First-Hand:Podbrodz - As I Remember
My brother, Morris Engelson (born Moshe Meir Engelczyn), and I, Irving Engelson (born Icek or Itzhak Engelczyn), are the two remaining native Podbrodzer members of the Podbrodzer Progressive Benevolent Association (PPBA). Morris was born in 1935 and was a small boy when World War II started. His pre-war recollections are almost non-existent, but he does recall some events that took place during the war years. I was born in 1930 and have a more extensive memory of the time. The following account is what I recall from before, during and immediately after the War, including what I remember about the town of Podbrodz and its Jewish community, which no longer exists, and a short history of my family. After sixty years, some memories begin to fade, but certain events are very clear to me. In the post-war years, I often spoke with my parents about them, which kept the memories alive. The short sketch of our lives is mostly specific to my family, but is sufficiently general and typical that it provides an almost generic overview of an average Jewish family from Podbrodz.
Podbrodz between the World Wars
The Polish name of the town is Podbrodzie (Podbrodz in Yiddish). It is about 50km east of the large city called Wilno in Polish (Vilne or Vilna in Yiddish). That city is now the capital of Lithuania and is called Vilnius, and our little town is called Padrade in Lithuanian. Before World War One (WWI), the whole area was part of Czarist Russia.
The infrastructure of Podbrodz was primitive. None of the homes had indoor plumbing. Toilets were outhouses and water was obtained from wells. Most of the wells did not have pumps; buckets were lowered and raised with a crank handle to bring up the water and then carried into the homes. Because the winters were very cold, this was a difficult and even dangerous task. Water would spill around the well and freeze, creating an ice-covered area that was treacherously slippery.
But I do not recall anyone complaining about it; it seemed normal to us. The rivers would be frozen solid and people would cut ice blocks and put them in ice-houses to provide cold storage for the following summer.
Transportation was by horse and wagon or, in the wintertime, by horse and sleigh. Few homes had electricity and most used kerosene lamps for light. Those who could not afford to buy kerosene or candles used thin pieces of wood that burned slowly and provided light – and also smoke. Wood-burning stoves were used for heating and cooking. The town had a few telephones.
I was a small child when an electric light was installed in our home and I remember when it was done. A small hydroelectric plant was installed on the river and power lines were installed on wooden poles along some of the streets. There were electric poles on our street and one pole was next to our house. So a line of two plain uninsulated wires was connected to the outside of the house using two special porcelain insulators and from that an insulated cable went in to the living room and a single light was installed with a switch on the wall. People were charged by the light; there were no meters to measure usage and the bulbs were of one power rating, probably around 25W. The rich people with larger homes might have had more than one light.
Most people baked their own bread and had vegetable gardens. Exotic items such as grapes or oranges were brought from Vilna, but few could afford them. Swiss and Dutch cheeses, smoked fishes such as sardines and herring and other imported items were available in the stores. All the Jewish residents of the town would get involved in baking Matzo for Passover.
The town had a large Jewish population and the language spoken was Yiddish. A non-Jew who lived across the street from us and spoke fluent Yiddish, was referred to by his first name, Adasiek (probably a diminutive for Adam). When there were visiting Jews to Podbrodz, Adasiek would approach them and ask if they would join for a “minyan” – the quorum of ten men needed for a prayer service. Some would follow him not knowing that he was not Jewish, but Adasiek would deliver them to some Jewish home where they needed additional people for the quorum. While there was some anti-Semitism in the area, most of the Jewish and non-Jewish children who grew up together lived in peace and relative harmony.
Jewish life in Podbrodz covered the full religious, political, economic and social spectrum. There were two synagogues; my maternal grandfather Heifetz was cantor in the old Beth Midrash synagogue. There was a core of observant Jews who were Mitnagdim – or those who followed the non-Chasidic tradition of Vilna. While Grandfather Heifetz was a Chasid, his dress and appearance were no different from the others. Only after the war, and in particular when I came to America, did I encounter the Chasidim with their, to me, strange-looking dress and side curls. Even my Chasidic grandfather would not have been able to blend in with these other Chasidim. Many, and perhaps a majority, of my parents’ younger generation were either mildly religious or non-observant. But there was a recognized mutual tolerance of these two groups. They lived together and there was generally no animosity between them.
Politically, the main two camps were, on the one hand, the Zionists who advocated learning Hebrew and preparing for emigration to Palestine, also called Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) and, on the other hand, the non-Zionist Bund who felt that Jews should make their home wherever they found themselves. The Zionist group was further subdivided into the leftist Shomer Ha-Tzair, a socialist organization, and the Baitar, a right-wing organization, and various subgroups in between.
These two camps were very visible even to me as a small boy of ten.
Many of the non-Zionist Bundists were also Yiddishists; that is, people who promoted the Yiddish language and culture. The daily life and activities of the town’s Jews were conducted in the Yiddish language. An active Jewish library with mostly Yiddish books was available to all and used extensively. Also great works of world literature were available in Yiddish translation, and Yiddish newspapers and periodicals came daily by train from Vilna.
There was virtually no illiteracy among the Jews and their intellectual interests and activities were unaffected by the sometimes difficult conditions of daily life. The men used to get together to discuss politics, econonics and literature. My father, with virtually no formal education, always read – books from the library and a daily newspaper cover to cover. When my own daughter was in college, she told me how her Grandpa had told her the story of King Lear, which he knew from reading the Yiddish translation. There were great Talmudic scholars in town, all of whom worked at various trades and studied on the side. I also remember a magazine that my parents subscribed to called Folks Gesunt; it specialized in health issues and also provided information on children’s health and upbringing. My early upbringing was probably influenced by its writings.
