Unit : 666th Brigade, The Red Army.
Served : North Africa, Sicily, Italy, North-West Europe (captured).
Life Swept Us Forward
By Esti Ahronovitz
Dr. Israel Machtey was nervous about the interview. He couldn't sleep the night before. Usually, he says amiably, he is an excellent sleeper. In April 1941 he was a first-year medical student in Minsk when his dreams of a medical career were interrupted by a draft notice from the Red Army. In June, the German Army invaded the Soviet Union. Machtey found himself at the front, with no combat experience or training. One month after that, on July 22, he was captured by the Germans.
He survived three years in German prisoner of war camps, in part by concealing his Jewish identity and pretending to be a Muslim from Turkistan. Like hundreds of thousands of other Red Army POWs he was moved from camp to camp on endless marches, subjected to inhumane levels of cold and hunger, surrounded by death and killing. At the end of the war, instead of being left to pick up the pieces of his life, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and accused, like other POWs who survived, of aiding the German Army. He was sent to the Gulag, to a forced labor camp for opponents of the regime, in the Ural Mountains.
Machtey survived there too. After his release he buried his memories and the journal that he kept deep in a drawer and picked up where he left off. He finished medical school, married and immigrated with his wife to Israel, made his home in Petah Tikva, became a father and worked as a young doctor at Beilinson Hospital. This was the start of Machtey's successful career as a rheumatologist, one of the first in Israel. In the 1960s he founded Israel's first rheumatology department, at Beilinson. He never talked about the war. Not with his wife. Not with his children.
Now, in a pressed white shirt and black dress pants, he opens the door to receive a guest. "Maideleh, what can I offer you to drink?" he asks, setting the table for two. The apartment, in the center of Petah Tikva, is modest, attractive and neat. On the living room walls are family photos and poetry books: Rachel, Natan Zach. Machtey says that he, too, likes to write poetry. On June 9 he celebrated his 90th birthday, surrounded by his loving family: his children Yossi and Ariela, his six grandchildren and his companion, Larisa.
From his study he takes out his old journal, a notebook whose yellowed pages, loose and crumbling, are filled with small, cramped handwriting in Russian and Yiddish. In February 1945, shortly before the German Army's surrender, he and five other Russian prisoners escaped. They hid out in an abandoned German house. While his companions were devouring the food they found in the house, Machtey, trembling, went to a bookcase, where he found an unused notebook. "And here it is," he says, gently riffling the pages.
It was only a few years ago that he mustered up the courage to open the notebook. It took him back, back to his first love and to the war. Machtey wrote a memoir and made copies of the book for his children and grandchildren. Occasionally he calls up one of his grandchildren to ask whether they have read it yet.
"I didn't tell my children much," he says by way of explaining his excitement today. "I didn't say much at all and so this conversation moves me. In the 1950s and '60s we didn't talk about anything. My late wife was a Holocaust survivor herself and she never talked about it. I know very little about what she went through. I didn't tell her and she didn't tell me. Occasionally there were little things that we said, but no more than that.
"When my wife died, I took out my old journal from the war days for the first time. I hadn't touched it for decades, just imagine. Only then did I start to talk about it a little more."
Why didn't you talk about it, you and that whole generation that survived the German death machine?
"We were treif when we came to Israel. We weren't kosher. People said, 'Why didn't you fight?' There was this contempt. We were ashamed to say we were Holocaust survivors. Or in my case, a POW camp survivor. We were also busy making our way. It was hard to get started again. We worked hard and earned little. In 1950 I came to Beilinson, I was a house physician and we were on call around the clock. We didn't have time to deal with the past. Tell me, why should I brood on what I saw during the war? I saw dead people. Hundreds and thousands. I got used to it. I myself faced execution. Looking back, dear God, what good would crying over the past have done me? Life swept us forward."
The calm after the storm
Machtey was born in the town of Stolpce, in eastern Poland (now part of Belarus, and called Stoubcy). His father, Mordechai, an accountant, was broadly knowledgeable and had a good command of English. He and his close friend Shneur Zalman Rubashov (Zalman Shazar, who became the third president of the State of Israel), were among the founders of a branch of the Poalei Zion Party. Israel's mother, Alta, was a dentist and also well-read. Israel enrolled at a religious school but transferred to a Polish elementary school because his parents wanted him to become more integrated into Polish society.
