I finally had the opportunity during lockdown to watch a documentary that I’d been wanting to see for a long time. My Dear Children, a 2018 film by director and co-producer LeeAnn Dance, tells the personal and heart-rending tale of a family separated by thousands of miles as a result of pogroms during the Russian Civil War.
Central to the story is Feiga Shamis, a mother who strives to protect her 12 children from the turbulence and violence around them. The pogroms of 1917-1921 were far more terrible than any of the anti-Semitic violence that had gone before, with a death toll estimated anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000, and up to 1.6 million injured, attacked, raped, robbed, or made homeless in the largest outbreak of anti-Jewish violence before the Holocaust. The number of individual pogroms is estimated at more than 1,200. Feiga’s 16-year-old son was killed during one of these, while her husband – like my own great-grandfather – died during the typhoid epidemic of 1918-19.
“We overheard them saying they should kill all the Jewish children so the Jews would die out,” Feiga wrote. It was time to plot her escape. With her older children married off or sent to the US, she fled to Warsaw with the four youngest, where she placed two of her children – eight-year-old Mannie and 10-year-old Rose – in an orphanage, a fairly common practice at the time. “I thought the children would be safer in the orphanage,” she wrote, “so I took them there.”
From Warsaw, the two children were selected as part of a rescue effort by Isaac Ochberg, a Jewish South African philanthropist, who managed to bring to safety nearly 200 Jewish orphans from his former homeland. At great personal risk, he travelled around Eastern Europe collecting children from orphanages and bringing them to Warsaw—to the orphanage where Feiga had placed her children. Only later did Ochberg learn the children’s mother was alive.
When Feiga learned of the plan, she faced a heartbreaking decision—keep the children with her, or let them go, to a place half a world away where she would probably never see them again, but where she was assured that they faced a better future. She chose to let them go.
My Dear Children is based on a long letter that Feiga wrote to Rose and Mannie after she had emigrated to Palestine in 1937 to live with one of her older daughters. She gave it to Mannie on the one occasion they met after his and Rose’s departure for South Africa. As a young soldier in the South African army, Mannie was posted to Egypt, from where he took a week’s leave to visit his mother. Tragically Mannie cut short his week-long visit to just a single day, with he and his mother unable to connect to one another.
Mannie never read his mother’s letter, suppressing a past that was too painful to contemplate. For the rest of his life, Mannie would agonise over why his mother had sent him away, and neither he nor his sister Rose would ever talk about their childhood back in Russia. It wasn’t until after Mannie’s death that his widow had the letter translated from Yiddish into English, printed as a small book, and distributed among members of the family.
The scenes that Feiga witnessed during the Civil War and her experiences during that time resonate deeply with the recollections of my grandmother, documented in my book A Forgotten Land. In particular, Feiga wrote about becoming a black-market vodka trader, bartering vodka for food to keep her family alive. My grandmother too was a black-market trader at this time, dealing in food, and later gold, as the sole breadwinner for her grandparents, siblings and cousins.
It is clear from her writing that Feiga remained racked with guilt and suffering over her decision to allow her children to leave for South Africa, and she wrote the letter as a justification and explanation for what she had done.
In 2016, Mannie’s daughter Judy and granddaughter Tess set out on a trip to Poland and what is now Ukraine, hoping to find answers as to why Mannie refused to talk about his past and what drove Feiga to the choice she made. They found a landscape virtually erased of its Jewish past.
“The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. The pogroms of 1917-1921 should be seen as a precursor to the greater tragedy just 20 years later. My Dear Children shows the consequences of unchecked, or worse – officially sanctioned – anti-Semitism, and given the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism today, this story remains relevant today. Feiga’s story is not unique. Nearly 80% of the world’s Jewry can trace their roots to Eastern Europe, thus Jews around the world share Feiga’s story. Many likely have no idea they do so.” LeeAnn Dance said in an interview for the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2018.
For more information about My Dear Children, click here www.mydearchildrendoc.com
Books have provided me, like many others, with a place to escape during this strange Covid era. Perhaps paradoxically, my escape has not been to happier times, but to the bleakest, most terrible period of mid-20th century history, which has absorbed me during recent months. Bringing myself back again and again to the Holocaust has helped me appreciate all the freedoms we have still been able to enjoy this year, as opposed to those that the coronavirus has taken away.
