How an Artist and His Family Survived the Holocaust
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur 2012
Until I was nearly fifty years old, I learned very little about how my parents survived what they called “the war.” I knew from a very young age that my mother, born Sarna Pinkel in 1916 Warsaw, had lost her entire family—her mother, father, and three siblings. I also knew that my father, David Weichman, born in 1912 in Demblin, Poland, had lost his parents and four of his six younger siblings. I knew that the Nazis had murdered them and millions of other Jews. Beyond that, all my parents told me was that they had been hidden by a Polish family somewhere in the countryside near Warsaw, where I was born in 1944—no names, no stories, no details.
But in 1992 I took my then seventy-six-year-old mother on a trip back to Poland—a trip she wanted to take as a last look at her hometown. My twenty-one-year-old son Noah joined us as we traveled to Warsaw and then around Eastern Europe with a group of American Jews visiting sites like Terezin and Auschwitz. Through it all, my mother showed none of the emotion or outrage of others in our group.
Finally, after dinner one night, perplexed by her stoicism, I pressed her and asked how seeing these places made her feel. My mother looked at my son, then at me, then back at him. Maybe she had a sense of transmitting a legacy to the next generation or somehow my son’s presence impelled her to open up. For suddenly she broke her long silence and announced that she wanted to tell me the truth about my birth and their survival. But first she swore us to secrecy, lest her story reach the wrong ears and lead to terrible retribution. I couldn’t imagine what she meant.
What followed bore no resemblance to the story I had known all those years. I was born not in Poland but in Kazakhstan. They had not been hidden in Poland but had fled to Russia and wound up in labor camps in Siberia. My mind reeled as I tried to absorb these shocking disclosures. I wanted to know more, but my mother could not continue.
I still don’t have all the facts. I would have to wait for other opportunities to question my parents before learning more about what really happened. Slowly, until my father died in 2002, I managed to have him draw sketches of his memories and, using them as a springboard, I extracted halting revelations. I took those bits and pieces to my mother and uncles in Israel and Australia to get their perspectives. These pieces of the puzzle enabled me to patch together a reasonable narrative. As the truth slowly emerged, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was so frightening and potentially dangerous to them to share this information. Gradually, I came to understand, and here is that story.
My parents were married in Warsaw on Lag B’Omer, May 7, 1939. My father, David, who, as I said, came from Demblin some 100 km southeast of Warsaw, had escaped his intended fate as a tailor to become an artist. Mostly self-taught, he made a living from such commercial work as signs and advertisements, political cartoons for the Yiddish press, and set designs for the Jewish theatre. My mother, Sarna, was an excellent student who had completed her matura and been admitted to a university program in mathematics. To support herself, she tutored and did knitting and crocheting. They met when my father needed a sweater and was referred to her.
On September 1, less than four months after their wedding, the Nazi war machine drove into Poland and quickly conquered it. As the invasion began, the young men of military age were ordered by Polish authorities to leave the city and regroup on the outskirts, possibly to stage a counterattack. David and his friends left the city, as did my mother’s two brothers, Kuba and Heniek, but it quickly became clear that no defense would be made, and everyone returned home.
David and his friend Shimon were convinced that they should leave Warsaw and Poland. They went to Bialystock, then in Russia, to check on their prospects. They returned to Warsaw determined to flee and to convince others to do the same. But my mother’s parents were not swayed. Jews had seen such troubles before and survived. They would stay where they were until things improved. Their family would stay together and be fine.
I can only try to imagine my mother’s dilemma. Should this twenty-three-year-old leave the life she knew and the people she loved on the advice of her new husband? Or should she defy him and stay behind? Was the danger as great as her husband thought, or would it all blow over as her father said? She made her choice, staying behind just long enough to abort a pregnancy that would have greatly complicated her escape, and then journeyed alone to join her husband in Bialystock.
How long they stayed there I never found out. While the border was clearly porous, the Soviets were not eager to be flooded by refugees. As illegal aliens, they were extremely vulnerable, and soon enough they were arrested. My father said they were given a choice: deportation back to Poland or detention in a Siberian labor camp. They opted for detention and were shipped off to the gulag.
There my dad was assigned to hard labor in the forests. The winters were brutally cold, and the summers, he said, consisted of nothing but mud and flies—brought home to me with his customary ironic humor by some of his memory sketches. The environment and conditions were almost unbearably harsh, and many got ill and died.
One day one of the camp officials came to my father to ask a favor. He heard that my father was an artist. Could he paint a portrait of Stalin? Of course, my father replied. Everyone knows what Stalin looks like. If they could provide him with paints and other materials he could produce a portrait.
It seems the labor camp was expecting a visit from some VIPs, and the administrators wanted to spruce the place up. As in the famous Soviet Potemkin villages, the inmates were assigned to clean, prime, and organize whatever looked improper so the visitors would be impressed. The portrait of Stalin was an added touch.
My father delivered the portrait as promised, and everyone seemed pleased—so pleased, in fact, that they came back for a second request. Could my father paint a second portrait, this time of the provincial governor? This was a harder task since my father didn’t know what he looked like. But, he said, if someone could bring him a photograph, my father would paint the portrait. And so he did.
When the delegation of visitors came, they were duly impressed by the transformed camp and particularly by the two magnificent portraits. Who made these portraits? they asked, and my father was brought in for praise and toasts.
