Monday, May 10, 2021

From the Death Pits of Ponary to La Puente, California

An obituary in the LA Times about a 96-year old retired doctor who died of Covid-19 last week, paid tribute to his decades of benevolent service to his community. Dr. William Good was beloved by his patients for his kindness, gentleness and true caring, the article said.

He serviced “a melting pot of cultures in La Puente, Ca, where his knowledge of 11 languages was invaluable,” noted the obituary. “So too was his altruism. For more than five decades everyone received the same treatment whether they could pay or not, and many could not.”

A modest, unassuming person, Dr. Good, whose real name was Wolf Zev Gedud, rarely spoke about himself. Few outside his family circle knew much about his harrowing past. Born in Minsk, he had grown up outside Vilna and had survived the Nazi war of annihilation that wiped out 98 per cent of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry.

Through a string of miracles, he had escaped execution on three different occasions, as well as many other brushes with violent death at the hands of Nazis and local Jew-hunters. He recorded these events in his memoirs and in oral testimonies.

Dr. Good was also a bridge, via his written memories of his father, R’ Dov Ber Gedud, to the bygone world of pre-war Mir.

His saga of survival began shortly after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, when young Wolf Gedud, age 17, was captured and taken with hundreds of other Jews to the Ponary killing grounds. The victims were forced by Lithuanian guards to the edge of a massive grave, shot in the head and kicked into the pit.

The bullet fired at Gedud missed him. In the very same instant, the boy slipped and fell. He tumbled into the pit unharmed, feigning death among the corpses.

There would be other close calls during the next three years as the Nazi war machine rained death throughout Eastern Europe, slaughtering millions of Jews. Gedud spent much of those years hiding in the forest with his father, occasionally joining the resistance in sabotaging Nazi rail lines, and depending on the kindness of villagers who risked their lives to feed and shelter father and son.

“Without my father’s wisdom, guidance and protection, I’m certain I would not have made it through the war,” the doctor wrote in his memoirs, “From Yerushalayim d’Lita and Back.”

‘At Age 12, He Set Out for a Distant Yeshiva…’

Gedud’s memoir, penned when he was in his sixties, tells an extraordinary story of survival against overwhelming odds. It begins by describing his spiritual roots and the legacy he received from his father.

At the age of 12, recently orphaned of his own father, young Dov Ber, oldest of seven children, “set out for a distant yeshiva in Mir,” the son relates, adding that his father’s uncle was one of the Mirrer roshei yeshiva.

Despite this distinguished connection, the young boy apparently received no privileges. “My father was permitted to sleep in the shul’s unheated attic and assigned “essen teg,” the practice of joining a different local family each day for his meals,” Dr. Good noted.

The austere conditions did not deter the orphan. After ten years of diligent study, R’ Dov Ber received semichah from the leader of the generation, the Chofetz Chaim, writes his son with obvious pride.

The memoir goes on to describe the war years, particularly the hair-raising brushes with death and some of the crises Wolf and his father endured in three years of hiding.

Delirious With Fever

During an especially harsh winter spent in the forest, R’ Dov Ber fell ill. “He had fever, chills and a painful swelling in his neck,” writes his son. “We had been alerted that the police were snooping in the neighboring villages… We had to get out from the Konsiewicz house, get on the main road and from there make our way into the frozen marsh.

“We couldn’t go directly because our footprints in the snow would give us away. We dug a depression in the snow and lay in it covered with a light-colored blanket, trembling in the bitter cold.

“The elements were severe for anybody, but especially for those like us who were poorly dressed and poorly nourished. And sick. My father was delirious – I was afraid I was going to lose him. I felt scared and helpless.”

When it seemed the situation could get no worse, the abscess on R’ Dov Ber’s neck miraculously began to drain. His fever went down and he slowly recovered.

Kindness or Betrayal?

Another crisis found them perilously low in funds, forcing them to consider sending someone to their abandoned home to retrieve the box of valuables R’ Dov Ber had hidden in the attic. For a Jew to approach the house was unthinkable.

