By Jeffrey Felshman
Though the plane from Tel Aviv was due to arrive at 6:30, Janina was at O'Hare well before dawn. She'd waited 55 years to see Shalom Brayer again, and here it was, August 20, and she couldn't sleep, couldn't sit, could hardly wait. She called her son and told him to pick her up.
The previous night, before they went to bed, her husband, Henry, asked, "How will you recognize your boyfriend?" She'd know him. The pictures Shalom had sent showed a 72-year-old man with whom she was barely acquainted. He'd been 16 the last time she saw him. Still, she'd know him anywhere. He'd smiled back at her when he ran off into a moonless summer night in Nazi-occupied Poland. She'd know him from his smile.
Henry wasn't quite as excited. Understandably. He'd never met Shalom, who was going to stay with them in their northwest-side bungalow for two weeks. And he knew how Shalom felt about Janina. He'd seen the letters, he'd picked up the phone and dutifully gone to fetch her to talk with this man, this Shalom, who told his wife of 46 years that he'd thought about her every day of his life, that he had loved her always and loved her still.
But Henry understood there was no cause for jealousy. Janina was only 14 in 1942, when she'd risked her life to sneak food to Shalom, his two younger brothers, and his sister. Janina knew that Henry understood. She worried about being able to understand Shalom.
Shalom hadn't spoken Polish since the war. Communication over the phone had been difficult. His letters required a great deal of concentration to decipher. He knew some English, not much. What if they could only stand there eyeing each other? Janina's son Andrew stood waiting with her. She asked him to help translate. He said he'd try.
She'd never thought this day would come. She'd had no idea that Shalom was looking for her. Until last November, she hadn't known he was still alive.
If not for glasnost, she still wouldn't. In 1989, over 400,000 Nazi documents were discovered in Soviet archives. In 1990, the American Red Cross opened its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center in Baltimore. Since then, new light has been shed on the dark corners of one of the most examined events in history. More than 16,000 requests to find missing survivors have been sent to the center from all over the world. Shalom's request was among them.
The Red Cross found an address for Janina's cousin Stevka in Kansas City. Shalom said he wept as he wrote a letter to her. Shalom's wife was puzzled. "You write, you must cry?" she asked him. He couldn't explain these feelings. When his letter was returned, he wept again. He kept sending letters to Kansas City. All were returned. He had to try something else. He sent a postcard to the same address, with a note written in red ink on the bottom. It read: "Dear Postman, Please find this family. They saved my life and I want to thank them."
Before this postcard the last sign Janina had seen of Shalom had been in 1943--a note left under her family's farmhouse door. "I was here," he'd written, and signed his name. Even that was telling too much.
Janina paced. More people were waiting for the plane. She approached a couple who looked to be around her age and asked if they spoke Hebrew. They were Jews, yes, but they didn't speak Hebrew--they spoke Russian. "I can understand Russian," Janina told them, "but I can't speak it." She'd known Russians during the war, as had Shalom.
Janina and Shalom grew up in the same village in what was then southeastern Poland. Relations between Poles and Jews might have been bad elsewhere, she said, but not in Tarnava. Not even after the Soviets marched in on September 17, 1939. Janina still saw Shalom every day; their families remained friends.
That couldn't last. Tarnava was trapped between Stalin and Hitler; in 1940 the Soviets ordered everyone from the village into a long train. Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and even some Germans were shipped northeast. There were no bathrooms on the train; every time it stopped during the three-week trip, everyone would use the track for a toilet. The guards joked, "Stalin took the Poles to shit over Russia."
Janina and Shalom wound up about a kilometer apart. She was in the village of Polany; he was in Malynsk. The closest town, Berezno, where Janina went to church, was a good two-hour walk away. They didn't see much of each other. After the Germans came in the summer of 1941 they saw each other even less. By the next spring they'd stopped seeing each other altogether.
