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War Intensifies

Ideologically, Communism and Nazism-Fascism had been implacable foes. So the whole world was shocked when it was revealed that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had come to a non-aggression agreement — the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” — in the summer of 1939. Secretly, the two lands agreed to partition Poland between themselves, and the Soviets promised to remain neutral while Hitler expanded his Reich through Eastern Europe. This pact gave Hitler a carte blanche to attack other lands, assured that the Soviets would not interfere.

Between September 1, 1939, and mid-1941, Germany succeeded in conquering most of Europe. Of the lands not yet occupied, most had Fascist regimes close with Germany. A few neutral pockets were left, such as Switzerland, Sweden and Portugal. Only the British empire remained at war with Germany. But Britain’s cities suffered merciless nightly bombing by Germany’s Lufwaffe, while her shipping suffered heavy losses from German U-boat submarines.

Officially the United States remained neutral, although it provided Britain with enormous material help. Only after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, by Japan, Germany’s ally, did the United States join the war.

Half a year before that, however, on June 22, 1941, Germany suddenly abrogated its pact with the Soviet Union and invaded that land. Utterly unprepared for war, the Red Army collapsed before the highly organized German onslaught. Soon Soviet forces were in full retreat as the German armies plowed deep into the land. Huge numbers of Soviet soldiers, including many Jews, were killed, wounded or taken captive by the Germans, who also captured vast stocks of munitions, food and supplies.

Wherever they came, the Germans left a trail of massacre and destruction, terrorizing and enslaving local populations for their war effort. But their prime goal was to annihilate the Jews. On entering towns and villages, special Germany army units called “Einsatzgruppen” rounded up all Jews, usually marching them out of town and forcing them to dig pits. All Jews, men, women and children were ruthlessly machine-gunned into the pits. Local non-Jews were overjoyed to be free of the Communist yoke, and even more to be rid of the Jews. Gladly they agreed to cover over the mass graves with earth — often burying alive the few Jews who somehow survived the shooting. Sometimes all the Jews were marched straight into the pits and buried alive.

Josef Stalin, the Soviet head of government and Communist Party leader, was also commander-in-chief of the Soviet military. At first, he gave orders to withhold from the public all news about the Soviet defeats. According to the Soviet media, their brave warriors were winning all battles. Deep within the land, few were aware how fast and how far the Germans had advanced.

Within just four months, the Germans were at the gates of Moscow. By then, the Soviet media were already describing the German atrocities in detail. For years, however, citizens had learned to be skeptical of government propaganda, and many ignored such reports, especially as some remembered how well the Germans had treated Jews in World War I.

But the German aerial bombing of the cities, especially Moscow, and the possibility that the government reports might indeed be true, convinced many Jews to flee. The government’s official policy called for evacuation of all children and their mothers, the elderly, and all who were non-essential for the war effort. Soon Moscow looked like a ghost town.

Many Chassidim fled to Central Asia, especially Tashkent and Samarkand. But Father and Mother hesitated. Just before the German invasion, my sister Chava with her husband Leib and their two children had left to spend a summer vacation at his parents’ village in White Russia. When war broke out, Leib was drafted, and all contact with Chava was lost. At first my parents expected them back soon, and felt responsible for their apartment and belongings. But eventually they decided they had no choice but to flee.

Aerial Bombardment

By autumn, 1941, the situation in Moscow was getting intolerable. The Luftwaffe bombed the city nightly, and we hardly slept in our apartment. The radio aired no programs at night, but we kept it on anyway, awaiting the piercing sound of the air-raid siren — usually in the middle of the night — and the announcement that enemy planes had penetrated the city’s anti-aircraft defenses. Almost every night, one or two of the nimble German bombers managed to get through, and then they could not even be shot down, for a burning plane falling on the city could wreak enormous harm.

