Shain, Abram Jacob (Szajnfuks)
Warsaw (Poland), Magnitogorsk (USSR), Moscow
Mr. Abram Jacob Szajnfuks was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1922. His father, Berek, was a painter and his mother, Alta Mostek was a dressmaker. The family was poor and they had four children. Mr. Shain was the oldest, followed by his sisters, Chana and Toba Sura and his brother Mojsze Lajzer.
Their home was kosher and they attended Shul. He could read and write both Yiddish and Polish.
Mr. Shain said there was anti-semitism everywhere and he became afraid of the Poles. But, the Jews were told to sit and resist.
At the age of fourteen in the sixth grade, he had to quit going to Cheder and became an apprentice in Henry Upfell’s Barber Shop, helping out with the family’s finances. His parents were humiliated, saying “we should be feeding you.”
On September 1st, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland. Mr. Shain was there for the bombing but, initially, he didn’t get hurt. On Yom Kippur, it was suggested that everyone go to the Tailor shop to pray. People were saying that Hitler was a Jew hater. This is when he first thought of running away.
When Warsaw was occupied, Jews were ordered to the streets and men’s beards were cut, not with scissors, but with knives. The Germans said “you have to be punished.”
On November 7, 1939, Mr. Shain was on his way to visit his aunts and uncles and was caught and forced to tear apart a sidewalk. The man in charge told Mr. Shain to go home and bring back food. When he reached his home, he told his parents that he and two friends were going to try to make it to the Russian border. His mother was against the plan, but his father said “Til now, you obeyed, but now you’re free to go, but go straight, do good and be good.” He left early in the morning, not saying goodbye to his family.
The boys crossed the river separately and, once across, Mr. Shain had to continue on without his friends, walking about forty kilometers each day, having no food and avoiding getting shot. After walking for three days, he reached the border on November 10th, was searched and had his watch stolen. He was hungry and tired and kept thinking about returning home.
He followed one family toward the Russian border, hid in a barn with the family. No one slept. In the morning, the leader took them to an open field. Russian soldiers told them they were safe, were one kilometer from the Soviet Union border and the railroad station.
Mr. Shain got to Bialystok the next day by sitting on the train steps. He knew no one, had no place to go, was bewildered and asked for a synagogue. There, he saw many Jewish runaways and slept in the shul for over a month. He registered for work.
One day, he saw his mother’s youngest brother, Uncle Pinchas, on the street, but he could not help him. When his place in the shul was occupied by another unfortunate, he walked onward to another city. He volunteered to leave Bialystok in December of 1939 to go on a fourteen day journey, in a cattlecar. It was cold and there were sixty people, men and women, young and old in the car. Mr. Shain became sick, had lice and no food.
When he arrived in Magnitogorsk in the USSR Ural Mountain area, Mr. Shain spent eighteen months doing hard manual labor digging ditches, paving roads and laying railroad tracks. He worked fourteen hours each day and only received 400 grams of bread and soup. Mr. Shain was also able to barter haircutting services in exchange for bread, cigarettes and other small items that helped him survive.
He read in the press that the Germans were advancing, but there was nothing about the camps nor any killings. He had received letters from home until 1941 when his parents were moved to the ghetto. These made him homesick. His father begged him to send a parcel of food.
In 1945, Mr. Shain went back to the Magnitogorsk area and worked at a barbershop until 1947. He heard that Polish Jews were allowed to go back to Poland and because his heart was in Warsaw, he applied for a Visa from the Russian government and the KGB. Instead, he went west to Moscow in August of 1947 and later moved to the former Polish city of Lvov that was now part of the Soviet Union. A couple took him in to live. To attain work, he registered in the city and was able to then register as a barber. There, he met his future wife.
In February, 1948, Mr. Shain and Sophia married. His wife was from the Ukraine. They settled in Breslov. Mr. Shain knew that nothing was left of his family or his former home.
In 1956, Mr. Shain had gone on a two week excursion to Warsaw and went to the Ghetto area. He didn’t recognize a thing. When he walked toward his street, he saw a woman who asked “why are you crying, did someone rob you?” He answered “Yes, Hitler robbed me of my family.” He returned to his hotel and cried the entire night. The following day, he saw a man who called him by his father’s name, because he now resembled him. He heard that his siblings, Moishe and Surela left the Ghetto through the sewers and an old Pole hid them. A German pushed Moishe into the sewers and took his sister to the precinct.
In 1957, they went back to Poland, although his wife didn’t want to go. Poland and the Soviet Union had agreed on repatriations of Polish citizens back to Poland. Mr. Shain and his family (now consisting of two sons as well) moved to the city of Wroclaw, Poland and lived there until coming to the United States.
In 1963, Mr. Shain and Sophia applied for a visa to come to the United States. They arrived in September aboard the SS United States. They settled in Detroit, neither speaking a word of English. He was then forty one years old and his wife was thirty seven. Their sons were eleven and sixteen.
The Jewish community gave them food and a flat and they went to the Jewish Community Center on Curtis and Meyers in Detroit five times a week; and also to Mumford High School at night to learn the language as quickly as possible. Eleven months later, Mr. Shain studied and got his barber license. Jewish Family Services bought him tools. Sophia became a seamstress at Cobo Cleaners and in 1970, they became citizens.
Their son, Boris, went to Wayne State University and became an Insurance Agent. He married Jennie Greenbaum and they have one son. Their son, Mark, went to The University of Michigan Dental School, married Marrisa and have a son, Joshua and a daughter, Jackie.
- Abram in 1940
- Abram wearing his getaway clothes, 1941
- Abram and Uncle Pinchas, 1943
- Abram in Warsaw, 1958
- Abram, 1958, crying on street where his family home formerly stood
- Browarna Street sign, all that is left
- Abram at a wall where he once played
- A small house, the only one left on the street
- Rendering of the old neighborhood
- Post card from father, June 10, 1940
- Letter from father, December 27, 1940, saying they were taken to Ghetto and he was no longer sure they’d meet again
- Swedish Red Cross letter saying one sister was sent to Sweden (she was never found)
- Soviet Union birth certificate
- Abram and Sophia wedding, 1948
- Abram and Sophia, 1971
- Family picture, 1982
- Grandson Jason Bar Mitzvah, January 8, 1976
- Grandson Jason High School graduation, 1993
- Mark and his family Marissa, Joshua and Jackie, 1993
- Grandchildren Joshua and Jackie, 1995
Date: March 17, 1996
Interviewer: Susan Rabinovitz
Length: 1 hour 48 minutes
Format: Video Recording