A rumination, a memoir and an acknowledgement of fate’s capricious twists, which saved the author’s family from the Nazis while so many others perished
Tonight I light up six candles. One candle for each million. All deserves a separate candle. but who can do it? Perhaps, you will light a candle too?
I am alive today only because my parents, as children, were evacuated from Odessa just before the city fell to advancing Nazis. If things had gone differently — if they had delayed their departure, or some random factor of war had stopped their overloaded ship leaving Odessa harbour, or if their vessel had been sunk like the previous one to attempt an escape – I would not be writing these words, nor would my children have been born.
My parents’ departure is worth recounting, if only to illustrate the insanity and the detached, arbitrary heartlessness of war, its Olympic indifference to the matters of mere mortal humans.
For the population of the then-USSR, WWII started in early hours of June 22, 1941, bringing with it an unimaginable amount of suffering for the Soviet people. Odessa was bombed on July 1 for the first time and soon was besieged by the Wehrmacht and its Romanian allies. The only way out was on dangerously overloaded ships via the Black Sea.
My mother, a little girl of 8, categorically refused to leave without an elderly childless couple, her neighbours, who loved her as their own daughter and did not really want to go. Many Odessa Jews remembered the Great War and the exemplary behaviour of German soldiers, who in that earlier conflict were kind, considerate and well behaved towards the civilian population. No one in their most feverish dreams could have imagined that Nazism had obliterated that civilised conduct.
Remembering the “good German soldiers” of the WWI, many Odessa Jews deliberately delayed their departures, believing the enemy they thought they knew to be a better alternative to the Communists. Because of the child’s tantrum, my mother’s family’s delayed departure for two days. This saved all of them, because the ship they were meant to board was sank by Nazi bombers and all aboard perished, every single one of those 5000 souls.
However difficult it is for me to draw an equivalence between the Nazi tormentors of millions and their victims, I can not help but acknowledge the horror and tragedy of the German ship Wilhelm Gustlow. Overloaded with German refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army, she was sank by a Soviet submarine off the Baltic coast at the cost of more than 9000 lives. But I digress – my story is about a chance, the random nature of survival, and escape from genocide.
My father’s family departure was even more dramatic. When they arrived at the docks, any semblance of order was abandoned and panic reigned supreme. The gangplank was already being winched up and sailors were clubbing those clinging to it. Nobody paid any attention to the family’s embarkation coupons.
Shots were fired in the air. Abandoned horses galloped through the crowd, some falling into the water. Individual screams spliced themselves into the mighty howl of a crowd consumed by fear and desperation. The thin waterline between the ship’s side and the pier was steadily getting wider.
Amid the confusion and panic nobody seemed to notice that the ropes connecting the ship’s bow with the docking bollard were still in place. My grandfather told his family to abandon everything except documents and money and pushed his children, my father included, towards the rope. They scrambled aboard, and that was how the second half of my genetic complement was saved from extinction. The ship arrived safely and all refugees were loaded up on various trains, which took them to different parts of Russia. While in transit they were bombed, starved, fell ill and some died, but the majority survived.
Those who stayed behind perished, although things were not too hard at first. Two months into the occupation, the pro-Soviet underground group decided to be heroes. They blew up part of the Rumanian headquarters, knowing full well the reprisals that would be their action’s consequences. The damage was minimal.
The very next day all of Odessa’s Jews, who had been declared hostages to the good behaviour of the entire population, were rounded up. They were shot, gassed, burned and, sometimes, buried. Sometimes not. Many families were killed together, from babes in arms to the old and decrepit. Some families were killed selectively, one father, mother or child at a time.
Years later, at the school where I was a student, we were all outraged by our history teacher, who often turned up drunk for lessons. Students demanded that he be replaced. One of his colleagues took me aside and told a story of this Russian man. he had been married to a Jewish woman and they had two daughters. Nazis took his wife and his children this fateful day. He was not allowed to accompany them: the ghetto was for the Jews only.
They killed his family, but allowed him to go on living. He was not a Jew, after all. The man lost his sense of reality, thinking that other children were his own, talking with his dead wife as though she was in the same room. He tried to kill himself several times, but his neighbours got him out of the noose. Gradually, he became better and was even able to return to work. He was a broken man, an alcoholic. He was never angry with any of his students, however badly we were behaving.
One of the Odessa Jews survived – his family of twelve got together enough money to buy him gentile documents. They did not have money for more. He was the only one, who to live. All his nine siblings and his parents were dead. When the Soviet Army retook Odessa from the Nazis, he lied about his age (he was tall and strong lad of 16) and volunteered to join the Army. He refused offers of Air Force or Navy. When asked why, he answered – “I want to see the eyes of Germans I will kill’.
There were no more questions, but there were many like him, full of hate, thirsting for revenge. This lad was decorated more than anyone in his unit. They all regarded him as a hero. The kid just wanted to die and was seekingthat death on the battlefield. The thought of living at the price of all of his family members being dead was unbearable. The guilt was overwhelming.
When his unit entered East Prussia he went berserk. He would go on and on, searching house after house, until he’d find a German family of the same configuration as his own. Than he would kill them all.
How many did he kill? I do not know. He survived the war. He was an alcoholic, a broken man, a tormented man. He had nightmares, his victims and his family were visiting him in his tortured dreams. He was asking to be forgiven, but their ghosts were silent
Tonight I light six candles and weep in silence for those who had no chance to survive, to have children and grandchildren. I weep for those, who were slaughtered for no reason, other than being born Jewish.
Will you also light a candle for them? For as long as we remember them, they are not completely gone.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978