This is a review of the book Manya’s Story: The Harrowing Account of a Jewish Family’s Ordeal in Revolutionary Russia by Bettyanne Gray.
In the past, I have reviewed several stories of heroism and survival during the Holocaust. Although a significant percentage of the frum/heimish community is descended from those who miraculously survived the Nazi Holocaust of 1939 to 1945, “survivors” are actually a small percentage of the overall American Jewish community. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, I knew only a few families who fit that description. One was the Knurr family, who were related to the Kranzlers of Baltimore. The Kranzlers once visited them in Montgomery, long before I went to yeshiva. The other was Reverend Leib Merenstein and his wife Pauline. He wasn’t the rabbi, but he was the baal koreh, shochet, and Hebrew school teacher. He taught me for my bar mitzva. He was a Gerrer chasid before the war and ended up in Montgomery because the community at that time wanted a shochet. Otherwise, I hardly recall any others.
The majority of Jews came to the United States from Russia between 1880 and 1924, after which the immigration quotas made it much harder. My mother came in 1923 and my father in 1924. That is why, when I picked up the short book, Manya’s Story at Shomrei Emunah, it excited me. The American-born author tells the story of her deceased mother, who had fled the turmoil of the Ukraine at the same time as my own mother, who came from the same area. So, in a vicarious sort of way, Manya’s Story is my mother’s as well – maybe not in every detail, but the circumstances were similar.
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As I was growing up, I was told that the reason my Zaidy had only one eyeball was because the other one was “knocked out in a pogrom.” Manya’s Story describes two pogroms. So let us begin to understand what the Jews of the Ukraine went through in that turbulent period before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Intense anti-Jewish feelings had long permeated the Ukraine, but during this period there was a three-way war for control. The Bolshevik Red Army, the anti-Bolshevik White Army, and the Ukrainian nationalists contended with one another. This is a quote from the book: “Between 1919 and 1921, when Bolshevik control was finally established, more than 2,000 pogroms took place in 700 Jewish communities. The number of Jews killed, maimed, raped, or orphaned was around 200,000, coming to 10 percent of the Ukraine’s Jewish population.”
Manya Polevoi grew up in the town of Tolne in an observant family. Her future husband, Israel Abramson, moved to town in 1917. He was a pharmacist from Odessa and came to take over the management of a drug store whose owner had been drafted into the Czar’s Army. To avoid conscription, Abraham had pulled out some of his teeth and cut the tendons of his toes, so that he limped.
In the Oberstein family, there is a running joke. I always tell my grandchildren when cutting the challa that I don’t want to change my name to “Halbfinger.” You may have heard of that name. It comes from the practice of some Jewish men to purposely cut off part of their finger so that they could not fire a pistol. Thus, they would avoid being conscripted into the Russian Army. Often, such a person acquired the last name Halbfinger, or “half-finger.” No one volunteered for the Russian Army, as the chances of coming home healthy and frum were slim.
Towards the end of the First World War, the Czar was losing to the Germans. He was then overthrown by the Communists, who were called Bolsheviks, under Lenin. The new government signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Jews called the city Brisk), basically surrendering the Eastern front to the Germans. Tolne was peacefully occupied by the German Army.
The Kaiser’s German Army of World War I was totally different from the Nazi German Army that would invade the Ukraine two decades later. Three uniformed German soldiers appeared at the doorway of the Polevoi home. They informed the family that they were moving in and that the family would provide them with places to sleep and meals. Here is the difference: These soldiers were well behaved and actually friendly to the Jewish family. Captain Zigmund was even an honored guest at the wedding of Manya and Israel on May 30, 1918. That joyous wedding was the last happy occasion for this Jewish family.
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Manya’s father was also a pharmacist, and he presented his daughter and her husband with the key to a fully-stocked drug store in the nearby town of Manistritch. When Manya was in her eighth month of pregnancy, arrangements were made for her to return to her parents’ home in Tolne to have the baby.
The time of her giving birth coincided with the worsening of the civil war. The Germans were gone, but the warring factions would soon make life unbearable. The Red Army, the Bolsheviks, were the “good guys,” by the way. The White Army, comprised former Czarist soldiers, were anti-Communist. The worst were the Ukrainians, who wanted their own independent country. The White Army was raiding towns and anyone caught helping them was killed by the Reds. There was much death and destruction.
