My father, Kalman Orchier (Orzechowski), died in Israel in 2002 at the age of 94. Although most of his friends and contemporaries had already passed, his funeral was attended by scores of people who came to pay their respects to a remarkable man who in spite of his difficult childhood, the horrors of antisemitism and the Holocaust, was able to start over time after time and accomplish his dreams.
My parents were married for more than 62 years before my father passed away. Unlike my father who purposefully shared the details of his life in Europe with my sister Nettie and me, my mother, sadly, was much more reticent about her history, and we know so little about her life and what happened to the rest of her family during the Holocaust. She was a true pragmatist who preferred to live in the present and plan for the future. Her favorite bit of advice for her daughters was that in life, we must always make sure to have and create something to look forward to. In her own way, she strived hard to be an optimist, something that didn’t always come naturally to her.
My sister Nettie and I knew by heart the painful stories of his childhood and of the Holocaust. They were told to us by my father and uncles, as well as other survivors of the community of Lida, Poland, where he was born. And yet, and in spite of the scars left by experiences during the dark times, my father believed that time and effort could allow the human spirit to rise and ultimately thrive again.
1908-1937 Growing up in Lida
My father was born in 1908 in the town of Lida, Poland. He had an older sister, Gita, and two younger brothers, Chonon and Tzallel. His father, Zelik, was a butcher. His mother, Leah (who I am named after) came from a rabbinical family in Radom, a nearby town. The family of six lived together with other aunts and uncles in a compound of small houses owned by my father’s paternal grandfather. Each family occupied a small shack on the communal property in the Jewish section of Lida.
My grandmother Leah greatly valued education, and stressed the importance of academic achievements. She worked hard to provide formal education to her four children by being a seamstress in her free time. I remember the pride my father expressed when he would recall his memories of waking up in the middle of the night as a young boy, and seeing his mother put aside her sewing and learn to read Polish by candlelight, so she could help and participate in her oldest boy’s education. According to my father, as well as my uncles, he was the apple of their mother’s eye, and her ambitions for him were a driving force in his young life.
Being exceptionally gifted and eager to learn, my father quickly distinguished himself in school and rose to the top of his class. In 1921, he was ready to enter Gymnasium (high school.) Because the cost of continuing his education in the one Jewish school in town became prohibitive, my grandmother decided to take an alternate yet still viable academic route for her son.
There was an affordable Gymnasium in the town that provided the type of education that qualified its students to enter the university; however, it was primarily attended by Polish students. In rare instances the school accepted Jewish students, provided they were smart, and their families could pay a sizeable sum for their entrance. After pulling a few strings and managing to save and borrow the necessary sum of money, my grandmother was able to register my father in the Polish Gymnasium.
With some trepidation but with determination, my father began his first year in high school. He missed the comfort and camaraderie of his Jewish friends, but understood that his goal was to succeed and achieve marks that would eventually allow him to enter the University and pursue the law degree that he and his mother dreamed of. By becoming a lawyer, he would be able to help his now widowed mother with the education of his two younger brothers.
Jewish students in a Polish high school in 1921 had to follow strict social rules, chief among them was not to draw attention to oneself in any negative way. My father tried to remain unobtrusive in his classes, always sitting in the back of the room and speaking only when spoken to. He was polite to his classmates and never insisted on joining any of their activities unless invited by them. He quickly recognized the bullies in his classes whose torturous behavior would only be intensified by the fact that he was a Jew. Many of his teachers were also known to be anti-Semitic, and he worked doubly hard so that they could not find reasons to prevent him from getting the necessary grades.
In spite of all his efforts to remain in the shadows, it quickly became apparent that my father’s academic abilities exceeded those of his classmates. Many became resentful and they began to taunt him and swipe at him in the halls. The only place he felt relatively safe was inside the classroom with a teacher in charge.
