Where is Nushe?
By Anna Mark Waldman
Enough about the Holocaust! We've heard enough of these stories! We don't want to talk about it or think about it anymore! But, where is Nushe, my cousin? What happened to him?
He was so young - only 11 or 12 years old - and so full of mischief and games. We all lived in Babince, a village near the town of Rohatyn in Poland. Today the border runs through the village, so that part of it is in Ukraine and part in Poland - but then it was all in Poland. We didn't live in a large city like Warsaw or Krakow, and we didn't live in a shtetl. We lived in Babince, among Jews and non-Jews.
My parents had a small dry goods store in town. Thursday was Market Day. The peasant farmers would come to town to sell their goods and to buy what they needed. The thieves and pickpockets also came to town. When my father saw them in his store, he would take a little money from the cash register, take them aside and give it to them, and say "Not in my store! Get Out!" And they would leave his customers alone.
On Sunday afternoons, my mother would read and write letters for the peasant women whose husbands were away. She could read and write Ukrainian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German. When she read the letters, she would embroider the words a little, to give the women what they wanted to hear. One weekend, she was sick, so Pa read the letters. He read the words as they were written. The women were disappointed; they wanted the letters as Ma read them, full of love and sentiment.
When I was still small, we built a large, new house. Nushe's family and ours lived in the one house. It was divided into two apartments, one for our family and one for Nushe's family. There were seven of us - Ma and Pa, my sister Lora, my brothers Harold, Martin, and Murray, and me. I am the oldest. Hanka, a woman from the village who helped my mother, also lived with us. Nushe's family had only three people - his father Shloime, his mother Chava, and Nushe. Uncle Shloime was Pa's younger brother, so the two brothers and their families lived in the one house.
Shloime had a little store in the front of the house. What you would call a notions store. He sold Schmear, Miedlo, Fobiedl, und de Delicatessen, which means Butter, Soap, Preserves, and other Delicatessen. Right behind his store, we had our kitchen, in the center of the house. The rest of the house was also divided between the two families. On the property there was also the old house, where my grandparents lived, and my grandfather's shop.
My grandfather, Hillel, was a shtalmach, a wagon-maker. He was the only shtalmach in the area, and this was a very important skill. He made and repaired wagons and wagon-wheels. My grandparents' house had a very large main room. It had a packed dirt floor, and a huge oven, where they did the baking for all three families. On Thursday, they would begin the baking for Shabbas and for the week. They would grate the potatoes for potato pudding; sometimes Ma made a cake; they made rugelach - rugelach were always there; and they made bread for the families. And they made challah, every Thursday or Friday morning, for Shabbas.
So there was the new house where the two families lived and then there was my grandfather's shop and then there was the old house. All three families lived together, but separately. Our house was on the edge of Babince. Beyond us, on the far side from the town, there were farms. We farmed also. On our property, we grew potatoes and all of the vegetables that we ate - for all three families. We also grew a lot of corn, primarily for corn meal and grits. We sometimes had enough corn for Pa to sell or barter for other things that we couldn't grow.
Just before I went to the United States, we planted 100 fruit trees, mostly pear and apple trees, beside the house. In the spring, they were beautiful, filled with white blossoms. Nushe was Shloime and Chava's only child. Shloime first courted another woman, but that didn't work out. Then he married Chava. I was old enough to remember this. She came from a large family; she had many sisters. They lived in a beautiful town, Wojnilow.
I went once with Ma to visit. Chava's parents' home was lively and noisy. The sisters were all singing or talking together, sewing, cooking. I think that she was always lonesome for them, once she married Shloime and came to Babince. Chava had several miscarriages and also a stillborn child that I know of. I remember -- one night I could hear that Chava was in labor. In the morning, I rushed into her bedroom to congratulate her. "Mazel tov," I said, and she burst into tears. I ran back and told my mother. Ma told me, "No. Grandpa made a little casket, a little box, and Shloime and Pa and Grandpa and a few other Jews went to bury the baby. The baby didn't live."
I was so young. I said, "Why? Why?" You didn't think of a little baby not surviving. How could this happen? Ma was quiet. Chava went to the rabbi. He told her to take a clean iron nail, and pierce an apple with it and keep it there for a certain period of time, and then to eat the apple. Probably she was iron-deficient. Also he said prayers for her. She did this, and then they had the one child, Nushe. She kept him close to her. I think that she was always sad, or, as we would say now, depressed, with only one child, and far away from her family.
Nushe was a little younger than my youngest brother, Murray. So it was maybe 1931 or '32 when he was born. I don't remember his bris. The bris would have been at my grandparents' house. Things were already changing, becoming more dangerous, so maybe not so many people came to the bris. Also, only the men would have been there. Probably Ma and Hanka helped Chava prepare the food, and my grandfather had schnapps for the men.
All the men would come to my grandparents' house to daven on Friday nights. On Friday evenings you'd look up and as far as you could see, across the rise in the land, there would be a line of Jews coming to their house. They had that big room, large enough for everyone. It was too far and too dangerous to go into town to the shul, especially in the winter. So the bris would have been there as well.
