Since we so cherish the sacred memory of our Holocaust martyrs, we are honored to host this guest post by our esteemed and dear cousin from South Florida (originally from Odessa, Ukraine), Elisheva (Alla) Burda:
In memory of my beloved mamochka, Betya Burda, and the six million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust.
Betya could not sleep. She was tossing and turning all night. She opened the wide window and a moonless, starless, dark night fell in. Betya turned the lights on, picked up her diary, and wrote, “Today is Saturday, June 21st, 1941. It’s a very hot summer night in Odessa. Tomorrow there is a prom, and I have a big dream. Sorry dear diary, I can’t tell you my secret tonight.”
The graduation ceremony went by quickly, and after everyone received their diploma, the music began. Betya was standing by the window with her friends: red-haired beauty Tatiana and charming Luba with big amber eyes.
Tatiana said, “Girls, stop laughing and let’s go dance.”
At the same moment, Yossi was approaching the girls. Betya stopped breathing. Her heart seemed to be beating so loud as she looked down at the floor.
“Would you like to dance with me?” asked Yossi. Betya did not respond and kept peering down at the floor. With a big smile on his face Yossi repeated, "Would you like to dance with me?”
“With me?” Betya's surprise reflected in her sparkling emerald eyes.
"I don’t see any other beautiful girl on earth," Yossi said with a joy in his voice and they went to dance. After a few dances, Yossi was walking her home.
A new moon in the sky shined and smiled on them. All the stars were sparkling like a diamond necklace on the neck of the velvet sky.
Yossi took her hand and said “I’m so glad we ran away from everyone.”
“Me too, I was so lonely in that crowd,” said Betya in her soft, musical voice.
“Not any more," said Yossi. His voice was calm and firm. He stood looking silently in her eyes. “Betya, there is something I always wanted to tell you.”
“Please, don’t," whispered Betya. She felt fire inside of her as she ran away from him. It was very dark in the park, and she did not notice that she stepped on something and fell.
Yossi came immediately. “Betya, are you okay, did you hurt yourself?”
Betya was sitting on the ground and laughing.
“What’s so funny?” asked Yossi. "Let me check if you broke your leg."
“Thank you doctor, I’m fine. I have strong legs.”
“I noticed that you are a good runner, but what are you looking for?’’
“I lost my shoe.”
“Please, stay here and I will look for it." In a few minutes, Yossi came back with a beautiful, white shoe with a lace bow. He knelt and dramatically said, "Can I put this shoe on my beautiful Cinderella?”
“Oh! No! I broke the heel of my shoe.”
“It’s okay, it's much better than broken bones, or a broken heart." Yossi narrowed his green eyes.
“No, it’s bad luck," Betya said as she shook her head. Yossi sat next to her and they looked up into the sky. “Look, Betya: there's a shooting star. Make a wish.”
Betya closed her eyes and made a wish. “Did you make your wish?” asked Betya with a big smile.
“Yes,” he nodded.
“Can you tell me about it?”
“It’s about the brightest and the best of all stars,” he moved so close that she could feel his breath on her lips. “I wish to get married to my only star.”
“Stop being silly, we should go."
When they got home, Betya said, “Thank you for your company,” and was about to leave when Yossi stopped her.
“Can you join me for ice cream this afternoon?” They agreed to meet at Park Ilicha at five in the evening.
Betya ran in the house and was surprised to see her family awake at six in the morning. Her parents and younger brother Misha were sitting around the table with eyes filled with fear.
“What’s wrong?” asked Betya, removing her shoes.
“Today at four in the morning, without any warning, Germans attacked us. We are at war,” said Papa in a low voice. The next morning, Yakov Bruhis, Betya’s forty-two year old father, went to war.
Pearl, Betya’s mother, was weeping. “Yakov, you don’t know how to hold a riffle.”
“Look, Pearl, I can hold on,” said Yakov, holding his suitcase tightly with a smile on his face. “G-d willing, when the war is over, we will all go to Romania to find my Mispucha.”
A few months later, they received a notice that Yakov Bruhis was killed.
