Book review: On the run

Moishe Rozenbaumas’s gripping memoir takes him from Lithuania to Russia to France

MOISHE ROZENBAUMAS escaped Lithuania on a bike headed for Russia when the Nazis invaded in 1941. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MOISHE ROZENBAUMAS escaped Lithuania on a bike headed for Russia when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moishe Rozenbaumas, the author of the incredibly gripping memoir The Odyssey of an Apple Thief, would have preferred to live a simpler and quieter life. Certainly, a less traumatic one. But history swooped in with its cold and often random cruelty and prevented him from having one. Instead, forces way beyond his control conspired to destroy him and the Jewish people and managed to snuff out the lives of his beloved mother and three brothers, who were massacred by the Nazis in 1941 in Telz, Lithuania.
He tried desperately to save them, but his mother refused to go with him. Already weakened by a heart condition, she told him she simply could not accompany him and would stay with her other young children. She thought they would somehow manage to survive. He never saw them again – but Rozenbaumas escaped by listening to a voice in his head that said simply “Moishe, do not stay in this hell-hole.”
It is this voice; the voice of a man that is at once ordinary and somehow extraordinary without knowing that he is, that remains constant throughout his memoir, which was translated from French to English by Jonathan Layton. We hear his melancholy and regret, and the lack of any artifice or pretense, and feel his suffering, which decades later still resonates through him.
ROZENBAUMAS’S FIRST blow came when he was only nine and his father’s retail business failed. His father fled to Paris from Telz, and promised to send for them, leaving his mother pregnant and tending to Moishe and three of his brothers. They rarely heard from him and he sent them almost nothing. But worse horrors were forthcoming. When the Nazis invaded and war broke out between Russia and Germany, he fled alone on bicycle into the bowels of the Soviet Union, enduring hunger and freezing temperatures, which he didn’t allow to slow him down.
He became an ardent Communist and was inducted into the Russian Army and fought valiantly against the Germans; he was seriously wounded three times. He remained enamored with the Communist ethos for many years and rose within its ranks until he eventually was forced to see his dream of an idealized communism crumble into anarchy and new bouts of toxic antisemitism.
As each piece of his life fell apart, he remained stoic and resilient, spirited in his attempts to combat forces that would destroy most of us. There is a humbleness about him that reverberates throughout his narrative; he resists any egotistical flourishes or elitism and presents himself as an everyman of sorts – an everyman the world seems determined to destroy.
Rozenbaumas dedicates the book, which he began writing at 70, by honoring his mother, Mere-Khaye, and his brothers Yosef, Leybe and Eliahu, who were all murdered by “the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators” in 1941.
He claims his reason for writing is that he wants to leave a written record for his children and grandchildren and the generations that follow, but we suspect there is something more. He seems to want to get some things off his chest, events that still haunt him. Actions he has taken that he now feels were not honorable enough. Friendships that ended too fast that still bother him. Perhaps, it is just survivor guilt. We can’t really be sure. But there is a sense of heaviness that permeates these pages that makes us feel that this book is important to him; perhaps some sort of final preparation for death; or a mea culpa of sorts. He still finds it staggering that 95% of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated; including his family. But he survived.
He paints an idyllic picture of his childhood home in Lithuania, which he describes as a “small and beautiful country, flat and covered by innumerable forests, coursing with rivers and dotted by lakes.” Jews made up 10% of Lithuania’s two and half million people. His parents spoke Yiddish, Lithuanian and Polish. Telz had three synagogues and a kollel and he attended a Jewish primary school. His family was not oblivious to the undercurrents of antisemitism that were always present, but he explains that Jews and Gentiles did business together and got along. He describes his Ashkenazi home as a typical one; fondly remembering Shabbos dinners and the singing that followed along with the delicious food his mother prepared.
“Given the circumstances, was I happy as a young man?” he writes. “Since my father was still alive, I didn’t have a right to call myself an orphan, but even so, I grew up feeling like one. Until the age of 13 or 14, my adolescence had been full of harsh uncertainties. But later on I cannot say I was truly unhappy, despite the fact that our material situation still weighed heavily on my shoulders, forcing me to adopt adult responsibilities at an early age. I was barely nine when my father left, and at that age I clearly had trouble untangling the true from the false.”
BUT NOTHING could have prepared Rozenbaumas for what was going to happen when war broke out; the war that would take out his family. When the Germans invaded Telz a few weeks after the start of the war, Jews were taken to the fields and shot by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators who were not in short supply. By this time, Rozenbaumas was already on the run, unaware of what had happened to his mother and brothers whom he had begged to accompany him.
He escaped on bicycle, occasionally finding a barn filled with soft hay upon which to sleep, and sometimes being assisted by the tenderness of a Russian peasant who fed him. When he arrived in Latvia, he felt unsafe with Germans roaming about everywhere, and kept going toward Russia. He was looking for a place to settle with a friend he had found fleeing alongside him.
In 1942, he became a foot soldier in the Russian Army, relishing the warm clothes he received as a soldier. He tells us that half a million Jews fought in the Red Army, Navy, and Air Force, where many of them held high ranks and distinguished themselves on the front. Yet, very soon after the war, antisemitism in Russia began again with a vengeance that frightened him to escape to France with his wife and two children, hoping to reunite with his father and his father’s new family.
He felt lost in Russia, dejected when he finally saw the elaborate deception he had bought into hook, line and sinker. He was appalled by the atrocities that were being enacted upon the Jews. He recalls that after Stalin died, Jewish doctors were accused of poisoning members of the politburo. Their patients stopped seeing them. He learned, as a member of the Communist Party himself, about the mass deportations and arbitrary executions, and the accusations thrust against Yiddish intellectuals. He listened to the vicious talk among his comrades about Israel. He was overwhelmed by his own obtuseness; his refusal to see what had long been evident. He was angry at himself for denying what was obvious for so long; that the system was corrupt, and justice was arbitrary, and being Jewish was still dangerous, regardless of your station.
He knew he would once again have to flee, but it was incredibly dangerous to do so. Still, he had connections and figured out a way to get out of Russia in 1956 and eventually resettle in Paris. His daughter, Isabelle Rozenbaumas translated his work from Yiddish to French, feeling compelled to somehow not massacre the essence of his Yiddish voice and spirit which she felt was preciously unique and essential to the book he produced. They spent hours together discussing different words and sentences and phrases and she probed him deeply about certain assertions he made that she found confusing. She wanted to be sure, despite the frequent protestations of their editors, to preserve the saltiness of his prose; its rawness and occasional rudeness and its barbed wit. Its hyperbole. Its Yiddishkeit. Their joint mission brought her closer to understanding him and his past, but also her own.
We feel we are listening to a wise and weathered voice from the past, the voice of an elderly Jewish man whose mother and brothers were massacred. Whose father left him to fend for himself before he was 10. A man who lived many lives; that of a small-town Jewish boy in Lithuania; a soldier in the Red Army, a staunch member of the Communist Party; and finally a fashion designer in Paris who lived out his remaining years peacefully as he slowly found his way back to a loving God. He takes us along on this haphazard journey, seemingly unaware himself of how miraculous it is. We find ourselves humbled by his innate resilience and earnestness, and he remains in our memory long after we have left him.