Title: Chaim Ajzen Remembers
Author: Chaim Ajzen
Publisher: Makor Jewish Community Library
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 2005
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland: Hrubieszow, Wlodowa, Sokal, Chelm, Adampol, Finland: Kandalaksha, Soviet Union: Zareczka, Arkhangelsk
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Chaim Ajzen Remembers is an account Chaim's life up until his return home after the conclusion of World War II. Pages 1-36 describe life in Hrubieszow up until the outbreak of war, while pages 37-87 tell of the Nazi occupation of the town. Pages 88-118 are an account of Chaim's life on the run and his time in the Adampol labour camp. Pages 119-171 portray his experiences as fighter in Jewish and Russian partisan units in and around Wlodawa and Zareczka. Pages 172-229 depict Chaim's service in the Red Army, including stints in Kandalaksha and arkhangelsk, followed by his subsequent escape back to Poland. Ajzen's account was written late in life and was published as part of the Makor Jewish Community Library's 'Write Your Story' program in 1995.
Chaim Ajzen was born in Hrubieszow, Poland, in 1923. Chaim's grandfather was a religiously observant financier and landowner, while Chaim's father, ironically, was a secular Communist. Although anti-Jewish discrimination existed, the Hrubieszow of Cahim's childhood was a peaceful town of around 13,000 people, the majority of whom were Jewish. Nine days after the outbreak of war in September 1939 German soldiers entered Hrubieszow. Much to the relief of the local Jewish population, the town was soon handed over to Soviet forces under the conditions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The reprieve, however, proved to be short-lived as only days later Hrubieszow was rezoned to become German territory. Chaim's family had intended to flee before the re-entry of German troops, as many others had done, but were persuaded to stay at the last minute by Chaim's grandfather, who was convinced of the Germans' civility and culture.
After retaking the town, the Nazi occupiers began rounding up Jews for slave labour. In December Jewish males between 16 and 60 were marched out of town. Those who could not keep up were shot. Chaim's group was forced across a river, the border between the Soviet and German zones, where many died in the freezing waters. Puzzlingly, the survivors were returned to the German side in an agreement, allowing Chaim to return home. Chaim worked a few times a week as a slave labourer, as determined by the local Judenrat (Jewish Council), which had been founded to carry out German orders smoothly. In March 1940 the Jewish population of Hrubieszow was forced into a crowded ghetto. Chaim was eventually chosen to work as a housekeeper for a German administrator. It was here that he met a girl named Tobka who would later become his wife. Conditions for Hrubieszow's Jews deteriorated rapidly as disease and Nazi brutality escalated, while hundreds of refugees flooded the already crowded confines of the ghetto. Beatings and murders at the hands of the Nazis occurred daily. After hearing a rumour that single girls would be sent to German soldiers on the front line, Chaim and Tobka wed in April 1942. The 'action' of June 10 ,1942, saw a third of Hrubieszow's Jewish population deported. Chaim was selected to bury those who had been found hiding and shot, including his own uncle.
Upon learning in October 1942 of the impending liquidation of Hrubieszow's Jews, Chaim made the painful decision to leave his family and escape with Tobka to the forest. Chaim then spent a month on the run, travelling between cities and narrowly escaping capture on numerous occasions. He then joined Jewish workers at the Adampol labour camp where he had heard that conditions were relatively good. In April 1943 Chaim left the camp to join a Jewish partisan group, under the leadership of Moshe Lichtenberg, operating in the forests near Wlodawa. After his Jewish unit was betrayed, Chaim joined the Molotov brigade, a Russian partisan group. Chaim's unit was actively engaged in sabotaging Nazi supply lines as well as protecting the local population. After Chaim's partisan unit was dissolved in April 1944, Chaim voluntarily joined the Red Army. Chaim was amongst a group of Jews who were initially denied service in the Red Army under the pretext that they were to join the Polish liberation army that was forming in exile. The Jewish group was eventually absorbed into the Soviet forces, by which time Chaim was set on joining the Polish forces. For challenging Russian bureaucracy, Chiam was forced to sign allegiance to the Soviet Union and was sent to the front in Finland. A peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union relieved Chaim of his duties on the battlefields of Kandalaksha, where temperatures plunged to as low as 40C. Chaim was relocated to Arkhangelsk where he learnt that he was obligated to serve in the Red Army for six more years, even after the conclusion of the war. Using forged papers Chaim managed to desert the Soviet army and return to his home town of Hrubieszow, where he was fortunate enough to meet up with Todka.
Chaim Azjen Remembers is a lucid and engaging story of daring escapes and attacks. Key events are recounted with a razor sharp memory, enveloping the reader in Ajzen's wartime experiences.