Nachbar (Wygoda), Rae
This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Pultusk (Poland), Bialystok, Northern Soviet Union, Uzbekistan
Rivka (Rae) Wygoda, the youngest of five children, was born to Avraham Gershon Wygoda and Dvorah Leah Shrut Wygoda in Pu?tusk, Poland. Her eldest brother Leo [Weber] was born in 1919; followed by Bronia [Melman] in 1921; Ann [Leikach] in 1923; Mark [Webber] in 1928; and Rae on January 10, 1932.
Rae was seven when the war, so she has very few memories of life in Poland before the war. “It was a very unexceptional childhood … but it was a very loving family. It was an observant family, but my father was a secularist in the sense that he was reading Yiddish literature. My father, as his father was, was a candy maker, catering to the local populace and the vicinity around it. He was expanding the business and he invented a new product, a chocolate halva, which apparently was very lucrative and very well received. So if the war hadn’t come, maybe it would have come to something big.” Although her mother was not an educated woman, she “was an unusually gifted housewife” and could cook, bake, and sew.
Rae believes that she must have gone to one grade in Pu?tusk, “but there was something about my early childhood that I blocked out. It is as if I was reborn in this country.” She does remember that the Jewish and Polish populations “were segregated, except business-wise. Apparently there were some Poles in our building, including a caretaker who was also our “Shabbos goy.” But other than that, we went to different schools and there was basic animus both ways. I don’t think I heard anybody talk favorably about the Poles because they were considered anti-Semites; that was how I was brought up. So I did not rub shoulders with them.” She does recall talk at home about her mother’s brush with anti-Semitism late one night when she was going through the courtyard of their apartment and was accosted by some drunken Polish boys. “That usually happened on the eve of Easter when they were angry at the Jews for killing Christ.”
Rae describes her family’s odyssey between 1939 and 1948 from Pu?tusk Poland to Bialystok Belorussia, to a penal colony in the Russian forest, to Mirzachul in Uzbekistan, to Lódz Poland, to a displaced persons camp in Feldafing Germany, and finally to the United States.
“On September 1, 1939, the war broke out and as the clouds of war were gathering, I didn’t understand it. I was too young to know, but I sensed the tension in the family. Everybody was worried. Prior to the Germans’ arrival in Pu?tusk, we tried to run away to W?grów [Vengrov], which was 30-some miles away by horse and buggy. But when the Germans came to that town, we decided to come back to Pu?tusk. Our apartment was not ransacked, and for now we were at least at home…. On the eve of Sukkot, September 26, 1939, the Germans ran from house to house and knocked on our doors; get out, get out, get out right away. So we got out with what we were wearing, except my father had the presence of mind to empty a sack of potatoes and he threw in some linens and some underwear. We left with what we were wearing. They drove us to a place where they gathered all the Jews and checked what possessions you had. They would take money if you had any money. Miraculously my brother Mark somehow managed to keep some money that father had given him. And my sister also managed somehow. They drove us across the River Narew that bordered on Pu?tusk. A former Jewish maid of ours lived there and she welcomed us warmly. We assumed we would stay there a day or two and go back home; we didn’t realize that this meant forever. But they came the next day and they drove us on and on for more than a week, stopping at night because there was a curfew.” They walked to the Bug River, which was the border between Russian-occupied Poland and German-occupied Poland, crossed to the Russian side, and came to Bialystok in Belorussia in October 1939…. “Our entire town was on foot – thousands of people. Those who tried to get away by walking north or south instead of walking the way they wanted us to go, eastward, ended up being caught in the dragnet eventually and perished. Otherwise, most people from my town survived.”
“We tried to settle in Bialystok, but the city was overrun with refugees, and understandably, the authorities couldn’t cope with it. The Russians suspected that there may be spies among us, which would not be unreasonable, so they wanted us to register and carry documents. We had no documents and to get a document, you had to declare where you want to go. So my parents opted to go to Vilna, which was not a very friendly gesture to the Russians on our part. As a result, in late Spring, 1940, thousands of us who chose not to go to the Soviet Union were arrested in the middle of the night with a knock on the door and given very little time to get our belongings and come on down. There were trucks waiting and they took us to the train station…. They took us by train – not cattle cars, but not a passenger train – and they locked us in. If you wanted to jump the train, you wouldn’t get very far; you had to have documents and we had none. So we just went where they took us.”
