Jack Gun was born and grew up in Rozhishche, Poland, with his father, mother, older sister, and older brother. His extended family included approximately twelve to fourteen cousins, only one of which survived the war (at age 18, by running away with the Russian army). His father had a reputation as a very generous man, and his house was something of a gathering place for Jews in Rozhishche. In addition to running a fabric store (where Gun’s mother worked), shipping eggs, and running a wholesale tobacco business (with the mayor, whose name the license was in, because Jews weren’t allowed to own tobacco companies), his father gave a part of their home over to a Hebrew school for underprivileged children.
When war broke out in September 1939, the Germans only occupied Rozhishche for a few weeks before it became part of the Russian zone of Poland. Gun was five years old at the time; almost everything he knows about the period was told him by his brother. The Russians didn’t bother Jewish citizens (who Gun estimates made up about a third of Rozhishche), but they did stifle free enterprise, nationalizing Gun’s father’s businesses. They also inquired into business practices, and those with unsavory or uncharitable reputations were shipped by train to Siberia. Unfortunately, Gun’s father was not one of them. (His new job, in the meantime, involved office work in a hospital). Unfortunately, Gun says, because most of those shipped to Siberia survived.
German soldiers bombarded the town in 1941, soon regaining control. Shortly thereafter, Jewish citizens (those who had not fled) were marched into the ghetto – the poorest part of the city with the worst housing. Gun remembers carrying a pillow, and asking his brother why his Christian next-door-neighbor, with whom he was friends, wasn’t coming. The only answer his family could give him was that he wasn’t Jewish, which didn’t mean a whole lot to a seven-year-old. In the ghetto, the five of them shared one room; the food was scarce and the running water outdoors. Ghetto police were a constant threat. Gun remembers looking out of the window and seeing people being hit with rifle butts for no apparent reason. Every so often, the German government would put out a notice to the ghetto police demanding that they raid households and collect a quantity of gold or people would be killed. The community was essentially held hostage.
Before the invasions, Gun’s father had given many of their possessions to a family friend, a Czech farmer named Mr. Yarushka. While they lived in the ghetto, he used to sneak food to them. One day he snuck Gun’s sister (blonde and blue-eyed) out of the ghetto and to his farm, until homesickness made her ask to be reunited with her family.
His father and brother worked on a base outside of the ghetto, storing taxes (in the form of livestock and agriculture) brought to the German government by farmers. When rumors of liquidation arose in late August of 1942, they decided to sneak Gun out of the ghetto with them, where, during the work day, he hid in a pile of hay. His mother was to have done the same with his sister, but his father was informed that many people, his wife and daughter among them, had not been allowed out of the ghetto that day. Gun and his brother were instructed to stay in the hay overnight while their father returned to the ghetto to stay with his wife and daughter. He did not return in the morning. Gun recalls instead that German soldiers called for any Jews in the base, and stuck bayonets into hay piles, some of them coming within inches of him. Eventually they left. Gun and his brother remained there for the entire day. They snuck out at nightfall, walking for about a mile until taking shelter in the attic of a barn they encountered along the way. In the attic, they found two other Jews already hiding. In the morning, they were discovered by a farmer. He was the first to tell them that the ghetto had been liquidated: that all the Jews in the ghetto had been taken twenty kilometers out of the city, ditches had been dug, and approximately 4500 people had been shot, including Gun’s father, mother, and sister.
The farmer asked them to leave his premises at nightfall. From there, Gun and his brother walked the fifteen kilometer distance to Mr. Yarushka’s farm. One of the men in the attic, a former buggy driver, had given them directions. The Czech farmer promised to do everything in his power to protect them. During the day, they lay in tall wheat fields, where Gun fell prey to sunstroke. When the wheat was harvested, they hid in the depths of a nearby forest with other runaways, including one of the men from the attic. A group of Ukrainian bandits occasionally tried to steal what little they had, requiring them to constantly resettle. At times, German soldiers shot into the forest with machine guns. Gun and his brother returned to the farm to request food whenever they and the others needed it. Once they faced an interrogation from a Ukrainian policeman.
Before winter fell, Gun’s brother, Mr. Yarushka, and another man dug a bunker in an empty field, where the two brothers spent the winter, along with the man and his small daughter. It was a pitch-black hole covered with a camouflaged wooden door. There was just enough room for the four to sit in. There were also lice. At night they would get out in order to shake them off – the frost would kill them. During the day, they were forced to do any elimination inside the bunker. Gun attributes his present-day claustrophobia to the time that he spent in the bunker.
When their bunker was nearly discovered by a German official with whom Mr. Yarushka was hunting, they made arrangements to hide instead with another man – a friend of the father and daughter. Realizing that they had merchandise at Mr. Yarushka’s, the man kept ordering that they bring him shares of it. When they realized that he was trying to suck them dry, they left him abruptly in order to return to Mr. Yarushka’s farm. Their last alternative was to hide with a very poor employee of his, a Ukrainian named Mr. Primos, who lived in a one-room house with no neighbors for miles around. There, the brothers divided their time between his potato cellar and his house, where all six of them slept at night – Gun, his brother, the man, his wife, and their two small daughters.
