Story of a Child Holocaust Survivor
In keeping with this year’s theme of Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in Israel of “Children Survivors,” the story of Moshe Gefen – who made his way, bereft of his family, to Palestine at the age of 9, is presented below. It is told in first-person, based on his Testimony Page in Yad Vashem and a radio interview with his grandson, IDF radio host Omer Gefen:
"I was born in Poland in 1934 in a typical Jewish village named Klushin, 45 kilometers southeast of Warsaw. Some 25,000 Jews lived there, led by the town’s rabbi Naftali. Everyone spoke Yiddish, even the goyim who came to the town market once a week to sell their wares. We lived in a house that had belonged to our family for generations.
"My father Shaya Weinberg was married to my mother Yehudis (Yente), nee Finkelstein. My father worked in the Berman hide-tanning factory.
"On Sept. 1, 1939, World War II broke out, and Poland was the Germans’ first target. The capital Warsaw and all the surrounding villages received the first blows of destruction. We ran away to Belarus in Russia, and lived there in the synagogue courtyard for eight months. All the Jews of Poland who were able to run away gathered there in Belarus.
"After a while, the Russians put us on trains and sent us towards Siberia. Some Jews refused to go and ran back towards Poland, where most of them were caught by the Germans and taken to death camps. Some of them ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto, and a few of them joined the partisans.
"Our family and others were sent to the Ural Mountains on the Siberian border, in Asia. On the way there, two of my brothers died of hunger and disease. At one point, the train stopped and we were told that we could get off and buy what we needed. My father did so – but never returned. That was the last I saw of him. A few days later, the same thing happened: The train stopped, we were told we could get supplies, and my older brother went. Again, the train left without him.
"We finally arrived at the place they were taking us to – my mother and four children. They gave us a shack with two beds. My mother ran around crying that she had lost her husband and children, and could not cope by herself. Suddenly, at one point, the Russians informed her that they had conscripted my father and brother into the army, and that she was now entitled to an army salary, as well as a work exemption.
"This didn’t help against the terrible cold, however. One night, my mother put us to sleep – me in between two brothers on one bed, and her with my older sister on the other bed. In the morning, I saw that my two siblings didn’t wake up. I told my mother, and when she went to check, she let out a terrible shriek of pain. They had died of cold – and I was saved because of the warmth of their bodies on either side of me. Suddenly, I was no longer just a small boy, but a small old boy who knew that he had been saved by the warmth of his dead siblings.
"After 15 months, what was left of our family – my mother, my sister, and I – were allowed to leave the Ural area. On the train to Uzbekistan, it happened again: The train stopped and we were allowed to get off and buy food and supplies. My mother asked my sister, who was 14, to go. She said she was scared, so my mother said that if she wanted, I would go with her. So the two of us went to buy stuff, and when we returned – there was no train.
"There we were, the two of us, left alone in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a war.
"We started walking towards a village, and somehow a woman found us. She took my sister in to help her with her children, but me she sent to a farmer, where I would be a shepherd. When I got there, he gave me a kick – as a sign of what was to come.
"He told me that I would sleep in the sheep-pen, that I would get no food other than the leftovers that his wife would bring me, and mainly – that under no circumstances was I ever to come into his house. If I did, he said, “my big dog here will close accounts with you.”
"All day long I walked around with this fear of what the dog would do to me. But then one day, I noticed that there was no one home; even the dog was not in its kennel. I walked around the house to check, and this beautiful smell of fresh bread hit me. I had not smelled or eaten such a thing in who knows how long, and it simply drove me wild. I made another check of the house, and then I decided: I would go in and take a piece of the bread.
"I went in, pulled off a handful of the bread, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, the wife appeared. She barely said a thing. But her husband later came out, beat me up badly, and then said, “You remember what I told you about the dog? Well, here it comes.” And he gave a command, and the dog pounced, and started biting me all over, pulling out flesh… I just put up my hands to protect my head. I fainted, and the farmer must have thought I was dead.
"I woke up much later, it felt like midnight, and checked to see what was left of me and what was still there. I took a rag, dipped it in the water trough, and tried to clean myself up as best I could. I then decided that I would run away. Remember, I was all of about seven and a half at the time…
"I went to my sister, but she didn’t want to leave where she was, so I said I was leaving on my own. She gave me some things that she had prepared, and I left. I walked towards the city, towards the direction where I knew there was a train. I climbed on a train, hid behind some boxes, and fell asleep. I had no idea where it was going to, but when I woke up, I saw a lot of people, and I decided to go with them. Many of the people were crying, it seemed that there were many dead and injured – but I saw a tall man, with a white beard and a black cloak, and he looked like I could trust him. I went up to him, with all my wounds and everything, hoping he would help me, and it turned out he was a priest who was looking for orphans to save. He took me to his monastery, along with some other boys.
"My troubles were far from over. When it came time for morning prayers, they all crossed themselves, but I didn’t; I had no idea what they were doing. But when they saw that I didn’t do it, they all jumped on me and beat me up. I quickly learned to cross myself during prayers…
"Then one day we had to shower together, and they noticed that I was circumcised – so they beat me up again. From then on, I showered alone, and they seemed to forget that I was Jewish.
"At one point, people from the Jewish Agency came looking for Jewish children and they came to our monastery as well. They asked, “Who is Jewish?” No one answered, including me, but then one boy pointed at me. So they talked with me, and I began to remember things… I went with them from place to place, and after a while, we had a whole group of orphans. They took us to Tehran, where all the Jewish children who were found in Europe were gathered together.
"There, too, I had a hard time with the children – because I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to cross yourself in the mornings, so they beat me up very badly. I couldn’t understand: I get beat up for not crossing myself, and then I get beat up for yes crossing myself…
"After a few months in Tehran, when we had become a group of more than 700 children, it was decided to prepare us for Aliyah [immigration] to the Land of Israel. They turned us over to the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, who accompanied us from Tehran to India, Yemen and Egypt on boats and trains. From Egypt, we came to the Land by train on Feb. 18, 1943. We were greeted in some kind of celebration in Rehovot, and then we went further north to Atlit. They put out crates full of citrus fruits for us – it was the height of the season – but they forgot to tell us that you’re supposed to peel the fruits first and not eat the pits or the rotten ones. In short, a bunch of us were hit with dysentery, including me of course…
"When I left the hospital, I was placed with a foster family in Moshav Nahalal. I went to elementary school there, and then high school in Mikveh Yisrael, and then to the army, where I met my wife; we have been married for 55 years.
"I have to say that I am very proud to have done my small share in building a family and this country. In the army I didn’t slack; I always took combat positions. I was a busdriver for a long while, and drove a semi-trailer for about ten years. I always liked children, and I enjoy talking to them - on their level, not down to them; I am thrilled for them that they can run and jump and laugh, which I never had the chance to do."
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Moshe's sister and mother were reunited shortly after Moshe ran away from the evil farmer. After her children "missed" the train, she walked back along the tracks, looking for her children. She then moved into the town at which she had last seen them. At one point, Moshe’s sister heard a market seller tell another one, “Look at that girl; doesn’t she look exactly like that woman who always comes here looking for her children?” Within a few days, mother and daughter were reunited. Moshe’s sister, married and a mother of a child, moved to Israel in 1948, and their mother arrived some years later.
Moshe did not speak of his experiences in the Holocaust for most of his life – but of late, has become a regular guide on March of the Living youth tours to Poland.