My great uncle Boris
Recorded by Boris and translated to English by Julie Zhuk
I was born in a small Shtetl called Vladimiretz, Poland, in 1923. I remember being around ten years old. I remember this day as if it was yesterday, it was a Saturday. It was a special holiday for the Jewish people called, Lag Baomer. The majority of the Jewish youth came together on this holiday to celebrate in a forest. I remember playing outside on the street and my parents being at home. My grandmother was sitting with her neighbors talking near our house.
Our house was located behind a mill that we owned. I remember this mill because it was facing the road and there was a church across the street, and our house was behind. Since I was already nearby the mill, from a distance I could see a fire going on. I turned to my grandmother and said pointing to the mill, “Look, there is a fire”. She stopped talking to her neighbors and too could see the fire. She started to make a big fuss. There was a huge wind that day. In fact the wind was coming from the side where the fire was coming from. The fire was making its way over to where we were living. This was all happening within ten minutes of me seeing the fire from far away.
Someone who owned a magazine store ran over to my parent’s house and asked for my father’s help. This man who owned the store sold equipment for factories. One of the reasons why he asked for my father’s help was because we had 2 really good horses and a carriage that could carry things. The store owner wanted father to help him move out all of the equipment from the store so they too would not catch on fire.
My father’s response was, “How can I possibly do that when I first have to get my family and our belongings out of here so we don’t get hurt”. The store owner turned to my father and started to say ok you work on getting your stuff out, but then he changed his mind and said are you really going to move all your stuff out? “If you do this for me, I will pay you a lot of money.” I don’t believe my father wanted to help him out even with the condition of getting paid. My father used the excuse that it was after all Shabbat and it is forbidden to move things from one place to another. This excuse didn’t work so well as the store owner was also a Jew and he said, “I went to the synagogue today and met with the rabbi already and he said when something tragic like this is happening it is ok to break the Jewish Sabbath and you can use any day of the week to get out of the situation we are in.”
In the end my father did go help him, but first he got our family out of the area. He took us out of the shtetl we were in. It wasn’t too far away because it was only a few kilometers away from where our house was. Standing in my new surroundings, I noticed a cemetery. Before going off to help that store owner, my father left us with some pillows and spare clothes. I can’t recall now if we had packed any food to take with us.
Since the time we had left our house half of the city we were from had caught fire. I was told that the fire had lasted a long time and that the fire fighters never got around to going to the actual shtetl to try and clear things up there. By evening that day everything had been ruined and there was nothing more to burn in the city.
The day the fire started it was after everyone had finished eating lunch and it went through the night. We didn’t have any reservations made to stay anywhere, so we stayed overnight in the cemetery. It was myself, my mother, my younger brother, my sister Esther, and another sister named Debruchka.
In the morning, father had driven up to see us. He told us that everything in the mill had caught fire and was now gone. I asked him to show me in person and we drove over there so I could see for myself. It was on that day, people in a city called Sarny found out about what happened with the fire. My father’s direct brother was living in that city. His name was Lazer and they had found out about the fire and father took us to where Lazer was living.
He told us that we would find some kind of shelter where we could stay overnight or even stay in for about a month and then when dad would get some insurance from what happened with the fire he will buy a house and we will stay in Sarny. At this point there was no longer any kind of Vladimiretz.
I don’t remember if my father sold or did not sell the horses that we had. He probably did sell them and in about a month he started working at some factory I am not sure what his job title was there. I’m not sure if my father sold the horses we had or not, but probably he did. In about a month after we were living in Sarny he started working at a factory, I don’t know what his job title was there.
Uncle Lazer said that he is going to see his son Yosef who went to work in Israel. Uncle Lazer already has all the documents that he needs and he will be leaving in about a month or two. He told us there is no need to look for or buy another house because when Uncle Lazer leaves we will move into his house. He had a brick one story house. In one half of the house there was another son that Uncle Lazer had his name was Velva and his wife and their small daughter, this I remember well.
We moved into the house. It was a really good house with another 3 or 4 rooms. Uncle Lazer said, “I will move to where Yosef is and see if I like it I may stay there”. He looked at his brother, my father Pesach and said “You will see how things play out here and if you will have to sell this house or will need to buy a house or maybe you can just stay here”. Around August we moved into the house, and in September school started again.
About a year later I told my father that I want to transfer to a Polish school. When he asked me why I said, because at this school I could get a license/certification to be an electrician or something like this that would lead to a good job. This was what interested me, but my father didn’t agree. He asked me “why do you want to move if you have good friends here in Sarny”. You should stay here and get married. In a store I will buy you a tallit and you can learn to wear. It is what Jewish boys as they get older wear. You will work and wear this and be able to sell this. You will have a good time doing this, you’ll see. I argued back with him and said, “No I like this line of work to be an electrician, etc. I still have a long time to go before I get married.” That was the end of that discussion with my father.
In 1935 grandmother who was with us passed away. I will always remember how before she lit candles on Friday night, she always prayed to G-d. She died around 6pm one evening. My bedroom and hers were very close together. I heard some kind of noise from her room and I went over to her and asked, “What is going on and if everything is ok?” Grandma responded that my father was in the synagogue and I should go over there and tell him to hurry up and come home already.
The synagogue was not far about 5 minutes maybe from our house. I ran over to tell my father that grandma wanted him to come home. As soon as he saw me he asked “what is the matter?” After telling him he dropped his tallit and we ran home together. He left his tallit in the synagogue because he had a special place for it. As we got back to the house we saw that my mother had already stepped into grandma’s bedroom. Mother asked grandma what is wrong and grandma pointed to the jacket she was wearing, closed her eyes, nodded her head, and took her last breath. That was how she died, I found this to be very interesting and remember it for the rest of my life.
After the year of 1935 I got accepted into the Polish school of my choice. In May 1935 a famous person named Joseph Pilsudski died. He helped keep the Jewish culture where I lived alive. Jews were living in really good conditions. I remember my father needing to look through his passport for some reason. In the passport it said my father’s name, Zhuk, Pesach.
