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Biographies from Lyakhovichi - (Investigations into the Jewish History of Lyakhovichi)

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A Memoir of Shlomo Kustanowicz
A 7 year old boy deported from Lyakhovichi to Siberia 1941
"My Story" by Solomon Keston copyright April 2005
There may be no usage of this content without the express permission of the author. By the author's permission we print here chapters 1-3 and 7.

Table of Contents

1. Lechewicz Pre-1941
2. Lechewicz June 21, 1941
3. Lechewicz to Siberia
4. Arrival in Siberia
5. Life in Siberia
6. Exit from Siberia
7. Rozowski’s Disappearance (21.6.41) – Mystery Solved
8. Return to Poland and life in Szczecin (1946 – 1948)
9. Life in Paris 1948
10. Trip to New Zealand and arrival in Wellington (Dec. 1948)

CHAPTERS 1 – 3 PLACE: Lachowicze town, Baranowicze Province, Poland [eastern part], occupied by Russia in 1939.

A small provincial township, with a sizable Jewish population, situated in what we call in Jewish terminology “the pale of settlement”. My grandfather, Leibke Rozowski, was mayor of our town during the pre-Russian period, when the province was ruled by the Polish authorities. His term of office began sometime in 1935 or 1936 [ M. Inditzky, 11.4.2005, age 88 ]. According to Moshe Inditzky of Tel Aviv, [pers. com. 11.4.2005, now 88 years old], in 1940 Lechewicz could have had a population of about 10,000 people, and about half of them were Jewish. However, according to my sister’s research, the Jewish population was about 6,500 people, they were the majority and the balance were non-Jews [ pers com. 15.4.2005]. The countryside is very flat-lying, what we call marsh country and swampland, with many lakes of different shapes and sizes, and many frequent ponds and marshes. The land must lie almost at sea-level, with the water table sitting very high. Even at the back of our garden we had a small natural pond. The pond was also a natural habitat for fresh-water fish species.

I remember the source of energy during winter time for the fire-place and also for cooking in the kitchen was peat [a low-rank, firmly compacted woody product], it is a precursor of a higher calorific product that is lignite and coal. The reason for the existence of such thick peat deposits, is that the land is in an unstable equilibrium, and it was slowly sinking for a long time and is now slowly rising, adjusting to the recent melting of the ice , accumulated during the last Great Ice Age, when the area was sinking which ended about 10,000 years ago. The present process is known as isostatic adjustment, a minor rise of the land due to melting of the ice.

DATE: Year: 1941. Month June. Day 21. Time 3am
It was the biggest turning point in our life. Life was never to be the same again after this event. It was to be a matter of life or certain death [as we discovered later]. But at that time we did not know that. All we knew was that there was a loud bang on the front door at that time. Surprising. Unexpected. Bewildered. Shocked. Out of the black. In the middle of a peaceful summer night. It struck us like a lightning, like a major earthquake, measuring some 9.0 on the Richter scale. But the shake up was not tectonic in origin. As it turned out, it was a political and social coup d’etat. More for the motive of this, to follow later.

Even though I did not hear the big bang on the door [my mother later told me about it], when I did wake up, I saw a big commotion in the house. People all over the place, walking fast, pushing and shoving, bumping into each other, my family digging for things and packing, dumping all sorts of things into big white bed sheets, as we had no boxes or suitcases.

We were surrounded in the house by Russian NKVD agents [the predecessor of future KGB], in brown-green long loose shirts hanging over pants with a wide black belt in the middle of the shirt, dividing the shirt into upper and lower parts, and a gun hanging from the belt. The pants were of dark colour, very wide above the knee and tapered sharply from the knee towards the ankle. The lower part of the pants was very tight-fitting, and would slide inside the high leather boots. The shirt had two breast pockets with flaps. The shirt collar was typical Soviet style, about 5 cm. wide, flat held together in front with small hooks and eyes, with a detachable white stiff inside lining, sticking out slightly above the collar, so that one can see a white margin from the outside. The base of the shirt was slightly rounded, both in the front and the back.

