In late autumn 1944, an emaciated boy dressed in rags showed up with no warning at my grandparents' doorstep, in the small town of Sokal, in eastern Poland. They rushed to find him some clean clothes and sat him down for a warm meal.
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My grandparents were naturally overjoyed to discover that this landsman, who also happened to be a distant relative, had somehow survived the Holocaust. After all, in this particular stretch of Eastern Europe - the towns of Galicia straddling the border of Poland and Ukraine - barely one out of 10 Jews had made it out alive. What they couldn't figure out, though, was why it had taken him so long to find his way back, considering that the Germans had been gone for months - the Soviets had liberated this part of Eastern Europe as early as July 1944. Situated on the banks of the Bug River about 80 kilometers north of Lvov, Sokal had been liberated by the Soviet army in July 1944. Of the 6,000 Jews who had lived there before the war, only 30 survived. Other survivors, like my grandparents, came out of their hideouts as soon as the coast was clear. Most had been killed in previous actions in the Sokal ghetto or had been deported or exterminated. Believing at the time that they might be able to resume life as it was, my grandparents returned to their modest home on Kosciusko Street, still relatively intact despite the ravages of war. This home soon became the de facto headquarters of the pitiful remnants of this once thriving Jewish community - a first stop on their journey back from hell.
So why had this boy shown up only now? For a very simple reason, as he was to explain to my grandparents over a lengthy conversation at their kitchen table: It was only now that he had learned that the war was over and that the Germans were gone.
Since he had escaped the Sokal ghetto in May 1943, just before its final liquidation, he had been hiding out in the woods nearby, moving around from bunker to bunker to keep the Germans off his trail. In the warmer months of spring and summer, he had learned how to kindle a fire using a magnifying glass, harnessing the sun's rays to cook his food. But with the harsh days of winter approaching, he knew he would not be able to rely on the sun much longer to heat his food or keep himself warm. And so, he had ventured out into civilization in search of matches.
In the first town beyond the forest, he located the home of a gentile woman his family had known before the war. He knocked on her door and asked if she could spare a box of matches. Her response stunned him. "What are you still doing in the woods?" she asked. "All your friends are back in Sokal. Haven't you heard that the war is over?"
This story of the boy who hadn't known the war was over until he went out looking for matches fascinated me since I first heard it many years ago from my grandfather. What if he had never gone out on that foray? How long would he have continued hiding from the already defeated enemy? How was it that everyone else had figured out that the war was over? And whatever became of him?
My curiosity was rekindled when in December 2009, I received an e-mail from a woman named Rosa Pinsky. Rosa wanted to find out how she might obtain a copy of "No. 4 Street of Our Lady," the documentary film I had just made about the Polish-Catholic woman who had saved many of the Jews of Sokal, including my own family. Rosa mentioned that her mother was born in 1926 in Tartakow, a town near Sokal, and that "my mother has a cousin (still living ) named Mr. Lanes who survived just outside Sokal (he made a trench and lived in the forest until the end of the war )." Intrigued, I responded immediately, asking Rosa whether Mr. Lanes might, in fact, be the boy who only found out that the war was over when he went out looking for matches. Rosa did not respond to that e-mail and, preoccupied by other things at the time, I did not follow up either.
Almost two years later, Rosa's name popped up again in my inbox. For obvious reasons, I didn't make the connection right away. "Yes," began her e-mail, as though we had been chatting in real time, "Mr. Lanes is that boy." It took me a minute to comprehend whom she meant, but once I did, my jaw dropped.
His full name is Roberto Lanes, Rosa informed me, he lives in Miami Beach, and here's his telephone number. "When you call, let him know you made the film about Sokal," she wrote. "He will be thrilled, I am sure."
Something about the name struck me as odd. Roberto? From Poland? I remembered that my grandfather had documented the story of the boy from the forest in his wartime diary, but I couldn't recall whether he had mentioned names, having not read it in quite a few years.
So just to be sure, I began leafing through the last pages, the section covering the period following liberation. There I found it: In an entry dated "late October 1944," my grandfather relayed the strange story of a certain "Reuven Lanes," who spent months hiding in the forest not knowing that the war was already over and even when he heard it was, thought he was being set up and ran back into the forest only to venture out again the following day to seek independent confirmation. Roberto had to be Reuven.
