My Grandmother's Story
Interview by Dalia Levine
My grandmother, Sonia Bar, was only in her teens when Hitler spread messages of hatred across Europe and the world. Her remarkable experience about how she escaped, and the hardships she endured, was told to us when she visited my school in October. My grandmother was born in Radzivillof, Poland on June 10, 1922. She had two younger siblings, a sister named Sarah and a brother named Isaac. In her hometown, she was surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins; about 200 people were in her extended family. Her father made a comfortable living by selling eggs. Belonging to the middle class, she and her family lived a very comfortable and successful life until 1939 when Hitler rose to power.
In 1939, Poland was divided between the Germans and Russians; the Russians entered the divided Poland. "I lived in the Russian Zone (Radzivillof, Poland) at this time. I found myself surrounded by a new regime, language, and regulations," she told me. Sonia had to study the new language (Russian) from the beginning.
"It wasn't easy, but I knew that in order to survive I had to do my best," she stated. She continued her education and received an assistant teaching diploma. Sonia was given a job teaching children in the second and fourth grades, preparing illiterate youths before they were mobilized to the army.
In 1941, she married Israel Bar, whose father sold tobacco and owned a food store. Eight days after marrying Israel Bar, the Germans crossed the border and broke their agreement with the Russians. And, thus began the "cruelest" war. There were rumors that England was going to be involved in the fighting, and for this reason people hesitated to leave their property and run away. In addition, people remained because the Russian borders weren't open for everyone.
"There were rumors that the Germans were cruel, but nobody could believe that something so catastrophical as this could happen," Mrs. Bar told me.
Because my grandmother was a teacher, she was forced to teach about Joseph Stalin, "as it was written in the text books," provided by the authorities. As a result of this, she was deemed a communist. "I was far away from being a communist then, and I'm far away from being one today!" she said. She was afraid that the Ukraine population, which hates communists, would punish her family because of her (teaching about Stalin and communism). She urged her husband to ask the Soviet authorities, with whom he worked with and did favors for, to help them escape from the German occupied Russia.
A miracle happened; one of the people agreed to take my grandparents a few kilometers so that they could be closer to the Russian border. "My heart sank to see the people who weren't able to go on the truck. It was one of the only trucks out. On the truck was a judge, the head of the police, and other important people," she stated.
She said, "I started the life of a refugee -- with only the clothes that I had made myself. We [my husband and I] ran, and nightly bombing followed. There were one hundred jets in one squad." She began her way through Kiev, then Krakov, then Stalingrad. (She went on a two thousand kilometer journey.) To cross the border, all the children were given sleeping pills so that they would not cry. As refugees they got three hundred grams of bread a day -- that's all. With the little jewelry they possessed from their wedding, they were able to get enough money to escape in time. In addition to selling their jewelry, they used cigarettes to buy bread.
She and her husband were brought to unsettled areas in Asia and Europe. During the war, she spent five years in Russia. "There wasn't even water," she remarked. The refugees had to build shelter for themselves. Fifty people slept in every shelter. The refugees started to build a metal factory. "He who didn't work did not receive bread," she stated. Bread was the only food they could get -- no milk, no sugar -- just bread and water.
While in a refugee camp Mrs. Bar got malaria. As a result of the malaria, she started to shake and get "the chills." Even though her temperature was as high as forty degrees Celsius, she survived because she had hope, faith, and courage. "Dirt, mosquitos, lice -- a lot of people died, but I survived," she said.
When the war ended, Mrs. Bar and my grandfather went back to Kielce, Poland, but not her hometown, because there were pogroms there. On her way to Poland, while riding in a train composed of seventy cattle cars, she gave birth to my mother, Rivka, near Tashkent, Russia. The conditions on the train were atrocious. There wasn't even water or cloth to clean the baby. Later, she wrote letters to people of her town to see if anyone survived. She received the terrible and shocking news that all their relatives were brutally massacred by the Nazis.
"Without knowing the past, we will not know the future."
She left Poland and continued to Czechoslovakia, Austria, France, and finally to Germany where she spent two years in a displaced persons' camp. In May 1948, when Israel was declared a state, she went to Israel, "The Promise Land," with her family on an illegal boat called the Galilee.
Again, they started a new life, in a new country with a new language. When they began their life in Israel, they had nothing. Sonia's first job in Israel was tending to chickens on a chicken farm. She could not work far from home because she had to tend to her two daughters, Nina and Rivka. Her husband did not know that she worked on the side. He would not have allowed this because he did not believe that his wife should work.
"It was not easy, but I took courses again to renew my diploma. I became a teacher," she said. In 1948, when olim (newcomers) came to Israel, Mrs. Bar had fifty-six students in her class. She worked very hard and raised two daughters.
"It was difficult, but pleasant," Mrs. Bar said. "We built a beautiful country, with a lot of hope that brutality and Nazism would never ever rule the world!" Mrs. Bar told me.
Before the Holocaust, Mrs. Bar never believed that someday she would be so poor. During and after the Holocaust, she found herself in this situation. After the Holocaust, she tried to build up her future, but she was a different person. "The sun shines differently on me -- after what happened. I'm the only one who survived from a family of two hundred. Only five people survived from my town," she told me.
Mrs. Sonia Bar believes that the Holocaust is a lesson; even if the Germans were trying to protect themselves saying: " 'We only obeyed the rules,' and other people saying, 'There was never a Holocaust,' they should experience what it is like to be the only survivor from a family of two hundred. Maybe then people will understand what we [the persecuted] went through. Who knows if their (Nazi) poisoned minds will ever clear up, and if the future will be better?"
Mrs. Bar adds, "Without knowing the past, we will not know the future. Everybody should understand that there are good people and bad people; I know that the Germans were a belligerent people fighting for expansion. The geographic location determined the actions during World War II, but their actions were not justified."
Mrs. Sonia Bar now resides in Israel. She is a retired school teacher, who taught in Israel for seventeen years. She now helps Russian "Olim" (newcomers) learn Hebrew. Mrs. Bar speaks seven different language which include German, Russian, Polish, Ukraine, Jewish (Yiddish), Hebrew, and English. Mrs. Bar gets great pride from seeing the successes of her two daughters, four grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.
Thanks to Mary Pottanant who helped with interview notes.
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