Mlinov, Poland (Ukraine); Dubno, Poland; Palestine
Yochanon Viner was born in Mlinov, Poland (now Ukraine) – a small city near Dubno, Lutsk, and Rivne – on what he estimates as October 2, 1928. His parents, Mendel and Bay’le (Bilhah) Viner, were very poor, but they were a happy family. Mendel worked very hard as a tailor and “Weeks before the holidays would sleep on the table, to ensure that he would not sleep too much, so he could work enough hours to finish all the clothes he had to sew on time.” Although the family was not religious, Mendel prayed in the synagogue or at home on Fridays and Saturdays and on the holidays.
There was no option to go to school in Mlinov, but Yochanon’s relatives in Dubno “were eager to teach me Hebrew and how to pray. So there were times when they would send me for months at a time to Tarbut school, away from home without my father and mother, but with my mother’s brothers and sisters.”
As a young boy in Poland, Yochanon “did not feel the need and was not raised to be bad to other people.” As he grew up, he saw that it was tough for the Jews to live in Poland which was “a Polish state, governed by the Polish, but the Ukrainians ran life itself.” On the other hand, “the Czechoslovakians were good to the Jews, and lived in peace next to the Jews. My father had a lot of Czech friends that knew him, and through him they got to know me, even my name…. My father was a tailor and I would help him cut and sew warm jackets for the Ukrainian workers who worked for the Czechs at hard labor in the fields and the forests. My father, every few months, would take me with him for a couple of weeks and I saw that the Czechs respected him and my father did his job, so the Czechs could work.”
Mlinov was occupied by the Wehrmacht on June 26, 1941 and the Judenrat was created. On July 5, 1941, eighteen Jews were shot. On May 22, 1942, a ghetto was established for local Jews and Jews from surrounding villages. On September 22, 1942, 980 Jews were executed and thrown into a large pit in the valley between the towns of Mlinov and Muravica. This was followed by a second execution on October 9, 1942, in which 520 Jews were killed. (http://jewua.org/mlinov/)
Yochanon shares his memories of his personal struggle with this “tragedy” as a young boy. “That was for months, but I cannot tell anyone, not even myself, how I did it, why I did it; it is just a big blur that I have lived with for seventy years and now with age these stories of my childhood are resurfacing, where once it was held within my soul. I don’t know if I decided or nature decided for me, but up until ten years ago I never talked about the Shoah. I never talked about the fact that I don’t have a mother or father, I never talked about the abnormal life that I had, nothing. I gave up monthly payments from the Germans, up until ten or fifteen years ago, I started to talk about the Shoah. I kept it a secret within, naturally, safe and secure.”
“In the early 1940’s, when Hitler started to take over the entire world, and people knew that war was coming, the Germans hinted at what was coming to the Ukrainians and others who did not get along with the Jews, giving them permission, almost officially, to do whatever they want to the Jews; and they did whatever they wanted. They divided the city so that on one street only Jews could live there, and the rest was for everyone else. The Jews from all the villages were gathered into one street, which was called the ghetto … thousands of people.”
“I had a very smart mother, and she saw what was coming. Father could not see the future, he was more reserved. I survived because of my mother. In the nighttime, my mother woke me up, hugged me, and opened the door to the ghetto. I asked how she knew when to open the door, because there were Ukrainian soldiers on guard. For weeks she would stay up and not sleep, and she would monitor the guards’ schedule to see when they would go urinate. And then she would know when there is a chance to take me out…. My mother grabbed me in her arms, opened the door of the ghetto with her leg and pushed me into the snow. Outside it was snowing, and I fell from the step of the apartment and was in snow up to my hips; and each step I had to use my hands to get my feet out of the snow and that’s how I moved forward. My mother said, ‘go my son’ and that ended my conversation and rendezvous with my mother. I never saw my mother and father and younger brother again.”