There was an active cultural life in town. An amateur theater group presented Yiddish plays; my mother was involved with this theater. The “Pazarnee” volunteer fire department was staffed by Jewish young men and had a musical band that played on special occasions.
The town had a Polish public school, probably to grade eight, where all subjects were presented in Polish. A few Jewish children went to the Polish public school, including two of my female cousins – children of my father’s sister Esther and her husband Leibe Nohum Glaz. There was no traditional Jewish religious school in town – no “Cheder” or “Yeshiva”. Rather, there was a Hebrew “Tarbuth” elementary school that had probably six grades. It received financial support from the community, but parents also had to pay “s’char limmud” or tuition.
Because it was difficult for many, including my parents, to pay the tuition, I was initially home tutored in Hebrew by a private teacher, a relative from the nearby town of Nemencine. After a while I went to school in the “pe’hina” or first grade at the Tarbuth school. Boys and girls were together in the classroom, and two or more grades would study together. I remember that the subjects were Hebrew language, “Heshbon” or arithmetic, “Humash” or Bible study by a general modern approach, some “Teva” or botany about trees and other plants, and of course also the Polish language. The elders all recognized the children and knew to which families each one belonged.
Even in the Hebrew school, Yiddish was freely spoken by the children and even by the teachers. All our activities were conducted in Yiddish, including going to a store or getting ice- cream from a street vendor. When my mother took me several times by train to Vilna, there too Yiddish was the primary language, with store-signs all in Yiddish.
The Engelczyn family
The ancestors of the Engelczyn family lived in and between Niemenciny (Polish), now Nemencine in Lithuanian (Niemencin in Yiddish), and Podbrodz (Pabrade). My paternal grandfather, Feivel (Shraga) Engelczyn, lived in Podbrodz. He married Dobe or Doba Frankel from the town of Druzgenik. She came from a very well known and prosperous family. It was an arranged marriage of sorts; that is, they were introduced thorough a matchmaker, as was the tradition of the time. I understand that when Doba met Feivel she commented that she liked what she saw in him. They married and settled in Podbrodz. A sister of Doba’s married a scholarly Jew from Kovno, now Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, which was the capital between World War I and WW II. His name was Heikel Sklarsky and he was known throughout Lithuania as a supporter of philanthropic causes and of Jewish learning, such as Yeshivos. His profession was that of a Mohel – a ritual circumciser of great skill. One of their children, Moshe Shmuel Sklarsky, settled in New York City and became a major publisher of Yiddish books. He became a close friend and active relative when we came to the USA after the war.
My grandfather Engelczyn was a reasonably well-to-do merchant in Podbrodz and supplied various provisions to the Russian army under the Czar. Podbrodz was an important railroad stop in the Czar’s time and Grandfather used to ship his provisions by railroad. As a child in the 1930s, I remember playing with Grandfather’s old Czarist Russian paper money.
Grandfather had a large wooden barrel full of large, but worthless paper bills. Apparently Grandfather, like other Jewish businessmen, did not like gold coins because of their weight, so he held it all in paper money; as a result, he lost most of his fortune at the end of WW I.
My grandparents, Feivel and Doba Engelczyn, had six children – four sons and two daughters – who were all born and raised in Podbrodz. The sons were Moshe, who came to the USA before the War, Artzik (Aryeh), Meyer and Velvel (my father). Artzik and Meyer and their wives and children were all killed in the Holocaust. The two daughters were Esther and Yoche (Yoheveth). Esther married Leibe-Nohum Glaz and lived in Podbrodz in a house attached to Grandfather’s house; Yoche, whom I don’t remember ever meeting, was married to a man by the name of Zusia, and they lived in a town called Wolkolat – I don’t recall their last name. Both of Grandfather’s daughters and their families were also killed.
Of my grandparents’ six children, only two sons, Moshe and Velvel, and their families survived. My grandparents Doba and Feivel Engelczyn were respectively eighty and eighty one years old when they were murdered. With the exception of my parents, brother and one uncle and his family, all of my close relatives on my father’s side – my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins – were murdered. The total number of such relatives, on both my father’s and mother’s side, who perished in the Holocaust was sixty.
My uncle Moshe Engelczyn came to the United States in 1914 and changed his name to Morris Engelson. My father Wolf (Velvel in Yiddish, and Z’ev in Hebrew) Engelczyn became Wolf Engelson when he came to the States after WW II with my mother and my brother. I went to Switzerland to study and came to the US in 1951. Uncle Morris, as we called him, was one of the early officers of the PPBA – the Podbrodzer Progressive Benevolent Association.
Podbrodz is on the confluence of two small rivers; the Dubinka was the smaller of the two and the Zemiana was a larger river. When Grandfather Engelczyn lost most of his fortune and was left with worthless Czarist paper money, he decided to build a mill on one of the rivers to grind grain. A well-to-do Polish landowner, Mr.Wincenty Senkiewicz, with whom Grandfather did business, brought a lot of grain into the mill. My grandfather, who was a devoutly religious Jew, and Mr. Senkiewicz, who was a devoutly religious Catholic, did their business based strictly on trust rather than legal documents.
