This is the first chapter of a memoir “Shards – Two Teens’ Flight to Uzbekistan.” The memoir describes the experience of the author, Michael Kesler, during WWII, when he (16) and his sister (19) left home and after a year of harrowing travel arrived in Stalingrad at the start of the Germans’ encirclement of the city. Their attempt to cross the Volga River by ship is thwarted when a thief snatches the watch that Michael’s dad gave him in parting. Tragically, the ship hits a mine and all its passengers and crew perish. Michael and his sister cross the Volga a week later and following months of travel, land in Uzbekistan where Michael works as a veterinary assistant and later, a weaver, while his sister is employed as a teacher. In 1945, at the end of the war, the siblings return home to find all its 8,000 Jews in mass graves. They travel on to a Displaced Persons’ Camp in West Germany and ultimately settle in the U.S.
I had just turned sixteen. I remember it well:
I was obsessed with an urge, nagging and sweet
to surprise my classmate Sophie and tell
I adored her and would love her forever indeed.
But it was not to be, and that gave me pain.
On June 22, 1941,
the world I had known turned insane,
as Hitler’s war on Russia had begun.
On the third day of war shocking news came
the Russians were fleeing and German tanks were near.
Then Stukkas roaring set the Castle aflame.
The day grew long, filled with panic and fear.
Yet the day was short, too short to abort
life planted firmly with patience
sweat and blood of scores of generations.
Too short for the young to tear apart
from family, friends, and sweet ties of the heart.
Painful quarrels and bitter debate
erupted in each household, and led in dismay
to final verdicts of every Jew’s fate:
who shall leave and who shall stay,
who shall live and who shall die...
As night descended, awesome and dark,
the gates of heaven shut, and Satan’s verdict came stark:
all eight thousand would die, shot in pits,
except for a few who’d crawl out amidst
layers of bleeding, dying kin, into a jungle ruled by cruelty of chance,
hatred, violence and Death-Angel’s dance.
The early morning sun peeked playfully through the leaves of the acacia tree in front of my window, caressing my face. “Luba is here!” I whispered, as I dreamily heard her hushed voice in the adjoining room. I opened my eyes and saw on the opposite wall the couch with bedding on it. It was true; she had come back! My three years-older sister, had been away for nearly a year in Rovno, a town some 30 kilometers northeast of our town, Dubno, studying at the regional teachers’ college.Two days earlier, on June 22, 1941, Germany broke through the Soviet German border, 50 km west of my hometown, Dubno. Distant rumblings of artillery and aircraft bombs sent ominous warnings that the war was near.
“Moyne! Where is Luba? How will she get home?” Mom was wailing the evening before.
“Don’t worry, Manya. Our daughter is smart and resourceful; she’ll find a way,” Dad tried to reassure Mom. Yet he, too, was concerned; I could see it in his fearful eyes. So was I: would Luba be cut off from us by the turmoil of war?
I put on my trousers and shirt and ran into the other room. The room combined my parents’ sleeping quarters, the dining facilities, the heating central furnace, and my parents’ dressing area. It was the room where we spent most of our time together. I glanced at Luba sitting across the table from Mom; I hadn’t seen her for a year. Her face had become more rounded, her lips fuller and broader, her eyes larger and more animated, and her brown braid longer, reaching down to her waist. I thought she was beautiful. Now, at 19 she looked very much like Mom-short with a narrow frame and slender, except for the gray coloring of her eyes and brown hair which were more like those of Dad.
Luba and Mom were flushed with excitement, as if they had been quarreling.
“Hi Luba, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Never mind,” Luba answered curtly. “There is no time for small talk now. The Germans have broken through the front and the Russians are fleeing,” she declared heatedly.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
She told me her physics professor was a reserve colonel in the army. “He took me aside and told me the bad news. He urged me to go home and make sure we all leave immediately.”
“That is silly talk, Luba!” Mom exclaimed. “You want me and Dad to abandon everything and just run away, like crazies?” Mom reminded Luba that we fled our home in September 1939 fearing the Germans’ advances, and found Ukrainians occupying our home when we returned a week later, after the Soviets moved in to occupy Dubno.
“We have a choice. We leave or we stay here and wait to be killed,” Luba said sharply.
“You think you and your professor know everything!” Mom shouted. “Napoleon tried to conquer Russia and he didn’t do so well. Let’s pray Hitler-may his name and memory be blotted out – does no better.”
“In the meantime, the Germans will probably kill us all,” Luba shouted back.
