The second week of May brings mixed emotions to Moshe Baran, my 91-year-old grandfather (or Zeyde, in Yiddish).
May 7th is the anniversary of his wife’s death from cancer five years ago, while May 8th is V-E day. Sixty-seven years ago yesterday, the Nazi state crumbled in the dying heave of the greatest and most terrible battlefront in history. That front had swept Moshe up along with many others, enveloping him in a Soviet uniform. For the first time since 1939 peace settled over Europe, desolate and smoldering and strewn with corpses.
The war had begun for Moshe in Horodok, a small shetl in the Belarus countryside, which fell under a two-year Soviet occupation. Two years later, Hitler had launched his surprise attack on the Soviet Union, and Moshe had become a fugitive of the ghettoes, then a scout and fighter in a partisan brigade. He now stood in Germany, a draftee in the largest army on earth: a Soviet occupier.
Moshe was unusual among the Jews still alive in Eastern Europe—most of his immediate family had survived as well. In 1942, early in the German occupation, he had exploited his privileged status as a slave laborer, and the decency of a kind German overseer, to smuggle weapons from the ghetto into the forest, which secured him access to Russian partisan groups. He also arranged passage for his mother and younger brother and sister to a camp in the forest full of Jewish escapees. When his other sister (my great aunt) fell ill, their father (my great grandfather) stayed in the ghetto with her for a few days. It was during her convalescence that the local authorities liquidated the ghetto; German soldiers locked my great aunt and great grandfather with the other Jews in a small wooden building which they then set on fire and riddled with bullets. The heap of burned remains, its stench pervading the town, was burned repeatedly over the following weeks by German soldiers, who also occasionally threw grenades into it in a vain disposal effort. A local eyewitness gave us his account of the massacre when we visited the town in 2010.
Bear in mind that Moshe’s family, having lost only two of its six members in addition to all of its cousins, was among the most fortunate Jewish families in occupied Europe.
This episode took place in Krasne, the town to which the Jews of Horodok, the hamlet of Moshe’s birth, were relocated after a similar massacre there. That no one has heard of these towns is chiefly because due to the banality of such barn-killings in Belarus at the time, to say nothing of their insignificance in comparison to the more ingenious methods of killing then coming into use in Poland, a few hundred miles to the west.
Moshe kept his mother, sister and brother provided for in their wooded refuge, where word came to them of the Krasne inferno. He fought alongside the Russian partisans: sabotage, skirmishes, but mostly hiding. Finally, in the winter of 1944-1945, the Red Army’s advance engulfed the area. Many of Moshe’s Russian fellows had been stranded during Stalin’s chaotic retreat from the surprise Nazi attack in June 1941. Now the Russian behemoth digested and re-assimilated the brigade. The Red Army marched through Danzig, and then along the cold northern coast of Europe, until word came that the war was won.
What does one do after his village has been obliterated, and his community ripped from the continent? Zeyde had been active in Zionist organizations as a teenager, and now found that the Nazis had put a finer point on Herzl’s message. For many Jews, Israel had been an ideal; now, it was a last resort. Moshe hoped to move to Palestine with his family and his fiancé, Malka, whom he had met in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Malka’s story was more typical: she had spent the war enslaved in a munitions factory in Poland and had lost her entire immediate and extended family to the genocide (save one aunt, who would turn up later in Israel). She was willing to follow Zeyde anywhere.
Palestine it would have been, then, but for Zeyde’s mother Esther, the only mother from Horodok still alive. She vetoed aliyah; she had endured two wars and would be damned if she was going to let her family place itself in the way of another. And so the Barans joined the huddled masses, entering via New Orleans to stay with relatives in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later to Brooklyn, where they started life again. Their older daughter, Bella, ultimately did make aliyah, and raised two daughters in Israel. My mother stayed in America, where she raised my siblings and me.
It is not Zeyde’s fight for survival that carries lessons for me, but the condition in which he emerged. He is free of bitterness. He carries no visceral hatred of Germany, nor loyalty to Russia. He feels loyalty to the Jewish people while maintaining intellectual courage and independence. He demonstrates the durability of curiosity, wonder, decency, and humor.
His story, moreover, is instructive for students of global politics: Mad ideologues often mean what they say, and can persuade ordinary people to commit extraordinary crimes. The evils in a country’s history do not absolve it of the obligation to confront evil elsewhere. And finally, the mere choreography of democracy is insufficient to ensure human freedom.