Finding a classmate has never been easier, with online tools rekindling long-lost childhood friendships. For those whose last school exams took place more than 70 years ago, only to be followed by the ravages of the Holocaust, a long-distance reunion leads to an outpouring of emotion.
My great-grandfather Hersh Vaysbukh was the principal of the Tarbut school in the Moldovan shtetl of Zguriţa. The son of a Hebrew teacher, Hersh led the small school, instilling a love of Zionism and fluency in Hebrew, preparing his students for eventual aliyah to a future Jewish state.
The potential of Zguriţa’s Jews far outweighed their economically impoverished setting. Its residents had a taste of independence in 1853, when local authorities permitted the Jews to start an agricultural colony. At the time, most Jews in tsarist Russia did not have the privilege of owning land and growing their own produce. Though this lease ended in 1878, the village remained majority Jewish until the Holocaust.
Shalom Landes was born in 1922. A mischievous lad, he entered class by climbing in through the window. In contrast, my grandfather Zakhar Vaysbukh, the principal’s son, was the bookworm, taught to see a book as his best friend. At Tarbut, they both solved mathematical problems in Hebrew, and with fascination read Vladimir Jabotinsky’s latest speeches. Moldova avoided coming under the sway of communism when Romania annexed it following the collapse of the Russian empire.
My grandfather left Zguriţa at age 14 to work in his uncle’s workshop in Bucharest, supporting his parents, three sisters and a brother. The two classmates never met again. When the fascist government of Romania invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Zakhar and Shalom fled across the Dniester River into Ukraine, signing up for the Red Army. Their parents were not as fortunate. Rounded up by the Romanians, they were herded into the ghetto village of Bershad where they slowly starved to death.
Zakhar and Shalom returned to Zguriţa after its liberation in 1944. Finding only destruction there, Zakhar moved to Chernovtsy, Ukraine, where he later met my grandmother. Shalom found his childhood sweetheart, Tuba Kaplan. Together they fled to Poland, and then Israel, where Shalom became one of the early settlers of Kibbutz Nir Am, founded by fellow landsmen on the Gaza border.
Zakhar now lives in Flushing, Queens, leading a dwindling weekly minyan of observant Jews in a largely Chinese neighborhood.
I stumbled on Shalom Landes’s name while researching my family’s history. Though Zguriţa has exactly zero Jewish residents today, young locals Vova Lyakhovich and Oleg Shved created a detailed Russian-language website on the village’s history, (http://zguritsa.my1.ru) giving much credit to its Jewish past. Lyakhovich provided a page on Landes, who wrote a book in Hebrew on the prewar village, including the two-volume Pirkei Zguritsa, with sketches on life in the prewar village.
I contacted Avi Kadosh, the head of Kibbutz Nir Am, last March. Kadosh informed me that Landes was in a hospital. My grandfather and I were heartbroken to know we were so close to reconnecting with a fellow survivor, a landsman and classmate, just as he was struggling for his life.
We poured out prayers and contacted his daughter for information on his health. A month later, a phone call came to Flushing from Kibbutz Nir Am. My grandfather and Shalom spoke with each other in Yiddish. It was a long conversation.
Though my great-grandfather did not survive the war, the Tarbut of Zguriţa still stands today, as a non-Jewish elementary school. Since my great-uncle’s death in January, my grandfather stands as the last Holocaust survivor and war veteran in my family. Every Shabbat I gain new insights into the life story of this lone survivor.
My grandfather takes great pride in knowing that while most Zguriţa Jews perished, the small remnant that made aliyah was able to regroup, build a kibbutz, and pass on his father’s Zionist values to the next generation.