One Saturday, people came to Grandfather to tell him that his mill was on fire, but my grandfather let it burn because he would not violate the laws of the Sabbath. When Mr. Senkiewicz came to town, during market day the following Monday, he did not stop in at Grandfather’s home as he customarily would do. Grandfather went to find him and asked him why he did not come over, especially since Grandfather owed him for all his grain that was burned in the fire. Mr. Senkiewicz explained that, knowing that Grandfather did not have the funds to repay him, he did not want to stop by and create unnecessary pressure on him. Grandfather eventually repaid him this very large debt in full. Years later, during the Holocaust, two sons of the late Mr. Senkiewicz, with the help of others, risked their lives and saved our family during the war.
Thanks to them, my brother Morris, our parents and I survived. We must not forget these righteous Gentiles who did such noble deeds. This is, in summary, the story of my father’s family.
The Heifetz family
My mother, Ethel Engelson, was born Hannah Ethel Heifetz, into a musical family. A cousin, Jascha Heifetz, became, according to the accounts of the musical world, the greatest world violinist of the twentieth century. Her father – my grandfather – Moshe Meir Heifetz married Kaila Mariasha Asinovsky whose family came from Smorgon, a town in Belarus. They settled in a nearby village called Zodishok, where they raised a family of three sons and four daughters. The two elder sons – Harry and Sam – immigrated to America before WW I and were much later joined by one of their sisters, Mina. All three eventually settled in Chicago. The third son, Itzhak Heifetz, and a daughter, Chaya Rachel Weinstein, and their families were murdered during the Holocaust. A son of Chaya Rachel, Aba Weinstein, immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s. The youngest of the Heifetz children, Ella Heifetz, was in several concentration camps and survived. She was liberated in a concentration camp by the Soviet army and settled after the war in Riga, Latvia where she died.
During WW I, the Heifetz family moved to Podbrodz, where Grandpa Heifetz became the “hazan” (cantor) in the local synagogue. In addition to the musical Heifetz ear, he also had an excellent singing voice. His wife – my maternal grandmothe – died in Podbrodz soon after WW I and was buried in the local Jewish cemetery. My mother was a teenager at the time.
Grandfather Moshe-Meir Heifetz never remarried and raised the girls on his own. Because of his cantorial talents and scholarly pursuits he was a well-respected member of the community. I remember him reasonably well. He died in 1935 and my brother Morris, who was born soon after, was named after him.
My parents met and married in Podbrodz on March 1, 1929. My Uncle Morris with his wife Stella and six year old daughter Ruthi came to the wedding from New York. When Mother became pregnant with me, she went to Vilnius to give birth in a hospital. Thus I was born in Vilnius, but she and the baby soon came back to Podbrodz, so my “bris” (ritual circumcision) was in Podbrodz. So technically I am not a Podbrodzer native, but I never considered myself otherwise. My brother Morris was born in our house in Podbrodz, and I remember the event. We lived next door to my paternal grandparents, and my uncles, aunts and cousins were all within walking distance.
World War II begins
At the start of World War II in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the Polish territory. The Polish parts of White Russia (Belarus), the Ukraine, and the Lithuanian part of Poland that constituted the whole Vilna region were to be taken over by the Soviets, and the rest of Poland was to be taken over by Germany. I remember people standing in the street listening to a radio broadcast from Warsaw. Radios were rare in Podbrodz but a few people had radio sets, and several had crystal receivers that required no electricity that people could listen to with earphones. The broadcast in Polish reported on the invasion of Warsaw by the Germans and the defense that was mounted by the local population. I still remember the words of the announcer that were repeated by the listeners. He said in Polish, “An old Jew with long sideburns takes a spade and goes to the defense of Warsaw.” Within a few days the Soviet Red Army entered Podbrodz. They were well mechanized with tanks and trucks that kept moving on our Vilna Street in a western direction toward Vilna. The troop movement continued all day with no incidents. These Soviet troops were well behaved and very friendly toward the local population, and particularly to children.
After a very short time – probably within weeks – the Soviets made a “generous” gesture toward Lithuania and told the Lithuanian government that since the Vilna region was traditionally and historically Lithuanian they were giving it back to them. The Lithuanians started a publicity campaign to prepare the local population for the Lithuanian takeover of the area. A single engine prop plane dropped leaflets over Podbrodz with various announcements. We children would run to collect these leaflets because they were printed on colorful paper pages and it was an interesting activity for children.
Some days later, the Lithuanian Army marched in. There were infantrymen and also some cavalry with their horses. The transition was peaceful and friendly. A Lithuanian police force was assigned to Podbrodz. I remember comments that these policemen were all tall, with a minimum height of 1.8 meters. Lithuanian flags were sold to the population and also portraits of the new President. My father bought such a picture and it hung in our small living room. My Hebrew school continued with one change – the Lithuanian language was added as a subject. The Yiddish culture continued undiminished and separated families from the previous Polish and Lithuanian sides were reunited. But the relatives in Polish Belarus were separated by the new border. My mother’s sister Chaya-Rochel Weinstein and her husband Hirshel from the town of Soly were separated, as were many others.
