Born July 31, 1898
Russian Veteran of World War I - Bernard Karasick, born in Povolotch, near Kiev, Russia, served in the Russian army during WWI and saw the start of the Russian Revolution. He immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920's and eventually owned an advertising business.
Bernard Karasick is a survivor - like a cat, he always lands on his feet. What he lacks in formal education, he more than compensates for in wits and street-smarts. Although his formal education ended after grammar school, he learned quickly on the job and in the field. His business savvy, ability to pick up languages (he speaks English, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and a little bit of Dutch), and his ability to think fast on his feet - combined with uncanny chutzpah - enabled him to survive one incredible ordeal after another.
"I was independent. I didn't want to go to anybody to ask for money, so I made my own way," says Bernard. Rather than work for his father, a successful grain merchant, Bernard went to work for a merchant in a neighboring town, where he labored seven days a week for six months and was paid a total of twenty-five rubles and board. "I was always hungry there," he recalls, so he sought new employment. "I left for Kiev one day after Pesach (Passover) in 1916. There I earned eight rubles a month with board, and had one day a week off."
Earning a living was soon to be the least of Bernard's concerns as the effects of the First World War began to hit home. In a memoir of his life through World War I, which he wrote in 1923, Bernard states: "Life became more difficult. You started to see things you never thought you would see. Across from us was a hospital. I would see people brought in with no prisoners." In describing Kiev during the war, he writes, "I knew one officer who had returned as an invalid because of the gas which the Germans used. I often sat and talked with him and discussed the war. He informed me what was is and how the fighting is waged. I forced myself to listen to all that he told."
This information would eventually be more useful than Bernard ever imagined. The war would soon engulf him. He writes: "In August 1916, they started calling up those who where born in 1897, and I was really frightened. Then in February 1917, I saw in the newspaper that those born in 1898 had to register and would probably be called up that year. I nearly fainted. I put my head between my hands and had a good cry."
Bernard Left Kiev immediately and returned to his parents' home to hide from the draft. Despite several police raids resulting in the forcible conscription of more than one hundred youths from his area, Bernard successfully evaded the authorities. Bernard says, " I thought, "I won't go to be killed, and truly for what cause should I go? As a Jew, I live my life without any privilege or opportunity."
Bernard's personal drama was being played against the backdrop of political unrest in Russia, as well as that of the world struggle. While Bernard avoided the military, the government of his country was in an internal conflict exacerbated by the external world conflict. During the first Pan-Russian Congress, in June 1917, two men dominated the debate as to whether or not to sign a separate peace with Austria. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky argued against, while Delegate V.I. Lenin favored conciliation, describing involvement in the war as "treason to the interests of international socialism." Unfortunately for Bernard's future, Kerensky's views prevailed and he became Premier of Russia in July 1917. Czar Nicholas and the royal family were imprisoned, and conversely, complete amnesty was granted to political and religious prisoners.
"Kerensky announced that anybody that had not joined the army should come forward. They would not be punished. He assured us that the war is going to end soon. So I went. I was trained to be a machine gunner. One night they announced, 'You have to go to the battlefront.' It was just after the big battle of Galicia, where so many got killed. They needed to fill out the numbers at the Austrian front. A row of Cossacks surrounded us, so we could not run away, and we were loaded into trucks," Bernard's voice trembles, accentuating his heavy accent. "When we got there, it was, I can't describe it. It was hell.
"You could see people falling right before you eyes. We immediately started digging trenches," he says. Bernard's memoir describes terror-filled battles; the uneasy waiting, retreating, and regrouping the exchange of shooting and the bombing. "On the fifth day, around 3:00 in the morning, there was firing from both sides. One could hear a moan here and there, but it was dark and we could not see the dead - only when a rocket went off could we see around us for a few minutes. Suddenly, we heard that we should run away, as the Germans were taking over. At the same time that they called to us to go, the Germans were coming closer and closer, and constantly firing so that we could not move."
Bernard and a Russian officer hid in the home of a villager. Bernard's linguistic ability and quick wit came to their aid. "I told those people, 'Don't be afraid. We are not going to do anything to you. We are not Cossacks.' So, they let us hide. But the house was bombed, and in the morning when we got up, the Germans were coming in. We were told that the Germans don't take prisoners; they shoot them. So, I immediately found a dead German soldier and took off his clothes and changed into his uniform."