Luba’s boldness and confidence startled me. A few years earlier, I had been the favorite in the family, particularly of Mom. Though three years younger, I commandeered Luba to tend to the kitten, to take care of the garden or to play the card game of my choice. Luba had been pale and fragile and she may have had tuberculosis, Mom had said. I had been much stronger and had often taken advantage of it. What a difference the few years had made, I thought. Suddenly, Luba grew large in my eyes. She was making so much sense, challenging Mom.
Mom shot back. “We met the Austrians and some Germans during World War I, and we lived on. It was the Ukrainian Petlura and his gangs who killed my brother at the end of the war!” Mom yelled in a high-pitched voice as she broke down and cried.
The mention of Petlura sent chills down my body. Mom told us of her daring mission to ransom the severed head of her brother, Mekhel, from Petlura’s gang. My uncle, after whom I was named, had been Mom’s favorite sibling. He had been an accomplished lawyer, a prominent socialist and a talented speaker. Petlura’s gangs, who ravished the Ukrainian Jewish towns towards the end of World War I, picked my uncle, as well as other prominent Jews, as the prime victims of their ire.
Dad returned from morning prayers at the Shul. He had been gone for weeks, working 10-12 kilometers away as a forester for the Soviet government. He had come home the day before, on foot, to rejoin us. I was delighted to be with him. He was gentle and full of love. He had been concerned by the outbreak of war, but reassuring news of the Soviet army beating back the Germans uplifted his spirit.
Now he looked like a changed man. His face was ashen and perspiring; there was froth on the corners of his lips; his eyes were bloodshot and bulging-as if ready to fall out-and had a wild look about them. I became frightened. This was not the man I had known. Dad was even tempered and hardly ever raised his voice. I never remembered him being angry or in panic.
We were no strangers to adversity, and Dad had always been there to calm us that all was well. I remembered the shock in 1934, when Graf Zamoyski, a wealthy Polish nobleman with huge landholdings, fired all the Jews in his employ, including Dad, who worked as a forester. Dad was deeply hurt, and he hardly spoke to me, or anybody, for weeks.
After a while, Dad regained his energy and began a feverish search for ways to emigrate to Palestine and for means to make a living there. Unfortunately, the British made entry to Palestine increasingly difficult. Instead, Mom opened a dry goods store and Dad joined her in the enterprise. Sure, Dad missed his profession, but he adapted.
“Where have you been so long, Moyne?” Mom asked. “You look upset.”
“There is a lot of fear and panic. There is bad news of the Germans breaking through the Russian front with lots of tanks. Some people in the Shul are preparing to leave town,” Dad said with uncharacteristic speed, as if rushing to beat time.
“So what do you think, Moyne?”
“I think we should gather whatever belongings we can and leave before the Germans get here.”
“What are we going to do? What are we going to live on? Leave everything and become penniless beggars in a foreign land? And what about the Ukrainians? They have plenty of Jewish blood on their hands. I don’t know who are worse, they or Hitler’s gangs.”
“Mom, how can you say that! You have been sending me newspaper clippings of the Germans hanging and shooting Jews and building concentration camps in Poland. Are you forgetting all this?” Luba screamed.
“I know how brutal the Germans are,” she said. “I know of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews. But what good will it do for him to start mass killing innocent civilians? How many Jews can Hitler kill, a thousand, two thousand?”
The arguments, the shouting, the pleading went on and on. Mom went into the kitchen and Luba joined her to prepare some food.
I moved closer to Dad and grabbed his hand to quiet him down.
“Your Mom is tough, isn’t she?” he said with a forced smile. I felt for Dad. I believed he was right, wanting us to leave, and that Mom was being stubborn.
My mother was a talented woman. She didn’t have much formal education, but she was well-read, particularly in Russian literature. She was also more worldly than Dad, who had come from a small Shtetl. She was the oldest of four sisters. After the death of her father, who had been a prominent lawyer and a descendant of a well-respected, old family, she had worked side-by-side with Grandma to provide for the family. They began to manufacture and market candy. She was the one who tended the candy store at the corner of Grandma’s property.
The havoc of World War I and the tragedy that befell the family when Petlura’s gang had killed her beloved brother, as well as a rather impoverished married life, had made her resilient and resourceful, but also tough and difficult. She showed a superior air to Dad, and was often quarrelsome and abusive to him.
Mom and Luba returned from the kitchen with poached eggs, fried potatoes, and salad. We ate quietly. Then Grandma came.