I picked up the phone and dialed, certain I had reached the wrong number after the person on the other end answered me in Spanish. But as soon as I heard his response to the mention of my grandfather, Moshe Maltz, I understood that I had the right man. Between his broken English and my pitiful Yiddish, we were able to hold something resembling a conversation. The first question he had for me was what had become of Chaim'l, the yingele. It took me some seconds to realize that the "yingele," or little boy, he was referring to was my father. It made sense, of course, since the last time the two of them had set eyes on one another was 68 years beforehand - back at my grandparents' home in Sokal. Twenty grandchildren, I replied, proud that I could still remember those two words in Yiddish, and from what I could gather from his response, he was quite pleased by this news.
Despite our difficulties in communicating. I finally understood why he spoke Spanish and went by the name Roberto: Lanes had left for Cuba after the war, joining some long-lost relatives who had escaped there, and had lived there for almost 20 years.
Spry and alert
Several weeks later, I boarded a plane from Boston and flew down to meet Lanes at his son's beautiful waterfront home in Miami Beach. I brought along my father and his first cousin - two of the other remaining survivors of Sokal. Roberto turned out to be unusually spry and alert for a man about to celebrate his 90th birthday. He arrived with his wife of 65 years, Chana, another Holocaust survivor whom he met in Sokal after the war at the home of the town gynecologist. This physician and his family, as it would turn out, had shared a hideout during the war with my own family. After the war, Chana had been roaming around the deserted shtetls of eastern Galicia looking for any surviving relatives, and that's how she ended up in Sokal. Like Roberto, she was the only surviving member of her immediate family.
Roberto and Chana have two sons, Gerardo and Saul, both doctors, and six grandchildren. Over bagels, lox and cream cheese, we tried to catch up on close to 70 years. We learned that having no one else left in the world, Roberto ended up staying with my grandparents after the war for a period of several months. We learned that many years after the Holocaust, he had experienced persecution, family separation and exile once again.
Unlike many other Cuban Jews, he did not flee his adopted homeland when Fidel Castro rose to power, in 1959, as he was incapacitated at the time by illness. Eventually, three years later, in an act of desperation, though, he and his wife decided to send away their older son, Gerardo, who was then 12. Gerardo was evacuated from Cuba in what came to be known as the Peter Pan project - a CIA operation in which thousands of Cuban children were smuggled out to the United States amid rumors that the Castro government planned to deport them to Soviet labor camps. Roberto and Chana did not see their older son for four years, during which he lived with a foster family in Denver. After he recuperated, Roberto was imprisoned by the revolutionary government for "illegal activities" but had his term shortened when his gutsy wife wagged her finger in the face of his jailers and warned them: "Hitler didn't kill him, and Castro's not going to either."
When they finally were able to escape with their younger son and join Gerardo in 1966, Roberto and Chana, both in their forties, found that adjusting to both a new climate and new language was far too difficult at this stage in their lives. So after a year in Denver, they relocated to another Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, where Roberto set up the same type of retail clothing business he had run in Cuba. When he reached retirement age in 1990, together with the rest of the family, he relocated to Miami, where as he notes, "not speaking English isn't much of a problem."
Rosa Pinsky, the woman responsible for connecting us and for organizing this unusual reunion, was also there, together with her mother and sister. When I teased her about taking two years to respond to my e-mail, she laughed. "I really don't know why it took me that long," she apologized.
Roberto turned out to be quite lucid for his age and incredibly patient, given all the questions being shot at him in several different languages. Some of this was new to his children and grandchildren. His wife was far less willing to share her story. As her husband began recounting his wartime experiences, Chana took the opportunity to disappear into the kitchen with the dishes. "She still feels guilty about being the only member of her family to survive, so she can't listen to these stories," Gerardo explained.
It had dawned on me that Roberto is probably the only person alive today with vivid recollections of my grandparents from both before and after the war. Had it changed them a lot? I asked him, wondering how the trauma of losing most of their friends and family, including two little children, had affected them. "They aged," he replied.
It was hard to pull Roberto away from my father, whom he was clearly delighted to see and chat with after all these years. But as we parted, we all made plans to stay in touch and get together again soon. I have good reason to believe that we will. Gerardo and I have already figured out how we're related (we share a great-great-great grandfather, each one of us descended from a different wife ), and a few days after I left Miami, I received the following note from this very distant cousin, whose father might still be hiding from Hitler today had he not gone out looking for a box of matches: "Never having grandparents, first cousins, aunts or uncles, it is nice for my brother and me to discover there is a family we never knew about."