INT: Good evening. Today is the 12th of September 2012 and I’m here to interview Moniek Garber. Good evening. Moniek, can I ask you about your very early days? Could you tell me please what your name was at birth, where you were born?
MG: Yes my name at birth was Moishe
INT: And when
MG: 1923 and I was born in the town of Wolozin. That’s how it’s spelt.
INT: W-O-L-O-Z-I-N. And that I see from your papers is in Belarus?
MG: It is now in Belarus.
INT: What was it then?
INT: Poland. And tell me a little, if you would, about what life was like then? You were born in, I think you told me, on the 12th of the…?
MG: The 10th
INT: The 10th of the 12th 1923.
MG: What was life like? Well a) it was still the Depression. I remember that my uncle in particular was affected because he had a sawmill/owned a sawmill and had problems selling the wood. Apart from that, I suppose we were thought of as the rich family in the town, but of course, the people assume that somebody is rich. It wasn’t all that easy.
INT: Is that because you were one of the few Jewish families there?
MG: Yes. I, my grandmother was the last of the Itzhaikins are the people that founded the Yeshiva (and the synagogue for that matter too). Some ancestor of mine, also called Haim Volozhin, in 1740 he built the synagogue. He was a linen merchant and linen is bleached in the sun so he had a huge piece of land, several acres, on which the sheets of linen were bleached and somewhere near the bottom of his land he erected the first synagogue in our town. Now his grandson was, is known as the Etz Haim he was a student with the Gaon of Vilna and the Gaon encouraged him to start the Yeshiva.
The money seems to still have been available then because he more or less did it largely on his own plus, believe it or not, the help of the local lord. He sort of supplied materials and things like this and the Rabbinical students were supported for a few years by Haim
INT: And so was this Yeshiva still going strong when you were a young boy?
MG: Oh yes. Strong I’m not so sure but I would say there were probably about 40 would-be Rabbis, yes. At the height of its success I think they had about nearly 500. It was a huge institution.
INT: It must have been.
INT: But would your family yourself, would your father be a part of the Yeshiva or was he a businessman?
MG: The Yeshiva was built just opposite the synagogue so sort of just outside of what I think were the original grounds of our family. There were all kinds of problems. The tsarist government interfered and so on and of course there were the usual problems within the community. Different views on things and things like this.
INT: And was your father part of running the Yeshiva or?
MG: By the time we came along we merely attended the synagogue although we were usually seated on the right side.
INT: Is that the more honourable side?
MG: Yes it is. It is the honourable side, the right side.
INT: How big was the synagogue at that time?
MG: Very large. It’s a very big building in fact.
INT: And the Jewish population of your town?
MG: The Jewish population; about 4000.
INT: I see.
MG: It wasn’t the only synagogue. By then there was another synagogue at the bottom of the town and my cousin was telling me there was a third synagogue. I’m not quite sure whether he was right or wrong. My cousin died just 2 years ago in Israel.
INT: Right. And if there were 4000 Jewish people, what proportion of the town was that? Was that a significant proportion?
MG: Oh about 80% I would say.
INT: Oh, the majority of the town was Jewish?
MG: Oh yes.
INT: I didn’t realise that.
MG: That was quite common in Poland.
MG: In what they called Shtetls.
INT: And if you had such an eminent Yeshiva that would attract other people to come and live there as well.
MG: Fair point.
INT: And did you have brothers and sisters?
MG: I had my older brother, 6 years older, his name was Daniel, Daniel Garber and he was a pianist.
INT: I see. So your life must have been fairly lacking in incident until the Nazis rose to power?
MG: Well more or less yes. Well, until the war started.
INT: Until the war started. And then what?
MG: And then I was arrested not entirely without cause in the eyes of the Soviet Union and that was in March of 1940 if I’m not mistaken. There were supposed to be held elections for the people to agree to become part of the Soviet Union and there were various …The school started very quickly after the Russians arrived.
There was a plaque out with a cut out head of Stalin and some slogans. Well whoever glued it onto the paper didn’t do too good a job so his nose wasn’t stuck on and I sort of …either my sense of tidiness or whatever it was but I sort of…
INT: Did you know it was Stalin? You knew what you were doing?
MG: Oh yes, yes.
INT: So what did you do with the poster?
MG: Well I sort of tore off his nose.
INT: And did somebody see you?
MG: Yeah well one of the things the Soviet Union needed were organisers, these people who report to the authorities. So somebody in the school saw me doing it. I didn’t hide it but I didn’t think it was very important. And I was arrested and I was given 5 years in a youth camp. After a long train journey and various things I came to the youth camp and the camp commandant there refused to have me because I was political.
MG: So back from Moscow, from the Ukraine back to Moscow, I was sent to another concentration camp.
INT: And that was a concentration camp?
INT: Rather than a…
MG: Yeah a concentration camp rather than a youth camp.
