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The Children of Abraham

THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM

Anita Muir

Anita Muir

Beginnings, before the world changed, before the Second World War, before a time when I knew anything of the beauty and vastness and variety of the world, my beginnings in KrakĹ?w, Poland in the 1930s. My origins there, in the well assimilated Jewish family of a comfortable, warm, loving home of the Abrahamers...

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THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM


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THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM by

Anita Muir

Bound Biographies


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Copyright A Muir Š 2010 Produced in association with

Bound Biographies

Heyford Park House, Heyford Park, Bicester, OX25 5HD www.boundbiographies.com


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The Abrahamer Family, KrakĹ?w 1910


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I dedicate this record of my early life to David, suamiku kekasih, ever my guide, support and inspiration throughout the many happy years of our marriage.


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Acknowledgements

My thanks for the initial inspiration to write this book are due to Lord Paddy Ashdown who first warmly encouraged me to do so. For the early editing and kind suggestions by Vivien Stone, and many helpful remarks by Sue Armstrong as well as positive criticism offered by Dr Brian Doberstyn, I here express my heartfelt gratitude. My sincere thanks go also to Tony Gray, my editor at Bound Biographies, for his constant support and assistance, editorial excellence and never failing patience.

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Contents

Dedication Acknowledgements Contents

I: The Background II: The Beginnings III: Siberia IV: No Longer Enemies V: Central Asia VI: The Return Home VII: The New Life VIII: Looking Back IX: The Interview with Dzidka X: The Polish Scene XI: The Family Tree XII: Our Maternal Family, the Holzers XIII: My Mentors XIV: The Correspondence XV: Letters XVI: Swiss Wartime Camps XVII: The Aftermath XVIII: Carrying a Burden of the Past

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vii ix xi

1 9 19 27 35 49 55 65 69 89 97 117 127 137 141 157 165 183


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Chapter I The Background

The sun has just risen over the fern and rain-tree like lava flow streaming upwards through the branches and the leaves gently stirred by the breeze, golden lava, illuminating the distant hills, changing the sky from blue-grey to pink, to day’s brightness. The frangipani flowers below the terrace now glow with the waxy white edged with pink, and their scent is going to perfume the sweet morning air over the rice fields where the long-necked white paddy birds and grey herons circle the emerald-green young rice and settle here and there on a branch or a stone. The white-grey Brahmin cows with their long ears and hunched backs are peacefully grazing in their field, the bamboo bells sounding gently, with myna, egrets and other birds frequently perching on their heads or shoulders. In the distance the saffron-robed monks can be seen moving in a slow line along the village, their bowls filled by the women with rice and vegetables cooked for that purpose, to feed the monks and so to acquire merit. The nightly multi-voiced chorus of frogs is now still, and the chirping of many birds is beginning to replace it. From a farmyard in the village the cocks still crow though they can rest easy now that the world is awake and another day has began in Sansai, by Chiang Mai.

It is a never ending delight, the awakening dawn in the magical surroundings of Asia where I have spent so many years of my life, having lived in or visited most of it, from Indonesia to India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Japan, China, starting in Singapore, but already beginning in my childhood in Central Asia, and so through long wanderings having covered most of the ancient Silk Road. This time it is as tourists, visiting an old friend and colleague and meeting up with others whom we have known in the past, or David 1


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has worked with over the many years since his joining the World Health Organization over fifty years ago and our wedding in Singapore. Our quiet month with its reminiscences and long peaceful evenings during the loveliest of seasons in Thailand, when the days are still cool, the white frangipani flowers cover the grey branches, and the mangos begin to ripen, have set the mood for opening a flow of memories which like moths in the night gently flutter around me. Perhaps if we had stayed at home this winter I would be spending my days on the beautiful crispy white slopes of the Jura mountains, enjoying the cross-country skiing above our apartment by the Lake of Geneva, but having chosen this year to escape the unusually cold European winter, we find ourselves again under the skies of the years of our youth and the warm sun rekindles old memories of years gone by. These memories go further, to the distant past of childhood, to my beginnings, oh, how different from this blessed present! Those beginnings, before the world changed, before the Second World War, before a time when I knew anything of the beauty and vastness and variety of the world, my beginnings in Krakōw, Poland in the 1930s. My origins there, in the well assimilated Jewish family of a comfortable, warm, loving home of the Abrahamers.

But let’s go back to my Abrahamer forebears in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Our paternal great-grandfather came from a little village in Galicja (the south-east part of Poland which was under Austrian domination during the partitions of Poland). He had a large family and one of his sons was to be our grandfather, Israel Abrahamer, whom I vaguely remember as a severe man to whom the whole family showed great respect. I remember more clearly his wife, our grandmother, and I remember her only as being in bed and me at the foot of her bed playing at saying ‘cuckoo’ to each other – this must have been shortly before the war when I was four years old and she was on her deathbed.

Our grandfather’s house was an imposing building (still there) in Krakōw, set on two parallel streets, Łobzowska and Asnyka, the family house facing the first and the business quarters the second. It had a large courtyard in between, where the horse carriages, work carts, broughams and various riding carriages, as well as the horses of course, were to be found. 2


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Grandfather and Grandmother Abrahamer Both these streets lie near the centre of Krakōw, near Planty, the park full of chestnut trees which ring the beautiful Renaissance centre of the old city. There in the summer months we were taken for walks or played in its alleys and I recall the white, furry polar bear (how hot the man inside its skin must have felt!) selling delicious ice-cream, round tubes of it on wooden sticks, which we were allowed to have on warm afternoons. The houses are big patrician mansions, with enclosed courtyards (podwórki) at the back, surrounded by the typical Krakōw feature of ganki (long balconies) with wooden balustrades connecting all first-floor apartments. It is in the courtyards where one would see a musician playing on his violin, or someone singing, and windows would open and coins would be thrown down. Much later, next to the enlarged and modernised bakery, our grandfather built a modern, multi-apartment house over the door of which his oldest daughter-in-law who was a sculptor (Roma Abrahamer) set a carving of a mermaid. Why a mermaid? Because it was the emblem of Warsaw whence she came.

