From medical school to the battlefield, he wound up in Siberia and China before America
I never met my paternal grandfather, Sigmund Becker, who died a few years before I was born, never having fulfilled the great promise of a bright medical career that slipped through his fingers during three fateful weeks in 1914.
In his memoir, Making Do (Z4 Editions, 2017), my father, Johnny Becker (born Meyer John Becker), described my grandfather as “vocationally and intellectually dislocated.” He said that my grandfather was the “’Wunderkind’ of his European village,” who “would pay dearly for the rest of his life” for enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.
This description of my grandfather had always intrigued me. Over the years, I have been able to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle that defined my grandfather’s life and to better understand his aspirations and frustrations, as well as the calamitous world events he miraculously navigated.
Uszer, Zisha and Sigmund
The oldest of six children, my grandfather was born on December 30, 1890, as Uszer (a Yiddish variant of Asher) Zusie Becker. His family called him by the more endearing Yiddish diminutive Zisha, and later in life, he adopted the name Sigmund. He grew up under relatively comfortable conditions in the small village of Kopyczyńce (present-day Kopychintsy, Ukraine), outside Tarnopol (now Ternopil, Ukraine).
His father, Meyer, a sought-after estate overseer, managed the large agricultural estates of wealthy noblemen and resided with his family on whatever estate he was managing at the time. Depending on the contract, he could manage an estate for up to 10 years or more.
My grandfather was an excellent student. He attended gymnasium in Lemberg, followed by medical school at the University of Lemberg, where he studied from about 1908 to 1914. While two of his younger siblings immigrated to America in 1913, my grandfather was nearing the end of his medical studies at that time, with a very promising future just around the corner.
My grandfather interrupted his studies in order to enlist in the military as a medical officer. By volunteering, he would have only had to serve for one year, rather than be conscripted for three—he had no idea, of course, that that one year was about to turn into four catastrophic years.
The Becker family had enjoyed a relatively idyllic life in a liberal, multi-ethnic Austrian society.
However, all this would change dramatically in early August 1914. On July 28, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.
All existing military units were immediately mobilized. Although my grandfather’s unit had probably not even completed training yet, they were likely shipped out to a garrison town near the Russian border.
Never expecting the new war to be literally at their doorstep, the Becker family woke up one morning during the first week of August 1914 to find soldiers hiding behind bundles of wheat and shooting at one another.
Both armies had infiltrated in the middle of the night and had taken up their respective positions.
An Austrian soldier warned the family to go into the cellar as it was dangerous to stay in the house. According to a cousin who described the scene to me 61 years later, as they were heading into the cellar, a shell exploded on the steps, tearing off their clothes and leaving most of the women deaf for a week.
Fighting continued during the day, but not at night. After three days, an officer advised the family to leave the estate because it was going to be a long and bloody battle. Before leaving, they encountered a Cossack who demanded to know where they hid their gold and silver. When my great-grandfather, Meyer, refused to answer, one of the Cossacks struck him in the stomach with a shovel.
Given the ensuing dislocation and chaos of the war, his injury was never properly treated and likely festered, ultimately contributing to his death in 1922.
With only a few hours to pack, the family abandoned their house and their possessions. In a matter of hours, they had become refugees, escaping along with the retreating Austro-Hungarian army. Moving on foot, by horse, and by wagon, the family passed many dead bodies on the side of the road.
Each time my great-grandmother, Clara, saw a corpse, she frantically ran up to it, crying and swearing it was her son Zisha.
The Beckers didn’t know that the Russian avalanche had begun to thunder down onto the plains of Galicia, first taking small farms, estates, and surrounding villages. On August 16th, Russian soldiers led by General Brusilov entered Tarnopol, which was the first city to be captured by Russia during the Great War. From Tarnopol, Russian troops led by General Russky kept steamrolling westward toward Lemberg, eventually crushing the Austro-Hungarian army and capturing the capital city of Galicia on September 11th.
Week after week, the Beckers retreated with the Austro-Hungarian army, suffering from hunger, thirst, and lice along the way. During their trek, my great-grandmother had a stroke, resulting in partial paralysis and causing her to be disabled for the rest of her life.
The family eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kapuvár, a small town in Hungary. They remained there for the next four years, until November 1918. Since the camps tended to be ethnically homogeneous, their camp in Kapuvár housed Jewish refugees. Overall, two million Austro-Hungarian civilians were displaced during the war. Although the camps were strictly segregated from the civilian population, refugees were still able to earn money.
The refugee camp in Kapuvár was an overnight’s drive from Vienna, where my great-grandmother’s nephews lived, including a lawyer and an accountant. As the war progressed, there were severe food shortages in Vienna.
In an ironic twist, some of the Becker refugees would smuggle in flour and chicken to their more well-to-do relatives. For example, my grandfather’s youngest sister, Rosa, who was only 15 at the time, would wear a corset with food hidden inside as she traveled by train to Vienna. She would then return to the camp with items from our relatives.
From Officer to POW
While his family was escaping the Russian onslaught, my grandfather was thrust into a living hell in a world of gruesome battle, death and destruction.
As a medical officer, he would have been assigned to the battlefield dressing station, which was still in the line of fire. Stretcher bearers would bravely run to the wounded, load them onto a stretcher, and race to the closest dressing station. The stations were divided into two sections, one for the slightly wounded and the other for the severely wounded.
My grandfather’s military medical training likely did not prepare him for the sheer magnitude of industrial killing taking place all around him. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian army, which was high on spirit and bravado, but short on modern weapons, the Russians were well armed, with machine guns that could mow down advancing soldiers in a matter of minutes.
Destroyed and disfigured bodies were everywhere, and the overwhelmed dressing stations were not prepared to properly treat the ghastly physical wounds that could only be inflicted on a body by machine guns.
