Tampa, Florida 1959
Went to America, 1918
book was written in 1964, at a time of great tension between America and the
Soviet Union. In his own words, he writes in the Foreword as follows: "In the Lion's
Den is a close look at the history of the Russian Empire, particularly during
the last phase of the reign of terror of Tzar Nicholas II. This work will
consist of two parts: First, my own personal experience as an eyewitness, and
second, my impressions of Russian affairs. My purpose in writing this book is to
add further information to our knowledge of Russia and the Russian people, and
to help us understand the Russians better. I believe that the time is coming
when we in the Western powers will have to join with the Russians as the
representatives of the Western peoples in order to check the onrushing Red
Max Star was born in Radzilow as Mendel Staroletni
in 1891, the first child of Moszk Staroletni. The first 13 pages of his book,
though not mentioning Radzilow by name, refer to the events that took place in
the town in the larger context of the oncoming World War.
Chapter One: Mobilization
Austria declared war on Serbia, and as the news of
this act spread all over, Russia sent notice to Austria stating that she would
mobilize if such an event took place. Austria had no desire to change her plans
at that stage, so Russia began mobilizing great armies in preparation for war.
After the murder of the Crown Prince and the results, all of us felt that this
was going to be a play for the devil, and that a heavy and grievous catastrophe
was approaching. The power and heroism of the fighting countries would be
measured in this bloody war. The Tzar with his dominating Russian-Orthodox
church unanimously decided to protect little Serbia, the great Russian name and
faith. The Tzarina made not the least effort to dissuade the Tzar, as this
decision played into the German bands.
Mendel Staroletni, 1915
Went to America, 1918
was a Friday, July 31, 1914, as I walked out to the market place, the only place
where you could hear the news of the day. I noticed people grouped around the
telegraph posts eagerly reading the announcements posted there, reading with
pale and horror-stricken faces. They read the posters again and again, as though
making sure that they were reading the contents correctly. There were no
comments, no remarks. Everyone felt the imminent danger that was rapidly moving
in on them. The daily papers did not come regularly. This was the place and
manner in which we received the news. Important notices to the people were
delivered by horse-men riding in every state, town, city and village.
The notices this day told the people to be ready
at first call, with no excuses whatsoever allowed. To this end, an officer of
the magistrate appeared in each locality throughout the country, in military
uniform and with a drum by which he notified the people and told them to be
ready. I approached one of the poles and read:
"We, Nicholas the Second, Emperor of all
Russias, Tzar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, call to all the subjects
which are in reserve, up to the age of forty-five, about ten million in
number; also those with RED tickets who were released in time of peace
having received (part training) all to appear tomorrow about NOON at their
nearest recruiting stations."
There was only one meaning to this notice. Leave
your homes, your loved ones, your beloved, and throw yourselves into the Devil's
The daily papers that came out later discussed the
events that had led to these notices, yet everyone believed that the situation
would take another turn, this time for the better, and everything would be
gotten through peacefully.
Who would have believed that the world, with all
its culture and civilization, would have been transformed in the Twentieth
Century into a slaughterhouse? We see people who can't look or listen to the
woes of domestic cattle when they are being slaughtered for market and this is a
natural process, one that can't be otherwise. But the human heart in its
softness and empathy does not like to be witness to it. All over the world are
organized societies compassionately working on behalf of domestic animals. Yet
what of the highest creature in the world - Man! This Man, who enriched the
world with civilization, who preached and still preaches to the world of
brotherly love and social unity? Did the Twentieth Century make such a rough
mistake, introducing beastly humans and not humane humans? What had become of
the civilized century? And God said to Cain: Aye, where is thy brother Abel?
Cain was cursed by God Almighty.
We didn't lose our hopes, but prayed for the best.
Austria, after all, we told ourselves, was populated by a good many gentle-
manly people, socialistic and well known labor classes with their leaders and
representatives in the Austrian Parliament. France, likewise, known for its
labor organizations and famous leadership in Parliament was under the great man
Faures. And Germany, under her extraordinarily well-organized labor classes was
led by the great socialistic representative Liebknecht. All these progressive
elements, the social and liberal leaders, would certainly press their
governments not to submit to war, and would promote a United front so that, in
case of war, they would declare a general strike in all industries, making it
impossible to begin or to follow-through with a war.