Yiddish was the predominant language on the Jewish street, mixed with "Goyish" - Russian spiced with Yiddish and Polish. All the homes were wood, with a stove at the center that was always fired up. The Machtey home had four rooms: one for his grandmother and grandfather, one for his parents, one for the children (Israel, the eldest, and his brother and sister ), and one that served as kitchen and dining room. Chickens roamed the fenced-in backyard, which had a well, a kitchen garden, a cowshed (and cow ) and, of course, an outhouse.
Machtey describes going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah with his grandfather, who wore a white kittel. "I believed my grandfather was one of the 36 Righteous Men and that he would live forever. He was very scrupulous in his religious observance and was a model for us." His grandfather, who was a rabbi and mohel (ritual circumciser ) returned from a brit at the synagogue one day, two weeks before his 90th birthday, and died.
Machtey attended the local high school. In the afternoons he and fellow Jewish youth movement members gathered to sing, dance the hora, talk and dream about the Land of Israel. At home, he liked to read Shalom Aleichem and Bialik. In the summer, the family vacationed in the countryside, sharing a rented dacha in a pine forest with another family.
In 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland, and Stolpce was annexed to the Soviet Union. "For us Jews, the new regime actually opened up new possibilities, new opportunities for university study, without the restrictions of the universities in Poland." With his parents' blessing Machtey began medical school in Minsk, sharing a small dormitory room with two other students. "I was certain the war wouldn't touch me," he says.
Not long after the end of his first year, he was stunned to receive a draft notice from the Red Army. On April 13, 1941 Machtey bid farewell to his family, with a heavy heart. A rare family photograph captured the moment. In mid-June, after boot camp in the Urals, he was sent west, with the 666th Brigade, to the city of Vitebsk, in Belarus. Because of his medical training he was appointed head of the medical unit. The brigade began digging defensive lines. On July 5, they took their first air strike. The shellings grew more frequent. He remembers how one evening he stood, dumbfounded, staring at the red sky as Vitebsk went up in flames.
On July 8 he and another medic were summoned to treat some wounded men. "I arrived at the forward trench and suddenly we came under heavy fire. The shooting went on and on and we couldn't lift our heads. When it finally died down something happened that we couldn't understand. All around us was quiet. Total silence. We crawled out of the hole. It was the picture of the calm after the storm. A quiet that's hard to describe because you don't know what happened or is happening. We turned back. I suggested to the other medic that we walk north along the front line, toward the gunfire, assuming that's where we'd find our soldiers. We came to the edge of the forest and then heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. We realized it was the Germans. We hid in the bushes and fell asleep. Two gunshots into the bushes woke us. We came out with our hands up, and we were facing German soldiers."
A new identity, born of fire and water
They were taken to a POW transit camp. "There was a stove, with a fire burning. It hit me right then that I had to change my identity, and I created a new identity for myself with fire and water. I burned all the documents I had. I kept just two things, my medical school ID card, because I knew I had to be a medical person to survive. To make sure I wouldn't be identified as Jewish I wet it and rubbed out my name, Israel, page by page. All that remained of the name Machtey was the letter M. The second thing I kept was a family photo I just couldn't part with."
Then he had to forge his new identity. "I knew I couldn't be Russian because of my appearance, my poor knowledge of the language and, mainly, because I was circumcised. So I became a Muslim, a Turkmen, a member of an ethnic minority. About Islam I knew exactly two words: 'Allahu Akbar.' Over the two weeks we were kept there before being interrogated I invented my cover story: My grandfather was an anti-Stalinist who was exiled from Turkistan to the Urals, and that's where I was born and raised." He chose to call himself Samyon Metayeb.
