Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 5-Stalin Comes to Dolhinov
STALIN COMES TO DOLHINOV
“It is important that we know where we come from, because if you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”
–Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
At 3 AM on September 17, 1939, Count Konstantin Niezabytowski was awakened by loud noises outside his two-story estate house, just east of Dolhinov. His beautiful two-story home overlooked the river that marked Poland’s border with the Soviet Union. Sometimes he took visitors and his favorite dog out onto a small island from which you could literally throw a stone into the USSR.
The house, which had been in his family for centuries, featured a conservatory where his slim wife with fashionable bobbed hair tended her prized flowers and a huge library. In an adjoining building stood their carriage and a stable of fine horses, holdovers in the age of automobiles which had not yet fully come to Dolhinov. Niezabytowsky was a handsome, distinguished-looking man in his fifties. His well-clipped goatee and moustache were white but his slightly receding hair was still a rich brown. Konstantin was a good rider, dog fancier, and a landowner who took his duties seriously.
Being a forward-looking man, he was not just a frivolous nobleman content to spend his rent income on luxuries. He also owned a flour mill, brought in new agricultural techniques and, only a couple of years earlier, had established the town’s first electric generator just two years’ earlier.
Niezabytowski was used to smugglers crossing the frontier. It was easy enough to get across. Both sides were thickly wooded and the banks weren’t at all steep. But smugglers thrived on quiet and whatever was going outside his home was making quite a racket.
Then he heard what sounded like shooting. Putting on his dressing gown quietly, so as not to alarm his family whose sleep was also turning into waking and wondering, Konstantin went out onto his veranda to peer across the fields. He only had a second to make out the most astonishing sight of his life: hundreds of armed men were pouring across his property. Trampling the grass were soldiers beyond number, uniformed and grim, moving swiftly through the fields, an entire army.
But he had only seconds to take in this nightmarish vision. Suddenly, another shot rang out and Niezabytowsky fell to the floor, wounded and bleeding badly, the first victim of the Soviet invasion of Poland. When Soviet soldiers grabbed Konstantin and dragged him away, his wife saw that he was living but he was never seen again.
Panic-stricken, his wife and children, still in pajamas and only half-awake, ran out the back door toward town. Panting, confused, and in shock, they ran past the swamps on their left, and on the right they passed the Catholic cemetery where their own ancestors were buried. Above them on the left was a steep hill on which the Jewish cemetery stood. They didn’t need to go far before they reached the home of Piotr and Eugenia Sinetsky Bilewicz.
The Bilewicz and Sinetsky families were pillars of Dolhinov life for generations. Eugenia’s father, Anthony Sinetzky, had been the town doctor for a generation. Piotr, an engineer, had inherited from his father-in-law the job as trusted manager of Konstantin’s grain mill, at the end of Ulika Plutskeva street, and had then added to that the same post for his new electrical power plant when it opened in 1937. So close was the two men’s association that, to be nearer his boss, Piotr had moved his family in 1936 to a new home he built, a one-story cottage, the first house between the Niezabytowski estate and town.
Piotr was kept busy between these two demanding, full-time jobs, running between the mill and power plant, then up to the Niezabytowsky manor house to the east of town to give reports and get instructions.
Convenient as the new house’s location was for Piotr’s work, though, his daughter, Zdzislawa, found it hard to sleep at night surrounded by so many who had already passed on from this world. Other than that, though, it was a wonderful life for the Polish children. Swimming in summer; sledding, skating, and skiing in winter. The family had a radio and received the daily newspapers from Vilna. Families were close and religion for them, as for the Jews, was the center of life. As a special treat, the children might be taken for a ride in Dr. Sadowski’s Chevrolet, practically the only private car in town.
Zdzislawa attended the seven-year state school and when she started the eighth grade the family sent her to Vileika as a boarder with her aunt to continue her education. That’s where the onset of war found her in 1939.
As the Niezabytowskis pounded on the door, it was not the signal of war for Poland, because Poland was already at war. Sixteen days earlier, on September 1, Germany had attacked. The Polish state was already doing everything possible to survive against overwhelming odds. Trenches were dug on farms, members of patriotic groups like Henryk Bilewicz given guns. Two men were stationed in the post office and town hall to prepare to destroy sensitive documents and to organize the evacuation of the town’s people if the Germans approached.
But these were plans for a last-ditch defense of Dolhinov by Polish forces retreating ahead of the advancing Germans. Without troops or fortifications, Dolhinov couldn’t hold out five minutes against a full-scale, surprise and stab-in-the-back Soviet invasion.
Accepting the inevitable, the local company of Polish border guards and the police raced out of town that morning, heading for Vileika to join the army in making a heroic but helpless stand.
In the nearby countryside, peasants were awakened by gunfire as the Soviets wiped out border police outposts. At 6 AM, two battered Polish soldiers from an outlying watchtower, one of whom still hadn’t had time to pull on his boots, bicycled in from the village of Milcza yelling that the Bolsheviks were attacking. Overhead, Soviet reconnaissance planes with red stars on their wings looked down onto the countryside. As the town awoke, a Polish resident recalled, “The atmosphere was gloomy and terrifying….People were more and more depressed and sad.”
Thirty miles away, Zdzisława Bilewicz–daughter of Piotr and Eugenia—awoke in Vileika, where her family had sent her to attend high school, to discover that the Soviet Union had invaded Poland. For more than two weeks, the Germans had been advancing into Poland from the west, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to flee east, Now, this morning, others were running westward as well.
Zdzislwa quickly dressed and went downstairs to the parlor. She was boarding with the family of the town librarian, a friend of her family. There’d been rumors of a Soviet invasion, she later recalled, “But nobody could figure out what that would mean.” Were they coming to help Poland defend itself against the Germans, as some thought? But those who believed their country’s old enemy would be its savior, an understandable exercise in wishful thinking, were outdated. Nazi Germany and Communist USSR were now allies. It didn’t take long, Zdzisława said, “For people to realize this was not a friendly visit from Russia.”
Meanwhile, though, refugees clogged the road and confusion reigned. Nobody knew what was happening. Polish radio stations had been knocked off the air. Almost no one had a telephone and calls could only be made by reservation at the local post office. That afternoon, a horse and carriage suddenly pulled up to the house where Zdzislawa was living. The driver hurriedly explained that Piotr had sent him to get her home safely. She was summoned to climb in as fast as possible, with no time to take much with her.
They set off immediately, driving past panicking crowds, crying children, carts heaped with possessions. She saw the chaos on the ground and sensed the fear in the air. Poles headed west, away from the Russians; Jews east, away from the Germans. Yet it all was, as a Polish writer later described that scene, the “road to nowhere.” With Germans to the west and Soviets to the east, the noose was tightening by the moment.
Zdzislawa, however was in good hands. Despite the tangle on the roads, the carriage made good time. The driver, who knew every inch of the area, simply left the road and whipped his horse, bumping along through the fields. Finally, she arrived home, hugged and kissed by her relieved parents. Yet any sense of safety she felt was short-lived. There was the Niezabytowsky family still in their pajamas huddled in the parlor, fearing the worst.
Then, too, one of her own family members was missing. When the border guards and police had pulled out of town that morning, a few civilians too young to be drafted proudly ran away from home to fight alongside them. Henryk Bilewicz was one of them, along with his friends, 15-year-old Antoni Leszkiewicz, Adam Odorski, Witold Kuncewicz, Kostek Jackiewicz, Józef Szydło and Józefa Michałowska.
A week later, though, the soldiers and police from Dolhinov were surrounded and captured. The young people, however, did not give up so easily. While being transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in a horse-drawn wagon, they escaped. Travelling by night they returned home and created a secret organization called the “Strzelec” group and took an oath to fight for Poland’s independence until death. And so, the Bilewicz family was reunited. But for how long?
During those first days of Soviet occupation, amiable but well-armed Russian soldiers milled around everywhere in the town, confused to find themselves outside their own hermetically sealed country for the first time. They enlisted men among them had no idea whether they were liberators or conquerors or if the townspeople were to be treated as comrades or class criminals.
Many Poles and Jews wanted to believe at the onset that the Soviets were coming to aid them in holding off the Germans. Some of the Byelorussians thought of the Russians as cousins who would help them in particular. Moscow itself claimed this was a mission to liberate the Byelorussian and Ukrainian—though not Jewish—minorities from the alleged horrors of Polish oppression.
What nobody in Dolhinov or among those soldiers knew at the time, or for many years later, was that the Soviets and Nazis had secretly coordinated their invasions in a new partition of Poland. Hitler and Stalin were simply reenacting what their aristocratic predecessors had done in the late eighteenth century.
In seeking to conquer Europe, Hitler well knew that a two-front war, against counries to his east and west simultaneously, would put Germany in a disastrous strategic situation. True, Britain and France had engaged in appeasement, watching him march into Austria and Czechoslovakia. But clearly their willingness to surrender had its limits.