Podbrodz and the whole Vilna Area, now Vilnius, continued as part of independent Lithuania for about one year. At that time the Soviet Union under Stalin declared that at the request of the population of the Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – they are joining the Soviet Union as Soviet Republics and the Soviet troops reoccupied our area. There used to be a Polish Army Camp in Podbrodz, which became Lithuanian and now became a Red Army camp. Hebrew education was no longer permitted and Yiddish was introduced as the main language in our Jewish school. Also, in addition to the Lithuanian language, Russian was introduced. The Soviets started to deport so-called capitalists, among them a number of prominent Jewish families from Podbrodz, including the Hafkin family – the local pharmacist with his wife and children. They were the lucky ones because they survived the war. I remember seeing Mr. Hafkin after the war. Yiddish culture continued largely undiminished except for some anti-religious propaganda, but no persecution or prohibition of synagogue activities. Anti- Semitism was officially prohibited and Jews did not suffer because of their ethnicity.
The first murders in Podbrodz
Then on 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the Soviet Army retreated and the Germans started their advance. For a short time Podbrodz remained without any formal authority and local anti-Semites – mostly Lithuanians with some Poles – started killing Jews. One night they took a number of families out of town in a wooded area and killed them all. Only one managed to escape – Velvel Abramowicz (Abramovich). I knew the family well. Velvel’s father was a Rabbi who died well before my time. For a while, when I was very little, we rented an apartment from them. They had a store where they sold cloth that local tailors would buy to make garments. One of the brothers, Ben-Zion Abramovich, dated my Aunt Ella Heifetz, Mother’s sister. When Velvel Abramowicz escaped he came back to town and was hiding since he could identify some of the local murderers. He reported that when they started the killings he started running in the woods. They were shooting at him but missed him. He witnessed how some relatives of ours, the Zilber family, who had an infant daughter, begged them to let the child live. The mother said that they can bring up the child anyway they wanted without her ever knowing of her Jewish background. But one murderer took the infant by the legs and swung her against a tree and killed her in front of her parents. Velvel Abramowicz – the witness – survived the war. During one of my trips to Israel I met him in Ber-Sheva. He was married and lived as a poor and broken man. These killings were the first murders of Podbrodz Jews.
When the Germans occupied the town there was continuous movement of German soldiers. Some stayed in Podbrodz for short times and were later shipped to the Russian, or Soviet front. These ordinary German soldiers were, for the most part, simple decent people and did not bother us. Because the Yiddish language is related to German, even I could communicate with them. I remember some soldiers giving me money to buy some carbonated orange flavored bottled drink called Orenzada.
One day a local Pole who knew my father well, came and told him that some bad things might happen that night and that we should leave our home on Vilna Street, the main street leading to Vilna. My father took the family – my mother Channa-Ethel, my brother little Moshe, about 6 years old, and me – and we went to a side street and stayed in the home of relatives. Others did not listen to the rumor and remained in their homes. My uncle Leibe-Nochum Glaz, my aunt Esther (Father’s sister) and my three cousins – the girls Rochel and Dina, and my cousin “Dodik,” little David – remained in their home. I remember playing with Dodik before Father took us away. That night they and other Jews were taken away and murdered, including a young girl who was visiting from out of town with the Glaz family. Gone were Dodik and my older girl cousins – the Glaz family. Soon thereafter a Ghetto was created in Podbrodz and all Jews were forced to live on a couple of nearby streets. We moved in and lived with another family.
Our family is separated
Through all these terrible events, my parents shielded the children from the terrible realities and tried to keep us isolated from the pain and uncertainties they experienced. But the day came on a Friday morning, as the Jews were preparing for the Sabbath and upcoming holidays, that again local non-Jews alerted the community of potential new mass killings. Father again took action to protect our family. He told Mother to take the children and go through the fields several kilometers to a friendly farmer and stay there until he came for us. He took off his golden wedding ring from his finger and gave it to Mother so she would have something of value with her. Mother had been baking something in the oven for the holiday, but there was no time to waste and Father told us to go. I made a big fuss and refused to go with Mother unless he came too. Not entirely believing what was about to happen, Father wanted to remain to protect our belongings. The only way he could change my mind was by physical force – he spanked me. This spanking was mild but had a long lasting effect on my father and me for psychological reasons that I will cover later. So we left and reached the intended farmhouse west of town on the north bank of the Zemiana River.
I don’t remember the farmer being there, but his wife and a teenage son were in the house. She made arrangements for us to stay in the attic of a barn. Night came and Father did not reach us. It was getting cold in the attic and we heard all night the shooting of rifles. We had an idea of what it could be but did not talk about it. Early in the morning we were told that Lithuanian armed gangs (they were called something that sounded like “Shoulises”) were seen in the area looking for Jews. A few of these armed men came to the farm and the farmer’s wife gave them some food to eat. She was afraid to keep us there, so she asked her teenage son to take us across the river in a rowboat. The other side of the river was wooded and Mother took us and we ran through the woods.
We learned later that Father had managed to reach the farm later in the day. The farmer’s wife told him that the son had taken us across the river and soon thereafter one of the “guests” saw the boy coming back with his boat, and asked him if he took some Jews across. The boy was frightened and confirmed it. Father immediately told the boy to take him across the river too, and started shouting and searching for us. Father did not know whether we had managed to escape or had been caught and killed. So he left this farm and went far north from there, sleeping at night in the forest until he reached the farm property of the Senkiewicz family. Bronislaw Senkiewicz was the older son of Wincenty Senkiewicz who had lost the grain in my grandfather’s mill. The Engelczyn and Senkiewicz families had a long and friendly intergenerational relationship. Bronislaw had dogs on his property, but because my father used to visit often, the dogs knew him and did not bark. So Father carefully looked through a window to make sure that it was safe and he witnessed a touching event.
