Michael Gleiberman, surviving the Holocaust

By on May 10, 2017

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Making it through each day of misery, surviving five years of hardship and deprivation in Siberia, wasn’t even the worst part of World War II for Lancaster resident Michael Gleiberman.

The horror, for Gleiberman, was discovering that 46 members of his family had been killed during his exile.

Gleiberman was never in a concentration camp, but he did survive the Holocaust.

“I know this story and I know how it’s going to end,” Gleiberman, 90, said from his home recently, referring to World War II. “Millions of Jews were killed without ever even seeing a concentration camp. They were killed in their back yards, more or less. The Germans would line them up and shoot them.”

The Nazis were great liars in their quest to kill, something Gleiberman illustrates with a story.

An announcement was made in Pinsk, his hometown in Poland, that the occupying Nazis needed 3,000 workers to dig trenches to use for fuel tanks. Men came and dug the trenches, eager to get a little money.

Instead, they were all shot. The trenches they had dug became their graves.

“One man came back. Others (who had been shot) fell on him, and he told how they killed them all, but nobody believed him,” Gleiberman said.

The enormity of the lie was such that no decent person could believe it really happened.

“The Soviets were as brutal as the Germans, only they didn’t line people up and shoot them; they worked them to death,” Gleiberman said. “But people don’t know about that.”

He was 14 when he, his parents, brother and sister were sent by train to Siberia as part of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s plan to empty Poland of Jews.

That deportation saved their lives.

“When we were shipped to Siberia, we were horrified. We thought ‘how will we survive, this is the end,’” Gleiberman said. “Who knew that two weeks later, the Nazis would attack the Soviets? Stalin, that pirate, saved me. He didn’t mean to save me, but by deporting thousands of Jews, that’s what he did.”

Occupying Soviets had “nationalized” all the homes in Pinsk, then called them “administrative centers” and said the homeowners could no longer live there.

That’s how it became “legal” to deport Jewish families to Siberia.

“Terrible is not a correct description, maybe ‘terrible’ to the 20th degree,” he said. “People were treated like cattle for nothing.”

The Gleibermans were taken to the town of Semiplatinsk, Siberia, in Kazakhstan.

“We were saved from one evil person by another evil person,” he said. “Pinsk was destroyed when I wasn’t there. I was in Siberia; cold, bitter, and hungry.”

Like any man proud of his family, Michael Gleiberman keeps photos of relatives on a poster board in his home.

The faces resemble any family photos from the 1930s, until you read the captions:

“My mother’s sister, Rivka, murdered by the Nazis, Pinsk, 1941.”

“My mother’s brother, murdered by the Nazis, 1941.”

“My first cousin, Sarkah Gleiberman, murdered by the Nazis.”

Gleiberman, who gives talks on the Holocaust, said a few people can make a difference, one way or another.

“It’s the few that commit the crimes, while thousands stand by,” Gleiberman said. “The point is, a lot of people don’t know that Jews were killed in their own back yards. They didn’t need to go on trains to concentration camps.”

In Poland, a group known as the “Einsatz” were the paid executioners.

“Their only job was to go to a place like Pinsk. They would lie in wait and when people came by, they would shoot them,” Gleiberman said. “They’d get a little extra schnapps (liquor) for that. They were volunteers. They would finish the job in Pinsk and move on.”

“Millions were killed in Poland, the Ukraine, and Belarus. They (the killers) were successful until the Russian winter hit them,” he said.

During their five-year exile in Siberia, the Gleibermans had no way of knowing what was happening in their hometown.

Upon their return, they were able to learn a few details, always horrific.

Rivka, Gleiberman’s aunt, was hiding in an attic in the Polish city when the Germans arrived. She was holding her baby in her arms when a Nazi found them and killed them both.

Gleiberman cannot understand the twisted reasoning, the evil that would cause one human being to kill another, a perfect stranger, a child.

What makes it even more chilling, he says, is that the killers had been “normal” people before the war — accountants, librarians, salesman — not hardened criminals broken out of jail for the task.