I was then 7 years, and 4 months old. My sister was 3 years old. The other people in the house were my parents, my grandparents, and two Russian NKVD agents [husband and wife], who occupied the biggest room in our house, uninvited. Since the start of the Russian occupation of our province in 1939.

Let me talk a little bit about life in Lechowicz prior to that knock on the door, from my recollection as a 7 year old kid.
We lived in a relatively big wooden house, surrounded by other houses, with all Jewish neighbours. Our relatives lived some distance away. All in walking distance, some longer, some shorter. I remember that I could handle the walk, even the longest one. There was no other means of transport, rarely there was a horse and carriage, but it was only used for going long distances, like to another town.

Next to the house was a big garden, facing the house it was on the left –hand side, about 2 or 3 times the width of the house, and it was very long, may be 50 meters long, with a big pond at the back of the garden. Near the pond was a very tall tree, with a birds nest, the birds had long legs and long necks with white feathers. They would arrive in spring time, breed during the summer, then depart in autumn. They must have been migratory birds.

At the back of the house was a barn, where we kept our cow, and next to the cow shed was a little house for our dog. Behind the cow shed we had a lot of bee hives, taken care by my father. In the basement of the house was a store room, where my grandfather kept his skin hides. That was his business, helped by my father. My mother being an accountant worked in her profession for a Bank. She studied accountancy in Wilna, Lithuania. She must have begun working in the Bank in the early 1920-ties, and continued through 1939 and all the way to the end , to our fateful night of 21 June, 1941. Both under the Polish and Russian authorities.

As for me, I used to go to a kindergarten. The spoken language there was Yiddish, also at home. My favourite holidays were Purim and Simchas Torah. The reason for the former was that my grandmother, Baba Hanie, would give me a big bag stuffed with different things, and my job was to go to all our neighbours and to distribute the shalachmones to them. In return they would give me something different to take home. But on the way home I would eat all my favourite food, so by the time I would reach our house there was not too much left in the bag. But nobody would complain or get mad at me. It was good fun. I liked Simchas Torah, because my grandfather, Zeide Leibke, would take me to the Synagogue, and there he would give me a little Torah scroll which was located at the base of the Torah Ark. Straight away he would give it to me, and I would dance with it it all night throughout the service, I enjoyed it so much, that I would even bring it home that night. Next day the same process.

Sometimes after 1939, my father's father came to visit us from Luban {pre-1939 Russia], my father did not see his father for about 20 years [1919 – 1939], because the eastern boundary has changed, and Lechewicz became Poland in 1919 and stayed that way till 1939, and then in 1939 Russia again reclaimed it. Anyway, all I remember of my father's father, Shimon Arieh is that he was always sick in bed, while he was in our place. My father’s sister and her husband also visited us at about that time from Bobroisk, but they were not sick.

Also after 1939, my father took me a few times to his Kletzk Yeshivah, because Lechewicz and Kletzk both became part of Russia. We visited his Yeshivah, and also some of the homes in which he lived in as a Yeshivah boy. I think we traveled to Kletzk by some sort of a vehicle, maybe bus or something like that.

We also made a longer trip to the bigger town of Baranowicz, I don’t remember how, maybe horse and carriage, but in Baranowicz , the horse and carriage combination was different, as the carriage was running quietly since it had wheels with big rubber tyres. The carriage was quite large, black in colour, and the seats were quite soft. Rather different to those in Lechewicz, which were more primitive, with hard seats and wooden wheels with a metal outer ring.

The inter-relationship between our families was very good, my mother had many cousins, they used to visit us and we them. It was like one big extended family. My mother had a younger sister,Hanie married to Meishke Kaplan and a father,Avrom Chait, living in Hancewicz, a good distance away, and we also used to visit them and vice-versa. Originally they came from Lechewicz.

In the front part of the garden, we had a hammock tied between two trees, and I remember when my big cousin Ian Kaplan would to visit us from Hancewicz, we would play in the garden and swing together on that hammock.

