My life before America 1921-1947
by Bronia Cimmerman Bronkesh
Sarny Poland 1921 – 1941
I was born in Sarny, Poland in 1921 where all my family lived – my mother Elke, father Shaye, grandparents Alter and Chana, uncles and aunts Sonia, Jack, Grisza, Fedia and Basia. Ever since I could remember, Sonia, Jack, and Grisza were in America. I grew up knowing only Fedia and Basia. I was born in my grandparent’s house and have no recollection of that time. When I was 3, my sister Bela was born. We lived then in a rented apartment. My recollection starts when I was 5. Bela was sick with scarlet fever and I was sent to my grandparents. I remember coming with my grandma to the window to see Mama and Bela. Eventually she got better and I was allowed back home. I grew up very independent which helped me in later years.
Around 1929 my parents built a house with a big yard. Bela and I shared a room. My first school was a private Hebrew day school where I went until grade 5. Then I was transferred to a Polish public school where Bela also went. At home we received private tutoring in Hebrew. It was very important to learn Hebrew, because girls weren’t allowed to attend cheder with the boys.
Life was good. Our father was working out of town. I remember well how the three of us (Mama, Bela and I) went every Saturday evening to the train station to meet father who came to spend Sunday with us. So mother was the disciplinarian and she was strict. When she said to be on time, we knew she meant it. Sometimes I rebelled and went to stay with my grandparents. It was fun to go there because Basia was 9 years older than me and I used to follow her. She was my role model, very sophisticated. At 16 she was smoking and in those years it was not accepted. She was very artistic and always dreamed about going to the big city. Of course she used to tell me about her plans and I couldn’t wait to grow up and follow her. Bela’s sickness left her with impaired hearing so she became withdrawn, with few friends, and she always followed me wherever I went. Being three years older, it bothered me but my mother always expected me to take care of her.
At 13, I took the entrance exams to the Polish high school. The quota for Jews was only 10%. It wasn’t easy to get in and I became the first alternate. I was sent to Rovno (Rivne today), a bigger city than Sarny, to attend a private high school. I had to live with a family because the school had no boarding facilities. It was 1934. It was a very traumatic time for me. I was homesick, 13 years old and didn’t know many people. At Christmas I was able to go home and enter the Polish High School in Sarny. From then on my school years were the best. Although I did well, the teachers insisted that I should use my brains more. I couldn’t care less, I had fun. My social life was terrific. With friends galore, we spent summers on the beach. We had a beautiful river (Sluch) l and I loved the sun, so I spent every day with friends on the beach.
Bela passed the entrance exam and soon she became the best student in the high school. She was very smart and she enjoyed school very much. Meanwhile Basia finished high school and went to Warsaw to learn designing clothes. She was very good and after finishing a 2- year course she came back to Sarny and opened a dress making salon. She became very successful and people came from afar to have her design outfits. Well, I always was good with my hands and started helping Basia in my spare time. I learned a lot and in later years I was able to use that knowledge. In 1938, I graduated from high school. Going to college wasn’t easy for a Jewish girl so I decided to follow in Basia’s footsteps and entered the same school in Warsaw. I was there one year, didn’t learn much but had a terrific time. I loved living in Warsaw, it was truly a beautiful cosmopolitan city. I went to concerts, opera, ballet, the works.
In June 1939, I came home for summer vacation and in September Germany invaded Poland. Seven days later the Nazis bombed Sarny and the first bomb fell on our house. No one was hurt but we had to move in with my grandparents. Two days later the Russian army entered Sarny and we never saw the Nazis. Sarny and part of Poland became part of the Soviet Union. Father was fluent in Russian so he got a good job with the army as a civilian employee. We fixed our house and moved back in. We were allowed to have a telephone and life was good again. Grandpa hated the communists and he constantly complained, but no one bothered him. Bela and I had to repeat high school because we had to learn everything in Russian and we had no trouble. Of course Mama, grandma, and grandpa knew the language. I forgot to mention that Fedia was in the Polish army and was taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1939.
Somehow I haven’t written much about Fedia. He was a wonderful uncle and we loved him very much. He taught me to ride the bike and even let me use his bike. He bought me ice skates and thanks to him I spent many evenings on the ice-skating rink where all the teenagers gathered and we had a wonderful time. We never saw him again and the rumor was that he died while in prison. Fedia was 31 when he died.