The school held a daily religious class for the gentile students, from which the Jewish students were excluded. One winter day, my father, as was required, returned to his classroom when the regularly scheduled class took place. Having had ample experience with the exacerbated anti-Semitic mood of the students caused by these lessons, he quietly took his seat and tried to concentrate on the next lesson in progress. When the bell rang for recess, his teacher left for the faculty room and he remained in the classroom, together with the other students, without any adult supervision. He began to feel very uncomfortable as he gradually became aware of the agitated group of boys he had been avoiding, loudly cursing the Jews, and specifically my father, for killing their Savior. Before he had a chance to escape from the classroom, he was grabbed by one of these bullies and held tightly while the rest of the pack threw a rope they had previously prepared over one of the beams and lowered its noose over his head. No amount of shouting for help brought any of the teachers into the classroom. My father, while screaming and struggling fiercely, was hoisted by his neck, with his feet dangling above the ground. He knew he was going to die, and then lost consciousness.
My father awoke on the floor of the emptied classroom with an older boy holding his head and comforting him as he loosened the noose around his neck. The boy looked familiar and he remembered him as being the son of one of his mother’s Christian customers who regularly employed her dressmaking skills. This boy had often been around when my father accompanied his mother as she made her deliveries in the Lida marketplace. ). In fact, they had formed somewhat of a friendship as their mothers completed their transactions. Apparently, that boy had heard the commotion in the classroom and came running in only to find my father hanging by his neck.
My grandmother Leah was quickly summoned by the school principal to take him home. While my father recuperated, she received word from the school that he would no longer be allowed to attend because it was determined that he was agitating the other students and causing too much trouble. None of the bullies were disciplined. This was a terrible blow to my father not only because of the injustice perpetrated on him, but because it looked like his dreams of continuing his education would end.
But, hearing about this incident, the principal of the Jewish Gymnasium decided to allow my father to attend it at a lowered tuition. My father graduated the Jewish Gymnasium at the top of his class. He eventually was accepted to the Law School of the King Stephen Bathory University in Vilna.
1937-1944 Before and During the War
It was at the university in Vilna that my father met my mother, Elsa Glauberman, who was studying literature there. My mother grew up as the privileged only child of a successful jewelry businessman. She lost her biological mother at the age of 4, and was raised first by her aunts in Warsaw, and eventually by a stepmother who loved her like her own. Both her natural mother and step mother were dentists, a profession that was quite impressive for women at that time. She, like my father, was raised in an atmosphere of deep respect for education. When she finished Gymnasium in Luninietz, she was sent to college in Vilna, where she met my father.
My father received his law degree in 1937, and in 1938, my parents got married. They lived in Vilna until 1939.
In August 1939, my parents visited my mother’s parents in her hometown, Luninets, also in Poland. On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and World War II broke out. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland.
Luninets fell under the Soviet occupation and soon after, my mother’s parents were arrested as capitalists and sent to Siberia. Because the Soviet Authorities controlling the area needed lawyers, my father was able to practice law. He worked and lived in Pinsk, a short distance from Luninets, where my mother stayed.
During that period his earnings as a licensed advocate enabled him to help his mother and sister in Lida, as well as send his brother Chonon to a cabinet making school, and his brother Tzallel to an engineering academy, both in Soviet Russia.
The Germans conquered the area in July 1941. My parents managed to escape from Luninets on one of the last trains going east, to Russia. After they reached Russia, my father wanted to locate his two brothers. Believing that my mother would be safer in Siberia with her parents, he sent her there, and began his attempt at finding his brothers, as well as the rest of his family, who, he believed was still alive in Lida.
My father discovered that his middle brother, Chonon, had married Rosa and that they escaped further east into Russia, towards Siberia. As a skilled worker, Chonon acquired an exemption from the Soviet Army and worked in one of the Russian defense plants.
He also managed to find his younger brother Tzallel in one of the Polish army camps in Russia, very sick with typhus. After recuperating from his illness, Tzallel saw a notice posted by the British asking for Polish volunteers to join the RAF (Royal Air Force.) He applied, and thanks to his valued mathematical engineering background, was accepted and trained as a navigator. He remained in England as a navigator in the Polish squadrons of the RAF until the war ended.
