“Don’t speak, don’t cry. The Germans will hear us, and they will kill us.” Four-year-old Hadasa Cytrynowicz — then Dasha Eisenberg — silently clung to her mother, wrapped in the goose down comforter they had brought with them from Konskie, Poland, to a hut near the Bug River, northeast of Warsaw. Hadasa was frightened.
It was October 1939. A few nights later, under a dark moonless sky, Hadasa and her parents went to the riverbank, accompanied by the Polish peasant who owned the hut and whom Hadasa’s father had paid to ferry them across the river to Soviet-occupied Poland. They were joined at the river by friends and relatives from Konskie, who, aided by other Polish peasants, were attempting to escape, too. Slowly, in boats that could hold only two people and a helmsman, they crossed to the opposite bank. But not everyone arrived. “The Polish people double-crossed them, taking their money and then denouncing them to the Germans,” Hadasa remembers.
Hadasa was born in Lodz, Poland, on March 25, 1935, the daughter of Sheyndl and Eliezer Eisenberg, a seamstress and cabinetmaker, respectively. The family was not religious and, in fact, Hadasa’s father was a proletarian who, according to Hadasa, was “in love with Russia.”
When Eliezer could no longer find work, the family moved to Konskie, where they lived with Sheyndl’s mother, Gitl, in a tiny house.
In early September 1939, German soldiers entered the city on motorcycles. Hearing “a terrible commotion,” Hadasa looked out the window to see the town burning. Neighbors ran with barrels of water hoping to extinguish the flames engulfing the synagogue. They couldn’t save it, and later she watched the discarded water barrels clattering down the cobblestone street.
In the days following the fire, Hadasa and her mother stayed indoors, afraid of being taken. Meanwhile, Hadasa’s father organized a group to escape to Soviet-occupied Poland, though Gitl refused to leave.
Those who made it across the Bug River reassembled in a shed in Bialystock, sleeping on the floor. “It was very cold,” Hadasa recalled.
Soon after, Hadasa’s family traveled to Berezniki, a town in the Ural Mountains, where her father was offered work. Arriving by train in early 1940, they lived in one room with several families, with separate areas roped off by curtains and a shared bathroom and kitchen.
Both parents worked long days cutting trees in the forest. Hadasa went to kindergarten, where she learned to speak Russian. “It was very hard,” she said. “I was always staying alone.”
More than a year later, Hadasa’s mother’s brother, Jeremiah, who was working as a tailor in a nearby city, was hired to design costumes for a Russian theater company in Ryazan, about 120 miles south of Moscow. The company needed someone to construct scenery, and Hadasa’s father got the job.
Hadasa attended school in Ryazan. She also played with her younger cousins Vera and Rosa. Again they lived in a shared room. “Nothing belonged to people,” Hadasa said.
Then, on June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, breaking its nonaggression pact. In October, the Russians evacuated the entire theater company to Buzuluk, in the southern Ural Mountains.
Hadasa’s sister Svetlana was born in Buzuluk on Dec. 11, 1941. Hadasa named her after Stalin’s daughter. “I couldn’t find a more beautiful name. I was taught to love Stalin,” she said.
Buzuluk, however, was not a permanent home for the theater, and in early 1942 Hadasa’s father and uncle relocated their families to Dzhambul (now Taraz), Kazakhstan, where they worked for the Kiev Yiddish Theater, which had fled its home in Ukraine.
Both families lived in one room of a small house owned by a Russian woman. There was no furniture, and everyone slept on the floor. Hadasa did her homework standing, using the windowsill as a table. For paper, she found old Russian newspapers, writing in the narrow white spaces between the lines.
The families cooked outside on a fire pit, using for fuel dried cow dung that Hadasa and her cousin Vera collected on the town’s dirt roads.
In Dzhambul, when not needed in the theater, Hadasa’s father served as a night watchman in a sugar-beet field. He was also given a small plot of land where he planted potatoes, which provided an occasional respite from the thick soup Hadasa’s mother constantly cooked and which Hadasa refused to eat because the coarse wheat chaff stuck in her throat.
In July 1942, the theater traveled to Kokand, Uzbekistan, to stage a production. Soon after arriving, Hadasa’s father was snatched off the street and conscripted into the Russian labor army, where he worked behind the front lines.
During this time, Hadasa, her mother and sister went to a kolkhoz, a collective farm, near Kokand. They lived in a Quonset hut-like structure, sleeping on the floor and using a nearby riverbank for a bathroom. The boys on the collective were mean, sometimes exposing themselves to Hadasa. “I was afraid,” she said.
Less than a month later, Hadasa’s father became sick and was taken to a hospital. Ready to be discharged back to the army, he bribed the female Jewish doctor with his wristwatch and returned to Kokand. Hadasa, her mother and sister joined him.
They then traveled to Fergana, 50 miles east of Kokand, where the theater company had moved, remaining until 1943 when the company decided to relocate to Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine).
Hadasa’s family made the month-long journey in a cold freight car lined with wooden bunks only partially heated by a small stove in the center. Food was scarce.
Hadasa attended school in Czernowitz. She lied about her religion, but the children knew she was Jewish and called her a “dirty Jew.” Also groups of militia, followers of right-wing nationalist Stepan Bandera, roamed Romania at that time, killing Jews. “It was very dangerous,” Hadasa said.
In Czernowitz, Hadasa and her family met survivors from Kolomyja, Ukraine, and learned about the horrors of the war for the first time. “We didn’t know anything. We only knew the Germans attacked the Russians,” she said.
In March 1945, they returned to Lodz, renting a tiny attic room. Hadasa attended public school, where she and another boy were the only Jews. “Nobody played with us,” Hadasa said.
In 1946, Hadasa’s family traveled to the Degerloch displaced persons camp in Stuttgart. Two years later, they immigrated to Israel, eventually settling in Jerusalem. Hadasa graduated high school in 1953 and joined the army.
During that time, Hadasa met Tsvi Cytrynowicz, a second cousin from Poland who had stopped in Israel on his way to Brazil, where his family had immigrated. They married on Feb. 28, 1954.
They both moved to Sao Paolo, where Tsvi worked in the family’s clothing business and where they had three sons: Michael, born in 1954; Daniel in 1959; and Roney in 1964.
Hadasa taught Russian at Sao Paolo University for nine years and then became the university’s first Yiddish teacher.
In 2008, Hadasa and Tsvi moved to Los Angeles to seek medical care for Tsvi, who was ill. He died on Jan. 4, 2013.
For more than two years, Hadasa, now 78, has been teaching conversational Yiddish at The Workmen’s Circle. She also recently published a book of autobiographical sketches, “Waving to the Train and Other Stories,” available through Amazon.
In 1998, Hadasa visited Auschwitz with her husband and son Daniel to light yahrzeit candles and say prayers for family members who perished in the Holocaust.
“I felt the need to finish an epoch,”
she said. “I don’t belong anymore to that country.”