Mrs. Rivka Herbst (Part II)

How did life change once the Nazis invaded? Can you describe the scene that took place?

We packed our bags; Shprintze with her newborn baby, her brother with six children, another brother and his child, along with all their spouses and I, all crowded into a wagon and headed to the border. We were the last wagon out of town. Upon arriving at the border, we found out that the border was closed.

I can say that I clearly witnessed malachim. Suddenly, the German patrol car arrived and stood there. First, the officer took slices of bread and chocolate and threw them into the wagon. Then the German patrol went over to the border patrol and instructed that officer to allow us to cross the border. We arrived on Russian territory in the town of Leibtchov on the night of Sukkos. We congregated in the shul, each family securing a corner of the shul for itself. We remained there until the end of Sukkos.

We remained in Leibtchov for six months. Shavuos time of 1940, on a Friday night, we received notice to register with the government to travel home. We were given the choice to remain Polish citizens or become Russian citizens. We decided to remain Polish citizens.

One Friday night there was a knock on the door and we were told to pack everything. The driver warned us not to leave anything over, not even a potato. We got into a wagon and we were driven to the train station, where cattle trains were waiting. We were taken straight to Siberia.

Can you describe life in Siberia?

I was in Siberia for seven years. We were assigned to a barrack with 14 other families. Here we had to work, men and ladies alike. Each working person received one kilo of bread. Those who didn’t work received very small rations. I was only 13 years old, but I didn’t want to be a burden on my relatives. Though I knew that only children over 16 years of age were allowed to work, I decided to take a chance. I took the pieces of material that my grandfather had given me a while back and brought them to one of the patrol officers in charge. I offered them to him as a present for his wife in exchange for a favor: to officially write me down as 16 years of age. The overseer was delighted with the deal and immediately agreed to it. I felt much better that I was able to receive my own ration of bread and I was no longer a burden on my relatives, who were so good to me.

Shprintze had two small children to take care of but she had to go to work. There was a kinderheim about 10 miles from our barrack and she asked me to take the children over there. On Sundays I would go to see the children because Shprintze was at work. When I arrived there I couldn’t believe the way they looked and I just could not leave them there any longer. I carried the small one in my arm and walked back to the barracks with the two children. I decided that whatever is meant to happen will happen.

When winter arrived, the temperature dropped way below freezing. Our overseer chose me and two other girls my age to walk the 10 miles there and back to the kitchen where the bread was baked and bring back bread for our barrack. We walked for three hours. When we arrived back with the bread, my hands and feet were so frozen I could not comfort myself. The overseer called in a doctor who diagnosed frostbite and instructed that I be taken to the hospital and my fingers and toes amputated. I refused to allow this even though I was told that I was putting my life in danger. A good-hearted woman who was in my barrack took care of my hands and feet each day, changing the bandages and medicating them with iodine, even though I screamed from pain as she did it. I am very grateful to her. It was a tremendous miracle that they healed. In addition, since I couldn’t use my hands, I did not have to go out to work — but I still received a kilo of bread.

We were there for a little over a year, when Germany declared war on Russia in 1941. The Russians freed the Polish citizens from working in the camps and we were freed together with them and given permission to settle wherever we wanted in their land. Many people chose to settle on Russian territory, but my family chose to remain in a town close to the Siberian camp, called Susan. We remained in this town until 1946. Mottish found very decent living conditions for us, and work at a shoe factory.

to be continued

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.