The passport clearly stated that our family was Jewish. This man was known as Poland’s Chief of State and or a Marshal. During the First World War, he helped save Poland. I had always been told that since Joseph Pilsudski came to power, Jews always lived well in Poland. Now that he had died it was no longer the Poland it used to be, anti-Semitism was on the rise.
I remember us Jews started going to a political group/gathering. There were a few groups in this gathering, one was the younger generation who were considered left wing and then there was Beitar that was considered right wing. I joined the Beitar group I really liked this program. The two groups split up because the younger generation wanted to go to Palestine and start working on the land and making a home.
At the time I was 13 year old and in order to be part of the Beitar group one had to be a man. In Judaism if a boy turns 13 and has his Bar Mitzva he is accepted as a man. Being a part of this group allowed me and other boys who were 13 and older to participate in any activities or any gatherings that went on. We weren’t ready to join the other group to go to Israel. Beitar was thinking about getting a group together and going there in a few years.
In 1939 I was 17 or a bit older and I remember the Russians had come to Poland. Once the Russians came all the Polish schools were finished and closed. We had the Russian military on our soil. I had come across my father’s passport and saw that he went into the army at the age of 17 in 1914 and he was born in 1896. There was a law in Poland that every man go into the army at the age of 17 or 18, but I didn’t have the right documents to show and I did not get accepted.
There was another group that was formed along with the young generation, Beitar, and now Halutz. Halutz in Russian means Pioneers. There were 4 to 6 people that had come together that called themselves Pioneers. These Pioneers were younger than those who called themselves the “young generation”. There were 22 million people living in Poland and out of this about 3 in a half thousand Jews fled Poland and went to Israel. This was the largest crowd of Jews coming together.
Our ultimate goal was to be able to reach Palestine and work on the land. When I was personally thinking about leaving Poland to go to Palestine I knew in the back of my mind that I would be able to find some of my family that was there.
My father’s uncle, Lazer who I mentioned earlier had moved with his son Yosef to a city in Israel called Kfar Saba. Between 1939 and 1940 before the month of March, we had the Russian military around us and we did not go to school anywhere or furthermore go anywhere. I gave some documents to a school that I had gone to, but don’t know what happened with those documents or who looked at them.
The same school I had gone to before, but they had changed their name to Fes Da U sent me a letter to my house asking me to sign some documents so I could attend their school. I was feeling excited about going to the school and I went home to share the news with my parents. I was home with my parents and I helped around the house.
The Russians came to Poland on the 17th of September. I remember my father knowing them and that he knew Russian well. He had learned the language when he was living in Russia and serving in the Russian army in 1914. The First World War broke in Poland when the Germans came through Warsaw and then they went further into Poland.
Around May I got a call about the school that I mentioned about earlier. The school was no longer going to be in the city I was living in, but a different city called Zarbunov. This location was another area where Jews lived and it wasn’t far from the city I was living in. I confided in my father what I had decided to do about going to this school. They were going to give me a place to live, meals were taken care of, and etc.
I remember the experience I had at this school as if it was yesterday. In the morning we would have exercises, military training courses, and I started learning how to do electrician work. I spent a year in this school from May 1940 to May 1941.
There were some groups of ten people or so that went to get military practice. I was placed in a city called Baranovichi which was located in Belarus. When I was passing by the army I gave a telegram or made a call, I don’t remember how exactly now but I was greeted by my father and Uncle Mordechai Leib. Mordechai Leib lived in Odessa, Russia. I had never met him before, but knew about him because my father always sent packages to him.
There was a period in Valevsky when people were starving and my father provided for Mordechai Leib. I remember in the year 1933 some people probably from the Polish government had come to our house and asked my father not to send anything to Mordechai Leib anymore. Stalin had come to power already by then and everyone was being thrown left and right into jail. After that my father and Uncle Mordechai Leib had no way of keeping in touch with each other. Around the year 1941 Uncle Mordechai Leib was given permission to come visit my father and Uncle Lazer.
My uncle Lazer who was living in Israel had come back in 1937. Before he moved back he talked to my father about buying a house and so we did. We lived on a street called Krevaya and the house number was 10. When I saw my uncle Lazer I asked him, “Why did you return back here?”
His response was, “Your aunt and I went to a shook/bazar and picked a bucket of potatoes. Then we came home and went through the bucket only to find that it was mostly oranges and only 2 or 3 of actual potatoes. I said back to him, but that is a good thing you have both oranges and potatoes. He explained, “The problem with the potatoes in Israel is they are far more expensive than oranges.” He also added that another problem with Israel is it is so utterly hot outside. The last time I had seen him before now was when I was traveling with a group to Baranovichi, Belarus and he and my father greeted me there. After the war was over uncle Mordechai Leib ended up in a city called Kuibyshev and that’s where I met up with him again.
In May 1941 I went back to the city Baranovichi and I ended up staying there. Over time I had grown really close to my boss who was of Polish descent. He was an elderly, friendly, and kind man and we would speak in Polish together. We enjoyed each other’s company. It was the beginning of June when I had gotten my first pay check within the 2 weeks that I was working.
I checked out where I would be living and it was in the right in the center of the city Baranovichi. The layout housing I was staying in, on the 2nd floor were all the rooms where people slept and on the first floor was where we would gather around to hang out. For some reason I remember how it was a Saturday June 21 and my heart was feeling troubled. Towards the end of the Sabbath day I saw vehicles outside that were transporting some kind of goods out of the area we were in.
When I asked what this was all about, I was told that the goods being transported were grains of wheat in order to make bread. This was all going to Germany. I tried to go see for myself, but whoever was driving the vehicles made it hard for someone like me to see. That night around 5 in the morning there was some kind of a loud noise outside the window of my room. In my room there were about 3 other people. We all woke up and I asked one of the guys to check to see what was going on. They said, “Oh it’s just the military”. They were able to go back to sleep, but I was not.