In 1980 or thereabouts, when private property was being, in part, returned to the survivors or heirs of the original owners, this property, as well as that of our maternal grandparents, was sold. This enabled our mother to have more comfort in the last years of her life. She had the help and companionship of a series of young Polish women who were then coming to Paris to seek work; holidays in 3


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The Mill 4


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comfortable retirement homes in or near the city in the summer, when it was too hot to stay in town and when the Polish ladies would all disappear for a few weeks of a well-earned holiday – a time when many of them could see their homes and families which they had left to earn some money abroad to help with the meagre earnings w kraju (at home) in Poland.

By the beginning of the 20th century Abrahamer was a good name to have in Krakōw. Our grandfather was rich, hardworking and respected, the owner of the biggest and most modern flourmill in that part of Poland, a few kilometres outside Krakōw in Zielonki. After the war the Communist regime was to develop the important nearby mines of Nowa Huta, thus attracting many workers to the area who swamped the traditionally intellectual (and antiCommunist) elite of the traditional Church stronghold of Krakōw. And the Church, as soon as it was again free to do so, built in Nowa Huta as a counter-measure to this influx of communist doctrine, the most beautiful and original of modern churches which in due course attracted into its fold the workers who, as it turned out during the movement of Solidarność, were not as strong Communists as the regime had hoped they would be.

But to return to the Abrahamers: there were by now many of them as our grandfather had five sons and, after years of hoping for one, at last a daughter, the beloved Helenka, later to become the talented, beautiful and intelligent Helenka Horowitz. She was the little princess, the long awaited golden-haired little girl whom all the family adored, and I remember her sitting at my bedside and reading to me when at the outbreak of the war I lay ill, and was thought to be dying from pneumonia in our maternal aunt’s house in Lwōw (pronounced Lvouv in English).

Her brothers were expected by their father to become the support of the family business. And so the eldest, Szymek, very intelligent, quiet-spoken and always very serious as I remember him (and who later, already as an elderly gentleman, achieved his boyhood ambition and obtained a doctorate in economics at the same time as his son Zbyszek obtained his in physics) was put in charge of accountancy. Heniu, always delicate, short-sighted like all the Abrahamers, stubborn in character and yet gentle and kind-natured, 5


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was sent to study agronomy, and Jozek (our father) the latest techniques in oven construction at Zurich Polytechnic. Another of the sons, Samek, stayed to look after the bakery, while the parents settled in Zielonki where all the children (with their own families by then) were expected every Saturday without fail to join the growing family gathering round the large table.

Szymek married a young and upcoming sculptor and for years it was repeated round the family how, on returning from their honeymoon, they found on their new dining-room table a roast chicken for their supper and two burial-shirts (traditional Jewish garb at burial, as Jews are not buried in coffins but directly in the earth, so as to become part of it) as the wedding present from father Israel. Although well to-do, he always remained frugal in his habits and expected his children to be likewise. Heniu married a charming lisping waif of a girl, Genia, and they were my favourite uncle and aunt, kind and gentle and generous to a fault. Their only son, Witek, emigrated with them to Israel as soon as it was possible to do so from Poland after the war, in the late ’40s early ’50s. Although they found the climate very difficult, they had to work hard and only just managed to make ends meet in a very modest existence. Witek trained as an engineer and later worked on the construction of the Israeli airports and had three wives in rapid succession – and as many daughters.

With Heniu and Witek Abrahamer in Israel in 1960 6


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The son who took over the bakery (Samek, or Simon) was married to a lady whom I remember as the large and suffering Aunt Luta and they had one daughter, Alina. Having miraculously survived the Nazi occupation, Samek was tragically murdered in Zielonki after the war on his way from the bank to the mill with the money for the week’s wages for the mill workers. Alina’s mother was beaten, raped and left for dead when walking to a village on the outskirts of Krakōw, a few months after Alina’s father, Samek her husband’s murder, by a man from whom she had asked directions and who said he would show her a shortcut. She crawled through the snow to the nearest farm and was saved. Alina and her mother also emigrated to Israel, where Alina married a man connected with the film industry. He left her, but she continued to work on the fringes of film production, as far as I remember something to do with cartoonfilms.

There had been another son in Israel’s family, a beautiful young boy called Alek, who committed suicide while in his early twenties. It was never spoken about in the family, but I gathered that the cause of his suicide was not an unhappy love affair which would have been in keeping with his romantic looks, but a gambling debt repaid with a falsified signature of his father. Alek was unable to admit to what he saw as a crime, to his severe father. If only children in moments of trouble would realise that parental love is far greater than parental discipline, so much suffering would be averted!1

1. I will continue describing the rest of the family and their various histories in chapter XI.

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Uncle Alek Abrahamer in the 1920s

GrandmaAbrahamer with her daughters-in-law, and Grandfather Abrahamer (centre) with two of his brothers

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Chapter II The Beginnings

My father with me, 1934 I was born in Krakōw, Poland’s beautiful old capital, with its ancient castle where all the kings of Poland were buried, its lovely Renaissance market place and the famous Church of Our Lady of Krakōw, where stands the venerable altar of Wit Stwosz, made by the 15th century master Veit Stoss from Nuremberg. My father’s family had been living in a shtetel (Jewish community of which there were many in that part of Poland) in the region known as Galicja (in Poland) for generations, and my mother’s family had come from Vienna. German was spoken in our household as frequently as was Polish, my first nursemaid was a German fräulein, and the culture most admired by my father (even above the French and the English) was the German culture, so rich with its wonderful poetry and literature. It was due to this love of the work of Schiller, Heine, Goethe, which was so important to my father, that my first language was in fact German and not Polish. 9


