"A story of heroism and of touching romance in a time of fear and danger." USA Today
There are two voices intertwined in the narrative: those of Jack and Rochelle. Now and then they interrupt each other. This is the way they have told these stories for the past fifty years: side by side, listening intently each to the other, at the ready to speak up lest a single detail be lost. These stories are their livesthe testament of their survival and their love for each other. from the Preface by Lawrence Sutin
In this gripping memoir, Jack and Rochelle Sutin recount their struggle to survive the Holocaust as part of a band of partisans in the forests of Poland. Told through their son Lawrence, the book brings alive the reality of months spent hidden in a dank underground bunker unaware of the outside world. Jack and Rochelle is more than just an account of stark survival, however. It is also the tale of an almost impossible love affair that has lasted more than fifty years, and an eloquent reminder that history is made up of the often deeply moving details of individual lives.
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About the Author
Jack and Rochelle Sutin have been married for more than fifty years. They have lived in Minnesota since 1949. Lawrence Sutin is the author of A Postcard Memoir and All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West.
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Jack and RochelleA Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance
By Lawrence Sutin Jack Sutin Rochelle Sutin
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1995 Jack and Rochelle Sutin
All right reserved.
It was a joy for me to see, as the weeks went on, that Rochelle began to seem more relaxed and happy. Before, when we had sung songs during the night, she would only sit and listen. But then she herself began to sing Polish songs, Russian songs, and also Yiddish songs like "Oifun Pripichok" and "Papirosun."
She got me to be more careful on the raids. As we fell more and more in love, I thought more and more about living.
It was in every sense a real love affair. But then you may wonder how a love affair is conducted when the two of you are living like wild animals in a hole in the ground with ten other people.
A normal mind-a mind that has always lived in a safe and comfortable civilized state-can never understand what it was like. I don't know myself how to explain. It was very cramped and crowded in the bunker. If you moved to the left or to the right, everyone else had to move from the left to the right. There was no privacy, no intimacy ... none. What was happening around us I cannot say. It was pitch dark at night. You could hear people moving. But there was no verbal expression. It was like a silent movie. For us, those conditions meant that in the bunker itself we hugged each other, we petted, we kissed ... and no more. It wasn't like having a normal sexual relationship and making love when you wanted to.
Once, I remember, we paid a return visit to the Kurluta family, to whom Jack had introduced me as his wife some two months before. I had been so shocked by his statement then. But this time, we did behave like newlyweds, and the family fed us and treated us beautifully. And on the way there, in the woods, we had stopped and made love.
But private moments like that were few and far between.
There was an activity, I remember, that took up a lot of our time that winter, in common with the other members of the group. It was removing the parasites from our bodies. On sunny days, we used to take turns slipping out of the bunker hole, taking off our clothes, and squeezing off the lice, which we were all full of. One of those, a breed that dug into our skin and fattened on our blood, we called mandavoshkes. They would get into your pubic hair, under your armpits, around your eyes. Only when you sat naked in the outdoor light could you see fully what was happening to your body. One day, I recall, I woke up and sensed that my eyelids were heavy. I put my fingers up to feel and there were little black bumps all along my eyelashes. I went outside, taking with me a straight pin and a tiny mirror that we all shared. I poked these out one by one, but had a hard time holding my hand steady because I was so revulsed by the fact that what I was poking at was my own filthy body. My fingers, my hands ... everything was itching.
Once I tried hard to get rid of them from my clothing. My basic daily outfit was Jack's pajama top, a pair of men's pants, and some boots. There was no brassiere or underwear. The basic way to rid your clothes of lice was to hold them close to the fire until the little creatures overheated and jumped off. But one time I was determined to go further than that. I took the shirt and the pants and boiled up a pail full of melted snow and threw these clothes in the boiling water. Then I hung the clothes up outside on a nearby tree branch. They were quickly frozen stiff, like icicles. So then I took them back into the bunker, thinking that they would be free of vermin at least for a little while. But when they defrosted near the fire, I could see the trains of tiny white lice still crawling over the fabric! It was impossible, but it was happening before my eyes.
All of us, that winter, took turns killing the lice, the worms, and God knows whatever else we found on ourselves. Those who had somehow paired up would help each other out with backsides and hard-to-reach spots.
I helped not only Jack but Julius as well-I treated him as if he were my own father. I would wash him, scrape the lice from him. Julius was a very calm and patient man. He had the ability to be almost oblivious to the physical conditions in which he was forced to live. That was remarkable enough, given what those conditions were, and especially so for a man who was already in his late fifties. I remember that he often wore a hat with a little visor, and that the lice were parading around on that visor like cars on a highway. Big ones! I would watch him for a while and then ask, "Doesn't it bother you?" He would shrug and say, "Beist mir nit" ["They don't bite me"]. That would exasperate me, so I would grab his hat off his head and shake it, to show him how many lice would fly off from even one shake. Finally, seeing this, he would take a piece of wood and scrape the rest of the lice off this hat. That was the way he was. He didn't clean himself-he didn't feel the itching the way the rest of us did. One of the reasons I was willing to clean him was that I figured that, if I didn't, the lice would jump from him onto us after we had already cleaned ourselves.
