Research

Migdalewicz, Gerald

Survivor/Camps, Escapee, Member of the Russian Underground

David-Horodok (Poland), Lakhva, Lenin, Hancewicze

Gerald was born in 1930 in David-Horodok, Poland, a town of about eight thousand, of which half were Jewish.  His family consisted of his father, Berel, his Mother, Itka, a brother, Chaim and a sister, Sonia.

His extended family consisted of aunts, uncles, cousins and paternal grandmother, Risha.

His family was close and celebrated all the Jewish holidays and his father belonged to a religious sect similar to the Lubavitchers.    

His father was a cattleman, who bought and sold cattle, giving the family a very comfortable life.  Their house, a log cabin, was built by Gerald’s paternal grandfather where he lived with his family and grandparents. The women stayed home, cleaning and cooking and the children went to public school four hours every day. They studied math, languages and also Hebrew.  They also attended their synagogue daily, one of the five synagogues in close proximity to their home.  This was the center of their social activity.

Shabbos was a delight, with his mother and grandmother cooking all day Friday preparing roast chicken, kugel, challah,  and he and his father attended services on the Sabbath.   After services, they sat on their back porch, conversing with their neighbors.

He had no non-Jewish friends, but his father associated with non-Jewish farmers.
The non-Jews, the Poles, were very anti-Semitic, often calling them names.

Gerald had many household chores because his father was gone for business weeks at a time.  He took care of the horses, cows and chickens.  He also helped around the house and attended to his younger brother and sister.

His family was totally unaware of what was happening as there was neither electricity nor radios until one year before the war broke out.  They used a kerosene wood oven which also heated their home.  They carried water from their neighbor’s well and used an outhouse.

In 1939, the Russians and Germans split Poland, putting them under Russian occupation.  Their Hebrew lessons were halted and going to Synagogue was frowned upon.  His cousins said “go East” to Moscow, but his Mother refused to leave.

The Germans came and within a few weeks, the Jews began to live in fear and were chased out of town, the Poles helping the Germans to hasten the process.  Women and children were rounded up and could only take what they could carry easily.  They went to Lakhva and stayed with friends.  The walk there was fifteen miles and, although he was only eleven, Gerald carried his five year old brother, who was crippled from polio.

Next, they went to their Father’s hometown, Lenin, and stayed with family.  They walked about forty miles in one week.  The Germans formed a ghetto, which was guarded by the Poles, who brought them food and were nicer than the Poles in his hometown.  There were 25-50 people per house, 1500 in total.  There was no work, little food and people were starving.

One night, he was rounded up and taken to a train, placed in a cattle car and never saw his family again.  The train traveled all day and night with 300 in each car, no food, nor sanitation.  He was taken to Hancewicze labor camp where there were wooden barracks, bunk beds with straw and no blankets.  

The German guards took them to cut down trees and build roads.  He was very frightened, could not understand their language and once, had their dogs turn on him because of his failure to lift a heavy box.  They were given one bowl of soup (brown dishwater) per day and no bread.  There were three hundred Jewish men in his camp.  He was there three months, often feeling very ill, with toothaches and an infection from a bee sting, but there were no medical facilities  No relationships with other inmates were formed.

One night, there was talk that everyone in his hometown was killed, so the prisoners began jumping over the wire fences and ran into the woods.  Soldiers were shooting and dogs chasing and barking.  He followed others into the swamps, walking all night with about ten others.  They were trying to get to Moscow.  This was in August of 1942.

They knocked on farmers doors, asking for food.  Some farmers were sympathetic and the closer they got to Russia, the more sympathy they received.
Some gave them shirts, but they made their own shoes out of tree bark and fastened them with strips of rags.

Waking up one morning, Gerald found that he was deserted, so he continued on for two more weeks.  He found a couple that took him in and even offered to keep him because they were childless, but he wanted to fight the Germans.  The couple told him how to find the Russian underground, which he did, finding the commander because he spoke Russian.  The commander’s wife was a Russian Jew, who was also in the army.  Gerald’s work was caring for the horses.

He stayed in a home with a family, everyone living in one room.  He would bring them meat and flour to make their dinner.  This was the fall of 1942 and he was only twelve years old.

The Underground now numbered around forty thousand and had their own radio station and airport.  Gerald became the assistant to the commander, given a rifle and formed ambushes, killing Germans.  He also carried dynamite, burying it, always feeling like he was “getting even.”  He was killing German collaborators, building underground houses and volunteering for all dangerous missions.

He never heard anything about Auschwitz.  His company had three hundred men, of which only four were Jews, but there was no discrimination.  His unit leader’s name was Tchaikovsky, same name as composer, and his outfit was called “Chikalobau.”  On occasion, he received canned American food.

The underground made steam baths out of rocks and cleansed themselves and washed their clothes.  He was happy, made friends, played music, sang and danced every night, but was internally saddened about his family.

He was given a choice to go into the Russian army or go to officer’s school, but he decided to go back to his home, which he found was burnt to the ground, along with the entire town.  He then went to Lodz, but didn’t understand the atrocities.  In the spring of 1945, he got Red Cross papers and was sent to
Czechoslovakia where he spent two weeks, then on to Prague, Bavaria, where he met people who were in the camps.  He was in good shape compared to others his age who were undernourished and sick.  It pained him to hear their stories.  He was in a DP camp from the Fall of 1945 until the summer of 1947.

There, he was given lessons in Hebrew and English and learned about many trades.  He trained to be an electrician.  There was observance of not only major Jewish holidays, but also the Sabbath.  The teachers were from Palestine, and tried to persuade everyone to go there.

He found his relatives, the Mikacheviches, who escaped to Siberia in 1941 and survived the war.  His aunt (Slutsky), stayed with them in their camp.  He found an uncle in Detroit, Louis Palavi on Broadstreet, who wanted him.  He was now
seventeen years old and excited about coming to America.  He arrived on August 8, 1947, landed in New York, having spent eleven days and nights crossing on the SS Marina Marlene.  The Jewish Social Services took him and 700 other children to a hotel in the Bronx.  He was there two weeks, seeing Jones Beach, The Empire State Building and was overwhelmed with the sightseeing.  

He went by train to Detroit, wearing his new clothes, given him by Jewish Services.  The only thing he kept was a belt he had taken off a dead German, replacing the swastika with a Jewish star.  His uncle met the train, took him into his home, giving him his first unshared bedroom.  Gerald attended Hutchins “Americanization” classes, learning math, history, etc.

He became a citizen in November of 1952, married Toby on January 25, 1953 when he was twenty-three.  They have four sons, two daughters and four grandchildren.  He lived and worked in Detroit, but never spoke of his experiences during the war to anyone but his wife.

He owed his survival to being a “fast runner and never giving up.”

Interview information:

Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Date: 12/16/91
Length: 1:55
Format: Video recording