At 7am I decided to go check out myself what all the commotion that was outside was. I woke up one of the guys his name was Lesha who had said it is just military and he came with me. There was some kind of a wagon that had been coming from a city called Brestavof over to where we were carrying. We didn’t get to see what the item being carried was, but we heard the driver was shot. Luckily he wasn’t injured too much nor was the vehicle he was driving.
He was able to talk to us and tell us that the German people flying planes were sending bombs down to Brestavof. He also said that they were sending bombs in our area as he was passing through. We already knew that the war started. At ten am that morning an announcement in the house was made that anyone working or going to school will be having an urgent meeting. Now it had become official to us that the war did begin and the Germans have attacked us. All of us were told to go to some other room and we would be given a special form of some sort for living here and being in school here and for us to remember we are brother’s part of the Red Army.
This was when I learned I had another brother who was in the Red Army.
When I was given the special form I saw my master there. I went to my boss asking him for advice on how I could get back to my mother, father, brother, and two sisters. He looked at me and said, “Here in Poland your name has been changed from Boris to Barrick. Unfortunately you cannot at this time go back home to your family don’t think about it. Your best solution to get away from this mess is to run for your life.
The Germans are coming and want to extinguish all of the Jews, but do not worry I will help you run away. He asked me if I have a friend I can trust? I said yes of course here he is Lesha was standing near me. My boss said, “Right now it is 3:00 in the afternoon, take something with you to eat, take some clothes for you to have, and tell your friend to do the same. He also said he would teach us how could find a steamed power lorry. This was how my boss saved our lives and for that I am forever grateful.
My boss told us that we had to leave really early in the morning around Five AM. We had to use matches to light the steamed power lorry in order to leave. We did not sleep a wink that night because we had some feeling of hope inside of us that we could get away from this evil mess that was beginning. When we did leave the house we were being as quiet as mice, although no one was yet awake. It took over an hour to light the lorry, but eventually we got it.
We got up at five AM. My boss was standing outside the house and I thanked him tremendously and said my goodbyes. I did not know if I would ever see him again. Since my boss had talked directly to me when explaining the directions, Lesha and I agreed that I would be the leader and he my helper. Getting on the train we noticed there were many others. I thought to myself, this was why my boss wanted us to leave so early so we could get a seat. The train we were on was going directly to Minsk, Belarus.
When we reached the old Polish capital there was a station called Negareloi. It was either ten or 15 kilometers from there that stood in front of a train which was bombed by the Germans. In front of this train stood women and children as young as under 10 years of age. These were all the wives of soldiers who were fighting in the war and their children. They were coming from the city Brestav and they were told to get on a train. Since this train they were on was bombed, we stopped our train and got out. As we walked closer to where the women and children were standing we heard a loud noise coming from the sky. We looked up and there were a few more planes that were going to bomb the area we were in. We quickly made a run for a forest to hide. Once in the forest we laid down on the grass and in a few moments heard a loud crash from a bomb. We were close to where it landed and it scared us, but we were not hurt.
We ran back to where we had been and there was nothing more to see. The damage the bombs had done was a horrible sight. Our plan of escaping with the use of the engine was no longer going to work. Lesha and I agreed it would be best to start walking. We went through the forest feeling it would be safer to start there. There was a road on the side in the forest that gave us a view of where the station Negareloi we had originally stopped at. We knew we had been walking for a long time because the sun was starting to go down and the clouds were getting darker. By then we had gotten hungry and we came across a house in the forest.
We walked into the house and asked for some food. We explained that we had come from Baranovichi and asked where we could stay overnight. The owner of the house suggested a place and we followed. We fell asleep in this area and in the early morning got up and went on our merry way again. When we got to the capital a soldier was standing there. He looked us up and down and asked wait a minute, where are you going? I want to see your documents. We explained that we didn’t have any documents. He asked to see our passports and again we explained that we didn’t have that on us and we are students coming from Baranovichi.
The soldier told us to go back to start walking back to Baranovichi where we came from. We realized there was no one here to talk to who could actually help us. We decided to walk back in the direction we had come from and find another route. Unfortunately as we tried finding a new place there was another soldier dressed the same as the last one. Not wanting to experience the same thing as before with the last soldier I saw out of the corner of my eye a path with no soldiers.
There was a car coming with two children, a wife, and a cow that was tied up to the wagon. I came closer to the vehicle and asked the driver in Yiddish, “Are you a Jew?” He replied that he was. I asked him politely to please let me sit in his vehicle and if he could drive us to wherever he was going. I told him about how there were soldiers all over and they wouldn’t let my friend and I through. He allowed us to join his family and asked us to sit at the very edge of the wagon.
We were sitting with our backs facing the soldiers who were on both the right and left side of the road. We were feeling safer in the wagon because as we drove on there was a third soldier. This time when asked for documents, the driver had them and was told to continue going further. Seeing that the man who spoke with me in Yiddish had no trouble with the soldiers, I asked him how come you had no problems even though you are a Jew.
He said, “Originally I am from Russia. I was sent here to watch over some farms. This was why he was allowed through. As we got off we thanked him enormously and he showed us where people were getting off trains/steam engines at the Negareloi station we had come from. Following the driver’s instructions we walked to the station.
We saw that the steam engines/trains were going in the direction of Minsk, Belarus. There was a sign saying that soon would be take off to Minsk, Belarus. I didn’t understand if these were to transport people or products, carriages, and things. We got on and sat between some animals that looked like lambs. This was our fourth day of traveling from where we left my boss and we had finally gotten to Minsk, Belarus. As we were getting into Minsk we saw a fire there. There was an abundant amount of people with suitcases and other carriages. We asked people where they were going and they said a part in Minsk. I cannot recall what it was called where people were going. Once people got to this place they were going to walk somewhere else. We decided to follow the others. Since we didn’t have any suitcases or any large items with us we were always ahead of most people. We got to an area called Modolosk.
We walked for a long time about ten days. We started walking during the day and would take a break at night before going to sleep. We would go to sleep somewhere not far from the road when it would get really dark outside. We picked this place so we could still see the road where cars and other vehicles were going through. There were different kinds of people in this part of town, people driving cars, people riding motorcycles, people with suitcases, partisans, and soldiers too. The people on the motorcycles worked together with the soldiers trying to find those who were partisans and arresting them. We were unable to comprehend who these people were and where everyone was coming or going to. A lot of the people we saw going were headed in the direction closest to Minsk.