“Eventually the train stopped and they put us on a barge, then they took us on this smaller boat, and then by truck into a forest in the region of the city of Vologda, near the town of Oshta, about 125 miles from Leningrad. It was essentially a wild, uninhabited area. It was a penal colony. There were three log cabins, and they assigned our family one room in one of those cabins. Everyone, with the exception of me, was working in the lumber industry, cutting down trees with handsaws, harvesting the trees, cutting them into smaller logs, and then chopping them into wood chips for the tractors…. And we were sentenced to life; but we didn’t realize it. While the conditions were not comparable to the concentration camps – there were no crematoria, they were very difficult to survive.”
“We would have perished over there if it hadn’t been for the Germans attacking the Russians on June 22, 1941. The Germans were on the outskirts of Leningrad and the Russians were losing the war very badly until the turning point in the city of Stalingrad, when the severe Russian winter defeated the German army. The Polish government in exile in London asked Stalin to free the Poles in the Soviet Union and if he did that they will organize an army to fight the Germans. Stalin was so desperate that he went for the deal. So that is why we were freed.”
“When they freed us that meant that we could leave this place. Of course we did not want to stay there an extra day, so they gave us documents to travel in the Soviet Union and asked where we wanted to go. My brother Leo was a very smart kid; so he looked at the map of the Soviet Union and decided to go as far east as he could, which was to Uzbekistan. Because, one, we knew it was going to be warm over there. Second, it was just a dream that we could possibly cross the border from the Soviet Union into Iran and from there to Palestine. Well that was easier dreamt than practiced…. So our odyssey now was from the Vologda area, north of Leningrad, to trek our way back. We went by boat on the Volga River. We finally came to Mizrachul, Uzbekistan and got off at Golodnaya Steppe – which means the hungry steppe, steppe like desert. And it was foreboding to go to somewhere in the hungry desert because they were growing cotton and not food over there. But we were free and that was the difference.”
“Picture yourself arriving, a family of seven. You don’t know anybody. You don’t have any address of anyone who can help you. And you have to find shelter for seven people. Somebody came up with a place where we could live. And we are not talking about comfortable quarters. Just a roof is good enough – over a mud and straw hut. The ground is the floor and there’s no plumbing. But it was shelter and that was already good…. And now you need to make your living and it’s war time. Much of the economy was revolving around graft, bribery, and black marketeering; so to survive you’d do that…. But it got to be untenable to live that way, so then we lived on a kolkhoz – a collective farm. In theory, it meant that we take the land from the small land owners and we pull it together and as a group we are going to work, everybody according to his ability, and we are going to be paid fairly according to what we deserve. But in reality it doesn’t work this way…. So even with the growing of cotton, which was a money crop, they were having difficulty paying us and the payment was supposed to be, not in cash, but in grain. For whatever reason, they didn’t keep the promise to pay us with the grain…. Everybody was picking cotton. The worst part was not only were we hungry, but everybody came down with malaria because of the climate. So we realized that if we did not move away from there, we are not going to survive.”
“So we went back to Mirzachul, rented another mud hut, and my father and my brother resorted to using their skills in making candy. At first they would buy hard candy in Tashkent and put it in a jar. And my brother Mark and I sold the candy at the market, because we were the youngest; so if they were to catch us doing something illegal, we could outrun them and they wouldn’t prosecute us the way they would an older person. We would sell candy by the piece. We would have bought it for maybe 50 cents and sell it for a ruble. And so there was a profit. And it grew and grew. But the danger was about being apprehended, so my parents and brother decided to get an official document so we can legally be on the marketplace and sell candy. And we promised to pay taxes.”
“I sort of am angry at my parents because they never tried to put me into a Russian school. I think part of it was they didn’t want to have any part of the Soviet Union. However, the Polish Jewish refugees organized a one room school. There was one Polish teacher who was an engineer, by profession, and he knew English. That’s where I began to learn English. He was a very learned man and he tried to teach us mathematics and Polish literature and writing since our ticket out of the Soviet Union was that we are Polish Jews and we wanted to perpetuate that…. Synagogues were absolutely forbidden. The Soviet Union obliterated that; that was not tolerated. But we Jews formed sort of clandestine prayers.”
“The war ended on May 8, 1945. The Soviets were saying that they will let the Polish Jews go, that there will be an evacuation to go back to Poland. My parents didn’t believe them, because they had such a record that you couldn’t believe what they were saying. Since bribery was the way of exchange in the Soviet Union, my brother found someone who bribed somebody in the Ministry of the Interior and got official documents of travel back to Poland for us and for a few other people. This kind of backfired because people were jealous and we were denounced.” Her sister Bronia had gone ahead to Tashkent and, with the help of a sympathetic Russian army officer, bought the train tickets. As the rest of the family waited to find a truck to load their belongings, the police came and arrested them. “But we didn’t have any documents on us to implicate us, so they could not prosecute us. But the other people who were with us had their documents, so they wanted to know where did they get them and the risk was that they would expose Leo, who had expedited it for them. And again, bribery came in. We greased the wheels with some Russian Jews who were in the party, who talked to the NKVD, and so eventually we were released and we came to Tashkent. While we were traveling on the train, our hearts were pounding because we knew that we have illegal documents.”