1941 – 1943
In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Sarny was very near the border and invasion was possible any day. Working as a volunteer in the civil patrol, I heard the news on the radio that Rovno fell and the march toward Sarny was continuing. I decided to run deep into the Soviet Union to avoid the Nazis. We all decided to leave but our grandparents opted to stay home. Basia at that time was married to a Russian officer and lived in Kiev, Ukraine. Our destination was Kiev. The trip was very traumatic.
Father decided to return home and wait for the evacuation of the army. Sadly grandpa persuaded him to stay with them until everything blew over. Grandpa was wrong. Meanwhile Mama, Bela and I continued the trek towards Kiev. Sometimes walking for miles, sometimes riding the train while being bombed by the Nazi planes, but somehow we managed to get to Kiev. To our big disappointment, Basia was already evacuated and her husband told us we must leave because the Nazis were advancing rapidly. Being a captain he was able to secure passage on a barge for us going on the Dnieper River towards Dnepropetrovsk. It took us 3 days to get there and on the way we were bombed, but somehow we survived the journey.
In Dnepropetrovsk they had box cars prepared to transport us deep into Asia. We were riding the train for days in awful conditions but we were glad to escape the Nazis. On one of the stops, where we were given bread and hot water, Mama and I met a man who asked us where are we from. We told him our story and he went back to his box car and repeated the story to a woman who sat in the corner and cried. When she heard the story she realized that the woman he was talking about was her sister Elke and her two daughters. Basia started running from one car to another and after about 10 cars she found us and we were tearfully reunited and continued the journey together.
Now our lot improved because Basia was a dependent of an officer on active duty. Basia had preferential treatment and it applied to us. While traveling for days Basia decided that we were not to go to Asia, but to continue towards the Caucasian Mountains. And so we got off the train and stopped at a collective farm in the foothills of the mountains. Mama went to work in the fields to harvest sugar beets. Bela started high school, and I went to Krasnodar to study medicine. All that Basia was able to arrange but it didn’t last long.
Three months later the Nazis overran all of Ukraine and were approaching our territory. We had to run again. Now we were on a train again going to the Caspian Sea. Basia decided we must get deeper into Caucus where we would be on the other side of the mountains. She was able to secure passage for us to Armenia the southernmost state of the union.
We traveled for days but this time we were on a passenger train. We stopped in Baku, Ajzerbedzan, Tiflis, Georgia and continued our journey towards Armenia. Our destination was Kirovakan. It was a town in the high Caucasian Mountains. The location was beautiful. We were in a valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks. We were allocated a room where we settled. The people in Armenia were very good to us. Some had never met a Jew. They pictured us having horns. To their pleasant surprise we were just like them. We looked similar because they also have semitic features.
Life became quiet far from the front. The Russian army came there to regroup after the battles. It was a place for rest and relaxation. Basia somehow got a sewing machine and started sewing for the wives of the officers. I went to work as a waitress in the army commissary and Bela became a telephone operator. Mama was the homemaker. Life was more tolerable with me bringing home enough food to sustain us. Basia was earning money so we were able to live quite well. In Kirovakan I became very sick with gingivitis. I was in the hospital for a while and all my teeth became loose. My father had a cousin who was a doctor in the army. Somehow we found him and he sent me vitamin C which helped me get better.
Spring of 1942 I decided to continue my education. I was accepted to the Medical School in Yerevan (capital of Armenia). In September 1942, I left my family and went to school. I received a stipend and a place in the dormitory. I started the school year with high hopes of becoming a doctor. Meanwhile Bela enrolled in high school for her senior year. Basia still continued to sew and Mama kept house. When vacation time came, I used to get permission to take the train to Kirovakan to spend time with the family.
