Hiding In Death's Shadow

Hiding In Death's Shadow

by Allen Brayer

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There was commotion everywhere. People were getting dressed or looking for things. The atmosphere was unreal, unbelievable. I know they all felt the same as I. A rope was tightening around everyone's neck-the end has come. It is like seeing the angel of death manifest in the form of a policeman. No one among us spoke. Except for the rustle of everyone getting ready


There was commotion everywhere. People were getting dressed or looking for things. The atmosphere was unreal, unbelievable. I know they all felt the same as I. A rope was tightening around everyone's neck-the end has come. It is like seeing the angel of death manifest in the form of a policeman. No one among us spoke. Except for the rustle of everyone getting ready to go, it was quiet. We were living a nightmare. It could not be real, but it was and yet I refused to believe it. Somehow, at least in me, there was a spark of hope.

I pretended to look for things, all the while my mind raced through the possibilities, the ideas of escape, running away, or somehow just disappearing. I was desperate because my immediate chances were poor. I couldn't see myself leaving this house with the rest of the group. One thought ran over and over in my mind, I must get out of this mess.

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Hiding In Death's Shadow

How I Survived The Holocaust; Second Edition
By Allen Brayer

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Allen Brayer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-6382-5

Chapter One

The Family

It was nearly the end of July in our small village of Radycz (pronounced: RA-ditch). The day started out peacefully, with the usual overwhelming worries. My mother, Hencia (pronounced: HEN-chya), and my sister, Manya, were returning home from a visit with family in the neighboring village Ilnik and became the messengers of disturbing news. When I saw them returning, I ran over to them and greeted them with warm hugs and kisses. I noticed, however, that mother was concerned about something. I knew my mother very well - her smile, her demeanor, and her emotions. Mother attempted to minimize the news she was bringing with her. She revealed to me that the Germans have issued a directive: all the Jews from the surrounding villages have to report to Turka for resettlement to another place.

Mother gathered a few clothes for herself, my father, Akiva, and my little sister, Manya. The August weather was warm and they wouldn't need anything heavy. My Uncle Srul, one of the Judenrat (a Jewish Advisory Council), assured them they would be gone only a few hours, maybe just overnight. Uncle Srul and his brother-in-law, Moyshe Hans, lived only two miles away in the village of Ilnik. They were leaders in Ilnik's Jewish community of more than 50 families. My mother, father, sister, and I were the only Jews in the tiny village of Radycz.

Ours was one of the larger houses in the village, although it was a small, modest wooden farmhouse. There were a few other well-to-do Ukrainian farmers with large houses nearby, but most of the villagers lived in primitive wooden huts with dirt floors. For more than a year, our house had not been ours alone. The head of the village, Nikolay Markowicz, had taken over the front room for his office.

I don't mean to sound boastful, but I was very well educated at 14 years of age. Markowicz had asked me to help him out with the paperwork in the office because he, like the other farmers and peasants in the region, couldn't read or write.

Sensing the ever-increasing danger for Jews in the area, mother had asked Markowicz to get me the coveted "work permit". Since Markowicz was head of the village, it was no problem. Mother kept pressing him to get the Arbeit work permit for me which would guarantee me the desirable "A" on the armband, denoting preferential treatment. Although most of the work permits were for men working in the forest cutting timber, Markowicz saw the benefit of having me help out by doing the necessary paper work and he managed to obtain the desired "A" (Arbeit) work permit.

I didn't realize at the time that the "A" would help save my life, it just meant preferential treatment at the time – it turned out to be the single most important thing my mother ever did because it eventually allowed me to stay and work when others were being taken away.

Mother was uneasy about the transport to Turka where everyone was ordered to report to barracks built by the Russians the year before. It wasn't far, only four miles, and Markowicz had arranged transport as directed by the Germans two or three days before August 1, 1942.

The directive came down from the German High Command to the Judenrat as well as to the heads of all the villages surrounding the town of Turka. All Jews - men, women and children - without the letter "A" on their armband were to report with their immediate belongings to the army barracks on August 1 for resettlement to work in a labor camp. This new transport alarmed every Jew in the villages. For mother, however, there was a spark of hope.

Not only was I excused from reporting because of mother's successful plea for the permit, but also Uncle Srul assured our family that there was a special list of people who must report to the barracks, but would then be released to come home. My Uncle Srul's own wife and five-year-old daughter were on the list as well as our family. Also there was an important voice supporting the effort to free more Jewish families to work in the forest: a German voice – but not a Nazi. He was a local forester named Knopf who was trying to help the Jews in Ilnik who worked in the forest cutting timber and hauling it to the river for the German war effort. Knopf volunteered to negotiate with the Gestapo to have certain people on the list, including our family, returned to the villages to work in the forest for the war effort.

