Around this time of year my thoughts always seem to go to the holocaust. Though the primary purpose is to mourn loss of the Beis HaMikdash , I can’t help focusing on the most recent Jewish tragedy of major proportions. And, indeed Tisah B’Av is an appropriate time for doing so as the various Kinos that were written about other such tragedies in Jewish history attest to.
The holocaust is by far is responsible for the greatest single numerical loss of Jews. I do not believe that any other period in history had such a large number of Jews murdered. While it may be true that other “holocausts” in history had a greater percentage of the Jewish people destroyed, I think the holocaust “wins” in the numbers department.
So, I think of it because of the sheer numbers, but also because it is of such recent vintage. I have met so many people who are survivors, each with their own story. All the accompanying misery of those who suffered prior to their being murdered, and those who suffered and survived is something that will forever haunt me. But the main reason I think about it is because my parents and brothers lived through it.
In the spirit of the nine days I would like to share my father’s story.
My father survived the holocaust by hiding out in bunkers. My father’s younger brother Aaron was a genius of innovation and improvisation. When the Drohobycz Ghetto (Ukraine) was established, my uncle Aaron found a way to build an underground bunker right in the center of town, right under the noses of the Nazi occupiers. It housed over 80 people, mostly extended family. It had a year's worth of food stored up. It had running water, showering facilities, heat, a stove, beds, and bathroom facilities that were attached to the city’s sewer system. My father, his first wife, three sons, and twin baby daughters, along with my uncle Aaron and another uncle: Yosef, lived there for a part of the holocaust.
Somehow at some point, the bunker was discovered. The crowd started to flee through the sewer system. There were many tunnels there and my father and uncle knew that in the rush to get out everyone would scatter through different tunnels. They made up to meet a specific location in the sewers. My father took his sons and his wife took the twins. They separated. My uncles Aaron and Yosef, their wives, my brothers, and father all managed to meet up at the pre-determined place. But my father’s wife and twin daughters never showed up. My father never saw them again.
Where to go what to do next…?
My uncle Aaron, had not only built the Drohobycz bunker, he had built another one not far away for some other Jews who asked him to help out. Using his God given talents, well into the occupation of Drohbycz he built a second bunker. This one a bit smaller but with all the “accoutrements” of the first one, running water, a stove, heat, a connection to the sewer system. A kindly non-Jew who lived in the house above it provided food to those hiding there and kept the bunker and its occupants a secret from the Nazi occupiers and the police.
Aaron stopped over at this bunker, and knowing that it was filled to capacity asked if the residents of this bunker could take in his family while he built yet another bunker. He would then later pick up his family after completing the new bunker. They agreed.
The new bunker was located in the forest. It was much cruder than the first two he had built. It was basically a hole in the ground. It had none of the previous bunker’s accoutrements, except for a small camouflaged stove. He dug a hole in the middle of the ground of that bunker that acted as a toilet. Food would be supplied by the kindly wife of a Ukrainian forest ranger who lived nearby. He then went back to get his family, including my father, his remaining three sons, and my uncle Yosef and his wife. They all moved into the new bunker in the forest. They had also taken another individual from that bunker who pleaded to go with them. All seemed well for the moment. But it didn’t last long.
It was the middle of winter. There was snow on the ground. The man who asked to go with them had an attack of diarrhea and was embarrassed to use the toilet in the bunker itself. He wanted to go outside the bunker for more privacy. So despite efforts to stop him, he left the bunker leaving his footprints in the snow. This was discovered by some local farmers who immediately reported it to the police.
The police and Nazi authorities surrounded the bunker, firing their guns all over the place. The fellow responsible for the revealing footsteps curiously stuck out his head from the bunker to see what was going on and was immediately shot and killed. Aaron realized that they were doomed and thinking quickly on his feet, told everyone to jump into the hole in the ground that had been used as a toilet. But there was not enough room for everyone. My father’s oldest son could not fit in.
Aaron also sacrificed himself by covering up that hole with twigs and totally camouflaging it. Aaron then decided to make a run for it along with his wife. He was immediately shot in the back and killed instantly. Aaron’s wife and children were captured by the Nazis and put on a truck to be killed later, as was my father’s oldest son who sacrificed himself, so his father and brothers could live. My father told me the last words he ever heard from his oldest son was “Nekama, Nekama!” The Nazis then entered the bunker to take whatever material possessions there were and later brought back more police to marvel at the bunkers construction… all the while, my father, his two remaining sons, youngest brother Yosef and his wife were hiding in that feces filled toilet. A couple of locals were overheard saying that the police had also shot the forest ranger’s wife. Somehow they had traced the cooking pots to her.
Many hours later when night fell they felt safe enough to come out. They found their way back to the second bunker my uncle Aaron built. My father, covered in feces, then told over this harrowing story sobbing the entire time, while everyone in the bunker remained silent and riveted to the story.
My father, my uncle Yosef and his wife, and my two brothers, may they live and be well, survived in that bunker until the day the Russian army finally liberated them.