Samuel and Regina Greene

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The Full Story

This is Sam and Regina Greene's story in Sam's words, taken from audio recordings made in December 2001 and October 2002. Use the links below to easily navigate this extensive story.

1. Introduction 10. Bribing the Nachalnik
2. Growing up in Slawatycze 11. Samarkand
3. Political Activism and the Pawiak Prison 12. Back to Poland
4. Warsaw, 1938-1939 13. Vienna, 1947
5.The War Begins in Poland 14. To the United States, 1948
6. Bialystok, 1939-1940 15. A New Life in Charleston
7. Journey to the Gulags 16. Finding Childhood Friends
8. Living in a Prison Camp 17. The End of the Story
9. Zeronsky Rudnyk  



I was born in a small shtetl called Slawatycze. My original name was Szmuel Grynblat and I changed it to Sam Greene when I arrived to the United States. I reside in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

My father, whose name was Chemia, was a good looking man. He had curly red hair and his nickname was "Kashtan," which means "chestnut" in Russian.

My mother's name was Rochel-Leah and her maiden name was Kaufman. Shortly after I was born I lost my mother. I don't really know in what year that was. I had an older brother whose name was Chaim. He was two years older than I.

I did not know my father's father, whose name was Zalman; he probably died before I was born. But I knew my grandmother; her name was Huma. She was smart, wonderful, and had a lot of energy. She was an independent person and supported herself by buying milk from the farmers and reselling it to the neighbors. I remember that she used to pinch my cheeks whenever she would see me. My father had an older brother named Akiva and a brother by the name of Itsche (Isaac) who had three sons. He had another brother named Tovia who had two sons. They used to transport food to and from the railroad city called Brisk.

My father's brother Itsche left Slawatycze for Argentina. We heard from him off and on, but we never were able make contact with him after the Second World War. By the way, my father was in the USA, New York City, I think, in 1905 or 1906. He didn't like the life there so he returned back to Slawatycze. His father had probably been doing well in Slawatycze, so he returned to participate in the family business.

I do not know if my mother had any brothers or sisters. I do know that her father, Abraham Kaufman, resided in St. Petersburg, Russia. After my mother died my grandfather used to send us letters for Rosh Hashanah and for Passover and he included money in these letters. The only thing I knew about my mother's father was that he was in the meat business in a big way and that he supplied the Russian Army. I had never met him and when the letters stopped coming we concluded that the (Communist) government classified him as an "enemy of the state" (a kulak, a rich exploiter of the masses) and had sent him away, like many others, to the gulags, the forced labor camps.

My father worked very hard, twelve to sixteen hours a day, to make a living for his family. The conditions were very difficult at that time. My father was a furrier and I traveled with him to help him sell his wares.

After my mother died, my father married a young woman by the name of Beyla. She must have been less than twenty years old then. She was from Hanna, a small village near Slawatycze. Shortly afterwards she gave birth to my half-sister Hella. I was close to Hella and I later took her with me to Warsaw. Hella now lives in Chicago. The next one to be born was a brother who was named Abram-Lejb. Later on two more sisters were born. The youngest, whose name is Zelda, lives in Israel. The other sister is named Pesia. My stepmother, I would say, was a pretty good stepmother. She took good care of us and I respected her. Not everybody had a room of his own in our little house; we were practically on top of the other.

Growing up in Slawatycze

Half of the population of Slawatycze was Jewish and the rest were Poles, Byelorussians and Ukrainians. The Jews controlled most of the businesses in the town. Around the market square, the rynek, were located the bakeries and the stores. Every business was concentrated around this market place.

The social activities for the young adults in such a small town like Slawatycze were very limited. There was no library, no cultural activities so you just stuck around with the guys with whom you were close with and with whom you could do the things together. Mostly we played soccer, rode our bicycles, and we also went swimming in the Bug River. These were our most common activities. I became very active in an amateur theater group. A bunch of us put on some serious plays and also some funny shows. One play in particular I remember well and also my part in it. It was named the "Seven Who Were Hanged" (Die Zibben Gehongeneh). These shows were always in Yiddish. We put on the shows in the large back yard of a friend's house.

My formal schooling was probably over when I was eleven or twelve years old. I attended cheder (a religious elementary Hebrew school) like all other Jewish boys, but I probably dropped out of cheder because I had to go to work to help out the family.

At a young age I was apprenticed to a furrier. It was as if I was leased out for a season; from Rosh Hashanah until Passover. The apprentice had to take care of everything that the master asked of him. If they had a cow you had to take care of the cow and you had to take care of the children too. At the end of the season you might have earned enough to be able to buy a suit or a pair of shoes. I did not have a formal education. I was an orphan and I had no choice; I had to help out my family.

My older brother, who was two years older than I, was also apprenticed. There was no welfare then and we kids had to help out the family. The economic condition in Slawatycze were pretty tough for everyone and many left the shtetl and went to the big cities, like Warsaw, to try to earn a living.

In Slawatycze we had no electricity and no running water and no indoor toilets. We had to go to the well to draw water or hire "Crazy Duwedl," the water carrier, who brought water to the homes. He carried two buckets of water by means of a wooden yoke that he carried across his shoulders.

I remember the first time that I heard a radio playing. One of my friends got the first radio in town. He put the big horn, like RCA, out of the window and we all ran over there to listen to this radio. I was probably seven or eight at that time and all the kids and adults all ran over to listen to the radio. This was the first radio in town and it was a big achievement then to have a radio.

