WINDS OF CHANGE
By NAT GODINER
It was now 1915. As we entered mid-summer, the war was beginning to come closer to us. We heard that Warsaw had fallen and that the Germans were close to Brest-Litovsk.
It was almost Rosh Hashonnah and in Telechan there were many homeless refugees who had been driven from the shtetlach closer to the front lines. Also there were many soldiers enroute from the front deeper into Russia. Sounds, like faraway thunder, coming from the front were the first cannon shots we heard. Slowly they became louder and we knew that before long the German army would be here.
Right after Rosh Hashonnah, a large division of the retreating (Russian) army arrived in the shtetl. The first few days things were more or less peaceful, but then they began to rob and to beat; no young women could go out into the street.
That went on for several days. Two days before Yom Kippur, soldiers came to every Jewish house and demanded that every Jewish family leave the shtetl within fifteen minutes. They warned that whoever did not carry out these orders would be driven out with bayonets. Everyone had to go to the other side of the Oginski Canal – in other words, in the direction of Russia. They were very generous and informed us that every family could take with it whatever it wanted. But what could you take in 15 panic-stricken minutes? Some families had a wagon and a horse – truly everyone was envious of them. The majority could only take what they could carry on their backs. We quickly gathered up a little bread, some other food, and some clothes. Mother took the Shabbes candlesticks and some pillows. We had a problem with Chaya – she insisted on taking the Singer sewing machine that she had rescued from the first fire. Who was going to carry that machine? She was adamant. We took the sewing machine. And so, laden down with packs, we wended our way to the canal. Fortunately, the water level was very low since the Russians had burned the sluices the day before and the water had flowed out to the swamps. We crossed the canal and met many other Jews from the shtetl on the other side. The soldiers did not allow us to remain there. They drove us further away. We pulled ourselves along and reached a forest about 6 or 7 viorst from Telechan. We just could not go on any farther. Tired and hungry, we fell on the grass and immediately fell asleep.
The next morning when we awoke and looked, we saw that we were near the highway into Russia. The road was now very quiet. There was not a soul to be seen. The soldiers who had been with us had vanished. We spotted a field of potatoes, ready to be eaten. The local peasants had left everything and fled from the oncoming Germans. We dug up the potatoes, built a fire, and ate our first meal.
The rest of the day passed quietly. We could not sleep that night – all night long the army was retreating. They moved on foot, on horseback and in wagons. It was a strangely impressive, somewhat mystical and fantastic sight – seeing how the mighty army fell back, half-running, in the dark of the night, silently, as if they were ashamed of something. The following day was again quiet and peaceful. Again, no one could be seen on the road. That evening was Yom Kippur. We prepared for the fast with hot potatoes, said Kol Nidre, and davened (prayed) as well as we could in the dark. It is amazing how people adapt to new circumstances. Here we had overnight become homeless refugees, sleeping and eating in the fields, and life went on seemingly normally. All was quiet and calm except for an occasional sound of a child crying.
Late at night the march of the army began again. Soon the whole sky became red and we realized that the shtetl was burning. From the other side of town where the glass factory was, we saw the whole sky was lit up with flames. We knew that the factory was burning. That night was a repetition of the previous night’s retreat of the army withdrawing in the dark.
The next morning it again became quiet. Around midday several Russian soldiers on horseback appeared and rode on past us. Five minutes later we heard shooting very close by. Two of the soldiers ran over to one of the Jews who had a wagon packed with his household goods, threw his goods down on the ground and quickly drove to the spot where the shooting had come from. We saw them move some wounded soldiers onto the wagon and drive away. All became quiet again. We were very frightened and confused and did not know what to expect. Soon after, we saw several horseback riders wearing pointed helmets, approaching us. We understood that these must be German soldiers but we were not sure. There were rumors that Russian soldiers would often dress in German costumes to fool the Jews to see how they would react to the Germans. The soldiers came up to us and their first question was “Where are the Russians?” We were dumb with fright. Then they asked us where we were from and when we answered, they said, “Oh, from Telechan, everything is kaput in Telechan.” They told us we could go back if we wanted to, no one would bother us. Even though we knew that we no longer had a home in Telechan, we still felt much relieved.
Luckily, our house near the glass factory was not destroyed, and so for a while we still had a roof over our heads. About our life under the occupation, more in the next chapter…”
My father was 7 years old at the time these events occurred: I wonder if he knew Nat Godiner who was then twice his age. What must it have been like for a 7-year-old child to witness and experience such upheaval? What impact did this have on the shaping of a young child?
I recall my father telling me that he shined the shoes of the various occupying soldiers who trampled through Telechan and that the German soldiers treated them much better than the Russians. This was a great shock to me. My association, as a child who grew up during W.W.II, was that the Russians were our allies and the Nazis were the enemy. Apparently it was very different during World War I if you lived in Telechan and Eastern Europe. I recall other positive references about the Germans during this period including the fact that Jews in a given community celebrated when the German soldiers arrived after having driven off their oppressors, the Russian soldiers.
I obtained this account by Nat (Naftali) Gordiner, along with other material written by Gordiner from Daniel Schorr. Daniel Schorr is Nat Gordiner’ nephew and a distinguished news reporter. We had a brief and fruitful exchange of letters and material in 1992. Both Mr. Schorr’s parents were Telechan natives.
In a letter in which we were attempting to clarify our families’ relationship, Daniel Schorr relayed the following story:
“My mother was a very good friend of an Eisenberg family in Hartford. It was never clear to me whether they were related or came from the same town—probably the latter. I remember visiting them in Hartford in the 1920s (and hearing radio for the first time because WTIC Hartford was one of the first radio stations).” In the next paragraph he identified that the Eisenberg family in question had “ two children—Libby and Sam”. He was referring to Herschel Eisenberg’s family. In fact, it was his Herschel’s daughter, Libby (Medrich), who first told me she thought one of Daniel Schorr’s parents was from Telechan. That prompted my initial letter to him.
How interesting—one of America’s greatest radio reporters first heard a radio in Herschel Eisenberg’s house in Hartford.
When Libby first told me about Daniel Schorr she was in her mid 80’s. She recalled, quite vividly, that Dan, 8-9 years her junior, broke her brownie camera. She still seemed a little upset with him for that deed.