Bronislava lived in Dnepropetropvsk, Ukraine with her husband and two boys. Their village was subject to plunder, but even so the Jews had always gotten along with their Gentile neighbors. But that all changed in one day.
On October 24, 1941 the German army entered Bronislava’s village. Immediately the torture, murder and looting began. By order of the Nazis all Jews were easily identified by wearing white armband with the six-pointed star of David on their sleeve. If a Jew was caught without it, they would be shot. All the Jews were afraid to go out in the street to fetch water from the municipal faucet or even to get bread. Bronislava had sewn the stars on her coat and the coats of her two sons. When the German army had first arrived, the Communists told them not to be afraid of the Germans. But now things had drastically changed.
“My two boys were five and two, the youngest just a toddler. We had no more money and our food supply was low. I lived near my parents and my sister was located in another area of town. I decided to take one of my handmade skirts and sell it as I needed milk for the children. Walking about the streets was always the same. The Germans soldiers would yell at us all the time. It didn’t help that I was considered to be unusually beautiful. But I was also strong and bold. Still, the yelling never stopped.
“However, this day suddenly turned ugly in a direction I did not expect or could have imagined. The Germans began rounding up all of us Jews, saying we were to meet at the “Lux” store to form a Ghetto. I put as many of our belongings in a basket as I could and carried the baby, holding Leonid’s hand. We were formed into a column and marched in a long line heading out of town. When questioned the soldiers’ only answer concerning our destination was ‘a camp’. We, along with my parents, were forced into the long, long line. It resembled a snake, weaving in and out as far as I could see. My sister and her five year-old daughter joined us at some point, and we walked together, as a family.
“As we slowly moved ahead, the Germans began running among all the people, taking our earrings, gold, watches– everything of any value. They also began hitting us as we walked through the gauntlet of soldiers.
“At one point my father stopped them from hitting me. He protected me and the children, standing between us and them. As we moved out of the ghetto and through the city, the Ukrainian people stood on the sidewalks laughing at us and saying, ‘Good! They deserve what they are getting.’ They also began throwing rotten vegetables and rocks at us. These people were our former neighbors, now treating us like enemies.
“The long line began to slow and I could see the snake-like line weaving forward ahead of us. It was cold and began to snow. We passed the Jewish cemetery and approached an open yard next to the railroad tracks. Suddenly we heard shots and knew why we had been brought here. It had gotten dark and was not yet our turn. About two thousand of us were driven up against a fence and surrounded with soldiers on all sides. The ground was uneven and we were with a group in a lower section, a depression, all of us standing shoulder to shoulder in the icy mud; those who were sick and dying lay down in it. Jews, mothers, fathers, children and old people; every age had made the long walk and now we were standing in groups as far as I could see, completely surrounded by soldiers with guns.
“Suddenly, the sharp sound of shots pierced the air. Like a constant staccato, starting with the farthest groups away from us, the soldiers began executing the people. Mowing down young and old alike, the gunfire was unceasing. Guarded by soldiers all we could do was wait for our turn. We had nowhere to run and could do nothing but wait and pray…
“As the soldiers reached our group we braced for the bullets. The man right behind me was shot in the neck. He fell, but was not dead. But with that bullet, just as quickly, the shooting stopped. There were only 200 to 300 of us left standing; I, and my family among them. Waiting, I was shaking, wondering, silently questioning: What was happening? Why had they stopped shooting? Were we going to be spared?”
The answer was an agonizing one for all those remaining. The soldiers had run out of bullets. It was evening and those Jews left were ordered to remain standing where they were while some soldiers went for more ammunition. A contingent of guards was left to make sure no one got away.
“Standing with my father, mother and sister, we began to understand we all would be shot when the soldiers returned. My sister, crying, was holding tight to her little daughter. I had been carrying my young little boy on my shoulders, straddling my neck while the older one, Leonid, stood with his face pressed against my knees holding my hand.
“Not sure we would live through the night, I turned to my father and apologized for any rebelliousness I had displayed growing up. Tears were shared between our family members as we trudged along for several miles. My father faced me and said,
‘Bronislava, you alone will be alive after today and you must remember to pray for us all your life.’ ”
Even speaking such sad and prophetic words were not enough to prepare Bronislava for what was to take place next. But she has remembered his words for the rest of her life.
“It was now dusk and the snow had already turned to rain. The depression we were standing in began filling with water. I had now put Leonid on my shoulders and was holding his baby brother to keep them both dry. My shoes were thin and now soaked; my feet and legs ached from the extra weight and standing in place so long. My arms were so very tired. Along with the darkness of night the temperature dropped and snow began mixing in with the rain. The water level had risen up over our ankles, and it now began to freeze around our feet.
“I had done my best to shield my young sons’ eyes from the dying man on the ground behind us. But I finally reached a breaking point and could not hold both children any longer. With much sorrow, I put Leonid on top of the man lying in the water. He just lay there, bleeding from his neck, slowly, ever so slowly, dying. It would take all night for the man to bleed to death. Leonid sat gingerly on the man, staring at him. I could see he had an understanding beyond his five years. He knew this man’s unplanned sacrifice gave him shelter. Not wanting to cause him any more pain, Leonid sat carefully and watched him as he died.”
The Germans began gathering the people who had been murdered, even those still dying, and loaded them onto a wagon. Bronislava remembers white horses were used to pull the wagons. The bodies were taken to another area and dumped into a nearby reservoir of water.
They waited all night for the soldiers’ return with the needed bullets to finish their grisly execution. Beside Bronislava stood her sister holding her own baby, growing tired and weak. Their parents were barely able to stand and could not help with the children. Bronislava stood, holding her young son on her shoulders, the strong one of her small family unit.