In April of 1942, the Jews were rounded up into a ghetto in Berezno. Though Shalom's 14-year-old brother escaped--he hid with a woman in Polany--the rest of his family, all seven of them, stayed in one room. Then German soldiers took Shalom and his father to a labor camp in Kostopol, about 30 miles north.
A few months later, a boy from Tarnava told Janina that Shalom was hiding under a bridge nearby. The boy had gone out to tend the cows, and suddenly there was Shalom Brayer rising out of a hole in the ground. "Good morning!" The boy gasped, crossed himself, and ran away. Shalom caught up. They were friends, right?
At first, the boy didn't know what to do. Then he told Shalom of a hiding place. He handed Shalom a scythe so he'd look like any other farm boy and told him to go directly to a clump of bushes just under a small bridge about a kilometer away. He gave Shalom some food also, but was afraid that the neighbors would get suspicious--why was his mother cooking so much? Everyone knew the law--anyone caught helping a Jew would die like a Jew. He couldn't help Shalom any more.
Janina had to do something. The bridge was regularly crossed by German patrols, and she knew Shalom would starve if no one gave him food. She cooked up a plan with her cousin Stevka. The girls walked to a potato field a few meters away from the bridge and sang a bright and happy song: "Schultu, we'll bring you eggs, we'll bring you bread, we have milk and potatoes for you." If the German soldiers crossing the bridge heard them, what did they hear? A couple of Polish girls singing some nonsense. But the boy hidden in the underbrush knew what the song meant. "Schultu" was Janina's pet name for him.
They met that night in a tumbledown barn near her house. She gave him eggs and bread and milk and potatoes. He gulped the water she brought. Did she have enough food for four? His brothers and sister were hiding with him. She didn't have much, but she found enough for four.
How long did she feed them? Three weeks, a month maybe. So much time had gone by since then. The war had meant hunger, at least. After the Nazis had killed the Jews, they'd come for the Poles. Janina could talk about Dachau, where she was taken in 1943, a few months after she'd last heard from Shalom. But she preferred not to remember. After a month in Dachau she'd been relocated to a labor camp where she'd made door frames for German barracks. A German man in the factory had noticed her hungry eyes and sunken cheeks, and pity overcame fear, for if he was caught feeding a Pole he too would wind up in a camp. He would sidle up to her work station every day and toss a slice of bread on the floor underneath her table. She would wait until no one was watching, dart under the table, and bolt the bread. When their situations were reversed after the war she gave food to the man, who was starving, and she did so gladly.
But Shalom and the other children had disappeared from the hiding place long before then. When he called her from Israel she asked him what happened--where did you go? Wait, he said, I must tell you first how we got there.
The day Shalom arrived with his father in Kostopol, he was put to work digging a pit for a swimming pool. The camp's commander wanted a swimming pool fast--his wife would be in Kostopol soon. But the commander's wife was bound to be disappointed. As hard as the Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian workers labored, water from a nearby underground stream continually seeped into the hole.
Janina had never seen Kostopol, but her husband grew up there. Henry recalled the stone road through the center of the town, the town hall, and the Jewish cemetery. As a child he'd rush past the cemetery, afraid that the dead would jump out from behind the headstones. Shalom remembered those headstones, too.
Shalom recalled the heat, the beatings they'd suffered, the bloody welts and blisters on his hands. He couldn't remember how they finally stopped the water from flowing in, but he would never forget the large chiseled and polished stones that were brought to the hole. In laying the stones at the bottom of the pit to make the floor of the swimming pool, he discovered why the stones were cut so precisely--they were headstones from the Jewish cemetery in Kostopol.
The Jews didn't know yet what the Nazis' intentions were. They hadn't heard about that January's Wannsee Conference on the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. But laying the headstones at the bottom of the muddy pit was a sign to Shalom of things to come.
After the swimming pool was finished, Shalom noticed an increase in the number of German officers and Ukrainian policemen in the camp. He told his father, "They're going to kill us all." But his father told him not to worry. "It's nothing," he said.
Shalom was not reassured. Earlier he'd noticed that at least one of the guards had set his machine gun to fire one bullet at a time. That night, all the Jews, and only the Jews, were rounded up in a corner of the camp.
