Survival in Siberia

By Menachem Klibansky

I was born in Keidan, Lithuania. During the First World War, we were exiled to Russia and settled temporarily in the city of Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad). In 1921 we returned to our home at Number 5 Market Square, Keidan.  My parents opened a small grocery store, which gave us our livelihood.

I began my studies in the cheder of Reb Meishe Khone Shamesh, of blessed memory. A few years later I went to Kovno to study in the yeshiva there. Because my parents’ little grocery shop couldn’t support a family of seven, we moved to Kovno in 1932, where my father, of blessed memory, was hired as secretary to the adult religious school in Slobodka.

I continued to learn in the yeshiva, but, tempted away by secular matters, I began to attend Zionist clubs and different youth organizations until I decided to join the Beitar movement in Kovno. I left the yeshiva and prepared to take the matriculation examination for university. My parents didn’t have the means to send me to university, however, so I was forced to take a job. I worked as secretary of the Tel Chai fund.

I never forgot Keidan, and used to visit there often, and when I finished the Beitar officers’ school in Krekenava, under the direction of Yirmiyahu Halpern, of blessed memory, I asked the governing body of Beitar to send me as an instructor to Keidan, where I prepared a group of platoon leaders.

In 1941 I was arrested by the Russian secret police and exiled to Siberia, together with my mother and young brother Gershon. Father fell ill at that time and remained in Kovno. When the Germans came he was interned in the Slobodka ghetto. In 1944, in the final aktsion against the children and the aged, he was taken by the Nazis to the Ninth Fort and never returned.

Until 1942 we were not far from the town of Biysk in the District of Altai, on a “sovkhoz” (state-owned farm). From there they sent me to work in the taiga forest for two months, about 200 kilometers from our sovkhoz. I labored there with some other men from Kovno and when I once organized a hike to another state farm, I met a woman from Keidan named Wolpert, with her two children, Eliezer and Frieda, (the latter of whom fell ill and died there soon after). I also met another woman from Keidan named Rachel Gutman, with her two daughters, Riva and Chana. Their husbands had been sent to a concentration camp for men and never saw their families again.

On our sovkhoz we were organized into work teams. The aged men and women did “light” work, while we men did hard and exhausting labor. We were eight young, strong men who were sent every day to work in the fields, eight kilometers away from the sovkhoz. We worked from six in the morning until ten at night, without sufficient food for such arduous labor. But even starvation didn’t break our spirit. Every day we went to work singing Hebrew songs, and returned from work still singing. The local inhabitants of the farm immediately knew when we left and when we returned as they heard our songs from a distance. They liked the songs so much that their youth knew them by heart, and wherever you turned you could hear young gentiles singing “Tel Chai…”

I was shocked when I received my first wages: 40 roubles. Our family could subsist on this for only four days. I complained that it was impossible to live on such low wages, especially for such hard labor. The next day the farm’s wall newspaper stated, “In the opinion of Klibansky, Soviet wages are insufficient.”

I immediately requested an appointment with the local secretary of the Communist party and told her the whole story. She promised to come to our work place and would even work alongside us to understand our situation.

In fact she did arrive the next day, and worked with us for only one hour, because she didn’t have the strength to work more at such a pace. She immediately called a general meeting of workers and supervisors. They brought us to the meeting in a large cart, together with her. Once the cart started moving we began singing our Hebrew songs, and she liked them so much that she clapped her hands, without knowing what we were singing about.

At the meeting she rebuked the supervisors because they were not recording the correct amount of work we were doing; this was the reason for our poor earnings. She also contended that she had never seen such workers in her life, and named us the “Stakhanovite brigade[1]”. Our wages improved, as did the attitude toward us.

When Passover approached, my mother, of blessed memory, organized matzo baking. It was one of the most difficult things to do, considering the conditions under which we lived. First, there wasn’t enough flour; second, there was nowhere to set up a facility, but no obstacles could deter her in fulfilling the commandment and observing religion and tradition. She overcame all difficulties, and every Jewish family in the sovkhoz had matzo for Passover.

We all lived in the club, a large, long hall, and there we organized the seder. After reciting the Haggadah and eating the kneydlach, we began singing and dancing. When we did the hora the enthusiasm was overwhelming, so much that one woman jumped on the table and began to dance, and everyone around clapped hands. The inhabitants of the farm, who were standing at the windows, caught our enthusiasm and began to participate in the song and dance, until it was impossible to differentiate who were the real revellers, they or we.

The seder left a mighty impression on our Jews, and everyone said they had never before participated in such a wonderful celebration.

In June 1942 they transferred us to the far north, to Bykov Mys, Bulun district, in the Yakutia Autonomous Republic. The Gadya family from Keidan was not far from us, a woman named Rosa, her son Yosef and her daughter Rachel. The son worked as a bookkeeper there. One day, he had to submit the annual balance sheet to the district administration. The only transport was by dog-drawn sleds. A mighty blizzard came up. Whenever this happened, the dogs stretched out on the snow and refused to move until the blizzard abated; they remained like that on the road for several days. The result was horrendous: Yosef’s hands and feet froze and part of his face was frostbitten. He was taken to the capital, Yakutsk, by plane and operated on in the hospital. They amputated his hands, his nose and a few of his toes. He became disabled and unemployed, and lived with his sister in Vilna. His mother died a few years ago. He now lives in Israel.

Bykov Mys is a peninsula, bordered by the frozen Arctic Ocean on one side and the Lena River on the other. This river is 40 kilometres wide in places. The peninsula lies 2,000 kilometers from the North Pole. Darkness reigns there for three months in the year, when the sun doesn’t show itself at all, and for three months there is no night. The sun disappears completely and it is impossible to distinguish between day and night. The Yakuts live there, a tribe similar to the Eskimos. Their main activity is fishing.

Each of us received 20 nets, each net 25 meters long; in exchange we had to give a certain quantity of the catch to the factory (where they were salted and sent on to the interior of the country.) There were usually fish in the nets in October when the fishing season began. After that, the nets remained almost empty, and because of this life became very difficult. There was hardly a slice of bread each day; hunger so depressed people’s spirits that one of us committed suicide.

The Jewish community in Bykov Mys was cohesive and unified, including about fifty families. Due to the initiative of my mother, two charity funds were established, Tzdaka Gdola and Gmilut Chassadim. These were a great help to those families who, for various reasons such as sickness, couldn’t participate in the fishing and thus had no livelihood. On Shabbat there was a prayer minyan in my mother’s house and the same happened on holy days and festivals. In our first year in Bykov Mys we were officially and publicly given a holiday from work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, due to the decency of the factory manager. I think this was the only place in the entire Soviet Union that such a thing happened.

Young people used to gather at my small apartment. We taught them to read Hebrew, the Bible and so on, and also those Hebrew songs that we remembered from our childhood. All this bore fruit. One must point out, that in contrast with other settlements in the Soviet Union, there was no hint of assimilation among us, and not even one case of intermarriage. Young people left this place after many years, strong in their Jewish national spirit. Most are now in Israel.

In 1956 I was able to return to Lithuania and settled in Vilna. It was here I began my struggle to get out of the diaspora and return to my homeland. The struggle lasted 13 years until eventually, on May 1, 1969, I made aliya to Israel.

Translated by Bella Golubchik


[1] Named for Aleksei Stakhanov, held up as a Soviet hero for his allegedly near-superhuman work effort.