My father was Observant, but we weren't fanatically Orthodox. We kept Shabbos, it was a natural thing for our family to do. Friday night we used to have a Shabbos meal. My father used to travel a lot and he wasn't fanatically Orthodox but he did not work on the Sabbath. No work was to be done on the Sabbath otherwise they put you in a cherem, that is, you could get excommunicated. Everybody would come to the synagogue and they make a big announcement and you were excommunicated from the Community, from the people, because you kept open a business, such as a barber, or if you didn't observe the Shabbath rules you could be excommunicated. And it was pretty tough for somebody if they get excommunicated because everybody would look at him like he was a criminal and avoid dealing with him.

Political activism and the Pawiak Prison

It is common knowledge that at that time Poland was a Fascist state. Today we have television and newspapers that bring out this into the open, but then crimes were committed against humanity, against individuals and no one new about it. They could pick you up in the street, you could disappear, and nobody would know and your family could not do anything about it. Somebody had to go out and do something about it, say something. I then became a political activist. I got involved in a movement that was called something like the "Young Progressive Movement." When I got involved in this organization I was probably only about twelve or thirteen years old. In Slawatycze we were mostly Jewish young people in this group and, of course, it was an illegal organization. We were trying to make a better, Democratic culture. We tried to bring the protest into the streets with placards and flags. I often was the speaker at these protest meetings. We had one of ours watching out for the Slawatycze policeman whose name was Funk. He was a tall man; maybe about seven feet tall and you could see him coming from far away. The lookout would shout "Funk! Funk!" and we would start to run away. I got away once, twice, and finally I was caught and they put me under arrest. I was probably about sixteen years old at that time. The local police tortured me and then they sent me and some of the others for additional questioning and more torture to the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. The Pawiak was the most notorious and most severe jail in Poland for political prisoners. The torture was terrible and no one can visualize how such cruelty could be done to human beings. They tortured us and questioned us to admit, to bring out the names of the people in charge of this organization. Are they Communists? (This system of torture was later carried out in Communist Russia.) They told us: "You be a good guy and you tell us the names of the members and leader of your group." If we did not tell them, the bad guy would come in and start throwing us from wall to wall and hit us. The worst torture that I endured was when they tied me up, the hands under the knees and they put in a long stick under my knees and they hung me upside down by this stick supported between two tables. Then they poured water into my nostrils. I was choking and drowning. They did this for a long time and then they would stop for a while and question you some more. "You," they said, "you will die unless you tell us who your leaders are." If you didn't tell them anything, two men would then pick you up and throw you from one wall to the other wall and kick you. And this went on for a long while. I don't know how come I am still alive.

What was going on in my mind while they were doing this to me? "Just keep your mouth shut." I wouldn't tell them anything. I told them I didn't know anything and so I couldn't tell you anything. This of course, this drove them crazy. They went wild and administered more torture. They put me in a tiny cell and water would drip, drip, drip, on my head until you're out of your mind. It could drive anyone crazy. After this they took me before a court and they sentenced me for "such and such" activities. No one was represented by a lawyer. They put me in jail for five, or maybe six years.

The conditions in the Pawiak Prison were terrible, so we staged hunger strikes. The hunger strikes would sometimes last a week to ten days. We didn't take any food at all and a lot of the prisoners just passed out. Some of them were force-fed and some of them were taken to the hospital. This was the only way we had to fight them and we thought that maybe this will become known on the outside. Hunger was the only weapons we had to fight them. The people that I met in prison were very intelligent people. They could be leaders in a movement, in a government and I got a lot of education from these people.

We were often kept in isolation cells, but mostly we were several prisoners in the same cell. This is the way we used our time teaching each other. I remember one particular person, a great man, he gave us some lessons. I forgot his name, he was a highly intelligent man and I was taken with him. He had been in jail for quite a while and I would have still been in jail except once in a while, on special occasions such as a special anniversary or the President's birthday, they would reduce the sentences of some of the prisoners or release them under an amnesty. I think that I was amnestied because I was rather young. After I served for two years, from 1936 to '38, I was then freed under such an amnesty. I was at that time about twenty years old and I started rebuilding my life.

Warsaw, 1938-1939

I stayed in Warsaw and I started working as an apprentice to a furrier. When I went to a political meeting of a young "progressives" group it was there that I met Regina (Rifka) Kawer and also her younger sister Ida (Edith). Regina and I started dating and we fell in love. She had blond hair, blue eyes and she was little bit chubby but beautiful and smart. I then also met her brother Lazer and later on I met Regina's parents.

Regina's family was very religious and her father taught in a religious Hebrew school called a Yeshiva. Her mother Kayla wore the traditional wig that religious Jewish married women wore. During one of my visit for Shabbat diner Regina's father, whose name was Moishe, tested me to see if I can read the prayers in Hebrew. I passed the test.

They lived in a very crowded apartment at 9 Wolinska Street. The family was not rich, but they made a living. Regina was working and her sister Ida and her younger brother went to school. They were less than middle class. At that time I would classify as middle class people in Poland who had some businesses in manufacturing and selling goods and who had a better income.