The Soviet Union had been his Great Satan. Yet in a sense while opposite in appearance, the two dictatorships did have a number of features in common, indeed in some ways Hitler modeled his movement on the Soviet Communist party and his state on the totalitarian USSR. The Soviets had developed an alliance with Germany before Hitler came to power, in the 1920s, since both opposed the existing European order. The Soviets helped Germany secretly build up its military, especially the air force, even after Hitler took power.
And so the Germans understood two essential things: they needed Soviet raw materials for their war machine and they had to ensure Soviet neutrality in order to launch their war. The strategy was to seize vast lands in the east at almost no cost, win the war in the west, and then at some point in the future to turn on the USSR. Hitler would thus become the master of Europe and plunge that continent, and indeed the entire world, into 1,000 years of horror. This required, however, that Stalin be first ally, then victim.
Stalin, whose purges had just decimated his own party and army, was also eager for a deal. He fired his Jewish foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, as a signal of his turn away from making any collective security pact with the west Europeans, and as a symbol of his preparation to sacrifice the Jews. He is also pulling the rug out from under the French and British, who sent a last-minute delegation to Moscow to try to persuade Stalin to work with them. Yet, after all, they aren’t going to turn over whole countries to his tender mercies; the Germans have far more to offer him.
It is surely a remarkable irony that the modern world’s most murderously paranoid leader selected as the one man he could trust none other than Adolf Hitler. Did he do so partly out of some sense of psychological kinship, an idea made credible by the Soviet dictator’s extreme, almost fraternal, credulity toward his counterpart?
At any rate, together they engaged in one of history’s most remarkable partnerships. On August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to make the deal to carve up eastern Europe. Either ignoring orders, never getting them, or out of sheer disbelief, a Soviet antiaircraft unit near the border opened fire on Von Ribbentrop’s plane, forcing it to land until matters were cleared up. One doesn’t want to think of those soldiers’ fate.
Von Ribbentrop finally did arrive in Moscow, met Stalin, and signed the fateful agreement. Dolhinov is too small to appear on the map by name, but perhaps Stalin pressed his pen or hand down on it as he writes. At that moment, the monstrous dictator squashes the little town he’s never heard of and most of its people out of existence.
There is feasting and toasts. Stalin, with a big smile on his face—so wide as to be frightening but also showing sincere happiness—raises his glass to toast Hitler. What has just happened? Nominally, the two countries have signed a non-aggression pact. More than that, however, it is in fact an alliance. And it certainly isn’t a non-aggression pact against Poland (to be partitioned between the two); Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (to be swallowed up by the Soviets; and Finland and Romania (some of whose territory the Soviets seize). Those parts of the agreement are kept secret.
Only one week later, Germany marches into western Poland, thus setting off World War Two, in which an estimated fifty million people die. The Nazis don’t have to worry about a two-front war—until they blunder into creating one for themselves. Soviet raw materials fuel the German war machine, bypassing the British blockade. Would Hitler have gone ahead even without the pact with Stalin? Probably not.
And so the Germans invade Poland on September 1, 1939; on September 17, 1939, the USSR joins in the feast. Its share also brings Stalin control over two million more Jews.
Ten days later, Von Ribbentrop arrives back in Moscow’s airport at 6pm. After a brief rest and refreshments he meets with Stalin from 10 PM to 1 AM and then again the next day from 3 to 6:30 PM. Business concluded, there’s dinner at the Kremlin, time for one act of ‘’Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi—with the dying swans a fit prelude to the dead Poland—and back to work at midnight. The talks continue until 5 am when the agreement is signed. Von Ribbentrop takes a nap and then gets back on the plane at 12:40 pm.
The agreement signed is as brief as the visit. The two countries are “to reestablish peace and order in keeping with their national character” as they divide up Poland. For the Germans, the national character of the Jews is to die; the Slavs to be turned into slaves. For the Soviets, all are to have no more national character at all.
Stalin says that the Germans desire peace and he offers a toast: “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” As the German foreign minister leaves, Stalin has some words of special importance for him: “The Soviet government takes the new pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.” It was one of the few promises Stalin didn’t break. It was one of the many promises that Hitler did.
But what does this mean for the earth below, the little people on their daily round of existence, or lack thereof?
In Dolhinov, little Asia Hefetz, my distant cousin, has a child-like interpretation of what was happening. Hearing people speak of the Bolsheviks coming, she thought it to be an invasion by giants, since that was the Russian word for “big.” Her father, Mendel, called a family meeting to explain: “We are now going to be poor people, very poor. But,” with that optimism on the abyss’s edge so typical of Dolhinov and other shtetl Jews used to that location, he added, “on the positive side, you will all have a chance to study.”
The Soviets, he accurately predicted, would repeal the quotas on Jews entering universities. Indeed, he himself had only become a pharmacist by going to the USSR in order to study pharmacy. Having lived there, however, he also knew better than anyone in Dolhinov what life was like under Soviet rule. Mendel warned everyone to be very careful, “The walls have ears.” Anything they said could cause terrible trouble.
“It was strange, when the Russians came,” recounted Ida Friedman, “life became poorer but also more free. The years under the Poles were very difficult because there was a lot of antisemitism.” For the Poles, however, it looked quite different. There was no bright side, only a descent from power to powerlessness.
Still, nothing they’d experienced in either Czarist or Polish times prepared the people of Dolhinov for the modern mobilization state. Previous governments, dictatorial or democratic, had wielded power lightly and from afar, leaving alone people’s religious and personal lives. Now, in the Communist and Nazi regimes, they would face rulers determined to control every detail of their existence, kill large numbers of people, and tear apart the town’s social fabric.
There is much, however, no one knows–in Dolhinov or anywhere else—about just how bad things are in the Soviet Union. The bodies are hidden so well, so deep, it will take many decades to dig them up. Within an hour’s drive from Dolhinov, at Kuropaty near Minsk, daily executions are carried out from 1937 to 1941, Soviet-style a single bullet to the back of the head. There are as many as 100,000 corpses created by mass-production methods. For the first two years, they’re Soviet citizens; during the last two, most will be Polish.
Almost a score of years’ earlier, counting back from 1939, there was no such distinction. Everyone in Dolhinov is nominally a citizen and definitely a subject of Russia, but that had not made them Russians, merely serfs of the Czar should his minions choose to notice them. Poles and Jews alike, they have not been Russianized, don’t read Pushkin, don’t see themselves as tied to Moscow, have never been in Red Square.
The 1921 treaty put Dolhinov just inside Poland’s border. If the line had moved a mosquito’s whisker to the east, everyone’s fate would have totally different. Communism would have been implanted, like it or not. Three miles away is what claims to be utopia but between 1921 and 1939 the Soviet Union might as well be on the moon’s other side.
Why was Dolhinov the first place to be captured and turned almost instantly into an integral part of the Soviet empire? Between 1921 and 1939, the Soviet Union began just beyond the town’s eastern edge, stretching away from there into Siberia, all the way to China, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A massive realm ringed by what would later be called an iron curtain but already as insulated from the world as any place could be made by human effort.
On the Soviet side of the border, photos, painting, portraits of Stalin glare down at you; you look up at him. The secret police look over your shoulder. As one of Stalin’s subjects later put it, a man could barely speak honestly to his wife, in bed at night, and even then only with the covers pulled over their heads. It is a land of tyranny where a single word, even a joke, can plunge one into torture, slave labor in frozen starvation, death in a basement or open field.
Lyubov Gorelik, an accountant in Mogilev near Dolhinov but on the Soviet side of the border, got off easy: two and a half years’ in prison in 1941 for telling a joke. Four years later, a young Red Army officer named Alexander Solzhenitsyn would get eight years in a concentration camp for the same crime, but his joke was about Stalin and perhaps funnier.
Compared to this, Poland is a paradise of individual freedom, though politically it was an easy-going dictatorship. For Jews, university education was restricted and government employment closed. But the government recognized and even subsidized their religious and communal institutions, while Jewish political parties held many seats in parliament. In Dolhinov’s government school, Jews, Poles and Russians were all welcome, and each could attend religion classes taught by the clergyman of their respective faith.
Perhaps people thousands of miles away can believe Soviet propaganda but not those who can practically look out their windows and see how like the USSR is to a prison. No one likely to be critical goes in, no one critical within still breathes, no one but trusted agents go out. So what do they have to hide over on the other side?
In 1939, the Soviet utopia came to them any way, reclaiming those who’d temporarily escaped its embrace. Now Dolhinov would experience everything Soviet in highly concentrated form: twenty years of Soviet indoctrination, repression, and social transformation condensed there in that many weeks.
The first Soviet priority was to hold elections in which the people “begged” them to annex eastern Poland. Committees were set up to ensure elections were conducted the “proper” way. People were forced to attend meetings where speakers enthusiastically endorsed joining of the territory to the USSR. Not to vote was to court arrest and deportation. Ballots were often numbered or even already filled out. The pro-Communist councils so elected immediately asked for annexation and the Soviets complied.
“It took several months,” the Polish historian Jan Gross later explained, “for the Jews, Ukrainians and Byelorussians to realize…that if there weren’t any second-class citizens in these lands any more it was because all had been deprived of their rights and there weren’t any citizens left there at all, only subjects.”
