BALTIMORE (JTA) — Before her death, decades before her time, Sara Kucikowicz penned “The Cruel Winter.” Today, the poem stands as a reminder that the talented teenage Holocaust victim experienced far too few seasons.
“The Cruel Winter”
How awful is winter, how awful is frost
To far-off lands the sparrow has fled
The animals have hidden, too, in the caves
Beneath the hills and in the forest valleys
The trees wrap themselves in pure, white cover,
Every branch full of snow dips low
And in the streets, adults and children run
Their noses colored red
Suddenly, a boy runs, crying bitterly
Stating in a whisper that his ears are cold
So rules the winter, icy, in frost
Until comes the spring with song, with light
A warm gesture, though, comes courtesy of a 93-year-old Jerusalem resident, Shlomo Achituv. He knew Kucikowicz in their native Luniniec, Poland (now Belarus), where he tutored her and other students in such subjects as Latin, history, literature, math and Talmud. Achituv’s work enabled him to save the funds he needed to leave for pre-state Israel.
On May 5, 1939, Kucikowicz gave her tutor a photograph of herself, and on the back inscribed the following: “Shlomka, so you’ll remember me. Sara.” The portrait was made at the M. Glouberman photo studio at 12 Pilsudskiego St.
Achituv, whose surname in Poland was Chwatiuk, wants to find Kucikowicz’s sister, Aliza Dworkin, so he can present her or a family member with the photograph. He also will present a 10-page tribute to Kucikowicz that appears in a memorial book on Luniniec, a town near Pinsk. Many such books were published after the Holocaust by survivors of destroyed communities.
“If there’s an interest, I’d be happy to return it to them because they’re her family,” Achituv, speaking of the picture and book excerpt, said from the home he and his wife of 66 years, Miriam, share in the Israeli capital’s Ramot Eshkol neighborhood.
Achituv remembers a bit about Kucikowicz: that she was two or three years younger and also attended the town’s Tarbut school, one of a regional network of institutions with a strong Hebrew-Zionist, Modern Orthodox orientation.
“I can see her in my mind’s eyes. She came to our house, and I’d give lessons,” Achituv said.
His two years as a tutor launched Achituv’s long career as an educator. He went on to teach at the Hadassim Youth Village near Netanya, where his students included such future notables as Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss and actress Gila Almagor. He later earned a master’s degree in school administration at Columbia University’s Teachers College and worked for Israel’s Education Ministry.
Achituv recently met people named Kucikowicz who have roots in Luniniec, but they couldn’t be sure they’re Sara Kucikowicz’s relatives
Achituv fled Luniniec ahead of the Soviet advance in September 1939, reasoning that he could more easily reach Israel from Lithuania. He lived in Vilna, Ponevitz and Kovno until early 1941, then traveled by train to Odessa and by ship to Turkey and on to Haifa. Achituv’s brother Gershon, who left home in 1937, greeted him at journey’s end. The rest of their family — their father, Yaakov-Dov, who owned five multi-family homes that he rented out; mother, Nina (nee Swirsky), who ran a small grocery business; another brother, Moshe Leib; and half-sisters Basia and Rachel — was murdered in the Holocaust.
Last year, while going through a photo album from his four grades as a student at the Tarbut school, Achituv noticed Kucikowicz’s photograph. He decided to learn more about her.
The Luniniec memorial book on Achituv’s shelf had much to tell him. Dworkin, Kucikowicz’s sister, apparently reached pre-state Israel in 1937 and settled in Haifa; her husband might have been named Moshe. After Achituv was interviewed last fall on the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau), a listener tried to uncover information on the Dworkins’ residence in Haifa or even of their having died there. His unsuccessful effort led the listener to posit that the Dworkins may have relocated to another country.
Achituv recently met people named Kucikowicz who reached Israel in the 1990s and have roots in Luniniec, but the immigrants could not be sure that they are Sara Kucikowicz’s relatives.
As he considers her short life, Achituv thinks of the glowing remarks penned by Daniel Persky, editor of the Hebrew-language newspaper Hadoar and its sister publication for youth, Doar L’Noar, both of which were published in New York until going out of business less than 10 years ago.
Persky published several of Kucikowicz’s poems and short stories on nature, the seasons of the year, Jewish holidays and clandestine immigration to pre-state Israel. She also wrote of her longing for the land of Israel. Correspondence with her sister and with Persky appears in the Luniniec memorial book. It reveals that Kucikowicz, like Achituv, tutored students; after completing her formal education, she studied to be a librarian, but could not land a job. In a letter to Persky, Kucikowicz said that Dworkin tried to bring her to pre-state Israel.
“I think day and night of coming to Israel, but the destination is so far off,” Kucikowicz wrote to her sister.
“In my opinion, Sara Kucikowicz’s future will be that of a great Hebrew poet,” Persky wrote to Dworkin on Oct. 6, 1935, in a letter hinting of Dworkin’s role as an intermediary between poet and publisher. In a May 6, 1947, letter to Yosef Zeevi, Persky suggested a special section be devoted to her in the Luniniec book that Zeevi was compiling.
‘The cruel winter that ruled all around us/Lifted its legs and fled from our place’
“The main thing is that it should be an eternal testament to this important poet, of whom the [former] residents of your town can be proud,” Persky wrote in the letter, which appears in the book, along with several of Kucikowicz’s poems and stories. “It’s a shame that she died in her youth.”
Today, Achituv expressed much the same sentiment. By ultimately handing Kucikowicz’s photograph to one of her close relatives, he said, he would feel that “I’m fulfilling an important commitment.”
Over the long-distance telephone line as the last few hours of 2012 ticked down, Achituv then read the opening line of another Kucikowicz poem, “The Victorious Spring.” It appears to take off directly from the uplifting sentiment she had expressed at the conclusion of “The Cruel Winter.”
“The Victorious Spring” opens thus:
The cruel winter that ruled all around us
Lifted its legs and fled from our place.
One cannot help but be struck by the notion that her words — and the two poems’ titles — mirrored both the evil that would consume the poet and the protective embrace, unconsummated, awaiting her in Israel.