A LONE YOUNGSTER STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN WARTIME
December 26, 2012
Menachem Ziegelboim in #862, Memoirs

It is ten years since the passing of the Chassid, R’ Zalman Levin a”h of Kfar Chabad. He walked among us, but he belonged to the generation of giants, Chassidim who lived lives of mesirus nefesh. In a series of meetings with him, he recounted the story of his childhood in a Chassidishe home in the Soviet Union where children learned Torah and where kosher meat was secretly slaughtered. * Part 6 of 9

Already at the beginning of the war, there was a feeling of tension in the air. As for me personally, all was destroyed after I had finally gotten settled with lodgings and work. Work at the factory stopped because of a severe shortage of workers who did not show up due to fear and starvation. I was left without work and hardly any food.

The mikva I was responsible for had sustained a direct hit. Logs for heating were no longer obtainable since many bombs had fallen in the forest and had burned trees, and there was nothing with which to heat the mikva. The war progressed slowly but steadily in the direction of Leningrad, and the fear was paralyzing. Who spoke of work, which was no longer existent? It was dangerous to go out in the street because of the bombing that thundered from every possible direction. There was a palpable danger to life. Food was limited and starvation confused the mind. All were in despair.

I began looking for a way to start a new life under these terrible circumstances. One day, I heard that there were groups of youth who were organizing to leave the city in January-February, the height of winter.

In the meantime, I was at home. I was with the elderly couple during these five months until the exodus from the city. I remember that on Sukkos, bombs fell right near our sukka since it was lit up and the light attracted the attention of the German bombardiers. Thank G-d, we weren’t harmed. Who knows, perhaps this was in the merit of the acts of chesed which the couple did.

What helped me tremendously in prevailing and continuing to live during this difficult period when food was unobtainable was my regular practice of anticipating shortages. During the time that I had the horse and worked with it, I made the rounds to distribute the shoes from the factory and made sure to collect anything connected with food. I mainly collected leftovers from the factory cafeteria. It was bread that they threw into the garbage, for who imagined that a time would come when there wouldn’t be enough food and people would fight over a slice of bread? I regularly collected the leftover bread, whether it was dry or wet, as well as other leftovers. I had stored up a large quantity of food for the purpose of feeding the horses in a time of need, because even before the war, it was hard to obtain fodder for horses.

So I had saved up food for the hard times and had sacks full of bread. It was dry bread that in good times would not even be valued as a shard of pottery, but now, during wartime, was very precious. In exchange for a piece of dry bread, people would give a gold watch, for lives were at stake. Due to the situation, my bread collection was a great treasure. Of course, I guarded it carefully. I hung it all in a storage place and made sure it did not rot. I locked it with several locks. People who came to the mikva received bread from me, and thus I revived them and they managed to hold on a while longer until the next piece of bread.

I was able to help many of Anash, like R’ Boruch Shifrin, whom I helped with bread and saved from certain death. I helped R’ Zalman Kalmanson with bread, as well as a Chassid named Lazer Zhlobiner. He was a unique personality. He was a Chassid and gaon and one of the distinguished T’mimim in Lubavitch. He would also come to the mikva now and then and I would help him.

At a certain point, I went to Leningrad (the couple I lived wit lived in a suburb of Leningrad) and stayed for a while in the home of R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin. When I returned to the couple’s home, they were not there. I found out that their son had taken them to his house due to fear of bombs. He wanted them to be closer to him and under his protection.

I went in the direction of the mikva and saw that the entire pipeline was bombed, not to mention the warming system which no longer existed. Nothing was left.

From the mikva I continued to the storehouse and saw that it was broken open, the locks broken, and nothing remained in its place including, of course, the bread I had stored there. My heart recoiled and refused to believe it, but that was the situation. After some thought, I thanked G-d that at least I hadn’t been in the house at the time, for these gentiles, who had suffered starvation (just like us Jews) could even commit murder to obtain what they wanted. If they had demanded of us to open the storage place in order to take out food, and we had been unwilling to do so, it would have cost us our lives. There was no law and order and people did as they pleased. Starvation and war conditions made people crazy and warped their values. Even good and cultured people lost their humanity when it meant obtaining another slice of bread.

I continued looking around and saw that they did not touch the plates made of sunflower seeds. What were these plates?

