Hazel McHaffie

Survivlng the War

The current situation in Ukraine, with the graphic images we’re seeing on our screens, is reminding us so much of the horrors perpetrated during the Second World War, isn’t it? And the thought of so many families running from, or hiding from the Russian onslaught, taking refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland, takes me to a book I read some months ago – events in the 1940s resonating strongly with what’s happening in 2022.

Though I’ve read many many accounts of the persecution of the Jews, Surviving the War is the first about that faction in Poland who sought refuge in the vast forests and swamplands where the organised army would have trouble reaching them. It may not be as familiar as stories of the concentration camps, but it makes sobering reading, with its tales of betrayal and persecution by fellow countrymen as well as the Nazis.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

Basing her material on a composite of real-life stories, Adiva Geffen, paints an idyllic picture of simple rural life in Poland before the war, with Jews and Gentiles living in harmony in a small village, joining in each other’s religious festivals, caring, sharing and supporting each other. As Avraham says in the book: ... we are one people, their language is our language and their culture is our culture … [and] we have God … the Poles are our brothers – we are united in this.

In her youth, Shurka Shidlovsky grows up both fascinated by, and fearful of, the dark and dangerous Parczew Forest, shrouded in myth and legend. But she lives in a happy family, joyfully observing all the Jewish festivals and holidays, completely oblivious to the horrors to come.

By the age of 15, Shurka is already beautiful and ready to leave school. She and her mother hold out for her to train in a profession/trade and she leaves home for one year to study sewing. City life is a revelation, but she keeps an anchor in the familiar by travelling home for the weekends. It’s during her wedding to the son of a prosperous merchant family, Avraham Orlitzky, that the first hint of trouble casts its long shadow: a young refugee couple appear who have escaped from Berlin as Hitler begins his terrible regime. The year is 1937.

But the innocents in Eastern Poland refuse to believe the stories; it’s nothing more than a ‘passing posturing’. Until, that is, the Germans invade Poland. This time the danger is impossible to ignore. Avraham has no choice but to wear the yellow star, but still he’s reluctant to move his pregnant wife, naively confident that their Polish friends will look after them. And even world leaders choose to ignore the signs of terror that have begun to form a crack in the world – the looting, confiscations, expulsions, eliminations. The year is 1939.

It’s only when, in 1941, Avraham is sent to a labour camp, that he begins to lose hope, and the realisation spurs him into action. The family begin a nomadic life, fleeing from one place of refuge to another, with two children in tow: Irena, and a frail little boy, Yitzhak.

As they move from her parents’ house, to an abandoned pavilion, to a vastly overcrowded Jewish ghetto, experience teaches them that, far from all being brothers, nobody is to be trusted. Brutality and lawlessness are rife. It’s the end of all security, all connections with their past. It’s the beginning of 1942.

And then the Final solution swings into action. News of the crematoria and death showers reaches the Orlitzky family: Horrors not even the devil could have imagined, and they realise that the ghettos have become not just ‘natural death’ chambers through starvation, but now also transfer stations to the concentration camps, extermination camps and forced labour camps. The Parczew Forest is the only place of safety left to them, and they must flee while the ghetto gates remain open. It is August 1942 – just one month before all the Jews left in the ghetto are sent to Treblinka and certain death.

Life in the vast forest is precarious in a different way. And indeed, more people perished there than survived. Shurka and her family camp alongside resistance fighters, Jewish partisans. They are forced to dig their own underground bunkers, camouflage them with branches, scavenge for food, be ready to move immediately if the Germans gain intelligence of their whereabouts, leaving no trace of their presence, only to start again from scratch.

Life even inside the bunkers is fraught with peril. The Jews are huddled together, forbidden to utter a sound, not even to cough. The Germans periodically approach with their weapons and dogs. On one occasion, baby Yitzhak starts crying, refusing any comfort, endangering the whole camp. What is Shurka to do? The account is too tragic and poignant to recount; you have to read it through her eyes.

As winter clenches its frozen fists on the forest, they are again on the move, this time to an old granary, courtesy of a sympathetic peasant, where they live in complete silence for nine weeks and five days. Suspicious neighbours eventually drive them back into the forest. Though Avraham is the king of plenty, obtaining basic provisions under cover of darkness, nevertheless disease, death, constant deprivation, unremitting fear, take their toll. It is 1943.

The threat grows ever closer. The Germans set fire to the forest to drive the hidden Jews out. Then with more precise information from informants, they throw grenades directly¬† into the bunkers. Shurka and her daughter survive because they have crawled onto a high shelf; but almost all her family are killed in that terrible raid. Alone now, they must once again flee, this time to a series of old granaries or barns during the harsh winter months, imperilling the farmers who grant them shelter, using silverware and jewellery to pay for their silence, capitalising on friendships and allegiances from Avraham’s successful business days. But with spring comes a return to the forest. It is March 1943.

By that September, the Third Reich begins to crumble, but the forest families are by no means safe. They spend another frozen winter hidden in a spacious barn belonging to an avaricious couple of Poles, in a remote village surrounded by swamps. Always silent, constantly vigilant. Irena by now is six years old. It’s while they are there, as the war draws to a close, that tragically, Avraham is killed while out on one of his night-time scavenges. Shurka decides she must return to the forest to seek out those she knows, unaware that the Germans have retreated, the battle over.

Just twenty-two days later, on Sunday 23 July 1944, the people of the Parczew Forest are liberated, marched away, leaving behind the graves of their loved ones. They are free to return to look for the Poland they had lost, but carrying a terrible burden of pain for the rest of their days. And it would take time to fully trust these Russian men who had come with the offer of release. Was it all a trap? After all, their compatriots in the concentration camps in the west are still being sent to their deaths.

Sadly, the reception that awaits them in Poland is one of outright hostility, revealing a hidden anti-Semitism that hurts deeply from supposed brothers. New persecutions follow. And once again the Jews are in hiding, as murderous men rampage through the streets and houses. After losing so much, however, the few forest survivors crave connection, love and intimacy. Suddenly men are in hot pursuit of Shurka. She soon finds new love with a man who lost his own wife and children in Treblinka, and together they resolve to set their sights on the future, not to look back. They marry in November and a son Yaakov is born in August 1945. They eventually begin the slow process of leaving Poland behind, to seek a new life with their fellow Jews in the new State of Israel. The year is 1948.

Shurka’s story challenges me as so many levels:
Would I have the courage to endure such hardship?
Would I endanger my family to protect strangers?
Would I sacrifice my son to save the wider community?
Would I retain faith in God in the face of such horror?

Unanswerable. Uncomfortable. Unimaginable.

 

 

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