Rivka Bem (Part I)

Can you tell me where you were born?

I was born in the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine, in 1932. I would describe it as a heilige (holy) city. There was a shul on every corner. Today one shul remains in the whole town. Most of the men in town had full beards; we all spoke Yiddish. There were very few non-Jews living in town. I recall going with my mother to purchase a chicken and from there we went to the home of the shochet to have it slaughtered according to halachah.

What memories can you share with us about your family?

My father worked in a very large leather factory owned by a Jew; my mother took care of the house. I had one older brother. I was just a young child when a terrible hunger broke out. There was hardly any food to be gotten. My father continued working for minimal pay through the years of the hunger.

My mother had a sister named Dvoira Lachvitskaya (maiden name) living in America who came to visit us right before the war began. My mother also had a sister named Manya living in Kiev.

What kind of education did you receive?

In 1940, when I was eight years old, I went to the first grade in a frum school. It wasn’t long before the Jewish schools were closed and I switched to a Russian school. My brother went to cheder. In July of 1941 the war broke out in our town and that was the end of my formal education. In addition, the hunger overtook our lives. Going to school was not even a dream.

Did you feel anti-Semitism in your town?

Though Berdichev was always known to be a very Jewish city, we began to feel tremendous anti-Semitism in our town. The gentiles were constantly screaming, “Jyd, Jyd!” We tried not to pay any attention to them.

When did you begin feeling the pressure of the impending war in your town?

In 1941, my father was drafted into the army. With the situation being what it was, my mother took me to stay with her sister Manya in Kiev. Almost immediately after arriving in Kiev, the war reached Berdichev. My mother quickly left to get to my brother, who was still in Berdichev, staying with our neighbors.

There was no means of transportation. My mother, such a wonderful mother, walked all the way back to Berdichev. When she arrived back in town, war was already raging. How can I explain to you the horrors of the war? When my mother realized that this war was not going to end anytime soon, she took my brother and together they returned to Kiev, where I was staying with her sister — my aunt Manya.

In Kiev, the war was intensifying, with bombs flying overhead. There was nothing to eat. My aunt took me together with her children and we were going to try and run away. We were seated on a train, one person practically sitting on another, small children, bigger children, the young and the old, with no place to move and barely [room to] breathe. There were no bathroom facilities so the stench and odor were unbearable. The train sat in the station for days without moving anywhere. As the train was about to leave, my aunt had a change of heart because someone in our group became ill. She no longer wanted to go on this train. We ran off the train and back to her home. We were sitting by the table and eating whatever food my aunt was able to prepare for us, when in walked my mother and my brother. When my mother saw us, she froze to the spot she was standing in; she couldn’t believe we were still alive. However, we had no plans how to proceed further.

It was August of 1941. With no other option, my mother, my brother, and I, together with a few others, walked to the railroad station and waited. We took a train and, finally, my mother and I went to a village in Makhachkala, while my aunt and her children went to a different village in another direction.

to be continued


These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.