Latest update: April 18th, 2013
Germans to the right, Beylorussians to the left. Lithuanians in the front, Into the wilderness of the Byelorussian forest fled the 20-year-old Lola Hudes…
(Adapted from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”)
Lola survived the Nazi genocide and with Yehuda Bielski went to Palestine. In commemoration and celebration of Israel on the Jewish State’s 60th birthday, the following is from her memoir, “ONE CAME BACK” — edited recollections about an extraordinary time in Jewish history when extraordinary people worked to, as Yehuda put it, “build a Jewish country.”
ONE CAME BACK
In the words of Lola Hudes Bell As told to Y. E. Bell and L. N. Bell.
Word spread like wildfire throughout the tightly packed hull of the dilapidated vessel. One by one, survivors who were squeezed together like sardines in a can became aware that we were approaching the Promised Land. The world still called the land Palestine, but we knew it to be Israel. As the whispers got louder, Yehuda ordered everyone to be silent as he had done so many times during our journey from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. He had been placed in command of these refugees by the Jewish underground command who were piloting the vessel.
Two hundred people living in very tight quarters could create tremendous problems. Sanitary conditions were very poor with only a couple of toilets available. People were hungry and thirsty. Children especially had to be fed; they also needed to be controlled. Food and water had to be carefully rationed. These restless survivors who were packed in the cargo area of the ship for so many days naturally wanted some fresh air and sunlight. Fights could easily erupt.
It was Yehuda’s responsibility to keep everyone calm, under control and prevent the curious from sneaking on deck so as not to be spotted by patrolling British aircraft. It was the first of many operations he did for the Irgun (an organization dedicated to getting the British out of Palestine and re-establishing a Jewish homeland).
After witnessing and surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, I still had no idea of what to expect. I had already been through so much just to get to this moment. I had fled Lodz, Poland when the Germans invaded in 1939. Disguised as a Christian, I traveled east on German military transport trains — my excellent German came in very useful. I crossed the Polish/Russian border and found myself in the small town of Stolpce which soon became a ghetto after the German invasion. There, I was interrogated by Adolph Eichmann. I escaped the ghetto by crawling under barbed wire and avoiding bright searchlights, eluding German and Lithuanian patrols on the eve of its final liquidation.
I roamed through the dense and dangerous Byelorussian forest where I stumbled upon and joined two small family camps that were hiding from the Germans. The people were decent and honorable but conditions were primitive. Then I became a member of the Kessler partisan camp, which was larger and much better organized — my third camp. Mr. and Mrs. Kessler were very kind to me. The Kessler partisans eventually merged with the Bielski partisan camp in the Naliboki forest. When Kessler was later assassinated, I became a member of the Bielski partisans — my fourth camp.
I had to endure the indignity of having to hand over my underwear -a very scarce and needed article of clothing -to the Bielski leaders before they allowed me into their camp. It was a very large and well organized camp with a powerful hierarchy. There were people of all ages including children. Everyone knew their place. As we were walking out of the forest after being liberated by the Russians, I even witnessed the murder of a fellow survivor — only inches away from me — shot dead by an enraged partisan. Jew murdering Jew!
But it was also at the Bielski camp that I met my future husband, partisan commander Yehuda Bielski, a first cousin of the Bielski brothers. Although he was considered the fifth Bielski brother because of his close relationship with them, he was very different. He had grown up in a city (Novogrudek) where his father had been a businessman. There he was educated and became a gentleman.
Yehuda was a fighter with the charming manners and bearing of the Polish officer he was, which distinguished him from the others. And with Yehuda’s protection, I survived.
We also had to outmaneuver Stalin’s dreaded secret police. The NKVD was searching for Yehuda; they wanted to arrest him for his partisan activities. So during the night, on top of a slippery moving coal train, we fled west. At Hungarian police headquarters, Yehuda met members of the Jewish underground from Palestine. The police had accused the Aryan- looking Yehuda of being an SS officer. A conversation between members of the underground and Yehuda, and their negotiation with the police resulted in his release. And the Jewish underground got an experienced fighter.
So Yehuda and I were now on our way to build a country and a new life. As far as I knew, everyone in my immediate family of seven had been killed by the Germans and their collaborators. But I did have some family in Palestine who had immigrated there well before Hitler marched into Poland. I was looking forward to seeing them and maybe even finding some peace. Yehuda was absolutely right, I thought. We Jews do need a country of our own so that we could defend ourselves from the anti-Semites who want to get rid of us forever. This was but one of the many lessons I learned from the Holocaust.