INT: It was not for Jewish people in particular?
MG: Not specifically for Jewish people.
INT: What happened with your… did your parents try to get you back? Because they must have been…
MG: You don’t do anything of that kind, not in the Soviet Union.
INT: And did they know where you ended up?
MG: No I don’t think they had the slightest idea where I was but sometime in 1941, before I was released in fact, I received a parcel from my father and my brother and there was a letter, honey and things like this, and I would later hear that by that time my father was already shot, by the time it had arrived to me because he was… When I was very young my father was on one occasion Alderman of the town, he was elected Alderman.
INT: Which is really like a mayor of the town?
MG: Well sort of. Things have changed. The way local authorities had ministers altered in the meantime. But I remember a conversation with my mother in which she more or less was asking why he doesn’t want to be Alderman again and he said ‘Because I don’t want to be like…’ and he mentioned the previous Alderman who was an alcoholic, a compete alcoholic actually. Everybody wanted to meet the Alderman for a drink and so on so it was a way of…
INT: It was a way of avoiding getting too much to drink.
MG: Sort of. It was a way to avoid the alcohol; he decided not to be Alderman. When the Germans came in they made him head of the Judenrat and then of course he was supposed to choose the usual thing, 50 people to go and do some work, dig trenches basically intended for the graves of the people.
INT: Do you think your father knew that?
MG: Oh yes
MG: My father was a rather impatient man. He apparently said to the officer “You want to do the dirty job do it yourself”. So the man took out a pistol and shot him. So my father was in fact the first man to be shot in our town by the Germans.
INT: And your brother?
MG: My brother, my brother was taken from our town to Minsk, which is the nearest large city, the nearest was Minsk. And he was teaching the piano in the Conservatory. He was actually a very proficient pianist.
INT: And what happened to him after that?
MG: After that he survived the war, he married a Soviet woman, they escaped from the Germans eastward and after the war he thought he could go back to Minsk to his position as a professor I suppose but they wouldn’t let him go back. Partly because by that time his brother was a traitor to the Soviet Union.
INT: So he must have survived because he wasn’t in Poland, he was in Russia?
MG: He survived because he was, he was in fact in Kazakhstan as far as I can make out.
INT: Right, and while that was happening what happened to you? You were taken to the camp?
MG: Well I was sent to the first camp which was not far from the Finnish border. There are two big lakes; the Onega and the Ladoga. The Ladoga is the northern one, has a long projection northwards and I was right at the tip there. Basically felling trees, not that I was skilled enough to fell the trees but I cut the branches and things like that.
INT: So it was a work camp?
MG: It was a work camp yes.
INT: And were the conditions like the ones you read about in the Gulags?
MG: No, no, the conditions were not the same as in Germany. The population was not intended to be eradicated. But the population was intended to work until they dropped. So basically people would survive, some people who sort of knew their way about and were lucky. Camps were administered internally; the prisoners also administered the camp. The guards were outside the actual perimeters, they merely guarded us. They were a poor lot; they had good food but apart from that they were frozen otherwise.
INT: They wouldn’t have wanted to be there either I suppose.
INT: You were saying that some people survived longer than others under that sort of regime?
MG: Yes, scurvy was one of the worst problems, frostbite too, but scurvy… For weeks there was no medical assistance because as you know scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C and there was nothing to deal with vitamin C, although there was cod liver oil to deal with other illnesses.
INT: What age were you at that point?
MG: Well, by then I was 16/17.
INT: So your education would have stopped.
MG: The time I was in the camps. Now the reason I was released. I was released in September I think, about September 1941. Now, what happened, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union sought alliance with Britain, they couldn’t get an alliance with Britain because of all the Polish problems. Poland was already an ally. So I don’t know how many people know it but anyway, Stalin was out of action. He had, let’s say a kind of nervous breakdown after the invasion by Hitler. So Kaganovic and Molotov administered the country.
INT: And how do you know this?
MG: Kaganovic was the senior one. How do I know that?
MG: Well amongst other things, at one point we were marshalled in the yard of the camp and a letter was read out to us about the treacherous Germans having invaded our country and so on and so on and then it was signed by Kaganovic and Molotov. And everybody at the camp was delighted because that meant that Stalin had kicked the bucket. We thought, but he didn’t. Kaganovic was the Commissar of heavy industry and he was sort of in charge, not Molotov. Kaganovic was the top man. What happened to him later, by the time I left the Soviet Union, I couldn’t tell you. He was an elderly man I think by then.
INT: And what was the consequence of the letter? Were you then released?
MG: We were yes. A large number of Poles were released. Stalin then came more or less back into power and stopped the Poles getting out of the Soviet Union but by that time I was out.
INT: So you were very fortunate then.
INT: And so you said that your father was the first person to have been killed.
INT: What happened to your mother?
MG: Oh my mother died when I was a nine year old boy.
INT: Oh right, sorry.