Greisdorf (Zikherman), Gita
Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia; Kuybyshev (Samara), Maryevka, Pestravka, Lomovka, Russia
Gita Zikherman Greisdorf was born November, 20 1931, in Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia, to Rachmiel Zikherman and Zelda (Zenia) Barkin Zikherman. She had a younger brother, Samuel, and loving grandparents, Avraham and Malka Barkin and Lieba and Avraham Zikherman. “I was just swimming in love. Everybody loved me. Everybody wanted to spend time with me because I was a very happy child. I was always dancing and singing. I looked like Shirley Temple, and had very curly hair, exactly like Shirley Temple’s hair.”
However, she remembers experiencing anti-Semitism from her Barkin grandparents’ neighbor, Willis, the father of her playmates, Erica and Betty. “He was a policeman, but he was a Nazi, and whenever he saw me, he was so full of hate he would try somehow to hurt me, come up and hold me very hard and try to kill me. Sometimes, he would throw me out of the house. He couldn’t stand that I was playing piano better than his daughters. And I was so afraid of him always. He was a terrible, terrible person; but I couldn’t make anything of it and I just tried to avoid him.”
Gita’s good life stopped on June 22, 1941, when she was 9½-years-old and the war with Germany started. When the bombs fell, they had to run to the basement of the big building across the street and she could not go out any more. Rachmiel was a tailor, but nobody needs a tailor in wartime. The shop was closed and he took a briefcase full of money, but the banks were already shuttered. So, he gave the money to a co-worker to find a bank. Instead, the co-worker took the money and lived on it. Zenia said, “Better to lose your money than your life or your health.”
Rachmiel was mobilized as a guard on the fire station tower. When the German army got close, all the other guards disappeared, and “He understood that it was very bad. So, he ran right away to the house where we were hiding. He said, ‘I don’t want you to panic. Everybody get up and take your children and go to the train station. I don’t know which one works. Take food. Whatever you can.’ And he took us. He really was a very good organizer and people listened to him. Otherwise it would be very bad, if there would be a panic.” Zenia ran across the street to their house and took some bread and sugar and they ran. “When I came out to the street I was so afraid. What I saw on the streets made me freeze because all of the streets were like dead. I didn’t see a lot of people, but I saw a lot of suitcases that were open and all the stuff from the suitcases, all the clothing and all the underwear and the socks, were floating all over the street. My father said the people could not carry the luggage with them because they had to run; so, they had to take some clothes that they needed.”
Luckily, they met a man who warned them not to go to the passenger train station because “whoever went there they took on the train, went just a little behind the city and waited, and then came back and took the people into the Nazi’s hand. That was a terrible, terrible crime.”
Instead, they ran to the freight train station, where there was a train with cattle cars. “There was no mechanic there to take the train, and my father was devastated. All these people were young and he was determined to save them and his children. He found a mechanic and the mechanic said ‘I am not taking you, I am not taking the train, you will be here by the Germans.’ Because he was a Nazi. My father didn’t know what to do, but all of a sudden, he sees a lieutenant from the army. He runs to him and he had a gun and he said, ‘You have to help me get him to take the train.’ So, the soldier put the gun to the mechanic’s head and said ‘You’re going now to take the train until we hit Russia.’ They were with the gun to him until they took him off the train to jail. And that’s how probably it was meant for us to be alive because of my father.”
“It was a terrible, terrible journey. First of all, I was in a very warm winter dress and it was summer and the cattle car was packed with people, the children were lying on the floor and their parents were packed together, sitting or standing, changing places. We didn’t have water. My mother was secretly giving us a little piece of bread with sugar; other people wanted to eat too, but she was saving it for the children. Every little while, we were bombarded by the Messerschmitt planes, that were flying very low to shoot at more people in the doors and sides of the cattle car. Thank God, our car was not. But when the bombarding started, they would open the door from the car and everybody would jump out and lie on the ground because this was safer. Since the train could not wait long, we were running back to catch it and had to crawl in, jump in. I don’t know how my father managed to throw us in and push in my mother and then himself, because there were no steps to climb in and it was pretty high.”
Gita still vividly remembers waking one morning to find a little old man, with a big grey beard, lying beside her, and he was dead. “When we stopped, people had to take him out and leave him there and not even be able to bury him.” She also recalls seeing another train that had been bombarded. “What I saw just made me sick because I saw parts of human bodies lying around. I saw brains and blood all around and it was so scary. My father said ‘See we were supposed to leave because if we had come before this train earlier, it was bombarded and killed all the people.’ So, they left when we came and this is what saved us.”
