was too sick to work would not receive any food. The task of all workers was to chop down trees, regardless of their previous skills or experience.
Mr. Zeideman, who was a "Driver," had the task of hauling logs from the forest with horse and sled. Due to the greater degree of difficulty in this job, there was a reward of an extra 200 grams of black bread. The 200 grans of black bread was a paltry attempt at compensating for the fact that Drivers had to place trees in sleds and then coax horses, perennially hungry, exhausted and skin and bones, to pull these heavy loads.
Everyone's hardship reached its peak in winter, when lack of proper clothing (laborers were still wearing the summer clothing they had first arrived in) and insufficient food, made life unbearable. Many workers became extremely ill in the winter and their inability to work resulted in a decrease in their food rations. Many workers simply collapsed and died. The only solace came if one had a fever. A Russian woman claiming to be a nurse would provide sick leave only to those who demonstrated having a fever.
With the arrival of spring in 1940 new troubles began. Spring thaws forced the laborers to stand deep in water for days. The workers began to suffer from bloating, loss of teeth and chicken blindness, caused by a lack of vitamin A. Often the laborers would be unable to find their way to work because they could not see. They would make a line, holding hands, with those with better vision leading the chain. Mr. Zeideman doesn't know if it was pity or concern for production. However, The camp administration did bring in a wagon of old and rancid liver for the afflicted laborers. Once they devoured the liver the chicken-blindness disappeared.
After one year and two months in Siberia, Mr. and Mrs. Zeideman were told that they could leave the camp. The Jews, pursuant to an agreement between Polish General Sikorski and the Soviet Union, who had gone to war with Germany by then, were told that they could go to designated areas of the Soviet Union. In these areas they would not be so watchfully supervised by the Soviet authorities. . The Jews, who had been repeatedly menaced with the idea, that they would never leave Siberia and would be buried under the fur trees, were pleasantly surprised with the news of their departure.
The train ride out of Siberia revealed a Russia in motion. Everywhere people fled, seeking escape from west to east, from the invading Germans. Trains and ships were crowded. The inhabitants of the Volga, where Russo-Germans had their own republic, were uprooted to Siberia so that the distrustful Russian government could keep an eye on them.
Once in Kazhakistan, a Central Asian republic, Mr. Zeideman would work as a tailor with a salary of 300 rubles a month, a sum which was sufficient for one day's survival. In order to survive Mr. Zeideman sold coats, which he made in the house on an old-fashioned sewing mr'chine, and occasionally was forced to steal a spool of thread from the railroad, where he was employed. Since the Russians were not able to buy consumer items, Mr. Zeideman had no difficulty selling his coats on the black market. The money made from his sales enabled Mr. Zeideman to supplement his government ration cards for bread, flour and butter with fruit, meat and kerosine from the black market. Only when Mrs. Zeideman gave birth to a baby girl in 1943, did the Russian government provide assistance in the form of extra rations. Pregnant women were entitled to extra rationings of butter, fine flour and white bread. Had Mr. Zeideman not resorted to the illegal activity of the black market, the Zeidemans would have undoubtedly starved.
The war ended amidst rejoicing, jubilation and tears in Russia, After some difficulty the Zeidemans got their names on a list of "military families" who were allowed to return to Poland. Soon the Zeidemans were on a train bound for their homeland.
Once on the train the Zeidemans discovered that anti-Semitism was as rampant as ever in Poland. Poles who had been speaking in a friendly manner to them previously during the train ride suddenly turned hostile once within the Polish border. Over and over again Poles would hurl accusations at Jews, blaming their own pain and suffering on them and viciously accosting them. The Poles felt that the war was the fault of the Jews. The painful journey was pitifully embellished by a recurring and derisive question which seemed to be on the lips of every Pole: "Moishe, you still alive?"
Unfortunately, the Zeidemans would find that all but a few scarce vestiges of life remained in Gombin. The town and its citizens had been almost completely destroyed. Mr. Zeideman's own brothers and sister had been killed by the Nazis. The Zeidemans determined that Poland was the graveyard of their people and, therefore, not the place to raise their family.
That the Zeidemans managed to enter West Germany and eventually the U.S., where they were able to continue their lives in freedom and raise successful, professional children, is perhaps one of the most triumphant victories against anti-Semitism and the accompanying horrors of those years.
Living in an era such as ours today, where lack of success and its accompanying unhappiness can be directly attributed, on most occasions, to our own wrong decisions, I was immediately stricken by the position of Mr. Zeideman and other Jews, not to mention most Europeans at this time, whose fate was truly independent of almost any self-assertion. Bringing my old cultural mind-set with me at all times, I asked Mr. Zeideman if there were any actions which he wished he had taken differently. His reply, which I would receive in different forms while interviewing two other subjects, was definitely negative. Mr. Zeideman was not in control of his life. Therefore, his decisions and their outcomes were a combination of actions based on his perceptions of right and wrong, a degree of luck and the decisions of powerful men at the top. Mr. Zeideman describes himself as a leaf blowing in the wind, The difference between himself and a man who did not survive was simply being in the right place at the right time. As for destiny being pre-determined by a higher being, it is not. Our lives are primarily the result of chance, according to Mr. Zeideman.
In summary, after assessing Mr. Zeideman's, as well as the various other accounts of other Gombin Jews, I have determined that, yes, it is chance, as well as the role of different men's realities and values, but it is also strength for survival. The existence of the latter was potent enough in Mr. Zeideman and others to enable them to push on past obstacles that would have weakened someone who had a little less obstinance in terms of achieving their goal - survival.