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Alek and me in 1937

My father, Joziu, before the war, and me again in 1937 We had spent the summer of 1939 in Zakopane, a hill station near KrakĹ?w, and as the rumours of impending hostilities circulated, our parents thought it safer to remain up in the quiet hotel-pension till the hostilities were over and it was quite safe to take the children back home. However, other people, and among them their very good friends and neighbours, the Wasserbergs, realised just how serious things were becoming. They sent their car and driver to bring us to KrakĹ?w from where we were to go in a group of cars following 10


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each other (in case of eventual problems), towards the east, to Lwōw, which was thought to be far enough from the Germans to be safe. This plan suited our family as our mother’s sister, Musia, and her family lived in Lwōw, and we were to stay with them while the Germans were chased out of Poland by the victorious Polish army, which was expected to happen within a few weeks at most. Nobody therefore took anything except for immediate needs, as the household staff were staying on to look after the house. Our maternal grandparents came with us.

Alek and me, 1939

I remember that journey east as a series of bombing raids – the aeroplanes swooping down from the sky and the long trail of people disappearing to the right and left of the road at each attack, lying in ditches until the planes flew off, with my grandmother trying to cover us children with her body so as to protect us, then scrambling back onto the road to continue the journey as fast as possible on foot, by car or in horse-drawn carts. It must be to that experience that I owe my lasting fear of low flying aircraft over my head, as well as any type of fireworks. After abandoning the car due to a lack of fuel, continuing on foot, where possible by train (but the trains were taken over by the Polish army and besides were the first target of the German bombers), and sometimes on horse-drawn carts, where such could be had from wayside villages.2

2. At the outset of the German invasion from the west, the Polish army as well as the population of the western Poland, fled in a chaotic attempt to find safety in the eastern part of Poland. It was for that reason that the Germans bombed the roads leading in that direction. Within a few days the secret agreement between the Germans and the Russians was revealed, namely the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the non-aggression pact between the two countries, which had been signed in Moscow on the 23rd of August 1939, in view of dividing the lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea between themselves. On the 1st of September the Wehrmacht attacked the west and south borders of Poland, on the 17th of that month the Red Army marched in through its eastern borders. The two armies held a victory parade in the middle of the country.

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We arrived in Lwōw and immediately had to register our presence and address in the town as temporary residents of the city. Of our stay there I remember very little as I became ill (learning later just how ill), given up for dead and saved in extremis by a doctor who declared that the crisis caused by pneumonia was over. The symptoms which I was showing were due to severe dehydration, caused by the high temperature that I had suffered, and he recommended I was to be given water a drop at a time until recovery. By that time our parents were in the deepest despair and our mother vowed that if I recovered she would adopt an orphan in thanksgiving. She would have done this, I know, because she made other vows later through the war which I know she kept, but this one proved impossible due to developments which followed. Before the war all the family banked with the Holzers, ‘the family bank’ (on our mother’s side) and when rumours started about the German invasion of Poland everyone rushed to the banks to take their money out, our mother among them. She said that she came to the bank and asked the cashier (with a big queue in front of his window) to let her in behind the barrier, as they usually did, so she could get her money. Immediately one of the partners was called, took her aside and said: What do you think you are doing here? Do you want to start a veritable panic among our clients? Go home quietly and as we are about to close for the day, tomorrow morning at seven there will be a messenger at your door with an envelope and all your money will be there.

The next morning came, but no messenger, no envelope… the bank had closed, not just for the day, but definitively, and all the directors had left the country quietly.

When we returned to Poland after the war our mother had a dream (she had strange and often prophetic dreams regarding herself and her family). She dreamt that her beloved uncle, Maurycy Holzer, stood over her and said again and again: “Alisiu, get up and go and get your money out of the bank in Zurich, it is there in the name of one of the partners (Birnbaum), who is now in America; but the money is 12


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yours and my money which I left for you is also there.” Our cousin Adam (my mother’s nephew of whom I shall write more later in this account) did make an attempt in the ’80s to recover the money, of which a part had in fact been left in a Swiss bank, and part with Uncle Maurycy’s friend and partner, Birnbaum. However, this man claimed that he took it with him to Holland to keep it safe and that there the Germans despoiled him of it.

Many numbered accounts in Swiss banks were lost, as banks amalgamated, records were destroyed, sometimes deliberately, so that those few Jews who survived or whose families survived very seldom recovered what had been deposited there before the outbreak of the war. Although a part of the Holzer family, emigrating in good time either to the United States or South America, undoubtedly took the lion’s share of the family fortune with them, there is no doubt that some accounts, like that of our mother’s beloved uncle Maurycy’s, deposited in Switzerland with the thought that Ignacy, his son, would be able to use it, were never found. Poor Ignacy, ten when war broke out, was murdered by the Nazis, but the money would have been there for claimants of his family, ie our mother, Dzidka and Adam. However, in spite of letters to banks, a special trip to the States and numerous enquiries, the money was never recovered. We arrived in Lwōw where our mother’s older sister Musia Scherer lived with her husband and two children, Dzidka (Janina) and Adam, both a little older than my brother and I . A few days after our arrival

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there, on the 17th of September, the Soviets took over the city.3 Everyone who was not on the list of inhabitants of Lwōw was told to register with the police.

