From Kristallnacht to the Land of Israel

Review of A Train to Palestine: The Tehran Children, Anders’ Army and their Escape from Stalin’s Siberia 1939-1943 by Randy Grigsby, published by Vallentine Mitchell, pp.271

History is often written in cold sentences, but not in this book. Randy Grigsby’s popular account in A Train to Palestine relates the harrowing story of one small Jewish boy, suddenly evicted from his calm, comfortable Cologne home on the eve of Kristallnacht in 1938.His family had witnessed the rise of Nazism and the spell it cast over many Germans. As a six-year-old, Joe Rosenbaum, sitting on his father’s shoulders, saw a Nazi cavalcade drive triumphantly down a Cologne street, led by a self-confident, empowered Hitler – “his arm stretched out in perfect salute.”The storm clouds were darkening – and Rosenbaum’s father was able to find work and refuge in the United States. Like the family of Herschel Grynszpan whose killing of the German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, ignited Kristallnacht, Joe, Rosenbaum mother and small sister were suddenly deported to Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border.The Nazis regarded them as stateless because they had emigrated from Poland decades before but never acquired German citizenship. Discriminatory legislation in Poland in 1938 suddenly allowed the Nazis to rid themselves of this category of Jews. The Poles, however, refused to allow in the thousands who were marooned on the station platform at Zbaszyn without food or water – neither Poles nor Germans would budge. Grigsby describes how Rosenbaum’s family eventually found shelter, housed in a stable surrounded by horse dung.Several months later, the family was able to enter Poland and traveled to Rosenbaum’s grandparents in rural, primitive Przeworsk. Their freedom did not last long. The Nazis captured the village within days of their invasion of Poland and proceeded to burn down its synagogue and intimidate its Jews.With Stalin’s subsequent invasion of Poland from the east and the implementation of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the family found itself transported to camps, deep in the USSR. While the journey undoubtedly saved them from the Nazi exterminators, their Siberian camp offered a starvation diet at temperatures of -50°. This regimen killed the aged and the infirm and weakened the rest.As Grigsby recalls, the subsequent Nazi invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941 persuaded Stalin to allow General Wladyslaw Anders to lead a bedraggled starving army of Poles, wracked by disease, out of the country to join the Allied forces. Death, however, had cast its black cloak over the faces of Rosenbaum’s family. One by one they succumbed – first the grandfather, then his mother, his grandmother, his aunt. At the age of 10, he became the man of the family, charged by providence with looking after his small sister, Nelly.

The author describes how Rosenbaum became an expert scavenger – a gatherer of summer berries and mushrooms, even leeches provided nourishment, but it was never enough. Following in the train of Anders’s army, Rosenbaum took his tiny sister to Tashkent, crowded with desperate refugees who subsisted by collecting peanuts and turning them into a soup. Joe learned how to beg and how to peruse discarded newspapers, searching for advertisements for birthday parties and weddings – where there would be excess food. Yet it was never enough. Nelly died of starvation, never given a burial, her shrunken body dumped on the outskirts of town. Rosenbaum would have similarly met his maker, but was luckily hospitalized and survived. He was then able to join a Polish orphanage where he prayed to and praised Jesus – in order to receive food. A train took the orphanage children to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea and from there by boat to Fort Pahlavi in Iran. Zionist youth were then able to help the Jewish children after their terrible ordeal, but the pangs of hunger were ever present. Many eagerly grasped the opportunity to feed themselves, ate rapaciously – and died.Rosenbaum became one of the “Tehran children,” barred from entering the Yishuv because of the Allies’ fears of Arab reaction. The Iraqis were even unwilling to allow a sealed train to cross their territory. Moshe Sharett’s wife, Zipporah, was sent to the camp and she reorganized its activities – the teaching of Hebrew, choirs, lectures, dances. She warned that if Jerusalem was unable to extract this remnant of the murdered, more children would perish.In the US, the plight of the children became a cause célèbre due to the advocacy of Henrietta Szold and the work of the Hadassah women’s organization, which raised $500,000. Due ironically to the efforts of the arch-appeaser, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, then the British ambassador in Washington, the children reached the Land of Israel via Karachi, Aden and Port Said. A banner at Rehovot railway station read: ‘And the children will return to their homeland’ – a line from Jeremiah.Rosenbaum lived in Israel, sympathized with the Lehi and reunited – not without difficulty – with his father and his surviving elder sister in the US. The head of a large family, he finally brought himself to revisit Cologne in 2007 where memorial stolpersteine stones were laid to remember his mother and sister.This book is important because the author movingly conveys the trauma of those who remarkably survived while running the gauntlet of persecutors and oppressors. It is not for those who close their eyes. In 1946, Primo Levi threw down a challenge to those who live in “secure” and “warm houses” to “consider that this has been.” In today’s world, Randy Grigsby’s account of Joe Rosenbaum’s journey is a salient reminder that Jews should never be bystanders. 

Jerusalem Post 5 March 2020

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