Warsaw was a modern and a cultural city but very overcrowded. The only thing that was bad there was the political system and the many Fascist, anti-Semitic gangs. Sometimes, when Regina and I sat in a public park these Fascist youth, they call them "skinheads" now, would come up to us and shine their flashlights to check us out to see if you were Jewish. If you looked Jewish to them they would they would beat you up. As Regina was a blonde they passed us by without hurting us.

Warsaw was a beautiful city, but the Jews were given a hard time there. The Jews controlled a lot of the small industry and commerce in Warsaw. They would generally sell their wares in the streets. I would say that the population in Warsaw at that time was probably about 50% Jewish. We had a very rich Yiddish cultural life in Poland and there were some famous theaters there; such as the Kaminska Theater and many others. There were many synagogues there, including a Reform Temple.

I lived in an apartment on Pawia Street near the main street called Zamenhoff Street. This street was named after the Jew Zamenhoff who invented "Esperanto" that was to be the international language. I, like many of my friends, were learning Esperanto but by now I forgot it. At that time we thought that a common language would unite all the people of the world, but it did not materialize.

Regina and I, together with many of our friends, participated in the life of the big city. We became active in the "Youth Movement" and went often to their meetings. We also went to the theatre, we used to go out for walks a lot, to the parks, to the main streets, and we ate some ice cream. Sometimes we were out until two o'clock in the morning, and then we would get up early in the morning in time to go to work. This was normal life for us. It was a lot of fun.

The time now was 1938-39. The atmosphere was tense. The Germans were already threatening Poland. They started deporting out of Germany all those Jews who had been born in Poland back into Poland. They were just dumped on the Polish side of the border. So we knew what was going on in Germany and we knew that sooner or later things would explode.

People started leaving Poland. But at his point Regina and I did not make any plans to leave the country. It was felt it in the air that an explosion will soon come and a war would start and perhaps it would then be too late to go anywhere. So people who had money and contacts or family in other countries started leaving Germany. And some people in Poland also started going to England, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia.

In this tumultuous year of 1939, Regina and I decided to get married. Regina was 19 years old and I a few years older. We were married in June of that year in a small synagogue with a small group of people attending our wedding. A few of my family members from Slawatycze came to Warsaw and a few friends of ours in Warsaw attended. We moved in to an apartment on Pawia Street. Our honeymoon was short. We went traveling for a couple of days, really over a weekend. The political situation was rather tense; war was in the air.

The War Begins in Poland

On the unforgettable morning of September 1st, 1939, we were both walking on Zamenhoff Street where a lot of people would come out to promenade. As we walked holding hands we heard the air raid sirens blowing and people started running.

Of course, we somehow anticipated this and all of a sudden we were run off the street into the yards of the Warsaw apartment complexes. The gates to the yards were closed and we were probably for about thirty minutes or forty minutes locked in this yard. We heard the sirens and then we heard the bombs dropping. After about forty-five minutes we all got out of the yard. We then found out that the main area of Warsaw and also the outskirts were bombed by German planes and that the damage was considerable. And this was an undeclared war. That changed the thinking and life for all the people. We knew that war was here and some people started running and some people started making plans. We were all scared. It didn't take long for the Germans to decimate the Polish Army and to capture the Western part of Poland.

Life was so uncertain then and we didn't have any definite plans. We had just gotten married and the war started shortly after. Things got more terrible from day to day. One morning in early September, we heard on the radio an announcement from the Polish Government that all young men should go East where the Polish Government intended to regroup and fight the advancing German Army. This was just a dream. So we start going East. The roads were cluttered with people, not just young men, but people with families and young children and the panic was great. The German planes strafed all these masses of civilian people on the roads running East. Many were killed. We went together with five friends and we decided that if anything happens to one of us we would be able to inform the rest. After seeing a lot of people killed we decided that it is unsafe to walk in the daytime so we decided to hide in the countryside, on farms, during daytime and walk during the night. So it took us about six or seven days to get to Bialystok which is the largest city in Eastern Poland and at that time was still in Polish hands.

Bialystok, 1939-1940

Bialystok was the largest city in Poland East of Warsaw. Slawatycze is south of Byalistok. Byalistok became overcrowded and could not absorb so many people. It became terribly overcrowded.

In the meantime Russia and Germany made a secret pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Under this secret pact Russia would have the Eastern part of Poland and the Germans took the Western part of the Poland. On September 17th 1939, as per the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Soviets attacked Poland from the East and occupied the Eastern part of Poland. The Polish Army that was retreating East collapsed completely especially when they found out that the Russians had attacked them too.

The Bug River became the border between German and Soviet occupied Poland. Slawatycze was now on the German side of the border and Byalistok on the Soviet Russian side of the border.

I was in Byalistok and Regina was still in Warsaw. Meanwhile, life in Warsaw was getting pretty nasty. She would stand in the long bread lines. By the way, my sister Hella was there too. They were both blond, blue eyes and looked Aryan so they did not get thrown out of the long bread lines that they did to the Jews. Also, Regina spoke excellent Polish.

In the meantime, we started receiving information that the Germans had already started to pick up people and people were not sure what to do.

We were in a situation without newspapers, independent information with which you could make up your mind as to what was the situation in German occupied Poland. So many Jews went back to the German side because they couldn't find a place to live or to do anything for a living because there were people here one on top of the other. So many went back and by going back some of them were picked up by the Germans and they lost their lives. I was fortunate that a week or ten days later, Regina together with my sister Hella, started out from Warsaw on foot on the way to Slawatycze. The two of them looked like Aryan girls and the German soldiers even offered them rides on the horse drawn military wagons.