Then one early morning came the announcement that all those on the lists would be evacuated from Lwōw. There followed a typically Russian procedure of early morning rounding-up by the military of everyone on the lists that had been prepared according to the abovementioned registration. We were told to come down quickly – no packing, no preparation, no time to make any decision as what might be needed. It turned out later that the most important things to take, things that would make life bearable on the long journey and in the Siberian taiga (the dense forests consisting mainly of pine), would have been warm clothes, cooking utensils and jewellery. Money (Polish zlotys) would be worthless in Russia. But we took none of these useful things and at the last minute our grandmother handed all her jewellery over to Aunt Musia to look after while we were away. This meant the ensuing starvation of the starting months of our exile (after that everyone starved in Russia anyway), but the jewellery left with Musia might have been what saved Adam’s life in the farmhouse hideout (of which I shall speak later), so it served a good purpose. As to warm clothing we survived without it and learnt to roll rags and newspaper round our feet to insulate them inside the valenki (felt boots) that everyone wore in the Russian winter. Cooking utensils, containers in which one could keep water on the rare occasions when one managed to get water during the erratic stops of the train, spoons, knives… nobody could have imagined what an enormous difference the possession of such utilitarian objects could make to one’s existence in that slow journey into the unknown. Similarly, during the early days of arrival, what a nuisance their absence was to all those, like us, who did not have them and always had to borrow and hence to wait before we could eat the meagre, never hot soup.

3. Lwōw in Eastern Poland was before 1920, as part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, known under the name of Lemberg. Between 1920 and the outbreak of the war it was known as Lwōw (pronounced Lvouv in English). From September 1939 until 1991 when it was under Soviet rule its name was Lvov, and now, as part of Ukraine it is known as Lviv.

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With the Soviet troops invading Lwōw, the first thing to happen was that shops were emptied of all goods by the Red Army soldiers who had never seen so much food, clothes and supplies in Soviet Russia. They would drink any alcohol they could lay their hands on, be it from shops, houses they requisitioned or even from the bottles of perfume or eau de cologne they found in bathrooms. Crosses were removed from the outside as well as the inside of buildings, the Polish white eagle disappeared, and the local population was squeezed into as little space as possible to make room for the invading army.

Up to the start of hostilities the population of Lwōw consisted roughly of 12,000 each of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. With the German invasion of Western Poland (1st September 1939) there was a massive movement of populations from there towards the east and Lwōw’s population swelled. When, on the 17th of September, the Soviet troops marched into Poland across its eastern borders, the incoming population from the western and central areas had to report to the police. Between that day and 1941, when the Soviet offensive turned against the German invasion, what had been eastern Poland was subjected to Sovietization. As a result of this hundreds of thousands of people were deported from that area to Kazakhstan or Siberia, and tens of thousands more were shot.

And so it came about that we were among those being deported. I remember vaguely the scene of our departure from Lwōw, the railway station, the long train, the cattle trucks in which we travelled and which were closed from outside by sliding a wooden plank across the door. The platform full of a milling crowd, women in tears, clutching crying children, uniformed Russians shouting incomprehensible orders. Our father trying to contact his sister whose friend, Wanda Wasilewska, a fervent Communist, was said to wield power in the Soviet Union (in fact she was in Kuybishev later when we passed through it and effectively at the time held an important advisory position in Stalin’s entourage). My father hoped that she would be able to have us liberated from this transport which was to take us who knew where to. Our mother threatened to throw herself onto the railway lines if we were forced onto the train. Altogether a picture of despair that dark and early morning, and yet 15


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that enforced exile was to save us from the Nazis, from the ghetto, from concentration camp and most probably from death, which overtook so many of our family and so many of our co-religionists who were not taken to Russia as we were. In June 1941, as we learnt only much later, over 30,000 Jews then living in eastern Poland were slaughtered over death pits in the massacre of Babi Yar by the Ukrainians and the Nazis. The extermination of the Jews was a Nazi idea, but its realisation depended on willing collaborators, be it Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians or Ukrainians.

The trucks were overfilled, with 30 to 40 people in each, of whom as many as could settled themselves on the wooden bunks, with others finding a space on the floor. There was a small window high up, a hole in the corner for essential needs and a bar across the sliding door to shut us in. We were hungry and the cold was intense. The trains travelled for weeks to reach their destination in various parts of Siberia. From time to time the trains would stop for no defined reason, for a longer or shorter period of time. During these stops people would try to get the most precious of commodities, kipiatok (hot water). I believe that quite a lot of people went missing in the course of those days by not rejoining their train in the sudden and hurried departures. They were then integrated with another transport and so separated from their families for the months and years to come. Every day a bucket of water was handed into each truck and also a bucket of warm, watery soup, consisting usually of cabbage, turnip or potatoes, and black bread. We were not used to eating black bread, but it is amazing how quickly one learns the means to survival.

Of the journey I remember little except the humiliating episodes at each unannounced stop which might last anything from a few minutes to a few hours. My grandmother would take me with her behind the wheels or under the train, anywhere she thought more discreet and private, more sheltered from prying eyes, and would encourage me to ‘go to the toilet now’, an infuriating and impossible order. Sometimes people would venture further afield in search of food to buy in the village near the train’s stopping place, and on occasion the train would suddenly move on. I remember also the little family groups, the privileged places of some near an opening in 16


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the wooden wall of the carriage, a little window, a view to the outside, a little fresh air.

Our parents spent those stops at stations or near villages (where the train might be held up for an indefinite time) in trying to barter one or other of our few possessions for some extra food from villagers, who would at times be found around the stops. Food was handed out during certain stops by the soldiers accompanying the transport, basic food in minimal amounts – cabbage soup, black bread, food that seemed rough and inadequate but of which we would learn to dream later during the hungry years to come, when a slice of black bread would be the height of luxury and an impossible dream. Hence comes my inability (and I think a similar difficulty of anyone having once known hunger) to throw away bread, however stale, however hard. I remember very clearly standing with my brother Alek at an army canteen window, our parents being by that time in prison, a cold evening mist around us, the warm, steamy hall full of soldiers with red stars on their hats, sitting eating at long wooden tables behind the glass on which our noses were squashed, and a young soldier coming out to give us a piece of bread. An angel would not have been more welcome.

