WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
To read Chaim
Basist's original story, written in Hebrew, click
The Start of the Long Journey Home
I returned to my city. As has already been told, the heavy bombing it took destroyed the city so badly that almost nothing remained as it had been before the war. I arrived after my parents and sister, and wasn’t sure which way to turn in order to find them. After some thought, I turned towards the house of my mother’s aunt, Sheina-Riva, which had remained standing after the bombing. We forced the Polish residents, who had invaded the house after we were thrown out and forced into the ghetto, to leave and then we moved in. Only about 80 people, mostly men but also a few women and two or three children, returned to Lida.
Life was very hard. We were haunted by our memories of our family, of the area, of times spent with families that were no more, of neighbors that were gone, of streets and houses that no longer existed. Lida was located at a major crossroads, and everyone who passed by, especially Jews, stopped to look for missing Jews and to stay for a night and rest. Since our house was next to the train station, it became the main information center for Jews passing through on their way to somewhere else.
In spite of everything we had been through, we again met up with our old acquaintance, anti-Semitism. At every turn and every side, and even from our friends the partisans, we were reminded of how the Jews turned over their wealth to the Germans, and similar comments. The influence of the emissaries, as well as the hostile environment, quickly led us to make the decision to apply for permission to immigrate to Poland; we knew that from there we could make our way to the land of our dreams, Palestine. And so it was.
At the start of 1945, according to the agreement between the provisional Polish government and the governments of Russia, anyone who had been a citizen of pre-war Poland had the option of immigrating to Poland; during the war itself, only a small portion of Poland had been liberated. It was winter, and we boarded a freight train; the cars were freezing cold, but none of that scared us. We had decided on our course; although the war was still going full strength that did not affect our decision. We were, along with many Poles, on our way to Poland. Of course we were scared; in those days our friends the Poles killed every Jew they came across. That didn’t stop us. It was bitter cold. At night, the hair on our heads would stick to the iron nails that studded the walls of the car. There were about forty people in every car; we were the only Jewish family.
On the Way to Poland
The train made slow progress, because of the battles that still raged. Thus we passed through cities and towns that before the war had been home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, now we encountered one or two. They were usually the only surviving members of entire families, wandering from place to place in search of family members, and most often not finding a single one. We progressed westward through Poland in the wake of the Russian army. We arrived in the city of Bialystok, a city which before the war was home to tens of thousands of our people; now we met only a few dozen Jews. We continued on our way, and after a long time we arrived in Lublin, where we found only a few Jews, including a family which lived in a house next to the camp of the Russian army out of fear of the Poles who at that time had started killing Jews. The house was named after the place in which it was located, 71 Narotovitcha. Lublin was known as a Jewish settlement hundreds of years old and was also famous for its many rich institutions, but it came to have a bad name when it became the neighbor of an extermination camp in which many Jews were killed, the death camp Majdanek. We toured the camp, and the Polish guide told us that the last group that was taken there to be killed was from Lida. On one of the piles of shoes on display there, my mother recognized the house slippers of Mina, the daughter of her cousin Tsviya. The slippers were sewn for her by her husband Moshe, who was an expert shoemaker; the upper part of the slipper was sewn with pieces of colored leather.
After about a month and a half, and after we had been organized into a group of former partisans, we received from the organizers of the transfer (of European Holocaust survivors to ports of embarkation for Palestine) documents that declared us to be Romanian Jews, survivors of an extermination camp who wanted to return home. So we came to board a train that took us far from the cursed land of Poland, and towards the yearned-for shores of our homeland.
Our journey took us down the length of Poland; we passed by cities which before had been magnificent Jewish communities, such as Rzeszów, Stanisławów and others. Occasionally we would meet one or two of the survivors of the communities. Everything was grey and scary; it was like the end of the world. Most of the way we traveled on heavily loaded freight trains, packed with the Russians’ spoils of war; full crates being shipped home by the Russians. We sat in the space between the cars, about a half a meter in size; it was extremely dangerous. One night, a girl from a different group dozed off and fell off the train. She was lucky enough to land between the two rails and the train passed over her. It tore her clothes, but aside from a few scratches she wasn’t hurt. We were in a city called Humenné. Bluma (the girl) walked for about 20 kilometers and found us in a Red Cross hostel.
