November 25, 2009

A Story of Survival and Perseverance

From Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of FSU Programs

In this briefing, Asher shares a story from Stanley Abramovitch, Director of former Soviet Republics of Asia, based on a recent trip to Belarus:

"Two Jews survived the Grodno ghetto in the Second World War. One of them left a few years ago for Israel where he died recently. The other is Gregory (Hersh) Hassid who still lives in Grodno. I met him in the Hesed office where he told me in fluent Hebrew learned in the Jewish school before the war, his story, about life in the ghetto and his many escapes from death.

The Germans occupied Grodno on the day after the war broke out. The few people who tried to escape towards the east of Russia away from the invading army where caught by the German army which moved very fast across Belorussia. Gregory was seventeen years old that September. There were about thirty thousand Jews in Grodno at the time. Another thirty thousand lived in small towns and villages around and near Grodno.

Soon after Grodno was occupied, the Germans set up the ghetto, in fact, two ghettoes in different parts of the town. Gregory and his family were moved into the larger ghetto. The Germans spoke of labor camps to which all Jews would be finally moved. When they announced that they needed four hundred volunteers for the labor camp Gregory and his father joined the group. They were locked up in the large Grodno synagogue and from there put on a passenger train that was to bring them to Treblinka.

 Gregory heard some young men talking about jumping from the train. The only way was to jump out of the window. The young people queued up ready to jump. The first one out was shot at by guards stationed on the platforms of the train. The others hesitated to follow. Gregory told his father that he would jump. The father who was fifty years old encouraged him and told him to leave him, the father, to his fate, as he was an old man. When none of the other young peopled dared to jump out of the train, Gregory jumped. He too was shot at but he was not hurt.

His odyssey through the villages and woods started for him as soon as he was safely out of the train. He walked alone, begged for food, and stole some slices of bread where he could. On a few occasions, Polish young people stopped him and wanted to deliver him to the German police. A group of young Poles once caught him on a bridge. They decided to throw him into the half-frozen river. Luckily an older peasant passed by who convinced the young men to leave him alone.

He escaped death many times. He somehow managed to run away each time when a peasant wished to hand him over to the Germans. He walked at night since it was too dangerous for him to move through villages in daytime.

 One day walking through the woods, he came across a man lying in the snow. Gregory spoke to him in Polish but the man just looked at him without answering. When Gregory asked him in Yiddish if he were a Jew the man jumped up, embraced him and kissed him. The man's name was Yitzhak Pepco from Wasstilishok, Belorussia. Yitzhak told Gregory that the Jews of his village were taken to a death pit and shot. He jumped into the pit a few seconds before the shooting began. The shot bodies fell on him. When night fell, he managed to crawl out from under the dead and dying bodies and leave the village. He had been on the road for over two weeks. He had a few gold rings, which he had taken with him when the Jews were collected by the Germans. He received food from farmers in exchange for these rings. By the time Gregory found him lying exhausted in the snow he had no food and no rings left.

Gregory and Yitzhak continued together. They stole vegetables from the fields; occasionally they received some bread from a farmer's wife. During the day, they hid in the wood, at night they tried their luck at farmers' houses that stood outside the village so as not to be seen by other neighboring peasants. Sometimes they were lucky; mostly they were driven away. They walked near Bialystok, Kuznica, and Suchin until they came across the Bielski group of Jewish partisans. The same group recently featured in the movie called "Defiance". They stayed with the Bielski partisans until the Russian army arrived in July 1944.

Gregory Hassid returned to Grodno. There he was mobilized and assigned to the prison police. He worked for a time in the office of the prison. The police wanted to send him to a police college for him to work later with them. He knew that he would never be able to leave the police (NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB), if he agreed to go to that college. He managed to refuse the offer. He then completed his high school studies interrupted by the war and continued in college to study physics and mathematics. This qualified him as a teacher, a profession in which he worked all his life until 1993.

 He married in Grodno. His first wife died young. He remarried but the second marriage was not a happy one. When a little girl was born, Gregory was overjoyed. He dreamed of this girl being with him and looking after him in his old age. He thought that he found some happiness in his life. However, it was not to be. When the child was not yet two years his wife left him and took the girl with her.

Gregory now lives in Grodno, the last surviving Jew from the ghetto. The pension he receives is far from adequate for him to live on. He gets food packages from Hesed. Once a week a woman from Hesed comes to clean up his home and to cook him a warm meal. He used to visit friends but he recently suffered a stroke, which left the right side of his body semi paralyzed. Therefore, he can no longer walk as he used to in the past. He can still read and watch television. His biggest problem is loneliness. His friends died. Therefore, he has no one of his age he can talk with. He sits in a dark room, to save electricity, and thinks of his life, the loss of his mother, his father, his sisters, the cruelty of human beings, of peasants who were always ready to hand him over to the Germans. He remembers how many times he miraculously escaped from the Germans, from the Belorussian and Polish peasants. On the one hand, he feels fortunate for having survived. And yet he is not happy.

 He thanked me profusely for listening to his story, for giving him a chance to speak in Hebrew for a couple of hours.

 We took him back to his lonely dark apartment. Gregory Hassid stood a long time at the door of his house waving to us until we disappeared from his view."

This briefing was circulated Erev Rosh HaShana 5750. For us as Jews, this is a time of Heshbon Nefesh, of reflection. It's an opportunity to create a context for our own lives, and to reexamine our commitments and responsibilities as Jews.

I hope that Gregory Hassid, and the story of his life, contributes in some small way to that.

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