In disguise, Bernard dodged the Germans for several days before he was taken prisoner. He was sent to work in the forested area of Alsace-Lorraine, disputed provinces situated between Germany, Prussia, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. For more than a year, Bernard cut lumber or harvested crops to fuel the German was effort. "We were always hungry," he says of the laborers. "After seven months in that camp, there were only 225 men left from the 500, the others having died of starvation. When we were returning from our daily work, we would always see someone drop to the ground."
Exhausted by hard labor and lack of food, Bernard devised a plan to ease his burden in the labor camp. "I decided that the way not to starve was to work in the kitchen. So, I convinced them that I was a cook. I had never done such work, but I quickly figured it out. I don't know how I did it, but I did well. And I was able to help some fellow-Jews by giving them extra bread that I took from the kitchen."
As the war began to turn against Germany, and the area was evacuated for hand over to the French, Bernard saw his opportunity for escape. He bribed a guard and acquired a German uniform. Then, over a period of months, alternating between his German army and prisoner-of-war uniforms, depending on the situation, he worked his way across Eastern Europe to his home.
"When I saw my town, I wept for joy," Bernard recalls. "It was about 6:00 in the morning. A man approached, carrying two pails of water from the well on his shoulders. When he recognized me, he started to yell, 'Baruch, Baruch,' using my Jewish name. And he let go of the pails and went running to tell everyone that I was not dead. When I got to my parents' house, it was already full of people. Everyone was hugging me."
But things were not good at home, he soon learned. He shakes his head, "All the time bands of Cossacks would make a pogrom - rob and kill people. I had to hide myself in my own house." But the most devastating enemy was an invisible one: disease. "My mother lay sick for eight weeks, and we could do nothing for her. The doctors came day and night, but couldn't help. She died of typhus." Bernard's voice quivers with these memories.
"During that time, some people arrived from America and took their relatives back with them. That's when I got the idea that I should leave for Canada. My older brother had gone there in 1910. I sat down and wrote him a letter, not knowing whether it would get there. Then I tried to make a plan of how I would leave. Little by little I made my preparations. I changed my Kerensky money; I gathered food, "Bernard says. "I couldn't get to the border. They were fighting the Bolsheviks and the Germans, and you couldn't get across. Finally I got near the border and found work on a farm, and I got acquainted with the border guards. I was bribing them, giving them cigarettes, everything. I finally got across and back to Hamburg."
His plan was to stow away on a ship. Every day he observed the docks and the arriving and departing ships. After one unsuccessful attempt, Bernard succeeded in getting on a ship to South America. When he was discovered aboard, the captain put him to work as a cook. Bernard made friends among the crew members and learned English. He finished the round-trip voyage, ending in Antwerp, Belgium. Bernard recalls the kindness shown him: "When I left the ship, the Lore Scotland, the captain gave me a nice blue suit, which he'd bought for sixty-five dollars in Philadelphia, and a new American-style cap."
His next attempt to stow away, on a ship to Canada, got him arrested. But this turned out to be his change in fortune because he was sent to a refugee camp in Holland. Bernard smiles, describing the happy ending to his ordeals. "They located my brother. And one day, I got a big package, a big letter with money and a ticket to the ship. So, I came to Canada like a regular passenger. I came to Quebec, and my brother was supposed to meet me there. He didn't know what I looked like. It was a very busy station and he couldn't find me. Finally, the next day he came again, and we found each other. We went to his place to live in Saskatchewan. It was October 20, 1920."
Bernard's brother owned retail dry goods stores. Working for him, Bernard sharpened his customer-service skills and business know-how. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 and started his own business, organizing sales and advertising for retail businesses, and married a Canadian woman. He became a U.S. citizen in the 1930's and, during World War II, served in the U.S. Army, running a post exchange in Michigan. In 1963, he moved to Los Angeles, where he had a wholesale and import business specializing in sunglasses. He retired at age eighty-five. Bernard has two daughters, seven grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
"I had a stroke, but I'm better now. I exercise every day. I take good care of myself. I am my own doctor. I do what is necessary," he says, defensive at his family's suggestion that he needs more help than is available in his retirement complex.
"I never expected to live so long," Bernard laughs. "One day, I woke up and thought, 'Gee, I'm an old man and I didn't realize it.' "