I remember Lechewcz had a big rectangular ‘square’ in the middle of the town, where people would congregate. It was cobble surfaced, very distinguished, as compared to the other streets, which were just dirt roads. Around the square were shops and other businesses, maybe banks, etc. I don’t remember where the synagogues were located.

Now, back to that big bang on our door in the middle of the night. The Russians gave us just three hours to pack up whatever we could in this short period time, and in three hours time we were to be on our way. But where to??? We did not know. Just no idea. Even with the best imagination, nobody could guess our destination. Where are we going? Where, where to? Big blank. Big fat zero. Big emptiness. Into a big vacuum. Into a big black hole, may be into big empty space. Maybe into Hell.

We were loaded up, together with our baggage [big irregular shaped and sized bundles, tied together by the four corners of each white sheet], into several carts drawn by horses. And we were on our way. But where to, we did not know. It was about 6am. The long night was slowly coming to an end, but it was still dark. Gloomy. Scary. It was the fear of the unknown.

We soon realized that my grandfather,Leibke Rozowski, was not with us, he was missing. The Russian agents, who were guarding us, would not tell us where he was. No answer to our repeated questions. Just numb, speechless. It became nerve wrecking for my parents and for my Baba. But to no avail. In the meantime the horse-drawn carts/carriages were moving forward. It was still dark. Time did not move, it was just standing motionless. Everything stopped, everything died, even time had stopped at this time.

Eventually, we had arrived at a railway yard. The night was coming to an end at that time. It was day break. We reached some sort of a platform. A row of train carriages linkedlike one to another were standing by the platform. They were reddish in colour. But they were not regular passenger carriages. W They were cattle carriages. What were they doing there? There were no cattle in sight. Nowhere to be seen. So what are these carriages doing here? There is no cattle here to be taken to slaughter houses. Big mystery.

Soon after our arrival, we were shoved into one of those carriages. Somewhere in the middle part of the echelon. Our baggage was pushed towards one end of the carriage, it later turned out to be the back part of the carriage.

In the meantime, word must have spread through our town as to what had happened to us, like a wildfire. A few minutes after we had settled down in our new home, our relatives began to arrive at the platform. Besides relatives, there were neighbors, friends, and just about every or anybody who heard the news. I remember vividly the relatives of my grandfather, e.g. his brother Shleimke and his wife. Everybody was crying and sobbing endlessly, like at a funeral. Very loud. Also, the same took place on our side in the carriage. The doors of the carriage were pushed wide open, and we all stood inside the doorway. We could clearly see what went on the platform.

I forgot to mention that the relatives brought food for us, since we took nothing from the house. I also remember my mother asking Shleimke, to look for his brother who went missing during the night.

After a short time [say 8am or 9am], the train moved slowly away from the platform, while the crying, sobbing and wailing continued on the platform. As we moved away, this painful wailing noise was tapering off into a painful whisper, till it finally became inaudible. [According to Moshe Inditzky, pers. com. 15.4.2005, the distance between our house and the train station must have been about 7 km. and time taken to get there from our house would have taken about 30 minutes at the most, no traffic]. I do remember, that when we departed, it was still early in the morning, it must have been before 9 am.

Now we are moving. Nobody else was loaded into the other carriages. We must have been the only family that was dumped into this train. Everybody cried for us, felt sorry for us, for our ordeal, for the way we were treated and the way we were humiliated, even publicly. And the way, a former mayor of our town was treated and the fact that he had vanished. Without explanation.

Once we left the Lechewicz station, the train was moving on and on and on. We had no idea in which direction we were traveling. The carriage had no windows. The solid wooden gates to the carriage were locked from the outside. You cannot call them doors. The carriage had no toilets or any other sanitary facilities. There was no normal ventilation. We had no natural light, nor electric light. Neither did we have sitting facilities, let alone beds. We used our baggage, those stuffed white bed sheets as seats, beds or anything else you wish to imagine.