R’ Dov Ber debated whether to trust the woman of the house who periodically sheltered them. He sensed she was a moral person, but was she really? So many Jews had trusted Poles who appeared kind and had paid for it with their lives. True, she provided them with refuge but they were paying her well for it.

“The local peasantry was poor and greedy and the life of a Jew was totally worthless,” Gedud writes in his memoir. “At one point, when salt was scarce, the Germans would reward a peasant with two kilograms of salt for a Jew, dead or alive. If Maria Konsiewicz wanted to make off with our valuables, she could easily denounce us to the police, keep the money and even collect a reward from the Nazis.”

R’ Dov Ber decided to trust his instincts. He explained to Maria in detail how to locate the box and she made the trip to the city. But she was late in returning, sparking fear and anxiety in the Geduds.

“My father recited Tehilim all day long,” Gedud writes. It was an agonizing wait.

Maria finally arrived with a triumphant smile. Hearts pounding, they listened to her describe how she had sneaked up to the attic, following the rabbi’s exact instructions. She then handed over the box to R’ Dov Ber. It had not been opened or taken out of its wrappings. All their valuables were in place.

We Could Have Killed Each Other

The Geduds would frequently change lodgings from one refuge to another to avoid triggering suspicion in the neighbors. Their trips from the Konsiewicz home to the Paszkowskis would take them through a village where a rabid Jew-hunter lived.

This murderer often passed the evening playing cards and sipping whiskey with his buddies. He and his friends were armed and very dangerous. Many Jews had met their end at their hands. The Geduds would take great pains to avoid walking through that village, making their way laboriously through a swampy field away from the main road.

“Once, after we had obtained guns with the help of the Paszkowskis, I quarreled with my father and refused to go through the swamps and marshes,” Gedud recalled. “I marched through the center of the village and kicked off the barking village dogs. I had my finger on the cocked trigger of my gun and was ready to shoot it out. Fortunately for me, only the dogs showed up.”

R’ Dov Ber persuaded his son never to repeat that heedless course even after they were armed with pistols.

“All our wanderings from one location to another in the forest were always made in the full darkness of night,” Gedud recalled in the memoir. “I knew the terrain, the forests and the fields with great precision. On a dark, cloudy, rainy night, when you’re in a dense pine forest, you walk as if blindfolded. The only way not to get lost and to come out on the other side of the forest, is if you walk with one foot in the wheel-track of the dirt road.

“If you run into anybody you don’t ask questions; you shoot first, unless you can jump behind a tree before being seen.”

Wolf related that one time he went to the Paszkowskis himself and couldn’t make the return trip before daylight. The following night while he was walking back to his father, “I crossed paths with someone in the dark and in terror, almost fired my gun.

“Suddenly I heard the person softly calling my name. It was Tatte! He had been anxious about why I hadn’t returned and had decided to look for me. It was a miracle neither of us had pulled the trigger. We could have killed each other.”

Who Saved Whom?

Gedud describes himself feeling “fed up, angry and rebellious” in response to the excruciating privation of day-to-day living in attics and basements, in the swamps and marshes. At times that brought him into sharp conflict with his father.

“In 1943 we got a letter from my father’s very good friend Moishe Beckenstein, who wrote to us in Yiddish that his money had run out,” Gedud recalled in his memoir. “Their family of four plus another were being sheltered by a Polish family, but he was out of money and could no longer pay his hosts. Without payment, they would be expelled. He asked my father for a loan.

“My father knew his friend’s handwriting; the letter was authentic. He told me he was going to split his money with Moishe.

“I was furious. ‘What do you mean, we’re going to split our money! Tatte, we’re running from the Germans for two years! Who knows how long it will go on? What about us, what about me? You’re also paying for Esther and Libka (two refugee women unrelated to the Geduds). Who knows how long this war will last? What if we run out of money to pay our own hosts?”

“My father looked at me and said, ‘My son, do you know whether a month from now, a week from now or even a day from now, you or I will be alive? Do you have any assurance that we will need that money—ever? We have no right to gamble on the presumption of our survival and keep the money for ourselves — we may be dead tomorrow. This money can buy five lives today.’”

“I fumed and argued. But I couldn’t budge him.