The next day he and hundreds more POWs were marched westward. "The march went on for many days, from morning to night, with brief stops and no food. We slept in fields or farmyards. It was quiet except for the Germans shouting at us to speed up. If someone fell and didn't get up, the soldiers shot him. I marched in the third row, second from the left. At one point a German soldier came up to me suddenly, pushed his gun against my chest and asked, in German, 'Jew?' I waved my arms [to say no]. He didn't shoot. About an hour later another German soldier came, pressed his gun against my chest and asked, 'Jew?' I repeated my response, waving my arms. And he didn't shoot. Less than another hour later yet another soldier comes up, this time pressing the gun to my temple and asking, 'Jew?' Again I wave my hands no."
To this day Machtey does not know why he wasn't shot. "I saw them kill anyone who straggled and anyone who had a beard and was suspected of being Jewish. I think that had I answered in Russian or German they would have shot me. I answered automatically by waving my hands like the rest of the POWs who didn't know German. Or maybe it was my medic's bag that saved my life? I don't know."
They marched for a week. "We were hungry. We didn't eat for the first three days of the march. On the third day of the march, the Germans slaughtered one cow for several hundred people and cut it up. We pounced on the pieces of meat and grabbed whatever we could, with our bare hands. I managed to snatch a piece of udder, and ate it."
On the fifth day a German soldier approached Machtey and declared, "You're a Jew. Come." This time the hand gestures did not help. A number of Jews were picked out from among the 500 or so Russian POWs. Machtey was placed with the group and a large Star of David was drawn on the back of his shirt. "We kept on marching, in silence. We didn't speak to each other. Everyone was absorbed in his own thoughts, with his own fate. I realized immediately that this group was fated to die. I told myself, it won't happen to me. At night I very, very quietly took off the shirt with the Star of David and put the shirt I had under it on top. Then I quietly crawled to the other side, where the 'regular' prisoners were. I climbed over the fence and lay down to sleep amid the hundreds of other prisoners. The stars in the sky were the only witnesses. Two days later they killed the whole group of Jews."
A few days later, when they were permitted to bathe in a stream, he went into the water in his clothes in the hope that the Star of David on his shirt would wash off. "Dear God, that's how it was. It's that subconscious impulse to do something. I just knew I had to do something and not wait for miracles."
Tomorrow you'll be red
On August 18th he was transferred with a group of POWs to a former military hospital in the city of Lida. For the first time in weeks he had a roof above his head, a little food and drink, and best of all, an opportunity to rest his legs. He told his captors he was an Unterarzt, the rank for a noncommissioned physician officer. He was assigned to help the Soviet doctors at the POW hospital.
"Some of the doctors, who were Russian, knew I was Jewish, but we didn't discuss it," he says. "The Germans didn't come inside very much. Many of the casualties died and their bodies were tossed in a deep pit in the camp yard together with those people - there were quite a few of them - who were shot to death for various reasons, mostly on suspicion of being commissars in the Red Army. When I looked in the pit, a shudder went through me. I could have been one of those people in the pit."
In October 1941 he was transferred to a military hospital near the POW camp in Grodno, where he was put in charge of an entire ward, 20 beds in one big room. Extensive medical knowledge was not required. "The care was minimal," he says. Bandages, aspirin, sulfa drugs and an antidiarrheal was about all that was available. "I was given a room with a table, two chairs and a bed. It was unbelievable that I, the POW, the Jew, got a room to live in. A bed, mattress and blanket. Things I hadn't seen in a long time."
The relatively good conditions didn't last long. Six months later Machtey was arrested and taken to the camp's prison. "I still don't know why they arrested me. I think someone informed on me and told them I was a Jew." The prison held 63 captives, 57 of them Jews. They shared two rooms with nothing but wooden pallets. "The days, weeks and months all blended together. We hardly heard anything about what was happening outside. We didn't talk much. Life revolved mainly around the five o'clock roll call, when the whole camp - 8,000 prisoners - would come out, and around food.
"We were given soup - warm water with a piece of kohlrabi - and one loaf of bread for every seven people. Dividing the bread into seven pieces was a whole ritual. In each group, seven pairs of eyes watched like hawks. We made a scale from a stick with a shoelace tied in the middle, and we weighed the slices of bread. When this ritual was over I would take my piece, lie down on my pallet, put the bread on the windowsill and look at it. Every once in a while I ate a little; that way I made it last for hours. The hunger was intense. There were stories going around that in the other building they ate the liver of someone who died."
