Our Family Holocaust Chronicle: Part I – Running for Their Lives
By Rubin Friedman
In Our Family Holocaust Chronicle: Part I – Running for Their Lives, Rubin Friedman, a longtime Ottawa Jewish Bulletin columnist, provides a riveting description of the lives of his parents, Nuchim and Fayge Hendel Friedman, and their extended families from 1939 in their hometown of Radom, Poland at the outset of the Second World War until their arrival in Toronto in 1948. So much happens in between – from the Nazi invasion of Poland, the hell of Nazi occupation, their escape to the Soviet Union, their survival (which demanded much ingenuity), to their postwar trek to the West – that much is to be learned from reading this book.
We learn about what life was like for poor Jewish families in Poland at the beginning of the war. Rubin’s mother, Fayge Hendel, lived with her family in a one-room apartment. Her father operated a small shoe repair business in this room in front of a curtain. Despite their small living space, they invited poor Jews into their home for meals and took in members of their extended family in times of need.
The book helps readers understand why more Jews did not run away from the Nazis. Nuchim Friedman knows what to expect from the Nazis and tried fervently to convince his family and friends to run away to the East. To his great and unending despair, many of the people to whom he was closest did not heed his warning.
Through detailed personal accounts, we come to understand the reasons why many chose to stay: running away was too dangerous for the very old or the very young; they did not want to live in a godless Soviet Union; they did not believe Hitler really would kill so many Jews.
By October 26, 1939, when exiting Radom became almost impossible, Nuchim did convince some who – with about 2,000 other young Jews – fled Radom to the East. Ultimately, Nuchim never forgave himself for his failure to convince so many of his close family to escape. In later life, like many Holocaust survivors, he suffered from guilt over this failure.
Rubin provides a fascinating day-by-day account of the beginning of the war as the Nazis bomb and then invade Poland in early-September 1939. By September 6, the Polish army had deserted Radom and, within two days, the German army and SS were in full control. He documents the detailed and steadily increasing indignities and horrors committed by the Nazis against the Jews of Radom, witnessed by his family.
There are accounts of many exciting moments as the family faced danger and life-threatening situations. At a crucial moment at the train station, Fayge is separated from the family and almost betrayed to the SS, and has to go on alone. Rubin’s Uncle Harsh-Layb is pistol-whipped when the Nazis discover he is hiding a valuable (a fate luckier than the man beside him who was shot in the head). Nuchim uses his tailoring equipment to survive a frigid storm.
We learn some of the characteristics that helped them survive: determination to live, courage, willingness to act, entrepreneurship, finding others you can trust, and avoidance of potential danger.
After the war, Rubin’s parents, and his aunt and uncle, were reunited and they began their trek West. To their horror, they learned nothing remained of Jewish Radom and they were warned not to return there. Despite attempts to resettle in new Polish territory acquired from Germany, they decided they could not remain in Poland after the Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946 that killed about 40 Jews. Torn between going to Palestine or to Canada, they chose Canada where they had more surviving members of their family.
Rubin includes maps, family photographs from before and during the war, historical background texts, family genealogies and more, which provide a detailed historical context for the book and its main characters.
Our Family Holocaust Chronicle: Part I – Running for Their Lives has received many positive reviews from experts in the field of Holocaust studies. I highly recommend it as an excellent description of the harrowing circumstances and the ensuing emotional impact experienced by so many Holocaust survivors. We owe a debt of gratitude to Rubin for this book.
Rubin has also just published the second part of the chronicle, Part II – Fitting Into Toronto. Both volumes are available in printed or electronic formats and may be ordered directly from Rubin Friedman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.