“I knew that around me there were forests, so I went to a forest. And now the only question was what to eat, and how to live? I was only a child, maybe ten years old. I couldn’t ask anyone, mother was already at the camp, and I was alone. There was no food, my hair was long, and everything was dirty. And when I decided I was hungry, I would go two or three hours at night, as a child, and knock on doors, and say to the Czechs ‘I am the son of Mendel the tailor, I only ask for one thing, please give me food because I am very hungry, I left and my parents are in the camps.’ They opened the door for me and give me some thick bread, that separates into two, and, sorry to say, but that was the reality, filled it with pig fat and meat, and closed the bread. Even with all my dirty clothes, I put it under my shirt and went on my way, and I was very happy…. The forest was cold and there was a lot of snow, so I left the forest and found ‘chatsir’ – thin grass that grows in the water that you cut up and give to cows and horses to eat…. After it dried out from the sun, it was also good for Yochanon as a child in the Shoah. I opened a little hole in the haystack and with my little legs pushed an opening so I could sit inside it so I would be warm. And I would breathe warm air on my hands to warm my hands. I slept there and lived there and at night I would go out and do sports, talk to the animals and dogs, and whatever came by…. It was so cold, 40 degrees below Celsius, and I would break a piece of bread and blow on it and eat it. I got water from the snow and would suck on it like a candy.”
“After some months, I got up from my little shelter and started to move around a bit in the forest; in the forest I could do stretches and see birds and talk to them, and they answered me. I suddenly found a boy walking. He yelled at me ‘Yochke! Yochanon.’ And I answered, ‘Yudke, what’s with you?’ So he said, ‘Until now, I had a mother, siblings and relatives; we were in a pit; and a Ukrainian bad man took all the money, and gold, and put us into a box with a horse and a sled, and he put us in the forest and shot my mother, my aunt, my sisters.’ In the morning, this boy was the only one left, everyone was killed in the box, and he ran away to the forest and met me there. I hugged him and kissed him, because for months I sat like an animal, talked only to the birds and the bad dogs…. We were together for months in the forest. Yudke had wounds on both sides of his neck from a bullet and I took care of that wound every day; I took urine with my hands and put it on his wounds for over a year…. He was about four years younger than me and would go ask for food, because his father was a very well known wealthy man, so they knew who he was and gave him food. But he got tired; it was hard for him to walk back and forth. So again I went myself to get food.”
“Meanwhile, Yudke’s father had run away to Russia, but he said ‘Look, we will wait here together, and my father will come save us with a tank from Russia.’ The dream of a boy! After the war, he stayed in Poland to meet his father coming from Russia; but his father came with another woman and two children and wanted nothing to do with Yudke. Although he was a wealthy man, during hard times, he didn’t stand by his family; he left everything behind and ran away to Russia. Thousands more men from the Shoah would escape to Russia and take on another family, but the mothers would always stay with the children. But they cannot be blamed, it was a special circumstance, a tragedy and they did it.”
Yochanon and Yudke continued on until the Russians came with tanks. “But don’t think I escaped easily; the first Russian that I wanted a hug from gave me a kick with his foot, and said ‘dirty Jew!’ I said ‘Why do you call me that? I’m just sitting here waiting for the Russians to come; they say that you Russians are good people.’ So he said, ‘They took me out of jail, so that we would be the front line in the war so they will kill us. The Jews are sitting in Moscow as officers, they give orders. You’re a dirty Jew.’ I said, ‘Don’t say that, I don’t have a shower, I don’t have clothes, I don’t have a house, I don’t have anything, and I am already living here for months.’ So some tears started to come out, he saw a child who was dirty, with long hair and dirty clothes, and afterwards took me by the hand and said ‘sorry that I said that, I had two hard nights that I didn’t sleep.’ And that’s how the story ends when he asked forgiveness.”
“Only five, ten, or maybe fifteen Jews were left from all of the surrounding villages. An older woman took me in out of mercy and gave me a place to sleep for a few months or so.” Yochanon knew his family had been killed by some Ukrainian, who were bad people and even took away their clothes – their “shmatas” [rags]. After the war, “I came back to the area, somebody tried to give me something. I said take the house and they gave me a slip for medicine and flour for cheap because I agreed to give them my parents’ apartment.”
