Concordia University MIGS

Back to Holocaust Memoirs | Back to MIGS


Chapter 5

Next morning, the militia went around town with a dozen horse drawn wagons, manned by farmers and collected the families to be exiled. We loaded our two valises onto the wagon and climbed on top. Some of our relatives were there to wish us a last goodbye, their faces clouded by sadness, their eyes in tears. Many curious onlookers were standing by in utter silence, only their faces expressed a deep concern, probably because of their own uncertain future. The horses pulled the heavily loaded wagons at a steady, slow pace. I could see our house and the people on main street gradually receding in the distance. I was sitting between my mother's legs, leaning against her with my back. She held onto me tightly and cried soundlessly, only her tears dropped onto my neck from time to time. I tried to comfort her by caressing her hands with which she embraced me. We all felt pretty miserable. As time went by, the passengers struck up conversations concerning their husbands, whose whereabouts were mostly unknown, and a multitude of rumours concerning our destination. We were only told that we are going to Chemovitz.

Among the passengers, there was a very pretty seventeen year-old girl, Irena Drabic, whose family we knew well because her father, Mr.Drabic, was my music teacher. He was of Polish descent, married to a local Ukrainian girl and decided to settle in Zastavna. He practiced his profession as a violinist by playing in a local band, as well as giving private violin lessons. He was well known in Zastavna, as a very likable easy-going person and highly respected for his musical skills. Irena told us that for the last week she was visiting her mother's relatives in a nearby village. When she arrived home the other day, her parents were gone. She was very distraught, questioned her neighbours and found out that the militia arrested her parents. All her efforts to extract some information from the militia about the whereabouts of her parents were in vain. She assumed that they were on their way to the same destination as all the other people who were being exiled and she decided to join the exiles voluntarily, hoping that eventually she will find her parents. "Mrs.Scharf," she said, "I know you better than the other people and I would like you to permit me to travel with you until I find my parents." My mother accepted her request and so this chance encounter transformed our two member family into a three member family instantaneously.

Some four hours later we arrived in Chernovitz in front of a high school. We were ordered to pick up our baggage and march into a very large gymnasium. The place was crowded with people, very noisy, stuffy, and at first glance, bewildering. Irena was quite an organizer. In no time she correctly assessed the situation, picked a free space on the floor in a convenient comer which will afford us some protection from the constant traffic of people and said: "this is our new home, let's make our bed here." Then she went on a reconnaissance tour; she found out where the bathroom was, drinking water, and that food was given once a day. She talked to the militia men in charge (it was hard to resist her good looks) and found out that this was only a transit center for processing purposes. We spent about one week in that gymnasium, and there was a constant flow of people in and out. People of all ages, different nationalities, but mostly Jews and Ukrainians. The Jews were either business people or skilled professionals like doctors, lawyers. The Ukrainians were mostly landowners and some professionals. All the people were considered undesirable elements of society, seen by the regime as an obstacle in their drive to a quick nationalization of all the means of production and the collectivization of all the farms.

I quickly made friends with children of my age and we spent many hours playing our games. Sometimes the hall would be so crowded that we could only sit in one place, and other times it would empty out, enabling us to run around freely, to play ball, to climb the hanging ropes, or even to be a bit of a nuisance to the adults. On June 22 1941, it was our turn to be transported by truck to the railway station and quickly loaded into cattle railway cars. These cars were specially fitted with three extra layers of boards on either side of the wide centrally located entrance door. The floor was strewn with straw; two large barrels were standing there: one was used for excrement, and the other was filled with drinking water. Irena, in her usual practical manner, managed to occupy a place for us on the middle floor, near a small window covered with iron bars. "Since the car is packed with people and it is summer, it will become hot and stuffy," she explained to us, "it is important that Berti should have some fresh air."

As soon as the exiles were packed into the cars and the large doors were shut tight by the guards, I could see a lot of excitement taking place on the station platform. Many uniformed men were running to and fro apparently aimlessly and in great confusion. There was a great deal of shouting, of orders, pointing to the sky (it was a very clear sunny day), setting up of machine guns on either end of the platform and then, suddenly, there was a different kind of noise, a noise I have never heard before. All the soldiers dove down, hiding underneath the cars. I could hear now the awful whining sound of diving planes and the staccato sound of the machine guns spraying the cars and the buildings. Other planes seemed to be dropping loaves of bread, which exploded when they hit the ground. I was fascinated and very frightened at the same time. The machine gun bullets striking the tin roof of the railway station sounded to me the same as pouring dry peas on the floor of my father's warehouse. The flashes of fire, the billows of smoke, the screams of the wounded, the frightful sounds of war, finally forced me to move away from the window as far as possible. I was trembling like a leaf in the wind and pleading with the Almighty to please stop this awful sound. My mother placed a pillow over my head and said in a very calm and comforting voice: "now you are safe, the pillow will not let anything happen to you." I believed her, wholeheartedly, and felt somewhat better.

