Peska Friedman (Part VII)

It was very cold and silent when we left the village. We trudged through the freshly plowed fields at a snail’s pace. The men urged me to move faster so that we could cover distance while it was still dark, but I could barely move. It was physically so difficult to get across the field. The Stern brothers literally picked me up and carried me most of the remaining distance, a walk of about two hours through ankle-deep mud. To this day I am thankful for their dedication and their kindness. Without them I would never have survived.

We arrived at 2 a.m. to a gate. One of the Sterns lifted me over and then both brothers jumped over into the yard. We knocked on the door of the hut. A gentile peasant couple let us in. The house consisted of one room with a dirt floor. A worn wooden table and sagging bench stood wearily in the room while four or five children were asleep in a single bed in the corner.

We sat down to rest for a few minutes, but the man of the house soon became nervous that the children would wake up and want to know who we were. They led us out to the barn in the back of the house. I fell asleep instantly and was awakened by the Sterns on the following day.

They had hired a covered wagon; the three of us stuffed inside, covered with layers of blankets and course straw. We finally arrived in Kashay/Kosice, where I was taken to the home of a family Reich. I had made it to Slovakia.

Once as I was brushing the mud off my coat, I looked up to find my brother’s friend Wolvie Friedman coming down the path. Wolvie and I talked for a short time in the yard. His perpetual journeying through the yeshivos of Europe had now brought him back to Munkacs, his hometown. My brother had sent him to bring me home. Soon we were in my brother’s home. I was finally in Hungary. I was inexpressibly happy and relieved to be among my family again. My sister-in-law Frimele, who was the adored, only child of the previous Munkatcher Rebbe, Harav Chaim Elazar Spira, zt”l, received me warmly. Frimele was already quite ill when I came to Munkacs and the proper medical attention was not available.

Was it more peaceful in Munkacs?

I stayed in Munkacs for almost a year, never quite adjusting to the drastic change in lifestyle. My brother Baruch had become the new Rebbe at the young age of 21. I did not sleep at my brother’s house at night for fear of getting him into trouble. He, too, was a Polish citizen and it would not do to draw attention to the fact that he had a sister in town who was a refugee, who did not know the language and who did not have a single legal document. I stayed at the home of Rabbi Kahn, one of my brother’s devoted chassidim.

Policemen were everywhere. They roamed the streets, keeping close watch on the coming and going of all visitors to the town. Occasionally, the gendarmes would knock on doors and go through a family’s papers or search the house for people in hiding.

One afternoon, without warning, the gendarmes showed up at my brother’s house. Together with the maid I grabbed the two youngest, both of whom were babies, and raced to the storage room at the back of the house. We heard footsteps, loud voices and a commotion. Suddenly there was banging on the storage room door. They knocked and knocked. I held my breath, praying. It was only through a miracle that neither of the children let out so much as a whimper. After a while the tumult died down and the four of us stayed in the storage room until nightfall.

I came out of the storage room to find that my brother was gone. His citizenship had been discovered and he had been forced into the roundup of Polish citizens who were deported to the border of Kamenetz–Podolski. My four-year-old nephew, Herschele, was gone too. He had run down the road after his father and the policemen had grabbed him and taken him along. Because my sister-in-law was so ill, the gendarmes had left her alone, but she collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital.

The roundup was not over yet. There was still me. I was also a Polish citizen, but worse than that, I was an illegal one. By this time, although I was not aware of it, the police had already heard that the Rebbe had a sister in town and were looking for me.

I took the infant to the hospital every single day so that Frimele could nurse him. One day when I arrived at the hospital room I lay down in the nearby empty bed to rest for a while. I had almost drifted off into a restless slumber when I felt an odd push inside me, as though someone were jabbing at my ribs. An urgent sensation that I must get out of this place immediately overwhelmed me.

“Frimele,” I said, “Ich miz gehn — I have to go.”


 

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.