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe (translated from the Spanish) tells the fascinating story of Dita Kraus, who was 13 in 1942 when she was deported from her home in Prague to Terezin (Theresienstadt), and later to Auschwitz. Dita – a feisty, strong-minded teenager – and her parents were sent to the family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a showcase area established in September 1943 most likely in case a delegation of the International Red Cross were to come to inspect conditions there. The Nazis wanted to preserve the illusion that children could live in Auschwitz, and to contradict reports that it was a death camp.
In the event, though, the International Red Cross inspected Theresienstadt but chose not to come to Auschwitz after all, in the mistaken understanding that Theresienstadt was the Nazi’s final destination for Czech Jews. Perhaps if the visit had taken place, just perhaps, it would have created such a public outcry that the allies would have been forced to take action. But once the threat of a Red Cross visit disappeared, the family camp had no further purpose and was liquidated in July 1944. Of the 17,500 Jews deported to the family camp, only 1,294 survived the war.
Prisoners at the family camp were not subjected to selection on arrival and were granted several other privileges. Rations were a little better, heads were not shaved and civilian clothes were permitted. Family members were able to stay together; males and females were assigned to separate barracks, but were still able to meet one another outside their quarters. Prisoners were given postcards to send to relatives in an attempt to mislead the outside world about the Final Solution. Strict censorship, of course, prevented them from telling the truth.
Prisoners in the family camp had “SB6” added to the number tattooed on their arm, indicating that they were to receive “special treatment” for six months. When the six months were up, each transport was liquidated and a new one took its place. In spite of the privileges and so-called special treatment, living conditions were still abysmal by any standards other than those of a concentration camp, and the mortality rate was high. Dita’s father died of pneumonia in the camp.
The family camp was home to a clandestine school, established by Fredy Hirsch – a German Jew and former youth sports instructor – who persuaded the authorities to allow block 31 to act as a special area for the camp’s 700 children. Inside the block, the wooden walls were covered in drawings, including Eskimos and the Seven Dwarves, stage sets for plays performed by the children. Stools and benches took the place of rows of triple bunks. Education was officially forbidden, with the children permitted only to learn German and play games. But that did not prevent Hirsch and his teachers from organising lessons on all manner of subjects, including Judaism. There were no pens or pencils, of course, and the teachers would draw imaginary letters or diagrams in the air rather than on a blackboard.
And inside block 31 was something else, something “that’s absolutely forbidden in Auschwitz. These items, so dangerous that their mere possession is a death sentence, cannot be fired, nor do they have a sharp point, a blade or a heavy end. These items, which the relentless guards of the Reich fear so much are nothing more than books: old, unbound, with missing pages, and in tatters. The Nazis ban them, hunt them down.”
Dita became the custodian of block 31’s motley collection of books, which had been secretly taken from the ramp where the luggage of incoming transports was sorted. There were eight books – eight small miracles – which included an atlas, a geometry book, a Russian grammar, A Short History of the World by H G Wells, a book on psychoanalytic therapy, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and a Czech novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk, as well as a Russian novel with no cover. The school also had six “living books”, stories learnt by heart and recounted by the teachers.
Dita cared for her eight books like she would her own children, caressing them, putting their pages back in order, gluing their spines and trying to keep them neat and tidy. She took huge risks on their behalf, removing the books from their hiding place each day and lending them out to teachers as requested, always alert to the possibility of an unplanned inspection or visit from the SS.
Despite the many books I’ve read about the death camps, and a visit to Auschwitz in 2018, literature on the subject still has the power to shock. In this book, for me, it was this passage, in which a woman, together with her young son, is told that they will be transferred from Birkenau to be with her husband – a political prisoner – in Auschwitz, three miles away:
“Miriam and Yakub Edelstein have sharp minds. They immediately understand why they have been reunited. No-one can begin to imagine what must pass through their minds in this instant.
“An SS corporal takes out his gun, points it at little Arieh, and shoots him on the spot. Then he shoots Miriam. By the time he shoots Yakub, he is surely already dead inside.”
This is a beautifully written story about a time and place that was hideous and brutal. As the author says, “The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction.” I urge you to read it for yourself.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.