They arrived to Slawatycze all right. My family was still there. Of course, my father was very happy to see them and he did the best he could for them. But Regina was determined to join me in Bialystok.

It may be surprising to realize that she knew that I was in Bialystok. Even during wartime there were always people going back and forth. Some of them were black-marketeers and also people smugglers.

So after we were Bialystok for several months we found a place and I always tried to be ahead of the rest. We started dealing a bit on black market in order to be able to pay for the place and to be able to buy food. We didn't have the Germans there, but we already knew about the German atrocities.

Regina and I were in Bialystok from September 1939 through the end of May, or so, of 1940.

Journey to the Gulags

During the summer of 1940 the Soviets arrested all those Polish citizens who originated from the German occupied part of Poland, packed them into locked boxcars and shipped them to the Siberian gulags, the forced labor camps also known as lagers. The Russian secret police, the NKVD, they were specialists at this. They knocked on our doors at one or two in the morning and told us to take what we could carry and then led us under guard to the railway tracks where closed freight cars were waiting for us. They probably loaded about fifty people per boxcar. There were two rows of wooden banks. And after they filled up the boxcar with about fifty people they slid the door shut and locked it. At the top of the boxcar there were these two little windows with steel bars, just enough for some air to come in. There were probably a couple of thousand people on this prison train. They have been doing this for a quite awhile during Stalin's time, arresting the landowners; whom they called kullack, and sent them to Siberia as prisoners. "Enemies of the State" is what they called them and also us.

Luckily, Regina and I were in the same locked cattle car. We did not know where they were taking us but we could tell that we were traveling east. We had an inkling that they were taking us to Siberia.

We were definitely not traveling first-class. In each of the boxcars there were a lot of people, including children. It was very crowded. The sanitary conditions were bad, that is, not existent. In the corner there was a hole in the floor and that was our toilet. People had a member of the family to cover them with a blanket in order to save them from embarrassment of defecating in front of all the others. The train did not stop at the regular train stations. The train would generally stop somewhere, way off the main tracks, where people wouldn't see us and where they would distribute to us our daily food rations which they called payokes, consisting of bread, boiled potatoes and some water. The situation was very, very bad.

When the train did stop at a station, or nearby, people would come out and offer to trade with us something, like shirts, but they didn't have too much to give in return because they were hungry too. But we needed food so we made a deal with the guards. They would come into the wagon and try to find alcohol. Of course we didn't have any alcohol, but they sought aftershave lotion and they would drink this lotion as it contained some alcohol. This trip was going on for over three weeks in these terrible conditions, locked in these boxcars with horrible sanitary conditions and little food.

It was hot but we could see snow in the mountain. Everyday was a long day. Everybody thought that we would rather be in a labor camp so as to be out of this hellish confinement in the boxcars. Finally we arrived to the city of Assino where the railroad tracks ended. Assino was surrounded by woods. It was not like a regular town, only prisoners and their guards were there. We subsequently found out that in a nearby high security camp were held high political prisoners of the old Communist history such, as Zinoviev and Bukharin and many other famous political enemies of Stalin, real or imagined. At the camp there were a lot of guards with machine guns stationed in watch towers.

Living in a Prison Camp

When we finally arrived to this place everybody was glad to get out of the boxcars, out of hell. The camp where we were taken to was cleaned out of all the other political prisoners and they moved them to some other camp, probably worse than this one. And this camp now became a place for the "Enemies of Russia," us, as the former Polish citizens were referred to. There were also families with kids but they kept them in a separate log buildings. They told the local people not to get close to us or to talk to us as we were enemies. They didn't give a damn for the people.

Right after we arrived to the camp they took us to the delousing station to be deloused including our clothes, and to take a bath. Women were always in charge of these delousing stations. We undressed in front of them and they took our clothes and put them in special ovens so that the high heat would kill the lice. After our bath we received back our deloused clothing and we were taken to our quarters. Our beds consisted of upper and lower wooden bunks. There was no separation between men and women in the bunks and Regina and I stayed together. We have never seen so many bedbugs marching around as we did then.

It was in the middle of the summer but we felt cold. We were given our payok, our ration of bread that seemed to have been made of sawdust. I never ate such tasteless black bread. I would make chess figures out of this inedible bread. Then we were put to work. We were divided into groups of ten and each group was given a quota which we were to produce each day. Each group's daily production was written down in a book. If you made more than the weekly quota you were given more than the weekly payok of bread. It means that if you produced more than the quota you were good workers and were rewarded with a little bit more bread and little bit more of soup but not enough to over stuff you. The people that didn't make the daily quotas would have their daily portion of food reduced accordingly.

As I was able to speak Russian I was elected to be the leader of my group, a foreman, called a desiatnick in Russian; that is, the leader of a "group of ten." I was put in charge of a group of ten Jewish guys and it was ironic that the Jews would produce more than their quotas than the Poles in our camp would manage to do. I had learned to speak Russian when I was in jail back in Poland. I was taught Russian in jail in Poland.