We played with our thoughts and ideas as little
children play with their toys. Before the war broke out, we really believed the
prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled in our time, that we really would witness
the wonderful scene where a lion would keep company with a calf, and they would
feed together on the same lawn, a wolf would associate in a brotherly fashion
with a sheep, and we would also see the glorious panorama of nations breaking
their weapons into plowshares. We would see all these things with our own eyes
and Oh, how wonderful the world would look! Yes, we would say to each other,
nothing else but CIVILIZATION, freedom of thought, growth of wisdom. These are
actually the agents of love and Brotherhood. No wholesale slaughter can ever
It seems that Golden Age has not yet come. Mankind
has not yet reached the goal of real happiness. The time will soon come, but not
now. Stupidity and greediness are still dominating the world. We are still
wholly absorbed in tyranny, barbarism, killing and murder; being pitiless is
still in vogue. They came out boisterously for the world how many thousands of
lives had been destroyed in one day, and how many in another day! No, no, the
world is not yet progressing, but reverts to barbarism and savagery.
We had a dream, but the reality became a terrible
disappointment. As soon as the news of mobilization spread all over the country,
not only for certain classes, but for all, we became greatly enraged and
irritated. There was no local mobilization of a certain part of reservists or at
a distance of thousands of miles at it was in the war with Turkey or Japan, but
it was in front of our homes, just a few miles from the borderline. The wound
was painful unbearable. Everyone must go, grandparents, parents, sometimes four
or five in a family, sons and sons-in-law, all had to leave their nests, leaving
their wives and children with no one to take care of them or help them.
The Government gave eight dollars a month for
grownups and two dollars per month for minors. A starvation fund! Nobody tasted
anything for a whole day. Their mouths were locked, their hearts broken. The
families, watching those who were to leave them, thought: God only knows that
this is not the last time we see them. Will they ever again return to us? Maybe
it is a lost hope.
The women busied themselves preparing the Sabbath
meals as ever, wanting to show God that in spite of their pains, they
nevertheless did their best for Him. He punishes them but they keep up with His
precepts with the greatest holiness, and it may be that in the merits of the
Holy Sabbath it will turn out in our favor and the heavenly decree will go to
avail nought, and the sanctity of faith will overweigh all our sins.
In the old home, the Sabbath day was observed in
all its details and very sacredly. Sabbath is the symbol of the Queen, and God
is King, and the Jewish people are the closest relatives of the King and Queen;
and because of the merits of the Jewish nation and its Torah, the whole world
exists. They didn't lose their hopes, but kept on hoping that the governments
would settle their disputes and the idea of war would melt away like snow
melting in the sun. God Almighty will not allow any slaughter of His children
and the creatures of the earth. This day was the longest in the month of July.
Too much preparation wasn't quite necessary. One small package of food would
be sufficient for a couple of days. Who could eat the food prepared in the
No local papers could reach us in time. They came
from Warsaw a day later, so that the real situation was still unknown. It was
expected that a miracle would happen, and the mobilization would be recalled.
The sun was about to set, yet there was no sign of
any change in the situation. It was as though the sun might protest to mankind
silently: "I was created to give you light, but you, the highest creation
in the world, are dedicated to suffering and destruction."
The sexton of the synagogue walked through the
streets and in a gloomy voice called out:
"Jews to the 'Shul'." His voice was
trembling with fear and anxiety as though to say: Brethren, here you are warned
that you and all the others are in danger. The Synagogue is your fortification
and protection. Go and pray to God and ask Him: For whose sins does He go to
destroy the World? And if you are the sinners, let Him show His mercy and
goodness and forgive your sins.
All the Jews went to the Synagogue, all united as
one in praying to the Almighty with tears in their eyes.
That Sabbath day was known as the Sabbath of Hazon
(the Sabbath before the 9th of Av). The next Sunday was the 9th of Av, the day
when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and then by the
Romans, and at the same time, a great part of the Jews were also lost.