By the fifth day of our traveling after going to sleep I woke up and saw that my friend Lesha was gone. Where he went I had no idea. I thought maybe he had something personal he wanted to do on his own time without me knowing about it. I started to scream out his name and then felt my voice getting hoarse so I stopped. I decided I would continue on my own and soon reached the city Mogilev. By now we were on our 6th day of traveling and Lesha was still lost and I was on my own. Sometime when I was in a forest I heard someone shout to me, “Put your hands up”.
A part of me wanted to cry because I was feeling that every time I would try to make progress in my journey my efforts were failing me. Those who stopped me in this forest were some kind of official people, they had a high rank in something. They asked for my documents and I said that I did not have any. I had one piece of a paper that was in the form of a letter. At the time I had my hands up in the air and as I put one hand down trying to reach into my pocket to retrieve this letter, the soldier yelled at me “put your hands up”. He reached into my pocket of my pants and got the letter.
There were 3 men altogether who were interrogating me. The soldier gave the letter to another man who was of higher rank than him. They looked at the letter and then back at me saying “This is written in Yiddish.” As he was reading it I was thinking to myself, maybe one of these guys or the one looking at the letter is truly a Jew himself. The soldier and the other men talked with each other and decided to take me out on some kind of road. They told me to keep going straight and not under any circumstance to turn right or left. When they released me and I was on my own again I started walking again.
It took a little while for my hands to stop shaking and me to feel calm again. Once I had walked about two kilometers by myself I walked back a little bit to see what was really going on. What was happening that these men high in rank did not want me to see. It was later that I found out there were tanks in that area. Stalin wanted to attack Germany. These were extra tanks the Russian army had planned to use.
In any case I found my way out of that forest and into the city of Mogilev. I asked where was a place I could stay in overnight and where I could get some food. I went into a big house that was used as some military base. The army officer who was sitting at a table in the house looked me up and down to see if I was going to be a good fit for the army. I think that I looked in good shape to him because I was skinny and strong. He asked me what year I was born in and I said I am not sure. Obviously I lied or tried to think of something to say for him to lose interest in me serving in the army. He still didn’t know how old I was and spoke to me concluding that I am too young to be enrolled in the army. He was very nice making suggestions of where I could get a meal and how I could continue on my merry way.
Once I had gotten my fill to eat and had caught up to a train station someone else made a suggestion that if you truly were on the road that allows steam power to go through, try to be as discreet as possible. It was explained to me that in this area no one gives tickets for anything, the only people coming through here were military men and trains that run taking people from one destination to another. He told me that I could go speak to the conductor of the train that was in front of me and see if he could help me. I decided to do just that and explained my situation, who I was and that I didn’t have any money to offer him. I will help you with getting this train across to where you need to go. This conductor really did not want to take me on his train, but pointed across from him another one I could try. The second conductor took me and we were off.
I learned how these vehicles worked and that they don’t go very far or very fast either. The distance the train went was 120 kilometers and these trains run back and forth from their starting location to their ending destination, it doesn’t make any stops in between. By this time I had found another train to take and now this was my way of getting around. I got to a city called Michuransk, Russia. I had never heard of this city or anything about it. I asked “where is the train station”. I was told when I get to this place I need to sign up for something. When I got to this place I saw 4 people, 2 young guys and 2 young girls. The four of them looked older than me by a few years and by their accent I could tell they were Polish Jews.
They weren’t the kind of Jews from where my family had come from, but a different side. When they spoke in Yiddish it sounded different than the way I spoke or anyone I heard from where I had come from. I came up to them and introduced myself and asked if they were Jewish. I told them I was alone and did not have a plan or know of where to go from this point. They turned to me and said, “Now we are waiting for an announcement to be made a seller is coming to buy from a collected farm. Those who want to go to this collected farm are allowed to. If you want to do this, come with us.
I agreed to go with them and it was easy to make friends with them after that. We found something to eat and after an hour in a half later the announcement was made. There were two collected farms (what was the difference between the two?) No one was interested in the farm we had chosen so it was just us five. We got into a vehicle and went there it was 8 kilometers away from Michurinsk. When we reached the farm we were given a house to live in and had a meal prepared for us. We were told to rest up because in the morning the next day we would go have our first day of work.
The four people I had come with also spoke in Russian. Their Russian was worse than mine and they had an accent. The older boy suggested one of the girls stay home so they could prepare a meal while the others are working and then they will have food ready to eat when they come home. The younger boy had agreed to stay home with one of the girls and help her. They turned to me and said, “Boris you are younger than all of us you need to get up each morning and go in the direction of Michurinsk. Once you are there find out what is happening in the world and come back and tell us. We are living in the middle of nowhere and can’t find out any news unless you can do this for us please.” We spent about 3 weeks to a month living in this house.
One day I saw that a German was coming from Michurinsk into the direction of where our house was and he was getting to the point where he was very close. I reported this news to my roommates and they concluded we need to stay up all night making small pancakes so we have something to eat. In the early morning we all need to leave this house. We had no documents or anything to prove that we were working or why we were living in this house. We had no guarantee we could stay in this house or not. In the morning we did just as planned left the house with our baked bread. A little while after we had started walking we were stopped.
I was told to step aside from the others. Apparently I looked different from the others. The two boys were asked for documents, but the two girls weren’t. Of two boys one got held up by a soldier, this boy was either 17 or 18 years old. The three of us were let go, but he was not. They told us that they had to check his army status and figure out who he is. We started our journey again. Now it was four of us and we had to leave him there we had no other choice. We did not want to argue with the soldiers because then our own lives could be at stake.
As we were walking we were trying to figure out which way or where we should be going. People had been saying that the best place to go now was to Tashkent. We heard that a train was going to come by soon and that we could get on it. It was sometime in August that we had gotten to the area Tashkent. People were making suggestions to me that because I had the documents stating I had been or was allowed to use a steam power engine, I should look for those kind of roads.