Grandma, my mother’s mother, the matriarch of the Guberman family, lived a couple of blocks away, but she seldom visited us. Her coming now alarmed me. She was in her early 80s and she looked it. She was a stout, healthy woman, but a hard life left marks on her deeply wrinkled face. Her lips were folded, hardly visible, since she had few teeth left.
“Manya, Monye, I have heard the bad news. What do you want to do?” Grandma asked sharply.
“I don’t know, mother-in-law,” Dad answered, “Luba has just come from Rovno where her professor advised her that we should all run away.”
“And you’ll leave me, Peshia, and Heniek here with the Germans?” Grandma exclaimed in anger.
“Mother, don’t worry. I don’t believe in running away,” Mom said. “It would be foolish at our age to become roving beggars in the wilderness. We will just have to do the best we can to wait out this horrible war.”
My parents and Grandma continued their exchange, but it became clear that Mom’s argument had prevailed. We would stay. Grandma was ready to leave. Mom asked that I take her home.
We walked into the street flooded with sunlight. It was a warm, beautiful day with birds chirping away. The sky was pale blue; the scent of acacia and lilacs filled the air. Summer was upon us; nature was bursting with life and excitement.
I felt confused. The quarrelsome exchanges between Mom, Dad, and Luba, the worrisome visit of grandma had left me in a quandary. There is a war going on, somewhere between Dubno and the border just 50 kilometers west of Dubno. But there’s no sign of war here. Are Dad and Luba right – should we flee? Or is Mom right – should we stay? The panic in Dad’s eyes haunted me. I trusted him and his instincts. The thought of leaving began to flood my mind.
I walked with Grandma east on Berka Yoselevicza. We reached the end of our block. On the opposite corner of the side street was the home of my Uncle Avrum, a large white house with black shutters and a shingled roof. He owned a pharmacy and was quite prosperous. He had two daughters and, a son who was a lawyer, living in Vilna.
Grandma and I turned right onto a narrow side street. The din of rumbling vehicles surprised me as we approached Panienska, the main street of Dubno, where she lived. Motorized vehicles and trucks filled with soldiers clogged the street. We turned left on Panienska and passed the Greek Orthodox Church, a beautiful structure. Its doors were swung open; worshippers were chanting inside. Several years earlier, Luba and I used to sneak into the church to listen to the beautiful choir during holiday services.
The pogrom of 1937 ended our curiosity and admiration. On Easter Sunday of that year, the overflowing crowd of the church came out enraged, shouting, “Kill the Jews, the Christ killers!” As they fanned out, with stones and sticks, they attacked Jewish households and stores. We were holed up in our home until the noise subsided. In the evening we ventured out and saw the resulting devastation: broken windows with glass filling the sidewalks and looted stores with merchandise strewn on the street. We learned that a number of Jews, who had tried to defend their property, were beaten and badly injured. So, that is what the message of the minister was on the sacred day of Christ’s Resurrection, I thought as we passed by. I shared my thoughts with Grandma. She told me several pogroms had followed in 1938 and 1939, while I was away studying in Ostrog.
“I thought they would kill us all, just as during Petlura’s terror,” she said.
We reached Grandma’s home. At the front of the property was her candy store, now abandoned and boarded up. Grandma’s living quarters were in a large, sprawling ranch set back deeply in the yard, surrounded by tall oaks. She had rented one wing of the large house to a Soviet official.
Heniek was playing outside with his mother, and I joined them. My Aunt Peshia was in her early 40s but looked much older. Her face was wrinkled, her light brown hair disheveled; her prominent gray-bluish eyes showed worry and sadness.
Peshia, my mother’s younger sister, had been an associate professor of history at Warsaw University. In 1937, the university fired all Jewish academicians. She then came with Heniek, her baby son, to live with her mother in Dubno. Her husband, a lawyer, had stayed in Warsaw with his wealthy parents to settle his business. But he was unable to leave Warsaw. Under the Soviets, Peshia became a high school teacher, and Heniek grew into a beautiful child with whom I spent much time playing.
I embraced her and asked her thoughts about what was happening.
“I am afraid things are not good. I just listened to short-wave radio news from London. The Soviets appear to be in full retreat. I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the morning with the Germans in town.”
I told her about the arguments at home with Dad and Luba wanting to leave and Mom insisting we stay.
“Your mother has seen a lot of tragedy in the past, and she’s not easily frightened.”
“Yes. I haven’t heard anything from my husband, ever since September 1939 when the Germans came into Warsaw. Who knows if Yulek is still alive or rotting away in one of the camps.”
“So, what are you and Heniek going to do?” I asked.