The Cantor stood at the pulpit, and when he came
to the hymn known as "L'cho Dodi," the entire congregation helped in
singing its chorus as a terror flashed over them visualizing the whole picture
as it was on the day of the destruction of both temples, which happened to be on
the same day that the Romans slaughtered thousands of Jews, and the flames were
consuming the Temple and the buildings of Jerusalem. And now a new destruction
was moving in to slaughter their best and most heroic youth in the bloom of
their lives, the choicest of mankind, while the homes were being left with the
little ones and the aged.
After the prayers, the KIDDUSH was recited by the
Cantor. Voices, groaning, were heard over the Synagogue, expressions of the
feelings in the hearts of the people.
God knows if this is not the last time. Who can
Little by little, the people left the Synagogue,
some crying silently. The relatives and friends of the mobilized broke out in
weeping, tearfully crying over this misfortune. At home, everyone sat at the
table, not to break the sanctity of the Sabbath with tears, not to disturb the
supplementary soul with which every Jew is gifted by the Holy Sabbath, and the
holy atmosphere, but this was a compulsory form, the mouths and throats locked
against any intake of food and refused to accomplish their messages. Their
friends tried to extol them not to lose courage, but there were many who could
not fall asleep. The heat of the season, the panorama of the battle and the war
that would be right under their noses obsessed them. They knew the battle would
be hard fought, that the Germans were a robust, well-trained people, that
Germans would be coming to aim a blow at the idiotic, melancholy and ignorant
We were well acquainted with the Germans, their
life and civilization. When a mechanic was necessary, a technician, an engineer,
a curort (bathing place), or any similarly useful person or thing, we got them
from Germany. All we knew in Russia were Samovars, icons, multitudes of
churches, monasteries, fat-bellied priests, drunkards and licentiousness, plus
bigotry and Jewophatia and national hate, but in time of war the churches and
their priests were quite helpless, and brought nothing of value to their
country, not even knowing bow to use a gun.
This Friday night seemed to be the longest night
of the year, as long as the Jewish exile. Dead stillness predominated the town.
Every minute sound of leaves rustling or a door opening made us expect that
something had happened, that perhaps someone was coming with good news -- but it
was always leaves rustling or doors opening, and the stillness would return
With the dawn, people again left their houses,
anxious for information.
"Do you have any news?" "Is there
"Have you heard anything?"
But -- there was no news at all! Each of us felt
that the terror we expected would finally come.
At seven that morning, everyone went to the
Synagogue. The Cantor took his usual place of officiation. All prayed quietly,
with choking sensations in their throats. The victims now, more than ever
before, respectfully observed and considered the Synagogue, the members, their
friends and relatives. A puzzling question filled their minds and hearts: Would
they see the Synagogue, their nearest and dearest ever again? Would they be
listed in the remnant of the living? Their mouths were automatically shut off,
but their hearts brought forth their prayers. At the opening of the Holy Ark to
take out the Holy Scrolls of the Bible to read the portion set for this Sabbath,
all the women, old and young, rushed to the Ark crying and screaming loudly:
"Oh, Almighty God, you are so merciful,
full of compassion and full of loving kindness. Hold back Thine anger. If we
are guilty and sinful, pray do not punish us. Take compassion. Do not take
fathers away from their little ones.
"If we are the sinners, the children are
guiltless; they are pure and sinless; they didn't commit any sin, they are
pure like angels - why should they suffer for our sins?
"Oh! Almighty God, put your endeavor
towards these sin- less and blameless little ones. Do for their cause, have
mercy to the Jewish Nation as well as for all other nations living on this
planet, do not destroy them. We are all the work of Thy creation, do not
destroy your own handiwork; do not annihilate the world and her creatures.
"Oh! You Holy Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and
Jacob. Oh! You noble Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; also you Holy
Angels, put forth your effort before the throne of the Divine Glory to cause
the evil decree to be broken down and destroyed and replace it with peace
The scrolls were taken out after the women left
the Ark. The women stayed no longer in the Synagogue but went straight to the
cemetery for special prayers. In the Synagogue, the necessary services were
finished, and we left for our homes.