Were you all able to maintain some semblance of humanity under these conditions?
"It wouldn't have helped us to act wild. We were quiet, we barely spoke to each other."
Machtey remembers July 21, 1942, a year after he was captured, as the hardest day of his life. In the morning he was put in with a group of Jewish prisoners. "The jailer asked a young fellow standing next to me, 'What's your name?' He said, 'Schwarz,' which is also 'black,' and the jailer told him, 'Tomorrow you'll be red.' It was clear we were to be executed the next day. I'll never forget that night. I'd already had a gun put to my chest but then I didn't have time to think or be afraid. It's different when you know death is waiting for you the next day and the night is long. It stretches on and on.
"It's a feeling of helplessness. The entire night I was thinking, 'How will I get out of this?' The prisoners kept silent most of the time. Someone whispered that maybe they were transferring us to another camp. Someone else recited Kaddish. My thoughts were focused on one thing only, how to survive. In the morning they began reading out the names of the Jews. When your name was called, you had to go to the trucks waiting in the center of the camp. And they didn't call my name. I was saved because a yekke is a yekke: On the original lists they didn't have me down as a Jew.
"The ones they called, 57 men, were put on trucks. I, left behind in the cell, saw it all through the barred window. When the two trucks left the camp I burst into tears. That was the first time I cried. About a half hour later the prison ward door opens and in comes Sergeant Popler, who was in charge of us. 'What are you crying about?' he asked. I didn't know how to respond. 'Over the fate of the people who were taken away,' I said. 'Stop crying,' he said, 'or your fate will be the same as theirs.' The tears stopped instantly. That's a conversation I'll remember my whole life. Popler gave an order for me to be returned to the hospital as an assistant to the medical staff. Why did he help me? I don't know."
Suddenly someone is embracing you
In the months that followed, Machtey was marched with groups of POWs from one camp to another, in harsh conditions. In one camp, the hunger was so great that a guard shot a crow out of the air, to the great joy of Machtey and the other prisoners who did not yet know how hard it would be to cook the little meat on the bird. In February 1943, he was transferred to a camp in East Prussia. "We were very hungry there, too, and there were lots of fleas. We made soup from nettles that we found. We scrounged for potato peelings the Germans threw away, and cooked them. Sometimes we found fish bones in the trash and added them to the soup, and that was really fantastic.
"After a few months, they moved us to the Trakehnen labor camp, on the Lithuanian border. They put 50 of us in a large building with pallets and straw mattresses on top! We worked in the field; it was hard, but there was more food. We had bread, margarine, potatoes. My value rose in the eyes of the rest when once during planting season I managed to sneak some barley out of the field and the guys made vodka. I was in this camp for about a year. Compared to the others it was like a ray of light."
Another ray of light came in October 1944, when Machtey and dozens of other POWs were sent to southeast Prussia (now Poland), to dig defensive lines. "As soon as we got to the camp, at roll call, the commander asked about our professions: cook? carpenter? I stepped forward and asked if he needed a doctor. That's how I became the camp doctor."
Machtey and the cook shared a room that had a mattress and blanket, a chair and even a large wall clock. "These young women would come to the camp to cook for us. They weren't prisoners. The Germans sent Russian families to Germany to work the fields. And then she appeared. I looked at her, she looked at me and it was something. I was 23, it was normal to want to meet a girl. I sent her messages and letters through the other cooks. When she worked in the field I'd accompany prisoners to the field as a doctor and we'd meet in the hayloft. I'll never forget those meetings. It's practically indescribable, that in the midst of all this craziness, between life and death, suddenly someone is embracing you."
Machtey kept the letters. "My dear Jana, I just now awoke from my long stupor after you left ... Every so often I went out in the hope of seeing you, your lovely name on my lips. But in vain. I felt bad and my heart was filled with anxiety and hurt. Dear God, what is happening to me? I think I've gone mad over you."