It was the burning, hot summer of 1941 in Odessa. Betya was working as a nurse in the hospital, which used to be a school. She had never seen so many injured, wounded, suffering soldiers covered in a sea of blood. There was not enough room, beds, nurses, and there was a shortage of medical supplies. After she finished her shift, she took a tram to go home. Suddenly she heard a big noise; it was an explosion, and people were screaming and running away. Miraculously, Betya came home alive. Her mother was making borsch.
“Mama, we must talk.”
“Sit down and essen kindela,” said Pearl.
“I am not hungry, Mama.”
“You don’t have to be hungry to eat.”
“Mama, I’m serious we must leave Odessa. The Germans are coming soon. They took Uman on August 5th, then on September 19th, they occupied Kiev, and they will kill us tomorrow.”
“Betya, don’t panic, we are not Communists, nor Socialists. We are just simple Jews, they will not touch us. This borsch is getting cold, just taste it.”
“Mamochka, please listen, they killed Jews in Poland and they're coming after us! I feel it in my heart, we should go.”
“Nu, what are they going to do, burn us in the square like in medieval times?”
Betya did not touch her borsch and left.
She was at the port standing in a big line to get tickets to evacuate. By six in the evening, the blonde cashier with red lipstick in a fat and loud voice said, “All tickets sold out,” and shut the window in front of Betya’s face.
The closed window reminded her of a closed casket. Betya felt a big knot in her stomach.
“Don’t give up," a voice was whispering inside of her. For the first time in her life, Betya was talking to G-d, crying, and begging for help to save her and her family.
93 years later, I would learn from Rabbi Lazer Brody that Betya was doing hitbodedut.
When Betya got home, her mother and brother Misha were having dinner.
“Are you going to eat something?” asked Pearl.
“Yes,” answered Betya and she went to wash her hands.
The doorbell rang. “It’s open,” screamed Betya.
No one came in, so Betya went to get the door and was surprised to see her distant relative, Aunt Sophia. She was sparkling and elegant in her pink, silk, suit; white, lace gloves; and shining, pink shoes.
“Sophia, come join us for dinner,” invited Pearl very friendly.
“No thank you, I’m only here for a second. Are you staying in Odessa? Or leaving?”
“We hope, we can leave, but we don’t have any tickets,” said Betya.
“We are not going,” said Sophia. “I have three tickets if you want.” She opened her gold purse embedded with pearls and showed the tickets. Betya jumped to get them.
“No! No," Sophia rounded her eyes. “First you pay me 100 rubles, and then I will give you your tickets.”
Betya begged Sophia to give her until tomorrow, and she would bring her 100 rubles. Aunt Sophia agreed to wait until the next evening at five.
“Why are you not evacuating and selling your tickets?” asked Pearl.
In a second, the sweet, strawberry face of Aunty Sophia turned long and sour with a twisted mouth. Through teeth, she said, “Because I’m not letting my only son Arkasha be evacuated together with dirty, stinky with runny nose schnorres, or orphans. Our miliha (government) evacuates all children separate from adults.”
Three years ago, Sophia adopted six-year-old Arkadiy from an orphan's house and she did not want to be separated from him.
“Also, there are more important and valuable things in our house that we don’t want to leave."
The next morning, Betya was up early and decided to go to the privoz (market) and sell anything she could find in the house worthy of 100 rubles. She found Yakov’s new boots, shirt, coat, winter hat, some chachkis, and clothing that fit in a suitcase. Misha offered his belt. Betya did not ask her mother for jewelry, as she never had any. Betya locked the suitcase and ran to the market.
One old peasant with a snow-white bear was selling red potatoes from Vinnitsa. Betya approached him, and although she did not have any experience in sale, she asked politely, “Would you like to buy some boots?”
Without trying them on, the peasant said “Oh! Those boots are so nice and new, how much do you want zhidovochka?” (kike)
Betya shook her shoulders. He gave her 25 rubles.
“Thank you tovarish,” said Betya. She was about to leave, but the peasant stopped her.
"What else do you have for me and for my wife?"
She opened the suitcase, and he took the warm winter hat, wool, blue gloves and white scarf for his wife. He gave Betya 11 more rubles. She had 36 rubles and needed to sell more clothing to get 64. By noon, Betya was standing in front of Sophia's house, holding 100 rubles tightly in her pocket. Sophia opened the door and the air was filled with French perfume and sounds of Chopin.
“What beautiful music,” said Betya.