As they traveled deeper into Russia, “It was much easier because, at the train stations we were passing, people were coming out with food, with water, with hot water.” When they finally arrived into Kuybyshev (Samara) on the Volga, “My parents had to fill out papers to show what they could do because every person had to help to fight the war. The men were all mobilized; the women were all working, building beaches, building up the security around the cities, working in factories making weapons, making clothes. My father was a tailor so, luckily, he was assigned into the little villages where there were a lot of women who could sew warm clothes for the soldiers. My father was assigned to gather some sewing machines and he opened up places in five villages, where they sew for the front warm jackets filled with cotton and they were kind of puffy and warm; the same with slacks, filled with cotton, puffy and warm. This was his job, so that’s why he was not taken away from us. Otherwise we would not survive.”
At first, their family was assigned to live in a kolkhoz – a collective farm – in Maryevka and was given a house to live in. “The house was made from wood and the bottom was like clay. It was one room. It had a big oven and a little tiny kitchen to prepare food. There were two beds, a bench, not too big, and a wooden table. That was it. We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have clothes. We didn’t have blankets or pillows. Absolutely nothing. The Russian people in the villages are good-hearted people. Everybody brought us something. The kolkhozers are poor. They are not rich people. Some would bring us wooden spoons, maybe somebody had an aluminum spoon; maybe a wooden bowl; whatever they could they brought us. Somebody brought us a piece of material or an old blanket. We were sleeping on straw from the kolkhoz, so it wasn’t too hard. My parents were sleeping in one narrow bed, I was in the other, and my brother was next to me on the floor.”
Gita went to school. “I can see it like right now. The children saw us and somebody told them that ‘Those are Jewish people that came – the refugees.’ When we went outside to play, all the children started to look on our heads, and they felt here and here and here. I said, ‘Why are you touching my head? What are you looking for?’ ‘Horns.’ I said, ‘Horns, why are you looking for horns?’ ‘Because you’re Jewish.’ I said, ‘Did you ever see a Jew?’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘They do not have horns. Who told you that?’ ‘My grandparents.’ In these villages, people never saw or heard about Jews. They knew the word Jid, this is an anti-Semitic word for a Jew, and they were scaring the children that if they would not listen to them, a Jew would come and take them. So, they were very afraid of the Jew. But then the children said, ‘You don’t have horns, so we can play with you.’”
Gita, followed by the other family members, became ill with dysentery from drinking the water in the river. So, they moved to Pestravka, another village. That first winter, at the end of December, “My father saw that we had no clothes and it was very difficult to live already and the Germans were coming very close to Kuybyshev. He decided we had to move. And it was a bad decision. First, we had to go to Kuybyshev and take a train and go to Tashkent – to Asia. There it’s warm, never winter, but he didn’t know what it is in the reality…. There was no transportation, no cars, nothing, no trucks, just bulls, but there was a tractor in the kolkhoz. So, he asked the mechanic to take us to a bigger village or maybe to Kuybyshev itself. He agreed. The first night, the tractor broke down and there was a terrible frost – there was no heat, it was just a cabin, just walls, but nothing else. We thought we would freeze to death and this is it.” Her father could not bear it and left to look for a village, taking with him two boxes of matches and the tractor keys to scare off the wolves “because they don’t like this noise of metal and they don’t like fire.” As Gita’s feet started to freeze, all of a sudden, “like a mirage from afar, I see something like a horse. Then we see sleds and my father with another man from the village…. When we came to the village, a wounded man from the army came and said ‘You did the biggest mistake of your life. If you would bring your family to Tashkent, you would die.’ Tashkent had hunger and typhus and most of the people who went to Tashkent died from hunger and disease. His brother’s wife and children died there from hunger and disease. So, with the horse they brought us back to the kolkhoz in Pestravka.” There was no house, no place to grow food, so in February, they received permission to move to Lomovka.
There was no store in the village and food was rationed. “For the month, we would get a certain amount of grain and a bottle of syrup. The grain my father would take to the mill and make flour and into the flour we would add a little bit of bran and we would bake in the oven bread.”
Through the Red Cross, her mother’s two sisters in the big cities found them and her father agreed to take them in. Their husbands were in the army, along with their younger brother Sheil. One sister, Rachel Rudashevsky, was pregnant; the other sister, Dora Mirman, came with two children, Lazar and Rachel. Gita and her brother had to sleep on the oven and it was their savior because in the winter it was warm. “Everybody wanted to go on the oven; and this was the best place in the house.” In 1944, Rachel’s husband was wounded, lost an eye, was demobilized, and was sent to restore the city of Yeysk; Rachel, their daughter Rivetta, and her brother Sheil joined him. When Dora’s husband was demobilized, he took her and their children away to Riga.
