Grushvitsy Pervyye (Ukraine)
Robert Koby is the younger of two sons of Albert (Anschel) and Rose (Laisl) Kobylanski of Grushvitsy Pervyye, now in the Ukraine, a small town approximately 21 KM west of Rovno. Of its population of approximately 750, there were about 85 Jewish families. The others were ethnic Ukrainians, Poles, and Czechs. His father divided his activities between farming, and running a general store. Mr. Koby estimates his close family – grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, at about 35, and recalls a pleasant childhood prior to World War II.
After the start of the war his hometown was occupied by the Russians. Mr. Koby recalls no adverse activities against the Jews. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans took possession of the town. The military stayed only a few days, but the political units, the S.S., remained. Jews were required to wear the Star of David on their outer clothing as identification. Anticipating trouble, Koby’s father made arrangements with local farmers to hide the family, with the promise of rewards, i.e. land, livestock, buildings, etc., for doing so. Through other arrangements, word was received of a forthcoming round-up by the Nazis, so the family went into hiding.
Mr. Koby went with his father to a barn on a farm outside their village, but the first three days were spent in a ditch in the nearby forest. Only the farmer hiding them knew about their presence; not the farmer’s wife nor any of his children. The only food they had for several days was a very large block of butter that Mr. Koby’s father had taken with him when they left their home. Koby’s mother and brother found refuge at other locations, but joined them after several weeks as did one of his uncles. Jews who were caught were executed, a fate that befell Mr. Koby’s grandmothers and several cousins. To avoid detection they left the barn only at night and departed for another hiding place sometime during the winter of 1941-1942.
Their next hiding place was with a farmer, an ethnic Czech, on the other side of their village. There they hid in the center of a huge stack of straw. The farmer provided them with food and, when that was not possible, they ate only the bread which his father had brought along. His uncle left but a sister of his father’s, from Rovno, joined them in hiding. Her two sons were conscripted into the Russian army before its retreat. The uncle, her husband, was placed into a gas van and killed by the Germans and then buried in a mass grave with others from Rovno. Mr. Koby visited that site after the war. While in the haystack, Mr. Koby had the all-day job of killing lice in his and the others clothing. They stayed there for about six months but were forced to leave when a dog detected their hiding place and kept barking in front of it.
They then found refuge with a Ukrainian farmer, about two miles from their home, who raised pigeons. They stayed in the straw covered floor of the pigeon coop and were constantly subjected to pigeon droppings landing on them day and night. On moonless nights, they were able to go into the farmer’s field and gather wheat or other items missed by the machinery during the harvest. During that time they also were able to wash in the horse trough. For food they ate the pickings from the field, some of the seeds provided for the pigeons and hand-outs from farmers.
From there Mr. Koby, his father, mother, brother, and aunt were hidden on a very big collective farm by a Ukrainian man who was in charge of the pigs. They hid in the straw storage area of the pigsty and were provided with food by their benefactor whenever it was possible for him to do that without revealing the Kobys’ hiding place. The intervals between the Koby family receiving this food were sometimes several days long The family was in constant danger of being detected, not only by the Germans, but also by Ukrainian partisans who raided the collective farm for food and who were anti-Jewish.
Their next hid in a house three blocks from their home where two brothers, Czechs, were the village blacksmiths. The family stayed on the second floor, but only for about a month and then had to move to the farm of the blacksmith’s brother. A space was dug out under the pigsty for them and then covered with wooden beams and straw. While hiding in that space, they were subjected to having pig urine permeate that wood and straw ceiling and then seep down upon them.
One day the farmer informed the family that the Russian military was near and that liberation should follow. From his hiding place Robert Koby witnessed hand- to-hand combat between German and Russian soldiers. A day and a-half after learning that liberation was close at hand, the entire family came out of hiding and walked to their home.
They discovered that their home was occupied by the commander of the local Russian military who not only allowed them to re-occupy their house, but also feted them with an elaborate dinner. None of Mr. Koby’s family was able to eat much since their stomachs had shrunk during their years of hiding and food deprivation. All the people who had hidden the Kobylanski family tore up the promissory notes for rewards they had received earlier and would not accept any payments for hiding the family.
A sister of Mr. Koby’s father who lived in Detroit, Michigan, found out that the Kobylanski family had survived and made arrangements for them to come to the United States. After a stay of about nine months in ULM, Germany, they came to the United Sates in 1947. Of the close family, a total 16 people came to the U.S., but more than an equal number perished in the Holocaust.
In the United States Mr. Koby continued the schooling started while in ULM, eventually completing high school. He is married and has two daughters and one grandson. His father also adjusted well and became the owner of a furniture business.
The effects of the Holocaust continue to plague Mr. Koby causing sleep disorders from continuing nightmares about his experiences. He also has been unable to complete any visits to any Holocaust museums, and has difficulty speaking about his experiences. He allowed this, his first interview, because he believes he is one of the last of his generation and that the story of his family’s suffering must be told in the hope that it will help to prevent a recurrence of such tragedies.
Date of Interview: August 10, 2004
Length of Interview: 1 hour 56 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Hans R. Weinmann