Rivka Bem (Part III)

I became sick with malaria, and when the disease worsened I was sent to the hospital. Can you imagine that right near me lay a neighbor from Berdichev. I don’t know how, but my mother was able to get some sweet candies and she gave some to me and some to this young boy in the bed next to mine. Years later, after the war was over, this young boy became my husband.

When we were released from the hospital we were sent to the town of Grosswardein. From there we were taken away to a small village. We were very alone; just my mother and I. We were given a tiny room. I slept on straw that we laid out on the floor. Near me lay two sisters, one of whom died. I, at such a young age, witnessed this.

We both worked out in the fields; it was hard work. Winter arrived. It was cold and snowing; both my mother and I had nothing warm to put on. Our food ration consisted of a pound of grain a day to share, which had to first be ground into flour. When I came home I had no ingredients to add to the flour. I was able to get hold of a little bit of salt and some cotton to start a fire. With that I was able to mix the flour with some dried-out grass and create a mixture. Then one day I was able to get some horse meat.

We needed to find a way to obtain food. There was a small body of water with a bridge over it, close by. There were Russian gentiles living across this bridge. My mother said to me, “Go over the bridge to the homes of these people and beg them for some bread.”

Being of the nature that I am, I hated asking people for favors. Instead, I sat at the edge of the water for a while; then I returned to my mother and informed her that no one would give me any food. We tried to get some chicken and meat from the neighbors. They had old food that wasn’t good enough to feed to their animals; there were potatoes and cabbage; yet, they would not allow us to have it. They chased us out.

Did you return to your hometown?

It was 1944; we didn’t have anywhere specific to go. I said to my mother, “Come, let’s return home.” We arrived in Kiev, hoping to find my mother’s sister or brother with their children — but the place was deserted. There was no one there. Kiev was a tremendous city left in ruins. We continued on until we arrived to Berdichev. We came without food or money; we had nothing other than the clothing we were wearing. We went to our house. Everything was intact; however, there were gentiles living in our home. They wouldn’t allow us in; they acted like animals. A former neighbor invited us to come and stay with them. Slowly others began arriving back in town.

Then it happened: my mother became very, very sick. She was taken to the hospital and I remained at the home of a neighbor who had been a good friend of my mother. I worked for this woman in her restaurant from early morning until late in the evening, cooking and cleaning. My mother remained in the hospital for six months. When she realized that she was going to die she called her friend Baila over to her and made her promise to take care of me. I was only 12 years old. My mother passed away and had a frum burial.

I remained with Baila but struggled terribly. I did all sorts of odd jobs to support myself. Life was difficult but I was able to grow up with Jewish traditions and maintain my faith all these years. We still felt anti-Semitism after the war, though I remained there for many years. I married the boy I met while I was recovering in the hospital and had a daughter and a son whom I raised to be G-d-loving Jewish people.

to be continued…

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.