When I got to Tashkent I asked people how to find the train roads where a steam power engine would operate on. At this train station I was told where to go to sign some papers. The place wasn’t far from the station. I went into a room where a woman was sitting. I explained to her who I was, where I had gotten my schooling and I had worked at a practice/factory. Then the war began and people including myself were told left and right where they could or could not go. My boss had told me to leave as soon as I could and explained how and this is how I ended up standing here in front of you. She listened to my whole story patiently and when I was done she looked at me and said we will give you some money so you can get by on your own, a place to live, and some documents to have to show if needed why you are here now.
The housing where they placed me was not far from this building where I had met this woman. With the money they gave me I went to buy some bread. The pieces that made up the bread were rather large. I remember that it was really cheap. These pieces of bread were very filling you could eat them during the day one time and not be hungry for a long time. When I got to my new living arrangements there was a security guard at the door. I showed him my documents and he let me in. He took down my information and told me to be ready in the morning because I would be shown where I would be working from now on. I thanked him and stayed in the house making myself comfortable. A while later I went out to the store and bought some more of that bread I so much liked. I don’t remember how much money the woman who promised to give me it was either $50 or $100. Back then this much money was considered a lot for one to have.
The next morning I was told that the work I would be doing is construction. The person who told me of my job title looked at me with an expression of asking if I liked this kind of a job. I said, “To me it does not matter what kind of a job it is, I just want to work somewhere and make some money.” It was explained to me that there was a cafeteria provided for those who were workers and I could either go there or go to a store and buy food already prepared.
On the weekends when I did not work I would go to the train station to find out what was happening in the world. I learned that not far from this train station is a small house where Polish soldiers get together. The only fact known about these soldiers was they are given meals in this house. No one could tell what kind of activities they are doing in this house and I was interested to find out so I went inside the house. I could hear the soldiers speaking in Polish and of course I understood what they were saying. I introduced myself to them a bit about myself, I am not a soldier, but used to live in Poland.
I didn’t share that I had already found a job here. I said, I was told until I find a job I am allowed to come into this house for meals such as breakfast or dinner that they would have. Being there by myself not knowing anyone else, I took the time to listen to these soldiers conversations. The conversations were about how the soldiers were planning to leave Tashkent. They were going to go through Iran into England. There was some kind of a Polish group that would be meeting up in England.
I heard some of the soldiers say to each other as if they were joking that if they met any Jew along their way they would throw them in the river. After hearing this kind from them I lost the interest of wanting to go there and see what they do each day. Thank G-d these Polish soldiers didn’t understand that I was a Jew. They saw me as another man who happens to be of Polish descent. They knew I was not one of them serving in the military, but they didn’t think anything less of me since I could speak Polish too. I left the house not wanting to have anything to do with these Polish soldiers.
I had been at this new job where I was doing construction work for over the month of August. This incident with the Polish soldiers happened at the end of August or beginning of September. When I got back to my new living arrangements I was told that by 10 am the next morning I was going to be placed in a new line of work. Now I would be working with railroads. I didn’t understand why I was having a job change or what was wrong with what I had been doing all along. When I got to work I saw a lot of people who looked to be in their late 30’s and early 40’s. In the large group of people that I saw there was no one who was my age.
Again people were asking me how old I was and I still didn’t know what tell them. I decided to say that I was born in 1924 then I wouldn’t be 18 yet only 17. That’s it, there was around 80 to 100 people or so who came to this new line of work where I was placed at. The people here would speak in Polish and I did not understand everything. There was going to be an explanation as to how our work was to be done. There were 2 people who stood near me and we started talking.
We talked about where we are from, these two people had come from a city called Korustine and they had been working on the railroads. Korustine is somewhere by Ukraine, but not Poland. These two people turned to me and said, “Whatever you don’t understand, we can explain” and I thanked them for that. There was a few other people working on the railroads with us. We were told there is an order coming from the chief of the railroads and his name was Lazer Moiseivich Kaganovich.
The order was that everyone involved in the construction of the railroads has to be evacuated. These people all need to be sent in the direction of Moscow and they can continue their jobs there. They said “That’s it, we all called you here to make this announcement.” Now we are going to go in order and give all of you documents that you will be needing. Come back tomorrow morning and you will collect your tickets and money for your business trip and you can send it to Moscow.
At this time, my brother Benjamin was traveling through the Bakuraslav and he learned that there was a Boris Zhuk there. Before this time my brother wasn’t aware that I was alive. I had left and gone to Tashkent. In Tashkent there was work to do on railroads. I don’t know if my brother called or sent a telegram to the place that had set me up with the job I now had. It was there that my brother learned about me and that I was sent not to Moscow directly, but somewhere near there. The area I was sent to was called Dekasava. With all this information my brother was able to find me. All the people I was working with who were traveling with me were placed in between 3 different army train stations. I remember that getting from where we were in Tashkent to Moscow took five days. We didn’t have any bad conditions as we were traveling, we did need to pass by different train stations.
When we got to Moscow it was the 20th of September. Out of our group two people separated from us. They had their own plans of what they were going to do. The rest of us were told to stick together until we knew what the next plan of action for us was going to be. By the time we learned about our future agenda it was late at night. We were given permission to travel by a train station that would be open for use in October. Wherever our final destination was going to be, there we would be building a railroad.
Trains carrying cans of food would be traveling on this new railroad. When we got to our destination, it was freezing outside. We could see snow on the ground. Since we were not prepared for this kind of weather, clothing such as warm pants, boots, and tools we would need for work were provided for us. I started to work there and after 2 days I got sick, I was coughing really hard. I was with these two guys who at least one of them knew of the area Sarny where I was from. The other guy who was with me told me not to come into work that day, because the next day we were all going to have some kind of a medical examination. There would be some people who would come look at all of us to see what kind of disease was going around.