Soon, word got out, and a long line of government officials sent requests to have David paint their portraits. Instead of having to tramp through the snow to cut down trees in the forests, my father was indoors in an improvised studio using his skills to craft flattering portrayals of these Communist apparatchniks! No doubt, he fared better than most because his work conditions were so much better and safer.
After some time, the director of the labor camp, who had taken a liking to my father, came to him with a proposal. Since all you are doing is painting, there’s no reason to keep you here in Siberia. You should be in a more central location—like Kazakhstan! And that’s how my parents wound up in Jambul, Kazakhstan, in 1943. One year later, in March 1944, I was born. The war would not be over for another year, and I had always thought this a most unlikely and inauspicious time to have a child, especially if they were in hiding in some farmer’s cellar. Now I saw what made it possible, though Mom told me she was so afraid to have another abortion that she determined to hide her pregnancy. Luckily—in this case—she was so thin and bundled up against the cold that her pregnancy remained a secret till she delivered me.
Undoubtedly, my father’s decision to flee Poland and the lucky break he got because of his skill as an artist helped save them. But the story doesn’t end there. When the war was over in 1945, my parents went back to Poland to check on their families. No one was left for them there: not a trace of Mom’s mother, Miriam; her father, Pincus, and her three siblings—brothers Kuba and Heniek and sister Fela. Gone were Dad’s parents Issachar and Hava Weichman, and his sisters Channa and Esther and his brothers Eli and Yitzchak. (Learning how they all died is yet another story.)
The devastation and continued anti-Semitism my parents encountered was beyond belief. The Soviets had overrun Poland and claimed it for their empire. While David and Sarna, in some ways, owed their survival to the Soviets, they had no illusions about the oppressive system they ran—not just in wartime but all the time. The only way they could leave was to escape, which they managed to do in 1946 with the help of Jewish volunteers from Palestine, who were eager to rescue any remaining Jews.
My very first memory is of this nighttime escape. I was the only child in the back of a truck and not a welcome one. The others feared that I would cry and alert the border guards to our presence. But I seem to have understood the danger and stayed quiet even as we waded across a border river.
The trek took several days but eventually we were in the safety of a refugee camp in Austria. There my father learned that two of his brothers, Jacob and Matis, had survived, and we were soon to reunite with one in Vienna and with the other in Munich. We stayed in Germany until late 1950, all the time helped by Jewish relief organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee, ORT, and HIAS.
I remember those years well, but not the turmoil my parents were going through. We were Displaced Persons looking for a new home. Our first thought was to go to the newly established state of Israel. They bought all sorts of provisions that were not easy to get in Israel. My Uncle Matis went to Israel in 1948 and sent very discouraging letters telling my parents how harsh and dangerous it was—no place to bring a young child. Uncle Jacob convinced David that they should all apply to come to America. Then, before anyone got approved, Jacob left for Australia, which was giving new immigrants financial incentives.
The line of applicants to the United States was long and the approval process slow. My parents had no one to sponsor them, which made things harder. They also had a potential problem in their history: their years in Siberia. This was 1950 and Senator Joseph McCarthy was already spearheading a campaign of suspicion and accusation against anyone with Communist connections. It was the year Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought up on charges of espionage before a grand jury that ultimately indicted them. Many people warned my parents that their application to immigrate to the United States would be stopped cold if they mentioned their time in the Soviet Union.
Being skilled survivors, they did what they had to do and came to the United States. The truth of their past was their secret, a secret they certainly could not share with their young child. But the secret took its toll. My parents continued to fear discovery, as if they were still living with the dangers of the past. Even after the McCarthy scourge was over, they could never be confident of their status.
Dad continued to paint and exhibit even as he made a living in commercial art—and I inherited many of his works after my mother moved in with me last year. But, as I later learned from some of his admirers, he always pulled away from any publicity that might lead to an interview and questions about his past. He didn’t want to lie but he could not safely tell the truth.
Today, twenty years after our trip, my ninety-six-year-old mother can’t recall her confession or the events she admitted took place so many years before. She has reverted to the cover story that kept her safe. I don’t challenge her.
My parents were not the only ones who escaped to the Soviet Union and survived the Holocaust as a result. The figures vary, but some 200,000 to 300,000 Jews did the same. It’s a story that has not been told very much, and I wonder why. Judging from the experience of my parents, it is fraught with a strange mix of guilt, pride, and fear. There is the guilt of all survivors, who can never fully grasp why they stayed alive while so many of their loved ones perished. There is the pride of having had the insights or instincts or talents or good fortune to have made good choices or been in the right place at the right time.
And, as in the case of my parents, there is the legacy of fear—not just the fear that lingers in the lives of those who have lived through trauma and life-threatening danger. But, in their case, the fear that remains from a period of political oppression and intimidation in our own country. I can’t help but think of the illegal immigrants and their offspring who live in our country today. I have come to understand the fear they must experience.
As I think about my parents’ story of survival, I see moments of great courage, not unlike the moment when God tells Abraham: “Lech l’cha.” They went, again and again, to lands they did not know. They lived as strangers, refugees, Displaced Persons, immigrants, “the gruener.” They adapted, learned new languages, made new friends, found new jobs, made a new path for themselves and their children.
I also see the corrosive effect their fear of discovery had, and I know their lives would have been fuller and freer if they could have told the truth. Even as I say these words and tell the story of their survival, a small voice inside me is saying, “I hope this won’t fall on the wrong ears.”
G’mar hatimah tovah!