At the cemetery the women renewed their
lamentations in this manner:
"You holy and purified souls, put your
efforts to stand before the Almighty to do something for the Jewish Nation
as well as for all the nations on earth, to make that the governments should
decide to accept a mutual peace instead of war. Let God Almighty turn their
hearts for the good of all the nations living on earth to avoid unnecessary
suffering. Inspire the fighting nations with thoughts of spiritual content
freedom from war and disturbance and uniting themselves harmoniously and in
All these heartrending prayers were accompanied by
weeping and shedding of tears. It was the only thing they could do.
After the Synagogue services were concluded, the
men came home to their families to tell them their last goodbye -- to their
wives, their children, brothers, sisters, friends, relatives, acquaintances,
falling one upon the other's necks, kissing their innocent little babies, who
cried too, reflecting the cries of their parents. No one could stand the thought
of food, of eating. The bundles were packed up, ready to take along. At the same
time, the Christians were in their churches, shedding their tears too. It was a
At ten o'clock the spectacle began. The market
street was filled with wagons ordered by the government to bring the
mobilization victims to their military stations. The sheriffs urged the
reservists to take seats in the wagons. A new wave of farewells started up, with
renewed force, new cries and tears by the relatives and friends. They couldn't
part from each other without claims to God.
"Oh! God! How can you be so cruel to your own
creatures and allow innocent people to be slaughtered? Holy Father, do not
destroy us in Thy world."
The Christian people had grouped themselves
separately, bid- ding farewell to their families, and they too cried and shouted
(O Bozhe Moy)
"Oh My God, will Thou allow such an
unjust upon Thy children? Will you allow such young and healthy humans to be
slaughtered out? How will we be able to take care of ourselves and our
little ones when our supporters are taken away from us? The crop is on the
fields, the vegetables are in the gardens; the young workers are robbed away
from us, leaving only the weak and decrepit elders, the weak women and the
little children. Who will take care of the cattle? Oh, how gruesome it is!
"God Almighty, will you allow such an
injustice? Oh, our Lord who with Thy sufferings has redeemed the world from
sins, who possessest Thy Father's power, do not permit, do not allow such
unfairness; do not approve to a desolation of human property, that was built
for so many years with human effort."
Their cries could have touched even stones. The
sheriffs were impatient. It was getting late and they had a duty to perform.
They again urged the reservists to get into the wagons and drive to the
appointed places. Jews and Christians were all together as brothers by birth.
The God of war does not discriminate between religions and nations. With Him all
are alike, and He wants only His portion of flesh and a full measure of Blood.
"Oh! God!" came the cry of the families.
"Oh, God, think this matter over again. What are You doing? Have mercy upon
us. How many sleepless nights did we suffer for our children to watch them, to
keep them in good health. How much travail did we have to stand to protect them
from all sorts of sickness; colds, pox, measles, diphtheria and many other
diseases that usually befall the little ones, and now, after overcoming all
these troubles and bringing them up to robustness, now they are being taken away
from us. What are they now to expect if not the horrible death, to be stabbed,
torn to pieces, crippled, maimed, useless and listless if not killed."
The reservists, finally, were driven forcibly by
the sheriffs to their seats in the wagons. Once more, hand wavings and distant
kisses. Goodbye dear friends, wives, children, goodbye...
All the voices were carried away in the air, Jews,
Christians, one brotherhood, one unit.
The last voices coming from the families were
"We shall pray to God to protect you and
sustain your lives and keep you from anything evil."
The wagons moved from their places. Another few
minutes and the market street was wrapped in silence. The men were gone, gone,
and the families left for their homes with deep wounds in their hearts.
I personally was not drafted with this group, as I
had been found to be near-sighted, but was drafted fifteen months later when it
became necessary to increase the Army. All I did on this fateful day was to
escort my unfortunate friends and relatives, which made upon me a deep and
painful impression. We returned home as though we had attended a burial. We had
met with a great tragedy. The best men were no longer to be seen in the houses
to which we returned, in the streets upon which we walked. Only God knew how
many would ever return to their families and loved ones.
The people would awaken as from a lethargic sleep
to see the great devastation. What had happened? Nothing but WAR, WAR, WAR.