The Soviet reality soon became apparent to us, to our parents and grandparents, as we of course understood little of what was happening. We arrived at our destination, a small settlement, Piervomajsk, surrounded by the almost impenetrable Siberian forests. It was a place in the middle of nowhere, a big empty barrack building with small windows made of fish bladder which would allow some light to filter in without affording more than a vague view out and endeavour to keep out the intense cold of a Siberian winter, with the howling of the wolves through the night and the whistling of the gale winds around the fragile compound of huts.

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Chapter III Siberia

We were all housed in barrack hut accommodation on arrival, and sorted out into the different categories. Those that would work in constructing huts – which meant cutting down trees, preparing planks, building – that was the group our father was in, and it was during this work that a tree fell on him. The accident reopened his old appendicitis wound, so that for the rest of his life he had a big pouch of his intestines hanging from his abdomen which had to be supported by a bandage and later, in easier circumstances after the war, by a specially made belt. Our mother was put to work in the bania (community baths or a kind of sauna), which consisted of a hut constantly heated with wood to a temperature at which the hot water contained in the big wooden chests was steaming, almost boiling. When coming in to wash, people would use it mixed with sufficient cold water to pour over themselves while slapping their bodies with twigs – a seemingly primitive yet very efficient process of becoming both clean and warm. Our mother was one of the women on duty there who brought water from the river, and wood from the forest, responsible for the constant functioning of the bania. As was explained to us that first morning, everyone had to work, “no work, no bread” being the motto oft repeated until one knew it by heart.

“If you want to eat you will work”, and, “Man is not a pig, he will eat anything” – these were the two favourite sayings of the soldiers in charge of our Polish community and thus became the first words we learnt to understand in Russian. Only the children and the very old were exempted from this rule. I remember days of what must have been already warm weather when we children were all gathered around a tree and listened spellbound 19


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Alek and me in Russia during the war to the older girls reading stories and poems to us little ones. I remember learning the poems of Tuwim, and I particularly remember (and it must have made a great impression on me as I remember it exactly to this day and it has been seventy years ago that I heard it) the magic of Anne of Green Gables being read to us under that tree in Siberia.

One and a half million Poles were forcibly deported to the Soviet Union between September 1939 and July 1940, and that is not counting those dedicated Communists who had made their way there already earlier for ideological reasons, and the majority of whom languished in Soviet jails.

By 1939 the Polish government had outlawed the Communist party (which had been up to then 20,000 strong) and in consequence some communists were imprisoned and some went into hiding and later formed the basis of the clandestine Peoples’ Army (Armja Krajowa), which formed the largest independent resistance movement planned to fight the Germans in occupied Europe during the Second World War. These faithful communists were later to have their revenge when recompensed by the Soviet authorities. After the defeat of the Germans in 1945 the Nazi occupation of Poland was replaced by a Russian ‘protectionary force’ and they were given key positions in the Polish puppet government. The ultimate goal of the Polish People’s Army during those early years went beyond the end of German occupation, planning to confront the Soviets with a restored Polish state. Stalin understood that, and it accounts for one of the 20


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worst atrocities committed by the Soviets while they were masters of eastern Poland, namely Katyn. In 1943 the Germans discovered evidence of massive executions in Katyn forests near Smolensk, where Stalin’s troops had shot some 22,000 Polish prisoners, mainly officers, over death pits.

Initially the Soviets denied all knowledge of this massacre, blaming it on the Germans and using the revelation of this crime as a pretext for breaking off relations with the Polish government in exile, suggesting that the Poles were ‘showing sympathy to the common enemy’. In fact the Soviet Union, which had not signed the 1929 convention regarding prisoners of war, refused throughout the war years to divulge any information concerning the fate of either the Polish officers in Soviet captivity, or the captured soldiers of the Wehrmacht. The Katyn massacre took place in the spring of 1940. The discovery of eight pits containing thousands of bodies in the forest of Katyn was announced on the German radio on 12th April 1943.

Until the end of the war Stalin refused responsibility for these deaths, blaming it on the Germans. Only in the spring of 1952, with the enquiry commission set up in Frankfurt by the American congress into the massacre of the Polish officers in Katyn, the responsibility of the NKVD, the Soviet political police, was definitely established. The truth was finally acknowledged only after the demise of the Soviet Union when Michail Gorbachev, and later also Boris Yeltsin handed over to the Polish government documents concerning the shooting in three successive groups of 21,857 Polish officers, with orders signed by Stalin, Molotov and Mikoyan.

It is known now that tens of thousands of Poles were killed by the NKVD (later known as the KGB) during the evacuation of prisons in Lvov after the start of the German-Russian war in June 1941 – political prisoners, people who refused to take Russian passports, those who refused to vote, workers accused of absenteeism, soldiers unable for any reason to travel east. So in hindsight, we were of course very lucky to be on this train to Siberia, in fact even luckier to be out of Krakōw by the time the Germans arrived, by the time the yellow stars had to be worn by Jews, by the time the ghetto was enforced, by the time that the rest of our family perished in 21


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concentration camps. But of course at that time we were not to know all this and half of our co-passengers were reproaching the other half, either husbands or wives, as the case might be, for making them leave home – surely nothing very bad could happen to us under the care of such cultured people as the Germans, while here we are in the hands of these barbarians in their chapkas (the typical Russian soldiers’ hats) with their red stars.