The train took them to Lvóv, not far from Poland and from there it was not difficult to get into Poland proper. Because Warsaw was destroyed, all the Jews in Poland were gathering in the city of Lódz, which was not destroyed. When the Wygodas found out that nobody survived from their family, they decided there was no point in staying in Poland. So they contacted the Bricha. “And they were like a family. We joined Kibbutz Gordonia and, for the first time, I was learning Hebrew. The Bricha divided my family into three groups. The first one was my brother Mark and my sister Bronia and they crossed the border into Czechoslovakia totally undisturbed, going by foot through mountainous terrain. It was an illegal crossing, but the Bricha managed to bribe the border patrol…. For whatever reason, they chose not to use the same spot for my parents and my brother Leo. It must have been because they were older; my parents were 51-years-old. My sister Ann and I were supposed to be with them, but I came down with a high fever, and they didn’t want to take me because it was mountainous and a bit risky. So my parents and Leo were with another group of people. And as they were approaching the Czech border, near a town called Króscienko, which is near Nowy Targ, their truck was stopped by people dressed in Polish army uniforms, but they were not. They were part of what is called Narodowe Si?y Zbrojne, a fascist group of anti-Semites, who were out to plunder and kill Jews. They asked for the documents and as the Jews were getting off the truck, they began to mow them down with machine guns and twelve people were killed the night of May 2 to 3, 1946. Leo escaped with just a grazing. Those murderers not only killed but they robbed and they stripped the bodies of their coats, their shoes, and their clothes. They left them in their underwear and took off with all of their belongings…. My parents are buried in Kraków in a mass grave with the others…. Ann, Leo, and I waited in the kibbutz and then crossed into Czechoslovakia and then to Austria and then to the American zone of Germany at the end of 1946, until we came to this country in 1948.”
While they waited in Germany, Mark and Bronia were in one part of Germany in a displaced persons camp and Ann, Leo, and Rae were sent to Ulm. “I don’t know that I would have wanted it, but to send me to a German school to go to school with German children would have been unthinkable for us! To sit next to them, you know, at that time.” So Leo found a school at the DP camp in Feldafing. “It was again one room for all levels. And here were girls or boys my age, who were in concentration camps, who were in all kinds of hell places; and by comparison to them I had it easy…. The teacher called me aside, and he said ‘you are too bright to be wasting your time here.’” He told her about a course in Munich organized by Jewish university students who were trying to refresh the memory of the classes that survivors took during high school so that they could pass an examination to be admitted to the university. “In fact, my future husband, Joachim Nachbar, was finishing his studies in engineering and was instrumental in organizing this course because he saw what was happening to these survivors who cannot pass the exams and approached his colleagues who were studying medicine or chemistry or literature or history, physics, biology, and asked them to participate.”
“So here I was riding the train every day from Feldafing. I lived in an orphanage, a youth home, with my brother Mark and he began to take courses in ORT. Then Mark and I were notified that we could go to Canada because we were orphans and the Canadians were letting in orphans. And while we were waiting, the consulate in Stuttgart approved our passage to the United States…. I came to Detroit because I had two uncles here. Phillip Goldstein came here in the 1923 and Irving Goldstein came here in 1938, very shortly before the war.”
Synchronously, Joachim Nachbar came to the United States three weeks before Rae. They ran into each other outside the Detroit Institute of Art and married two years later. They had a daughter Ann and a son James and six grandchildren. “It’s not that I didn’t talk about it. First of all, you don’t tell babies about your survival. I did not have a number the way that some people did and the children would say ‘what is that?’ And you would either have to tell the truth or tell some kind of a made up story. So that was not it. When they were in their teens, we talked about it. So it was not a secret. But what we did not do that immigrants do nowadays is speak our other languages. We wanted them to be unaccented and I couldn’t wait to be Americanized. This country was something that I never imagined; it provided to me security and I welcomed it. So maybe there’s nobody like a convert and this is my religion, America, Americanism, that I worship this country. I did, and I still do.”
Although she is “not going to save the world singlehandedly,” Rae speaks to children today because “this message needs to be reinforced what hatred can lead to. So to that extent, if I was able to shed some light, I was at one time young like they were and what happened to me, I hope it never does happen to them.
Date of Interview: January 13, 2015
Length of Interview: 1 hour 20 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.