“I can’t leave my mother alone, and I certainly can’t take her with us; I have to stay. I think that you and Luba, at least, should leave, and the sooner the better,” she said firmly.
My aunt’s words reaffirmed my conviction that we should leave, or at least Luba and I should leave if Mom persists to stay. The idea of leaving began to get hold of me, but I wanted to convince my friends to leave as well. I decided to see my friend Henry, some ten minutes away from our house.
Henry had come to Dubno, when his parents and he fled Warsaw in September of 1939 and moved in with his aunt and uncle. In the fall of 1940, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, deported his parents to Siberia, while Henry was away with friends in the countryside. When he had returned, he stayed with his aunt and uncle.
Henry became my closest friend. We were both enamored of science and avidly read Soviet scientific journals whenever we could get our hands on them. We were enchanted by articles written by Danish-born Peter Kapitsa and by the Jewish physicist Leo Low on the subjects of superconductivity near absolute zero, 3-D visualizations, and nuclear physics. We vowed to pursue scientific careers after graduation.
I found Henry in the kitchen with his aunt and uncle, embroiled in the same heartrending dilemma -to stay or to leave. I explained the discussions and indecision in our family.
“I believe, though, that Mom has prevailed, and we will stay,” I said.
“That is what we decided to do as well,” said Henry’s aunt. “We are too old to start life anew as beggars.”
I looked at Henry with pleading eyes; he looked at me with sadness. He didn’t utter a word, nor did he need to. I understood from his gaze that he would not leave his aunt and uncle.
I left Henry, feeling disappointed and sad. I became desperate to have my friends join Luba and me, if we were to leave home.
Sophie’s name struck me like an electric shock. I must see her! Sophie had been my classmate during the past two years; in fact, she took almost all the same courses as I did, and she was a tough competitor. She was by far my smartest female classmate and most often had the highest scores. The first year that I knew her, I treated her as if she were a boy, competing with me. Last year I began to feel an attraction, a longing to be with her. She lived near the post office, halfway to our high school, the Gymnasium, which was a kilometer from my home. I often would leave early in the morning and wait at the post office until I saw her at the corner. Then I would dash out to greet her with a lame excuse of depositing a letter or delivering a package. We would walk the rest of the way to school together, but I was tongue-tied and awkward and found it hard to engage in any conversation Sophie initiated.
Sophie was a bit taller than I–everyone in class was taller; she was statuesque, with light brown hair, dark eyes, and lovely facial features. She loved literature and poetry and had a beautiful voice. As the year passed, I became convinced she was the most beautiful girl, and I secretly hoped someday I would marry her.
Sophie lived with her mother and her grandmother on her mother’s side. Her father had passed away, and her mother was the provider, working as a nurse in the hospital.
I unlatched the door of the fenced yard of Sophie’s home, and saw her at a table on the porch, reading a book. She looked up as she saw me approaching.
“What a surprise! What brings you here?”
“I thought I would stop by to say hello.
“And you haven’t even had to take anything to the post office?” she said with sarcasm.
“Stop teasing me.”
“I don’t really want to tease you. I just want to let you know that you don’t need an excuse to walk or talk with me. You know, we girls have a sixth sense; it’s called intuition. I can tell very well that you like me, so you don’t have to be so shy. You have nothing to fear you know. Come, sit down.”
She moved over to make room for me at the table.
“Now, tell me why you really came.”
I recounted to Sophie the heated discussions in my home and the dilemma of whether to stay or leave. I told her about my sister’s message from her professor and about my brief meeting with my aunt, whom she knew well. I told her about my own feelings and urge to leave.
“Leave where?” she cried. “You know, tanks and airplanes can move much faster than one can by foot. If the Germans have broken through the Soviet Army’s front, they will be able to conquer much of the Ukraine in no time. And if they want to kill us, I’d much rather die here than somewhere in a strange place.”
I listened. Then, mastering all my courage I turned to her. “If Luba and I leave, will you come with us; will you come with me?” I heard my heart pound as I spoke those words, and I must have blushed with excitement.
“Mekhel,” she said, “you talk like a true teenager. You make it sound like a picnic, like a lag b’omer outing. Do you have an address to go to? I know that you like me and I like you too just a little bit, but I am not ready to run off with you, not at this troubling time.”
She paused, got up, and put her hand on my shoulder. I got up to face her.
“Be serious, Mekhel. My grandmother is ill, my mother works hard to support us, and we try so very hard to be together and survive. How could I possibly leave my mother alone?” She spoke with gentleness that belied the firmness. She was agitated and blushing.
