My mother was the oldest of four children. She had two brothers, Philip and Joseph, and a sister, Basia. My mother left Krasilov, a shtetl in the Ukrainian part of Tsarist Russia, and came to New York in 1912. She was fourteen years old and traveled by herself. A few years later, Philip came to America. Joseph, Basia, and my grandfather, Isaac, and my grandmother, Sarah, remained in Krasilov. My grandfather died a few years after my mother came to America. In due course, between the two World Wars, Joseph and Basia each were married and each had two children. Their two families and my grandmother were all living in Krasilov when the Second World War erupted. My mother never saw any of them again. Nine years after the war ended, she heard from Basia.
After the Second World War ended, My Meema (aunt) Basia was designated a Hero of the Soviet Union. I’m not sure that that was the exact title of that designation, but it was something like that. Because of her award, she and her second husband were given some preference in getting an apartment and their son (some years later) was admitted to a prestigious music conservatory. But she would have preferred to never have become eligible for that award. She received it because she had been a member (although a reluctant one) of a band of partisans that carried out clandestine raids and other annoyances against Nazi occupiers. She joined the partisans because it was her only hope of surviving. She joined them after she had miraculously escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. She joined them shortly after she had witnessed the massacre of her husband, her two children, her mother, her brother, her sister-in-law and her nephew and niece, and all of her Jewish neighbors and friends in the shetl of Krasilov.
The Nazis had rounded up all of the Jews of Krasilov and marched them to a field at the outskirts of the town. The Jews were then forced to dig their own graves — a giant ditch. After that, they were all machine-gunned and fell into the ditch. By some miracle, the bullets missed Meema Basia as she fell into the ditch. She lay still near the edge of the ditch. When the bulldozers covered the mass grave, another miracle occurred; the ditch was not completely filled in at the corner where she lay. She was able to survive until the Nazis left and then was able to crawl out.
She looked for shelter among the gentile farmers in the area but all were afraid to have anything to do with her and some even threatened to call the Nazis. One farmer allowed her to stay overnight in the barn but warned her that she had to be gone by morning. She wandered around in a nearby wooded area where the partisans found her. They weren’t too keen to have her join them because many of them were anti-Semitic but they finally agreed let her join their band. In the circumstances, she didn’t have much choice. So my Meema Basia became a partisan and eventually a Hero of the Soviet Union.
We, in America, didn’t know about the agonies my Meema Basia suffered or of the massacre of all of our relatives until quite a few years after the war had ended — nine years, in fact. In 1954, we found Meema Basia, or, more accurately, she found us.
Right after the war, we tried to locate my grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins. As more and more information came out about the Holocaust, we worried more and more about whether they had survived. We registered their names with the various Jewish and other refugee organizations, hoping to locate them. But nothing happened. As time passed on, we pretty much gave up hope. Then in the fall of 1954, my mother called me, all excited, “I can’t believe it,” she screamed, “my sister is alive. She’s looking for us.” “I’m coming right over,” I told my mother. I lived in Rockaway at that time and my mother lived in Bensonhurst. I drove over to my mother’s house and she told me what had happened.
A rabbi, whose synagogue was located about a mile from where my mother lived, received a letter from my aunt. Did he know of a Rose Schreiber whose husband’s name was Abie? If so, would he please ask Rose Schreiber to get in touch with her sister Basia at an address in Chernovitzy, in Bessarabia (then part of the Soviet Union, now part of Ukraine). As we later found out, Basia remembered that her sister lived in Brooklyn and somehow got a list of Brooklyn rabbis. Systematically, over several years, she wrote to each rabbi on the list. Finally, she struck gold. The rabbi inquired among his congregants if anyone knew of a Rose Schreiber and one of the women who attended that synagogue happened to know my mother. The rabbi gave the letter (which was in Yiddish) to the woman and she brought it to my mother. As soon as my mother got the letter, she called me.