Zenia was a sick woman, so Gita learned very early to work in the fields, planting and harvesting everything they needed to live on. She was responsible for spreading the fishing nets across the river and hauling in the catch. She became the big macher and her father was proud of her. She also spun yarn from the soft down that she collected from their pet goat, Raika, and knitted woolen socks, mittens, and hats for the family. “Raika was a beautiful goat and my friend and I loved her and had her for all the years. I remember her up to now because she was my friend, my only friend. From the first day, she didn’t let anyone come close to her. She had beautiful big horns, with a white star on her forehead. She was big size. And she did not let anybody milk her. When I came to her, she licked my face and I sat down and started milking her. Every morning, I milked her and she licked me and I loved her and she loved me.”
For four years, Gita had dreamed of having a dress and shoes. When the war ended and they came to Kuybyshev, “My father went to the market and bought some food and looked for a dress and shoes because I had to go home and I was dressed in shmattes. He brought me shoes and he brought me a little white with orange flowers summer dress…. I don’t remember the journey back to Daugavpils by train, but when we arrived we came with nothing, except two pillows” they had made by collecting feathers dropped by a flock of geese that lived on the little river that went through our village. “We had two pillows and a blanket that my father bought in Kuybyshev on the way home. So, we came rich. Nothing else we had in our hands.”
When they got off at the station in Daugavpils, the city was devastated; 75% of the city was ruined. They ran into a photographer that her father knew and he offered them hospitality for a few days in the storefront where he and his family were living. Then, the City gave them “a room in a big apartment where there were already living four families, everybody had a room. But there was no heat, nothing, and it was already starting to be cold, and we were on the naked floor.” Next, they moved into a one-room apartment with Aunt Rachel and her family.
When the Nazis first came to the city, her grandparents’ Latvian Nazi neighbor, “Willis ran to our apartment and took all our furniture, my piano, everything, all our belongings. After the war, people who saw it, came and told us who took our stuff and where we could find it on a farm where they lived after the war. My father went to the police and they came to the farm and found some of our furniture –a bed, my piano, our table with chairs, the mirror, and the armoire. So, all of a sudden, we were rich, we had furniture, with especially a bed. It was big, big luck for us…. Willis and all the others were hiding in the forest and a whole group was organized by the police to go in the forest. My uncle was the captain of this group and they caught and killed all of them. Thanks God. Justice was served.”
Gita also shares the many tragedies that befell her family members and friends. Her four grandparents, who were in their fifties, Malka and Avraham Barkin and Lieba and Avraham Zikherman, “were taken right away when the Nazis came into Daugavpils. All the old people were gathered in the jail courtyard and were put by the wall. They just shot them all and there were no old people left. And this was not old”.… Her father’s brother and sister and her three children were all killed in the ghetto…. Her mother’s brother, 20-year-old Chaim, who was planning to escape with his fiancée, Sheinale, went back to the ghetto to find her and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hid in the toilet, but the Germans saw him; so, he jumped into the sewer but they opened the door and shot him in the sewer, where he is buried…. Her aunt, Golda Gutkin, was two years married and she had a little baby; they took the baby and they killed him in front of her, then they shot her…. Another family, Krones, had a baby in a hole and the child started to cry. They had to put a pillow over him and suffocate him when the Nazis came to check if someone is hiding.
Itzik Igol, who later became Gita’s brother-in-law, marrying her husband’s sister, survived. He was married and had a wife and a little child and she was pregnant again. They took her in the middle of the ghetto and put him next to her and said ‘Now look’ and they killed his child and his pregnant wife. He was a tailor and they didn’t kill him because he was sewing clothes for them. He escaped and was hidden in a barn beneath the ground, along with four others, by a local villager. “They call him Yamka. In Russian, Yamka is a hole and they call him hole-y, the hole.”
Gita tells her powerful story, not only to share it with others, but because “I want people to understand that Nazism or anti-Semitism or hatred to other nations – small minorities – is a terrible thing for humanity. We are all human beings and we have to treat everybody with respect and humanity. And I want them to learn that bad never will bring good. Only good will bring good. Especially, the Jewish people are a treasure for the world with all the doctors, with all the scientists, with all the hard-working people, and with all the musicians, like Irving Berlin who wrote God Bless America.”
Date of Interview: August 10, 2016
Length of Interview: 66 minutes
Interview by: Daniel Cooper
Videographer: Daniel Cooper
Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser