Live from the Valley of Death
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Live from the Valley of Death

MINSK, Belarus – Earlier this year, I spent a week in the Valley – not its shadow, the actual valley – of Death. I traveled throughout Belarus, a Kansas-sized ex-Soviet landlocked country hedged between Russia and Poland. The Germans and their collaborators murdered approximately 90 percent of the one million Jews who lived here in 1941, including many of my relatives. This is not about death, however, but life. Specifically, it is about two women who would not die, and about our lone surviving cousin, whom we miraculously located.

Maya Levina-Krapina was 7 years old in 1942 when the Germans began exterminating the Jews of the Minsk Ghetto, where 100,000 perished. They bayoneted children in the youth hut. Maya hid quietly under a mattress as the carnage ensued. She still bears on her back scars from the German bayonet. Her brother, 15-year-old Iosif, a scout for Jewish partisans operating in the deep birch forests, was determined to save her. He put Maya in the infirmary for infectious diseases, where Germans were reluctant to patrol.

From the infirmary, located at the edge of the ghetto, Iosif rescued a group of Jewish children in the dead of night, with Maya among them. He told them to walk two by two widely dispersed along a road, so as not to attract attention. They carried no food, but survived on the raw potatoes they would come across and dig up. At night, they slept in the cold forests without proper clothing, clinging to each other for warmth.

After Maya had walked about 40 miles, Iosif made a deal with a Belarus peasant woman in the hamlet of Porechje: In return for sheltering Maya and another Jewish child, he would supply the peasant family with food. When the Red Army drove the Germans from Belarus in 1944, Maya was one of the few Jewish children still alive.

Maya became a celebrated U.S.S.R. circus acrobat. She married, raised two children, has a great great-grandson, and lives in Minsk with her husband Igor.

I met her in the Minsk facilities of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Through translators, I spoke with her and with two women who are her contemporaries.

Maya, under five feet, remains spry and wiry, reminding you of an adult life spent as a consummate self-confident athlete. One of her principal activities in active retirement is service as a director/instructor of the Minsk JDC’s Chesed-Rachamim programs. These Hebrew words, meaning “loving-kindness” and “mercy,” denote the provision of social services ranging from day care for infants to home care for the elderly.

Could there be a more vivid example than Maya’s of “giving back”? (Speaking of giving back, I was delighted to see a plaque on the Minsk JDC building giving thanks to the generosity of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, where I grew up.)

Visiting our ancestral shtetl of Dolhinov, about 40 miles north of Minsk, recalled the epic of little Berta, who would not die. The Russian censuses from the 19th century recorded scores of Sprayregens living there long before the Nazis came.

Fortunately, many of the Jews fled to the United States after the pogroms, wars, and revolutions between 1880 and 1921. Not all did, however. About 4,000 Dolhinov Jews, including 27 Sprayregens, were massacred in 1942. Three-hundred other Jews fled to the forest in the severe winter and met up with Russian partisans, who arranged for the Red Army to shepherd them through German lines.

A couple named Kremer had two children with them on the dangerous journey – an 8-year-old and Berta, who was 3. Berta was constantly crying, endangering the entire group. Her parents came to a grim decision: They would drown Berta to save the group. Berta understood and began to scream: “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!”

A Russian lieutenant named Kiselev, who was in charge of the rescue mission, intervened. He took Berta and carried her and otherwise cared for her during the eight-month ordeal through the frozen forests. Eighty of the group died during that flight to safety (not freedom; they were now in Soviet hands).

Berta grew up, married, raised a family, and today lives in New York. I learned this story from my friend Leon Rubin in Israel. He was among those rescued on Kiselev’s list. Leon dedicates his life to keeping alive the memory of what happened in Dolhinov. Kiselev survived the war but has since died. His children are honored by the Dolhinov survivors.

Three cousins accompanied me on this trip. We were certain that no Sprayregens remained alive in Belarus, but that did not stop us from looking. We found one in the town of Borisov, a small manufacturing city near Minsk, where my great-uncle Joshua Sprayregen (1880-1971), a Hebrew scholar and Zionist leader, lived before coming to New York. Bella, our knowledgeable guide from the Jewish Heritage Society, checked the Borisov city records and found the name Vladimir Shpreiregen (his father Yudel is buried in the Borisov cemetery) and telephoned him. In a matter of minutes, Ann and I were in the apartment of Vladimir, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer, and his wife Valentina (Valya), a pediatric dentist.

Our meeting was charged with emotion, smiles, and copious tears. Vladimir believed that no other Sprayregens had survived the Nazis and was overwhelmed to discover that so many of us are alive and well. Vladimir told us that his grandmother, aunt, and cousins had been killed with 7,000 other Jews in the forest outside Borisov; we earlier had visited the monument on that spot.

Belarus may have been the Valley of Death. On this journey of discovery, it also became a reaffirmation of life and the indefatigable durability of the Jewish people.+ltrs 12-23+

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