After what seemed like a never ending voyage on a ship that nearly capsized on very stormy seas, we finally arrived. Yehuda and several men came below. They told us to quickly get ready to disembark. One by one, we climbed up the stairs to the deck and then down a ladder on the side of the boat until we reached the water where rowboats were waiting. It was very dark and unusually silent. Nobody made a sound. We could see several lights on the beach. Flashlights suddenly lit up in some row boats which directed us to the shore. Youngsters, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, then took us on their shoulders and walked through the shallow water to deliver Israel’s new immigrants safely onto the beach of the Promised Land.
We were quickly led to various transports and taken to different kibbutzim. I was brought with several others to a kibbutz about an hour away. Yehuda remained on the beach that night until all the survivors had been accounted for safely.
The following morning, I came face to face with the unexpected. I was startled to see large posters of Stalin on the walls of some of the kibbutz houses. Stalin, of all people! Very distressed, I immediately contacted my aunt in Tel Aviv; I had to get out of that place. I had not survived the Holocaust and Stalin’s NKVD only to come all this way to live among Jews who admired a monster like Stalin.
Aunt Hanna Cala, who with her husband and two young children had arrived in Palestine before the war, told me that her daughter, Ester (Lousha) Cala would soon come to get us. Lousha’s husband arrived in his car the next day and drove us to Ramat Gan where we lived with them for a while. However, before he arrived, I gave Yehuda the real big news: “I am pregnant.”
Yehuda was very excited about becoming a father. He immediately looked for work to support his first child. Sadly, this former officer and commander could only find work in construction. And he worked very hard, coming home tired, hungry and often angry. “You can’t get a good job here if you are not a member of the Histadrut (Labor Zionist trade union),” Yehuda told me. We were both admirers of Zev Jabotinsky and anti-communist, so I understood that Yehuda would not fit in with the Histadrutniks. This was going to be an unanticipated struggle.
During the day, Yehuda did his construction work. At night, he met with the Irgun. He had to be very careful. Often, Jews on the political left would betray Irgunists to the British. The sight of Jews pointing out other Jews to the British on the streets of Israel (yes, it was still called Palestine) reminded me of the Poles pointing out Jews to the Germans in Lodz. Only this was worse.
I quickly learned not to tell anyone anything. I wasn’t going to get Yehuda arrested to join other members of the Irgun and some Stern freedom fighters who were imprisoned in British jails. I trusted very few people, especially the British who were very polite and proper anti-Semites in white gloves.
Yehuda and I lived with Lousha and her husband for several months until Yehuda found an apartment in Holon. Lousha was very generous and kind. She fed us, advised us and even put money in Yehuda’s pants pocket so that he would not lose his self-respect. In spite of the difficulties, we made things work because we believed that a Jewish country would eventually emerge.
Our daughter, Nili, finally arrived, healthy and beautiful. Yehuda and I were very happy to begin a family and we were determined to do our best with our new responsibilities. Nili had to be well fed, educated and happy. We looked forward to the future with optimism and hope. But it was very hard bringing up a baby in Palestine. Certain food was scarce. The heat was often unbearable; there was no air conditioning at that time.
And it was a very dangerous place. Arabs, who would cut a Jew’s throat in a second, were all around us. It did not matter to them whether the Jew was an adult or a child. But Aunt Hanna, Lousha and Aunt Rula Hertzberg who had also immigrated to Palestine with her husband before the war were all very helpful to us.
One day in Holon, while I was out for a stroll with Nili in her carriage, a pop sound got my attention. I knew immediately from my Holocaust experiences exactly what it was — a gun shot. The bullet had hit the carriage, just inches away from my daughter’s head. Within seconds, I heard a few more shots. Standing several feet away from us was a man aiming his pistol at a tree. An Arab suddenly fell from the tree with his rifle. The man with the pistol was a member of the Jewish underground who happened to be walking by just in time to save my daughter and me.
The British were another big problem for us. They preferred the Arabs to the Jews even before we survivors arrived in Palestine. I discovered from friends who had lived under the British before and during the Holocaust that the British had only allowed into Palestine a very small number of Jews escaping liquidation in Europe. As a result, many Jews who could have survived in Palestine did not survive Hitler’s final solution.