On top of coughing a lot my heart was hurting and I was in a lot of pain. I was asked what year I was born in and since I did not have documents to prove anything I said 1924. There were two women and a man who were leading the medical examinations. They asked me if I wanted to continue going to school or being in the program. My reply was, “Of course I want to stay here. I continued, I was in school prior to this and have experience in the work I am doing now.” These three people decided that I could stay and said to me, “We will write up some documents for you to have to explain your reasoning of being here.”
They told me that I was to go back to Moscow where I would be in school. They gave me the documents I would be needing, I thanked them, and I was on my way. There was a reason why I was leaving this job, I realized I couldn’t bear to be around work sites that were as hard as this one. Before leaving I said goodbye to the people who I befriended after finding out my job was to be relocated. By now it was the end of September or the beginning of October. The date was approximately the eighth or the tenth of October. I was given some money for traveling expenses, to buy food, and other miscellaneous items if need be. I didn’t have a place to sleep for the night set up when I first arrived.
I found a bench in a park and fell asleep on it. In the middle of the night I was awoken by some loud noises. I got up and walked around a bit until I saw from a distance some police officers on both sides of the park. There were lots of people gathered around and from the conversations I could hear the people were having I understood, people were being asked to evacuate from their homes.
The people who were being evicted were not of Russian descent, some were Japanese. I didn’t want anyone to notice I was there, especially not the police. I walked quietly back to my bench and stayed there the rest of the night. In the morning I saw a massive amount of people huddled together as if in bunches. There were so many pieces of luggage that people had with them. I overheard some people say that there is only one path people can take and that was through Yaroslavl, it was a city near Moscow. I decided I didn’t want to be in this park on this bench anymore and was going to try and get myself to Yaroslavl. It took me half the day to get there and by that time there were no more tickets left. I found a conductor on the train and asked him to take me. He refused saying, “On this train I am carrying a certain product and I have no right to let you on here and take you as well.”
As he was directing me how to catch a train that would take me to my destination I remember him calling me “boy”. I thanked him graciously and was on my merry way to Yaraslavo. It was very cold outside that day and I was dressed in several layers of pants and a shirt with a long sleeve fleece. On the train I was feeling like there was a breeze coming in from somewhere. After a little while of being on this train I noticed some barrels with a zipper hanging from one side of the train. I started to play with the zipper and it finally came undone. I saw that inside the barrels there were containers filled with herring.
I realized the reason why it had been so cold was to keep the herring from going bad. I moved a container with herring in to the side. The area where the container had been was warm. I opened that container with herring and ate a little bit and I had gotten so comfortable that I fell asleep. When I woke up I saw that the train had stopped moving. I quickly got up and asked “where are we now?” The conductor looked at me and said, “We are not far from Yaroslavl, but this area is where packaged goods come through.”
He started directing me how to get to there. Any military equipment or packages come through here. There was a trail to get there. He told me to not walk on the trail to get there, but walk near it. He told me it would take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour to get there. I graciously thanked him and was off again. I reached an area where there was a train taking passengers.
It had been a long day and I was hungry so I ate something and looked around this train. The train was different from the other ones I had been on there were two floors. On the top was where ships came through and on the bottom was where trains came through. I had no idea that ships could come through on the top floor, but there is the Volga river that runs there. Passengers were allowed to access both these ships and the trains. I spent all day on this particular train as there was so much to see.
This train was going to take me in the direction of where I needed to go. I was happy I did not have to switch trains or find another means of transportation. It would take me as close to where I was going. I looked for the conductor and asked him what would be the best means way I could get around on this train. I got to a certain city and cannot remember now what it was called.
When I stepped off the train I noticed this city of Kazan had Jews. These Jews looked like they were pretty observant with the way they dressed and how their children were dressed. The men had beards and the young boys had hair growing on both sides of their faces. As I got closer this group of people started to notice me. I realized this group were Tatari, they may have looked like Jews, but in reality they were Muslims. I didn’t know these kind of people existed. I had been traveling for a long time and could figure out how to get around using different routes. I was going to go in the direction of Tashkent again.
This area was popular back then, it had a lot of bread. I learned that I could get to where I wanted to go by the use of trains and also. By October 16th 1941 I had gotten to the train station in Yaroslavl. At this time there were few men in Russia who were doing construction. They stopped doing construction because it was believed that the Germans were below Russia. There was a fear that Germany would take over Moscow. I learned all of this information when I was already in the middle of my travels so I continued. I noticed it wasn’t crowded. Most people had stopped traveling, but I was already in the middle of my journey back to Tashkent, so I continued.
When I got to Tashkent I went back to the office that had sent me on a business trip. I explained to them where I had been and what I had been doing. In Moscow there was a vocational school I tried to get into. When I got to the premises of the school I saw that all the doors were wide open. Usually there was one or two police officers who I knew of that would be standing outside guarding the school. At this time there wasn’t anyone there, but a man running around with his head in his hands screaming, “I’ve been left alone and everyone has left” over and over again.
There were papers all over the floor of this school; and seeing all this I realized there is no chance of going to a vocational school and that I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. When I got to the office in Tashkent I explained all of this to the people working there. They sent me back to living with other people and that I would be given a job. I wouldn’t stay at this job long because within a few weeks they would get me a job somewhere else called Depo. I was satisfied with this news and went to a bazar.
This bazar was pretty big and it wasn’t just one there were a few of them next to each other. At this bazar I found myself standing face to face with a cousin of mine named Jacob who was a few years older than me. At first I don’t think he recognized me nor I recognized him because he asked me whose son I was and I told him my father’s name, Pesach Zhuk. He said, “Things are good for you, because you have a brother.” I replied back to him, “What are you talking about, what brother?” He told me where my brother was located, at a vocational school in an area called Kakandi. He gave me my brother’s full name and an exact address of where my brother was.
After that I was on the search looking for this brother of mine. I didn’t go to work the next day, but the day after that I went to the vocational school my brother was learning at. From a distance I see there is my little brother. He was coming to the communal area I was living in. When we did meet face to face for the first time in so many years we were both in such utter shock. I asked him why he had come to see me.
