When Michael discovered, at the end of the war, that nearly the whole Jewish Community of Nieswiez had been annihilated, he shared the realization of many across Belorussia: up to 800,000 Belorussian Jews had been killed by the German occupation regime and its auxiliaries. The centuries in the Pale of Settlement, Poland, and the Soviet Union came to an end.
The teenage Micheal Kutz’s decision to leave this region was therefore understandable. He had lost his whole family and there was hardly anyone left with whom he could rebuild a life.
Michael’s story provides moving insights into the long and excruciating period of insecurity and waiting that up to ten million displaced people in Europe shared as they waited to repatriate or relocate after World War II, among them former camp inmates, forced labourers, war refugees, and prisoners of war. In particular, many of the 250, 000 Jewish displaced persons who were unwilling or incapable of returning their former hometowns longed for a state that would provide them with security and stability. They were forced to remain in limbo, caught up in the international debates about responsibility for the survivors of Nazi genocide.
But rather than being a story of destruction and redemption that resolves in closure, Michaels story of survivor and immigrant and refugeeis a testimony to the long lasting impact of war and genocide on a young life.
Here, we have excerpts from his memoir If, By Miracle offer a glimpse into the life of a young man confronting unfathomable loss and the challenges of rebuilding a new life and identity.
I didn’t believe that there was any future for the surviving Jews in Poland. Before the war, during a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, the Yiddish language and culture had flourished, and Jews had helped to build the country for the benefit of all the Polish people. Nevertheless, part of that Polish population had helped the Nazis execute their plans to annihilate the Jews. There were, of course, exceptions — during the Warsaw ghetto uprising Jews received support from Polish comrades in the resistance, and some Polish families had hidden Jews, including many children, although some were well paid by those they hid. The Catholic Church in Poland and Pope Pius XII, however, had been silent about the destruction of the Jews of Poland.
After the war was over, hatred of Jews persisted. Antisemitic gangs, some of whom had belonged to the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, often dragged Jewish passengers off trains and killed them. Imagine enduring and surviving the Holocaust only to die shortly after at the hands of these Polish gangs. Later on, in July of 1946, with the Soviet army still present, Polish police in the town of Kielce stood by during a pogrom that resulted in the deaths of forty Jews. Only when the pogrom had subsided did the police arrive to restore order.
It was this history and still-present hatred that made me decide to leave the people and the country of Poland, a place the Nazis had chosen as the mass grave for European Jewry.
Although the war had ended and the ghettos and the Nazi camps were gone, as was the need to hide or fight as partisans, Jews were now living in DP camps that had been set up for refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Many didn’t want to stay in the camps and were travelling from one country to another, crossing borders illegally.
The DP camp in Bratislava was a transit camp from which many Jewish refugees tried to make their way to Austria. The camp was extremely overcrowded, without sufficient sanitation. An organization called the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or the Joint, however, did supply everyone with adequate food.
I left the DP Camp in Bratislava and after perilous journey we reached the Grugliasco DP in the Turin region of Italy.
The most pressing problem in the Grugliasco camp was finding space for us to sleep and store our small suitcases or backpacks. The rooms were packed with men, women, children and the elderly all mixed together. Families used blankets hanging on wires to enclose their space. Unfortunately, there was no wood to burn, so the room was very cold. Instead, we burnt newspaper and twigs we had collected from the trees outside, only a few at a time, so as not to be detected by the camp police. The lavatories in each building were for both men and women, and it was impossible to keep them clean. We waited in line to use them, as was the case with the showers. The UNRRA provided food but we still had to stand in long lines, give our names and show our identity cards before receiving our meal. The Joint gave us shoes and clothing that were either too big or too small, but we managed to exchange them with one another.
At the beginning of 1948, rumours were circulating in the Grugliasco camp that the Dominion of Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Jewish Congress, would bring five hundred Jewish children and youths to Canada from Italy. My name was on a list of young people who were told to contact Dr. Adam, the northern Italy representative of the Joint in Milan. Dr. Adam was originally from Lemberg, now the Ukrainian city of Lviv, and his job was to collect the young people from all the DP camps. He helped us all obtain the necessary documentation and Displaced Persons Certificates of Identity from the unrra. The Canadian consul in Rome then sent us to doctors for medical examinations. Only then did we get permission to legally immigrate to Canada. I would soon take the train to Genoa, where I would sail on the Greek ship Nea Hellas to Canada.
I began making preparations for the journey. Like a lot of my friends, I found myself in the dreadful situation of having to sever contact with people I had worked with and who I now considered close friends. I went to say goodbye to all my friends and acquaintances, knowing that this would be the last time that we would see each other.
We left from Genoa on March 10, 1948. By chance, I also met up with my friend David Gurevich and his girlfriend, Gitele, with whom I had made long and difficult journeys through the various DP camps in Italy. A social worker for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Winnipeg, Manitoba, accompanied us on our voyage and on March 21, 1948, we docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It was very hard at first for me to adjust to a normal life, to having a room of my own, a bed with clean sheets, and all the comforts of home after seven difficult years of wandering, with seldom anyplace to rest. I had always been on the move. But I was still really young, and my will to live and the memory of my mother’s last words to me helped me overcome all these hardships and go on.
I wish to personally thank Canada for giving me the opportunity to live in a free country. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, for I was able to rebuild my life in a free and democratic country like Canada — a wonderful place in which to live. As for my involvement in the community, what I have done over the years is not unique. Many of us, the child survivors, have the same values of “giving back to the community.”