In October 1942 the paper Pravda published an account of the atrocities the Germans inflicted on the Jews in the conquered territories. Sarny was prominently mentioned as a place where the ghetto was liquidated and all the Jews were taken to the woods. They were ordered to dig deep trenches and shot at the edge of the trenches. Close to 5000 men, women and children were shot. Many fell in still alive. They were buried there. For days the Poles living around there heard the screams of the people. A Polish lady whom we knew well and lived not far from there, had a complete breakdown and her husband, a doctor, helped her commit suicide. A very few escaped, a friend of Bela’s wasn’t shot. She managed to crawl out and she ran to her home where their maid hid her till the end of the war. Her name is Cyla Muchnik who lives in Montreal and she told us the chain of events. She told us that our father lost his mind during the ordeal. We knew that no one survived and silently we said Kadish for father, grandpa and grandma. Their deaths occurred 13th day in Elul 1942.
1943 – 1947
It was 1943. I was in the second year of medical school working part time as a night watchman in a book depository. There I met some very interesting and intellectual people. One man was very useful, the President of the Armenian Republic. Bela came to Yerevan to study at the University and by knowing the President she was able to get into a dormitory reserved only for seniors. She lived in a room with a senior girl in the middle of Yerevan, while I was stuck with 6 girls in one room. My job was standing every morning before classes in line to get our allocation of 500 grams of bread and whatever else was available that day. Bela cooked and darned our socks.
Summer of 1944 we were on vacation in Kirovakan with Mama and Basia. That summer Kiev was liberated and we decided to leave Armenia and go back to Kiev. The journey was long and exhausting. Every railroad station was destroyed and the tracks were torn up in many places. Finally in July we arrived in Kiev. The city was almost completely destroyed by the retreating army in 1942. The Russian army didn’t want to leave such a beautiful city for the Germans. Basia’s apartment was still there, it was on the outskirts of Kiev. Her husband was still fighting on the front. We never heard from him.
We settled again to a familiar life style. Basia was sewing, Mama worked in the kitchen of an army cafeteria, I entered the third year of medical school, and Bela was in the second year of the University. We both lived in the respective dorms and life was very hard. All the plumbing was destroyed and food was scarce. On weekends the students were pressed to work to clean up the rubble of the destroyed downtown. And then came the bitter cold winter. After living 3 years in subtropical climate it was very difficult for us to take the cold. We had no warm clothing and we suffered a lot. The winter of 1944-45 was the worst we experienced.
Sarny was liberated and Basia went there to see who and what was left. Sadly not much was left, our houses were occupied by Ukrainians, everything was stolen and no Jews were left alive. Slowly a few survivors started coming out from hiding in the woods where they were fighting the Germans. They were the Partisans. Basia came back to Kiev very discouraged. No word from her husband. The army was chasing the Germans toward Warsaw. The battles were fierce and the casualties mounting.
March 1945 the Soviet government decided that all former Polish citizens were allowed to return to Poland. Basia decided we should go back to Sarny and from there to Poland and then somehow find her brothers and sister in the USA. We arrived in Sarny just before Passover – the few Jews that came back celebrated the holiday together. Meanwhile we all went to the mass graves to make sure that all that was reported was true. Sure enough we started digging and on top was grandpa. We covered the graves with plenty of dirt, collected stones and fashioned a stone memorial. We said our good-byes to our dear departed and left Sarny forever.
May 1945 we arrived in Lublin, Poland and were given shelter in a big three story school called Dom Peretz, where I met Sane Bronkesh, my future husband and Basia met Nathan Markus. Sane asked me to marry him and I accepted. My only concern was about Mama and Bela, and Sane agreed to care for them until they were able to stand on their own feet. October 14, 1945 we were married in Lublin and a week later we all left for another world. Basia married Nathan and they left for Paris where Nathan’s sister lived.
Because we were Polish citizens, we were not allowed to leave the country. The Hagana had to smuggle us through Czechoslovakia where we stayed in a safe house for a week until we could secure passage to Vienna Austria. We stayed there for a month until General Eisenhower opened the American zone in Germany for displaced persons (people without passports). There we were given a place to live in Freiman, a suburb of Munich. My mother met an American Jewish officer and he put a small newspaper ad in the Forward looking for her brothers and sister. A friend of her brother Jack in Detroit spotted the ad and called him with the news. That is how we found our family in the USA. Meanwhile Annette was born in Munich in July 1946. In May 1947 we left Germany for the USA and arrived in New York, June 7, 1947. The rest is history...
Stories of Survival: Sam and Bronia Bronkesh