He asked, what do you mean, you sent me a telegram with your address and everything. I told him “Yes, but I did not tell you to come here.” He started crying and said, “I don’t want to go back to that vocational school, our cousin Jacob is always making fun of me.” Now I understood that his main reason for why he did not want to return to the vocational school. Now that he had come to see me he wanted to stay. I told him to go back to the vocational school and later I would meet him there. He tried to argue with me about him staying with me and the two of us meeting up with our cousin Jacob. The area he was in was much better than where he come to see me. I looked him sternly in the face and said, I will come to you, just not right now in about 3 weeks. At first he didn’t believe me he said, “You’re lying to me” and I told him I was not.
He had heard that I went to Kahazavo and I told him what you heard was wrong information. Go back to the vocational school and I promise you that I will come to you. That was the end of the discussion. It was that very day in the evening I bought him a train ticket back to the vocational school. At the train station he started to cry and I hugged him saying, “Don’t cry, I will come to you.” I told him that I wouldn’t say anything to our cousin Jacob about our meeting or our plans.
Sometime between the months of November and December and at the end of 1941 and beginning of 1942, I bought a ticket to the area my brother was living in. When I got off at the train station in the area where my brother was living I saw some people who looked like Bucharian Jews and they were speaking in Hebrew. I stood to the side and listened briefly and realized that it was in fact Hebrew.
I came up to them, said in Hebrew, “Hello I am from Poland and then asked where the vocational school was. They showed me and again in Hebrew I thanked them. I made my way to the vocational school. I saw that people were working and I asked where I could find my brother giving them his name they showed me and I thanked them. While I was at the school I thought I would try and get myself a job in this area. I wanted to speak to the director of the vocational school.
I explained to the director about my past experiences where I had been working and all the skills I have encountered over the years. He gave me some work to do for the next two days. He wanted me to fix something and return it back to him and I said I would. What the director asked me to do for him did not take me a long time. About 2 days later I went into his office and returned it to him. He realized that I could give given work and liked what I did. He gave me the role of teaching others how to do what I knew. The students I was now teaching and I got along really well. I took them out for lunch and dinner.
When my brother and I would spend time together he told me stories about how our cousin Jacob was bullying him. Jacob was bigger and older than both of us and he would make jokes to my little brother Ben who did not think they were funny. This irritated me because our cousin, my brother, and I left our home and the two of them ended up in the same area and now Jacob is bullying his little cousin. I tried not to let it get to me too much. I had to be the one to calm down my brother.
Around the month of June, I learned that there would be a group of people from a committee coming to where my brother and I were living. These people wanted to gather a bunch of people together to take them into the military. I had always wanted to avoid the military as much as possible and found out that traveling to Kuibyshev would be the best option to not get involved with the military. Our cousin Jacob, my brother, and I were signed up to go travel to Kuibyshev.
Luckily for us, Jacob had been one of the last few to sign up and even though he would be going to Kuibyshev, he would not be traveling with us. It was nice to spend some time with my brother because there was no one on the train we were on. There were about ten people or so who had signed up to go all together. This all happened in the month of June 1942. While we were in Kuibyshev there was always work to be done. Since I had been working with polishing machine tools and I had studied to be an electrician I was given the job of being a technician. We were told that we would be going to an aviation factory. I did several different kinds of work because there was not enough work in the field of being an electrical technician. There was always something to fix. I worked about 12 hours a day.
A month went by and we gave our documents so we could get our cards. Back then in order to be able to buy food one had to have food stamps. These cards were considered food stamps. I saw our secretary coming towards us. Her name was Masha and she was in her early 20’s a little bit older than us.
Back then age was considered a pretty big deal. There was a difference between being eighteen, twenty, and twenty two years old. She looked at me and said, “Boris, I was told that you and your brother are not going to be able to get cards for the next month. “
A little side note about my name Boris, people were already calling me that because I knew that in Russian my name Boris was the same as Barrick and in Yiddish it was Berel. When she asked for our information instead of writing down our names, I just used our initials. To her it looked like our names were exactly the same and she thought I was trying to get two food stamp cards for one person instead of two cards for two people. She started arguing with me that in the Russian language there is no such name as Benyamin, it’s Venyamin.”
I didn’t want to continue arguing with her and said lightly to her, “Masha, ok write the way you pronounce it.” Next she was going to write down our birthdays and the year we were born in. She asked me and I said you know what Masha, you are a good girl please just write down what I am going to tell you. I told her that I was born in August 13, 1925.
I had already thought things through and by telling her this information it would mean that by next year I would be 18 years old. I was still trying to avoid being in the army for myself and now my brother too, because I knew that if I went I would be killed out in the battlefield and I did not want to die in this war. She called me Boris Petrovich Zhuk and that I would go first and my brother Benyamin Petrovich Zhuk would come next. She asked for my brother’s birthdate and I said, August 4, 1925. She thought about this not too long and called me an idiot asking how can this be the truth? We had a good laugh about this and I told her he was born on the 13th of August and I on the 4th. This made sense to her and that was the end of this discussion.
The year 1942 went quickly into the following year, 1943 and Benyamin got sick with the disease known as Malaria. Malaria was a disease at the time going around a lot in those days. People would take pills for this disease. Benyamin and I were placed in a facility that looked like barracks that people in the military lived in while they served their time there. There were two floors in this new home of ours and I was on the second floor, while Benyamin was on the first. This way we could at least stay together and I would not get sick. I started buying pills for Benyamin to take so he could heal from Malaria. Taking these pills causes the skin to grow pale. I was told to not worry about this it is not such a bad thing, the person’s skin would come back to its original color once the disease is gone.
By this time it was either March or April of 1943 and we had already turned 18 years old. We got letters from the army originally wanting to draft us. Benyamin was not yet working and he was not exactly all better from Malaria. In the letters it was written the place for us to go to and find out more about the military. We went to the military office. They looked at Benyamin and myself separately. We had to provide documents, the only kinds we had was that we were working at the aviation factory.