The pressure split the town, peeling away the old system of balances, opening up the gaps between communities. Byelorussians, at least at first, supported the Soviets; Poles opposed them; Jews were divided. Some Jews greeted the Red Army, others didn’t. Similarly, while some Jews benefited, others were punished.
The Poles had no interest in Communism. They had the Catholic church as their national religion and know those on the other side are atheists. They had Polish nationalism as their creed and know those on the other side are Russians, who once ruled them repressively, then attacked them, and now want to overturn their society. So who cares that the Russians called themselves Communist, which in fact made them even worse?
There is no question, of course, that Poles are the worst-treated group. They know the Soviets were there to destroy their country, language, and religion. Understandably, to say the least, they don’t like it.
Józef Leszkowicz, a Dolhinov resident, describes what happened to his family when the Soviets arrived:
“One day a furious Soviet soldier burst into our house, yelling at my father and asking why there was no red flag on the building. My father said we did not have one. The soldier shouted in Russian, `Give me your Polish flag!’ My father went upstairs and brought the flag we used to hang out for Polish national holidays.
“The soldier grabbed it, angrily tore off the white half, and said “Here is your red flag! Hang it outside the house!” Desecrating a Polish flag was very shocking to me. It became a symbol of Poland torn apart by two invaders. There were a lot of these `red’ flags made of damaged Polish ones hung out on our Mickiewicza street. I will never forget this awful experience.”
Within days of the invasion, more than 4,315 people in Soviet-occupied Belarus were arrested, tried by three-officer NKVD juries, and always convicted, people who’d been on the Soviet arrest list before a single Red soldier lifted his foot over the boundary line. The first to go were ethnic Poles who’d fled the USSR after the revolution and Polish ex-soldiers—“military settlers”—who’d been granted land in Poland’s wild east in recognition of their heroism in the war against the Soviets two decades earlier.
Tomasz Szczebiot, who fit both categories, must have been close to being Soviet public enemy number one. An ethnic Pole and former Czarist army captain who fought against the Communists in the Soviet-Polish war, he was living quietly in a village near Dolhinov where he was a deputy of the county supervisor. He was arrested, taken to the Vileika jail, and shot by firing squad in April 1940.
By the time the Soviets were driven out by the Germans twenty months later, almost 125,000 Polish citizens—Jews, Ukrainians, and most of all Poles, were deported. And this does not include the tens of thousands of people seized in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the rest of Poland. In Polish-ruled Belarus, as many as one in four Polish adult males were seized, beaten or tortured, thrown into vans or railway cars, and shipped off to Russia, few of them ever to return to Poland and none at all to Dolhinov itself.
Used as slave miners, farmhands, and lumberjacks, with no quarter for the young or old, riddled with disease, they were given inadequate clothing and shelter in harsh climates. No wonder so few survived.
Among them were the widow and children of Niezabytowski and Jews as well, including the family of my great uncle, Mendel Hefetz, whose crime was being a moderately successful merchant. Aharon Rubin, another Zionist who had once been wealthy—he still lived in one of the town’s few two-story homes–but lost everything in a business reverse, was accused of making a pro-Zionist remark to another man in synagogue and quickly found himself on the way to Siberia, too.
The Soviet authorities didn’t care that the accuser, another Jew, was renting a house from Rubin and knew he’d become its owner as payment for his informing, even if he made up the story. There is, however, some justice in the universe. As a result, Rubin survived the war in the USSR; the man who got him deported died in the Dolhinov ghetto.
Most of the Soviet victims—instant enemies of the people—had been leaders of either the Polish or Jewish people. So of which people were they enemies? Anyone active in Polish politics or who could be described as being among the ethnic Polish elite–town officials and policemen; doctors and lawyers; teachers and landowners–were deported. Polish Dolhinov never recovered. It was more ethnic cleansing than class struggle.
What of the Byelorussians? After 20 years under ferocious Soviet rule, many ethnic Byelorussians and Ukrainians on the Soviet side of the border would later welcome and collaborate with the Germans. In Poland itself, though, Byelorussians did not yet have any grudge against the Communist system. Their bad experience has been with Polish, not, Soviet rule.
At times during previous years when Polish Power weighs on them, no doubt they think of Russian Power. The church they go to is the Russian Orthodox Church, some chauvinism they may imbibe from it. They will not go to Russia, but if Russia comes to them they will rally to it, cheer the Red Army, and work with the Soviet administration.
As head of the town council and chief of police the Soviets install Byelorussians from villages nearby, both named Kozak though they are not close relatives. The communal council moves into the post office building on the town’s main square—it is still a post office today. In some Byelorussian villages, people erect welcome gates to show their pleasure at having the Red Army there. Even with these people, however, the Soviets will wear out their welcome rather quickly.
With the Poles mistrusted and Byelorussians lacking the necessary education to run the town and economy, the Soviets turned to Jews. Since there are no adult Communists in town, they ordered successful Jewish businessmen to take the administrative positions and respected Jewish artisans to run the workshops. Yosef Shinuk had more serious military experience than any other Jew in Dolhinov. During World War I, he’d been an Austro-Hungarian army officer and was captured by the Russians in 1917. He escaped from a near-by camp, made his way to Dolhinov, and was hidden there by the Muschcart family. Yosef married one of the family’s three daughters and stayed in Dolhinov after the war.
Shinuk was tall, strong, and spoke perfect Polish. In contrast to those who grew up in Dolhinov, he had a big-city background and socialized easily with the local Polish elite. He also was quite capable of throwing out any troublemakers. And so he took over maintaining law and order when the Poles pulled out, at the old government’s invitation—according to his son—or at the new regime’s order. The Soviets sent him for training, he was made a major, and became second-in-command for the district police, based in Krivichi.
Jews did have some indirect advantages from the Soviet standpoint. They didn’t hold government jobs, weren’t Polish nationalists, and preferred Soviet to German rule. So while almost all Poles could be considered enemies and Byelorussians perhaps friendly but lacking needed skills, the Jews could be divided into two categories. On one hand were the Zionists, Bundists, the extremely religious, and those judged to be bourgeois, who would be classified as hostile. The rest, including a tiny minority of Communists, could be coopted. And if Dolhinov did have anything that could be described as a proletariat it was overwhelmingly Jewish.
In addition, the Soviets correctly understood that the Jews posed little threat to them. In general, as one man from a nearby town put it, “The [Communist] Party knew that we Jews didn’t have any political aspirations and only wanted to work and live in peace.”
At the same time, though, the Soviets were determined to destroy Judaism as a religion and the Jewish community as an entity. Poland had best treated Judaism and Jews when it left them alone and let the community continue to function. Jews might be discriminated against in the public sphere but were left their own private sphere. Despite their complaints against the system, Dolhinov Jews had thrived in this atmosphere. They are religious in creed; Jews first and foremost in loyalty; small businessmen or artisans in trade; traditionalists, Bundists, or Zionists in politics.
In the USSR, however, the most basic aspects of their way of life are forbidden: synagogues closed, religious education banned, all commerce is in the regime’s hands. And thus the religious knew Communism is godless; the shopkeepers that their stores would be expropriated, Zionists and Bundists that their groups would be banned, themselves imprisoned. A few idealistic youths dream of utopia but that’s about all the ideological forces Uncle Joe Stalin can muster in town.
The two leaders of Dolhinov’s dozen Communists were Shmuel Halperin and Benny Feinsilber, both in their early twenties. The two men had much in common. Both came from financially secure families which had come on hard times due to the deaths of parents, were the youngest children, and the sole Communists in otherwise energetically Zionist and religious families.
Halperin was the son of a distinguished rabbi who had studied at the most prestigious yeshiva alongside Chaim Bailik, who later became Israel’s national poet. But his father died when Halperin was an infant. Two of his siblings emigrated to the Land of Israel before the war.
Feinsilber had been taken as a teenager to Vilna by his older brother, Abrasha, who was working there. Growing up in a big-city atmosphere he was radicalized. Drafted into the Polish army in the late 1930s, Benny had been given a hard time, either for his ethnicity or his politics, and had fled to the USSR, returning to Dolhinov with the Red Army in 1939, then fleeing with them when the Soviets retreated in 1941.
Both of them broke with the movement after the war’s end. Halperin was on his way to Israel in the mid-1950s when he was killed in an auto accident in Austria. His sister, Sonia, studied in Moscow and became a surgeon. But seeing the handwriting on the wall, got out of the USSR to Israel in the early 1950s just in time before Stalin’s crackdown on Jewish doctors would have sent her to prison.
Feinsilber, too, made it to Israel after becoming a lawyer in the USSR. I had hoped he would give me a vivid picture of what it was like to be a Communist in Dolhinov and an inside story of the Soviet government in the town. At age 92, he was quite articulate until it was clear that I wanted an interview. Suddenly, he simply couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. Time after time he found some excuse to avoid meeting. Even almost 70 years after he’d left Dolhinov just ahead of the Germans, the old underground training prevailed—or a desire to hide his past—and he kept his secrets to himself.