Assino is on the banks of the Ob River. Trees were cut down upriver and they were floated downriver to the sawmills located in Assino. My group would to go into the river with hooks, jump on these logs, hook them on and pull them out onto the riverbank and then we would pull them to the sawmill. We had to bring the logs to a certain area to be counted, that is, to show that we made the quota for the day. This was repeated every day. No women worked with us, they assigned them to work in less dangerous places. The work was hard and strenuous and from day to day we were getting tired and more and more exhausted. After a few days we came up with some ideas of how to beat the quota. We would bring over to our daily load some of the logs that had already been counted from the quota of the day before. Of course as we risked our lives to do this. The Poles in our camp were used to hard work. They probably did this type of work back home and they were strong. And here I've got a bunch Jewish guys who have never before been exposed to this type of hard work.

Once a week, I think it was on Fridays, we were all gathered for a meeting where the big nachalnik (the big political boss) called out all the names of the leaders whose group had made, or had exceeded, the assigned quotas. He also called out the names of those groups who didn't make the quota. Szmuel Grynblat's group always made the quotas. My people were happy that they had me as their desiatnik. They would get larger portion of food and sometimes they would give us a pair of socks as a reward. Anyway, Regina knew about this and some other guys but not everybody was told what we were doing. I told them that it is the only way we can survive. It was the talk of the camp that the Jews were making their quotas and that the Poles weren't making theirs.

In the meantime, the situation in the lager (prison camp) was getting worse. There was a lot of sickness among the people, especially among the children. It was terrible. Women with children came out in a protest strike. Many of the men joined them too. This really caught the Russians off guard because in the Russian forced labor camps nobody ever stopped working and go on strike, or demonstrate. They brought in the high officials of the region, the NKVD (Soviet Internal Security Police, later on they were called the KGB). They had something on their hands what they've never had before. So what did they do? First they were going to bring in the guys who were in charge of the groups for interrogation and to hold them responsible for what was going on. Of course, they called me in too. And the most important thing they wanted to know who the organizers of this strike were and who the leader is. I told them that I do not know anything about it. My people went out to work as required of us and we didn't know anything. They didn't like our answers so they started the interrogate us. They started off by keeping us overnight and Regina did not know and couldn't do anything about it. She knew that I and many others had been arrested.

There was no such thing as having a lawyer to represent you. They interrogated us all night and they didn't let us sleep. It was not only physical – but they kept you down mentally too, not to be able to think normally. "Okay," they said, "you know everything what's been going on, just tell us, just give us a few of the names of the leaders, who they are, and then you can go home to your wife." Now if you don't tell them anything then another bastard comes in, a mean guy, and he starts to threaten you. He starts to hit you. Then they change them. In the meantime, they don't let you sleep. They kept us there for several days. They probably couldn't get it out of any of the men so afterwards they started questioning women with kids.

They couldn't do anything and then it quieted down and the people went back to work. I think they changed a little bit. They gave some thought for the families. And as a consequence they decided to take families with children and send them out from this camp to somewhere else and in this way, they figured, they're going to break this protest organization.

They then brought in a train into the camp and started loading families into the boxcars. Regina and I then decided that we've got to take a chance and get out of here. I would say it was then the end of 1940 or possibly in the springtime of 1941.

We didn't have any proper clothing for the winter. They didn't give us any clothing whatsoever and we were just freezing to death. But if you complain then you're a real enemy of the State. So we decided we were going to take a chance to get out there as we couldn't keep up what we had been forced to do. I thought that sooner or later they were going to get me. So we decided to try to sneak into the boxcars with the families and some people who knew us helped us out. They hid us under the lower bunks, behind some boxes, so we could not be seen. We made it. We got into our hiding places and later on these monsters came to the train to look for us. It was two frightening days before the train moved out of the camp. It was very frightening. But we were lucky, the train took off and we are on the train. We traveled in the same type of boxcars, with the same type of guards, in the same conditions but now we traveled west from Siberia to the Ural Mountains. In the Urals is where they have the most mines, especially coal and iron mines. About ten days later we arrive to a small town called Zeronsky Rudnyk.

Zeronsky Rudnyk

In the Ural Mountains it was different. There were no logger camps like there were in Assino. We were put in barracks but not under lock and key. There was a curfew and we were not allowed to leave the barracks at night. Nearby, there were areas where local people lived. We were not allowed to go to the train station or to near the train tracks or near bridges. In the barracks we were in large rooms together with several other families. With us there was a doctor and his sister who were Jewish. I'll never forget them, they were very pleasant people. There was also a Polish family with us.

They send us to work down in the mines. We went down probably about a thousand or more feet. In the mines we worked in shifts. At the end of each shift they exploded the walls of the iron ore with explosives and the explosions left a blue smoke, a gas. The ventilation was terrible. They didn't wait for the air to clear a bit. We were sent down right after the explosion of the materials and before the gasses were cleared. Also there was very little to eat. Regina used to stay in the line for hours to get some bread. They did not give her a big portion of bread because she didn't work in the mines. She would cook up a soup, mostly water, maybe with little pieces of potatoes and I ate this and I went down to work an eight hour shift in this mine that was full of gas.

The local people were also told that we are enemies of the Soviet State, Kulaks, Capitalists and that they should watch us and stay away from us.

They needed the iron and we were their slave laborers. It's hard to describe the working conditions with this gas in there and with the little food that we had. When we came up from the mine we would vomit up what ever little we had to eat. I didn't know how strong I was then.

It was 1941. We were there probably there about six months. I came to the conclusion that if we wanted to be alive we had to get out of there because I couldn't survive like this anymore. We had no food and these terrible working conditions. So what were we to do?

Bribing the Nachalnik

I said to Regina we've got to try our luck and get to Samarkand. Many people had been in the railway station for weeks trying to get on a train that was going east and south. "If they put us in jail, it couldn't be worse than here," I said, "at least I wouldn't be in the mines with that horrible gas." At the train station it was terrible. People were lying all over the floor, one on top of the other. Some of them had been there two weeks and couldn't get on a train. Most of the trains passing through were military trains with soldiers on them and very seldom were there any passenger trains. And when a passenger train did pass we had to be very lucky to get on because people had been waiting for a long time. So I told Regina that I'm going to the nachalnik, (the chief) to see if I can bribe him to get us tickets. I knocked on the door. I heard a shout: Stoy! Ruki na veher! (Stop! Hands up!). I told the guard I want to see the nachalnik. "For what?" the guard said. "Tell him I've got something to ask him." Anyway, I insisted. They let me in and I told him that my wife and I want to go to Samarkand. He said, "You're crazy."

We wanted to go to Samarkand because the climate there was much warmer, life there was more relaxed and those Uzbeks did not like the Russians. So we had a lot of reasons to go to Samarkand.

There were a lot of Jews there and we had heard that it was a good place to go to. It was a good decision. He looked at me like I'm just completely off my rocker. In the meantime, the nachalnik started to tear off a piece of newspaper and roll in some makhorka (rough cut tobacco) into a cigarette. I had a cigarette lighter with me at that time. I took out the cigarette lighter and I lit his cigarette. He jumped up. "What is it?" he asked, "what kind of machine is it?" It seems that he had never seen a cigarette lighter before. He took it in his hand and this was my lucky break. "Where you want to go?" he asked. So I told him that we want to go to Samarkand. "What?" he exclaimed, "We've got to transport the military and all you want is to go there." And to make this long story short, this little cigarette lighter saved our lives. If would have given him a bribe, as a lot of other people tried to do, it would not have been as effective as the gift of the cigarette lighter was. This saved our life. He made sure we got on the train and we made it to Samarkand.


When we got to Samarkand it was like a breath of fresh air. It was a different type of atmosphere as we weren't in a prison camp anymore. The people in Uzbekistan are different than the Russian people. They are Muslims and they didn't like the Communist System. Their life was based on what they can do for themselves and what they can do to avoid the "Soviet system."

So under the circumstances, we fitted in pretty well. So, you've got to take advantage and go with the flow of the people who were able to survive and make a living. This meant operating on the black market. In Russia there is a famous word blat. Blat meant a bribe. You could bribe anyone; from the lowest to the top one. This is the real morality that existed in Soviet Russia; you've got to bribe and I was pretty good at it. This helped us to survive. In Samarkand we rented from a woman one of those little houses she had in an enclosed yard.

Soldiers used to hunt men in the streets and try to catch men and induct them in the regular army or into the trud (labor) army and send them to the front or to the work camps.

I often had to hide in a tub located in one of the small houses in our yard. I used to hide there and try not to be caught, but how do you make a living in order to survive? When I did go out I went to the market, the "bazaar" they called it, and there you could buy almost anything. The breads they baked there were flat and round like pizzas. Besides bread there was a lot of fruit grown there and life was easier there. I made some friends. There were a lot of Jewish people there who had run away from somewhere else and come to Uzbekistan. People starved and died in the street.

There were two different ways of making a living there. I was lucky to be able to make a living; I dealt on the black market. I lined up farmers who would bring to me tanned sheepskins and cowhides which they tanned illegally. These I sold to shoemakers who would sew them up into shoes and boots which were then sold on the bazaars illegally. In this illegal operation I cut-in a Russian policeman. He and his wife would have the boots sewn and his wife sold them on the black market. It was not a matter of making a lot of money; just to be able to survive. I was able to help friends such as the writer, Moishe Grossman. He was a very famous writer but he was helpless in this situation and if he hadn't been under my wing he would have died. Under these circumstances intellectuals were rather helpless. They couldn't adapt themselves to this type of life. Since my early childhood I had the "street smarts," the instinct of how to survive.

We were making money on the black market and I had to be careful not to be caught. I also had close contacts with the Uzbeks, they were very good people. Then, the police raided our house. We had made a lot of money and Regina would roll up the rubbles and hide them in the ceiling. During the first raid they did not find the money but not long after this they returned and they started tearing up the ceiling and suddenly bundles of money was tumbling down unto the floor. Of course, I was arrested as this is a very big crime having black market money. It was a serious case. I was put in jail and Regina couldn't do anything for me. So I told her find out if she could bribe the main prosecutor of the city of Samarkand. I was called me up before the prosecutor several times; they read to me the charges and the punishment for such things. Regina had already got in touch with him and paid him a sum of money. He told me that he would let me out provided I gave him an additional sum of money and a pair of boots and also a gold watch. When Regina paid him the extra demands they let me out. This is what life was like in wartime Russia.