Her words were broken by an explosion that rocked the house and the yard. We looked up and saw several Stukas dropping bombs-like inverted finned bottles-near the famed castle along the Ikva River across from the high school. Several powerful explosions came in succession.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Sophie screamed and fell in my arms, trembling with fear. As she embraced me, I felt shivers go through me and warmth overwhelm me as if my whole body were melting.
“Sophie! Sophie darling! What’s happening?” shouted her grandmother, coming down the stairs. Sophie pushed me abruptly aside.
“Mekhel, you better leave. Run back to your home!” she said and ran inside to her grandmother.
I was in shock. I felt as if somebody had torn a part of me. I was hurt, and I was angry. Sophie dismissed me as if I didn’t much matter. She didn’t think much of running away either. Didn’t she see the danger? I was disappointed with myself, too. I should have stayed and told her grandmother that our lives were in danger and that we must leave. I felt abandoned, yet more determined to leave.
I ran back home through Panienska and reached Berka Yoselevicza. The street was filled with people, frightened and agitated. They joined in clusters moving in excitement, as bees around a beehive. I was shocked by the dramatic change of the street that an hour or so earlier had been quiet.
I reached my home. Luba was in front, buttonholing neighboring friends. As I approached, Luba turned sharply toward me. “Where have you been? There is news that the Germans are now in the western suburb, Mlinov. Mom wants us to leave!”
“Why did she change her mind?”
“The Feyersteins from across the street came over and pleaded with her that she should let us go since the Germans would almost certainly grab the young men first, and Mom asked me to go with you.”
We entered the house. Mom was busy packing two small valises with underwear, a change of clothes, and a couple of sweaters. She had also prepared a few sandwiches and found our winter leather boots.
“Dad and I decided you and Luba should go, and we will stay here; I don’t believe the Germans will bother with us old people but you, Mehele, especially you, are in great danger of being picked up by the Germans. Go away until things quiet down. Maybe it’s for a day and maybe forever,” she said as she broke down and cried.
I saw my mother turn into a defeated woman. It seemed as if all the awesome burdens of a difficult life converged to crush her. Her penetrating gaze lost its focus, her lips tightened, and her cheeks turned pale. Her wiry, erect frame stooped like a folded accordion. She was mum.
Then, as if awoken, she said, “If you have to move farther east, head towards Aunt Etie in Ostrog. I’m sure she and Uncle Sholem will welcome you with open arms. You liked them, didn’t you, Mekhel, when you were studying in Ostrog?”
Thus a decision was reached, half of the family would stay, and half would leave. That is the way King Solomon would have decided, I thought, as I remembered his poignant adjudication between two quarreling women claiming ownership of a baby; “Split the baby in half,” the King ruled.
Mom asked us to freshen up, change clothes, and put on the winter boots. I sat down to put on the boots and looked at Dad who was standing in the corner of the room. He seemed drained of all strength. His face was pallid; his prominent eyes had lost their sparkle and looked flat and vacant. His lips drooped; his shoulders sagged, as if carrying a monstrous weight. He looked old and sad. More than that, he looked as if he had given up all hope. His eyes betrayed fear. He looked defeated.
I became frightened. I felt cold shocks running through my body. Should I leave Dad and Mom like this, I wondered.
“Here are two valises I prepared and all of the rubles I could find,” Mom said as she turned to Luba. “Please take good care of your brother.”
Then she hugged Luba and held onto her until she burst into tears and let her go. She hugged me, kissed me with her face wet with tears and said softly, “I love you very much. Remember that, Mekhel.”
My dad called me back as I turned around, ready to leave. He undid the golden chain of his Longines watch from the front of his vest. The watch had been a wedding gift from Grandma. Dad handed the watch and the chain to me.
“Here, Mekhel, take good care of this; it may save your life! And take good care of your sister.” His voice was barely audible.
He embraced me and let me go. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but I choked. I couldn’t utter a word.
We left the house, our home. I opened my little valise and carefully deposited the watch with the chain. Soon we were joined by six young men with whom Luba had spoken earlier. Two of them, Hayim and Motel, were in their early twenties, neighbors from across the street; the other four-Joseph, Jacob, Nathan, and David-were teenagers from homes down the street. Hayim had a compass, Motel had a map, and we had two flashlights to share. It was dusk. We were in a hurry. We wanted to be as far ahead of the Germans as possible. We also wanted to be far away from our homes, lest we changed our minds and turned back. I heard my heart pounding; I was gripped with fear and guilt as we began our journey into the dark night and beyond.