Manya gave birth to a son, just at this dangerous time. There was no way to inform her husband, who was still in Mthe father. Without warning, a White Army battalion descended on the village. The soldiers went from house to house and rounded up every male above the age of 12. Jews were singled out for special persecution. All the Jewish males, including Manya’s father and his two sons, were led out of town and made to stand at attention in front of a clearing. (In the interest of space and also because this is a family magazine, I am leaving out a lot of horrible atrocities.)
After several hours, four soldiers came to their door. Bubba, the grandmother, opened the door and “invited” them in. “Help yourself,” she said matter-of-factly and followed the soldiers from room to room as they searched for valuables. After ransacking the house, the soldiers went upstairs to the bedroom where Manya, who had given birth only three days earlier, lay. One of the soldiers snarled, “If you want to leave this room alive, show us where the gold is hidden.” After an hour of unspeakable horrors, a fifth soldier came and told the other four that it was time to leave.
Meanwhile, the men and boys who had been rounded up that morning were marched to the meadow for execution. The soldiers were just waiting for the signal to shoot. The soldiers complained to their platoon leader, who told them that he was waiting for orders from higher up. “After all, this is not a Jew or two but a whole town. Why should I take responsibility without the proper authority?”
After standing at attention all day, waiting for their end to come at any minute, the Jews noticed that a rider came and whispered something into the ear of the platoon leader. The sun was setting, and the platoon leader took his men and left without another word. Later, the Jews learned that the Red Army had attacked in force, and the Whites were running for their lives and didn’t have time to kill the Jews.
The newborn son, named Valodya in Russian, was turning eight days old. The surviving Jews of Tolne were hiding in their root cellars, and the bris was thus held in the root cellar of their home. For a while, things seemed to quiet down. At least the warring hordes were not fighting in Tolne. Manya decided she had to return to her husband, from whom she had not heard one word.
There were no regular trains. All one could do is go to the station and stay there for days until a train passed and then take it. Manya stayed with two month old Valodya for days and nights at the train station. Each day, a member of the family brought her food and stayed with her. Here is an unbelievable coincidence: Just as Manya was safely ensconced on a train to Manistritch, her family saw that Israel was looking out of a boxcar. He had come to see her in Tolne! Israel did not wait a moment; he jumped from the still moving boxcar into the passenger coach and hugged his astonished wife. When Israel finally looked at the child, he asked if it was a boy or a girl. He had no idea.
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The book recounts the harrowing experiences that the husband encountered. Mortally injured and unconscious, he was left to die. But a gentle old dog passed by and licked his wounds. The dog’s master came to retrieve it and took pity on the injured man. He put Israel in a cart and took him to his home and gently nursed him back to health. Other non-Jews also helped Jews in some circumstances. A Christian couple, the Bernatovitches, invited Manya and Israel to a Christmas party, which they attended for the only time in their lives. As Israel and Manya Abramson left the party, somewhat giddy from the spirits they had consumed, they failed to notice the wooden fence on which was scrawled, “Kill the Jews and save Russia.”
At this time, the Reds were winning, and the Ukrainians were taking out their fury on the Jews. New Year’s Eve, 1920, fell on a Friday night. The Abramsons had just finished their Shabbos meal, and their maid Marina was cleaning up when someone knocked on the door. It was their neighbor, Kushner. His whole body was shaking and his face was dead white. The Ukrainians were on the way. After his own Shabbos meal, Kushner had walked over to visit his cousins and found them all brutally murdered. Manistritch was about to face the horrors, not of the Whites but of the Ukrainians.
Listen to the tale and decide which band of murderers was worse. Here, in abbreviated form, are some of the horrors that Manya, Valodya, and Israel Abramson faced until they finally escaped the Ukraine and got to Philadelphia.
After midnight, that Friday night, they heard the Ukrainians knock on the front door and they ran as fast as they could out the back door. They got separated, and Manya had no idea where Israel was. The logical place to run to was the home of their Christian friends. But Manya remembered that the Bernatovitches were spending New Year’s Eve in another town, so she ran to the synagogue. At that moment, the shul was untouched, and she climbed into the attic and found 30 other Jews hiding there.