“Ma, let’s send your sister a cablegram right away and tell her that she found us,” I said. Mama agreed. In the wire, I gave my aunt my mother’s address, told her a letter would follow and asked her to write to us.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived from Basia. My mother called me and I came over. The letter was in Yiddish. My mother and I both read Yiddish. But when it came to writing Yiddish, my mother depended on me. When I was ten years old or so, I attended the Scholem Aleichem schule and learned to read and write Yiddish. At that time, my father, although he had never met his mother-in-law, as a devoted son-in-law, carried on a regular correspondence with her. He also considered it his duty to help my mother’s relatives in Europe financially as best as he could. He sent money from time to time and presents to my mother’s brother and sister and their families. I remember we sent a whetstone and a strop to my mother’s brother who was a barber. When I became somewhat proficient in writing Yiddish, my father insisted that I correspond regularly with my grandmother in Krasilov. And I did. So, when it came time to write to my Meema Basia in Chernovitzy, I hearkened back to the days of my youth and resurrected the formal third-person salutation that my father had taught me: Tzu mein leibe un teyere meema un ir man un zuhn, zahl zey leyben un gezundt zeyn [To my loving and dear aunt and her husband and son, may they live long and be healthy]. For the next fifteen years or so, I carried on a correspondence with my aunt and I always used that salutation.
Through our correspondence, I learned the details about the massacre of the Jews of Krasilov and Basia’s escape and exploits as a partisan. I learned that because of how she had to live while with the partisans, often sleeping in ditches and other outdoor, unpleasant, unsanitary and dangerous environments, her legs were severely damaged and she was under constant medical attention, spending weeks at a time in hospitals.
After the war, Basia somehow ended up in Chernovitzy, a city in Bessarabia, which, incidentally, is very close to Khotin, where my father was born. In Chernovitzy, she ran into Lou, an acquaintance from Krasilov. He, too, had somehow escaped the Nazi massacre, but his wife and two children had been murdered by the Nazis. Basia and Lou decided to get married and they had a son. They named the son Isaac, after my Basia’s father, my grandfather, whose name I also bear.
When we first heard from Basia, Isaac was about eight years old. He showed some musical talent and about ten years later was admitted to a music conservatory, something not readily available to Jews in the Soviet Union. Isaac was studying English and wrote to me several times in halting English. Since both he and I were named after the same person, he called himself Irving in his English correspondence with me. But after a while, we reverted to calling him Isaac.
During the years of our correspondence, Basia kept expressing a desire to see her sister and our family. I suggested to my mother that she should visit Chernovitzy and offered to go with her. But mama was very reluctant to go. Somehow, she feared that if she returned to Russia (although it was the Soviet Union, to my mother it was Russia) maybe they wouldn’t let her return to the United States. “Ma,” I assured her, “you are an American citizen. You have nothing to worry about.” But she was still apprehensive. I talked to my sister and we agreed that we would pay for Basia’s visit to the United States. Basia was willing, but it never worked out, mainly because of her physical disabilities and her recurring stays in the hospital.
In about 1969, we received a letter from Chernovitzy, but it wasn’t from Basia; it was from Isaac. Basia had died. It wasn’t until 1973, when Isaac, who with his wife and father had been permitted to leave the Soviet Union and settle in Israel, visited us that we found out that Basia’s death in 1969 had been the result of a suicide. The pain she was suffering had become too severe to endure. I am sure that the pain was not merely physical.
I know that countless Jewish families in the United States have their own tragic Holocaust stories, some more horrible than others. There is no point in trying to compare the degrees of horror in these stories; to each family that has had a loss to the Holocaust, its horror is more than sufficient. We have all lost. I am reminded of an occurrence involving a woman seated next to an overbearing German businessman on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. He was bragging about the successful comeback of Germany’s business establishment and suggested to the woman that she ought to visit Germany. When she indicated that she had no desire to do so, he asked, “Why, have you lost any relatives in Europe during the war?” The woman, who did not have any family members in Europe during the war, replied, “Yes. Six million.”
By Irving Schreiber