Lying in bed close to the radio, with my pulse racing, I was rarely able to fall asleep. As soon as the siren sounded, we dashed off to the nearest shelter, a cellar ten minutes away. As we ran, our hearts filled with terror as we heard the eerie whistle of falling bombs and the fearsome roar of explosions as they hit their targets. The bombs were not powerful but they caused great damage. All our windows were shattered from the bombings.

People often died needlessly. On our street was a munitions factory where the workers had strict orders not to leave even during an air-raid unless they actually saw a plane overhead. One night, their alarm sounded; a German plane was directly overhead! Hundreds of panic-stricken workers poured out of the doors to escape. But the guard refused to let them leave; he had received no order to open the gates! By the time they managed to push past him, it was too late. A bomb fell on the gate, killing fifty of them. When we later emerged from our shelter, their bodies had already been removed, but we saw the huge crater left by the bomb.

Eventually, we had so many sleepless nights that we stopped running to the shelter, taking refuge instead on our building’s ground floor. Often my sisters were too exhausted even to go downstairs, and stayed in bed, trying to continue sleeping. One night, hearing the drone of a plane right overhead, they ran down to join us on the ground floor. Just as my older sister came down the stairs, a bomb hit the house and knocked out the window panes inches away from her. Miraculously, she escaped unscathed.

On the night of Simchas Torah, we could hear the ominous sound of artillery fire in the distance. The Germans were battling on the outskirts of Moscow, just thirteen kilometers from the city! That was where the Soviet army eventually managed to beat back the enemy — months later — but we could not know it then.

Escape From Moscow

My parents decided to leave Moscow right after Simchas Torah. For many days, they were busy packing our belongings and also Chava’s. They probably took even more of her things than ours, to keep them safe. My sister Basya, whose husband, Reb Nochum Zalman Gurevitch, had been drafted into the army (but, thank G‑d, not to the front) joined us with her two children, and my parents packed for her, too. All these belongings filled an entire freight car.

By the time we left, it was impossible to get train tickets to a specific destination. All we could do was ride a freight train going to some distant location determined by the government. We had no choice but to take the chance of ending up in some remote place where no other Jews lived.

The night following Simchas Torah, we took our belongings to the terminal where our train was to leave next day. Besides my parents and Basya with her two children, only my sister Sima and I were traveling; Sheindel was staying behind to work at her job.

By now, Moscow was a scene of total panic and was in the grip of an acute famine. The day after we left, the government announced that citizens were permitted to loot stores for any food they could find. Meanwhile, the government itself bid a hasty retreat, escaping Moscow by the last route still open, to the city of Gorki. Two days later Stalin returned to Moscow, ordered some high-ranking officers court-martialled, and tried to restore a semblance of order to the chaotic city.

Moscow was fortunate to have at least one escape route still open out of the city. Leningrad, on the other hand, the Soviet Union’s other major city, is built on islands connected by bridges, which were all bombed by the Germans, so that no one could leave and no food or supplies could be brought in. An estimated two million people — including many Jews — died of starvation during that total blockade.

At the time, we did not realize our good fortune, that ours was the last train out of Moscow until the Germans were beaten back in February, 1942! But our trip was no joy ride. The first winter frosts had begun, and we debated whether the intense cold could be considered a life and death situation permitting us to kindle our freight car’s coal stove on Shabbos to keep us warm.

Our train crawled along at an interminably slow pace, making occasional stops on the way. We had no choice but to drink dirty, polluted water from the locomotive’s tank. Peasants crowded every station with bread for sale at exorbitant prices, for they knew we were starving and ready to fill our stomachs at any price. We bought their bread whenever it was available.

On a trip outside a city, Jews say a special prayer for a safe journey, called Tefillas Haderech. If we travel for more than one day, we repeat the blessing every morning. On that trip, which lasted for twenty-two days, I learned it by heart.

By Rabbi Moishe Levertov. Edited and adapted by Rabbi Daniel Goldberg. To purchase this book click here.
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