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Memoirs: In the Lion's Den

By: Max Star (Mendel Staroletni)

Editor's Note:

Max Star
Tampa, Florida 1959
Went to America, 1918


This 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 Chinese."

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


It 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 play.

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 happen, but...

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 Russian Armies?

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 tell?

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 Tzar Nicholas.

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 again.

With the dawn, people again left their houses, anxious for information.

"Do you have any news?" "Is there any news?"

"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 and harmony."

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 peace."

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 sorrowful time.

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 out:

(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 heard.

"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 Empire.

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 Army.

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 help.

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 race.

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.

Mendel Staroletni
Russian Army, 1915
Summer Uniform

Mendel Staroletni
Russian Army, 1915
Winter Uniform

Russian Army Document, 1916

Permission granted by Dorothy Skop, Max Star's daughter.
Material donated by Saul Marks.

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