In the bitterness of the Urals, Savta always sought sweetness
how us what you have in your hands — and now! Your one-way ticket to Siberia is being processed as we speak!”
Every time my grandmother told me this story, I was terrified. I also had to suppress a giggle, because Savta was so formidable that I could never imagine anyone intimidating her. In my mind’s eye, she must have stood tall and looked at her apprehenders with impatience and disdain.
During the deep winter of 1943, on a frosty day in a small village in the Ural Mountains — the natural divide between Europe and Asia, and not so far from Siberia — my grandmother, Chana, was caught in the act of exchanging bread for chocolate.
Within moments, she was handcuffed and dragged into a drab building, which she supposed was some kind of police station. She was thrown into a windowless room and locked in.
“I have a baby at home!” she yelled. “Let me out!”
Savta watched as the warden marched away, his heels clicking through the gloomy hallway. The room was bare aside from a stool. It looked like a temporary holding area, which was encouraging; it meant she hadn’t been sentenced yet. Perhaps she could still plead her case. She needed to get home as soon as possible because her two-year-old son Mendel was there by himself.
On the Run
Locked in that dingy room, my grandmother must have felt so alone. It had been years since she’d last seen her husband, my Saba, who had been recruited (forced?) into the Red Army as a slave laborer to mine coal in the Ural Mountains. (Saba later shared that although the work was backbreaking, he was grateful for one thing: They gave the workers yellow insulated jumpsuits that were warm and comfortable.)
Savta knew few people in this remote forest village because she had grown up in Warsaw, Poland, where all her family and most of her friends had remained.
Right before the Germans invaded Poland, in 1939, Savta had married Alter Greenfas from Falenica, a suburb of Warsaw. She sewed for herself a gorgeous lilac dress, her favorite color, which she wore to her engagement party and sheva brachos. Savta was the bechorah of her family, and Alter the bechor of his, and the younger siblings revered the new couple.
All too soon, however, they were on the run. “Chana,” Alter begged her, “we’re young and we have a future ahead. We must escape Poland.” Her resolve (did she ever even agree?!) broke when they reached the border near Bialystok. “Alter!” she cried, “I’m returning to my mother!”
When Chana’s parents opened the door and discovered their son-in-law and daughter, they welcomed them warmly, packed up some food, and let Chana know in no uncertain terms that she must follow her husband wherever he may lead her.
After their short visit back home, the young couple made their way eastward again. At one point, they met up with Raizele Gontarsky, a cousin. Based on what she’d been hearing, Raizele advised them to run to Vitebsk, some 500 miles northeast of Warsaw. Savta was never a good traveler, but it was even more challenging now with good tidings on the way and an extra dose of nervousness and homesickness. Eventually, Saba and Savta made it to Vitebsk.
Menachem Mendel, my mother’s oldest brother, was born in Vitebsk a year after the Holocaust began. Savta felt that the zechus of the heiliger Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk surely protected her bechor, who was called after her paternal grandfather, also named Menachem Mendel.
Savta regaled me with stories about the alter zeide Menachem Mendel, who would sit by the table and study from his huge gemaras, becoming so engrossed in his learning that he would forget to eat. His children would sometimes have to spoon feed him while he was learning.
Zeide Menachem Mendel owned a shop in Poland. It was on a commercial street called Hadlowa, and his sons Yisroel and Moshe ran the shop. When Savta’s father, Moshe, would leave for work in the morning, his wife, Shprintza, would ask, “Moshe, when will you return?” Moshe would point to his watch and say, “I can tell you exactly the time I’m leaving the house, and when I return, we’ll check my watch again!”
The store sold stationery supplies, soap, kerosene, and leather handbags, which they imported from France. Money was always tight in Poland, but Shprintza (my great-grandmother) tried not to complain, as that might impel her husband to travel to France to restock.
When Savta was a small child, barely six years old, she came down with a high fever and a sore throat. She was terrified — one of her relatives, also named Chanala, had just passed away from the same ailment.
“Zeidutchke, I’m so scared!” she cried out to her grandfather.
“Don’t worry, Chanala,” he calmed her down. “You will live a long and meaningful life.” Savta would live well into her nineties, and she would attribute her longevity to Zeide Menachem Mendel’s blessing.
