Joseph D. Steinfield: Looking Back – My cousins from Poland and survival in the forest

  • Columnist Mugs/Furniture Ben Conant

Published: 9/29/2022 9:10:27 AM

Prologue

Chaim and Ruchele Feldman, brother and sister, were born a long time ago in Derechin, a small village which was then in Poland, now western Belarus. Their mother’s maiden name was Bernstein, and their uncle, Isaac Bernstein, left Derechin for America sometime before 1900. He became a successful businessman in Lowell, Mass.

My grandmother, Lillian Firestone, was born in Derechin in 1888 and left for America around 1904. Her mother was a Bernstein; Isaac Bernstein was her uncle, and Chaim and Ruchele Feldman were her cousins.

In 1938, Isaac Bernstein, by then a widower, returned to Derechin to visit his sisters and other relatives. As he was preparing to leave, his sister said, “Take Ruchele,” referring to her teenage daughter (or perhaps granddaughter). He did so, getting his niece (or grand-niece) out of Poland just in time, while the rest of the large Feldman family remained behind.

Chaim and his wife Lisa, with their sons Martin and Stephen, moved from Derechin to a city named Novogrudok, which the Germans occupied in 1941. The Jews who were not killed immediately were forced into the ghetto, from which most were taken away to their deaths.

But a small number, including Chaim Feldman and his family, escaped from the ghetto into the Białowieża Forest, one of the last primeval forests in Europe. And in 1947, homeless, tired and poor, they arrived in America.

Martin and Stephen lived that first year in Claremont with my Firestone grandparents, while Chaim and Lisa got settled in New York, where Chaim reunited with his sister Ruchele. By then, she had become my cousin Romaine.

The forest

I recently read a book review of “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love,” by Rebecca Frankel. It tells the story of Morris and Miriam Rabinowitz and their two daughters, Rochel and Tania, who also survived the Holocaust hiding in the forest. My first thought was, “I must read this book. It will help me understand what it was like for my Feldman cousins during those years hiding in the forest.”

So I went straight to Audible.com and purchased the book. In mid-September, driving from Keene to New York City to see my granddaughter, I began listening to the book. In an early chapter, I heard the name “Chaim Feldman.” A few chapters later, I heard the names of towns from which people fled, and Derechin was one of them.

By now, I was paying attention, but driving into New York is a white-knuckle experience, so I stopped listening to the book and concentrated on the GPS woman’s voice, which got me to my granddaughter’s new address in Brooklyn.

Two days later, once that same voice guided me out of the city to Route 95 North, I went back to “Into the Forest.” The first words I heard were, “In a reunion that would define their forest circumstances, Morris Rabinowitz discovered that Chaim Feldman, the friend from Novogrudok, was also in the woods with his family, his wife Leah and their two young sons, Motel and Samuel.”

Yes, Leah was the person I later knew as Chaim’s wife Lisa. Motel (“Motie”) was my cousin Martin (to whom my recent book “Time for Everything” is dedicated), and Samuel was my cousin Stevie. The two families spent more than two years together, hiding in the forest both above and below ground.

The word “harrowing” does not begin to describe what the two families went through. Here, from the book, is just a sample: “The Nazis got so close to the Rabinowitz-Feldman clan that they could hear the sound of boots on top of the leaf-laden bunker roof, and voices speaking German.”

How remarkable. I bought the book to get a sense of what it must have been like for my cousins, and it turns out that the book tells what it was actually like. My astonishment was matched by Rebecca Frankel’s who, when I contacted her, told me, “I’ve been looking for the Feldmans!”

After their daughters were grown, Morris and Miriam Rabinowitz moved from Hartford to Canaan, where he was in the lumber business. How fitting for someone who lived, and survived, in the forest. The Rabinowitz daughters, whose names became Ruth and Toby, are now in their 80s and live in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I hope to meet them soon and hear their memories of those long-ago days when they and my Feldman cousins survived together.

Joseph D. Steinfield lives in Keene and Jaffrey. He can be reached at joe@joesteinfield.com.


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