“What my father did for the Beckensteins taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. It had an incredible impact on my life in so many ways.

“In the end, the two women my father saved, plus the five people in the Beckenstein family all survived and went on to settle in Israel. My father and I too, made it through that hell.”

Who knows who saved whom?

Vengeance Denied

The other half of the family, Gedud’s mother and brother, were not as fortunate, Wolf goes on to relate.

“While hiding in a neighboring forest, I heard terrible shooting. It was ten past one on the second day of Rosh Hashana, September 1941… I found out two weeks later from the Poles my mother and brother were killed in that aktion.”

Two years later, Wolf, armed with a pistol, had an opportunity to avenge their deaths. He describes how he forced two Lithuanian policemen at gunpoint to a desolate swamp and made them kneel.

“You killed my mother and brother!” Wolf screamed, his finger on the trigger.

The policemen pleaded for their lives, insisting they had nothing to do with the murders. As Gedud raised his pistol, he wavered. Whether or not the Lithuanians were directly responsible for the murders of his mother and brother, he knew they were gunning down innocent Jews in cold blood every day. Still, he hesitated.

“Get out of here!” he finally shouted, not knowing whether his act was one of humanity, cowardice or misplaced compassion.

Another opportunity to execute justice arose when the Red army liberated Vilna and surrounding regions. “There was euphoria in our hearts but when we returned to a Niemenczyn devoid of all our relatives and friends, we were grief-stricken,” Gedud recalls.

“The Russians were appealing for army volunteers and in spite of my father’s protests, I went to the mobilization point in the town hall to enlist. I wanted to kill Nazis, to avenge the murders of my family. I felt terribly guilty for not having killed them when I had a chance. Perhaps I could have saved Jewish lives by doing so.”

“There was a crowd of young people there; we were directed to march to Vilna, pass a screening exam and then we would be sent out to fight. As we marched the 18-20 kilometer stretch from Niemenczyn to Vilna, my father walked alongside me, urging me to abandon my stupidity.

“‘Wolfke, where’s your sense?” my father tried to reason with me. “You survived three horrible years, you are the only surviving member of my entire family! The war is nearing an end and now you want to throw away your life?”

“As we came to Antokol, the eastern suburb of Vilna, my father pleaded with me, “Won’t you stop and visit our friend, Mr. Krukowski?”

Wolf couldn’t refuse. The Pole had been a loyal contact and part of their support system through three years of Nazi occupation.

“We stopped in to say hello to my father’s pre-war customer and friend and they embraced emotionally,” Wolf recalled. “My father told Krukowski where I was heading. ‘You want to go to the battlefield?’ he exclaimed. ‘Look at yourself in the mirror! You don’t even have the strength to carry a rifle now. Why don’t you put some meat on your bones first. Recover and rest up for a couple of weeks!’”

“In a few weeks the war may be over, the time to go is now!” I protested.

“That night, the German Luftwaffe bombed the newly liberated city, causing astounding damage. We were in the cellar of the Krukowski home with bombs exploding all around. I was terrified.”

“‘You think that this is bad? This is just a child’s play compared to what you will get at the front!’ my father warned. His words finally penetrated and I gave up my fantasy of revenge.”

*****

After the war was over, R’ Dov Ber made aliyah, settling in Hadera. Wolf smuggled himself across multiple borders until he made it to Italy where he embarked on the study of medicine, and with two other medical students, founded a hostel for Jewish war refugees. That was where he met his wife, Perela Esterowicz.

Perela had survived the Holocaust in a forced labor camp in Vilna and was studying for a doctorate in chemistry. They married and in 1947 and emigrated to America.

In addition to Gedud’s memoir, their story is told by their son Michael in “The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews.” This fascinating book recounts the couple’s 1999 return to Vilna to learn more about Karl Plagge, a mysterious German officer who ran the vehicle repair camp where Perela had been employed.

In perhaps one of the war’s greatest anomalies, Major Plagge, an officer in the Wermacht, is believed to have helped save hundreds of Vilna Jews from liquidation by hiring them even if they possessed no mechanical skills. He kept families together and treated them humanely, shielding them from the murderous SS.