We were given passports that would last up to three months. These passports consisted of a small tiny piece of paper. In the passport it was written our names, birthdates, and where we were working. When we were done in the military office, I asked my brother how his so called interview to get in went. He said, “Well for now they discharged me since I am sick. He asked me the same how my so called interview went and I said they want to enroll me. He did not like this bit of news not one bit and he said, “So you are going to go enroll yourself and I am going to be here all by myself? I told him to not jump to conclusions, let me figure something out. I promise I won’t leave you here alone.” The military office returned Benyamin’s passport back to him. They did not return mine because it was planned to enlist me. People with passports like Benyamin could leave the military office, but the others had to wait.
In the military office I found a woman sitting at the front desk working as an assistant there. I told her I had just been inside someone’s office and since I am from Poland this person wanted to see my passport and if she could give it to me. She gave me the passport and both my brother and I left the office. From that point on I decided I would go and talk to my boss at the factory. His name was Valentin Kareestratavich. We had an excellent relationship, he was a very good man and I highly respected him and wanted his advice about whether or not I should go enroll.
As I was about to go into his office there was a very strong smell as if a type of perfume. I saw the receptionist Masha and asked her if she smelled it and what kind of perfume was it. She said, “No it is not a cologne, what you are smelling is alcohol. The master is drinking now.” He had a family, a wife and two children. For each of his two children he received 400 grams of food. Since he was working he got another 800 grams of food for himself. He lived in the barracks behind my brother and me.
He wasn’t making much to be able take care of his children and his wife was not working. Any children who were working at the time were called “Young Workers”. My brother and I were receiving about 800 grams of bread. We also got three meals a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For breakfast there was always buckwheat or oatmeal with bread and tea. For lunch there was always first course and then second course including bread and tea. The dinner meal was different from the lunch one, but a similar set up with a first and second course, then bread, and finally tea.
All together my brother and I got about 800 grams of bread a day. Can you imagine yourself what was 800 grams of read back then and getting fed three times a day? We ate in a way where we would have left overs to eat in between meals or whenever we got hungry again. We didn’t try to sell our left over food. It was only after I got married we thought about the idea to sell our left over food.
I finally did get to speak to my master from the factory. He was from a city called Voronezh. He worked on the eighteenth factory in Voronezh where he met a lot of Jews. He knew all these little things. As we were talking he said to me, “Boris, I have a talent. I make crosses really well and wooden ladles. I will make these and you and my wife will go to the country village which is about forty kilometers from Kuibyshev you will see a train station there. On the right side of this train station there is a huge population of people known as Chuvash’s.
His wife her name was Nadya and she was about thirty years old, younger than him and beautiful. He told me to go with her and I would put the wooden pieces for the ladles together and we would do an exchange for food such as potatoes, eggs, and bacon. When he was done, he asked me if there was anything I needed from him. After hearing this story and his request for what he wanted of me, I no longer had the desire of asking him about whether or not I should join the military. I told him, “I don’t need anything, it was an honor to sit in your office with you and hear you. Thanks so much.” Now that I would be helping him there would be no way I could go into the army. I started traveling with his wife to that area and doing as he asked. When we traveling we were near a military office.
When I told my story my boss instructed me: “Your brother, Benyamin should go to his dorm and rest. When he feels ready I will give him light work. He will assemble automatic screw drivers. As for you my master said, you will spend a couple of days selling these things with my wife. I am not ready to send you and Nadya out, because I don’t have the material yet. This whole month I am expecting you to stay within the factory and even sleep there.”
The factory department had no windows instead they had a water heater tank. I was sleeping near one of them and I didn’t leave the factory for a couple of weeks. I slept on the water heater that had sharp edges. My boss gave me extra clothes to put underneath these sharp edges so I wouldn’t cut myself. I needed to tie myself using ropes otherwise I could fall out of the benches. I didn’t have a pillow but I had something under my head from my boss. He reminded me to remain in the factory because he expected in several weeks workers in the factory will be protected by the government’s decision from being drafted into the army.
My boss said he knows the major who supervised this military factory made a request to the central committee of the communist party. It was important for the factory to have their own military office. This way the men working in the factory will not be drafted. The boss was sure that it would be a matter of only two or three weeks that the men would be notified they can be spared from serving in the army. As soon as a military office is established no one else can touch our workers. I stayed in the factory the whole month and worked. In the afternoon and evening I worked and at night I slept. I would sleep in the dorm which was in the factory. When it was the second shift I worked.
A month passed and it was the year 1943 finally a military office was established within the borders of the factory. All the men working in the factory including myself and my brother received permission to be released from the draft of serving in the army. Women were not included because they were not asked to be in the military. This was on a piece of paper. We were warned in the military office to take this piece of paper with us when we have a day off and if we go into the town. If anyone tries to stop you right away show them this paper proving you don’t need to serve in the military.
It was important to take this paper with us anywhere we went, because people were drafted right from the street or anywhere. The war required more people calling soldiers meat. Men fighting in the war died quickly and that was why the military was constantly looking for more soldiers. Later in 1944 when we would go into the town on Saturdays we always took this piece of paper with us to not get caught. This piece of paper was signed by Stalin and it would be active until 1948.
Stalin allowed workers in factories such as ours to not go in the military because he needed someone to produce planes, tanks, and other necessities that the army needed. The first time this paper went out to men who were trying to avoid serving in the military was in December of 1931 to 1945. It was prolonged two more times for the purpose of allowing men to work in factories. By having this paper we were able to stay alive.
In the year 1945 I got married to Raya. I have learned how to make rubber shoes. We had access to rubber and I found a proper glue. I worked together with Raya making shoes and selling them. Raya, my brother, his wife Lyuba, and myself all worked at the aviation factory till 1950. I left Kuibyshev for Minsk with Raya and then my brother and Lyuba joined us. Lyuba’s sister Ida and her husband Lesha stayed in Kyubeshev. In 1953 Lesha was arrested for participating in a Zionist club where he learned Hebrew. He described his journey in his book, “The Place With No Return”.
From left to right on the photo below: Dmitry, Bronia, Boris Zhuk and Julie Zhuk. The picture by Yefim Zhuk.