Even after the war, the British had a policy to turn away Holocaust survivors from Palestine. Yehuda and I were a few of the lucky ones who managed to evade British naval patrols and make it into the Jewish homeland.
Because the British were relentless, arresting and hanging Jews who were in the underground, Yehuda did not tell me anything about his Irgun activities. He was concerned with the safety of his wife and daughter. He did not want me to even have a hint as to what was going on so that I would not accidentally reveal his activities. I became very worried for Yehuda and tried many times to discuss my fears with him. But all he would say at that time was that he and his comrades were preparing for a war with the Arabs. which was coming very soon.
Meanwhile, my life as a new mother continued. And it was more difficult than even I could have imagined. I was accustomed to certain living conditions. I came from a well to do family in Poland. In Palestine, certain foods were very difficult to get and extremely expensive. There was rationing. Unlike Lodz, where we would often have beef, chicken and veal for dinner, meat was difficult to get in Holon. Chicken was a delicacy that we would eat perhaps twice a month. Our meals consisted mostly of salads, eggs, dairy, bread, fruit, and sometimes fish. Food was never plentiful.
Our living quarters were also very different from what I was accustomed to. The three of us lived in a two and a half room apartment. It was nothing like the very large apartment in the doorman building where I had grown up. In Lodz we lived with fine furniture, china, silverware, crystal, beautiful carpets, and paintings. In Holon, we had some basic furniture, not much. The tiny kitchen had a small stove, icebox and sink. The spacious kitchen in Lodz had provided plenty of room for our maid to prepare meals in. The Holon bathroom was half the size of the smallest washroom in the Lodz apartment. And now with a child, I began to miss those comforts.
I was also unaccustomed to the climate in Palestine. I loved the European winters where I had enjoyed ice skating and skiing. But Yehuda, who also grew up in a cold climate, didn’t seem to mind the heat that much. Communicating at times was difficult, too. I had to learn a new language, Hebrew. Yehuda spoke it well, so he adjusted to Palestine better in a much shorter time. I got along by speaking Yiddish, Polish and German.However, within several months I managed to pick up enough Hebrew so that language was no longer such a problem.
Although I believed that my entire family had been murdered by the Germans, I continued to hope that somewhere, somehow, someone would return from the ashes. I discovered that my eldest sister, her husband and three children all under seven had been killed in the Madjanek death camp. Another sister had attempted to flee the Lodz ghetto and disappeared. My eldest brother was beaten to death at Gestapo headquarters in Stolpce and his body thrown into the gutter. My youngest brother had fled east and no one had heard from him. My father had been transported to Auschwitz with another brother. My mother, left alone, starved to death in the Lodz ghetto. Hopeful that someone had survived, I had placed my name on registers of survivors in Poland. And so I waited and waited. I never heard from anyone.
Quite often, Nili took my mind off my lost family. She was an adorable baby who brought a great deal of happiness into our lives. One day, while I was feeding her, a knock interrupted us. A man was at my front door with a telegram. I became upset because telegrams usually brought bad news – someone was ill or had passed away. I didn’t want to read it; I felt that I should wait for Yehuda to get home so we could then read it together.
But my curiosity got the better of me. I opened the telegram and to my surprise and shock, it brought wonderful news. My youngest brother, Eliezer, the only other member of my family to survive the Holocaust had found my name on a registry in Lodz. The moment Yehuda walked through the front door I told him the news. Yehuda said that he would ask his underground friends if they could help bring Eli to Palestine.
Meanwhile, people were starting to say that the British would soon be evacuating. The British had their hands full with the Jewish underground and were furious with their acts of revenge. In retaliation for Jews being hung by the British, the underground would capture British soldiers and hang them. English soldiers were spending much of their time sweeping Jewish neighborhoods searching for members of the Irgun and the Stern group. I was very worried about Yehuda.