My father’s desperate attempts to go back to Lida to save his mother, sister and her family, were unsuccessful. In June 1941, the Germans invaded Lida. Six months after the invasion, my grandmother, aunt and uncle, and young cousins were forced to move into the Lida Ghetto with the rest of the town’s Jewish population. On May 7, 1942, the Lida Ghetto was sealed and in the early hours of May 8, 1942, the Nazis, with the help of the local Polish and Byelorussian Police, rounded up some 5,700 residents of the Ghetto, my grandmother Leah, my aunt Gita, her husband Natan, and their two young children, Mirele and Lazar (pictured on left) among them, and brutally murdered them in the nearby forest.
In July 30, 1941, the Soviet government restored diplomatic relationships with the Republic of Poland, and among the terms of agreement were the granting of “amnesty to all Polish citizens who are at present deprived of their freedom on the territory of the USSR either as prisoners-of-war or on other adequate grounds," and the consenting “to the formation on the territory of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Polish Army under a commander appointed by the Government of the Republic of Poland, in agreement with the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics….”
Following this agreement, my mother’s parents, who had been exiled to Siberia during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, were among those released, and my father joined the Polish Army.
My father was then able to arrange false papers for my mother. Her assumed identity was that of the wife of a Polish officer. That officer was my uncle Tzallel, by then known as “Charles,” a Polish member of the British RAF in England. With that identity, she was sent to Ahvas, Iran, as part of a medical unit of the Polish Red Cross.
My mother’s parents, by then elderly and unwell, remained in Russia.
My parents were able to correspond during that period. In 1942, my father found out where my mother was in Iran, and he traveled on a leave to see her in Teheran (reunited in Teheran 1942). My parents planned to meet again in Palestine. Since my mother’s assumed identity was that of the wife of an England based Polish officer (Tzallel), the plan was for her to obtain permission from the British authorities to enter Palestine.
In 1944, as a member of the 8th Division of Anders Army, my father was sent to Tashkent, and from there he was transferred with his unit across the Caspian Sea, and was finally stationed with his unit in British mandated Palestine.
Having experienced antisemitism again, this time by the non-Jewish members of Anders Army, and having been an ardent Zionist, contributed to my father’s decision, along with some fellow Jewish soldiers, to leave the unit. He sought shelter with my mother’s relatives in Be’er Tuviah, a cooperative agricultural settlement in Palestine, and there he awaited her planned arrival from Iran.
1946-2002 After the War, Israel; USA; Israel
My parents reunited in Palestine in 1944, and settled in Tel Aviv, where I was born in 1946, and my sister Nettie in 1951. Before the new State of Israel was founded, my father proudly joined the Haganah. Following its establishment in 1948, he joined the new Israeli Army, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
My uncle Tzallel immigrated to the United States from England after the war ended and settled in New York, where he met and married my Aunt Mary. He was able to send the necessary papers to his brother Chonon, wife, Rosa, and their young son, Henry, who had been in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. They, too, immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. Still wanting to reunite with his two brothers, my father decided to move his little family to the United States. In July of 1953, we arrived in New York on the ship, Andrea Doria, and my father finally joined them. I was 7 years old, and my sister was 2. My sister and I grew up in Queens, NY, near our two uncles, aunts and five cousins. We finished college, and married.
In 1978, my parents decided to cross the ocean again, and return to Israel. To practice law in Israel, my father, needed to be recertified there. He received his Israeli Law Degree in Tel Aviv at the age of 74 (my parents with the document). He practiced law in Hod Hasharon where my parents lived.
In his practice, he focused to a large extent on aiding newly arrived Russian immigrants, and acquired compensation for survivors who lost everything in the Holocaust. He continued to practice until his death in 2002, at the age of 94.
It was at his funeral that we first learned about all the people he had helped pro bono, and inspired during that time.
Our parents cherished us and provided us with a good life and a belief that anything was possible if we made the effort. They were a strong and important influence and a deep source of inspiration, respect and awe. Their inner strength and optimism are the biggest legacies they left us.