My father’s Polish nickname was Ulfa. And he heard one of Bronislaw’s young boys asking if Ulfa was safe. The boy’s mother told him to go and say his evening prayer and also pray for Ulfa’s safety. So the child kneeled near his bed and prayed. When Father determined that it was safe, he knocked on the door and came in. The small boy was convinced that his prayers had been answered. Father remained hiding in Bronislaw Senkiewicz’s home for over a year. To make sure that the children did not accidentally identify him to strangers by name, the family called him “Stary” which in Polish means the “old man.” This entire time, Father was planning how he could possibly organize a search for us, in case we had escaped from the Lithuanians who chased us across the river.
We did not know about the gang that was looking for us. So Mother moved back with us two children in an eastern direction on the south side of the river until we reached the Podbrodz Catholic Church that was past the railroad tracks. The priest was apparently in the back yard and unavailable. So his housekeeper gave us some food, and since the priest was unable or unwilling to help, we moved on. Eventually we encountered another Jew from Podbrodz – I believe by the name of Mayer Blitz, but I am not sure of his name – and we kept walking together. We eventually reached Belarus villages. We walked thorough one poor village and I remember some old women looking at us and saying in their White Russian language (in Belarus) “biedniye ovietsky, biedniye ovietsky,” – poor sheep, poor sheep.
Eventually we reached an isolated house of an extremely poor White Russian who let us stay in the attic of a barn. He hardly had any food, but he found a very large potato; at least, it looked enormous to us. He boiled it, cut it in half and gave us one half and ate the other half. This very poor man shared with us his last potato. Before we went to sleep for a little while, Mother took off my little brother’s shoes. Before sunrise when we needed to leave and start walking, Mother could not put the shoes back on my brother – the feet of the six year old were too swollen, so Mother had to carry him for a long time until the swelling came down.
Mother had a married older sister in the Belarus town of Soly; her name was Chaya-Rochel Weinstein and she lived there with her husband Hirshel. Being away from Lithuania, and thinking that this was a safer area she decided that we should try to reach Soly. The town of Soly is near a larger town of Smorgony. She obtained some help from local people who for a small fee guided us thorough the fields at night. When we needed some additional assistance, Mother was going to give them Father’s wedding ring in payment. Father had given her his ring for such use. I protested that she should not give away the only thing we had from Father, assuming that he was dead. My solution was that she should give her wedding ring away, which she did.
Father’s ring was eventually also used, but I don’t remember how. We eventually reached Soly, which also had a Ghetto. We managed to enter the Ghetto and found my aunt and uncle living with a few other families is one apartment. Life in the Ghetto was very difficult and I witnessed some SS soldiers hitting my aunt and blood running down her head. I witnessed other atrocities including a killing. But this writing is primarily to document some memories from Podbrodz and the survival of one Podbrodzer family, mine. Life in the Ghetto of Soly is for another time.
I should mention that both Mother and I worked for the Germans while in Soly. As a twelve year old, I also earned some food doing some other jobs. I also occasionally played with other Ghetto children my age, and I remember when some kids picked on me, I thought that if I had not been a fatherless orphan, it would not have happened. It was at times like these that I felt very bad that my last interaction with my father had been to disobey him and cause him to spank me so I would leave Podbrodz with Mother. Later when we were reunited with Father, he told me a similar feeling of guilt when he thought that we might be dead, that his last act was to spank me, and he too suffered from that. Father promised himself that if we will survive and be reunited he would never again lay a hand on me or on my brother; he never did. Later as a young father myself, I forgot these events, and I remember when I punished one of my daughters and spanked her. I later remembered my own spanking episode and how both my father and I punished ourselves for it. I thought about it many times and feel guilt to this day that I forgot the lesson that I learned so long ago. I still have not forgiven myself for having spanked my daughter, and probably never will.
The youngest of the Senkiewicz brothers was Adam. He was smart and resourceful, and very reliable. So when Father designed the plan to search for us, Adam, who was single and without family obligations, was the logical candidate to take on the assignment. He traveled to Soly and managed to get into the Ghetto and asked where my uncle and aunt lived. When he walked into the house, Mother recognized him immediately and realized that this must mean that Father was still alive; she later told me that it was as if she had seen Father in person. It was already early December and getting cold. Adam told Mother that he would travel back and report to Father that he had found us and that he would make plans to come and get us out of the Ghetto and bring us to their farm area and reunite us with Father.
It took a couple of weeks and Adam showed up again. This time he explained that his brother Bronislaw had come with him and that they had traveled a couple of days by horse and sleigh. In fact, they came with two horses and two sleighs. While Bronislaw was in town with the horses, we all managed to get out of the Ghetto just in time. Within a very short time – less than an hour – SS troops with helpers entered the Ghetto for a so-called “Kinder Aktion,” where they took all the children out from the Ghetto. We now know that this was one of their methodologies to murder the children first. We got out just in time without an hour to spare.
Mother was dressed in the manner of local farmwomen, with a kerchief over her head, and sat near Adam in his sleigh. I was also dressed as a woman with a kerchief over my head and sat in the sleigh next to Bronislaw. My little brother, by then about seven years old, was told to lie down in front of our feet and was covered with blankets. This looked as if they were used to cover our feet and keep us warm. In actuality, it served the dual purpose, to hide my little brother and keep us warm. Fortunately it started to snow, which was important for our travel by sleigh.
