Survivor STORY

What’s my feelings about [the Holocaust]? I cannot say it with words, I cannot say it with words…it’s painful to me, if any person anybody wants to say something diminishing about the Holocaust or the Jewish people, I am very sensitive about it.”

Jacob Szczupak was born in Warsaw. When World War Two broke out, his father, Schlomo, fled to the Soviet city of Brest-Litovsk. Soon after, he wrote a letter to Jacob and his mother, Miriam, beseeching them to join him. In November 1939, they did so, illegally crossing the Polish border into the Soviet Union.

Miriam gave birth to a baby boy in Brest-Litovsk. The family then departed and moved to Chernivtsi, a large city in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. From Chernivtsi, they traveled to a small town in the Caucasus Mountains, where Schlomo worked on a collective farm, and his mother worked in a vineyard. When the Germans broke their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and attacked their eastern neighbor in 1941, Schlomo volunteered for the Soviet Army, leaving his family behind.

When the Caucasus region was threatened by the encroaching Nazis, Jacob, his brother, and mother fled across the Caspian Sea and wandered through the Betpak-Dala Desert of Kazakhstan, reaching the town of Chilik. They settled on a collective farm, where Jacob’s mother picked potatoes in exchange for food and shelter.

Towards the end of 1944, Miriam wrote a letter to the chairman of a nearby collective farm asking if he knew the whereabouts of her husband. Miraculously, Schlomo wrote to the same chairman asking about his wife! The chairman informed the couple of each other’s survival and helped them to exchange addresses. After the war ended in 1945, Jacob’s family was reunited.

Schlomo was discharged from the Soviet army in 1946 and chose to resettle in his hometown in southwestern Poland in attempt to find his family. Upon his arrival, he learned the remarkable story of their deaths…

During the war, the town mayor learned of Nazi atrocities and built a cellar under his barn to hide Jews. Jacob’s paternal grandmother and aunt hid in the cellar until 1944, when the mayor’s daughter, a Nazi collaborator, discovered them and informed the Gestapo of their location. The mayor rode on horseback into the forest and found his son, a partisan engaged in armed resistance against the occupying Germans. The son gathered his comrades and prepared to attack the Gestapo. But they were too late—the Germans had burned the barn, killing the Jews hiding inside. The partisans and mayor fled back into the woods.

Jacob’s paternal grandfather also perished during the war. Forced to construct buildings by the Germans, he fell from the fourth story on a rainy day and died.

Jacob remained in southwestern Poland with his family. His second brother was born in 1947; his father died in 1965. Under communist rule, Jews were treated fairly well in Poland; they allowed Yiddish presses and theaters to operate. Jacob attended a university and earned a Master’s Degree in Russian. He became a Yiddish and Russian teacher and married his wife, Lucy, in 1967. Jacob directed Yiddish plays and wrote for a magazine. The Six Day War occurred in the Middle East in June of that year. Israeli forces launched preemptive strikes on their hostile Arab neighbors, seizing the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula in a rout of Arabic forces. The Israeli victories fueled a new bout of anti-Semitism in Poland, causing Jacob and his family to flee the country. They immigrated directly to Atlanta with the help of an aid agency.

Jacob arrived in Atlanta on July 16th, 1969, the day the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He taught Yiddish, Russian, and Polish at temples, Jewish community centers, and Emory University. In 1974, he was hired by the Cobb County School District to teach Russian in a foreign language magnet program. Although active in the Jewish community, he still finds praying in English unusual. Jacob writes poetry about the Holocaust in multiple languages. He has two children and four grandchildren. Jacob would like to stress the importance of the past, whether it is literature, the Holocaust, or history in general .

Liberation and Finding Family

In 1945, was a great, great news for us. We found - and it's a miracle how we found, it's a separate story, how my mother found my father and my father found my mother as they started to write each other - because all this time my mother did not know if he's, if my father's alive somewhere. It was somewhere the end of 1944, my mother wrote a letter to the chairman of the collective farm where they used to work and asked him, "Listen, Efsher, maybe you know something about my husband. If you know, we would, I would appreciate, and here is my address," etc., etc. Somehow, two months later, my father from the army wrote him too. And this way, thanks to this chairman of the collective farm, the addresses were exchanged. And I remember it was January 1945, it was the same time when Warsaw was liberated by the Russians. My mother came from work, and start to yell and start to, with joy and scream in Yiddish "Kuba!" (My name is, my nickname is Kuba) [Yiddish phrase] "Daddy is alive!" So that was a very joyful moment.

Remembering and Legacy

After, when we came to Poland, as I mentioned, Poland was an exceptional Communistic country, that allowed to prosper Jewish culture. Of course, not from the religious perspectives, which is a different chapter of this history, but it was still. In Poland, the Jews who survived the Holocaust, if they survived in concentration camps, like the parents of my wife, or survived in forests or hidden, or most of them who survived in Russia, every year we celebrated, if we can say the word "celebrated," maybe commemorated the uprising in Warsaw Ghetto. The uprising in Warsaw Ghetto, by the way, it was the first ever uprising in Europe against Germans, and we celebrated, because of the uprising in Warsaw ghetto. Every year we used to gather, we used to come to conferences, we used to come to meetings, commemorating the heroes and the fallen brothers of ours. And together with this, every year, from young children pre-school, to the adults, we all learned, we all read documents. We listened to witnesses. There was a Jewish Institute, historical institute in Warsaw, right in the place where used to be that, on Klimatsky Street 5, where was main synagogue, over there, the Jewish Institute, and they were very busy, very busy, collecting all the documents and facts about this Holocaust. And we children in school were learned about it, we felt it, daily, in classes of Yiddish or Jewish history. We heard from our parents, or from our Jewish neighbors, from everywhere. So the pain, even though I was growing up in Russia and after the war in Poland, but the pain is still, even in my generation, the 2nd generation of the Holocaust survivors, is still with us.

I'm not saying that I talked to them enough, there is nothing enough, we cannot say enough talking about those horrible, horrible times. But my kids know where they came from, who they are, the survivors. They know not only that they are Jews, but why they are Jews, and why they should be proud to be Jews. Both of us - my wife and me.

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Jacob Szczupak