A Treat for Mendel
Life was bitter for Savta after she moved from Vitebsk to the Urals. Without her husband or any family around, she had no support and was left to raise her son alone. She thought of her family in Poland often, and one day a memory was stirred: She remembered how her parents would always give the little ones a kletzel of sugar, a colorful candy, or a square of chocolate. Mendel had never tasted anything sweet or enjoyable in his almost three years of life.
Savta came up with a daring plan. She decided to trade her allotted loaf of bread for a piece of bittersweet chocolate on the black market. How could she have forgotten that she was in Russia, the very center of Communism, where everyone was treated equally, especially during wartime? All they had was black bread and water, and sometimes potatoes, a turnip, or a bit of marmalade.
For a piece of chocolate, Savta was now being held captive by the police, with threats of Siberia. Who would take care of her Mendel? What would become of him? She had to get out!
Suddenly a memory flickered. In September of 1941, someone had told her that she could send a package through the Red Cross to the Warsaw Ghetto, where her parents had been forced to relocate. She put together some honey biscuits and hard cheese that she had somehow procured and set out for the post office. But before doing so, she wrapped Mendel, then just an infant, in a warm cuddly blanket and placed him in the center of her bed.
She raced to the post office and returned as quickly as possible, but when she returned home, her son was nowhere to be found.
Feeling helpless and desperate, Savta started screaming. Suddenly, Mendel began to yell and screech as well — from under the bed! He’d woken up, cried, fallen off the bed, Savta surmised, and somehow squirmed well underneath it. Chana scooped him up and hugged him fiercely. Her prince, her Mendel.
Now, stuck behind locked doors, she decided to try that tack. She began to cry and scream and wail. Her sobs echoed in the long hallway.
The guard quickly returned: “The train will leave tomorrow for Siberia. What’s your rush?”
Savta broke down crying, tears rolling down her cheeks. This was completely out of character for my grandmother, who always valued looking put together and presentable. Now she was weeping before a stranger. But she was concerned with one thing only — her Mendel!
“I have a baby at home,” she spouted. “You think I needed a piece of chocolate for myself? My baby is undernourished and scrawny. He needs fat and nourishment. And he needs his mother now!”
The guard didn’t answer; he merely walked away.
“My baby is alone!” Savta yelled after him. “His father is serving Mother Russia, and his mother is stuck in this sorry cell. Have pity on a little child and let me leave!”
Ten minutes passed. Chana rattled the locks and kicked the door. She was going to create a ruckus. Then the guard reappeared with two soldiers. They opened the lock and swung open the door.
“These soldiers will accompany you home,” the guard said sternly. “If you have a child there, they will allow you to be released. But if you have spoken falsely, Siberia will truly welcome you with open arms.”
My grandmother ran home as fast as she could, with the soldiers following. She rushed into her home and there was her Mendel in his crib sleeping softly. Her armed escorts took note of the baby, deigned a smile to the cherubic sleeping angel, and disappeared.
Mendel wouldn’t taste a bar of chocolate until the war was over, but his mother would find out that her lot was sweet in comparison to what her parents and siblings fared in the ghetto.
“Every Bad Is for the Good”
After the war ended, Saba and Savta returned to Poland to search for family members. As the oldest children of their families, they felt responsible for their younger siblings. Surely some of them had survived.
They investigated all kinds of leads and lists. They tried every avenue they could think of. But by 1957, Saba realized that none of his or Savta’s immediate family had survived the Holocaust.
Saba and Savta were blessed with four more children after the war: Uncle Berish (Dov) named after Alter’s father, Shprintza (my mother) named after Chana’s mother, Aunt Chaya Ruchele, named after Alter’s mother, and Uncle Moishe, the youngest and only child born in a hospital setting. After his birth, Savta was given an orange, a delicacy, and shared it with her children when they visited.
There was little Jewish infrastructure in postwar Poland. Savta would buy a chicken in the marketplace and bring it to a shochet to have it shechted. The plucking of the feathers, salting, and soaking was her responsibility. Chicken was only eaten on Shabbos, so it was not an overwhelming task.
Who had money for clothing and luxuries? My mother remembers receiving packages from America. Inside, they would find old clothes and undergarments, sometimes linens and towels as well. Savta brought the old garments to a seamstress, who transformed them into new clothes, with my mother receiving one weekday outfit and one Shabbos one (the slip became a Shabbos blouse). This, in addition to one school uniform, was her extended wardrobe as an elementary student growing up in Poland.