As night began to fade into morning, Bronislava could no longer feel her feet. They were frozen in place. It was now her 25th birthday.
With dawn came the approach of the German soldiers bring cases of ammunition. They held the cases of ammunition up to us and laughed. Now they began herding us toward pits that had been dug at the end of the lot. In panic the crowd ran to one side, the weak falling under the feet of the people who had gone mad with horror. Screams, shots and cries of children filled the air. The German soldiers dragged the old people and children that had been crushed by the crowd and threw them into pits to be buried with those already murdered.
Bronislava had been praying desperately all night, but now she fell to her knees and began to pray. Hugging my children I thought I was going to go out of my mind from horror. I cried out loud,
“Please, HaShem, save my children!”
“At that moment, a German officer appeared in front of me. I know he was not there a moment ago. He seemed to just appear. He helped me rise, breaking the ice, and said,
“‘You are too beautiful to die and go into the earth. I have come to save you and your children. Come with me.’”
“With my younger son in one arm I picked up Leonid in the other to follow the officer. My sister begged me to take her baby daughter and save her as well. She cried and tried to hand her over to me, but with my arms full with the two boys and barely able to move for exhaustion, I could not. That decision not to somehow take that baby still haunts me even today. I followed the officer, walking away from my father, my mother, my sister and her baby. I never saw them again.
“To this day I do not understand how he did it, but we followed the German officer; he took me to the side of the road near the cemetery and told me to sit in one place. He had a large watch on his wrist and he pointed to it. I still remember what it looked like; can see the hair on his arm and how he looked as he spoke to me. It is all still very clear. He gave me instructions to wait there and he would return for us; then he walked away. We were sitting among dead people, lying everywhere around us. We were so cold from the rain and snow. My thin shoes were soaked and my feet ached from standing in the ice water all night.
“After a short while I noticed no soldiers were anywhere around. It had been well past the time the officer said he would return. I decided to take my sons and leave. Rising and walking with great pain, we headed away from the killing field. No one stopped me. We saw a cart driven by a young peasant. We asked nothing of him but he himself offered to take my children and me to the city. I said farewell to our savior and we set off.
“When we returned home I found my husband in tears. The neighbors had told him that we had been taken to a camp to be shot. My husband was a Ukrainian, not a Jew, and we had hoped that he would have been able to help my children and me to escape from the camp when we first left.
“The next morning we all left the city. While walking we met a woman and I asked for directions to the village of my father’s birthplace, Sumy, where my husband also had relatives. We walked while I carried the two-year old. We were on the road over one month and a half, traveling without papers or money, covering over six hundred kilometers to reach the village.
Assuming they had gone far enough to be safe, still in their own Ukraine, she found the abandoned family house of her father.
“In Sumy no one bothered me for awhile. Then we found out I was denounced. The neighbor notified the police ‘a Jewess has arrived.’ I and my boys were taken into custody and transported to the police station. All day and night I was interrogated, not allowed to sleep. Finally, another policeman came in, spoke to me and announced I was not Jewish, but Ukrainian. He made another passport, claiming I obviously lost my own papers, and gave it to me.
Leaving the station, thanking God for His intervention, Bronislava did not feel she could return to the home of her father. Once again they fled and for a long time wandered about among the villages and towns. Eventually she found a barn that had enough space underneath it to live. Once they were settled, she looked for work. With the identity from the policeman she was able to work and seek shelter without fear of capture.
At this time Bronislava’s husband was taken into the Red Army and she was on her own. Eventually she obtained employment at a local infirmary cleaning up after the doctors, nurses and patients. Each day she would leave the boys under the barn with instructions they were not to come out. Five year-old Leonid took care of his two year-old brother and they waited for her return each night. Because it was winter and they had nothing to burn for heat, Bronislava would collect all the bloody bandages at the hospital and bring them home to fuel a fire. They lived under that barn for one year. Overnight while standing in that pit her hair turned white as snow. She told her sons,
“After all the suffering we Jews have been through, God will make the Jews have their own country.”
“How can I describe the joy we felt when in one village we met a Red Army detachment?”
At the end of the war, when everyone was free, Bronislava returned to the same police station where she had been interrogated. The feisty Jewess went to the same policeman and told him she was a Jew and wanted it listed on her papers. She was proud of her heritage and did not want to lose it. He smiled and complied with her request.
A quote from Bronislava after liberation:
“My husband is now in the army, and I am working in the infirmary. I am only twenty-seven [years old] but already I am an old woman. I live only for my children and for the day the Hitlerite beasts would be punished. But no, they are not beasts. For beasts do not gnaw on those who are down and anyone who throws living children into a grave is not worthy of being called a beast.”
“I have never forgotten what my father said that day. How did he know? I and my sons were the only ones to live that day. I prayed and an officer appeared to help us. I thank HaShem. Please tell people our story and tell them not to forget. This kind of Holocaust must not happen again!”
At ninety-seven Bronislava was still beautiful. Her eyes were full of life, edged with pain. Visiting with her was always a treat as she repeatedly blessed us to live to the age of one hundred and twenty.
Every day Bronislava would sit in a chair, wrapped in blankets to keep warm, with her Torah and prayer book on the table beside her. With hands badly crippled from arthritis, she could barely hold it but read it often, and reminded anyone who visited,
“God hears you when you pray.” After all, He heard her prayer and her sons were saved.
Bronislava had been a warrior most of her life, whether physically or spiritually. In August of 2012 Bronislava finished fighting and entered her rest. Her son, Leonid, continues to tell the account of their experience.
Over 2000 people were killed in the Massacre of Dnepropettrovsk, Ukraine on October 13, 1941, her entire family included. Bronislava and her children were the only ones to survive. A memorial has been erected and Leonid is honored there each year.