Rachel Milbauer’s family farm was located in the small village of Turka, outside the city of Kołomyja in Eastern Galicia. Jews, who had lived in the region since at least the sixteenth century, made up forty per cent of the population in Turka. The area was also home to Poles and Ukrainians, as well as smaller numbers of Roma, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and others.
Rachel’s idyllic portrait of her childhood in Turka begins with evocative descriptions of her exceptionally close-knit extended family and life on the farm. Conveying the joy of the unconditional love she felt as a child, Rachel describes how her parents and family were respected by the surrounding community, both Jewish and gentile and recounts many happy occasions when she played with Ukrainian friends and recalls the friendly relationships her parents developed with both Poles and Ukrainians from neighbouring farms.
This world now exists only in Rachel's testimony. All of the family members she recalls so fondly, except for her mother and father, were murdered in the holocaust. And the harmonious relations between the different ethnic groups in the region depicted by Rachel were far from the norm.
As Omer Bartov has noted, the complexity of relationships at the local level in Galicia meant that in addition to Nazi aims and policies, “the Germans had no trouble in unleashing an astonishing surge of local violence against the Jews,” that made it easier to accomplish genocide and ensure its near totality. The startling complicity and violent collaboration of the non-Jewish population of Galicia with their German occupiers – with Ukrainian auxiliaries often undertaking killing operations themselves – is one of the defining characteristics of the genocide that occurred in this region.
On July 3, 1941, the last Soviet troops pulled out of Kołomyja and the surrounding areas. The next day, Hungarian troops, allied with Nazi Germany, occupied the area and remained there for six weeks until the German Wehrmacht took over.
As Nazi policies unfolded in the summer and fall of 1941, Kołomyja became a central gathering and transit point for Jews from all over Galicia. Rachel and her family were forced to relocate from their village to Kołomyja in November 1941, where many of their relatives and family friends were subjected to hard labour, starvation, torture and murder – some witnessed firsthand by six-year-old Rachel.
The Kołomyja ghetto was officially established and fully closed off from the rest of the city in late March 1942. As was the pattern with all the ghettos established by the Nazis in Poland, the first stage toward the creation of the ghetto was the forcible resettlement of the population from nearby rural areas. Rachel and her family were forced to move to Kołomyja in November 1941.
Soon after Rachel and her family went into hiding, deportations from Kołomyja to the death camp at Belzec began, accompanied by mass executions in the nearby Szeparowce forest. The Kołomyja ghetto was fully liquidated in February 1943.
Below you have a chance to travel into this long lost world of rural Jewish life in Galicia through the memorial that is Rachel's memoir, and see how it was eventually destroyed in the Nazis mission to erase European Jewry.
My family’s farm was in the village of Turka, fourteen kilometres from the city of Kołomyja in the southeastern section of Poland, called Galicia. Kołomyja is located near the Carpathian Mountains. It hugs the banks of the Prut River and was – and still is – surrounded by villages and vacation resorts. The fresh air and picturesque location made it ideal for picnics on the banks of the river. The sound of young vacationers, their laughter and song, rang through the air when I was a child and often lulled me to sleep. Our farm was large, with many acres of corn and tobacco, grain, potatoes, sunflower and poppy seeds. When the poppy seeds were dry and ready to crack, I would crush the seeds in my palms and eat them out of my hand. I would braid the corn silk and pretend that it was hair; it was soft and golden in my small hands.
Turka was a farming community, and home to Poles, Ukrainians and close to thirty Jewish families. Everyone worked their own land, but when needed, helped one another. There was a church and a synagogue.
My grandmother, Frida, was tall and slender. She had curly blond hair, which she kept covered with a scarf. Her beautiful face was round, with a small straight nose and big blue eyes. On the large, busy farm, she had most of the responsibilities. She took care of the animals – cows, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys and work horses. She had a reputation among the surrounding farmers as a healer, and they would often call on her for help with their animals. If a chicken had problems laying an egg, Frida would make a small incision for the egg to pass through, which she would later stitch up. When a horse was in labour, she would help deliver the new colt. Nothing was too difficult for her and although we had hired help, she enjoyed working and took pride in her farm. She would make compotes and syrups with the gooseberries, currants, raspberries and many varieties of tea roses that grew behind the house. I can still taste the syrups she made, which we drank with cold water in summer or in hot tea when the weather turned cold.
There was also an orchard with eighty fruit trees – a spectacular sight, particularly in the springtime when the trees were in full, fragrant blossom. Near the front of our property there was a deep-water well. Two pails hung from a chain at the well. When the handle was turned, one pail went down empty and the other pail came up, full of water. When I was little, I was fascinated by the well and with my own reflection in it. When no one was around to see me I would hold on to the ledge with my hands and look down into the water to see myself.