Shortly afterwards the war situation eased up a lot. We, as Polish citizen began to be important. Soviet Russia needed our help and the Polish people were released from the Soviet prisons and lagers (Slave Labor camps). At that time in London was located the Polish Provisional Government in Exile. They sent representatives to Russia to recruit support from the former Polish citizens. Poland and Russia were now allies against Nazi Germany. We organized into groups and here I have a picture of me sitting at a table with a group of Polish citizens sitting and standing around the table. We even flew the Polish red and white flag with the Polish Eagle. In the group there were many women and most of the people were Jewish; former political activists like me. We were getting information and bulletins about what was going on in Poland then, what was going on in England and in other places of the world. We were the official representatives so this was a big, big achievement because before this time you would be jailed for obtaining such information. Yeah, instead of being an enemy of the Soviet State we were now representatives of their allies, the Polish State.

As time went on, the German Army lost more and more territory and finally Germany capitulated in May of 1945. Then we knew we were free and eventually we would be able to go back home but we didn't know what we would see there. Not everyone was able to return right away because Poland was not ready to receive such big masses of people. I tried to do my best for us to get out of Russia.

Back to Poland

Before we went back to Poland we pretty well knew what had happened in the Warsaw ghetto and what happened in other places, at that time it was no secret. We had no idea what had happened to any members of our families. Regina's family probably perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In July or August of 1946 Regina and I were able to leave Samarkand and we went back to Warsaw. By registering with HIAS, the Jewish Organization, we found out that Regina's sister Maria (Ida) had survived on false papers. It was like something out of the air. We walked in there and they started looking for names. I did not find anybody who was looking for my name, that is, from my side of the family. We found the name there of a Maria Godlefska living at 9 Wolinska Street. This is what got me. I said my gosh! Maria and 9 Wolinska Street, who else can it be from that address. I was surprised she didn't change back her name after the war. That street address was her pre-war address. It was a big apartment block, dozens of people lived there but this name stuck in my mind. So I started to check out where's Maria Godlefska. The information that they had was that Maria Godlefska works in a hospital somewhere in the city of Legnica, in the Western part of Poland. So I got all the information and we went there by bus.

When we got there we told a Jewish looking Russian high medical officer, a doctor with the rank of Polkownik, that we are looking for a Maria Godlefska. With a solemn face she asked me: "How do you know her?" So we told her we know her as not Maria Godlefska but as Ida Kawer and she then started to interrogate me because she was, after all a Russian official. Later on I found out that her name was Kagan (Cohen in Russian) and that she is the head of the hospital. Maria had papers as Maria Godlefska because she had been working for a Polish farmer who had a daughter by that name and who had died. They were close in age and the Polish woman was very kind to her so she gave Maria her daughter's papers. And this is how she survived, because of these papers and also because she looked Polish; she was blonde and with blue eyes. And as I understand it, the guy who ran the hospital, the Jewish doctor, liked her so much that he planned to adopt her. When I told this doctor that we came to take her with us, he told us that we couldn't get her right away. Of course when we met her and he saw us embrace each other. So after this they finally decided that she can join us. We went back to Warsaw and later we went together to Lódz and she eventually came with us to the United States.

Vienna, 1947

When we were in Lódz we joined up with the Berihah and they smuggled us out of Poland into the American Occupation Zone of Vienna that was controlled by the American Military Forces. The trains were very crowded and members of the Berihah pulled us and other Jews through the windows of the train.

In Vienna the refugees were lodged in DP (Displaced Person) camps located in former German Army barracks. The refugees were fed by the UNRRA and other organizations such as HIAS.

Maria was with us in Vienna. Regina was pregnant then and I decided I didn't want to live in a damn old army barrack. I didn't want my baby to be born in a camp, so I found a private place for us outside of the DP Camp. Our son Lenny was born in Vienna in 1947.

There was no work to be had. At least in the DP Camp people got food, on the outside we had to provide for ourselves. So I started "black marketeering" like many others did and like I had done before. We were spekulants (black market speculators). We bought and sold American cigarettes, rice, leather and liqueur and any other hard to obtain items. A lot of things were hard to get so I went into the Russian Zone dressed in a long leather coat with high leather boots and since I spoke Russian well I never had any problems that somebody would stop and question me. They thought that I was a Russian Party officer. I was very successful in dealing on the black market.

To the United States, 1948

We then started getting some information from our relatives in America and we received a letter with ten dollars in it from my wife Regina's aunt, Edith Toporek of Charleston, South Carolina. They obtained our address from the HIAS. We showed our appreciation and we started to correspond with Regina's aunt and with the Goldbergs (Graham) from New Jersey. Regina's aunt Edith and her uncle Louis Toporek then sponsored us and we obtained papers to come to the USA. That is how we were able to come to Charleston in 1948.

Regina also had a first cousin named Edith Miedzyrzecka-Kirshtein who was also living in Charleston. The two Ediths, the aunt and cousin, were about the same age. Regina's family was from Kaluszyn, Poland, and there was a long tradition of people from Kaluszyn coming to Charleston where there was a Kaluszyn Landsmanshaft Aid Society. They all helped each other settle in the United States.

From my black market activity in Vienna I was able to save up quite a bit of money. From Vienna we brought with us expensive china and good silverware and also about three and a half thousand dollars. This was considered to be a lot of money then.

We came over to the USA in March of 1948 from the port of Le Havre, France, on a transport ship called the "Marine Flasher." It was a rough crossing.

I really do not remember exactly when I changed my name from Grynblat to Greene. It must have been when I made out the official papers when we arrived to the USA. I think it was Regina's uncle's son Dale who suggested we change our name to Greene. Dale could spoke Yiddish well. Regina's uncle's four sons all had different last names. Instead of Goldberg, Dale's last name was Graham. When Dale met his first cousin Maria they fell in love.