"My darling," she answered. "You must be worried that I haven't come to you in so long. If you knew how much I long to see you, how much I miss you, it would surely ease your mind and help your mood. How and where can I see you? In the afternoon I only have half an hour free because I've switched to working in the kitchen. I'd rather work in the yard or the field at some job that is all dirty just so I could see you more often and not just once a week," Jana wrote.
"I wanted to see her every day and it wasn't possible," he says now. "I couldn't stand it anymore so one night I sneaked out of the camp through the gate we used to go out to work, and went to her house. I was risking my life. It was true madness. It's hard to explain. I could have escaped, but I returned to the camp so I could go to her again. I knew I was risking my life. I did it twice more after that."
The third time, on December 8, 1944, the guard apprehended him when he tried to sneak back into the camp. Machtey was sent to the B-1 camp, near Hohenstein. "I was put into a tiny cell, the size of a phone booth, stripped naked and left to stand the entire night. The next day my clothes were returned and I was moved to the prisoners' cabin."
There was an optimistic atmosphere at the camp that lifted his spirits slightly, though he still missed Jana. "There was a different feeling there, we spoke relatively freely. We knew that our army, the Red Army, was coming closer." On January 18, 1945, the Germans retreated and the camp was evacuated. "We started marching west. We marched for hours. At night, the Germans put us in haylofts. The next morning, they gave out bread and we kept marching. On the third night, I decided to escape."
That morning, he hid in the straw in the hayloft. "When they called us to come out, I stayed inside. I knew the Germans were stabbing the straw with pitchforks to find anyone who was hiding. They didn't find me. I waited until dark to come out of hiding. Five other POWs also hid in the hayloft. We came out and started walking, and when we saw a house with lights on we went in. The Germans who lived there must have fled from the Russians just a few hours before. The food on the table was still warm. The Russians with me ran to the table to eat, and I looked to the left: a bookcase. My heart began to pound. I looked, and found an English-German dictionary that I still have and a blank notebook."
A few days later Machtey and his companions joined up with the Red Army, where they were welcomed with open arms, vodka and thick slices of bread. But their freedom was short-lived. "Soon after, all the ex-POWs were arrested because a Soviet soldier was not supposed to let himself be captured, it was a betrayal of the homeland. I was put in a prison camp with about 20 other ex-POWs. The interrogations took place at night, in another building. We marched to the interrogations in a column, our hands clasped behind our backs. The interrogators wanted us to sign a statement saying we'd worked for the Germans. 'You'll get five years and that'll be it,' one told me. I refused. After three weeks of interrogation they sent us to labor camps in the Urals. In March I reached Camp 4, which was for German captives and Soviet prisoners."
Machtey was made nurse in the camp hospital. "It was ironic. There were many German captives there. They're German, I'm Jewish, and instead of taking revenge I have to care for them."
Machtey did not stay anywhere for long. He was moved from camp to camp, working in the fields, or cutting down trees, or as a nurse's assistant in the camp hospital. Temperatures reached 50 degrees below zero. On October 28, 1945 Machtey was informed that he was to be released the next day. "The excitement makes it impossible to write," he wrote in his journal. "I walked about like a madman all day. I was completely restless. So many thoughts racing but I don't even know what I'm thinking. All I know is that in my head is a jumble of images - the city, the people, the family, Jana, medical school and more. My mind is already beyond the camp perimeter. I don't know if I've eaten or not. Everything is confused. I'll stop writing. Tomorrow comes happiness. Life. Tomorrow. Tomorrow."
On October 29, 1945, Machtey left Camp 305, on the northern slopes of the Urals, a free man. "You feel like there's nothing behind you, that all you have is the pack on your back. That's it. In the days after my release I was busy trying to put my life together. There's no time for emotions, you just have to make plans and go forward." He was offered a job in the forests. "As a free man for the first time, I turned it down," he says. "I found a place to sleep and set about looking for work as a nurse."
