Friday, October 10, 2014

World War One in Russian Poland: Fredja JozefsonBernstein's Story

Russian World War One poster, Russia bringing peace to Europe

At the beginning of World War One, both the Russians, and the Austrian and German allies had plans for a reunited Poland under either Russian or Austrian rule. The Austrian/German alliance envisioned a new Poland uniting Austrian Galicia with Russian Poland. They planned to bring in a member of the Austrian royal family as king of Poland.   Both the Russians and the Germans looked at a new Polish nation as a possible military zone in future wars thus protecting their respective homelands. The Austrian/Germans appealed to the Poles under the Tsar's rule to fight for freedom, and independence from Russian rule. They hoped to expand Poland to the east. The Russian appeal to the Poles, issued by Grand Duke Nicholas on August 15, 1914, mentions 150 years of German rule in Poland.  He stated that Poland's soul is not dead and hoped that the German and Austrian controlled sections of Poland could be joined to Russian Poland and aligned with Russia under the rule of Tsar.

Europe in 1815, after the Congress of Vienna.  Much of Poland was absorbed into Russia, including the Capital, Warsaw. In 1870, Germany was created merging Prussia and smaller German speaking states (indicated in Yellow on this map.)

In August 1914, the Russians invaded Austrian Galicia and German ruled Poland.  They were successful in Galicia and controlled it for 2 years, but suffered terrible defeats by the Germans in northern Poland, losing The Battle of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes.  Their path of the invasion crossed northern Poland and affected the people of Szczuczyn, where many members of my husband’s family lived.  Although I do not have any stories from his family members, I do have the memoir of Fay Jozefson Bernstein, who like my great aunt Katherine who lived in Galicia, lived in a battle zone. Fay's memoir, written by David Bernstein, is published on the Szczuczyn site. To read Fay's memoir, click on this link:

Fay Jozefson Bernstein was born Frejda Jozefson in Szczuczyn in January 1905.  Her father, Schmuel Jozefson, an ordained rabbi died when she was six months old, leaving his wife, Hinda, and five daughters.   In order to support her family, Hinda opened a grocery store, which served the neighborhood as well as the Polish farmers who came to town on market days.  Fay’s mother believed in education, she was educated and she made sure that her daughters had educations.  Although she was poor, she was charitable; Fay remembers leaving packages of food on the doorsteps of poor members of the Jewish community. In Szczuczyn there was a Yeshiva, a religious school which trained rabbis. Families in town took in students for meals, and Hinda took her turn providing food for the students, often going without food herself.

Szczuczyn is located at the lower right quarter of the map.  The Russian Army is blue, the German is red.

Szczcuzyn was less than a mile from the Polish-German border, in the area of Poland ruled by Russia.  In August 1914, the Russians invaded Germany, and soldiers marched through the town.  Since the Russians lost the Battle of Tannenberg, there was fighting in the Szczuczyn area as they retreated.  Fay tells about the first incident that affected her family in Szczuczyn.   

The German and Russian armies were shelling each other, the people of the neighborhood were running, but didn’t know where to go.  The neighbors told them to leave everything behind and run.  They followed the crowd and came to a building with a basement and a metal roof.  The Jozefons hid in the basement for almost two weeks.  It was crowded with people, women, children and crying babies.  There was no water, and only bread and raw potatoes to eat.  When the shooting stopped, they left and returned to their home. Their home was full of bullet holes, and many possessions were gone. The Germans were gone, but they weren’t gone for long.

Russian Troops retreating after the Battle of Tannenberg

Several months later, in December 1914, the Germans returned.  Jews were warned to leave immediately since the Germans believed that Jews were Russian spies, and would kill them.  Fay could see people running, but she had no idea where they were going.  The husband of Fay’s mother’s friend had a horse and wagon, and she begged them to take Fay. They agreed to take her and Fay climbed in and hid under blankets with the rest of their family. She didn’t realize until later that her mother and sister were not in the wagon.  They traveled for a while and came to a house with a windmill near a forest.  The owner of the farm hid the family, as well as many other people.  He had an orchard, and provided the people with fruit to eat.  Again they were crowded together in darkness.  They could make no noise, since they could knew the soldiers outside would hear them and would shoot and kill them.
German soldiers in a captured Russian artillery station, World War 1

Three weeks later, the shooting stopped. After a few days of quiet, Fay begged the man with the wagon to take her back to Szczuczyn so she could find her mother and sister and finally he agreed.  They rode into town and Fay got out of the wagon, looked into her house and found it was riddled with bullets, the windows broken and the house empty. Her mother and sister were gone.  As she ran back to the wagon, soldiers appeared and started to shoot at them.  The man beat his horse as they galloped away, shouted at Fay, saying that he was risking his life trying to help her.  They returned to the farm and went into hiding again.

After three  more weeks, her mother and sister were found in a nearby village.  The soldiers had retreated and the Jozefson family returned to Szczuczyn.  Their house and store had been looted and was empty.  Hinda reopened the grocery store, and was hopeful that things would improve. Although the border was calm, the Jewish people of Szczuczyn were still afraid.  They kept their homes completely dark at night, and slept in their clothes, just in case.

Temporary shelter constructed by Polish refugees.