The commander addressed them. There was work to do, he said, and when he gave the order they must march. Shalom told his father, "They will kill us all tonight! Do something! Do something!" His father didn't answer. Shalom grabbed his father's hand and cried out loud, "What work? It is the middle of the night! He lies to us! It is not true!" A voice in the crowd yelled, "Shut up! The Germans will hear you!" Shalom didn't care who heard him.
The commander addressed the crowd again. Several cars were stuck in the mud just outside the camp--they would push the cars out of the mud. Shalom turned to his father, "What mud? It hasn't rained in days." His father still said nothing.
The commander said he would issue four orders. After the fourth, the prisoners would march forward. At the first order, Shalom's father began to push his way forward. The commander barked twice more. He opened his mouth to give the final order, and Shalom saw his father rush out of the crowd to punch the officer in the face. The commander went down. Everyone froze.
Shalom heard his father shout "Hurrah!" Other Jews shouted "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" Then, Shalom saw flashes, heard shots fired from all directions, and ran. He took cover behind a low wooden farm fence about 50 meters away and shouted "Father, father!" A machine gun answered. His father was silent.
Somehow, Shalom said, through the intervention of God or some other unnameable force, he got away. He threw away the tag attached to his labor camp shirt that identified him as a Jew, but he couldn't change his face. He still looked Jewish. The next day he saw a man on the road, who also saw him.
"What, you are a Jew?" the man asked.
"Yes," Shalom answered.
"What are you doing here?"
Shalom told him he was going to the ghetto in Berezno.
"Are you crazy?" the man snorted. Shalom didn't believe what he told him next, that all the Jews in Berezno had been killed the night before. Kostopol and Berezno on the same night? Impossible, he thought. But a woman from whom he begged bread later told him the same thing. Do not go there, she warned as she handed him a whole round loaf. Then he believed. He stuck the loaf down the front of his shirt and found some bushes to lie under. There was nowhere to go but to his brother in Polany.
After two more days, Shalom was getting close. The sand road leading to Polany was empty, and he chanced walking in the morning. He spotted an old woman heading his way, alone in the distance. He'd better hide, he thought, and quickly. If she saw him, maybe she'd report him. But just as quickly, he changed his mind. Was he scared of an old woman? He kept to the road and watched as she hobbled closer. There was something familiar about her. As she approached he saw that the old woman was not old, or a woman. She was his ten-year-old sister.
Shalom's sister told him that their mother had sent her out of Berezno the day before the ghetto was liquidated. She was supposed to stay with a Polish family they'd known from Tarnava. Their mother had also sent their youngest brother, who was only eight, back to the area around Polany. But he didn't know where to go. He begged food and hiding places daily. His other brother was still there, but the Polish woman who'd taken him in had asked him to leave. One sister and one brother had remained with their mother in the ghetto. Shalom and his sister stood alone on the country road just long enough for her to tell him these things. Then they split up. A couple of days later all four children were reunited in the hiding place under the bridge--"the grave," as Shalom called it.
Janina fed them for three weeks or a month, and one night while they were sleeping in the grave Shalom thought he heard his father calling to him, "Shalom, Shalom." But this could only be a dream. His father was killed in the labor camp at Kostopol. He knew this. But when he awoke that night, he discovered that this was no dream, this was truly his father just outside the underbrush calling to him, "Shalom, Shalom." And after Shalom had crawled outside, after he'd shocked his father by telling him that the three other children were sleeping there, and after making sure that the other children remained quiet, Shalom's father led them into the forest to join the Russian partisans. In the forest they built shelters from leaves and branches. The weather became a new enemy, as autumn rains turned into winter snow.
Shalom had tried to tell Janina this story over the phone in his rusty Polish, and she'd pieced together a version for Henry. But Henry thought there must be some mistake. "His father hit a German commander and lived?" Henry knew a few things about the war himself. He was a soldier in the Polish army, which had fought under British command in North Africa and Italy. He knew that the Germans were merciless. But Janina knew for certain that Shalom's father had lived through the uprising. Her parents had directed him to Shalom's hiding place.