At nightfall, the horses and the two Senkiewicz brothers needed to get some rest and sleep. But there was a problem what to do with Mother and the two boys. We were at the outskirts of a larger Belarus town, either Smorgon or Oshmiany – I am no longer sure which one. But it had a Ghetto and the only way we could hide with a minimum of safety was to enter the Ghetto and the local Jews helped us through the night. Early the next morning we reunited with the Senkiewicz brothers and continued our trip. They had provisions such as breads so we all had something to eat on the road. Adam with his horse was in the lead and Bronislaw with the two boys followed a short distance behind, not to attract suspicion. At one location we lost sight of Adam and took the wrong turn. Neither Bronislaw nor I noticed where Adam made the turn. We eventually located him and continued on our way.
Reunited, but still in danger
By evening we reached the Senkiewicz home and Father came out to greet us. Father ran to lift my brother, little Moshe, out of the sleigh. The little boy said, “I am big enough to get out on my own.” And Father replied, “Indeed you have grown a lot.” It was a day or two before Christmas and the house was in a festive mood with lots of special holiday foods that we were offered for supper. This was the first time that my mother tasted non-kosher food. She commented in Yiddish that she never imagined that non-kosher food could taste so good.
After a while it became obvious that we could not remain there much longer. With lots of little children in the home it became dangerous. A small child could have mentioned something to a visitor. It was simpler with Father alone in the house and the children referring to him as “Stary” or “the old one.” But with Mother and the two boys it became much more complicated.
Mother was called “Stara” or the “old woman” and I was referred to by the Polish name Janek or little Jan (John). I don’t remember if my brother was given a special name.
One day we had to leave the house and hide. There was a prepared temporary hiding place in the field where there was a big hole excavated in the ground, that was used to store potatoes during harvest time. The soil was sandy and in the hole they constructed a smaller hole and lined it with wooden boards like a room, with a roof that had a small opening. It was all covered with sand so by looking from the outside the underground hiding place could not be easily identified. This was apparently constructed during the Soviet times as some sort of a hiding place. I don’t remember how long we were there – probably most of the day. The place was full of small frogs or toads that were jumping all around us and on us. Somehow my parents did not act too concerned and gave us children some comfort by their behavior.
Subsequently, we temporarily stayed with another farmer family. I don’t remember their last name, but the man was a hunchback and we referred to him using his physical condition.
Eventually, Father arranged for us all to stay with a very kind childless couple by the name, I believe, of Bogdanowicz. I don’t remember how long we were there, but I am sure it was a number of months. The homes in the area had very large brick ovens that were used for baking and as a source of heat during the cold winters. The front of such an oven extended fully to the ceiling, like the cabin of a truck, and the back reached to about half way between the floor and the ceiling. The side view of such an oven looked like a truck with its flat back like the platform of a truck. The opening of the oven was a large cavity for burning wood and extended the full length of that platform. So the top of the oven was a nice and warm surface – not very hot, just nicely warm. The sides of the platform were against walls that concealed the platform surface. The only access to the top of the oven was from the back. We would normally hide while sitting or sleeping on the oven.
Because the house was standing all by itself in a farm surrounding with no close neighbors in sight, we often spent time in the house and also outside, where we got some fresh air. The couple treated us very kindly, shared with us food and did not expect anything in return. One of the vivid memories that my brother has from these times is when he enjoyed the occasional outdoors and evenings. He later wrote a poem about it after he graduated high school in Brooklyn NY.
Two incidents occurred while we were on that oven that I remember very clearly. The first incident occurred during the day, while our hosts were away. They had locked the front door, as was their normal routine. My parents and brother were on the oven and I got off and looked outside through a crack in the curtain of a nearby window when I saw a number of German soldiers with horses and wagons. I don’t believe that they saw me. I immediately told my parents about the Germans outside. In the same room there was a very large wooden barrel with some old rags in it. My parents made a quick decision and told me to get into the barrel and covered with the rags. They and my little brother remained on the oven. They had obviously assumed that being older I would be able to keep quiet and also that my chances of survival on my own were better than my brother’s. We never spoke about the quick decision they had to make, but it is one of the most difficult decisions a parent can make – choosing which child to pick for hiding in the barrel.
After a while the Germans knocked on the door. They tried to open it and kept knocking. They apparently concluded that no one was in the house and they left.
The other incident happened with three Soviet soldiers who were left behind the German lines and bonded together to form a team. They traveled together from farm to farm and place to place looking for food and shelter. They were armed with Soviet rifles that provided them some security and a sense of some authority. The local people knew about them. I still remember their names: Misha, Grisha, and Alexei. One day they came into the house while we were hiding on the oven.
One of them went to the back and noticed the frightened couple with the two children. He did not say anything and went immediately back to the front of the oven and started singing a well known Russian song, as if to signal a message to us:
Tieplonek vareyny, tieplonek szareyny, Tieplonek tosze hotzet szyth.
Cooked little chick, broiled little chick Even a little chick wants to live.
The message was clear: the innocent birds in the nest on top of the oven have nothing to fear from us.