There was special food for animals that was manufactured out of sunflower seeds. They placed the sunflower seeds in piles, and with the help of an enormous compressor they pressed them together and produced a lot of sunflower oil. The dry sunflower seeds that remained after the pressing would be in the form of dry plates a half meter wide and three centimeters thick and this was given to animals to eat. Horses, in particular, liked it and it was even considered very special food for them, far better than the hay and barley that was their usual food. Whenever they wanted to strengthen a horse before a long trip or a trip that entailed a heavy load, they would give it these special sunflower seed treats. We would sell these plates to gentiles for good money.

When I worked with the horse, I collected these plates in my storage room so I would have food for my horse. After one horse was stolen and the other one died, I had a lot of these left. Since I had no use for them anymore, I buried them deep in the ground in the storage room where they remained safe. When the robbers broke in, they did not notice them since I had strewn straw over them.

I took these plates with me, to the place I was staying in, and I gave them to Anash too. Many of Anash were saved with this, after they sold them to stores as animal fodder.

I still had a bit of money left from my work for the shoe factory, but there wasn’t much I could do with it since it wasn’t worth much. The stores were empty and there was nothing to buy. The streets were full of people who walked around aimlessly and every day, thousands dropped dead.

The bombing did not stop. A bomb landed near the shul, and thank G-d nothing happened.

The situation seemed hopeless. Tens of thousands perished in battle, from starvation or from the cold. And if not from those things, they still faced the danger from the German bombing. Everyone sought a way to leave.

I did not know whether to leave the city and return home to Nevel, to my parents who were so worried about me and whom I hadn’t seen in so long, or whether they should come to me so at least we would be together. Although I worked hard and helped others, I was still only a sixteen year old boy. I needed family support and a warm, loving environment during this time of upheaval.

The days passed and the psychological traumas were intense. We heard that the Germans had entered small villages and towns, including Nevel, and destroyed them. You can imagine how I felt after I realized that nothing remained of my family in Nevel. My state of mind was abysmally low.

During this time, when I felt broken, I had a letter in my pocket that I had gotten from my father. It was the last letter from him. In order to explain the letter, I want to regress a bit and give you some background.

When I worked for the shoe factory, I had no one to prepare cooked food for me. The gentiles ate from the food cooked in the kitchen, while I was particular about kashrus and did not eat that food. My food intake consisted of two kilograms of bread with a little margarine. I ate this in the evening too, after a hard day’s work.

When Pesach was approaching, I began thinking about what to do about matzos. Obviously, the treif kitchen would be of no use to me. I knew that I would have to obtain matza so I would have my own supply. The main problem was in finding a way of getting matzos in these crazy times. I knew that in the small towns, such as Nevel, they secretly baked matza, and people would travel there and buy matza and bring it back to the big city. In the big cities it was impossible to bake matza since the NKVD was constantly watching.

So I had written to my father and asked him to send me eight kilograms of matza. I figured that since I did not eat in the factory cafeteria and I needed two kilograms of bread a day, I concluded that I needed eight kilograms of matza. That was a mistake on my part since you eat more bread than matza, and for each kilogram of bread that you consume, the amount of matza needed to replace that is far less in weight.

When my father received my letter, he was annoyed and he wrote me back a letter asking me: How can I anticipate what will be with you, and who is responsible that you will remain a religious Jew in these circumstances when the klipa increases from day to day and you have nobody supervising you?

He reminded me that I had removed my parents’ authority (as I related previously), which meant that I was no longer under their jurisdiction, and if my “parents” were the elderly couple, how were they taking care of my spiritual future?

My father asked me, with great bitterness, how I could manage among gentiles without working on Shabbos and assumed that I had found those who permitted working on Shabbos due to danger to life.

At the end of the letter, my father wondered: How could I be asking for such a large quantity of matza? How could he send such a large quantity and who could take so much matza with him from Nevel to Leningrad and hide it? People like R’ Meir Askin, who came and went from Nevel to Leningrad on business, could be asked to take two kilograms or three, but no more, and certainly not eight!

(I somehow made it through that Pesach. I ate a little bit in the home of one Chassid and another and that is how I survived that Pesach with a small amount of matza. When I lacked matza, they gave me of their own and they cooked chicken for me. All in all, they had pity on me because of my situation as a young child without parents nearby and with no support during this difficult time for the Jewish people, especially in a time of starvation).

I was offended by this letter and wanted to explain myself in a return letter. It wasn’t a pleasant letter, but I treasured it and carried it wherever I went. It was my only possession from my father’s house. I held on to it for a long time until I destroyed it, in fear that someone would discover it and would not understand why my father was “giving it to me,” not understanding the reason my father was upset.

That was the last letter I received from him because the war broke out and the Germans destroyed Nevel. I heard nothing further from him.

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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