People & Places
How did the Holocaust affect our family -our great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins?
The fog of war and massacre make it impossible to answer this question with confidence. We do know that special Nazi killing squads were unleashed just after Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and that they passed precisely through the areas where our grandparents were born. Newly-released historical sources cannot tell us exactly what happened, but they are able to tell us what might have happened. The story is a complicated one.
Family members, present and future, who read these pages should know that we had a large Russian family. Even to members of this generation, this fact came as something of a revelation. For example, my father, Jerry Schechter, did not discover this until his 70's.
It was only during our collaborative effort to translate and publish letters that my grandmother, Bessie Rapoport Schechter, had received from Russia that my father and I learned she had nine or ten brothers and sisters. (This story is recounted in Bessie's Letters). We know that several of them had children, and that several more were of marriageable age as the story told in the letters came to a close in the 1930's. Multiplied through all the generations which have passed, this family would by now have become a small clan. Yet I have only a half-dozen American cousins, and none of them, so far as I know, are Rapoports. What happened to them all? What was their fate?
Through my grandmother's letters, we learned several facts, which helped us to fill in a larger puzzle. First, we learned that my grandmother was twenty years old in 1913 when she came to America from her small Byelorussian shtetl of Kholmich. She was the oldest sister in her family, though she had three older brothers. The math is easy to do. When Hitler launched his Operation Barbarrosa invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, my grandmother was 48 years old.
Using her age as a reference point, we can conclude that all of her siblings
could have survived to this point. We have a small photograph of her father.
He has an impressive white beard, and, perhaps because of it, appears elderly.
Even in the unlikely event that the picture was taken very late--in the early
1930's, he appears to be at least in his 60's. It is very possible
that, after a difficult life, he had passed away before the Nazi invasion. We
know that his first wife, my grandmother's mother, Golda, had died earlier.
We also know that my grandmother had Rapoport relatives in the neighboring, larger town of Rechitsa (ten miles from Kholmich). There her Uncle Gershon lived, and, undoubtedly, several cousins.
Finally, the towns most often mentioned in the letters, aside from those named above, were the even larger ones of Gomel and Bobruisk, fifteen and fifty miles from Kholmich, respectively. On the ship manifest in which my grandmother's name appeared, in the space for "last residence," there may be written the name of one more locale, "Minsk." But the word is hard to make out, and it may just as well refer to a province name.
As for the Schechters, we know of no immediate family who remained in the Ukrainian shtetl of Yarmolinitz when the Nazis came. There may have been cousins though. My grandfather, Max Schechter, emigrated to the United States in 1910. Within the next dozen years, he, his older and young brother, and his father were all living in America. His father arrived after WWI with his second wife, a cousin. His first wife, Eva, who was my grandfather's mother, had already died.
There is another place associated with my grandfather's life. When
he was a young man, he had left his small town for the nearby city of Kamanets-Podolsk.
It was there, after service in the Russian army, that he became active in revolutionary
circles. (See the memory book, Max Schechter-Father, Grandfather, Union Organizer).
My Grandma Sarah also came to America in 1913. She was then a young woman of twenty, and had traveled across a great ocean to meet her brother in Boston. Her Russian name was Sonya Sholkov. Her brother's name was Issac, and he later Americanized his last name to "Sholkin." The two children had left their mother, Vigassi, in Russia, perhaps planning to bring her over at a later date. Their father had died years before my grandmother's emigration. The family originally came from the small Ukrainian shtetl of Pereyaslov, where my great-grandmother was related to another resident, the great Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem. (See the book: Remembering Grandma Sarah). Sometime later, she and her mother might have migrated south to Ekaterinoslav, a larger city, also on the Dnieper River. That city is listed on her ship's register papers as her last place of residence before emigration.In the early 1920's, my grandmother heard the tragic news of her mother's death, so she was not alive when World War II began.