Our arrival in Siberia, in the area known as Piervomajsk, introduced us to the realities of Soviet life at its most basic. We were at first housed in long barracks in the winter of 1940 when the temperatures could fall to 70° Centigrade below, with a chill factor in those fierce blowing winds beating at us from the surrounding steppes (tundra). Food was minimal for survival, lice and fleas and bedbugs abounded, typhus, malaria, dysentery and tuberculosis were difficult to avoid and everybody had to work and work hard. The men were immediately set to cutting trees in the impenetrable forests of the surrounding taiga, where skulls and mass graves were often uncovered by the men digging the earth. These were from the 1935 killings of the Kulaks and the earlier Trotzkyists assassinated and covered by a thin layer of earth in their shallow graves. In the summer the malarial swamps thawed out and new diseases assailed the work-worn, hungry population of our settlement. Our maternal grandfather died in such circumstances, possibly of some infectious disease but basically of starvation. As did so many others. I believe that what kept our parents alive through these terrible years, people who had never known hardship, manual work or hunger, was the feeling of responsibility for us, their children. They knew that if they were no longer there to protect us, we had no chance of survival, and so, however hungry, weary, ill, they had to fight on and live, live for the sake of their children. And that is what saved them and consequently saved us.

A cheering and oft repeated saying was: “Ne zdohnesh to privyknesh, ne privyknesh to zdohnesh” (If you do not die you will get used to things, if you do not get used to them you will die). Another was: “Vashi kosti zdes ostanutsa” (Here your bones will remain). Which, in view of the impassable forests surrounding us, the stretches of taiga alternating with the tundra that made up the Siberian infinity, 22


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combined with the impossibility and interdiction of moving even as far as the next village without permission (the unattainable prepustka) from the commander of the settlement, seemed more than likely.

Huts had to be built. Water had to be carried for the bania, as well as for everyday consumption. Toilets had to be made with pits dug and over them an unsteady wooden plank with a hole in the middle of it to crouch over. Children too small to be able for any of these jobs had to collect the branches and cuttings of the felled trees. This was called podgotovka (preparation), implying a preparation of a person for more serious work and the preparation of the forest floor for the collection of the tree trunks which were dragged to the river for transport. A man received 400 grams a day of heavy, wet, black bread, which made it only a small piece, often to be shared with members of the family if there were some too old or too young to work and therefore not given any food. Those who had jewellery or clothes to trade with the local peasants, or those whose skills enabled them to earn something (for instance dressmakers), could get vegetables or eggs, cheese or even meat – otherwise a family’s diet was meagre. There was constant hunger for which the only remedy was to steal or barter.

Those months in Siberia, that stay, remain as a period of intense and ever-present hunger, biting cold and summary arrests. Those arrested were sent to labour camps, to coal mines in the Caucasus, to stone quarries, to cotton fields on the collective farms (kolkhoz). The Russian authorities decreed that all the adults of the Polish community had to give up their nationality and take Russian passports. Most refused, fearing they would then never be allowed to leave. The grandparents of those families that had grandparents with them said that they would do as the Russians required and stay to look after the children, their grandchildren and those who had no grandparents to look after them. Their reasoning was as follows: either the war would finish soon and the passport problem would be of no consequence, those imprisoned would be released and the Soviet nationality that they themselves were taking would be invalidated; or the war would go on for a long time, by which time 23


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they who were old would no longer be alive and so again their adopted nationality would be of no consequence. And so it was that the oldest generation stayed to group together and take care of the youngest.

This is what happened while the parents were jailed for disobedience, the refusal of Soviet nationality. Our parents were taken with others and I well remember waiting at the prison gates in the hope of being able to leave some bread or other food, a piece of warm clothing, a message that we were thinking of them. After a while these prisoners were dispersed around the country to places of work, our mother to cotton fields and our father to the notorious mines of the labour camps. All contact with them, however one-sided in the first weeks, now was altogether impossible until their miraculous release.

Our mother was away for a few months, our father for well over a year. When they released him he made his way to us without of course any means of letting us know he was coming. And so one winter night there was a knocking on the hut window and there was our father, tired, emaciated, dressed in a torn overcoat, from the lapels of which there peered the trembling head of a puppy which our father had found on his way and which was dying of cold and hunger. Children remember odd things. I hardly remember my father’s state of health, which must have been very shaky, but I do remember how we cared for the puppy. We of course had hardly anything to eat and were perpetually hungry. But we kept that dog. For how long I don’t remember, or with what we fed it, or what happened to it eventually. I suppose it landed up in a Russian family better able to feed it.

On one occasion – oh miracle! – we acquired a chunk of meat which, as it was during the summer, my parents decided to bury for coolness until the next day in a hole dug in the earth and covered with a stone. In the morning we discovered that our dear dog, perpetually as hungry as we were, spent the night burrowing around the stone which we had thought so safe a cover, and the meat was gone. I remember to this day the tragedy of that moment.

The other thing that my father brought with him from his imprisonment was a wooden spoon, a round wooden spoon such as 24


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is used in Russia and which a fellow prisoner had carved out and given him as a remembrance. Our father was very fond of this spoon and spoke to us a lot about it and about his companions in the labour camp, and I must have been so impressed that I decided to show it off at school, without asking permission to take it. Of course it never came back from school, theft was rife, and I still remember our father’s sadness and the pain of my guilt in this loss. I still feel it. Another sad memory of my childhood is being accused and sent packing in the bazaar. As a treat I had been sent to buy sweets. I had laid the coins on the glass case of the stall while the owner of it was getting the sweets ready for me, only to be told that I never put any money down, and so, shouted at for shame, I was chased home empty-handed.

There were no schoolbooks of course, and in the absence of any notebooks or even writing paper, which was quite unobtainable then, we made our own writing books by sewing together pages cut out from newspapers and learnt to write between the printed lines. Newspapers were always available, ‘Pravda’ (the Truth) and ‘Izvestia’ (the News) both of course misnomers. There was a saying that in the Truth there was no news and in the News there was no truth.