Later that night, the shul was overrun by Ukrainians who did not even bother to look in the attic. After they had defiled the Torahs, they left. For a moment, the Jews thought they were saved. Then they realized that, on their way out, the Ukrainians had set the shul on fire. There was a ladder and the thirty other people waited one after the other to go down to a ledge and then jump from there. Manya was told that since she had come last, she would leave last. She realized that she would be burned to death before her turn came, so she took a big chance and jumped all the way down onto the hard snow.
Valodya’s head was gashed, and Manya bandaged the wound with her slip and ran as fast as she could to her non-Jewish friends, who she hoped were home already. She reached their home, and the kindly Mrs Bernatovitch bribed a doctor with two golden rubles to come sew up the child’s gash. Manya also found her husband there. He had had a series of close calls but, in the end, had reached the shelter of these lifesaving non-Jewish friends.
The Abramson’s stayed there for a few weeks, then went back to Tolne to bid goodbye to their family and wait until Valodya had recovered from his serious wound. He required a serious operation in a hospital due to the jump from the shul, and the doctor told them that it was a 50/50 chance of survival, at best. There was no anesthesia. They had no choice and, luckily, the baby survived. After a few more months, they finally felt able to leave the cursed Ukraine.
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This is how one left the Ukraine in those days: You get to the border with Romania, and you take a boat across the river. If you aren’t caught by the border guards, you are now safely in another country.
The smugglers raised the price and, in desperation, Israel went ahead to Romania and was going to get the rest of the money and come back so that the smugglers would take his wife and baby across the river. In the middle of the trip, Valodya started to cry and the smugglers insisted that she throw him into the river as the noise would endanger them all. She nursed him instead, and the baby fell asleep. In late November, 1921, the Abramsons reached Romania and stayed with some relatives. They wrote to relatives in the United States and eventually got permission to travel to their new home. “Goodbye shtetl forever” was how they felt.
The small family landed at Ellis Island in 1921, and Manya’s uncle helped them settle in Jeanette, Pennsylvania, a small mining town, where they opened a dry goods store. After the Depression of 1929, the Federation of Jewish Charities helped them move to South Philadelphia where they could live among Yiddish-speaking immigrants like themselves. Valodya became William. They had two more sons, Robert and Seymour. In South Philadelphia, they had their youngest child, Bettyanne (Brucha Chana).
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I appreciate Bettyanne’s devotion to her mother’s story. It gives me a greater understanding of what my parents experienced. My mother’s father lost an eye in a pogrom. I have no idea what else happened in that pogrom, but I am glad that Uncle Joe preceded them to Montgomery in 1914 and brought them over in 1923. I know that they did not have valid passports from the USSR. In that chaotic time, one just escaped. I once saw my mother’s Polish passport, listing her name as Polina Weinstock. It was surely secured with some bribe.
In Montgomery, she met my father Meyer Oberstein. He did not come from the Ukraine but from Tiktin, Poland. But the vicissitudes of World War I affected that area, too. When he was a teenager, my father was outside during a curfew trying to do a little business to buy some food for his relatives. He was caught and put before a firing squad. At the very last minute, he was saved. A Russian Commissar rode up on a mule and told the soldiers not to shoot him but to let him go. That is how close he came to being shot. He said that there were dead bodies everywhere. I heard this story many times. Usually, on a Yom Tov, when we sang the bentching and got to the line, “Naar hayisi vegam zakanti velo ra’iysi tzadik neezav vezaro mevakesh lachem – I was young and now I have aged, but I have never seen a righteous person abandoned nor his children begging for bread,” my father would always say that he had seen plenty of them. This book gave me a graphic description of his cryptic remark.
In conclusion, the horrors or World War II were so extreme that we do not dwell on the horrors of World War I. From this story, you see that the anti-Semitism was very strong and Jews were helpless victims from all sides. Just at this point, the gates of the United States were being closed by harsh new immigration quotas. The Reds established themselves and they, too, closed the borders. Thus millions of our fellow Ukrainian and Russian Jews, our flesh and blood, were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. As Meyer Oberstein, my father, told me, “The only difference between them and us is that we caught the boat and they missed it.”