“It’s my son Arkasha. He is playing piano. Did you bring the money?”
“Yes.” With a big smile, Betya handed over 100 rubles. Sophia quickly put the money in the big pocket of her silky blue kimono.
“Wait here!” she said and closed the door. Sophia came back and gave Betya a big, white envelope with tickets.
“Thank you.” With a big smile and tears in her throat, Betya hugged Sophia, and ran home quickly. She was afraid that Sophia would change her mind. Betya could not explain, but in her heart she knew that it was a miracle from above.
It was the eve of Rosh Hashana, September 28th, 1941, when Betya, her mother Pearl, and younger brother Misha were getting on the Ship DNEPR. There was chaos and panic with so many injured, wounded soldiers screaming in pain for help, and a few lucky civilians, like Betya, in the lower part of the shipdeck with other lightly injured soldiers. Wounded soldiers with severe damages stayed on the top deck outside and inside everywhere.
There were about 216 people on the ship. Most of them did not know where they were going, but Betya knew that they are going to Novorsiisk, and then on the train to Kazakhstan. A few hours later, they heard a big noise and screaming. Germans were dropping bombs non-stop from aircraft until the morning. Then it became quiet and everyone was happy for a little break.
Betya started to read her book, and at that moment, Misha came and said, "Mama, Betya come outside. Captain 3 Ranga A.N. Morgunov is calling everyone."
"Sorry, I don’t have good news for you," the captain said. "We were informed that there is a big bomb in front of us, but please, don’t panic. We will do our best to avoid explosion."
A tall and pale NKVD officer was standing next to the captain.
"Are there any clergy here?" he asked. Rabbi Elizar raised his hand, and the officer approached the Rabbi.
“I know that you Jews are celebrating The Jewish New Year today. Can you please pray for our safety?”
He took the Rabbi to the captain’s bridge to pray. It was “the Ten days of Repentance” and Rabbi Elizar was praying Avinu Makeinu. All the Jews were davening and crying to G-d all day, and as the ship passed the few bombs, all survived. It was another Great Miracle Betya witnessed with her mother, brother and everyone on the Ship DNEPR.
In the morning, the captain made an announcement that they successfully passed several bombs. The passengers were safe and arrived in Novorossiisk on September 30, 1941. They were all happy and applauding. Although it only took two days to sail to Novorisiisk, Betya felt it was an eternity. When they arrived in Novorisiisk, people were in a big panic compared to the calm and strong Odessa which was constanly bombed and very close to the front line.
Three days later, on October 3, 1941, Ship DNEPR was sunk by Germans mines.
From Novorossiysk, Betya with Pearl and Misha got on the train and arrived to the City of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. They received a warm welcome from a Kazakh family. Betya went to work at a military factory. She was too short and could not reach the machine, so one of the workers gave her a small box which helped. After working in the factory, Betya was offered another job in a school. She loved kids and enjoyed working. Furthermore, she was very happy because she was given a bigger portion of bread to bring home and feed her family.
After the war ended in 1945, they came back to Odessa and their house in Moldavanka. They found a Romanian girl, a friend of Nazis, had occupied their home and she refused to leave. Soviet authority removed her and Betya with her mother and brother moved in. All of the neighbors were so happy to see them alive. They told them horrible stories about how Aunt Sophia, her mother, Arkadiy, Yossi, and their kind neighbor Chaya were shot with another 100,000 Jews killed or burned alive during the Odessa massacre under the Germans-Romanian occupation from October 16 to October 25, 1941.
Betya was sobbing and trembling, feeling pain for Yossi and her Aunt Sophia, who did not save her family, but instead saved Betya, Pearl, and Misha, as well as their children and grandchildren.
Sixty-Three years later, with tears of joy, Betya would find the answer on a very special day, December 7th, 2008, at the Bar Mitzvah of her only grandson, Leo at the Chabad of Planation in Florida of the United States.
“Babushka, don’t cry,” Leo told her with a big hug. "It’s a very happy day; you told us that this is the first Bar Mitzvah in 100 years in our family."
“Yes, it’s a happy day. I knew I would always be proud of you. Yet I’m grateful to G-d for saving us, for being alive to see that they killed us for being Jews, and we survived. Now we can live a Jewish life, rather than a life as Jews.”