He was hired as a health inspector for the residential department of the mines in the northern Urals, but longed to return to medical school in Minsk. In early January of 1946 Machtey returned to Minsk, where he wandered the burned-out streets in a state of shock, finally reaching the university. Most of the buildings were gone, but the medical school had survived. "In the hallway I run into this woman, Goya, who went to high school with me. 'You're alive?' she asks. 'I'm alive,' I say. 'But people saw you get killed,' she says. 'What can I do?' I laugh. 'Did you write your family?' she asks. And I say, 'What family? The police couldn't find any trace of my family.' And she says, 'Your family escaped.'
"I dropped everything, and the next morning I went to Stolpce. Our house was reduced to rubble, I stood with tears in my eyes and was flooded with memories. I asked neighbors, 'Are any Jews left?' They said there was one family, Mirsky. 'They're my relatives!' I came at seven in the morning, I opened the door without knocking; Berta Mirsky sees me and shouts: 'O Israel! O Israel!'
"Turns out they knew I was alive. When I was being questioned by the KGB back in October, the investigators sent people to check up on me and they came to the Mirsky family. Right after the investigator left, Berta sent a postcard to my parents, who'd fled to Siberia, with just one line: 'Don't worry, he's alive.'"
Machtey's parents and siblings also survived. On June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded, they fled east on foot, later boarding a freight train, and after an arduous journey reached Omsk, in Siberia. They hoped they had outrun the Nazis. They lived in a flimsy shack without water or electricity, in subzero temperatures, and subsisted on potatoes. When they inquired after Israel they received a terse report from the army that he was missing.
"There is nothing new here," Machtey's mother wrote to relatives in Tel Aviv in September 1945. "Can a wound opened over the loss of a precious son ever heal? This is the fifth year that he's been gone and the wound is still fresh. And when I think about Israel falling in battle, I try to console myself by thinking that perhaps he first managed to put a bullet in the heart of the German enemy."
Machtey sent a telegram to his parents the day he found the Mirskys. In February he joined them in Omsk. They returned to Poland and continued on, to the displaced persons camps in Austria, on their way to Palestine. Machtey became very active in Hashomer Hatzair, devoting all his energies to the movement. He thought about his beloved Jana constantly. In mid-1946 he finally obtained her address in Kiev, and they resumed their correspondence. But time took its toll. Machtey, who had meanwhile revealed to her that he was a Jew, realized that life was taking him in another direction.
At the DP camp, he met Hela Bornstein. After leaping from a transport train taking Jews to the Belzec death camp, she and her mother hid in the forests until the end of the war. After Israel began medical school at the University of Innsbruck, and Hela and her mother went to Germany, they began sending letters back and forth. The letters gradually turned romantic, until one day Israel sent one with a proposal of marriage. They wed in May 1948.
It all came back
After arriving in Israel, in the summer of 1949, the newlyweds stayed with relatives in Petah Tikva for a time, before renting a hut on Haim Ozer Street. Beilinson hired Israel as a physician and Hela as a librarian. Their son, Yossi, was born two years later, followed by his sister, Ariela. The family traveled to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1963, where Machtey trained as a specialist. After they returned, he founded the rheumatology department at Beilinson. In the 1970s, he was appointed head of Internal Medicine at Hasharon Hospital.
Yossi and his wife, Irit, have three children, as do Ariela and her husband, Micha. Israel's brother, Eliahu, a retired dentist, lives nearby. Their sister Esther, who also studied dentistry, moved to the United States and is now a grandmother. Their father died in 1975, their mother a decade later. Hela died on June 17, 1991.
Jana married and settled in Kiev, Ukraine. She never forgot him. In 2001 Machtey found her through the Red Cross. "We spoke on the phone once a month," he says with emotion. "The first time I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I didn't know what came over me. It all came back to me: the camp, the war, the love. I could have gone to see her but she didn't want it. I though about it a lot. Apparently neither of us wanted that meeting, that personal encounter in the present. No psychologist could solve it."
Jana died six months ago, of heart disease. Two days before her death, they had a long conversation. Machtey closes the notebook and takes the coffee cups to the sink. They're waiting for him at Hasharon Hospital, where he is a consultant. "You have to keep going," he says with a smile, "and always think about what you'll do tomorrow."
My thanks to Israel Machtey for this account.
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