And so if Jews welcomed Soviet soldiers into Dolhinov in 1939 it was because they hoped to be saved from the Nazis and for the hope of going to university, relief from the antisemitism of late 1930s Poland, and the possibility of getting jobs hitherto barred to them due to discrimination. Polish nationalists may think every Jew is a secret Communist but that certainly isn’t true. What is true, and will make a lasting and deeply negative impression on the Poles, is that many of the Soviet officials who come into Poland with the Red Army are Jews.
Though separated by that nearby border only 20 years, a huge gap has grown these two groups of Jews. Those on the Polish side are still religious, restricted to traditional occupations, and have primary allegiance to their own community. Across the border, their compatriots have undergone intensive secularization, modernization, and Russianization. They’ve been turned into atheists who still have some consciousness as ethnic Jews but know better than to talk about it in public. This is the price they pay for seizing chances the revolution offers and avoiding the punishments it so freely dispenses.
The Dolhinov Jews are simultaneously fascinated by this transformation, repelled by the extent they are no longer traditional Jews, amused by their smugness, appalled by their relative poverty and lack of social freedom, but impressed at their feeling of individual freedom. For them, the Soviet soldiers are more like Hebrews from the Bible: strong, confident, masters of their own fate, than ghetto Jews. Ironically, though they are working for someone else instead of their own people, these soldiers seem to embody the new Jew that the Zionists and Bundists want to create, Thus, Dolhinov Jews eagerly cluster around the Soviet Jewish soldiers asking them questions in Yiddish.
Yet once the initial shock of contact wears off, Dolhinov Jews also see how the Soviets deliberately show films Friday night, close the synagogue, and force them to work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The goal is simultaneously to seduce and bludgeon them away from their own religion and customs. As Esfira Dimenshtein, a little girl at the time, put it, “They closed the synagogue and we became ordinary Russians.”
As a Polish soldier during the war, Abram Dimenstein had been wounded while fighting against the Soviets. Disabled, he received a government license to sell vodka, wine, and tobacco. But in 1939, his shop was confiscated, the family savings in Polish currency were now worthless, and he had to take a job as a herdsman for a while. As a suspected Polish sympathizer, his identification card marked him as an enemy of the state. He was briefly arrested and interrogated, though released.
In contrast, his Communist brother, Israel, who’d spent years in a Polish prison for the cause, was pleased when the Soviets arrived. But, like many dedicated Polish Communist his devotion to Stalin was questioned. He was quickly arrested and vanished forever into a Soviet concentration camp.
The schools are one of this culture war’s main battlefronts. At the Jewish Tarbut school, Hebrew is banned to root out any Zionist orientation. Only Yiddish is used for instruction; and Russian replaces Polish as the second language. Classes are held—in contrast to previous practice—on Friday and Saturday. There is intense Soviet indoctrination in the classroom and through the new Young Communist organization.
Some students protest by refusing to write on Saturday and bring no lunch with them on Yom Kippur. They wear blue Zionist youth group shirts to school, make anti-Soviet jokes when no teachers are listening, write graffiti when none are watching, and pass around forbidden Zionist literature. Their most daring escapade was in rescuing Hebrew-language books stored away in the school and hiding them in safe places. But there was little they could do without endangering themselves or their parents.
The Polish state school was also transformed. Rather than graduate, students are put back two years. The Soviets claimed this is because their school system was superior; in fact, it is to give them a stronger dose of Communist indoctrination before going out into the brave new world of Soviet domination. Polish nationalist teachers were fired and the new headmaster is a Red Army captain. A night school for adults is opened, run by a uniformed NKVD officer, both to develop administrators and spot potential agents.
As the language of instruction, Russian and Byelorussian replaced Polish. The Soviet authorities removed crucifixes and Pilsudski portraits and lined the school corridors with anti-religious posters. Students were encouraged to report anyone who attended church. At first, Polish Catholic students prayed before class, but this was soon forbidden.
Clearly, a lot of the ethnic Poles blamed Jews as being the agents of the Soviet system. Polish students complained that the new teachers were unqualified Jews whose Russian was not fluent and whose accent in Byelorussian—a language they resented studying at all—was particularly vulgar. The Polish teachers had been gentlemanly, meticulously dressed in jacket and calling the boys “mister,” a word associated with the aristocracy and now banned. In contrast, the new teachers, largely Jewish, are considered slovenly, a female instructor attracts particular ridicule in this regard as her undershirt is sometimes visible, sticking out at the waist.
While Polish antisemitism certainly existed before September 1939—in fact it was a major cause for how many Jews acted in the Soviet period—it was now intensified.
Of all Europe’s countries, Poland has the most and largest proportion of Jews. They are ten percent of the population, 3.5 million people, more than anywhere else in the world except for America. In the midst of the modernization process, many already live in cities yet most are also still Yiddish speakers. For totally arbitrary reasons, for completely extraneous reasons, all of their world and almost every single one of those people is about to be eradicated. The Poles themselves will only narrowly escape that fate.
The best thing about Soviet rule, from the Dolhinov Jewish perspective, is that it isn’t Nazi rule. Up until that moment when the Red Army enters its streets, they were expecting the Germans goose-stepping instead within a few days. Already, about 1000 Jewish refugees from further west in Poland had fled into town. The hardly prosperous Jewish community had to house and feed them. And so the unexpected arrival of the Red Army had to seem to them a better alternative.
Moshe Kleinbaum a leader of the General Zionist movement, to which Mendel Hefetz belonged, on March 12, 1940, characterized the Jewish attitude: “We had been sentenced to death, but now our sentence has been commuted—to life imprisonment.” He concluded, “At least 80 percent of the Jews think this way….Anyone who represents the response of the Jewish community of Eastern Poland to the entry of the Red Army differently distorts the truth.”
` In some nearby towns the Germans had temporarily taken over Russian zones before the Soviets arrived so Jews there had a taste of what their rule would mean—looting, burning synagogues, beating up Jews One Jew explained, “I know who the Bolsheviks are. I know they’ll take my property, but they will leave me with my life.” “The main thing,” said a Zionist in another town though he knew he would be subject to persecution “is that we escaped the predatory claws of the Nazi beasts at the very last moment.”
At the same time, though, the report of Jan Karski to the Polish exile government was also true. He explained that it was “quite understandable” that the Jewish proletariat, small merchants, artisans, and all those whose position has been improved structurally have “responded positively, if not enthusiastically, to the new regime.” But he also noted the “worse cases” where Jews denounced Poles to the Soviet authorities were “quite common,” more so than incidents “which reveal loyalty toward Poles or sentiment toward Poland”
The doubts of Jews in Dolhinov and other towns about the glorious worker’s paradise were quickly reinforced by experience. Having always enjoyed fresh food whatever deprivations suffered otherwise, they now had to stand in line to buy loaves of what they called, “Glue, not bread.” Ida Friedman recalled, “Even bread was scarce and the bread that they did make was horrible. We had to go at 5 AM to stand in a long line for hours for a piece of inedible bread. Life was very poor and hard.”
The worst advertisements for the Soviet system were the Red Army soldiers themselves, who so obviously came from a more backward society. To them, poverty-stricken eastern Poland was a land of plenty by comparison.
As one Jew in a neighboring town recalled:
“Soviet propaganda always depicted the working classes of other countries as hungry, deprived, and exploited. But when the Soviet soldiers occupied eastern Poland, they found stores full of food, clothes, shoes, watches, and other items, which the working class was buying without lines or restrictions. This baffled them and shook their trust in the validity of the stories they had been told all their lives. But when asked by the local population about the conditions in the Soviet Union, the soldiers always said: `Oh, yes, we have everything, even matches.’”
Both amused and tired of hearing this, the same young man once jokingly asked a soldier who came into his shop whether there were “kadahat”—the Hebrew word for plague–in the Soviet Union. Not knowing the word but deciding it must be something good, he said, “Oh, yes, even more than you can get here.”
Clearly, the Soviets who came in were not just scared but had been genuinely successfully indoctrinated. At least those raised in a closed society, with neither memory of what had been before nor knowledge of what existed elsewhere, genuinely believed their doctrine and did indeed love Big Brother. At the same time, though, their human nature had not been ennobled by Communism. Aside from antisemitism, in which they could hardly compete with the Germans, the Soviets were every bit as arrogant, brutal, and eager to steal.
While there was no persecution of Jews as such, this did not mean that, as became an article of belief in Poland, the Jews supported Soviet rule and benefited from it, apart from being given—through no intention of Moscow–safe haven from the Germans.
Here is a more typical story. In Brest, to the north, there was a simple Jewish man, a driver of a wooden cart pulled by a horse who had a contract to deliver food to the Polish army. This is all even the NKVD files accused him of doing. He was sentenced to be deported to Siberia and never came back. All three of the NKVD officers who condemned him-as they did many Poles as well—had Jewish names.
But on no occasion is any Dolhinov Jew accused of killing, or even beating, anyone else. Chaya Katzovitz recounted that one-day Rosa Shinuk told Chaya’s mother that Yosef Shinuk, her husband, was quitting as the region’s deputy police chief. Katzovitz asked, “Why should he leave such an important job at a time when jobs and money are so hard to find?”