Nushe wanted to be part of a large family like ours. He played with Murray and Martin. But mostly he stayed close to his mother; as he grew older, he took care of her…and that's why he didn't survive. Nushe I think resembled his father. I have one picture of him, when he is about four years old. He has dark, curly hair and large dark eyes. He is wearing a little suit, with a jacket and knickers, and warm socks and decent shoes. Ma probably made the suit from a soldier's uniform. He is standing with his feet a little apart, looking angrily at the camera, and holding a riding whip in his fist. He looks so angry -- his mouth is turned down, and his eyes are solemn. Where did he get a whip? Why is he holding such a thing in a picture? Why is he so angry? Even with the whip and the angry look, he is still just a small boy, with slightly pigeon-toed little feet.
He was very mischievous. We had a large room with windows, like a veranda; the wall was mostly glazed in, lots of windows. This was basically our main room; we sat there, we did our homework there; we ate there. One day Ma told me to clean the windows. It was a lot of work, and I did it, and the windows were all clean. Nushe had watched me, and then he made mud pies and threw them at the windows. And I went after him. Because he not only threw the mud but he had such a look of mischief on his face!
He ran, and he was swift, but I ran after him. I caught up with him and I gave him a little shaking. After that, Chava would never talk to me. She was his mother, so she never talked to me. When I was going to the United States, Ma had a party for me, and my friends came over. But I don't think that Chava came to my party. That was a mother; and he was her only child. He wanted to be part of our family. On Friday nights we sat down around the table in the other room, and had supper and sang zemirahs, and did all the proper things. Once there was somebody underneath, under the table. Pa thought that it was the cat, and he gave it a little nudge with his boot -- and it was Nushe! Nushe yelped, and jumped out from under the table! And he ran off. Nobody said, "Are you hungry? Sit down; come, sit." or anything like that. It was so strange. Why didn't we ask him to join us?
Pa and Shloime were just two brothers, and they liked each other. But each family was separate. When I was eighteen, I came to the United States to go to college. I stayed with my Uncle Dave and Aunt Stella and their children. But when I got here, and I began to understand more about what was going on in Europe, I didn't go to college. Instead, I went to work, to help earn the money to bring my family here. Ma and Pa didn't want to come. My grandparents - Pa's parents - wouldn't come, and Shloime wouldn't leave them.
Finally, after three years, we convinced Ma and Pa to come with my sister and brothers. Ma told people that they were going to the World's Fair. But when they had problems getting a visa, Pa handed the officials some money and said, "Why not let us go? You'll get rid of some Jews."
They left Poland April 6, 1939. My grandfather and Shloime thought that they would be safe. There had always been anti-Semitism, but we had lived among non-Jewish people without too much trouble. They didn't understand what was happening. From friends of my sister Lora we eventually learned what happened to them. One time, they were lucky. My grandfather had had an apprentice in his shop. The boy was not Jewish. My grandfather knew the boy's father. The boy was not mean, but he was not a good boy; always in trouble and not good in school; always fighting with his father. My grandfather had told the boy's father - "Let him be my apprentice. I could use some help, and, it will be good for him."
My grandfather worked very hard from early in the morning until 4 o'clock in the afternoon - chopping and cutting wood, and making the wagon wheels and other things for the wagons from the wood. It was hard work. He was demanding; it had to be just so. But he was also kind, and he was kind to the boy. The boy helped him and learned from him. He stayed working with my grandfather for several years. When the war began, he was drafted into the army. During the war, the first time that an army unit came into Babince, they called out all the Jews. My grandfather came out, with the rest of the family, along with the other Jews. The captain gave the order, "Kill them all." Suddenly, a young officer jumped in front of my grandfather. "No, sir!," he said, "Not this one, and not his family. He took care of me when I was a boy, and he taught me a trade. He can be useful to us." It was the boy who had been my Grandfather's apprentice. He saved their lives.
So, for a while, my grandparents, Shloime, Chava, and Nushe were allowed to live. But of course it got worse and worse. Shloime had diabetes. With the restrictions on the Jews, and the bad food and no medication, Shloime died. I don't know when. Chava must have lost her mind with depression and grief. She would walk through the village, always walking, not hiding or protecting herself, not eating. Nushe stayed with her. He was her son, and he stayed beside her. And that's why he didn't survive -- because many people did survive, the young people. They hid out in the woods, in the forest. At night, they would steal potatoes; they would steal a chicken; and they would move, move, move…never stay in one place. He could have done this. He was swift -- as swift as a bird -- cunning and small. But he stayed with his mother, outside on the streets in the village.
They kept my grandfather alive, giving him food, as long as he could work. But when my grandfather became too old and weak to work, they killed him. Just a few Nazis, four or five, and some others. They lined up the few Jews who were still alive in the town. There were my grandfather, Chava, Nushe. They had to dig a ditch. Probably Nushe had to dig a ditch for himself and his mother. Maybe also for our grandfather. And they were shot, and fell into the ditch. And now there is a Memorial there, because of what happened when they started farming again, after the war. When the farmers started plowing there, they would plow out bones, so many human bones, and arms and other parts. So they decided on that side of town to make a Memorial. Jews came from Israel and the United States to dedicate the Memorial. I made a donation to help build the Memorial, but I wasn't able to go to the dedication. When they were standing there saying Kaddish, there were police with guns, for protection in case someone wanted to attack them. So much hostility.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, and in the early morning, in my mind I see Nushe. I see him with his arm raised up, and his grimy little fist clenched in anger. I imagine him speaking. He is talking to God. "Where were You, God? How did You let this happen?" When we say Kaddish, we praise and extol God. Almighty God, I am also pleading with you. Please, no more innocent victims. No more victims like Nushe.