It was also around this time that we had terrible news of Father’s brother, my uncle Aharon (Artzik) Engelczyn, who had been hiding at another farmer with some of his valuable belongings; the farmer had killed him with an axe. While Father was not concerned about any harm coming to us from our gentle host, he felt that the time had come to look for a more secure location where we would not be so easily noticed, so after a while Father found for us a new, and our last hiding place.
The new place was again at an isolated farmhouse with a family that had a number of older children. The house, like most homes in the area, was built with logs from local trees. It was a log cabin with an attached stable where they kept their animals.
Most of the time there were two cows and a horse. We had to be careful not to come close to the horse because it had a history of biting people. I had not known before that horses bite. The floor of the stable was covered with straw to make it more comfortable for the animals, and also the dung or animal manure mixed with the straw and provided fertilizer for the fields. There was one large single attic over the house and stable. The roof over the whole structure was covered with straw – this was the standard type of construction in the area. Wooden logs were used to form a triangular frame over the house and stable with sloping sides at both ends; the frame was covered in thick layers of straw which was tightly packed to prevent water from coming in during rain. One opening in the ceiling provided access to the attic from the stable. Another opening was made in the ceiling above the oven with a trap door. We would hide in the attic above the stable, and tried to avoid going above the house not to be heard. We could and did, however, lower ourselves quietly through the trap door to the top of the oven. I became particularly adept at moving very silently over the part of the house to keep myself warm on the oven.
One time a little girl who came to visit and play with the other children noticed us. It was then decided that we could not remain in the open attic. So at the stable end of the attic they built an extra sloping frame using old and properly weathered wood not to provide evidence of new construction. They also found appropriately weathered straw to provide roof covering on this fake part of the roof, and built a door in the same straw covered manner so we could enter the secret hiding compartment and lock ourselves in. During that time we had contact with other Jews, from other towns like Nemencine, who had no permanent hiding place and used to move from place to place. There was a local paramilitary armed anti-Semitic Polish gang that formed a resistance against the German, but what they mostly did was to find and kill Jews. The local population tended to be sympathetic to these gangs because they were wearing the four-cornered hat of the Polish Army, called Roguwki. One time, after they killed a number of Jews whom we knew, the local farmers went to the wood to bury them. I remember when they came to the home where we were hiding after the burial. These farmers were not the murderers; they just followed instructions to bury the dead. There are many events that I remember about these and other Jews, including when I witnessed an attempted rape of my mother. I may expand on my recollections at another time. In this writing I want to concentrate primarily on Podbrodz related issues.
Among the children in the household was a teenage girl who was the illegitimate daughter of the lady’s sister. She was treated like one of their own, but at times she felt discriminated against. She therefore tended to identify with our condition and used to bring us some extra food, and in general was particularly kind. After our liberation, my parents brought her to our home to stay with us, and my parents later arranged for her to move in with a seamstress where she was learning the trade. Every Sunday the family used to go to Church in a nearby town. This is where they learned about world news and the war. One Sunday they came back from church and told us that the Soviets are advancing and the Germans are retreating. A few days later, we could hear artillery firing all night. Father concluded that our liberation might be very near. So as we were sitting in our attic hiding place, he turned to me and asked how I felt about our pending liberation. I told him that now it will probably be possible for us to die a natural death. A few days later the Germans retreated and the Soviet Red army reoccupied the area. Vilna and vicinity were liberated on 13 July 1944, three years and three weeks after the German occupation on 22 June 1941.
We remained in the same location for a while, probably a week or more, to make sure that it was safe to go back to Podbrodz. There was a Jewish tailor who survived in the area who made us some new clothes. I remember when he made me a new set of trousers from burlap potato bags that were dyed in a dark blue color. Father borrowed a horse and wagon and we all left for the few hours ride to Podbrodz. We arrived to Grandfather Engelczyn’s home. A Polish family was living in it. They knew Father, and we moved in with them into one of the rooms until they found another place to live. Within a short time a few of the other survivors came to town. Among them the family of Bore Shapira, Bore Narodski, Eliyahui Licht, and others.
The enormity of the Podbrodz Holocaust became slowly known. One local Polish man told Father how his parents – my grandparents – Feive and Doba Engelczyn were found hiding in the back yard and taken with the other Jews to Polygony – an army training field outside of town – where they were all killed. He said that the Germans ordered some of the local people with horses and wagons to transport the Jews. Grandfather was in his wagon. Since Grandfather knew him, he took off his warm coat and gave it to this man, asking that if one of the Engelczyn children were to survive, he should give him the warm coat.
Only the love of a parent can still show concern for keeping a child warm at a time like this, while being driven to die. The Polish man said that he could not bring himself to take the coat.
Among the survivors there were a few who were religiously observant, and they arranged to hold services at the Shapiro home. Father was not a religious man, and after what had happened he was not on talking terms with God. Yet he agreed to show up for the Minyan (the needed quorum of ten) so those who wanted to could pray. Since I was over age 13, I qualified to be counted for the Minyan, so Father also took me with him. Some of the local Polish population who knew the Jews who lived there for many generations and grew up together, tried to be helpful. The railroad line in Podbrodz was very busy with Soviet troop transports moving to and from the front lines. I joined other young local Polish children and we were going to the train station and doing business with the soldiers. We would exchange cigarettes, and vodka for clothes, sugar, linen and other things the soldiers were willing to exchange. This is how I became the breadwinner of the family. Soon we became reasonably self-sufficient. A second cousin, Yaakov Engelczyn, several years older than I, who was from Nemencine survived with some partisans in the woods and came to live with us. His sister Sara served in the Soviet Army and arranged to be stationed in Podbrodz, so there was a small gathering of some family members. Both Yaakov and Sara are married and live in Israel. Sara’s husband is the famous painter Moshe Rosenthalis. (I just learned that Yaakov died a week ago in Israel).