Rosa replied; “They want him to make a list of the well to do Polish people to be sent to Siberia and he befriended them and made money from them for many years and he does not want to do it!” Yosef instead became head of Krivichi’s bakery. This story could be taken as self-serving, but since it comes from a disinterested witness it rings true.
The Soviets say they are mobilizing the poor in a class struggle but the workers of Dolhinov are mostly Jewish and self-employed. The regime dispossesses them. And in reality, what the regime actually does is to give opportunities for criminals, drunkards, bullies, the covetous, and those of bad character who are eager to take advantage of the situation. You need merely denounce someone and get their property, the same system prevailing under the Germans. But for the Poles the collaborators with the Soviets are largely perceived as Jews, a stereotype both exaggerated and true. When a Polish landlord is dispossessed, some of his furniture is stolen, a Polish resident recounts, “Later bought dirt-cheap by some Jews from Dołhinov,” though they had to battle some “heroic Communists” who wanted the goods for themselves.
Many Poles made little distinction between these two groups. Consider Maria Petrozhitsky Dubashinsky of Dolhinov who still lives there today, and remained in the town for almost two years under the Soviets, three years under the Nazis, another 46 years under the Soviets, and almost two decades in Russian-speaking Belarus. Even her name had to change for the Polish “sky” became the Russian “vitch.” As she tells it in 2008, in fluent Russian of course, the most important year of her life was 1939, an unimaginably long time ago for almost all those who walk the earth today.
Her husband went off with the Polish army and never came home, probably killed by the Germans. Waiting for him, she is still living at home with her family and her beloved father, for whom her pride shines through a lifetime later. And if she exaggerates, it is not so much the bragging of status climbing but what borders on paternal worship.
He was the manufacturer of internationally renowned shoes, name known and respected in several countries for quality. By Dolhinov standards he was a capitalist on a major scale, employing four or five shoemakers. In pursuing his business, he spoke five languages—Polish, Belarus, Russian, German, and Yiddish. Known and loved by all, an important man by any measure.
It was a profile fatal under Soviet rule. He was quickly arrested, sent to Siberia, and never seen in Dolhinov again. Yet his arrest didn’t just happen. He was, she continued, turned in by Jewish Communists who pointed him out to the NKVD. “That’s what caused the hate,” she explained, “the terrible things that Jews had done to Poles” or, more specifically, at that time to “Polish people who were wealthy or at war against the Soviet power.” My translator looked uncomfortable; I think my wife actually gasped. Here was the famous Polish anti-Semitism.
And yet her words didn’t bother me at all. For if her story was true it is logical for her to feel that way, no abstraction of history. Of course, she had already said and quickly added again, many of her friends were Jewish and everyone got along well. She tells the embarrassingly unlikely story that her husband wanted to hide a local Jew—but she had already claimed he was dead in 1939, long before they needed hiding.
The Jews paid dearly for the pretensions of Jewish Communists to make the masses love them by serving their “true” needs. They would do away with all religion, classes, and nations—first and foremost their own people—to make a better world. And what was the result? Their deeds helped to destroy their own community—directly in Communist lands, indirectly in those where the identification of Jews with Communism fomented antisemitism–the persecution of the whole population, dire damage to their countries, violence, death, and economic stagnation. To ignore or denounce what Maria said is to discard an important factor in understanding history and a lesson in avoiding the same mistakes again.
But how true was her specific story? Months later, I realized that I had not written her father’s first name down, if she had ever said it. But nowadays such things are easily remedied and stories checked. To find his given name, I looked up the 1929 Polish business directory for Dolhinov, or in its Polish version, Dolhinów. On page 2073 there are those who engage in obuwie, shoe, manufacture: Alperowicz, S.; Gutman, Sz.; Kuperowicz, Z; Kuziniec, Sz; Ryjer, J. He isn’t there.
So is this story of his prominence a myth? Was he a lowly shoemaker employed by someone else or did his rise simply begin after 1929? Still, whether he was a minor prince of shoes or a relative pauper of sole, the story was repeated thousands of time under the benevolent rule of the proletariat’s champions in Belarus, 1939.
It wasn’t as if the Soviets didn’t need shoemakers. Shalom Yoran, from a town near Dolhinov and who later fled there, recalled how once after waiting in a long line to buy shoes, he was given two left shoes
“When I complained to the salesgirl she told me that was all she had and I’d better hang on to them in the hope that the next supply would bring right shoes, regardless of style or color, and I would then own two pairs. I never did get the right shoes.”
There is no doubt that the Poles were the main victims of Soviet occupation. Stalin’s basic goal was to destroy the Polish elite to such an extent that the country could never rise again. If Soviet policy was not “genocidal” in the sense that—unlike the Germans toward the Jews—the goal was not to wipe out a whole people, it was to kill so many as to ensure their national existence would forever disappear.
Henry, Piotr’s 18-year-old son, and his friends were not going to accept this situation. Far from being bowed by their experience with the defeated Polish army, they were still ready to fight, planning to sabotage the hated Russians. Piotr supported his son’s courageous, dangerous efforts. From a sympathetic Jewish friend whom the Soviets had made a town official, he got inside information. But such amateur efforts could not long escape the KGB’s tireless search for enemies.
On February 10, 1940, around 3 a.m. loud shouts and crises could be heard from the direction of the military farmers’ settlements on the Siarczysta river. The NKVD had begun rounding up the ex-servicemen and anyone considered a likely oppositionist. At 7 AM they got to the Leszkiewicz house. There was a loud knocking on the door. Outside were three Red Army soldiers with fixed bayonets and guns at the ready, two NKVD officers, and Adam Dubaniewicz, a local man working for the secret police.
They had come for Antoni, one of the leaders of the resistance group. He was hardly surprised, putting on a military-style suit and warm socks for the journey. His mother put a saint’s picture in his pocket to protect him from evil. Searching the house, the soldiers took some books and magazines, then told Antoni to say goodbye to his family. His mother was sobbing and he tried to comfort her saying he was young, strong, and would survive and come home. He kissed the crucifix and told his family, “May God be with you!”
The soldiers pushed him outside where he said goodbye to the family dog who began to howl. They took him to the People’s House where he was united with the members of his underground group, including Henryk. In all, 27 Polish families were deported from Dolhinov on February 10, including those of police officers and the Niezabitowskis. Others, including their friends, Dr. Sadowski’s family, were to face the same fate in June.
But Henryk and Antoni along with their little amateur resistance group were too important to be shipped away without a thorough interrogation. Around noon they were loaded on sleds to be taken away. They burst into the Polish national anthem but the Soviet soldiers prodded them with their bayonets and silenced them.
Their destination was Vileika’s prison. At 4 AM nine days later, came the pounding on the Bilewicz’sdoor once again. An officer and four Soviet soldiers pushed their way into the house and ordered the family to dress and pack their bags. But where was Piotr? The officer was nervous, concerned that he would be blamed if a dangerous enemy of the people escaped. He was at the mill, Eugenia, explained, called out on some emergency when equipment broke down. “Go find him. Fast,” the officer snapped to one of his men. The soldiers stood in every doorway, rifles ready. In a few minutes, the soldier was back with Piotr in tow.
They all stepped outside their little home for the last time, never to return. It was incredibly cold, even by Dolhinov’s tough standards. Outside there were farm carts, one of them driven by sixteen-year-old Victor Rubin, my cousin, pressed into service by the Soviets for the task. The family climbed aboard and slowly it set off, down May 5 Road, past the main market, down Pilsudski Street and off on the 11-mile trip to the Boreslav train station. It was one of the coldest days in Dolhinov history, 40 degrees below zero, Celcius.
There, they were loaded onto cattle cars, 50 people in each, for two solid weeks. With the Bilewicz’s were many others from Dolhinov. The February Russian weather was freezing. They were given no water for washing and only two buckets a day for drinking. For bathroom purposes there was a hole in the car’s floor. And the train stopped once a day so they could get some exercise. The prisoners caught lice and dysentery.
On arrival in Sverdlosk, things didn’t get much better. The guards stole most of their remaining possessions, then they were forced to walk through the night and hit with rifle butts by the guards if they lagged behind. Once in the camp, they were put in barracks with 20 to 30 people, beds all around the walls. After a one-day rest, they had to work underground in a copper mine in the coldest weather, from 5 AM to 8 PM, with no warm clothing, and only bread to eat.
Heavy quotas had to be filled, with work extended up to two hours to make sure enough was produced. Workers too tired to continue were pulled out of line and shot. Several hundred thousand Poles die under these conditions, including two of the Bilewicz daughters by typhoid and dysentery. Every morning there were those who simply did not awaken. The only improvement was that they were moved into a barracks with small rooms for each family.
“To Poles,” Zdzislawa remarked years later, “this treatment from the Russians was nothing new. Everyone knew what it meant when Siberia was the destination.”
And there was one final irony. Since the Soviets were still allied with the Nazis, much of the food, coal, or other goods produced by the slave laborers in 1940 and the first half of 1941—up until the day of the German attack on the USSR–were shipped off to Germany.