But not everyone retained a sense of family. Most did, but there were terrible exceptions: Jack and I had personal knowledge of one of those. It involved a mother and a daughter who ran away from the Mir ghetto at the same time that Jack did. What happened to them shows how family bonds could break down terribly under the weight of hardship. The daughter was maybe seventeen, and her mother was somewhere in her forties-an age that seemed very old to the Jewish youth who were hiding out in the forest. Well, the daughter found a young group who was willing to accept her but not her mother. I should mention that this daughter also had a boyfriend who was a son of a bitch, as bad a character as she was. I say she was bad because what she told her mother at that point was that she, the daughter, had a chance to survive and that the mother was only a burden to her. One of the members of her group had a small bottle of poison, and as a solution to the difficult situation the daughter convinced the mother to drink the poison! The mother didn't want to, but her daughter basically forced it upon her as the only way out. It went from worse to worse-the poison didn't take right away, it wasn't strong enough. The mother suffered for a whole day before she went-gasping, suffocating, thrashing. They watched and waited a whole day for her to die.
Any attempt to hold onto traditional family bonds was difficult, given the conditions that were faced by the early small groups. Everyone was desperate, fearful of being found out, trapped, tortured, killed. There were cases we heard of, in a few of the bunkers, where mothers had escaped with young children-toddlers and a bit older-who would make noise or cry too persistently. The others would demand that something drastic be done, and when the mothers refused to suffocate their own offspring, the others would grab and kill the child!
Julius acted as a father both to Jack and to me and took care of us in his own ways. Because of his age, his most frequently assigned job in the partisan groups was to keep the fire fueled and going at night. Sometimes he would take a few raw potatoes from the food supply and stick them under the hot ashes to bake. He wasn't supposed to do that ... it was like stealing. But he would do it so that he could wake Jack and me-his kinderlach [children]-in the middle of night and give us a little extra food. Julius was always very sweet and protective to me because he had seen how unhappy his zunele [affectionate term for son] was during the time I ran away. That was how we lived in the first months together. But Jack and I did not have much time to get used to any sort of rhythm of life in the bunker. Because in March 1943, our location-as well as that of the other two Jewish bunkers in the Miranke region - was discovered by the Germans. Who knows how? Maybe one of the farmers in the vicinity saw the smoke from our cooking fire.
There had been pressure on the Germans to do something about the Jewish partisan activity. I won't say it was their first priority, but it mattered to them because they wanted to win the trust of the local Polish population and establish confidence in the stability of their rule.
Don't forget, we were basically living off the local Polish farmers. If we didn't raid their houses, we would go into their fields and dig up their beets, potatoes, or whatever else they were planting. Also, many of the farm families-as well as other members of the local Polish population-had husbands or sons who were now serving in the Polish police. None of those families wanted living Jewish witnesses who might someday testify as to how they had cooperated with the Germans. Even though the progress of the war at that time seemed to be favoring the Germans, the Russians might return and rule Poland again someday-as happened, in fact, in 1944. If the Soviet regime was reinstalled, those who had collaborated with the Germans could expect to pay dearly.
So all of those families were on the lookout for Jewish partisans. And even farmers who had no strong feelings about Jews one way or the other were intimidated by the Germans. They were afraid that if they helped us-or even if they seemed merely to be withholding information as to our whereabouts-they would be burned out and killed by the Germans and their Polish henchmen. So we were in danger of being spotted and informed upon from all sides. If we heard the sound of sawing nearby us in the woods, we were terrified, for it meant that a Pole stocking up on firewood might have seen us.
One day there was an ambush. We heard shooting all around us. One of the nearby bunkers was completely caught unaware-the Germans dropped a grenade down their entry hole and they were all killed at once. Exactly our own worst nightmare. Thank God we were spared that. But they advanced toward the two remaining bunkers-ours and Gittel's-lobbing hand grenades and firing steadily with their machine guns.
All of us in our bunker ran. There was nothing else we could do, taken by surprise like that. We took nothing with us but our weapons and the clothes on our back. We ran deeper into the wilderness, into the Nalibocka Forest, which despite its name contained large stretches of pure swampland. Into that swampland they did not follow us. We were afraid to go back to our hole or to any other dry portion of the Miranke woods. There might be other German sweeps. So in the swamp we stayed.
It was still winter, but from March through May we slept outside. It was freezing! Our beds-trees and branches to lift us off the snow and the muck-were all we had to keep us off the swampy ground. Food was a terrible problem. When the German and Polish police drove us out of the Miranke woods, they made sure to kill off any animals or livestock-horses, cows, rabbits-in the region that we might be able to steal and live on. A kind of scorched-earth policy. But they didn't reckon with our desperation and our hunger. At night we used to go out and find the dead carcasses in the woods or on the outskirts of the swamp. In most cases they had been lying there for days, maybe even a week or more. And we would cut slabs of rotting flesh off those carcasses and stuff our pockets with them. Then we would go back to our camp in the swamp and chew on this meat, getting ourselves to swallow as much as we could.
And no one got sick from the food-the mushrooms were not poisonous, and the germs and bacteria in the dead carcasses were not strong enough.
We must have been fated to live.
Excerpted from Jack and Rochelle by Lawrence Sutin Jack Sutin Rochelle Sutin Copyright © 1995 by Jack and Rochelle Sutin . Excerpted by permission.
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