Perela Esterowicz (now Pearl Good) and her father, Samuel Esterowicz, were two of the people he saved.

To be continued….

 

*****

Eyewitness At Ponary

Vilna, 1941.

The city had just been occupied by German forces following Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, under “Operation Barbarossa.”

As part of the Nazi war of annihilation against Eastern European Jews, local police were recruited to carry out mass murders of Jews throughout all the Soviet territories along with the SS. At the same time, Jewish populations of every large city were to be forced into ghettos. Vilna’s Jewish population of more than 80,000 was to be divided into two ghettos.

A week after the Nazi invasion, 17-year old Wolfke Zev Gedud was arrested in Vilna and ordered into a jeep.

The youth watched apprehensively as the Nazis drove around the city arresting other young Jews at gunpoint and herding them into the jeep, which eventually unloaded them at a public park. Told they would be taken in the morning to a town in nearby Belarus to clean up the ruins of the bombardment, the Jewish prisoners settled down uneasily for the night.

“We were not heavily guarded and many could have slipped away but no one did,” recalled Gedud years later in an oral testimony.

By morning, their number had grown to 500. Instead of being taken to Belarus, they were driven to Ponary in groups of about 30, about 15 miles outside of Vilna.

Ponary became infamous in Holocaust history as the killing grounds where, over a period of three years, more than 80,000 Jews were gunned down into massive death pits. But in 1941, the horror of the place was kept a tightly guarded secret. Jews in Vilna who were rounded up were told they were being driven to another town to do forced labor. Most believed the ruse and did not resist.

“When we came to Ponary, we saw a huge freshly excavated pit with two machine-guns manned by Lithuanians pointing at the truck,” recalled Gedud in his testimonial. “They told us if we dared scream, shout or make a move, the two machine-guns would open fire.”

“Everyone froze. The guards who were all drunk took us one at a time from the truck to the edge of the pit, then shot each one in the back of the head. I stepped down from the truck as ordered and moved toward the grave, still not believing my life was at an end… At the exact moment the Lithuanian fired, I slipped and fell.”

Gedud was unharmed. He lay in shock at the bottom of the pit as victims piled up around him.

“Someone fell on top of me and soaked me with his blood…I heard his moans and felt him dying in agony,” Gedud continued tremulously in the testimonial. “They brought everyone from the park in groups of about 30 and murdered everyone in this methodical way. And afterwards, they machine gunned the grave. People were moaning and crying out. The gunfire continued for several minutes.”

Gedud said he fainted, awakening hours later to eerie silence. He climbed out of the death pit and saw there was no exit—the area was surrounded by barbed wire and Lithuanian sentries guarded the entrance. The only way out was to dig under the barbed wire. He set frantically to work, terrified of being spotted by the guards.

“I finally crawled out, bloody and in tatters from the barbed wire. On the road I stumbled into the hut of a Polish peasant and told them what happened… I cried and cried. They treated me kindly. I washed up, they gave me some clothes and I went home.”

‘No One Believed Me’

Except for his parents, none of the Jews who lived in his apartment building believed Gedud’s horrifying account, chalking it up to trauma.

“They said I must have had a nervous break-down after watching my friend get killed on the way to Minsk.” [The youths had tried to flee Vilna on their bikes after hearing the Nazis were approaching the city. Gedud’s friend was killed by bullets fired from German war planes.]

“But my father believed me. He said it was clear the Germans were out to kill us all. “‘We can’t let ourselves be locked up in the ghetto,” he told my mother, brother and me. “We’re getting out.’”

The family packed up, hid some money in the attic and took refuge in a house they owned in Niemenczyn, near their turpentine factory. After a two-month respite, the horror came to Niemenczyn and the family was forced to split up.

Finding refuge was excruciatingly hard, in some cases impossible. Anyone found sheltering a Jew would be publicly executed by the Nazis, along with his/her entire family.

The Geduds were fortunate in finding shelter on and off with two Polish families over the course of the next three years. When their presence in the homes of these villagers posed too much risk, the refugees fled to the forests.

 

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