Friday, May 25, 2012

Gulag survivors in Israel: How my uncle survived the war.

My uncle, Fritz Stern, came from Vienna. He emigrated to Israel around 1948, met my aunt (my father's sister, who was from Nuremburg) and together they went to live in Nahariyya, a small seaside resort in the North of Israel which was famous mainly for being full of German-speaking Jews. Fritz had several friends who were also called Fritz Stern.
In 1990, a year or so after the collapse of the USSR, a middle-aged Russian man knocked on their door. when my uncle answered, the Russian gentleman informed him that "I am your son from Latvia".
It emerged that when the Austrians voted to unite with Germany in March 1938, Fritz had managed to get out and go to Latvia, which was then an independent state. It had been part of the Russian Empire until 1917 and managed to win independence during the Russian revolution.

Fritz met a woman in Latvia and married her, I don't know the details but I suppose it had the added benefit of allowing him to stay there at a time when anti-Jewish measures were being taken in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria and when Governments everywhere closed their doors to Jewish migration.
In September 1939 the Soviets and the Nazis signed the Molotov Pact and split Poland between them and in June 1940, Soviet troops entered Latvia (a Soviet area of influence under the Molotov pact) and annexed it.

The Soviets weren't terribly interested in Jews as such, but they were very suspicious of people who had lived outside the USSR and especially of Germans - even if they were Jewish, so they sent Fritz to the Gulag.
I don't know if Fritz knew that his wife was pregnant.  It is possible he didn't, either way those were desperate times and millions were sent to the Gulag.  One month after the Soviet invasion the Nazis invaded the USSR and by the end of the year close to 100% of the Jewish population had been murdered - many of them by Latvians.

The Soviets sentenced Fritz to five years hard labour and he was sent to a camp in Kazakhstan. He told my mother that it was so cold that he had to work to stay alive - that is to stay warm enough (the camps were basically slave camps, see  He told me that he had eaten rats and that he encountered a man who faked Parkinsons to get out of work and kept up the fakery for so long that he couldn't stop shaking when he was released.  He also told me of a Jew who told that camp commander that if he gave him all the camp's bread and 24 hours outside, he could get more bread out of it.  Apparently the man went off and did a series of trades (sounds like Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22) and indeed returned with vastly more food then he had taken.

Fritz said that the irony of the situation was that he was basically grateful to the Soviets for saving his life.  The alternatives in Latvia and Austria were far worse and most of his extensive Austrian family were murdered.

After the war he returned to Vienna - ignoring Latvia.  He once told me that the first time in his life he made a public fuss was on his return to Vienna.  He was on the bus and two Austrians behind him were saying how the best thing the Nazis did was exterminate the Jews and Fritz got up and started screaming. Apparently the bus driver shut the doors and drove to the Police station where the Soviet NKVD took the men away.

Fritz evidently concluded that Vienna was no longer for him and he took himself to Palestine, sometime in the Forties.  I don't know when or how he arrived but he had a photo of himself in Tel Aviv after it snowed and that has happened only once in recorded history: In February 1950.  You can see photos here: (the text is in Hebrew).

Fritz clearly never got a divorce.  The Holocaust in  Latvia was almost total and I suppose his wife must have escaped to another part of the USSR.   So the whole thing was forgotten - at least on his side of the family - until that day in the early nineties when  a middle aged man knocked on his door.

In those days Israel was awash with Holocaust survivors. People with numbers tatooed on their arms were all over the place and I suppose to them Fritz might as well have been at Butlins (a  notorious British holiday camp organization), so Fritz had to shelve his history and get on with life.  It took a few years but Israeli society acknowledged the suffering of its European brethren in the Holocaust with an annual day of memory, which is today firmly engrained in the national consciousness and taught (some would say too much) in the schools.

People like Fritz on the other hand are forgotten and there must be very many of them because at least one and a half million Soviet Jews have migrated to Israel.  Fritz was persecuted  as a German, not as a Jew. The Germans meticulously and apparently proudly, counted how many Jews they had killed, so we all know exactly what happened and how many were killed. The Soviets on the other hand, preferred to hide their crimes and kept no records of how many they had killed or how many of them were Jewish.  There is far less information available or known about the Gulag.

After the Six Day War, Jewish activists like Nathan Sharansky were sent to the Gulag and became known as Prisoners of Zion. I read somewhere that they were the last political prisoners sent to the Gulag. The suffering of these people was publicly acknowledged and they were given social benefits on account of their experiences, but people like Fritz are forgotten.  Yet it seems to me, that they too are part of our national history and it is a pity that no effort is made to document their experiences.

Incidentally, Fritz is not the only person in my family to have come through the Gulag.  My partner's father, Michael, was sent to a camp as a child and grew up in the Gulag.  His family came from a village just inside the half of Poland which the Nazis took over in September 1939 and after a couple of months the German troops marched them to the border and sent them over to the Soviet side. The whole family was subsequently sent to an extensive Gulag camp.

If you found this interesting, you might like to read about how my Grandmother escaped from Nazi Germany on the Trans-Siberian railway and how my father got into England using a fake Polish passport.

1 comment:

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...