The Soviet army people stationed in Podbroldz had a large group of Jewish servicemen and women. Most of them were from the Vilna area and escaped to Russia and were either drafted or volunteered to serve to fight the Germans. Among them were a number of musicians who played in the Army orchestra. Our home became a gathering place for these soldiers. My parents arrange to buy for me a violin, and I started to take private lessons. My parents wanted to bring some normalcy into our home, and my mother being a Heifetz did what came natural to her, and made sure that I had violin lessons. I also enrolled in the local Polish public school. One soldier concert violinist would spend hours helping me practice by playing duets with me. Eventually I took a test and was admitted to the Vilna music conservatory and also enrolled in the Vilna Russian language high school. I lived in Vilna and was visiting home on weekends. My parents wrote letters and reconnected with our relatives in America. They did not see a future for us in this area surrounded by mass graves of murdered Jews. Because the Soviets gained control of Poland, and the Vilna area again became part of the Soviet Lithuanian Republic, they permitted pre World-War II Polish citizens to repatriate to Poland. Virtually all the remnant of the Podbrodzer survivors signed up to be repatriated. We were all sent by cargo train wagons to Poland in 1946. There were Jewish organizations functioning in Poland to help these refugees.
There were many events of our life in Poland that deserve to be reported on, but it is again somewhat outside of the scope of this report about Podbrodz.
Berlin, Switzerland and the US
With the help of Jewish organizations, we were smuggled out of Poland with other Jews by truck through the Russian Zone in Germany and we eventually arrived in the American Sector of Berlin in an UNRRA Camp called Schlachtensee. Life at the DP (displaced persons) Camp had again many events deserving of description. I became involved in some schooling, helped out in the Camp Theater with stage lighting, studied radio repair and with a friend organized a radio repair shop and school.
Eventually, the world ORT organization came in to establish an ORT school and my friend and I gave them our primitive school, which became the basis of the ORT school. I was hired as an instructor. I also started studying English and applied and was admitted as a student to the Technical University of Berlin, in Scharlottenburg. My musical education came to a halt; in fact my violin never made it to Germany.
During the 1948 Berlin blockade by the Soviets, all camp residents were evacuated to West Germany. I moved to Munich and enrolled in the Oscar von Miller Politechnikum to continue my technical education. I joined the Jewish Student Union and made new friends. I also acquired an old mandolin. Since the mandolin is tuned the same as a violin I felt comfortable with the instrument. I still have this mandolin but don’t play it. I also maintained contact with the ORT people, and as a result was invited to study in Switzerland in a new school that ORT opened, The ORT Central Institute near Geneva Switzerland.
The studies in the ORT Institute in Switzerland were a wonderful experience. The language of instruction was French so I learned that language, and also studied Hebrew and English. We had wonderful dormitories, fine food and a very nice Jewish environment. I felt free for the first time in my life. My parents and brother eventually immigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn. I graduated in 1951 and started working for a company in Geneva, Switzerland. I applied for immigration to the US to join my parents and brother. I arrived in New York by Swiss Air late in December 1951. The few years in Switzerland prepared me for life under normal conditions. In addition to basic English, I was reasonably fluent in French, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and Russian. I soon found a job as a Junior Electrical Engineer. In October 1952 I joined the US Army. It was in the middle of the Korean Conflict. Because I passed various language tests, I was classified as a linguist and was sent to Germany. I was naturalized as a US citizen while in the Army.
After my army service I went back to work and continued to study. I eventually obtained my Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s (Ph.D.) degrees, all in electrical engineering. In spite of the many lost years, I was able to achieve a reasonable level of competence, including becoming a Full Professor at a large University, Associate Dean and other positions of leadership. The Podbrodzer Progressive Benevolent association (PPBA) provided my family moral support. My parents found in the New York City area old Podbrodzer acquaintances, who provided a familiar social environment for them.
I was married November 1, 1959 in Tel Aviv Israel to a Sabra (Israeli native), Mina Ben-Shlomo, who was serving in the Israeli Army at the time. My brother is also married and has three children and five grandchildren. My wife and I have two daughters: Iris, who is a Princeton graduate, and Delia, a University of Pennsylvania graduate – both married and successful professionals. We also have one grandson – Iris’ son – Martin Zev Engelson Rosen. Martin is named after his paternal gandfather and Zev after my father Wolf (Zev) Engelson. Both my parents died of natural causes in New York City and are buried in the PPBA section of the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, NY. I am glad that they lived long enough to see my daughters grow into young ladies. And my daughters, in turn, knew their paternal grandparents.
After I said the Kaddish prayer at the graveside when my father was buried, I remembered my response to my father in the attic in 1944 and I added a silent private prayer “Thank you God for having permitted both my parents to die a normal death.” This fulfilled my hope of many years ago in a secret hiding place in an attic over a stable. Now it will be up my grandson Martin Zev Engelson Rosen to continue that branch of the family, and may he be able to live a full life and not know of any pain or suffering and bring honor and joy to his parents.