Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Soviet German Friendship, One Boy,s Story Retold by Magdeburger Joe (with thanks to Rabbi L)

In 1939, there was a pause in the sworn enimnity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that was to last two years. For the millions of communist party members in Europe and America along with their sympathisers, it was a time of bitter disillusionment that diminished the prestige of the communist movement.
The Treaty of Friendship resulted in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia being ceded to the Soviet Union. Poland was divided between the USSR and Nazi Germany. For a Jew, which side of the border you ended up on meant the difference between physical life and death. I am specific in stressing physical life because the communal and spiritual life of Jews under Soviet rule was driven underground.The simple transmission of Jewish heritage from parents to children became a furtive exercise subject to ostracism and legal sanction. Running a cheder, or Jewish school according to Torah principles was a criminal offense. Many Jews, among them many Lubavitcher chassidim paid with their lives for their efforts to sustain Jewish spiritual life.
A Rabbi who used to teach in my synagogue was seven years old in 1939. Although his family lived in German occupied Poland, they managed to flee to the Soviet half of Poland. Because my Rabbi was fleeing from Germany, which at that time was an ally of the USSR, he was at the age of seven deported with his family to Siberia as an enemy alien. This was a trip by train across twelve time zones. The entire width of the continental USA is four time zones. During his incarceration, his family's treasured library consisted of the book of Leviticus and the prayerbook for weekdays and sabbath bound into one volume along with rabbinic commentaries.Needless to say, it was contraband.
Several hundred people used to sleep in each of several barracks under circumstances that bore little resemblance to family life in peaceful times. You did not know if your neighbour was a police informant or a friend to be trusted. The stress of crowded conditions combined with the fear and distrust are hard to imagine today.
When night fell, huge rats used to run through the barracks. Rat bites were common. The bites carried with them infection that invariably led to death. Together with the fear of NKVD informants, the rat borne plague gnawed at the security of the internees already weakened by the rigours of travel and a harsh climate.
One day, my rabbi was out in front of his barracks playing. A strange, unkempt man spoke to him, his polished Russian contrasting with his rough appearance. He had been in Siberia since the end of the Soviet Civil War in 1921. He and his friends had fought the Communists, and was paying for his loyalties with decades of imprisonment in the bone chilling austerity of Siberian exile.
"You're all going to die." he told my Rabbi. "Everyone dies from the rat bites. There's only one thing you can do."
"What is that?" asked my rabbi
"The rats hate smoke". he answered. You need to keep a fire burning in the barracks all the time. The smoke will keep the rats away. Always keep the fire burning".
The man went back to his quarters where the White Russian Prisoners were interned. My rabbi went back to his barracks and to his family. He and a friend of his who was about ten years old took on the responsibility of kindling a fire in the barracks. One boy would collect stray wood scraps and small logs, and the other boy would kindle the fire. A smoky haze hung in the air of the barracks constantly When nights and then weeks passed with no rat bites and no sickness the true value of the boy's labour became apparent. Fires were maintained from then on. In the course of collecting wood, my rabbi met his father's study partner from happier times in yeshiva in prewar Poland. He was able to continue his Torah studies with his father's friend. My rabbi spoke years later with the warmest of gratitude to the man for keeping the fire of Torah burning in his heart.
When war broke out between the USSR and Nazi Germany in 1941, my Rabbi and his family were moved thousands of miles away yet again to Uzbekistan. Many died in those troubled times in the "safety" of the USSR from disease and starvation. Thank G-d, the prosperity he knows today as well as the joy of children and grandchildren following in his path of faith appear to me to be a reward for his years of faith under the harshest of conditions.
Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe

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