Seventy years ago, I wonder if he knew?
I wonder if he knew?
As I look into his eyes, I wonder if he knew he would win?
Seventy years ago this week, my wife’s grandparents were taken from their home and shot in the head.
It was a Monday morning — Oct. 15, 1941.
Nazis with the Einsatzgruppe B unit, Einsatzkommando 8, with the enthusiastic support of local police officers and Ukrainian militia members, swept through the city of Mstislavl, in Belarus, forcing Jews from their homes and ordering them to gather at a teacher’s school in the city center.
Yoel and Genya Balin were torn from their home — pushed, shoved, and beaten along the road leading into the city where they were herded with over 800 other Jews from the community.
With them was their 12-year-old daughter Tamara — my mother-in-law.
Yoel, a blacksmith working along the railway lines in the district, had known dark clouds were gathering and had tried to escape with his family to the Russian border and the safety offered by the Soviets.
He acted too late and was turned back as German forces closed off escape routes.
Returning home to Mstislavl, they discovered that only the day before dozens of Jewish women and girls, including friends in Tamara’s elementary school class, had been systematically raped by the Belorussian and Ukrainian thugs — with the Germans looking on and taking part.
On Oct. 15, Yoel and Genya joined the flow of human traffic being force marched to the school yard with no idea what was planned for them.
Yoel knew. He knew he would not see the close of that day.
But I wonder if he knew he would ultimately win?
As they neared the city center, Yoel reached down and discreetly, carefully plucked at the threads that fastened the yellow star on Tamara’s blouse. The yellow star identified all Jews as Jews.
Yoel delicately tore the star from his daughter’s blouse and put it in his pocket.
As they approached the entrance to the school yard, he let go of his terrified daughter’s hand and whispered to her: “Go stand by the policeman” flipping his hand in the direction of a uniformed man at the gate holding a clipboard.
Tamara refused to leave her papa’s side.
Yoel gently but urgently pushed his daughter away and repeated “Go stand over there.”
Tamara didn’t understand why her father insisted she leave him and her mother.
“Look. He won’t let me stand by him,” she said with a pout, and to prove her point she strolled away from the stream of humanity and walked up to the police officer who stood counting the Jews walking by.
He never noticed her.
Yoel signaled with his hand that Tamara stay where she was. She watched her mother and farther swept away in the crowd of Jewish neighbors.
The last thing she saw of her parents was a corner of the yellow star — her yellow star — peeking out of her papa’s pocket.
Tamara walked away. Nobody noticed.
She headed back home. Nobody noticed.
She heard shooting from over by the municipal well. The shooting continued four hours.
A neighbor lady pulled her in the house and let her sleep there that night.
In the morning, Tamara was given a loaf of bread and thrown out on her own. “They’ll kill us if they find you here,” she was told.
The neighbors told her to walk to the next city where the “Sabbotniks” would hide her — Seventh Day Adventists.
Hide her? Where was mama and papa?
“Go. Go now,” was the frantic answer.
And the 12-year old girl began her four-year trek. Alone. Always alone.
Walking. Hiding. Walking more — sometimes 100 yards in front of the Nazi death squads searching for her.
She hid under floor boards. She hid in false walls created in church sanctuaries.
She hid with families that used her as cheap labor — until the danger became to great to keep her around.
She was a child when she saw people who hid her tacked to walls with bayonets.
She slept lying next to cows to stay warm during one of the coldest winter in recorded history.
She slipped the grasp of men who offered her “protection” if she would “be nice” to them.
She returned to Mstislavl to find Christian neighbors and “friends” had simply moved into her home figuring all the Balins were dead.
Tamara ended up on her own once again — with only the photographic portraits of her mama and papa as reminders of her childhood.
Seventy years later I sit and look at the fading photo of Yoel — my wife’s grandpa — and I wonder.
Did he know?
As he stood at the edge of the Kagalnyi ravine looking down at the Jews who had been shot before him; as he stood at the edge of the abyss did he know he would survive even though they killed his body.
His daughter Tamara survived and raised three children in Israel.
His granddaughter raised her children never knowing her mother’s story — until recently.
Yoel’s great-granddaughter lived in Evart before moving to New York.
Today, Yoel’s great-great grandson laughs and plays with his mama — a joy-filled symbol of victory over evil.
The Nazis — those persecutors of Yoel and six million other Jews — are gone.
Yoel survives through this child — his great-great-grandson.
I wonder if he knew he would win?
Sure, he and 800 others died that day, but they didn’t lose. They won.
And without him, I would be nothing today.