While I was wheeling Nili in her carriage one afternoon, I overheard some people talking about an explosion that had occurred in a big hotel in Jerusalem. I joined the crowd. One man said that several Jews had bombed the hotel and people were killed. Another man added that the Irgun had done it, and he hoped that every Irgun member would be captured and hung by the British. When Yehuda arrived home that night, I asked him about the explosion. “The King David Hotel was bombed,” he told me, “but I don’t know anything more.” “Do you know any of the people who were involved?” I asked. “I heard that they were Jews.” “I heard that too,” he replied, “but I have no idea who did this. I understand that the British are searching for them and stopping many people on the street.” Later, I learned that Irgun leader Menachem Begin in fact had warned the British about the bombing in order to prevent casualties. The bombing was done to encourage the British to leave Palestine faster.
Months later, Eli arrived. What a reunion! We hugged, kissed, cried, and talked all night. He had survived the Holocaust in Siberia and was lucky never to have seen a German again. But his return was not the only miracle. My Uncle, Marcus Hudes, and his wife survived the Holocaust, too. They had found their way to Palestine with their small son, Yechiel, after Marcus also discovered my name on a registry. But when I saw him, he was not the person I knew in Warsaw before the war. He arrived in Palestine a broken and sick man who never recovered from the brutal conditions of Siberia.
Eli found his own place in Tel Aviv; he was very happy to be in Palestine. Marcus and his family squeezed in with us. We got a bed for him and his wife. Their son slept in Nili’s crib and our daughter moved into bed with us. Our two families lived together for several months in very tight quarters until my uncle found an apartment. Today Yechiel Hudes is a doctor in Jerusalem.
Rumors increased that the frustrated British wanted to go home. Some feared that they would give the land to the Arabs. Others believed that two states would be created, one for Jews and the other for Arabs. Everyone was speculating. A few Jews had a different idea; they wanted only one state, a Jewish state. The British were also feeling the effects of the negative publicity they had received concerning their ugly treatment of Holocaust survivors — sending them back to Europe where their families had been killed only a short time before.
Meanwhile, Yehuda was spending every free moment he had with Nili.
He had lost so many women in his life. Yehuda’s mother died when he was seven. His two older sisters and their families were shot by the Germans into the mass pits outside Novogrudek. His favorite niece was also taken and shot during the liquidation of the Novogrudek Ghetto. His first wife, a partisan fighter, was killed during a German ambush in the Naliboki forest. So he held on to Nili dearly.
The explosive situation in Palestine continued to be on everyone’s mind and was the topic of daily conversation. We Holocaust survivors wanted a place in the sun where our children could be raised as Jews in peace and security. Jews, who had come to Palestine before us, had already established the foundation for Israel. Now, it was up to us to join them and fight for the establishment of our country.
While we waited for history to play out, life resumed. Nili was growing up quickly. Despite the fact that several languages were spoken in our house, she was beginning to speak Hebrew. Yehuda spoke only Hebrew with her; he was a very good teacher. He bought her books and they spent hours poring over illustrated children’s stories, especially Bible stories. He taught her songs and even hummed operatic arias, especially from Tosca. One day, he brought home a puppy for her.
But life took a dramatic change soon enough. The United Nations decided to carve Palestine into two countries, one for Jews and one for Arabs. We were sitting by radios listening for word on the final vote. And when America recognized a Jewish State, everyone in our room rejoiced. People sang the Hatikvah and they danced in the streets. David Ben-Gurion immediately announced our independence. In our happiness, many of us felt that partition was a fair deal – one nation for Jews and one nation for Arabs.
Yet the Arabs were not happy that day. Certain that they could quickly create another Holocaust against the heavily outnumbered Jews in Palestine, five Arab countries began a war to destroy Israel.
To keep our country, we had to fight for it. Now Yehuda’s experiences as a Polish officer and a partisan commander had value. He was immediately commissioned an officer in the IDF.
Yehuda was sent to the Negev. Once again it was war for me, but this time I had a little girl to protect. Like other wives, I was worried daily that Nili and I would never see Yehuda again. The war had come to our back yards. The Arabs bombed Tel Aviv. We, however, were very fortunate that no bombs fell on our street.
During the months of fighting, I saw Yehuda only occasionally. He sometimes came home for short visits. He missed Nili very much and told me he always thought about her at the front. I was also concerned about my brother who was in the army. We did not have the type of communications that we have today, so I was often in the dark about both of them.
