Sunday, January 21st, 2018


The Exile (From audio CD #1 of #8)

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After the Russian Revolution and the death of Lenin in 1924 Stalin came to power and began purges of the hard working industrious peasants who refused to join his collectives. Millions of Kulaks were exiled to the northern regions of Siberia for rehabilitation and to clear the land for the Motherland.

My parents, Jacob and Olga, on their wedding day

My parents, Jacob and Olga, on their wedding day

On March 8, 1930, a rainy and dreary day, the Commissar of the Bolshaya Sliva Belarus region accompanied by a mob of his followers arrived at Zachary’s mill. The fellow wore a black leather coat, high boots, and a leather cap brandishing a huge red star. His face was pock-marked with remnants of chicken pox which lent an even meaner look to his countenance as he proceeded to outline the ‘sins’ Zakhary committed against the Bolshevik System. It was an ugly mob. When Zachary tried to speak he was shouted down with:

“Enemy of Bolshevism! Exploiter of the workers! Kulak! Kulak!”

As the mob passed Jacob and Olga’s house the crowd was becoming more boisterous and ugly. Jacob tied to change the situation but it was futile. Olga was holding Sergei in her arms while Anastasia, her eyes filled with terror, was clinging to Olga’s skirt. There was venom in the mob’s voices and hatred in their eyes. The family was tossed into the wagon, as four party members, with red bandanas on their sleeves and brandishing revolvers, jumped up on the back preventing any escape.

When they drove through the village many of Zachary’s neighbors ran up to the wagon to say good-bye offering prayers but others stood by the side of the road waving their fists; little did they know soon it would be their turn. It was like a scene from a French Revolution movie when the victims were being driven to the guillotine.

Thus began the Kurdsjuk family’s exile into the Siberian wasteland where millions would perish from freezing temperatures, disease, starvation and hard labor.

The 300 Mile March (From audio CD #5 of #8)

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During WW II when German forces were retreating after their defeat at Stalingrad we tried to escape the approaching Soviet Army but we were captured by the SS, put into a column and for thirty days force marched 300 miles from Mariupol to Kirovgrad where we were loaded into freight cars and transported to Przemysl Poland. When we arrived we were told to disembark. As we left the freight car soldiers began separating us. Children and the elderly were sent to the left while the adults went to the right. Papa said to me: “Stand tall, get on your tiptoes!” Our family was shunted to the right.

We were exiled in German prison camps

We were exiled in German prison camps

We were marched to a large building, made to strip and told that we were going to be deloused. After marching 30 days without a bath, sleeping on the ground under the open sky we were full of bugs and vermin while our bodies exuded an aroma one could choke on. We needed delousing and a bath.

Then we heard someone scream: “We are going to be gassed just like the Jews!”

I didn’t know what it was all about, but Papa was apparently aware of what was happening. He clutched me to his naked body and said: “Forgive me my son, I did not mean to bring you to this death!”

Just as he uttered those words an acrid yellow mist descended from the shower heads in the ceiling. All held their breath. How long can one hold his breath? It seemed like an eternity before we exhaled. We were sprayed like cattle when the infamous cry of “Rauss!’ was heard and we saw the doors open at the other end. We were not gassed but only disinfected and still alive.

Peanut Butter (From audio CD #7 of #8)

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In the Displaced Persons (DP) camp our food was provided by the United States International Refugee Organization (IRO) and distributed by the American Armed Forces. The camps cooking facilities were not operating and food had to be heated or prepared by the recipient, this is why the women were cooking on the bricks on the parade grounds.

Every day a truck pulled up to the barracks and soldiers distributed green packages and cans of food. I wormed my way to the tailgate of the truck and yelled: “Hey Joe! OK?” The soldier looked down, smiled and gave me a big green can and a loaf of bread. I said: “OK Joe! Thank you!” and ran to our room. I had no idea what was in the can, but it was big and heavy. I knew we had bread and that was good enough.

