It happened almost overnight. It was early September 1939, and the actual fall of Poland to Nazi Germany was still only within the realm of speculation. Newspapers did not reach the tiny village of Kopki, abutting the banks of the San River, one of the largest in Galicia. There certainly was no radio. News of the war that was shaking Poland and all of Europe traveled via the grapevine.
Rumors soon turned into a menacing reality, when German soldiers entered the village and ordered all the Jews to leave. The Volkenfeld family was neither rich nor poor. "We weren't hungry for bread, and we did not freeze in wintertime," recalls my uncle, Eliezer Volkenfeld, the oldest son, who is now 83. One day, troops armed with bayonet- fitted rifles entered the family's home and threw out the four people inside: Eliezer; his mother, Rachel; and two of his three sisters, Tzipora and Shoshana.
"I wore a warm coat while Mama took a large blanket and tied it to her back and we left immediately," Eliezer says. "We had no money, no food, no supplies of any kind, no clothes for the winter."
Thus, within hours, the young boy who attended regular school and heder (religious school) - the boy who had begun to learn the secrets of the wicker business, which for years was his father's livelihood - became a refugee.
Eliezer was only 12 years old at the time, just before his bar mitzvah. Although his village was not a particular hotbed of anti-Semitism, his father, Shmuel, had sustained a fatal heart attack just a few months earlier, before the war broke out, following a provocation by gentiles.
As they set out, Eliezer and his mother took turns carrying 2-year-old Tzipora; Rachel's other daughter, Hana, was visiting her grandparents in a town called Luski. Together with hundreds of other Jewish families, they crossed the river and headed east to the village of Lubaczow, which was in the part of Poland then under Russian occupation. They moved by day and slept in village haylofts by night. Occasionally German warplanes flew above the refugee convoys and opened fire on them. The families would quickly seek cover in the weeds on the side of the road.
After a few days of walking, tired and hungry, they reached Lubaczow, where they decided to stay on. In order to pay rent and buy food, Eliezer sold cigarettes and paper bags. He later worked at a bakery, which allowed him to bring home both a regular salary and a little bread. It was in Lubaczow, which is now in southeastern Poland, that he also tasted unkosher meat for the first time. Years later he would remember that experience, since meat would occupy a pivotal place in his life, once he arrived in Israel and married a woman from Kibbutz Mizra, which is famous for its pork-processing plant. That woman, Avital, is my father's sister.
Sense of responsibility
Eliezer celebrated his bar mitzvah in Lubaczow, and thereafter felt an increasing sense of responsibility for the well-being of his mother and sisters. One day the Jewish refugees in the town heard a rumor that they might be able to return to Poland. His mother wanted to go back because she was still separated from Hana, but Eliezer was reluctant: After the family was already seated in a wagon that was supposed to take them home, Eliezer jumped out and told his mother he would not go. She gave in, and she and the other two daughters alighted from the wagon. Later they learned that none of the refugees who returned survived. Six-year-old Hana, her grandparents and Rachel's three brothers all perished at the hands of the Germans.
After the refugees had been in Lubaczow for a few months, the Soviet authorities decided to transfer them to Siberia. When he parted ways with his friends at the bakery, Eliezer was given four loaves of bread, which provided sustenance for him and his family during the two-month journey. They were herded onto a large, overcrowded freight train. The train was not equipped with any rations, or even water, and they could only eat or drink when the train stopped at a station along the way.
When the train finally came to a halt, the Volkenfelds found themselves with other non-Russian refugees, Jewish and Christian alike, in the middle of a forest at a detention camp run by NKVD, the notorious Soviet secret police. The camp was located near the town of Novosibirsk, and surrounded by swamps. The guards warned the detainees that there was no point in trying to escape - there was simply nowhere to flee. At least, Eliezer says, they arrived in summertime, before the biting cold had set in.
The camps in Siberia gave their worker-inmates one kilo of bread per day, and nothing more. The bread was black, solid and heavy. Children and those who did not work received only 400 grams.
"That was our entire daily ration of food in Siberia, so we were always starving," says Eliezer, who worked with his mother draining swamps and removing the roots of trees after they were cut down to make way for roads. "Do you know what it is like to urinate in Siberia in wintertime?" he continues. "Before the urine hits the ground, it has already turned into ice."