Were there any visible signs of war? Between the
Russians and the Germans there was no tangible hatred at all; no economic
disputes, no racial hatred. The Germans were good customers for wood, field
products and cotton, and in return supplied us with mechanics and machinery. Our
Russian merchants received from the Germans the most friendly of receptions. No
inspections were made at the border between Russia and Germany. The inspectors
would salute the crossing merchants with a friendly wave. The Germans, with
their "guttentag" and the Russians with their "zdravstvui-te"
and neighbors visited one another across the border. The whole trouble grew up
between the Kaiser, the woodchopper, and the Tzar, the idiot.
Had the Tzarina been a real friend of Russia, as a
German princess, she would have influenced her husband not to speed up the war
preparations until an honest negotiation had been at- tempted between the two
fighting heads so that a mutual understanding could be arrived at and war
avoided. But the Tzarina, as it was known, stood on the side of her own country,
Germany, and pressed advice upon the Tzar not to surrender, to keep high his
name and the name of the Russian nation and empire. She almost alone was
responsible for the Russian troubles and the eventual fall of the Russian
That day was a long, hot and burning period of
time. The people were tired from crying and fasting, almost for two days. On the
street there were only women, children and the aged. The usual cheer and humor
had been extinguished in locked mouths, shrunken stomachs and empty houses.
Nobody had been prepared for it, nor expected it. Mobilization had been like a
thunderbolt hurled at them from a clear blue sky. Yet a tiny little spark of
hope tried to penetrate the souls of those who languished for something
definite, as long as war had not yet been declared. All were almost sure that
their tears certainly reached the throne of God.
Who can tell? Who can interpret and explain the
mysteries of God?
Chapter Two: Beginning of the War
It was an evening when the sun, setting beyond the
far horizon, seemed to refuse to witness any war or conflagration. It was during
the days when the Jewish people were mourning the destruction of the Temple in
Jerusalem and when the story of Lamentations was read. We all felt depressed and
uncomfortable, as though we were mourners once again at the news of the tragedy
of war that was brewing about us.
Germany gave Russia an ultimatum. Demobilize your
Army within 24 hours.
The time passed.
It was in July, 1914, and we were praying in our
synagogues, it was announced that Germany had declared war on Russia.
Already, railroads were being shot up and the war
was upon us.
The first city to be attacked was Frishnev. Fires
broke out. I was fifteen miles away at this time.
Everyone in the Synagogue was astonished, almost
paralyzed with fear and wonderment. When the services were over, we walked home
silently and sorrowfully, finding our homes seemingly empty, everyone gone.
People were being drafted for service at the front. Men from twenty-two to
forty-five years of age were taken.
The feeling permeated us that destruction was at
hand. Previous wars had been conducted in Asia, the Far East . . . but here was
war at home, in the heart of Russia.
In the Far East, wars had been waged on open
battlefields away from the thickly-populated areas. But not this war. We who
were close to the German border knew how powerful the enemy was, both
well-educated and well-prepared. It seemed to us that the Russian Government did
not realize their might.
The people were racked with worry concerning their
men at the front and the hazards they were facing. There was concern for
property, businesses and homes, with the war so close and the men away.
The fighting began Saturday afternoon.
Mobilization was ordered on Friday, and on Saturday the draftees left for the
Sunday morning all the Jews went back to their
Synagogues to pray, re-reading the Lamentations in sorrow and quietude. On each
and every face was mirrored the regrets that filled their hearts, yet within
each breast there was a spark of hope, hope that victory would soon be theirs,
and the prayers of all religions would be heard and heeded, and the troubles
would soon be at an end.
The people knew that Germany was a God-fearing
nation, and since the Kaiser often called upon God's name as "Der Lieber
Gott" in his proclamations and messages, they felt it might be of some
As soon as the war was declared, all liquor and
alcohol in Russia was destroyed, spilling it in into rivers and streams. Women
were mobilized to take over all the manual labor and replace the men who were
serving their country.
It was harvest time in Russia, and the women were
forced to do all the harvesting. It was very hard work and there was little
money. Soldiers were paid eight dollars monthly for their wife or mother, and
two dollars a month for each child.