Yochanon next shares how he struggled with and overcame other tragedies as a seventeen year old boy coming to Palestine as the country of Israel began to be created.
The Jewish Brigade [a military formation of the British Army composed of Jews from the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine commanded by British-Jewish officers that served in Europe during World War II] “picked us up, we were only a few, and only hundreds survived from the rest of the world, and prepared us, mentally, for Israel, a land that was not yet there. The British wanted to be good to the Israelis and also to the Muslims. So the Jewish Brigade sent people and brainwashed us, talking about the land of Israel, our land, what to do in order bring us, our souls to Israel, a country that is about to rise. The Brigade sat with us day and night and told about settlements in Israel – Kibbutz Alonim, Beit HaArava, and a few other places, in order to attract us…. Good Russians, red socialists, also would say to kids who Hitler ruined their lives, killed their father and mother, ‘come to us and we will take you and educate you.’ And the Joint [The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, JDC] said ‘come to America, we have money, we will teach you and give you a home, you never learned only up until third grade.’”
Yochanon was in Holland and Belgium with the Brigade; afterwards they sent him to France, “and from France they sent me to Israel, in 1946, on a boat with animals inside, pigs and the like.” When he came to Israel, “A new tragedy happened. Alone with no education, we did not know exactly what to do with ourselves. There is a lot of pain in our hearts for mother and father, but we tried to overcome. I found myself in the British detainee camp Atlit…. And we found there all the leaders of Israel back then. We were with the Brigade and we would help protect the ministers when the British would come visit the camp; we would knock on the doors and make noise so they would have time to hide the notebooks and documents from the British.”
Initially, Yochanon was sent to Kibbutz Beit HaArava, and then to Kibbutz Alonim. That’s where he met life-long friends and Holocaust survivors, Yitzchak “Ira” Mechlowitz and Helen Karcz [Mechlowitz], who later immigrated to Detroit, as well as his future wife Penina and her younger brother who had come to Palestine from Romania without their parents.
“In Kibbutz Alonim, we didn’t know what to do, what to dream. The Israelis that were already there before us, from different generation, did not accept us there. They did not say it in the open, but they hid the fact that they did not want us there…. We worked very hard, ten hour days; the socialists, the Kibbutz, sent us to go to work early in the morning. We worked construction, a lot of sweat and blood was put into this work, and we were good kids who worked hard as we were told. I carried heavy material, gravel, rocks; we pushed heavy material in wheelbarrows.” Yet, when they tried to join the other kibbutzniks on a bus trip to a concert in Haifa, they were refused because “’We don’t have insurance on you.’ But to make us work many hours, you do insure? We could not understand. The Brigade is saying they want a new land, a country of justice and wealth, so where is the justice in this case? As a result, I was very disappointed with what I received in Israel.”
They left Alonim, moved from place to place, and went through a lot. Yochanon and Penina had two girls – Bilhah, born in 1951, and Drorit, in 1957. At first, “I worked in construction, that’s all I knew and was taught on the Kibbutz.” Then Penina, asked a friend, who was an army officer, if he could get Yochanon a job where he worked, training dogs to find things, like drugs, hash, opium, children and adults who got lost and went missing. Yochanon was hired and worked for the police twenty-eight years “and it was really good for me and my soul; I got to help a lot of people good and bad; I did a lot of good things.” After he was given a pension at age fifty-two, another friend got him a job at a weapons factory that made weapons for Persians and he worked there for nine more years.
Finally, Yochanon shares the following message: “I want to tell my kids to never hate each other, to live in peace in every situation, and to remember that their father never did wrong to anybody; I was always thinking of someone else, I never thought about myself, I always thought about how to do good to other people…. I got my strength because it’s in my nature. I guess it’s from my mother’s heart; it’s why I always talk about mother, because she did what she did to save me. Because of my mother I exist, and because of my mother I am alive.”
Date of Interview: June 4, 2015
Length of Interview: 1 hour 11 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
Translated by: Yael and Brandon Joseff