Hitler had just broken the peace treaty which he concluded with Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. Thousands of innocent people were jammed into tightly locked railway cars, exposed to the most vicious bombardment from the air, without any possibility of escaping and seeking some minimal protection. Fortunately for us, our train placed on a remote siding, made us a lesser target and consequently the numbers of killed and wounded were relatively small. When the all clear was sounded our "brave" guards began crawling out from underneath tee railway cars. No one bothered to check inside the cars, to help the wounded, to remove the dead. They were busy clearing the debris, taking care of their own wounded, preparing the train for a quick departure. Indeed, sometimes late at night the train was on its way moving eastward into the unknown, carrying a load of miserable human beings, crammed together with the sick, wounded and dead. Hungry and thirsty, arguing and fighting for the use of the barrel, a place to lie down, a breath of air by the window. The train was in continuous motion for about three days and nights with some brief stops for refueling. During those stops we were subjected to several air raids but somehow we were fortunate to escape the worst of it. On the third day the air attacks did not come our way anymore.

Conditions inside the cars grew steadily worse, with the rising tension so high that people were unable to communicate with each other in a civilized manner. It was then that the train was parked on a side line at a considerable distance from the station, and the guards opened the doors, ordered some men to empty the toilet barrel, another group of exiles were sent to fill up the water barrel and to bring some food. Every person received half a loaf of bread and a bowl of soup. The dead were removed and buried nearby, the seriously wounded were sent away to a local hospital, the lightly wounded were treated on the spot and they remained in the cars. A few farmers appeared near the train offering to sell some food. Everybody still had a little money and although the prices were exorbitant, we all bought some bread, boiled eggs, cheese and even some milk. We still had a small amount of food left over from the provisions that my mother brought along from Zastavna. We knew that this food may have to last us a long time, so Irena, with her organizational skills, was in charge of rationing the food. As a child, I was in a privileged position, and received a relatively more nutritious diet. During the stopover, the exiles not engaged in work, were not allowed out of the car, however, since there were fewer people inside, we managed to clean up the interior and stretch our legs in the center of the car. When all the activities were completed, the large sliding doors were shut tight.

We spent over a week immobile on the siding. The railway station was very busy, the traffic was mostly going in the opposite direction. The Russians were moving people and equipment to the front. We know now how single-minded a totalitarian regime could be. The Soviets must have had a hundred such trains packed with exiles from the three Baltic states, from Soviet occupied Poland, from Bessarabia and from Bucovina. Maybe a million people or more, uprooted and enslaved, a majority never to see their loved ones and their homes again, they either died in their place of exile or were never able to leave it. There were tens of thousands of soldiers, railway personnel, bureaucrats, all busy doing their job of exiling innocent people, all this while the country was at war, with the Germans advancing at a Blitzkrieg pace. Why did the Soviet Union allocate badly needed personnel and equipment to a seemingly not vital enterprise? The same question begs for an answer concerning another totalitarian regime: the Germans, transporting the Jews to the death camps.

Even in the confined space of the car, life had to follow a certain routine, when to sleep, when to eat, to go to the barrel, to stretch one's legs in the center of the car, to play cards, to talk. I think my mother and Irena knew every intimate detail about each other's family life. Irena was a good storyteller, she also kept me busy with some oral exercises in arithmetic, geography and other subjects. Meanwhile we began to feel again the approaching war. First, signs were exhibited by the nervous activities of the guards. They were not patrolling in front of the cars, more often they would be crouching under. The supplies of food stopped, the doors were not opened up. The farmers did not come to sell their food. Finally, there was another bombing and strafing attack, fortunately for us we were not affected in our remote location.