So the train with these carriages, pulled by a steam locomotive [we could occasionally smell the smoke from the locomotive, and also we sometimes could hear the sound of a steam locomotive], and loaded with human cargo kept moving along the rail lines. Occasionally, it would stop at small stations for a short time, when more human cargo would get loaded inside the carriages. Our carriage got soon filled up, including the others. The human cargo were mainly Polish people, probably political dissidents.

So day after day, night after night we were moving on, but no idea where we were going to. We did have some periodic stops and during these stops, we would get some sort of a meal, hot water with something, from a mobile kitchen stationed on the platform. We were allowed to leave the carriage to stretch our legs for a few minutes, to get the meal and to go to the toilet. We were always watched over by armed guards in uniform.

After several days and nights, this slow moving cargo train, finally one morning reached a very large railway yard, larger than anything else we have seen so far. It was a very big station, with many other trains parked there. Both passenger and cargo trains. We soon found out that this place is no other than Minsk. Yes Minsk, the capital of Belorussia. That means that we were moving east, almost due east. This is the first time we realized in which direction we were traveling. The date was June 26, 1941. We spent quite a few hours in Minsk, that morning of June 26, 1941. In the meantime, we heard many planes flying quite low over the city; we did not know what was going on. Why were there all of a sudden so many planes in the sky? Who did they belong to? What were they doing there? Big mystery. It definitely was not an organized air show sponsored by the Russians. Then, some little time later. Big explosions were heard. One after another. Bang. Boom. Bang. Boom… and so on. Some of the explosions landed quite close to us, in the railway yard. Luckily, not close enough to our train to affect our lives. We later discovered that these were German war planes dropping the first bombs on Russia. This was the official start of the Second World War, the eastern front, Germany against Russia. Date: 26 June, 1941. Our train caravan eventually left Minsk after a few long hours. And we assumed that we were heading east. We later discovered that this was the last train that left Minsk, heading in the eastern direction. Within a few days from the start of the the War, the Germans have occupied most western Russia [Belorussia], that included our town of Lechewicz, Baranowicz, Minsk, and all the towns in between. With hindsight, how lucky can you be? To get out from Lechewicz in good time, and also from Minsk in the nick of time. This is what you call a miracle. Yes MIRACLE. How else would you describe it. I just don’t know. It must be Gods Guidance. And Gods will. What else can it be? Providence.

Now, lets go back to my grandfather, Leib Rozowski. According to my mother, he was a self -made man, self-educated, a worldly man, warm, kind, strict, good business-man, popular mayor. In the Jewish community he belonged to the rare group of Lithuanian Chasidim. In a way he was modern in outlook. Always immaculately dressed, in a fashionable suit. He was a modern Jew. Did not wear a kipah.

From about 1925 to 1939, Leib Rozowski was a senior director of the main Jewish Bank in Lechewicz, it later also became part of a Polish Bank. My mother also worked in this Bank. On page 40 of the Lechewicz Book, there is a full page photo of all the staff, who worked in this Bank, photo taken in 1928. Leib Rozowski and Sonia Kustanowicz [my mother], are included in the photo.

Leib Rozowski was the mayor of Lechewicz from about 1936 until 1939, under the Polish authorities, until the Russian occupation of the Province. See the Memorial page , specially dedicated to him, in the Lechewicz Book, page 390.

He was married to my mothers auntie, Hania Chait. They had no children. In 1912, they adopted my mother (Sonia Chait], Hania Chaits niece, daughter of Avrom Chait, older brother of Hania Chait. My mother was then 6 years old.

In 1941, he was in the business of buying domestic animal hides, and selling them to leather merchants. My father used to help him in this line of business.

The NKVD couple who lived in our house, occupied my grandfathers studyroom. The nicest room in the house. And they must have known his background prior to 1939. So, when the Russians came to get us on that fatefuU day of 21 June 1941 , Leib Rozowski must have been a marked man. Without telling us, he just vanished, and since everyone was so busy packing, nobody seriously realized as to what has happened to him. Till we were about to leave the house.