We lived in that settlement of Piervomajsk in the huts which the men had built, and I remember our hut so well that I could draw it now. I remember where the door stood and the window. Of furniture there was very little. One moved the table away to the side for the night and set up the beds, and in the morning one folded up the beds and the table and chairs formed a living room of the interior of the hut. A small cooking-washing corner and no bathroom. One washed in the bania and went outside in the field for other needs. I still remember how afraid I was to go outside in the dark if I ever had to, and how a grown-up would have to stand at the door and call out ‘cuckoo’ to me until I came in again. For a long time I remained afraid of the dark, a result of those nature-enforced nocturnal outings I suppose, as well as the result of the horrific Russian fairy tales, filled with brigands and murders and dark woods… and also of course the real happenings of that period, which were not so different from the fairy tales. 25


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I remember very clearly my world of ‘little people’ (krasnoludki) who were living under my bed. I didn’t have to look down, I knew they were there, a whole village of them: little houses, school, shop, station… and all these little bearded men, kerchieved women, children running about… they were my little people and as I was going to sleep I could imagine them getting ready for the night as well. When I woke up in the morning they were already busily going about their jobs -they were my best friends and I was their protector.

The most difficult thing to put up with all through the war years was hunger. An ever constant, never to be forgotten gnawing feeling. The food we did get was inadequate not only in quantity, but also in quality. In the summer some managed to supplement the very basic rations with going into the forest for wild fruit or, a favourite Russian pastime, hodit po griby (looking for mushrooms). These were dangerous activities as the forests were dense, and often people leaving the small settlement would get lost and on occasion were never found again. Also, of course, not many of us knew much about the harmful sort of mushroom, and there were often cases of food poisoning which added to the generally weak health of the undernourished community and the already endemic dysentery which had very serious consequences. I remember our grandmother taking us out of the compound to what must have been just the edge of the forest, though it seemed deep into them for us children, and sitting on a tree stump while we, keeping always in sight of her, picked wild berries to take home for a treat. Our grandmother (that is our maternal grandmother) I remember as small, intense, and usually on bad terms with our mother. She must have denied herself even the little food that was allotted to her so as to give it to us, the ever-hungry, skinny grandchildren, because there was, it seems to me, ever less of her, until she just faded away. Though said to die after an illness, she really died of malnutrition. There must have been many a grandmother in those days that could not stand the sight of their starving grandchildren, and how sad now to think that they died so much earlier than their normal span of life would have allowed.

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Chapter IV No Longer Enemies

On the 22nd June, 1941 Hitler attacked his erstwhile ally Stalin, thus beginning a second eastern offensive, and Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In October of that year an amnesty was declared for the Poles all through the Soviet Union thanks to a ‘treaty of friendship’ or the Sikorski-Maiski agreement signed in London by the Polish government in exile.4

By the 6th of August 1941, only weeks after the German hostilities against the Soviets began, General Anders was released on Stalin’s orders from his prison cell in the notorious Lubianka jail in Moscow and was appointed as the commander of the Polish troops in the Soviet Union.

On 30th November General Sikorski arrived in Moscow (from London) and was welcomed by Molotov. Stalin and Sikorski signed a joint declaration, proclaiming that the Polish army would fight against the Germans side by side with the allies, while: 1 Poles would be released from labour camps throughout the Soviet Union;

2 The whereabouts of the missing Polish soldiers and officers would be investigated (General Anders had 44,000 soldiers under his command, but very few officers to lead them);

4. After Germany’s takeover of Poland there was ensuing chaos due to all the leaders, political and military, fleeing to London, where the government in exile came into being. The Polish government formed in London included the major political parties: Socialists, Peasant Party, Social Democrats, Nationalists, Catholics, and all at loggerheads with each other. Władyslaw Sikorski was appointed as Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile. He and Ivan Maiski, the Soviet ambassador in London, in the presence of the British authorities signed the treaty of friendship between Poland and the Soviet Union.

27


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3 Bigger rations would be issued by Stalin for the Polish forces, and,

4 The future of the Polish frontiers would be revised when hostilities ended.

In fact, those in the Gulags were released only two years later and fought under General Berling. Some were never released. The missing officers were never found, or rather their bodies were found two years later, more than 20,000 of them having been shot in cold blood by the Soviets in 1940. As to the fourth part of the above described agreement, after the war Poland nominally regained its frontiers (for instance Lvov became again part of Poland), but in fact the Soviet domination of the country and of its government (a puppet government set up by the communist regime) was already in place and true Polish independence came only after the struggle of the Solidarnosc movement and the fall of communism in the ’80s.

The Polish army under the command of General Anders was evacuated from Central Asia across the Caspian Sea to Persia, hence by way of Iraq and Syria to Cairo and Alexandria. Once in the Middle East, the Polish troops trained in camps side by side with the British army, following which they participated in the western desert campaign against the German troops under General Rommel. Many of the young Polish trainees were sent to Britain for further training (where many of them joined and distinguished themselves in the Air Force), or to Italy where they participated in the 1944-45 Italian campaign.

The Soviet Union suffered greatly after Hitler attacked in June ’41. In spite of warnings Stalin refused to believe that his German allies would turn against him and so was completely unprepared for the German invasion. Moscow and Stalingrad were surrounded by the Germans by the winter of ’41-’42. The battle for Stalingrad constituted one of the most heroic episodes of the war in the Soviet Union. It lasted until February 1943 when Marshal von Paulus of the 6th German Army capitulated. The city was surrounded by the German forces and the siege was so long and so tight that people ate rats and many died of starvation. It was not till late in 1943 that the 28


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danger of being completely conquered by the Germans was finally lifted and the Russian people could breathe again. The Soviet government and all important offices, military equipment production, etc were moved to Kuybishev in 1941 which became the temporary capital after the evacuation of Moscow.