The children stayed in the forest until 1944, when the Russians drove the Nazis back to Germany. Shalom's father, Avram Yakov Brayer, wouldn't live to see that. He was shot by Ukrainian police in 1943.
Shalom went to Palestine at the end of 1945. He joined the military and prepared for the war that would establish Israel. He left the army in 1953 and went to work in a factory. He married, had children. After he retired he started work on a book about his experiences. Published in Israel in 1996, The Rebellion in Kostopol climbed no best-seller lists, made no more than a ripple outside of its contribution to the growing body of Holocaust remembrance. He didn't care. He wrote it for his father, he said.
Other people who were at the camp after August 1942 had heard about the Jewish uprising. Other authors had noted it. But no one knew of the role played by Shalom's father, or by Shalom himself. They could only guess the identity of the man who'd started the uprising and could only approximate how many had died at Kostopol that night. Shalom's best guess was that 250 Jewish inmates escaped in the confusion, while 500 others were killed. Of those who'd escaped, many were recaptured by the Germans. Some died of exposure in the forests.
Kostopol and Berezno are now like many other towns and villages in western Ukraine, barely known outside the region, not mentioned in guidebooks. Neither place is listed in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. But many Jews lived in the area before the war. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Lodz, Dachau--the number of survivors of the horror capitals is dwindling. Yet, as far as Shalom knew, the number of survivors from that night in Kostopol is now only one.
In 1994 a survey was taken in Kostopol for the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. It reported, "The Jewish mass grave was established in 8/42," though it was not "listed and/or protected as a landmark or monument." In an older cemetery, established in the 18th century, the surveyor noted, "No stones visible. Locations of any stones that have been removed is unknown."
Shalom contacted the author of one book, Our Town Stepan, that had identified the person who led the uprising in Kostopol as someone else. They compared descriptions, and the author rechecked a list of names and passport numbers and concluded that Shalom's father had started the unarmed uprising on August 25, 1942--seven months before the famous rebellion in the concentration camp at Sobibor.
Shalom possessed one picture of his father, a photograph that ran in a Russian newspaper in 1940. Avram Yakov Brayer had been named "Stahanowiec," an honor bestowed every month by the Soviets on the best worker in each region. Stahanowiec was not a Russian word--it was the name of a man. The winner of the award received extra bread and pay, but more important was infused with the spirit of Stahanowiec. Who was Stahanowiec, and was he anything like Avram Brayer? Shalom didn't know.
But without Stahanowiec, Shalom wouldn't have a picture of his father. There is no grave, nothing but the memories of the four children who followed their father into the forest in 1942. All four are still alive in 1997, and all have children and grandchildren of their own. Janina had their photographs in her purse.
Janina watched the passengers file off the plane. "No, not this one," she told Andrew, "not this one." The Russian-speaking couple asked Janina how she'd recognize him. She smiled. Then she saw him. He was curly haired, barrel-chested, vigorous. He wasn't smiling, but he had the kind of face that always looked happy, even after a 12-hour flight. She cried, "Schultu is coming!" But he was looking past her. He was right next to her and didn't see her, so she called to him: "Shalom, Shalom, I am here." He stopped and smiled, tears growing in his eyes, and he said in English to Janina and her son, "This is the best day of my life that I see you." He touched her to make sure she was real. He hugged her and patted her hair, once black, now gray. He wanted to tell her everything that had happened in the past 55 years right in the airport. There was still so much he hadn't told her. But they must get his luggage and go to her house. She said, "Schultu, maybe we should get something to eat?" He was too excited to eat, he said. As Andrew swung the car onto the Kennedy and into the early morning rush-hour traffic, they spoke Polish together. They understood each other very well.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Will Northerner; uncredited photos: Shalom Brayer, left, with his sister and brothers; Janina and Stevka, 1946.