The inmates were at least supplied with warm clothing and boots, and their barracks were equipped with heaters that operated 24 hours a day. They were forced to go out to work every day unless the temperature was below minus-50 degrees Celsius.
On August 12, 1941, after two unbearably cold Siberian winters marked by hunger and disease - much of that due to the inmates' exclusive diet of bread - the authorities at the camp announced they would grant amnesty to prisoners who were victims of persecution, among them Polish citizens who had fled to escape the invading Germans at the outset of the war and Jews from elsewhere. Destitute and lacking any documentation, the Volkenfelds set out with other refugees for the southern part of the Soviet Union. They eventually took a train to Samarkand, in the Soviet Uzbek republic, where Eliezer's two sisters, along with other Jewish children, were admitted to a Christian orphanage. Rachel joined a group of women who went to work on a local farm; Eliezer learned to ride a horse and looked for a job to improve his family's economic situation. One day, he came across a strapping man dressed in a Red Army uniform, who offered him work delivering food to the restaurant at the local train station, where army personnel and railway employees ate. "He was a good man who looked after me like a father," Eliezer says about the man, who was not supposed to have any personal dealings with the foreign refugees.
One day the two came to the restaurant on horseback, and so as not to put Eliezer at any risk, the man wordlessly gestured to him to board the train at the station. It was transporting orphaned children, Poles and Jews - among them, and unbeknownst to him, his sister Shoshana, who had left the orphanage, to an unknown destination. Eliezer understood the hint, rode toward the train, and leaped into the window of one of the cars; he remained hidden inside a luggage container throughout the journey as his name had not been included on the list of passengers. His mother and other sister, who was too young to board, stayed behind in Samarkand.
"I had no idea if my mother knew I was also on the children's train," he says.
The train headed for Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where the children were transferred to the custody of the British army. At that time, in early 1942, Poles who had fled to the Soviet Union, and were acting under the guidance of their government-in-exile in London, organized what became known as Anders Army. Its soldiers were deployed in Iran, where they constituted a military occupation force after the Anglo-Soviet invasion there. There they were joined by other Polish refugees, including families and children from orphanages, who had also fled to Russia. Eliezer, who was now 15, was among the 2,000 Jews transported there by boat via the Caspian Sea during those months.
All of the Polish refugees, including Anders Army soldiers, were taken to the port city of Pahlavi, to a transit camp built by the British army, where conditions were extremely difficult. Nonetheless, the British did make sure there was food, including rice and meat dishes prepared by the locals, which Eliezer remembers as being very tasty.
In the meantime, Jewish Agency envoys from Palestine traveled to the Pahlavi camp in search of Jewish children and teenagers. Many of the latter had made their way to Persia alone, after their parents had perished of hunger or disease in the Soviet Union. Among the young people were siblings who refused to part ways, Eliezer remembers, even when one was critically ill in the hospital. Agency officials led by Tzipora Shertok - wife of Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), then head of the agency's political department and later prime minister of the State of Israel - undertook massive efforts to locate Jewish children and send them to another camp in Tehran before transporting them to Palestine.
Initially, however, Eliezer remained in the Pahlavi camp, where, he recalls today, after years in camps and on the run, he finally had food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep. He adds that he and his friends learned the Polish national anthem and practiced sports.
"All of us were required to know how to swim," he remembers. "Anyone who was afraid of jumping into the water was thrown in. If one of us grabbed onto the side of the boat, he was hit with a paddle."
The other young residents and the army commanders at the camp knew he was Jewish. After winning their respect with his physical prowess, which he had the opportunity to show off during scuffles with some of the anti-Semites there, Eliezer was called over by an army officer one day, who told him about Jewish Agency efforts to locate young Jews. Ultimately, he became one of the last ones admitted into the Agency transit camp in Tehran.
Agency officials hoped to transport the children to Palestine overland through Iraq, so as to avoid the danger posed by German submarines, but they were denied permission by the Iraqi government. The youngsters were thus forced to embark on yet another long, dangerous journey, and boarded a British military freighter that sailed in often treacherous weather through the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. Fortunately, they were successful in