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First person230,000 Polish Jews survived WWII in escape to Soviet Union

Double tragedy: Survivor’s nephew uncovers fate of Polish Jews who fled to USSR

‘Deported. Exiled. Saved.’ uncovers dramatic new information with implications for descendants of the largest Polish survivor group — including the family of this writer

After the war Herman Likwornik returned  to his hometown, which had become part of the USSR and was now known as Kalush. Photo taken in 1947. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)
After the war Herman Likwornik returned to his hometown, which had become part of the USSR and was now known as Kalush. Photo taken in 1947. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)

When my uncle Herman Likwornik fled into the Soviet interior from eastern Poland in June 1941, the 38-year-old Jewish physician wrestled with whether or not to bring his wife Lonia with him. The Soviets, under attack by the Germans, were evacuating the Polish territory they had occupied since 1939 and taking with them Poles with a medical background. In the chaos of the sudden evacuation, Likwornik decided to first determine on his own what conditions were like in the Soviet interior.

My uncle spent the rest of the war in the Soviet Union, but before he passed away in 1975, I don’t recall him ever talking about that period.

He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, yet very distant. Unlike my parents, who survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding in the forest, I never thought of him as being a Holocaust survivor. But when I read his diary, recently unearthed and translated by his son Victor, I discovered an untold story of profound trauma.

The scarring experiences of Jews who fled to the Soviet Union during the war have in recent years become an important focus of research with implications for their descendants. As historian Katharina Friedla points out, the Jews who reached the Soviet Union vastly outnumbered any other group of survivors.

Co-editor of ‘Deported. Exiled. Saved. History and Memory of Polish Jews in the Soviet Union (1939–1959),’ Katharina Friedla. (Courtesy)

“Likwornik would have been one of about 230,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust by reaching the Soviet Union. This was the largest group of Polish Jews to survive the Holocaust, yet historians have paid scant attention to their ordeals,” says Friedla, the co-editor of an upcoming book about this group of survivors.

Kalush/Rohatyn, Poland, 1934. Herman Likwornik and his wife Lonia around the time of their marriage. From left to right: Lonia Likwornik, Herman Likwornik, Lonia’s parents. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)

“Deported. Exiled. Saved. History and Memory of Polish Jews in the Soviet Union (1939–1959)” is due to be released in spring of 2021.

Friedla points out that those stories have been overshadowed by the descriptions of the more than 3 million Polish Jews killed and the approximately 60,000 Polish Jews who survived by hiding or enduring the concentration camps.

“After the war, the Polish evacuees themselves often blocked the memories of their experiences,” says Friedla, a researcher at the Paris Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah. She points out that when the evacuees heard about the horrors that befell those who stayed behind, they were reluctant to speak about their own suffering.

One painful aspect was not knowing for years what was happening to family members.

“I am sitting at the clinic, thinking about you dear Lonia, wondering if you are warm, if you have enough to eat,” wrote Likwornik in a diary that he began to compile in the form of letters to his wife in late 1941, after discovering that there was no chance for her to join him. “I cry frequently and I am crying now, my heart starts to beat quickly thinking of you.”

Likwornik settled in a kolkhoz, a Soviet farming collective on the west shore of Russia’s Don River. In addition to running a medical clinic he managed the collective’s cattle and goat farming.

A page from the Polish diary of Herman Likwornik written in the form of letters to his wife Lonia. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)

In 1942 as the fighting moved eastward, he was evacuated to another kolkhoz east of the Volga River. Unable to know what was happening in Poland, he became more and more anxious.

“All the time am thinking only of you, dear Lonia. I feel terrible pangs of conscience that I did not take you with me. I will never forgive myself if anything bad happens to you… Without you my love I cannot imagine any further life,” he wrote.

As Likwornik’s anxiety reached the breaking point, he even tried to find out about his wife by consulting a local fortune teller.

“That would have been very uncharacteristic for him,” says Victor Likwornik, Herman’s son, who also was largely unfamiliar with his father’s wartime experience until reading the diary. He points out that his father, who received his medical training in Vienna and whose lecturers included Sigmund Freud, was “the last person you would expect to go in for any kind of superstition.”

There will come a time when the Germans will have to answer for every victim … I will not forget and will not forgive

Herman Likwornik continued to write his diary until 1945, but in September 1944 when he received a letter from his hometown of Kalusz after it was liberated by the Red Army, he stopped addressing his entries to Lonia.

“I received a letter from [my sister] Ginka. On one side great joy that she is alive and on the other side sadness, mother cremated in Belzec, father taken away and my wife also. Imagine my despair. There will come a time when the Germans will have to answer for every victim … I will not forget and will not forgive,” he wrote.

Herman Likwornik served as a physician and managed cattle and goat farms at several Russian kolkhoz collectives in the Soviet interior. Here he is seen in 1942 or 1943 wearing a shirt with an embroidered Russian peasant pattern on the collar. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)

In 1945 when the Soviet Union agreed to repatriate Polish citizens to Poland, Likwornik returned to his native Kalusz. His sister Ginka, my mother, was the only member of his family to survive. But unlike my mother who joined the majority of Holocaust survivors in leaving Eastern Europe after the war, he decided to stay.

Eventually he remarried and in 1959 made his way to Canada where he was reunited with my mother. I had always wondered what motivated him to remain in Kalusz for more than a decade after the war. Perhaps, it occurred to me as I read his passionate monologue to Lonia, it was because his hometown was where he and Lonia had been together.

Researcher Friedla has frequently come across descriptions of the agony experienced by the Polish Jewish evacuees who were cut off from their families. In the course of more than 20 years of Holocaust research she has amassed testimonies from about 800 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

After the war, most of the Polish Jewish evacuees were repatriated to Poland, and from there moved on to Israel, North America and other parts of the world via the Displaced Persons camps that were set up in Germany.

“Starting with the DP camps, a kind of hierarchy of survivors emerged with those who survived the Shoah in the German-occupied territories receiving the most attention,” says Friedla. She points out that in the DP camps those who had spent time in the USSR had another reason for omitting their Soviet years. “Those trying to immigrate to the US feared they would be denied visas if they had a Communist past.”

Herman Likwornik (left) visits a fellow physician whom he knew from before the war in Legnica, Poland, in 1957 just before emigrating to Canada. (Courtesy Victor Likwornik)

For the descendants of Jews who survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, it can be expected that the publication of Friedla’s new book will help many of them understand better the impact this period had on their parents or grandparents’ lives.

It may also help the descendants come to terms with the impact the omitted experiences have had on their own lives, similar to the important influence the book “Children of the Holocaust” had on second-generation sons and daughters of survivors who experienced the concentration camps or hid in the forests. That landmark book, by American journalist Helen Epstein aided descendants in understanding how feelings can be transmitted from victims to their children and other members of their family.

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