“We’re dealing with a subject that is hard to get your head around. Did this really happen?” he asks. “If you can take civilized people and turn them into that…”

How disturbed must one be to volunteer to kill people, he wonders aloud.

When the Gleibermans were allowed to return to Poland after the war, the family was in shock.

“Because 46 members of my family disappeared, they were no longer on this Earth,” Gleiberman said. “At my birthplace, nobody survived.”

After the war, captured German officers gave court testimony of the atrocities committed, and only then did the remaining members of the family find out what had happened.

Gleiberman’s memory is sharp and he can recall normal life in Pinsk before the nightmare began.

Life was uneventful prior to the war.

“The Jewish people were mostly craftsman,” he said. “We had two hospitals in town, there was no shortage of fresh bread … and Hebrew school was six days a week, with only half a day on Friday to get ready for the Sabbath. It was a typical, normal town.”

In 1939, the Soviets and the Nazis signed a “friendship agreement” to divide Poland between the two, and in September of that year, the Soviets started occupying the city.

But that promise wouldn’t last. Gleiberman recalls trains running “night and day” to bring supplies to the Nazi invaders.

The Nazis were planning their “Blitzkrieg” and knew they’d be needing supplies.

The agreement was signed in 1939, and in 1941 the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union.

Before the war, Pinsk was a city of about 50,000, Gleiberman said. About 32,000 were Jewish, and the rest were a mix of Polish, Belarus and Russians.

“Not only did millions of people perish, but a way of life ended with the war,” Gleiberman said.

When his family had to leave their home, they had to leave immediately, taking almost nothing with them.

It took two weeks in a train car for the family to reach Siberia, in a journey characterized by people jammed into a railroad box car with very little food, no toilet facilities, nothing.

Sometimes they were allowed outside the boxcar, with Soviet soldiers surrounding them with machine guns.

Siberia was bleak and freezing and frightening.

But they survived.

“It was horrible and cold,” Gleiberman said. “All six of us lived in a one-room log house and the logs didn’t really fit (tightly).”

The family mixed straw with horse manure and used that as insulation between the logs, covering the mixture with strips of newsprint.

“Don’t ask me how we made it,” Gleiberman said. “But you would be amazed at what people can do to survive.”

While they weren’t jailed or fenced in, there was no place to go, no way to escape.

“The isolation … it’s a huge piece of real estate; everything east of the Ural Mountains. We couldn’t go anyplace because we’d need papers from different authorities, and nobody would (sign those papers).”

The entire family devoted all their energies to staying alive.

He remembers that when they arrived tomatoes were in season and his mother collected the seeds so she could plant them the next spring. She would also go into fields after they were harvested to pick up whatever she could to feed her family.

Each family could have one cow, he said, and that cow became a lifesaver.

His father would get an occasional job from the Soviets, like unloading a train.

Some men were forced to work in the Siberian gold mines. Hungry and wearing little more than rags, they would be forced to stand in freezing water while they hammered at the ore.

“The point is, if you gave up you starved, because no one cared,” Gleiberman said. “You had to work to stay alive, otherwise you’d freeze.”

Gleiberman, born in 1927, is now 90 and he and his wife Carol share a home in Lancaster. The couple have three children and five grandchildren.

Gleiberman came to the United States in 1951, sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, going first to Milwaukee.

He learned the hotel business in Wisconsin and later met his wife in Lancaster. They have been married for 53 years.

Gleiberman speaks six languages — Yiddish, Hebrew, English, German, Polish, and Russian.

“The moral of the story is that you cannot give up,” Gleiberman said. “Don’t be passive; do something. If I would have waited for someone to give me a piece of bread, I would have died. You don’t have to be a hero, but do something.”

Michael Gleiberman will speak on “The Holocaust: One Man’s Story of Survival” Thursday, May 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the Warwick Middle School auditorium, 401 Maple St., Lititz.

The event is sponsored by the Warwick Education Foundation and is free and open to the public. A reception to celebrate Mr. Gleiberman’s 90th birthday will be held after the presentation.

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance feature writer and occasional contributor to the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at weezsholly@verizon.net.

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