It turned out that the rest of Bluma’s group had gone on without her, taking all her clothes, and Bluma was left with nothing and no way to continue her journey. She burst into tears and my mother told her, “You will go on with us. I have two children, and you will be my third.” And so it was. My mother went with Bluma to buy clothes and shoes, for the ones she was wearing were torn to shreds. Then we continued on our way with our new sister. We passed through many places, and when we reached a place called Chop we met a Jewish family who had a sort of market; we stayed there as guests. Apparently it was something arranged by the Joint (Joint Distribution Committee); from there we went on to a city called Satu Mare. At night when we arrived, while still in the train station, we heard a commotion and didn’t understand what was going on. After a while, they allowed us to leave the train and took us to a large building. They gave us dinner, and then we went to sleep on the floor, as we usually did without complaint; we were used to it after all of our wanderings through Europe.
The next morning we learned the meaning of the tumult we had heard in the train station. The Jewish survivors of the place had opposed our staying in their city because they reasoned that since we were Polish Jews, we were all kapos from the extermination camps who had badly treated the Hungarian Jews in the camps. In the end, thanks to representatives from the Joint we were put up in the home of Jews from the area who had not survived the Holocaust. It turned out that we found ourselves in the home of the rabbi of Satu Mare, at 23 Betori Street, a two story house with a garden; it was a very spacious house.
Our living subsidies we got from the Joint; it was, for us, a sort of convalescence home. Compared to Poland, there was food and clothing in abundance. It was almost as if the residents had gone off on vacation, or to visit family; there were bed linens and cookware - we were completely equipped. But we knew that the residents wouldn’t be coming back; they had all been murdered in the extermination camps.
As I’ve told, originally, the people there didn’t want us to stay but as we prepared to go on our way, they asked us to continue living there, and arranged documents for us somehow, saying we were natives of the area. In spite of the temptation, they didn’t succeed, and we went on our way as planned to the port of Constanţa in order to board a ship that would take us to the shores of the land of Israel. This was the plan from the beginning of our journey. One day we met a young Jewish man named Emanuel Blatt; after talking to him for awhile we discovered that his mother had been a friend of my mother’s, many years before in Lipnishuk. After her wedding, she moved to the city of Lvov in Galicia. We became friends, and on the remainder of our journey our paths crossed many times.
As we continued on our way, we came to the city of Orde-mare, where we spent a short time, and then we made our way to the city of Budapest. Along the way, we had a problem; we had been making our way in heavily burdened freight cars, and our group was made up of over one hundred men and women. Most of us had been partisans, and spoke Russian. On the night of the long trip to Budapest, we were visited by a group of thieves, apparently soldiers and an officer in the uniforms of the Russian army. They had made their way through the train, robbing the passengers. They quickly realized that the car they had entered was full of people who spoke their language. After a discussion, they went on to visit the other cars. We learned in the morning that they had robbed and raped their way through the other cars. In the morning we reached Budapest where people were waiting for us, and they took us to a large place that may have been a school. There we found a family from the town named Strodborsky, who had been with us in the same partisan unit with the Bielski brothers. We had made our way to Budapest using the documents of Polish refugees, who were returning from Russia to Poland. In Budapest we were to join another group of Poles and go on to Poland – that was the story we were to tell should anyone ask.
A while later, we received certificates stating that we were Italian Jews, which we were to use for the next part of our journey. There were instances when people asked us questions, and in order to conceal our identities we would answer them using verses from the prayer book. We took the train over the River Danube, on a boat bridge since the Germans had blown up the bridge. After a long time we reached the city of Százhalombatta. Our goal was to reach the city of Graz in Austria, but we couldn’t continue on our way by train and were forced to walk. We walked along the railroad tracks towards the border between Hungary and Austria all night. The next day, as we approached the border we were stopped by some Russian officers, and after a lot of talk we were told that in order to avoid the guards we should climb up a nearby mountain, and upon our descent we would cross the border. It was extremely difficult, especially the ascent. From above, we could look down into Austria and see houses that looked like matchbooks. The difficult descent we all made by sliding down on our rears; luckily the mountain was covered with plants and so all went well. We found ourselves in a small Austrian village, where we met some English soldiers who asked us who we were. We told them we were Jewish refugees from Italy. They told us to wait where we were while they brought us a field kitchen with food. We feared they didn’t believe us and wanted to send us back to Hungary. When we talked to the locals we learned that the railroad station was only a few kilometers away, so we didn’t wait but ran off towards the station. A train to Graz was sitting on the tracks there, local people already sitting inside the cars. Suddenly they saw a group of dozens of people, and obviously our appearances were less than heartwarming. We were dirty and in an odd variety of clothing and probably scared them. The train started to leave the station, and some of us boarded the train through the windows. We were used to such things from our wanderings throughout Europe but the locals were in shock. We weren’t bothered because for so long during the war we had done whatever was necessary to survive, including things that went against the norms of regular people; they had become habit with us.
After a few hours we reached the large city of Graz, where we were taken to stay in a hotel. They didn’t have enough rooms for us, so we were taken up to the attic. It was very crowded there, and in conversation with some people it became clear that the place had been taken over by refugees like us who were robbing people of their valuables. People were also very hungry, since they had been closed up in the hotel for days, unable to leave in order to get food. We realized that there were Jews who had no conscience. After a discussion amongst ourselves, it was decided to issue an ultimatum to the person in charge saying that if we were not allowed to go on our way the next day, we would beat him. We told him we were a group of partisans and were not afraid of him or his band of scoundrels.
The next day we went on our way, headed for the city of Klagenfurt. When we reached the city they sent us to a place that looked like an army base. The next day we were joined by a man wearing the uniform of the Jewish Brigade. He led us, in trucks bearing the symbol of the Brigade and the Star of David, to the train which would take us to Italy. We were very excited about this, since it was the first time we had ever met anyone from Eretz Yisrael. We passed the border into Italy with no trouble and came to the city of Udine, where we received documents of refugees from the camps. After a few days they sent us to Bologna, where we stayed for only a short time before being sent to Padua.
In Padua there was a camp which apparently was run by the Allied Forces. Padua is a very ancient city. After a while, representatives from Eretz Yisrael began running activities in the framework of Zionist movements; this was in the summer of 1945. Many of the people in the camp were teens, and every evening we would get together in groups and learn songs of the land of Israel, dance and sing.
There were also non-Jews in the camp, people who had fled after being liberated by the Red Army because they were afraid of being arrested as collaborators with the Germans. In one instance, a friend recognized such a family, and we tried to hurt them but were stopped by the Italian guards who were under the command of a British officer who fired into the air and didn’t let us see justice done.
I remember that one couple managed to get married; the ceremony was held in the ancient synagogue in the city. After a time, we found a neighbor of ours from before the war, Joseph Miasnik, who had served in an engineering regiment in the British Army. We celebrated the Chanukah holiday in Venice with Jewish soldiers from all over the Allied countries. We told Joseph that all of his family had been murdered. He had already known that his wife and two children had run away during the bombing and gone to the home of her parents in a small town near Lida and were killed there. He was very sad, in spite of the holiday.
After a while, I joined a youth group that operated under the framework of a training kibbutz and was sent to southern Italy to a place next to Palermo, by the sea, in order to learn about communal life in preparation for making aliyah to the land of Israel. We were taught how to do agricultural work on the property of a local landowner there. We lived in shacks next to the sea which was nice, but the work was very hard and the food quite limited. I told myself that I had fasted enough during the war and I wasn’t about to continue doing so. Meanwhile, my parents and sister had been transferred to a United Nations camp in the south of Italy near Palermo named Santa Maria de Lucca. I decided to join them, even though I didn’t speak the language and would need to travel a distance of hundreds of kilometers, changing trains a few times. The last part of the journey was on a very narrow train track. I finally reached Santa Maria, a beautiful place, a town of fishermen; the people were very nice. The Holocaust survivors, including my family, were gathered in the villas of rich Italians in a sort of kibbutz arrangement called “Atid” (future). There were Jewish refugees from all over Europe. While I was absent, my sister had met a young man, a survivor of Auschwitz. A short time after my arrival, they were married. I was put to work in the kibbutz at all sorts of tasks, including secretary of the camp police. Life there was excellent; the food was good, the sea and a beautiful beach, living in villas with all of the amenities. We even started a soccer team and played games against Italian teams from the area. We also started a musical theater, and I took part; it helped somewhat with getting on with our lives and dealing with our memories of the past.
One night while I was in the club, someone approached me and told me I was needed at home. Of course I went right away and found them packing our belongings. I was told that we were setting out on the long journey to Eretz Yisrael. A carriage with an Italian driver had been ordered to take us to the suburban train station several kilometers away. From there, several hours later, we found ourselves in the city of Laga; we went on from there by a fast train to a city called Bari. We were taken to a meeting place for the emissaries from Eretz Yisrael. After a few days, we got onto Jewish Brigade trucks in the middle of the night and were taken to a certain place in the south of Italy. We were taken on small boats to a ship that was anchored far out to sea; we quickly realized that this was a large fishing boat with a motor and sails. They put us on benches made of pipes and fabric that were stacked one above the other. With my luck, there was a pregnant woman above me and her rear end was right above my head. We were about 400 men and women packed like sardines on a fishing boat made entirely of wood, with bathrooms on either side, out of doors.
And so we set sail, cruising on the sea at night, heading into the unknown. Something very difficult that we only learned the next morning was that it was impossible to take a shower. The food was a sort of thick bagel that was hard as a board, and there were only tiny portions of water. There was no hope of a shower, in spite of the heat. The fishing boat was powered by a diesel engine that sometimes stopped working, and we were aided by the sails, so that instead of sailing forward we went from side to side. Most of us would vomit up the small amount of food we had managed to swallow. Every day things were more and more difficult, but in spite of everything our spirits were high; sometimes in the evenings we would sit up on the deck and sing the songs of our homeland that we had learned while in Italy. Occasionally they would signal us to go below-decks when a British observation airplane passed overhead; luckily it wasn’t for long because there wasn’t enough ventilation for all of the people on board.
Day after day for about two weeks, we traveled without showering or shaving, and without enough water to drink. It was harder for the women, but in spite of everything our spirits were excellent and we had high hopes in our hearts for the future that awaited us in our homeland; we would have suffered through anything. Near the end of our journey water was scarce, and many people fainted and needed medical attention, myself included. We were fortunate to have with us a man named Alex, who was from the place where we set off, a dentist who helped us a lot in our difficult situation.
The most difficult trial of all awaited us as we approached the shores of Eretz Yisrael. Although we had gone below decks, a British airplane spotted us. In the evening, two British battleships approached us and tried to overpower us. I forgot at first that the name of our ship was the Palmach; we were told that we were obligated to behave accordingly. In other words, we were not to allow the British to take over the ship but instead to forcibly resist. To that purpose, we dismantled the benches which we were no longer using and used the pipes in our battle against the sailors of the British navy when they tried to take control of the ship. Obviously it was an unequal fight; the sailors shot water and tear gas on us, and then something that exploded and caused people to break out in sores. A few people were also blinded and, after the battle, went to the hospital in Haifa. As morning broke, the British succeeded in taking control and we found ourselves opposite Haifa and the Carmel. The sight caused many people to jump overboard in an attempt to swim to shore, but they were unsuccessful because our ship was surrounded by small boats. Those who had jumped were taken onto the boats and beaten.
After a while they took us off the ship and put us on a big ship called Ocean Vigor, which apparently had been used to transfer German prisoners and now took us to an unknown place, which we later learned was the island of Cyprus. We were the third boatload of illegal immigrants to Palestine to be brought there. We found ourselves in a fenced tent camp with a few buildings. We were divided up into camps, and ours was number 61. The English gathered together our belongings in a field and a large portion of them, including my accordion, disappeared. After a few days, we wanted to have contact with the people in camp 60, but the English refused to allow it. We objected strongly, and the English opened fire on us; as a result a number of our people were wounded. After a while the English allowed passage between our camp and the other two camps and the situation calmed down. To our good fortune, it was summer and we had access to the beach, something that brought some ease into our lives.
Some time later we established a sort of cultural life, which also improved our lives somewhat. At about that time, my father became sick and was hospitalized in the army hospital next to the city of Famagusta. I went to visit him there, traveling in one of the army trucks. On the way back, the vehicle I was in overturned and I was badly hurt. The guard who had been next to me was killed, so I was fortunate. We lay in a field for rather a long time. I lost consciousness, and woke up to find myself in the army hospital, where they cared for me. After my treatment, they transferred me together with my mother, my sister (who was in the last months of her pregnancy) and her husband from the summer camp to a winter camp which had been set up at a distance from our previous location. My father was taken to Eretz Yisrael, to a camp for displaced persons near Kiryat Chaim. After some time we were also released and brought to Haifa, to the Bat Galim neighborhood. And so our circle of life came to a close.
I have written this story of our family so that my children will know the roots of their family, which had lived for hundreds of years and was nearly destroyed by haters of Israel, just because they were people and Jews.
At last we have come to our homeland and found respite, with great hopes for the future yet to come.
Chaim Basist, Netanya, December 2008
English translation by Samin Translations, Netanya, Israel.