When we arrived to the USA we stayed with the Goldbergs in New Jersey for about a week or ten days, and then Auntie Edith Toporek came to New Jersey and took us back with her to Charleston.

I will never forget when we were still in Vienna we received a package with food for the baby from a store in Charleston called "The Piggly Wiggly." It was a franchise store owned by Albert Kohn, another of Regina's cousins.

A New Life in Charleston

We arrived in March and in about June or July it was time for me to get to work. Uncle Louis Toporek said that every newcomer to Charleston starts off by being a peddler like he himself had done. So we put a bunch of stuff into a bag and Uncle Toporek dropped me off in a strictly black neighborhood. He went back home in his car and I was left carrying this big bundle of merchandise on my back, going from door to door. trying to sell the merchandise It was hot. I had written down in Yiddish what is the price of a shirt, skirt, blouse, pants, and I started to knock on doors. Doors were opened and I showed them my wares. They looked over the merchandise and asked me questions and I didn't understand what they were saying. I showed them the numbers on the paper what that costs and this way I started off working to make a living. It was very tough. In the evenings I went home by bus. This was my daily routine. I remember that on the first day I brought home fifteen dollars. It was a lot of money then. So I kept it up for a couple of weeks and it got to be very hot in July. It's not just the weather at that time but I was walking carrying a bundle on my back. So I asked Uncle Louie wouldn't it be a good idea if I bought a car. "Oh," he answered, "it's too early for you to buy a car. When we came here we carried our bundles on foot for a long time and only later did we get a horse and buggy." I told him that I don't want a horse and buggy, I'd like to buy a car, at least a used car. He wasn't sold on my idea. So I kept it up for a while with the bundles on my back. After I got a little bit more experience and I could already speak a little more English and I was taking some orders from customers and I brought the merchandise back to them. And I now had an account at the department store. So I figured that if I had a car I could carry much more stuff and I wouldn't be so tired. Finally, I told uncle Louis we'll go out today to buy a used car. So he went with me and we bought a '41 Chevrolet and I started to sell more and more and I made more money. I then started to go into different wholesale places and I built up credit accounts with them. On Sundays I would go to collect from my customers. I realized that I have all these possibilities and of course it's the freedom of choice of everything. In 1949 I decided to rent a small place and I called it Sam's Credit Company. I would send in my customers there and Regina would sell to the customers on credit and I was getting the merchandise on consignment from Sam Solomon's department store.

In 1950 Regina and I bought our own house. Maria was still living with us in 1949 and 1950 until she got married to her cousin Dale. Our relatives were shocked at our rapid advancement when I hired a black man to work for me doing the door to door peddling. Then we opened our new store called Park Furniture Company and Dale was supposed to be the inside man and I would be the outside man, but Dale did not like Charleston or the furniture business so he went back to New Jersey. I had to take out a bank loan to buy him out.

In about 1950 I finally found out through the Red Cross that some members of my family had survived the war and that they are in Poland. Also, I found out that my father had died a natural death in Russia in about 1943 and that my older brother was killed in Slawatycze at the beginning of the war. Later on, in about 1954 or '55, my stepmother and my step sisters left Poland for Israel. Eventually, my nephew, my step-sister Hella's son, came over from Israel to Chicago and he then brought his mother over to the USA. My step-sister Hella lives in Chicago with her family and I see them often.

Finding Childhood Friends

I have an interesting story to tell about how I found a childhood friend of mine from Slawatycze. Like me, he also left Slawatycze and went to live in Warsaw.

In Charleston, we had been representing the Ethan Allen Furniture Company and we went on one of their tours that they had for dealers to go to New York City, New England and also to Quebec City and Montreal, Canada. When Regina and I were in Montreal I remembered that in 1938 my childhood friend Awrejml Rybkowski, also a furrier, had emigrated to Montreal to join his sister Dora who had come there from Slawatycze in 1928, or so. When our tour bus came to Montreal I looked in the telephone book for my friend's name but I could not find any Rybkowskys. Then I got the idea to call a couple of furriers who were listed in the yellow pages and the second furrier I called he knew Awrejml Rybkowski, who by now had changed his name to Abe Reback. The furrier told me where Awrejml's fur shop was located and as it was not far from our hotel where we staying, Regina and I walked in on Abe Reback. It was him, alright, my old friend Awrejml Rybkowski who was now called Abe Reback. In Montreal also lived Abe's two sisters, his three other brothers and also his brother-in-law Hershel Gitelman and their families. Hershel is the one who recognized me in the Siberian camp of Assino. He knew my father very well. Hershel had a memory like a computer. Gitelman was certain that I must have been born in 1917 or 1918 and not in 1914 as is stated on my official papers. He said that after giving birth, many women, including his own mother, had died during the great epidemic that occurred at the end of World War I. He was certain that my mother had died when I was less than one year old. Regina and I had been to Montreal many times and we attended many of their family functions.

The End of the Story

Regina and I have three sons and one daughter. Leonard was born in 1947 when we were in Vienna, Austria. The others were all born in Charleston, South Carolina. Our daughter Karen was born in 1951, and our sons Harlan was born in 1953 and Tom was born in 1960.

My Regina, my wife of 52 years, died on May 2nd, 1990.

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