Well, we found out later, after the war, when my mother began to correspond with our non-Jewish neighbors, who had survived the war, since not one Jew survived the war, by staying in Lechewicz. What had happened on that night of 21 June, 1941 was that Leib Rozowski was arrested by the NKVD, and put away into jail.

A few days later [26.6.1941], the Germans had invaded Russia, and they quickly occupied the western part of Russia, including Lechewicz. The Russians began to flee, and the jail doors opened up, and Leib Rozowski became a free man. He went to stay with his younger brother, Shleimke Rozowski.

He was very upset as to what had happened to us. He felt very guilty, that because of him we were put away somewhere, not knowing where. He did not know what had happened to us, and we did not know what had happened to him. Very difficult situation. Both sides felt bad, and each side did not know about the other side. But he could do nothing about it, except worry, wait and pray.

Soon after occupation, the Germans put all the Jews into a Ghetto in the middle of the town. They made my grandfather OIC of the Jews in the Ghetto. I am sure, this is not the position he desired, but he had no choice. In 1942 and 1943, the Germans liquidated the Ghetto, by sending all the Jews to concentration camps for the final solution. May his soul rest in peace.

According to Moshe Inditzky [pers. com. 15.4.2005], Leib may not have even reached a concentration camp. He may have been liquidated during the” first action” by the Germans in October, 1941 or during the” second action” in spring 1942, in a mass killing in a field outside Lechewicz. The victims got buried in a mass grave, which they had to dig themselves, before the Germans killed them. I wonder who covered them. Maybe the Polish collaborators.

Moshe Inditzky also told me that the Russian [NKVD] after arresting Leib, took him to Baranowicz and put him in a jail there. The Russians had fled eastward after the German invasion [ five days after his arrest] and all the political prisoners [ mainly Polish dissidents and political personalities ] , automatically became free men, as there was nobody to guard them, since the Russians ran away to save their own lives.

Look at fate. And how it works. We were supposed to be the unlucky people and everybody felt sorry for us and cried for us, and all the others were supposed to be the lucky ones, since they were not touched and stayed behind. Yet, look at the result. We had survived and all the others had perished. Is it fair or not. This is what you call - DESTINY!

- END -



April 2005.

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Rozowsky family of Lyakhovichi
The Rozowsky family of Lyakhovichi

The photo includes Mayor of Lyakhovichi Leibke ROZOWSKY, his wife Chana, their adopted daughter (Hannah's brother Abram CHAIT's daughter) Sonia Chait Kustanowicz, and neighbor and relative Broche TUKHACHINSKY.

Lyakhovichi residential area called the Rampart or the Wall
The Rozowsky family lived on Sanitarian Street (according to the memoir "A Walk through my Devastated Shtetl" by Avrom Lev), a residential neighborhood of wealthy and established householders. The houses, with their surrounding gardens and orchards, were similar to those on "the Rampart." It was a street where government officials lived, Polish doctors, as well as Jewish families of means.

The directors of Lyakhovichi's Jewish bank in 1928
Directors of Lyakhovichi's Jewish Bank

This picture of Lyakhovichi's Jewish Directors of the local bank, was taken in 1928 and includes Solomon Keston's mother, Sonia Kustanowicz, on the first row and her father Leibe Rozowsky on the middle row. The others are from right to left, from top to bottom: Y.D. ZABELINSKI; REICHIN; (3rd man unidentified); Reuven TUKACHINSKY; Schmuel MOLTCHADZKY; (5th on top row unidentified). Middle Row: Moische "der schwartzer"; FEINSTEIN; Leibe ROZOWSKY; (4th on middle row unidentified); Joine PINTCHUK; MELNIK. The bootom row is: A TATAR; Sonia KUSTANOWICZ; and an unidentified banker. The picture was published in the Yizkor book. Click on the title to see a larger image and to help us identify those still unknown.

Deportees to Siberia 1941 The image shows the conditions in which the Rozowskys-Kustanovich family found themselves. Millions of deportees of all backgrounds were mercilessly picked up and transported under hellacious conditions by Stalin's government. These images are from Tomek Wisniewski's important website, A Forgotten Odyssey.