That night we were again on the move and this time for at least a week. Provisions were supplied in an irregular manner, in small quantities, mostly as bread and water. The sparse diet caused a significant change in my appearance. I was chubby, even fat, when we left Zastavna in the middle of June, but now about a month later, I was a pretty slim and pale looking ten-year old, somewhat unsteady on my feet, when I subjected them to the test of carrying my body a couple of times every day. On one occasion, when Irena was practicing some school work with me, I noticed that the farmers took off their lambskin vests, which they were wearing with the wool inside, and were searching for something among the long strands of wool. From time to time the fingernails of the two thumbs were pressed together emitting a slight cracking sound. When I asked Irena what they were doing, she said that they are killing lice.

Lice became almost a constant companion for us for many years to come. As soon as sanitary conditions improved, we managed to get rid of them, but when they deteriorated we had to cope with the presence of lice, especially in the hairy parts of our body. We removed them as best as we could, mostly manually, one by one, similar to what our neighbors were doing. Lice could be, at best, very annoying, they constantly suck one's blood on which they feed and the skin becomes very itchy, causing us to scratch all the time. At worst, they are carriers of diseases such as typhus. We were fortunate, that by some miracle, we were spared an outbreak of an epidemic while we were cooped up in very close quarters for about two months.

As soon as we crossed the Ural mountains we stopped in some remote railway station for a period of three weeks. There was a lot of railway traffic in both directions. There were only rumours about the war and they were mostly not good. Not good is, of course, a relative term. As far as the Jews were concerned, the German advance was a disaster, for the Ukrainians it was a different matter. They had no love for the Jews and they expressed their hatred openly and constantly, but they bore a greater hatred for the Russians and their Communist regime. They regarded the Germans as liberators. They were not the only ones in the Soviet Union who felt this way. This was the first time that I came face to face with such virulent anti-Semitism under such unfavourable conditions.

It was now the middle of July, the days were long, the weather was hot and although the sliding doors were opened every day for a few hours, conditions inside the car were quite unbearable. The heat, the lice, the lack of hygiene, the lack of exercise, the very poor diet, all of these took their toll. As usual, it was the young and the old who suffered most. Many people became quite ill, there was no medical treatment, they either became well or they perished. The guards were now calmer, more relaxed in their treatment of the exiles. The dangers of war were behind them. However, this relaxation was not expressed in improved provisions of food: it was still a very meager portion of bread, refill of the barrel of water and the occasional bowl of soup. Some local people were selling food at astronomical prices, mostly boiled potatoes and pickled cabbage. Irena insisted that we should never miss an opportunity to buy food as long as we are able to do so. Irena was looking after my spiritual well being as well, my mother was quite depressed all the time. Irena was young, pretty, not particularly cheerful, but always in a practical busy mood, tried to keep me occupied much of the time. She was my older sister, my playmate and my teacher, simultaneously.

At the end of July all the exiles reached a high point of restlessness and irritation, however, as time went by, the weakened physical condition of the inmates made their bickering less vehement and less frequent, they seemed to be more resigned to their fate. And then, as July ended and August started, the Soviet bureaucracy, in its inexplicable wisdom, decided that our train must continue to its final destination: none of the passengers knew what it was. This part of the trip lasted for another two weeks. It was a fairly slow, stop and go affair, with the usual treatment of the human cargo, the same rules and regulations causing the same misery and suffering. We were now in the middle of August, some two months since we left Zastavna, many thousands of kilometers to the east, many time zones apart, and in a different continent. We were, as a matter of fact, in a different world, in the heart of Siberia, in the city of Novosibirsk.

When we were ordered to disembark, upon our arrival at the railway station, most of us had great difficulty standing up straight. Many collapsed on the platform and had to try several times to stand, to walk, to simply move about freely. Mercifully, the Soviet bureaucracy was just as slow moving, so we spent about two hours waiting for the order to move to our next destination. Although we all looked like shadows of our previous selves, by the end of the two hours the children were running around the platforrn, happy to see again our friends from the Chernovitz gymnasium where we played together for a week. We were finally loaded into trucks and transferred to a spacious school yard. We were to camp outdoors, there were outdoor toilet facilities, just a cabin on top of a hole in the ground, there was a tap with running water nearby, there was hot food, soup, boiled potatoes and some bread, there was also the sun shining late at night, at least till 11 P.M., maybe even midnight. By 3 A.M. the sun was up again. There was, of course, lots of clean fresh air. There were mixed feelings of relief and sorrow: relief from the torturous trip and sorrow because we were now in that dreaded place called Siberia. There was desperation of being doomed, but there was also hope that the exile will last only a short while, maybe for the duration of the war. Many of us spent a sleepless night with our spirits in a great upheaval.

Back to Key Words and Abstract

To Chapter 6

© Concordia University