Wetzlar displaced persons camp where we stayed after the Allied victory

Wetzlar Displaced Persons Camp where we stayed after the Allied victory

Everyone was examining the goodies they received, trying to figure out what the packages and cans contained. Everything was in “American.” A person on our floor had an English dictionary and became the most popular man in town. Examining the can, I was able to figure out one word, “BUTTER”. I did not know what peanut meant but I knew what butter was. We had not seen any real butter for years and now I had a huge can of it. Mama was so excited that she started clapping her hands and dancing like child. All that butter! We didn’t have anything to cook in it but we had the bread. Bread and butter, what a feast! Everyone in the room was also excited about our butter. One woman across the hall said to Mama that she would trade her two potatoes for a spoon of butter. Mama agreed. Papa came back with a can opener, it was one of those throw away GI-type and it took him a while to cut the lid open. Once the can was opened and the lid peeled back we knew something was wrong. This butter was not yellow but brown. Was it spoiled? Or, was this some American specialty butter made for the soldiers? It smelled sweet and aromatic, so it seemed that it should be edible. Since it was our butter, Mama was going to use it first. She peeled the two potatoes, sliced them and headed out to the parade ground to fry them everyone in our room followed.

Once the fire was going, she placed a frying pan on the bricks and scooped out a healthy spoonful of the “Peanut Butter,” placing it in the center of the pan. It sizzled and sputtered, but would not melt. We waited and waited but it just burned, only a little oil trickled from the blob. What kind of butter was this? Everyone said it was spoiled and the woman wanted her potatoes back. What we thought was a boon, turned out to be a bust. Gathering everything up, we returned to the barracks. The man with the dictionary looked up the word “peanut.” Based on his explanation we were almost certain that this butter was not for cooking. In the morning Papa and I went to the camp office in hopes of getting a better explanation on how to use this Peanut Butter. The soldiers, to whom we explained our ‘problem’ went into convulsive laughter. They told us that peanut butter was used to make sandwiches and showed us how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We didn’t have any jelly but they had a jar of grape jelly by the coffee pot. One of the soldiers made a sandwich and gave it to us. It tasted great and we returned to the room proud of our discovery. Soon we traded some peanut butter for several spoons of cherry preserves, Mama boiled some water for tea and we had a wonderful meal.

The Trip to America (From audio CD #8 of #8)

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On March 29, 1945 we were brought to Bremerhaffen and boarded a troop carrier named S. S. General Black. Halleluiah! We were on the way to America. As we began to settle in our bunks it seemed like we were in the Tower of Babel, so many languages were all around us. Just then there was a toot on the ships horn followed by an announcement telling us that we will be leaving the harbor in a few minutes. Many of us wanted to say goodbye to this land that brought us so much suffering and pain.

People were leaning on the rails waving handkerchiefs, but whom were they waving to?

There were no relatives on the shore. I guess it was goodbye to a life that was ending and we all were anxious to see what lay ahead.

The SS General Black, the troop carrier that brought us to America

The SS General Black, the troop carrier that brought us to America and freedom

Our first meal on board was exciting. Our senses were bombarded by long forgotten aromas and new ones, something called SPAM was being served and our eyes became bigger than our stomach; that night as we entered the Atlantic Ocean we regretted our greed. Mal de mare was with us for the next five days as we battled a Spring Atlantic storm.
I was OK and got a job cleaning pots and pans. For most of the other passengers it was a miserable trip but what lay ahead was worth the suffering.

On April 5, 1945 we approached America. I wanted to be the first to see these blessed shores and settled in the bow of the ship for an all night vigil. Alas, as we moved into the Verazzano Narrows, fog also moved in. It was pea soup. The fresh salt air and eye strain made me fall asleep. As I awoke, it was early morning but it was still dark. On my right I saw blazing lights with a moving conveyer line. I thought I was back in Wurgendorf. When a sailor walked by I asked him what factory that was. He laughed and said that was Brooklyn and the moving lights were cars on the Belt Parkway.

When the sun rose I saw the Statue of Liberty on our left. It stood out so majestically against the morning sky that my eyes filled with tears as I ran to get Mama and Papa. Our hearts almost burst with joy as I remembered translating Emma Lazarus’ poem:

I speak for millions: We are gratefull

We are grateful

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse from the teaming shores

Send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

These words certainly applied to us on the SS Gen. Black. We were only a step away from a freedom.