With several of our family members in the Judenrat and Uncle Srul assuring them that all would be well, mother resigned herself to traveling to Turka. She had no choice but to report to the barracks and hope to return home in the afternoon. I'm sure mother was relieved that I wouldn't have to leave Radycz.

The driver was waiting outside and mother joined father and sister Manya in the buggy. I remember standing alongside the buggy when I told mother that I don't want to be left alone, but she reminded me that someone must stay and take care of the house until they returned later in the day. She said there was hardly a question that they would be back, probably that afternoon.

I think mother saw the apprehension in my face despite her reassurances. So as not to alarm me I believe mother, in her loving way, fought to keep her own fears hidden as the driver urged his horse into a trot down the village, across the river Stryj (pronounced: STRAY), and ultimately to the barracks.

I walked a few steps following the buggy down the dirt road, then stood and watched as my family drove away. My mother's golden hair shone in the morning light, her summer dress bright next to my sister's dark hair. I wanted to go to with them to Turka but Mother said that I must stay and take care of the house.

The buggy carrying my family away from me wound past the last houses in our village and I lost sight as it turned left down the road. I could hear the horse's hooves on the road, then the sound faded. My heart was heavy but I convinced myself that we would have a happy reunion in just a few hours.

* * *

Our village called Radycz was small; no more than 250 people. It was a rural village of farmers, peasants and forestry workers. It was where I was born and had lived all of my 14 years. Radycz was in Southern Poland in the rugged Carpathian Mountains near the Hungarian border to our south. There were other small villages within a few miles, all centered around the much larger town of Turka. The road to Turka ran right in front of our house dividing our farm; it was only a dirt road used mainly by the farmers and peasants in the area. Our house was number 8.

We spent most of our time in the kitchen, where a large stove kept us warm in the winter; there were always good smells coming from Mother's cooking. My parents slept in one of two bedrooms and my sister and I slept in the other. There was a living room, well lit with an open exposure overlooking the southern part of the village. No one spent much time in that living room but I used to sneak in there once in a while and look for all sorts of little things in the dresser drawers. Also, I would climb up to the attic and look at the fascinating things from World War I belonging to my father and one of my uncles.

Most of the houses were located on the farmland along the river, surrounded by forests in the distance. I call them houses but they were mainly primitive wooden huts with dirt floors. Most of the villagers were poor farmers whose huts consisted of one room most of which was taken up by an oven, and right next to it, or even a part of it, a stove. This served a dual purpose. It was used for baking and cooking and the flat top of the oven often served as a communal bed, especially in the wintertime when the temperature dropped below freezing. The winters in our mountains lasted from about October to May, with extremely cold temperatures and plenty of snow.

In Radycz and the other small villages, no one ever heard of a telephone or a radio. No one had electricity. Water for cooking and drinking came from the stream. There were no bathrooms or bathtubs or showers. I don't think any of the farmers ever took a shower. There was always a chance to take a dip in the river, but that wasn't practical in cold weather, especially in winter. In the summertime, children from the neighborhood would come and play in the river close to our house.

My father was a respected member of the village. He was a farmer, using the word loosely, and a part-time lumber broker. He wasn't a physically strong man so he had outside workers help with planting in the springtime and preparing for the harvest. We would cut the oats or wheat, tie it in bundles, and place it in storage to feed the cattle and our horse in the wintertime. Naturally, we cut plenty of wood for cooking and heating in the winter.

My mother was more involved with our three cows. The "mini" dairy farm was a rather modest operation. Mother had a woman who not only helped with the household chores and the running of the farm, but slept there too. Everyday, they milked the three cows early in the morning and processed the milk into butter, sour cream, and cheese. We also kept chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese as well as some sheep and goats.

To store the dairy products and keep the milk from getting sour, my father had a cold cellar built into a large hill close to the house. It served two purposes: in winter it was a storage place mainly for keeping potatoes, and in summertime it served as a refrigerator. Without electricity we had no way to cool things except by nature's way. The temperature of a cellar dug into the hill stayed cool and steady with little change between winter and summer. Earth provided good insulation either way.

Mother took pride in her cows' rich milk, golden butter and cheese. She was especially proud of her dairy's quality because the stores in town would fight over her products. Once a week on Sundays, my parents would hitch our horse to the buggy and take the dairy products to Turka. A modern town compared to the villages, Turka had brick houses, various shops, several nice bridges, electricity (if one could afford it) and a gas station. Occasionally, a car would pass - perhaps once a week. The gas pump had to be operated manually and when it was in use, a crowd would gather to watch the process. Most of the transportation in and out of Turka was by horse-drawn vehicles or by train, which came through a tunnel into the local railroad station. The line ran through several small towns and then to a bigger city to the north—Lvov.