The rich women formed societies and tried to give
assistance to the soldiers' families, and later, as the casualties began coming
in, did what they could to aid those unfortunates.
If any of the wounded lost an arm or leg, they
were given only a cane, no artificial limbs, and it was up to the ladies' groups
to rehabilitate these men. Many ended up as beggars in the street.
Chapter Three: On My Way to Moscow
I could see that the war was being prolonged, and
had no hope that it would soon he over. Rather, it seemed as though it were just
beginning. Both sides had their blood boiling, and it looked more and more like
a long, complicated and drawn out affair.
The place where I had been born in Poland was
already occupied by the Germans, and German attacks were being mounted again on
Warsaw and also Grodno, which had no fortifications.
We were very close to the front, and aware of the
German power, living in such proximity to it. The Germans were well educated,
with a compulsory educational system, and they had many doctors and men with
highly developed mechanical talents. The doctors in Poland often advised their
patients to go to Berlin and Konigsberg for special treatment as they knew that
in Germany there were better facilities, better doctors and technicians.
Whenever machinery was purchased, German mechanics had been hired to help
assemble it, and there had been no friction of nationalities. Even the Jewish
people had full rights in commerce and industry, except in the Army as officers,
because the Junkers wanted to keep the Army clear of all but the pure Aryan
The Kaiser would sometimes recommend a Jewish
officer be appointed if he was a top man in his field, high in his profession or
successful in his business. Otherwise everyone was treated the same, and a good
relationship existed among all. There were, of course, occasionally some
individuals, such as a man called Leuger who tried to foment discord between the
different nationalities. Leuger was an anti-Semite and propagandist, as were
most of the men of his ilk. But by and large, the German people lived in unity
and for the most part disregarded and ignored men like Leuger.
In Germany, graft was never heard of, nor was
street begging allowed or permitted. Work and food were supplied to everyone, so
there was no need of begging.
For the ten years preceding the war, we noticed
the activities of the Germans. They bought all the grain, the flax for making
oil, live geese, hog lard and anything they could use for making and preparing
for war. They were short of lumber, so bought as much lumber
as they could, bringing it to the rivers and floating it to the Baltic Sea to
their ports, doing this very quickly and feverishly to have enough lumber on
hand when the war started.
I lived within twenty-five miles of Grodno. I was
married at the beginning of 1914, and at the time of these events, we had a
child six weeks old. There was nothing to do where we were, no business, no
industry. No one seemed to know what the next day would bring. Being practically
on the front lines, merchandise was even harder to obtain . . . and even when
one was successful in obtaining something, you never knew if you'd have it the
next day, or if the Germans might come and take it.
Since I was a graduate of a metal mechanical
school after four years of study, I decided that I would go further away from
the front lines and try to obtain work that would help not only myself, but the
war effort. I was sure I could do something for the country at that critical
time. Although I disliked the Tzar and his regime, I did like the people, and
knew how they had suffered.
I took a ticket to Vilna. After a long trip, with
the train stop- ping at every station along the way, I arrived, but not before
seeing train after train packed with soldiers with hopelessness written all over
their faces, most of them in a dreamlike state, sitting and staring because they
knew, not where they were going. I noticed a Red Cross train full of wounded
troops, their faces pale from loss of blood, with bandaged hands and feet and
bodies, but yet on their faces was the slightest hint of happiness, since they
were alive, even though they had suffered much.
I spoke to some of them and they related their
experiences in the dark, cold and wet trenches, the uncomfortable trenches, and
above all there was the constant reference to the German fire, the bitter fire
from their guns and artillery.
These men, despite their wounds, were thankful
that they would once again see their families and loved ones. They were hopeful
that the war would be over by the time their wounds healed and they wouldn't
have to return to the front again.
Vilna was a large, old town, I was confident that,
in the midst of times like these, there would be some ammunition factories and
war material industries there, but to my surprise, I could find no plants to go
to work in.
There were stores, large and small, and many
beggars and peddlers who lived each day for itself. In some sections the homes
looked like barns, the people like skeletons. There was little business or
trade, the people going around with wounds in their hearts.