When spring arrived, they returned to the woods, where they met up with the father and daughter again and Gun’s brother developed the unfortunate habit of slipping details about himself. Mr. Primos agreed to take them in for another winter, and one night they were discovered. A sheriff ordered Primos, on pain of death, to bring up the two Jewish boys that he was said to be hiding. “What could he do?” Gun says. They were brought out. With the sheriff was the farmer with whom they had stayed very briefly before realizing that they were being swindled. He had learned where they were spending the winter. What happened next amounted to the sheriff giving Gun’s older brother a shopping list – both men knew that the brothers had merchandise in Mr. Yarushka’s home and they wanted it. Upon the farmer and the brother’s return from Yarushka’s farm (the sheriff had remained with Gun, whom he threatened to kill if they did not return with the requested goods), the boys were told that the men would tell no one where they were, and that they were as safe as ever. Then they left, and that, thankfully, was that. To the boys’ surprise and gratitude, Primos agreed to keep hiding them. Realizing also that Yarushka was running out of resources, Primos refused to accept any more help for supporting them, somehow scraping together the money himself.
In March 1944, however, they were liberated by Russian soldiers, who took them back to their home in Rozhische. Many Jews from the woods came to stay with them – the house had no indoor plumbing, but it was spacious, and relatively untouched by bombing. (In the attic, they found the addresses of relatives in the States.) When German soldiers invaded Rozhishche once more, Gun and his brother escaped on Russian army trucks to Rivne, where they lived in a hospital complex with other refugees. Gun and his brother used to saw wood for an elderly couple in exchange for dried bread, which, along with water, made up their diets. When they could return once again to Rozhishche in early summer, they both fell victim to typhoid fever. His brother recovered in an army hospital, but Gun insisted on recovering at home – the only time he actually remembers crying during his entire experience was when doctors tried to take him to the hospital.
In the autumn, his older brother was drafted into the Russian army and allowed 24 hours to settle his affairs. Instead, he opted to leave town, promising Gun that he would eventually send for him. Until then, Gun was to remain in the house, under the care of an elderly woman. Despite persistent questioning, often at midnight, he was unable to tell the Russian army where his brother had gone, and they soon left him alone. Shortly afterward, he found out that his brother had gone to a Russian city about one hundred kilometers away, where he worked for the Russian government under another name.
Gun has vivid memories of standing out in the street watching a Russian parade when an envoy of his brother’s arrived to fetch him. Together again, he and his brother lived in a one-room apartment in the distant city, where the only incident occurred when a Ukrainian from Rozhishche recognized his brother on the street and tried to talk to him. Frightened about word getting back that he had been seen, he tried to smuggle first his younger brother and then himself back into Poland. The attempt failed, and Gun was detained by Russian police for several days. When he was released and returned to his brother, the two of them set about returning legally. On the immigration committee, they found a Polish man who had known their father, and who managed to speed up the return process for them. Gun’s brother also ran into his present wife, Manya, for the second time – she had visited Rozhishche once and stayed in their house. She was a warm person and Gun took an instant liking to her. She accompanied them to Poland. Once there, learning that anti-Semitism was still frighteningly rampant in the country, they availed themselves of an organization helping Jews out of Poland, travelling as Greeks and speaking either Hebrew (because it resembled Greek) or nothing. They made the journey, by foot and train, to a hospital complex in Vienna, Austria. From there, they were among the refugees sent to Linz, also in Austria, where they lived in an American DP (Displaced Persons) Camp. There, they encountered a steady supply of food and even supplementary packages from the United States once a month. His brother was 21 by then and worked in an office outside of the camp. His sister-in-law (they married in 1946) taught Hebrew in the camp’s school, where Gun received his first schooling.
His sister-in-law, a lifelong Zionist, wanted to move to Palestine, but Gun’s brother, after surviving what he had, was in favor of a more comfortable lifestyle. Eventually their requests were processed and they came first to Munich, where they underwent medical tests, and finally to New York (by an army ship – Gun recalls being sick for the entire ten days of the trip). They stayed first with second cousins in New York, and then with Manya’s relatives in Detroit, where her uncle offered Gun’s brother a job. They then visited their relatives in Pennsylvania, with whom Gun stayed until his older brother settled into Detroit. For a time, Gun went to school in Pennsylvania and worked in the family grocery, rarely speaking of his experiences, even though his schoolmates bombarded him with questions after a local newspaper published an article about him (headline: “He’s Mere 15 But Has Lived 1,000 Years”).
Mr. Gun says that he has only opened up about his experiences in the last ten years or so. He used to put off telling his own family – whenever his children would press him for details, he would send them to his uncle. He feels now that it is his duty to talk to the public about his ordeal, and he counts on his listeners (many of them schoolchildren) to tell his story when he is no longer able to.
He returned to Poland in 1992 with his brother and two of his brother’s oldest children, where they were present at the inauguration of a monument on the site where the nearly 4,500 Jewish citizens of Rozhishche had been killed.
Date: August 12, 1999
Length: 2 hours 32 minutes
Interviewer: Sidney Bolkosky
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video recording