Our house was a simple, wooden structure with a straw roof. At the entrance of the house there was a small hallway where Bobby, our pet German Shepherd, loved to sleep on rainy and cold days. To the right of the entrance hall was a big room that functioned as our kitchen, dining, living, entertaining and sleeping room. Everything happened in that room. The house was always full of family, friends and neighbours who gathered in the evenings to talk and sing.
The living room faced the front of the property and had two huge windows. Under one window, there was a long wooden bench. In front of the bench was our large wooden dining table with two drawers – one for dairy cutlery and one for meat cutlery, in keeping with kosher dietary laws. Eight wooden chairs surrounded the table, each belonging to a particular family member. On weekdays, everyone ate at different times and my grandmother would cook everyone their favourite dishes. I particularly remember my uncle Velvel sitting at the table at dinner time with his newspaper spread out in front of him, often forgetting to eat his food.
On Friday evenings, Shabbat, and holidays the family gathered and ate together. My grandmother would do her baking on Thursdays to get ready. I can still hear the sounds of everyone sitting together at the table, talking, joking and singing beautiful Yiddish songs.
My grandfather, Eli, bought our farm just before his marriage to my grandmother, Frida Bajzer, and it was there that their three sons were born. My father, Israel, the eldest, was born in 1907. His brother Wolf, whom we called Velvel, was born three years later, and Joshua, the youngest, whom we called Shiko, was born in 1912. My grandfather was of medium build and had dark brown hair, a long beard and a moustache. As an Orthodox Jew, he always wore a long black coat, black pants and a white shirt and covered his head with a hat. Most days he spent sitting at the table studying the Torah. Even though he owned a large farm and loved woodworking, his greatest pleasure was studying the Torah – where he believed all wisdom began.
Zeyde Eli was a cohen. He was very proud of this lineage and felt that he had certain obligations to the congregation and to the Jewish community. He pronounced special benedictions on religious holidays, carried out symbolic redemptions of the firstborn sons on the thirty-first day after birth called Pidyon HaBen, and received precedence at religious functions, such as the reading of the Torah.
He was known in the village as a scholar and people often turned to him, having great respect for his opinion and advice. I remember him best as a warm and soft-spoken man. I never heard a cross word spoken between him and my grandmother. I can see him now as he looked when he took a break from his reading and rested. Sitting back in his chair, he would light up his pipe and smoke – lost in thought. Once in a while, he would call me to study with him. I would rush to sit on his lap, eagerly awaiting his words. He loved to teach me the Hebrew alphabet and when I was three years old I had mastered all the letters. When anyone came into the room he would call out, “Please, come here and listen to how beautifully Chai Rachel is reading Hebrew letters.”
Happily and with pride, I would recite them, knowing I was pleasing my zeyde. I knew that after my lesson he would let me sit on his lap and braid his beard.
Uncle Velvel was my favourite, and I was his. He took me for strolls and proudly showed me off to the village. He always brought me gifts. Most of all, I loved the clothes he bought for me. He would tell me, “Rachel, I will always take care of you and buy you nice clothes, even when you are a grown up lady.” I would hug him with all of my strength and say, “Uncle Velvel, I love you the most.”
Velvel often took out his precious violin and played a melody for me. He let me hold the bow and move it over the strings while he played the melody with his fingers. “Little Rachel,” he would say, “when you get a little older I will teach you to play the violin and one day this violin will be yours. How proud I will be of you when I listen to your music, just like you are listening to my music now.” Velvel, like his brothers, was slim and of medium height. He had an oval face, with big, warm brown eyes, and a dimple in his chin. Like Shiko, he also wore his thick, black wavy hair combed up away from his forehead. He had been playing the violin since the age of ten and had a wonderful, strong singing voice. Velvel would often play at weddings and other occasions in Turka and the surrounding villages.
Our house faced the main road that ran from our village to the city of Kołomyja and stood at the foot of a mountain. In my eyes, at age three and four, our mountain looked huge and very steep, but in reality it was neither. I climbed the mountain often to visit my friends, the three “Mecios.” Three Ukrainian families lived on the mountain and each family had a small son. All three boys were named Matthew, or Mecio for short. I loved to play with them. We spoke Ukrainian, even though I spoke only Yiddish at home.
Witness the day Rachel and her family were torn from home in Turka and found themselves trapped in the Kołomyja ghetto, immediately surrounded by violence, terror and death: