Hiding in a stable’s root cellar
Michael Mark’s story of survival
On a recent Sunday morning, Michael Mark sat at his kitchen table with his daughter Ann Benzachar and a reporter from the Jewish Standard and talked about his life as a teenager after the Nazis had conquered his town from the Soviets. He and his father, Benjamin, a sheet metal worker, lived in the Brody ghetto with special privileges that allowed them to come and go. His older brother was shot by the Ukrainians and his mother and sister had disappeared. As a talented craftsman, Benjamin was in charge of turning railway cars into mobile kitchens for the Germans and Michael was his apprentice.
When the Brody ghetto was liquidated, Michael and his father were not deported—the Germans needed them. But in the spring of 1943, the foreman told them to run for their lives or he would have to report them. They went to see a fellow named Dachuk, who knew them as colleagues before the war, working on copper domes for Orthodox Christian churches around the region. Benjamin thought Dachuk might protect them. But Dachuk didn’t want to risk his life by hiding them. However, he promised them food when they needed it and said he would hold on to the family valuables until the war was over.
After that, Michael and his father spent their days hidden in haystacks, and their nights foraging for food.
One day they passed a man standing at a gate.
“I walked right past him,” Michael remembered. “He left me alone, but then questioned my father, realized he was a Jew, and called me back. He made us lay down on the street, feet to feet, and when he heard us speaking Yiddish, kicked my father and shouted to his buddies to help him. One of them carried a rifle and a shovel. They forced us into a nearby swamp and shot my father. I ran for my life, but my shoes were too big and fell off. The brute with the rifle yelled he would catch me and kill me. I was in muck up to my neck, but the killer didn’t want to get his shoes and pants muddy. He fired at me three times — and missed. I played dead for at least two hours. I couldn’t swim, so I crawled through the mud until I felt it was safe to come out.”
Michael said God helped him then. He knocked on a farmhouse door. The woman who opened it saw him covered with mud and told him to come in. She washed his clothes and sent him to the bed loft to get some rest. The next morning, during breakfast, he spotted another woman coming to the door and said he wanted to hide, but was told not to worry, it was just a friend.
“She already knew my father was dead and everyone in the village was looking for me. Thank God, my brain still worked, and I told her it wasn’t safe for her either. I hid in the barn and realized I could not trust her friend, so I ran to a different barn and hid in the straw.
“Then I went back to the place where the Ukrainians shot my father. I took the family pictures out of his pocket and went back to the woman who washed my clothes. When she saw me, she crossed herself and said that the men who killed my father showed up after I left and wanted to know where I was.
“I went to Dachuk’s house and hid my father’s photos in the thatch of his roof. After the war, he met me in Brody and brought me everything that was left of my family’s property — the pictures, my mother’s Shabbos candlesticks and my father’s Kiddush cup.”
For weeks Michael hid in the fields. When fall came and it got cold, he hid wherever he could gain access without getting caught — which happened twice. The first time, they released him because they thought he was Ukrainian. The second time, a woman working with his father’s killers grabbed him and wouldn’t let go, yelling as loudly as she could. During their struggle, they ended up hanging over the top of a deep well. As he tried to break her grip, he told her he would drag her into the well with him, and pushed back. She fell, and by the time she got up, Michael was gone. He hid in a stable full of sheep and used one of them as a blanket, like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” When the murderers opened the stable door, they didn’t see him and left. Michael then hid in the loft of the house next door — unbeknownst to its owner — and overheard him say that if he found Michael, he would gladly kill him.
The hunt for Michael continued for months, until the Wehrmacht arrived. The German army was headed west, retreating in the face of the Soviet army. During those dangerous weeks, a Soviet sympathizer protected Michael and traded the fur coats in Durchak’s house for food for Michael, who was given one bowl of farina every day for 50 days.
Then the Germans took all the food and hay from the locals for their troops. Starving, in desperation, Michael knocked on a farmhouse door. Palashka, a very old woman, let him in. She was in the process of making vodka and stirring a huge pot of mash. He could see it was difficult for her, and offered to help. In return, she gave him food and a place to stay in her stable, where the Germans kept their horses and she kept a goat that provided milk. In the goat stable, she showed him a trap door that led to a tiny root cellar, about 4 feet by 6 feet, where he stayed during the day. At night he would go out to scavenge.
All around him, the Wehrmacht was battling Soviet troops. One night, during a fire fight, a German soldier pulled him into a trench where they set up anti-aircraft guns. The solider fed him, warned him to be careful and didn’t let him go until the shooting stopped. Then Michael went back to Palashka’s stable. Soon after that, he met a couple related to him through marriage. The wife was pregnant and Michael offered to share his hiding place with them. When she gave birth in the root cellar a few days later, the baby lived for only a few moments.
Came the day Michael looked out of his spy hole, and saw Germans and Russians shooting at each other from either side of the stable. He ran out toward the Russians. A few days later, he was liberated.
After more than three hours of telling his story in English and Yiddish, Michael told the Standard, “This is only ten percent.”
|Pre-war momentos of Michael Mark 1. Benjamin Margierowicz, his father, in the Austrian army. 2. His father Benjamin Margierowicz in the Austrian army 3. His mother, Hana Fux, before her marriage. 4. Michael, his mother Hana, his brother Ozer, his father Benjamin, and his sister Gana in front of the family’s house. 5. His sister Gana, his mother Hana, his grandmother Tema, his father Benjamin, and his brother Ozer. 6. The wedding of his parents, Hana & Benjamin Margierowicz.|