Snacks? My mother and her siblings would pick blueberries in nearby fields. Sometimes they would find chestnuts and seeds, which my grandmother would roast.
Although there were so few survivors in postwar Europe, the Poles still hated the few Jews who dared to remain. My mother’s two older siblings, Uncle Mendel and Uncle Dov, would walk her to school, making sure that no young schoolboy hurt her. At home, on the other hand, they felt free to tease and annoy her like regular siblings.
Savta would always say, “Yiddishe children don’t fight!” My mother believed everything her mother said, so the first time they visited another Yiddishe family, and my mother noticed the children teasing each other, she caught her breath. How can Yiddishe children fight?!
There was a Jewish kindergarten in their town, but when the children reached elementary school age, they attended public school. The Jewish students were known as the brightest in the class. My mother’s teacher asked her to babysit her children after school hours because my mother was so responsible.
In 1957, Saba became an ardent letter writer. He wrote the president of Poland daily, requesting that he and his family be given permission to leave because there wasn’t a single family member left behind in Poland. He asked to be allowed to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, where he had an uncle and cousins.
Permission was granted in 1958, when my mother was ten years old. Saba and Savta had a family passport picture taken, packed up their young family, and made their way to Italy, where they were put up in a hotel. In the morning, room service came to make the beds. Savta refused them entry. “If you tidy the room, then what will I do?” she smiled as she closed the door.
In Eretz Yisrael, they were sent to a small, nameless moshav in the southwest of the country. They were given cases of canned olives. Until today, none of the children care for olives. Each morning, they would take two glass bottles, which Savta called “sloi’in”, to the dairy barn. They would fill the bottles with fresh milk. One bottle they would drink, while the other bottle would be covered with a cloth and kept overnight. In the morning, they would enjoy fresh leben.
When Uncle Moishe started school, Savta joined the workforce. She said it was important for a lady to “zich ois tzetchuchenen, — to air out”. She worked at a Tene Noga Nestle ice cream company, and she’d treat her grandchildren regularly to Krembo, a cream snack.
When my mother was in eighth grade, her principal paid their home a visit to discuss high schools, as the little moshav did not boast anything past the eighth grade. He suggested a dormitory high school in Yerushalayim or Tel Aviv. My grandmother chose, instead, to send my mother to Feter Yisroel and Tante Itta Dembski in New York — because a girl must be raised by family.
My mother traveled by ship because Savta felt airplanes were too dangerous. In the summer of 1962, she set sail on the Shalom ship with the captain’s daughter as company. A year later, Rabbi Uri Shraga Hellman ztz”l, menahel of Bais Yaakov High School, would allow my mother and a friend to miss school and go to the port to thank the captain.
(My father a”h recalled accompanying Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l when he was learning in MTJ to kasher the Shalom ship before a voyage. Could it have been the same ship?!)
Although Savta and my mother wrote and spoke regularly, they didn’t see each other again until Savta flew to New York to be at my mother’s wedding. Uncle Moishe came along, to learn in Yeshiva Be’er Shmuel in Boro Park. He also dormed at Feter Yisroel’s and Tante Itta Dembski’s home.
Over the years, Savta traveled back to New York for bar mitzvahs, and later for chasunahs. I remember sitting near my Savta during a sheva brachos in China Glatt. The waiter respectfully placed the first serving by my grandmother’s place. She pushed it to the center of the table. He brought her another plate. When she pushed it away again, we asked her, “Bist nisht hungerig?” (You’re not hungry?) She answered, “S’iz a mishpachah teler! — It’s a family plate!”, implying that the plate was too much for one person. Savta was very careful about not wasting food or electricity.
In the 1980s, Savta moved from the moshav to Ashdod. When the Gulf War broke out, she moved to New York for good.
Savta was a very straightforward and simple woman. She couldn’t quote maamarei Chazal, but she had emunah peshutah. She was thankful that she learned to speak and read Russian during the Holocaust. As an avid reader, she would enjoy reading books in any language, even in Russian. Communicating with nurses and other health care providers in Russian was a bonus, especially after being admitted to a nursing facility.
“Yeder ra’ah iz a toiva” (Every bad is good), my grandmother would always say. It may seem bleak and difficult, but in hindsight you will see that everything is for the best.
Even returning home without chocolate.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 868)
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