My Safta was a very special grandmother. She was elegant, gracious, friendly, kind, generous and a real lady. She was also a survivor. She used to say that her story was one with a happy beginning and a happy ending. The middle is not a typical holocaust story. It’s a story of loss, hardship, escape and survival.
My Safta grew up in Libau, a town in Latvia, on the Baltic Sea with what she always thought of as the most beautiful beach in the world, a lake and a river where they spent long summer holidays swimming, sunbathing and boating. In the evenings they enjoyed Open Air Concerts, meals with the close extended family and getting together at parties. It was a very happy civilized privileged life. She lived in a province called Kurland, went to a German speaking school with about 10% Jews. She recalled that there was anti-Semitism but no physical attacks. The Jewish youth were influenced by the Zionist movement and my Safta was involved in the early days of Betar.
When she left school she became a nursing sister and went to live in Riga, the capital of Latvia. She got married and when the Second World War broke out in their part of the world, she had just come home with a newborn baby.
It was then that Hitler's armies attacked, Latvia’s air defences were destroyed and Hitler proceeded with lightning speed to conquer Latvia and my Safta’s happy civilized life came tumbling down.
So the Germans were bombarding Riga and were about to seize the city when somebody found a lorry with keys still in the ignition and my Safta, her husband and baby decided to take their chances and escape toward the east away from Hitler’s army. They had to walk for about 10 minutes under heavy bombardment and sniper fire from high buildings but they got to the lorry and managed to get out of Riga. They had no luggage, no food and only the clothes on their backs. And then the lorry broke down. They were still in Latvia and needed to get out into the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis so they started walking the 200 km to the border.
In 1994 I went with my Safta to Latvia. We visited the shul in Riga, which was burned by the Nazis with Jews in it, and we stood in the Rumbula forest where 24 000 Jews of Riga were rounded up and shot by the Nazis - the day after she escaped from there.
So the nights and days passed and they got weaker and more tired walking towards the Soviet Union. When a fire engine from Latvia came past offering a lift to women and children, her husband ignored her protests, lifted her and their baby onto the lorry and said "See you at the Soviet Border." That was the last time she ever saw him.
Picture the scene – a mass of tired, hungry, dirty refugees waiting at the border for authorization to enter the Soviet Union being bombed by Germans then taken to cattle trucks dispatched east into the Soviet Union travelling 10 days and nights occasionally being fed porridge and cabbage soup, occasionally being allowed out to use the countryside for toilets and the rivers to wash in. They had no soap, towels or change of clothing.
My educated elegant Safta spent some time then working on a "kolchoz" — a poor resemblance to a kibbutz – sleeping on lice-infected sheep skins, using rags as nappies and sewing camouflage onto tank nets.
It was getting cooler. She knew that the winters were long and very harsh and she would perish there but she had no passport or identity documents. With her few earned Rubles and the sale of her wedding ring, she set off south with her baby by getting herself added to the travel documents of an elderly gentleman who had found his family in Tashkent in Central Asia. Tashkent was overrun by refugees from the western part of the Soviet Union and she didn’t get permission to stay there. So she carried on to Stalinabad, the capital of Tadzhikistan, and it was there that her baby, having suffered from malnutrition, contracted chickenpox and died.
An excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister in South Africa from Stalinabad a while later reads:
My dear Dudi
I am very grateful to you for all the post cards I've been receiving from you quite often, despite that it takes almost a year for them to arrive. My dear sister, you shouldn't feel too bad about my bitter destiny. I am making use of my youth. Grief forever was and forever will be. When you don't have sorrows — be happy, and do everything you dreamed about in peaceful times.
Are you getting used to the people? Do you have good friends? As for myself, now I know what it is like to be between enemies as well as between friends. Without the help of the latter, I would be where my child is. My body was stronger and it saved me. Only after many days I noticed that I was without anything ... without a handkerchief, without warm boots, without money, without documents ... it was just like a nightmare.
Soon after her arrival in Stalinabad, she was arrested and accused of having come there in order to skip the country but she was interrogated by a humane official who issued her with documents and a permit to stay in Stalinabad.
She lived like the local population in mud huts, which often had no floors. The summer from May to November was unbearably hot and everybody slept outside. During the short cold winter, the rain poured through the roof. Her landlady was a Bukhara Jew who liked my Safta and invited her to join them for her first Sephardi Pesach.
In order to work as a nurse she had to pass nursing exams as well as an exam in the history of the great Bolshevik Party. Working as a nurse was very frustrating. There were practically no medicines and many of the refugees and the local population did not survive illnesses like typhus or typhoid fever, dysentery and malaria. One of her patients, also a refugee from Riga, became my grandfather. One day in the queue for bread, Safta realized she didn’t have her ration card. He leaned over and offered her his and the rest as they say is history.
My grandparents stayed in Stalinabad until the end of 1944 when Latvia was liberated from the German occupation and became under Soviet control. My grandfather’s family owned spirit distilleries and the communists wanted him to run the business for them. So he was sent back to Riga to re-establish industry and was therefore one of the first to return to Latvia and to discover the tragedy that had befallen his family and all the others who had remained in Latvia at the hand of the Nazis. He sent a permit for my Safta and four of their friends to return to Latvia. It took fourteen days by train to get to Riga. There my grandfather had been given a flat, where after 3½ years they once again enjoyed running hot and cold water, a stove to cook on, a bathroom and flushing toilet.
My mum was born in Riga in 1945 and they lived well as my grandfather had a prestigious job but they were unhappy. This time, they lived in fear not of the Nazis but of the communist secret police. They tried to get to the west of Europe and South Africa but no country would accept them. So they got false papers that my grandfather was Polish and pretending to go on holiday they again left their possessions behind in November 1946 and managed to get to Poland and from there to Sweden where they lived until 1950 when they managed to get a permit to join the rest of her family in South Africa.
After all that, my Safta had a stable, happy 53 years in South Africa. She was always telling us stories of her numerous escapes and survival and never ever walked past a beggar without giving them money. She said you never knew by looking what someone’s story was.