When the Germans attacked the USSR, the prisoners’ bread ration was further reduced. “Now you are allies,” the guards told them, “so you should work harder.” While this new war would kill so many townspeople back in Dolhinov, however, it saved the slave laborers in Siberia. For the USSR and Poland were now indeed allies. On July 30, 1941, the two countries signed an agreement which, among other things, said that all Polish prisoners would be released and those who so wished could join the Polish army.
In Riyazen, however, where he was imprisoned until September 1941, Henry knew none of this. One day, in September, Soviet secret police dragged him out of his cell, brought him to their interrogation room, and berated him for several hours, trying to persuade him to join the Red Army in exchange for being released.
When he refused, their tone changed from wheedling to threatening.”If you don’t agree,” they warned, “you’ll rot in prison until you die.” They returned him to his cell to think about it for a while.
The next day they tried the same tactic for another two hours. When they finally concluded he’d never give in, they grudgingly informed him of the Soviet-Polish agreement. If he wanted to join the Polish army and fight the Nazis, the NKVD man told Henry, they’d let him go. To that, he quickly agreed.
And so he was escorted out the prison gates, with no idea where he might find the Polish army. Following a rumor, he somehow travelled 537 miles to Samara, only to hear there he must go to Buzuluk, another 900 miles. And in Buzuluk he was told to go to Totskoye, another 701 miles. But finally, he found the newly forming army of free Poland and immediately enlisted.
Unbeknownst to Henry, his family was undergoing a similar process. At their work camp, guards told the Bilewicz family they were now free to go wherever they wanted, provided they could pay for the train tickets. They sold whatever they could to get to Tashkent where Piotr and their remaining son joined the army. The whole family was put on a slow train through the USSR en route to Iran. As the train moved westward toward the Black Sea, it passed thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing from the Nazis. Then they sailed across the Caspian Sea to Iran. The Poles were shocked to be back in a land of peace and plentiful food.
Now, they were in friendly hands at last. British army trucks picked them up and took them to three well-organized camps near Tehran. They were all undressed and had their hair cut, to destroy any lice or diseases they might be carrying. Their clothing was burned. The civilians were dressed in new duds sent from America; the soldiers in British uniforms. Everyone was inoculated against typhoid and dysentery. The Polish army and family members were then shipped out to Jerusalem, ironically arriving there long before any of the Dolhinov Jews did. Then they went to North Africa, and fought in Italy and France. The Bilewicz family only reunited in England in 1947.
They couldn’t go back to Dolhinov which was no longer in Poland, nor to Poland, which was no longer really ruled by Poles. Henry went to Canada; his sister emigrated to the United States with her American husband in 1955 and ended up living in Albany, New York. His friend Antoni Leszkiewicz who also survived the march from the Vileika prison, enlisted in the Polish army at age 17. Eventually, he arrived in England and trained as a pilot. He was killed in an air crash on May 23, 1944.
Quick cut to 70 years later. I’m just outside of Tel Aviv at a dinner after an Israel-India academic conference. One of the Indian participants has brought his aged and fragile father with him to visit Israel. It is truly moving to see this younger—albeit in his 40s at least—professor’s solicitude for his father. But why, I asked, did he want to come here? The Indian professor explained that during World War Two his father had been stationed here as a young lieutenant with a British army transport unit. One of his jobs was to drive the soldiers and family of the Polish army, commanded by General Władysław Anders, from Tehran to Jerusalem.
“The Anders army?” overhears one of my Israeli colleagues. “My uncle was in it, too,” but like many of the Jewish soldiers, he had decided to stay in the land of Israel.
Perhaps the Bilewicz’s and the uncle were once in the same truck, bumping down the long road from Tehran to Jerusalem, while the Indian professor’s father glanced at the map and directed the driver.
That’s the texture of history.
And this is, too:
Perhaps one day, while back home in Dolhinov in 1939, Zdzislawa and her family were walking to or from church on Sunday and they passed a little girl who lived nearby. That would have been my fifth cousin, Asia, born in 1930. Though they almost certainly never met, I like to think of them passing each other on the street, glancing at each other for a moment in a tiny, forgotten event that exists in no memory but which only I can reconstruct in my own mind.
Asia’s grandfather, Natan, was my great-grandmother’s brother. Natan and his wife, Malka, had scrimped and saved in their little store. Since it was so hard for Jews to study in Poland, their son Mendel Hefetz, who had no Communist sympathies, made the bold decision to go to the USSR just after the revolution and came home in 1923 with his pharmacists’ degree from the University of Tomsk. When his mother died five years later, he took over the store and turned it into a pharmacy.
Mendel did well financially by Dolhinov terms. While Mendel, his wife, and daughter Sonia had to work in the store, they were able to afford a village girl to act as maid and look after little Asia. But Mendel found time to be active in community affairs.
What he had seen in the USSR made him very skeptical about Communism. He was an active Zionist and headed the Jewish National Fund branch in Dolhinov. The Soviet occupation authorities took over the pharmacy and he had to find work elsewhere. The family could no longer afford their house and moved to May 3 Street. had to study in Yiddish rather than Hebrew at the Tarbut school.
Both because of his political activities and the fact that he had left the USSR, an unforgivable sin for the Soviets, he was on their list. His identity card warned all who could read the coded numbers that he was not on good personal terms with Stalin.
And so the NKVD finally showed up at the Hefetz home at 4 AM on June 20, 1941. Like the Bilewicz family, they were carted to the station. For Asia, the whole thing was like a dream. The train just stood in the station all that day. The family took what comfort it could in being together. Then the freight car door slid open with a screech and the light poured in. On the ground were NKVD uniformed soldiers, “Mendel Hefetz!” they shouted. A shudder ran through the family.
He turned to kiss them, murmuring some comforting words, “Only an interrogation….I’ll be right back. Perhaps they are going to let us go home.” He jumped to the ground, a soldier pointed out the direction he should go. Another one slowly slid the door closed as a shadow fell on his family.
Why had they taken him off the train? To ensure the supposedly dangerous middle-aged pharmacist didn’t escape? They put him in a car and sped off, westward, to Vileika prison.
The next morning, his family was awakened not by Mendel’s return but by the train’s screeching wheels, the jerk forward and sudden stop of the brake test. And then the train began to move eastward. Their hopes of Mendel’s return were shattered, but soon they had other worries. They did not leave that freight car for a month, all the way to the Ural mountains, to forced labor at a Soviet collective farm.
Henry was among the 2000 men and 200 women arrested by the Soviets sent to Vileika prison. In Henry’s cell there were 50 men though proper room only for 15. There were no mattresses and not enough room for everyone to lie down on the floor.
The prisoners were awakened at 8 AM, stood for roll call, and then received 600 grams of bread and a half-liter of hot water. Then prisoners talked and picked lice off each other until lunch, at noon, which was one liter of fish soup and a few grains of groats; then, more conversation until supper which was a half-liter of broth. Much of the conversation must have been about home and the future. The present was too unpleasant to contemplate.
At night, the NKVD interrogators came and pulled prisoners out of the cell. They were taken to the interrogation room, accused of crimes they had not committed. If they refused to confess, they would be beaten until unconscious and sometimes thrown into punishment cells, naked with water up to their knees. There were no subtle psychological effects; no deals offered for implicating others. Whether accurately or out of youthful nationalist zeal that couldn’t imagine any real Pole betraying his fellows, Henry claimed that all the informants among the prisoners were Jews.
This was not the secret police’s elite force with some agenda of its own. The interrogators were just filling their quotas and punching the prisoners as a way of punching the clock. With no incentive for admitting anything, and given the deep national hatred involved, there were no confessions or trials. And with typical Stalinist irony, mistreatment was alternated with totally ineffective Communist education meetings trying to persuade the inmates that they should support the regime.
One day, the NKVD shoved in still another Jewish prisoner, Mendel Hefetz, the last one to be added. It probably didn’t take long for the two men from Dolhinov to find each other. Not only were they from the same town but must have known each other through Dr. Sadowski, friend of Henry’s family and source for much of the business at Mendel’s pharmacy. Henry was eager for news of the town.
But they were not to remain together there for long. When they awoke the next morning after Mendel’s arrival, they heard the astonishing news: Germany had attacked the USSR. What did this mean for the prisoners? The Soviets weren’t going to let them fall into German hands. The Poles might go over to the Germans to seek revenge; as for the Jews, the secret police didn’t like to give up their property.
And so the first thing the prison authorities did when they heard about the German invasion is to order two large trenches dug, one in front of the women’s prison, the other in the garden of the men’s prison. On June 22, 12 men and 2 women were quickly tried for having aided the underground and sentenced to the firing squad. One of them, Eugeniusz Kosciukiewicz, a student, returned to the cell and announced his own death. They were all shot the next day.
Two days later, at 3 PM on June 24, guards entered the cell of Henry and Mendel and read a list. “The following prisoners, unfit to be evacuated, will remain in their cells….The following prisoners, are sentenced to death….The following prisoners will await sentencing under Article 120 of the penal code of the Soviet Union….” Each man who heard his name knew that his life was at an end.