My previous efforts to determine if members of our family had perished in the death camps were unsuccessful. I had requested searches through Yad Vashem and The International Tracing Service. The names of a few Rapoports did emerge, but none belonged to our family. It was at that point that I learned that our relatives may have perished before the construction of the death camps. This is because millions of Russian Jews were killed during the two years following Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.
In the rear of the German armies, four so-called Eizensatzgruppen units fanned out through the old Jewish "Pale of Settlement." In Byelorussia and the Ukraine, they systematically went about the work of "exterminating" the Jewish population. These millions of victims never saw the inside of a gas chamber. There was no Auschwitz for them. They were simply marched into forests, forced to dig pits, and were shot at close range.
I learned this from The Black Book, a title supplemented by a huge subtitle that begins with the words, "The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders..."
But did this happen to our relatives?
In April, 2001, I obtained a copy of the book, The Einsatzgruppen Reports, which is a selective compilation of the official reports sent to Berlin by the various Einsatzgruppen (EG) units and sub-units. Far from being ashamed of their work, the killing groups dutifully reported their progress to their superiors in Germany. As I read, I saw first hand the fabled German predilection for keeping complete records.
What I read in the book was, in equal parts, reassuring and shocking. It was certainly chilling to learn that the EG units came to each and every area in which my grandparents had lived. In the xeroxed pages that follow, many localities are mentioned, including: Bobruisk, Gomel, Rechitsa, Pereyaslov, Ekaterinoslav (now called Dnepropetrovsk), Kamenets-Podolsk.
How well our relatives must have known the streets and marketplaces of these towns!
And the chill grew only deeper when I realized that I could now attach dates to these nightmarish events. For example, on October 12, 1941, an EG-B unit entered Rechitsa, only ten miles from the small shtetl where my grandmother had been raised and where her family continued to live.
But amidst these stories of horror, there was also cause for hope. We had already known that one of our grandmother's sisters (as well as a cousin) had survived. At war's end, they were found living together in an apartment in Moscow. Her husband and children had been killed during the war. But how? This we do not know.
Her survival was not singular however, and this is the best reason for the hope that somewhere in Russia or Belarus, we may still have relatives, the children of children of the war generation. On September 27, 1941, two months after the German invasion, an EG unit entered
Gomel (where one of my grandmother's brothers helped to run a leather factory). It reported:
Particularly striking is the fact that in towns like Gomel and Kholmich which
formerly held quite significant numbers of Jews (for instance in Gomel: of 100,000
inhabitants, 50% were Jews), hardly a single Jew can be found. As was learned,
the Jews were given preference in the evacuation of the population that started
some weeks ago. This happened because Communist propaganda pointed out that
all the Jews would be shot immediately upon the German occupation of the towns.
-Einsatzgruppen Reports (Emphasis added)
Gomel is less than fifteen miles from Kholmich.
Were they evacuated? When the Germans came to the Kholmich area in October, 1941, did they find the Rapoport home-once ransacked in an earlier pogromÐempty? Had our family fled elsewhere? And what happened when the Germans came to those places? Did some join the army? Did some fight in the forests with the partisans? Did some fall into unmarked pits?
There is ample reason to imagine, to hope, and to mourn.
This book was completed in April 2001. I did not send it out, however, because I was hopeful that more information would be forthcoming. On July 28, I received a report from historians whom we hired to hired to go to Kholmich. We found out what happened to the Jews of that shtetl during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia. This new material follows this introduction Also included is a summary of a chapter from a book about the Jews in Byelorussia, kindly sent to me by a historian in Israel. The chapter, which was translated with the generous help of Dr. Mark Urman, concerns the fat of the Jews of Rechitsa-the larger, neighboring town-during the Holocaust. As noted above, our relatives lived there as well. In fact, our direct relations probably migrated from Rechista down the road to Kholmich.
The full text of the report about Kholmich and the most up-to-date accounts of the day the Holocaust came to my town can be found on the Kholmech web site, at the links below. The lastest information was received in 2004.