The Polish army was recognised by the allied powers and, as far as this affected us, parcels containing food, soap, medicines etc from America began being distributed among the Polish community. The parcels themselves were not always of much use. The containers would reach us in a broken state, the tea would taste of soap, the flour or sugar would be spilt, candles would arrive in small pieces… but the psychological value of these gifts were inestimable as moralboosters and items which could not be consumed could always be exchanged for matches, or salt, or needles or thread or paper – for whatever at that particular moment was unavailable in the open market.

There were three transports of Polish troops leaving from Central Asia. Any Poles who could, left Russia with these transports, either as soldiers or families of soldiers, or under any pretext at all, as that way there lay the hope of escape. It was only by luck however that one would learn of this possibility. There was no official notification to the Poles in the Soviet Union of the formation or evacuation of a Polish force. Many were completely ignorant of these facts. Others heard by chance, sometimes too late to do anything about it. Despite Stalin’s orders that Jewish and Ukrainian Poles should be kept in the camps, many managed to slip through the net and join the Polish troops on their way to Iran, occupied at that time by Russian and British forces. Taking advantage of these transports of Polish troops, our family, like many others, tried to reach Tashkent in time to leave on one of the troop trains. Poles travelled from the length and breadth of the country to join these trains. They travelled on crammed trains, they walked, they begged lifts from local inhabitants.

Their odyssey through the Soviet Union towards Central Russia and to Tashkent is marked by graves such as that of my grandmother’s. From Tashkent the transport took them to Krasnovodsk on the 29


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Caspian coast and many of them died on the way there, and many more on the ships that took them across the sea to Iran and so were buried at sea. Among the 100,000 that survived and reached the British training camps in the Middle East was the future prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin. For those, like him, who reached Iran, it seemed like heaven. They were deloused, they were fed, they were housed cleanly and comfortably.

For us, however, the news of these transports came late to our part of the world, and by the time we started off, the third transport was being assembled near Tashkent. Due to the many setbacks which we experienced on our long trek through the country, we missed the last of these transports and remained in Central Asia until the end of the war. Tadjikistan therefore became the first country that I thought of as being mine, and the country of my first school years.

It was the winter of 1942. I well remember our journey from Siberia to Central Asia. We got to Kuybishev where my parents were again to contact Wanda Wasilewska. In her youth she had been a close friend of our aunt Helenka’s, and as I have mentioned, was now a diehard communist. Moreover, she was one that was close to the ruling clique around Stalin, unlike many of the idealistic Polish communists who made their way to the Soviet Union with the idea of finding a red carpet laid out in their honour and instead found themselves thrown into jail or worse, disappeared without trace. It was hoped she would be able to procure the necessary papers for our onward journey (prepustki, the ever necessary permits in circulating around Russia, be it even from one village to the next). Kuybishev was at that time the political capital of the Soviet Union as Stalin was forced to leave Moscow before the imminent threat of its take-over by the Nazi army. It therefore became the important city of the Soviet Union until the Germans were conquered. There (thanks to Wanda Wasilewska) we were to see an unforgettable ballet of “Don Quixote” (performed by the marvellous Bolshoi ballet company), the beauty and colour of which constituted my first moving theatrical experience. To go on from there to our destination we had to cross the Volga River which that year froze early so that we were stuck while waiting for a thaw. It was while waiting that our grandmother became ill and had to be taken to hospital where she died. Like our grandfather before her, she died basically of malnutrition. 30


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A long journey by train followed, unpredictable stops, forests around the Volga, then a mountainous region, followed by flat country of the Asiatic steppes stretching far into the distance, into the desert. We eventually got to Tashkent, but too late for the Polish troop-train which we had hoped to join, and so we were stuck in Central Asia for the remainder of the war. Of course one did not just choose where one would settle and we were allocated to Dzambul, not too distant from Alma-Ata, in Kazakstan, near the border of Tadjikistan where we were eventually sent to. Beyond the Aral Sea, by the Tien Shan mountains, there were Uzbeks to the south of us and Kazaks to the north. We had, since the beginning of September 1939, travelled from Krakōw to Lvov, from Lvov to Siberia, some 4,000 kilometres, and from Siberia another slow journey to Tashkent, Alma Ata and Djambul… another 2,000 kilometres. Kazakstan was to be the home for the next few years to exiles both Russian and foreign, from all over the Soviet Union, as was also the neighbouring Tadjikistan and also Uzbekistan. In the years following our exile I met many other Polish expatriates who had spent those years in one or the other of these states. During the Stalin era there was little to distinguish them beyond their origins and the language used in one or the other – Kazakstan and Uzbekistan shared a language Turkish in origin, while Tadjikistan’s origins were basically Persian. The life, the hardship, the absence of men in those days (all were in the army), the very hard working women, the poverty, the hunger – it was shared by all the region and the exiles sent to one state were no better off than those sent to another. The difficult life was the lot of one and all. It was not until much later, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that each became an independent state and some fared better than others. Kazakstan for instance, due to its natural resources, became much better off and Djambul, which I remember as being an insignificant settlement (posolek), is now an important town on the map.

And so it was that I began my schooling in 1942, at the age of eight, in the small settlement near Djambul, in Russian, as that was the official language throughout the Soviet Union (although Uzbek and Tadjik were spoken by the indigenous population). 31


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The map on the left hand page shows our route from Krakow through Europe to Russia, with the map on the right showing a close up of the area where we spent several years


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The Children of Abraham

THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM

Anita Muir

Anita Muir

Beginnings, before the world changed, before the Second World War, before a time when I knew anything of the beauty and vastness and variety of the world, my beginnings in KrakĹ?w, Poland in the 1930s. My origins there, in the well assimilated Jewish family of a comfortable, warm, loving home of the Abrahamers...

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The Children of Abraham