“The remaining prisoners,” continued the guard, “will prepare to leave immediately. You may take personal items but you cannot take straw, mattresses or heavy objects. Now, move!”
The cell door opened and the men marched out. About 1500 waited stood under the summer sun, waiting. Then an officer stood in front of them, and read 20 more names of those who wouldn’t be going anywhere, ever again. Guards rushed around, organizing the remaining men into two groups. Again, the order to march was given, and they walked straight out the prison gates, but not too freedom.
“Halt and get down on your knees!” Down to the dust knelt 1500 men. From behind they heard sounds. From the other side of the prison, 400 women were marched out, to form the end of the column.
In the silence, the air pressed against their eardrums. All the prison guards, all the NKVD agents, all the interrogators, all the Soviet militia of the province stood at attention around them. Everyone was there except the few NKVD men who were busy murdering the remaining 108 prisoners and burying them in the trenches already prepared.
Henry and Mendel, the heirs of 500 years of Dolhinov history, waited. Up stepped the prison’s director: “I am going to tell you how you will behave during the coming march,” he said. “Anyone who breaks out of line will be shot. A step to the right; a step to the left; a shot to the head!” He paused to let his words sink in. “Stand up!” he shouted. And the column rose, the soldiers stood at attention, and off they headed eastward.
Down the hot, dusty roads they marched, accompanied by several horse-drawn wagons to carry supplies and some weaker prisoners that Moscow wanted for further interrogation. From time to time, a name would be called out “To return to Vileika,” a euphemism for being taken aside and shot.
About noon of the next day, June 25, a Soviet plane came down out of the skies, lower and lower, until it seemed about to crash. Instead, it swooped down and landed on the flat ground. The reason why was soon apparent, three German warplanes, like hawks, had been chasing it. “Lie down! Lie down!” yelled the guards, as they themselves dived into ditches and bushes by the roadside.
They raised their rifles and machineguns at the planes and ineffectively opened fire. Many of the prisoners, Polish soldiers themselves, faces pressed against the ground, couldn’t help but sneer at the waste of ammunition. But the fire drew the attention of the German pilots, who dove on the column, unleashed their machineguns, and dropped some small bombs. None of the prisoners were hit but two of the NKVD men were killed.
And then chaos truly erupted. Frightened by the gunfire, the horses raced away, their wagons overturned. Panicked guards, who had never seen combat, began shooting in all directions, killing the horses. Afraid they were losing control of the far more numerous prisoners, they ordered, “Run! Run! To the woods! Carry nothing with you!”
The prisoners, spurred by the bombs, bullets, and bayonets, ran. If a guard saw a prisoner had anything in his hands, he’d thrust his bayonet at him until the item was dropped. Other guards riddled with bullets prisoners who’d fallen off the wagons. Some of the prisoners stepped on swampy ground and were too weak to break free of the mud. They, too, were shot down where they stood.
Into the woods they all went, forced into a run. From the rear, there was continuous gunfire as NKVD men with revolvers, enraged at their own display of cowardice and fearful that anyone escape, shot those who didn’t keep up. For an hour, men dragged on their friends. Guards on horses covered the flanks, shooting anyone who even looked like they were thinking of escaping.
Yet somehow Mendel did. How did this pharmacist get away? One advantage he had was that he had been in prison for only a day and was still decently fed and in good health. Determined to find his family no matter what the risk, Mendel headed back to Dolhinov.
For Henry, though, there was no such luck. Only when they reached Pleszczenice at 1pm were they allowed to rest. And then took place one of those little dramas of history, of true heroism, which if not remembered dishonor all posterity. Czeslaw Siwicki, a high school student, had had enough. Knowing full well what would happen to him, he berated the guards for murdering his people. He shouted out his protest at the Soviet dictatorship trampling Poland.
The column was halted. Unlike all the other killings, Siwicki would get some ceremony. The prisoners were forced to watch as he was executed.
For four and a half days, 100 miles, with no crust of bread, drink of water, or stop for rest, they were forced onward, one-quarter of them dying along the way, just another of the many unrecorded atrocities of hidden Soviet history.
The German army was advancing fast behind them and the guards had orders to kill everyone rather than let them be captured. Onward, the guards urged them, faster, prodding their bayonets into the prisoners. Suddenly, above, German planes could be heard, the screeching grew loud and everyone scattered. The spit of a fighter plane’s machinegun increased the panic. By accident, though seemingly by design, seven guards but none of the prisoners were killed. The next day much the same thing happened.
Panicking themselves, the secret policemen wanted to get as far from the Germans as fast as possible. Older and weaker men fell onto the road. “Get up!” screamed a guard. And if the man didn’t instantly rise, he was shot where he lay. Some of them were too tired and demoralized to care any more. Gradually, everyone dropped the bundles of their most precious possessions.
They came to the Beresina River, where Napoleon’s army had left behind so many bodies. Unwilling to waste bullets, the guards bayoneted those who had fallen. Desperate men bit their lips to draw blood or drank their own urine to assuage their overwhelming thirst. Finally, they arrived at the Boreslav train station, just north of Dolhinov, where they were given four pieces of hardtack and a drink of water. It was where Henry’s family had been sent to Siberia 16 months earlier and Mendel’s just a week before.
Chafetz had escaped but not seeing him any more Henry thought that the, “aptekarz Szejfer” had died somewhere along the road. Many others did: a lawyer and a landowner, a Treasury department employee and a deputy mayor; a student and an engineer; a farmer and Professor Kazimir Muraszko, director of Henry’s school.
The prisoners were shoved into freight cars for an eight-day journey through Moscow to Riazan. Only twice during that time were the prisoners fed: crackers, four pieces of sugar each, and water. When Klaudiusz Mirowicz of Vileika died, the other men had to live with his body for three days, until they finally arrived and the guards told them to take it out and lay it on the station platform in Riazan. Józef Jaroszewicz, deputy postmaster in Vileika, driven beyond endurance by the thirst and pain, committed suicide.
As Henry’s train clatters toward Siberia, we should follow Mendel for a moment to learn his fate. When Mendel returned to Dolhinov, he found his family gone and the Germans there. He was trapped. Perhaps he took some comfort in thinking they were safe far to the east. I very much hope so. Mendel moved in with his next-door neighbor, Aharon and Chaya Perlmutter, or perhaps Aharon was already dead.
When Asia told me this, 70 years after the events, I gasped. For years I had been searching for something about my grandfather’s younger sister. And here the personal element collides with the profound closeness of that society. For in taking refuge, my uncle on my mother’s side was now living with my aunt on my father’s side. Was the fact that the two families were united by marriage—a marriage that would result in me—a factor here?
Then came the first massacre. About 1200 Jews stood lined up, waiting for hours to know whether they would live another day. Mendel, as a pharmacist, was important to the Germans; Aharon Perlmutter, as a horse trader, wasn’t.
And so when the German commander read Mendel’s name—as one of the experts who would be saved, for a while, as all the others went into the fire—he had an opportunity. The lists, prepared by the Soviets, showed he had a wife and two children. And the Germans had no way of knowing they were now in Siberia. He grabbed Chaya and the two Perlmutter boys, Jacob, 10, and Chaim, 12, and claimed them as his. Mendel, as well as Chaya, Jacob, and Chaim, were hustled away by the Polish police or Latvian SS men, looking back for the last time at their father. And their father could only take comfort in the knowledge that he would die in a few minutes but his wife and sons would survive. Everyone else was forced into the hay warehouses and burnt alive.
Mendel and the three he had saved lived on three months more and were among the last Jews to live, and die, in Dolhinov in 1942.
Meanwhile, Asia’s aunt and her doctor husband had fled from the Germans to the USSR and were living in the Ural mountains. The aunt searched for Asia’s family and finally found them–Asia studying in school; her mother working in the fields—and brought them to live with her. There, they received a letter just before the war ended, that Mendel was dead. In 1946 they returned to Poland and were resettled in a part of Germany taken over by Poland, supported by the uncle. Finally, on December 25, 1949, they arrived in Israel
One day, a couple of years later, Asia was visiting an uncle who was a doctor at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. While she was waiting in the lobby a man came up to her and said, “I know you from Dolhinov. I was the last one to see your father alive.” He was a son of the Hassidic rabbi who had been a liaison with the partisans. “I came into town and got medicine from your father for our soldiers. No sooner had I returned to the forest that I learned that afternoon the Germans had wiped out the last Jews of our town.”
But to go back to 1940, when a different dictatorship temporarily ruled Dolhinov. In every city and town, Polish intellectuals, political activists, businesspeople, officials, priests, and others were arrested and either deported to Siberia or killed. The order for murder came from the highest level: the Soviet Communist party’s Politburo, on March 5, 1940, which instructed the NKVD secret police to shoot 25,700 people including Polish army officers, government officials, landowners, police, factory owners, and others.
The most notorious killing ground was in the Katyn forest, x miles from Dolhinov, where more than 4,000 Polish officers and civilian notables were cold-bloodily murdered in precisely the same assembly-line fashion the Nazis used on Jews. The victims were trucked in carrying their possessions, herded into a small area, and then shot down with rifles and machineguns to be buried in mass graves. The Soviets hid the atrocity and most of the world has now forgotten it.