The horse we used to pull our wagon into Turka on Sundays was brown, and to a small boy, very tall. I recall watching my father shoe the horse and I tried to help him when I could. That was when our horse seemed so tall. It's not easy getting a big horse to pick up his foot so that you can pull off the old shoe. When I was eight or nine and bigger, my father let me shoe the horse but only under his supervision. That used to make me feel important and my father was proud of me. It was also important to me that I help my father when I could. He was not well. Occasionally, he had problems with his heart as well as with his lungs.

When it came time to haul the manure into the fields, I was glad to do it and my father appreciated my help. Hauling the manure was one big job where I could be of help and work with our horse as well. With three cows, a horse, and many sheep and goats, we accumulated quite a pile of manure. Like most farmers we piled it behind the barn and covered it with tarps to keep it dry. When spring came the manure had cured into very good fertilizer that we spread on the land before planting crops of potatoes, oats, wheat and other grains. Mother used it in the little garden adjacent to the house where she grew strawberries, radishes, carrots, and onions—among other fruits and vegetables. My sister Manya and I always kept an eye on the strawberries, waiting for them to ripen. Across the road from the house was the stable for all the livestock. The chicken coop was there as well. Right next to the stable was the storage for hay, bundles of oats and wheat, which we placed in the attic and then threshed after the harvest was completed. With everything in dry storage we could continue threshing through the winter.

We were a rather religious family; I would say orthodox, but not fanatic. Every morning my father put on the tefilin (phylacteries) and talis (the prayer shawl) for prayers. He prayed in the evening as well. I used to wonder, as young as I was, how the non-Jews viewed this whole ceremony. I had strange feelings about being different. I liked to play with the kids in the neighborhood and wanted to be accepted as one of them, but I don't think I ever was. As I got a little older, about 7 or 8, they would tell me the Jews killed Christ but they didn't call me Christ killer. They told me the priest said it in Church, so they believed if the priest said it, it was indisputable. They would make fun of me about being circumcised and there were other derogatory comments.

When I was about three years old, my father started teaching me how to read and write in Yiddish with both the Hebrew and Polish alphabet. I would've rather played outside with the other kids but my father took education seriously. I went along for the ride, absorbing what I was taught - not that I had a choice. My father didn't bother teaching my sister who was two years younger than I. Girls didn't have to be educated. The emphasis was on the son in every Jewish family. Because there was no school of any kind in our village, 99 percent of the villagers were illiterate.

When I was about five, my parents sent me to Turka to live in a couple's house, which served as a cheder, a parochial school. The man of the house was the teacher in the cheder, which was located in one of the rooms of his apartment. It was bad enough that I had to be away from home, but to be with that teacher 24 hours a day made it even worse. On Wednesdays, there was a bazaar in town, something resembling a flea market, but not exactly. Farmers from adjacent villages brought lumber to sell to the lumberyards in town. The money bought the basic necessities for home: salt, sugar (which was very expensive), gasoline for a lamp to illuminate a room or perhaps flour to bake white bread, which was a luxury. Some farmers would bring sheep, goats, chickens or eggs for sale. But the most popular were horses.

There was a big horse market in Turka where farmers could buy, sell or trade horses. Wherever there's a horse market there are, one might say brokers, who engage in trading horses. These brokers were very unscrupulous individuals. Fights would break out among them and the farmers. They often treated the farmers in a very undignified way, which became a source of anger and hatred towards the horse traders who were invariably Jewish.

Turka had many things to offer, but I would've gladly traded them in just to be home in Radycz. During the day I was in cheder learning and playing with other kids, but when the evening came I was very lonely. I missed my home very much, my parents, the little rocks and the trees; I missed it all. I worried about my parents. Who would be there to protect them if anything happened to them? My mind filled with thoughts of disaster. Some of the thoughts were pretty extreme.

Almost every Friday I managed to come home; either my parents would ask a farmer to pick me up if he happened to be in town or I would walk over to the bazaar place and ask for a ride home. Even at six or seven I would not miss the opportunity to come home. Otherwise, I stayed in town and eagerly waited for Sunday when my parents came to sell their dairy products. Seeing my parents was always a joyous occasion. When they came they always gave me money (equivalent to a nickel or dime), which I eagerly spent on ice cream or a bar of chocolate.

I always looked forward to coming home. I longed to see my parents but I also missed playing with the little animals on the farm, my dog, and also the neighborhood kids. There was so much to do in Radycz and so little fun in Turka. When I tired of playing with the little chicks or the turkeys I would go down to the river right by the house and spend hours playing along the banks. I used to watch the big guys fishing with their bare hands for trout, especially in the summertime. They would bring the catch over to my mother, she would buy it, and the way she prepared it was so indescribably delicious. Mother would clean it, fry it in butter and then serve it to us. There was nothing as delicious as those fish straight out of the cold mountain water; I can still smell it now.


Excerpted from Hiding In Death's Shadow by Allen Brayer Copyright © 2010 by Allen Brayer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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