One day, the news I feared arrived. Yehuda had been shot and was badly wounded. He was given an emergency operation in the field and the doctors thought that they might have to amputate his leg. But the surgery was successful and Yehuda was sent to a hospital to recover. Today we still have the scissors that the operating doctor gave Yehuda as a reminder of that surgery. Yehuda had survived a German bullet in Poland and now an Arab one in Israel.
Yehuda’s left leg was wrapped in bandages when I visited him. He told me that it was a very painful wound. I had expected to find Yehuda in a much worse condition because he was wounded badly enough for the surgeons to actually consider amputation. “How are you managing and how is Nili?” he wanted to know. He had a picture of the three of us. I assured him that I was doing well and Nili was being watched by Aunt Rula. There was nothing to be concerned about except his complete recovery.
I inquired about the war. “We will win,” Yehuda said. “How can we be holding on when there are so many more Arabs than Israelis?” I asked. “We have a strategy, Lola. Every Jew who gets killed or wounded in battle has to take out a hundred or more Arabs.” Yehuda was already looking forward to rejoining his men and fellow officers.
“One of the problems we have is that the Arabs are very well armed,” he continued. “They were able to buy weapons from many countries.” “What about us?” I asked. “Unfortunately, President Truman blocked all sales of weapons to Israel so we couldn’t get any from the United States. We bought them from Czechoslovakia instead. And the Irgun also hid weapons in wells after taking them from the British. This will surprise you, Lola. The planes in our air force were bought from Germany.”
I visited Yehuda several times during his hospitalization. Nili called for her abba (daddy) when I put her to bed at night and it made me very sad to think about other children who would ask for their fathers who might never return. And who knew if Yehuda would ever come back from the war?
One afternoon, I took Nili and visited my friend in Tel Aviv. Her husband was also in the army and they had a son about the same age as my daughter, so we mothers had a lot to talk about. While we were having our tea at a beach café, we suddenly noticed people walking quickly toward the sea. Some were even running. Something was going on. As word spread in the café, people got up and followed the crowd. Curious, we quickly paid our bill and joined them.
When we got there, we saw from a distance a ship burning. “Oh, my God! The Arabs blew up one of our ships,” my friend exclaimed. I was speechless, looking at the scene before me and thinking about those on the boat. It was smoldering. We watched with our children while people around us were pointing and speculating. Soon, however, we both needed to get home and left.
We found out later that Arabs did not blow up that ship. It was destroyed under the orders of Ben-Gurion. His men killed many Jews on that ship called the Altalena, which was bringing Holocaust survivors, fighters, weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to Israel.
“It was a fight for power,” Yehuda explained to me. “Ben-Gurion saw an opportunity to eliminate the Irgun members on the boat. Begin was wounded.” Some of the Jews who jumped off the burning ship were shot in the sea while trying to swim to the beach.
Although I had seen it before in the Beylorussian forest, I still could never understand how some Jews could so easily kill other Jews. And how could it happen in Israel so soon after millions had already been murdered by the Germans and their collaborators? Jews killing Jews to gain political power! To this day it upsets me terribly.
The war between Israel and the Arabs lasted for several months. Many countries believed and some even hoped that the new nation of Israel would be destroyed. To the surprise of the world, several hundred thousand Jews fought off millions of Arabs armed with the finest weapons their money could buy. Yehuda and the defenders of the new Jewish State returned home real heroes. Watching Yehuda on parade with the other brave soldiers in our army made me so proud of our military and very proud to be an Israeli.
I thought about Holocaust survivors who had probably never even held a gun before taken into the army to fight for our new country. And did they fight! Despite heavy losses, the Israeli military succeeded beyond anybody’s dreams.
My brother came home, too, in good shape. Yet Yehuda would continue to have problems with his back and legs, and he suffered other ailments for the rest of his life as a result of the wounds he had received during the Holocaust and the War of Independence.
Yehuda’s love for the Jewish state continued after the war, too. He never took the military pension that he was entitled to as a wounded officer. “The money can buy weapons or medical supplies,” he always said. “Let Israel keep it; they need it more than we do.”
Yehuda settled down to civilian life, but he was still in the reserves. He enjoyed his time with Nili very much. Soon, I had some very good news to tell Yehuda: “I am going to have another baby.” He was very pleased. This time we both wanted a son. And then Yigal arrived.
We had achieved what we had set out to do. We were now a family of four living in a Jewish country.
(Photos courtesy of the Yehuda and Lola Bell Collection)
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