No compensation was paid; no one punished. The Nazi mass murders of Jews and others were the worst crime of World War Two, the Soviet massacres of the Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians is the worst forgotten and unpunished crime of that war in Europe.
Yet while focusing their fire on the Poles, the Soviets accorded no special privilege to Jews, who were judged solely on a class and political basis. Ponemarenko, secretary of the Belarus Communist Party—and soon to be commander of all Soviet partisans after the German invasion—lectured Yiddish writers in the conquered territories that the Zionists, Bundists, religious and bourgeois Jews had helped the Polish authorities divide the workers.
These forces, he insisted, must be annihilated along with right-wing Polish nationalists and fascists. And when a Stalinist official said “annihilated” he meant it literally. All those in the audience had to jump to their feet and applaud wildly lest they be numbered among those to be liquidated. Thus, community-oriented Jews and antisemites were denounced in the same breath, and that indeed reflected Soviet policy.
Rabbi Mordechai Murock, a religious Zionist leader in Soviet-occupied Latvia, tried to gain the interrogator’s sympathy in early 1941 by pointing out his own active role in the anti-Nazi struggle. The Soviet official replied, “Hitler is our friend and ally. We do not wish to hear anything against him.”
Peretz Markish, one of the most famous of Soviet Yiddish writers, was sent to annexed eastern Poland on a speaking tour. He asked one local writer for a private meeting to whisper the truth, but begging he tell no one: “They’ll leave you alone for a little while, a year or two, maybe more, and then they’ll wipe everything out.” Less than a decade later Markish himself was killed by Stalin.
Jewish Soviet officials showed no favoritism to the Jews of Poland, out of both ideological conviction and fear of themselves being denounced as “nationalists.” Everyone had to fill out detailed questionnaires explaining every detail of their biographies, including any political involvements in order to determine their “class” status. And anything any Jew did during the Polish era would be used against them.
Those arrested included community leaders, town council members, officials in political or party organizations, Zionists, Bundists, businessmen, and even Jewish Communists. The chief rabbi of Warsaw was arrested and deported to a prison in the USSR where he died two years later. Moscow turned over Bundist leaders and escaped German Communists, mainly Jews, to the Nazis as a gift among friends. Between 500 and 600 of those killed at Katyn as loyal to Poland were also Jews. Up to 300,000 Jews who were Polish citizens or living in the western USSR were deported eastward under suspicion of not loving Stalin enough. Ironically, this saved their lives because they weren’t there when the Nazis arrived.
Jewish property was also nationalized. Employers were generally left unemployed or forced to take the most menial jobs, wasting their talents. Artisans like blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, and bakers were formed into cooperatives. They all worked in one place instead of going to separate workshops and elected a manager from among themselves. These leaders were Jews, hardly surprising since they comprised almost all the town’s experienced skilled workers.
There was, however, one line Polish Jews would not cross. They could do nothing about the change of regimes but when the Soviets gave them a nominal choice—in contrast to the system’s usual commands—they refused to accept Soviet citizenship. At the time, this insistence seemed like a futile gesture but in the long run it would save them. After the German attack, those who could join the Polish army got out of the Soviet Union, and later still—in the mid-1950s—a Polish passport would serve as their ticket out of the USSR.
Another cause of opposition was the Soviets’ obvious cynicism in giving some Jews good positions during the transition period but getting rid of them as soon as possible. After all, Moscow had announced their invasion’s purpose was to “liberate” Byelorussians and Ukrainians—not Jews–from Polish rule. Once they felt themselves firmly in control, the Soviets bid to please Byelorussian and—further south—Ukrainian majorities by removing the Jews from positions of political or economic authority, even playing on local antisemitism to court the favor of the majority population.
The most desperate of those Jews living in eastern Poland at the time were the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had escaped—1,000 to Dolhinov alone—the German sector. It was not unthinkable that the Soviets might send them back at any moment. In Dolhinov, they were dependent on the food and shelter offered by fellow Jews who had little enough of their own. Yet when Soviet authorities insisted they accept Soviet citizenship or return to the German zone, they almost unanimously refused. The Soviets then deported most of them deep into the USSR to become slave laborers. Uintentionally and ironically, this punishment saved their lives when the Germans attacked in 1941.
In all, the Soviets deported around 1,150,000 Polish citizens, about 30 percent of them Jews or around 345,000 people. Another 140,000 to 170,000 Jews had been able to escape into the USSR on their own.
Although the Polish Communist party was disproportionately comprised of people from a Jewish background—about 30 percent—this figure is misleading on two counts. First, the Jewish membership was matched by that of Ukrainian and Byelorussian citizens of Poland, though ethnic Poles focused their antagonism on the Jews alone. Second, few Polish Jews were Communists, roughly only 3,000 from a community of 3.4 million people. In comparison, about 130,000 Jews were in the Polish army, fighting both Germany and the USSR.
Nevertheless, the myth that the Jews were Communist traitors who hated Poland had fueled Polish antisemitism since the time of the Russian revolution and Soviet-Polish war, intensified to fever pitch by the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941. The reports made to the exiled Polish government at the time overwhelmingly blame the Jews for Soviet rule. Such claims became rationales for ethnic Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. As a result, when the Soviets retreated from the advancing Germans, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Polish neighbors, notably in the July 10, 1941, Jedwabne pogrom. And the same phenomenon happened in Latvia, Lithuania, and other Eastern European countries.
To make matters worse, the real rivals of the Poles–Byelorussians and Ukrainians–also came to hate Soviet rule and blame it on the Jews. This was also not completely new. During the peasant revolts across the border in the 1920s, one of the main slogans of the Byelorussian and Ukrainian nationalist movements had been, “Down with the Communists and the Jews.” Yet it became far worse and laid the basis for massive collaboration with the Nazis and participation in mass murders of Jews.
Nothing could make a peasant angrier than to have their land taken away from them and forced into collective farms. Another factor was Soviet determination to crush local nationalisms, not only among Poles but also those of their rivals. Since the masses so often identified the Soviets and Communism with the Jews, this inflamed their antisemitism to new heights. The same was true for Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians next door to Poland. And these antagonisms would be successfully exploited by the Nazis a few months later.
There was one point, however, on which this conception had a material basis: many Soviet officials and officers, including in the repressive secret police, were in fact of Jewish background, especially those dispatched to Poland, since they came from neighboring parts of Soviet-ruled Belarus and thus knew the land and its languages better. For three centuries in Poland and twenty in Europe, the Jews had followed a simple rule: avoid becoming entangled in the quarrels of the Christians. Now that some were seeking an assimilationist solution by turning the world into an alleged classless utopia, the others would pay a terrible price.
During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many of the Jews of the old Czarist empire suffered first by Stalin’s hands as accused enemies of the Soviet state, then by Stalin’s hands in making the deal that turned western Poland over to the Nazis, and then to Stalin’s foolishness at ignoring Hitler’s threat to the Soviet Union, and then by the hands not only of the Nazis themselves but of those who hated Stalin and associated the Jews with Communism. There would be as many as a million Nazi collaborators in the lands oppressed by Stalin—Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Russians, and even some Poles–about one-third of them as soldiers or police, and 70,000 of them as mass murderers.
Here is a point almost always missed in trying to understand the Holocaust. Traditional anti-Semitism was a very real force, based on Christian religious antagonism, the differentness of the Jews, commercial friction and competition, and questions of their national loyalty. But the most immediate issue used by Nazi propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe was to link Jews to the hated Communists and USSR, the enemy of all local nationalisms in the region.
Those so victimized, however, were rarely if ever Communists. After all, if they’d been part of the Soviet apparatus or its supporters, they would have been evacuated with the Red Army when the Germans invaded. Yet in Minsk on November 7, 1941, on the way to their mass murder, the Nazis forced Jews to parade down Shirokaya Street, carrying red flags and singing the Communist anthem, the “Internationale.” An exhibition of looted Jewish possessions, entitled “Soviet Heaven,” was organized at the former Soviet government headquarters to show Jews had prospered at the expense of local Byelorussians under “Jewish-Bolshevik rule.”
When, after the German invasion of June 1941, Stalin called his country’s battle, “The Great Patriotic War,” German radio responded that Moscow’s rulers couldn’t be Russian patriots because they were really Jews backed by “world Zionism” and that Germany’s war was not with the Russian people but the Jewish Bolsheviks. If Germany would be defeated, they warned, “Stalin and his Jewish helpers” in the secret police would return and massacre everyone as traitors.
o Yet the Soviet leader’s real attitude was not so much indignant anti-fascism but hurt feelings. After all, he had genuinely tried to help his Nazi ally only to be met by ingratitude. When the German ambassador came to present officially the declaration of war to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the latter blurted out, “Surely we have not deserved this.”
Thus, between 1939 and 1941, Stalin’s regime wiped out Polish Dolhinov and helped lay the basis for doing the same thing to Jewish Dolhinov. What the Soviets and their all-wise leader didn’t understand is that they were coming close to ensuring their own destruction as well.