After four weeks of combat my grandfather’s regiment surrendered in Rzeszow.
During the critical first three and half weeks of the war, Austria-Hungary lost one- third of its army. Total Austrian losses were 220,000 wounded, 100,000 captured, and 100,000 killed.
The Austrian army ceased for the moment to be an effective fighting force.
Sigmund’s world and his future was irreparably shattered. However, by being captured, he was at least taken off the battlefield and out of harm’s way.
His new life as a POW then began.
It took more than a month to transport his unit over a thousand miles from the Russian border to the Kostroma POW camp, which was three hundred miles north of Moscow. POWs had to walk for days to arrive at the closest rail line, where they were loaded into cattle cars with no more than a hot stove in the middle of each car.
The stench of the sweaty, unwashed soldiers, with no proper bathroom facilities, must have been unbearable.
By mid-October, my grandfather arrived in Kostroma, which was a holding facility from where prisoners were sent out to other, more remote locations. During the prisoner intake, my grandfather was deemed useful to the Russians for his medical background, at a time when Russian doctors were in short supply because of the war.
After successfully saving the leg of a young Russian soldier, my grandfather so impressed a Russian doctor that he was removed from the camp and permitted to stay temporarily in the doctor’s home, while tending to the medical needs of the local villages.
As the war progressed and more and more Austro-Hungarian POWs were captured, Russia decided to ship them to various parts of Siberia until the war ended. My grandfather was sent over 5,000 miles (ca. 8,000 kilometers) away by train to a newly constructed POW camp in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky, a growing town specializing in agricultural products, located about 60 miles north of Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.
After the October Revolution of 1917, the town experienced rapid growth. It was at this time that the Gourevitch family from Cherkassy, Russia, moved to town after having escaped the revolution. My grandfather met the family, including 17-year-old Vera, while he was handling the medical needs in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky.
After Russia decided to withdraw from the war in 1918, my grandfather and Vera quickly became engaged. Normal military authority broke down, and my grandfather simply walked away and stayed with the Gourevitch family.
Two years later, in 1920, Sigmund and Vera — my grandparents — were married in Vladivostok.
My grandmother’s father, Samuel, was a combination businessman/inventor and a violin player. He had developed innovative ways to extract oil from plants and served as an adviser in the agricultural industry. His oldest son, David, was an entrepreneur, and together, they moved the family to Harbin, China.
Harbin had a large Russian Jewish population at the time, in part because it offered refuge from the war and the revolution. My grandfather joined my grandmother’s family in the grain business in Harbin, even though he still hoped to one day return to medicine.
Different Routes to America
Since the war was officially over in November 1918, the Becker family’s four years in the Kapuvár refugee camp came to an end. The Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, and Austria began sending Russian POWs back to Russia in boxcars.
With Galicia being returned to Poland, the Beckers were no longer considered Austrian citizens and were transported back to their village of Kopyczyńce in the same boxcars as the Russian prisoners.
Still suffering from his stomach wound and no longer able to resume his career as an overseer, my great-grandfather, Meyer, could barely make ends meet for his family, even with the support of Jewish charity.
In addition, living a few miles from the Russian border, the Beckers became caught up in the tide of advancing and retreating armies again for nearly three years as a result of two more back-to-back wars.
From 1918 to 1919, Poland fought the West Ukrainian National Republic, and from 1919 to 1921, Poland fought Bolshevik Russia. In 1920, after the retreat of the Bolsheviks, units of the Ukrainian Peltura army raided Kopyczyńce and tormented the Jews. Women were raped, 14 Jews were wounded, and a few Jews were murdered.
The Beckers feared for their lives and sought to leave as soon as possible.
Desperate to immigrate to America, they finally received the necessary visa documents in late 1921, and their family in America sent an agent to Warsaw to bring them to the US.
Meyer died en route, but the others continued on to Warsaw, where, after three weeks, passports were purchased. From there, the family traveled to Cherbourg, France, and then sailed in third class on the ship Emperata, arriving at the immigration processing center at Ellis Island in New York in 1922. My great-grandmother, Clara, died that same year.
Back in Harbin, in June 1922, my grandparents welcomed their first-born son, my father, Meyer. At the same time, the family in America offered to provide financial help for my grandfather to complete his medical studies if he would move to the US.
As much as he enjoyed his new life in China— married, away from war, and no longer a POW— he was tempted by the offer. In August 1923, my grandparents and their young son left China for Japan and then sailed from Yokohama on the SS President Jackson, arriving in Seattle, Washington, on September 1st, 1923. From there, they took the train to New York.
Their arrival at this time was significant because the following year, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted restrictive immigration quotas. Although my grandfather never got to see his parents again, he was finally reunited with most of his family after nine years of being apart.
Needing to support his wife and son, he went to work for an insurance company. Since he was multilingual, he was able to serve German, Polish, and Russian clients. After several years, he opened his own insurance company.
His plan was to save enough money to continue his medical studies, but circumstances forced him to delay and then, ultimately abandon that plan. In 1932, he suffered his first heart attack, causing him to lose his business and limiting his ability to support his family. He never fully recovered, and he experienced ill health for the rest of his life. With his dream of becoming a doctor irretrievably lost, my grandfather suffered periodic bouts of despondency until his early death in 1946.
However, this final sad chapter of his life paved the way for future generations, for had he been forced to return to Kopyczyńce, he would have ultimately been rounded up and exterminated by the Nazis, along with anyother family members who were there with him. Firsthand accounts indicate that there were only 20 Jewish survivors left in Kopyczyńce after the Holocaust.
Certainly, I would not be here to record his memory, but thankfully, from generation to generation, his family legacy lives on.
A version of this article first appeared as “My Grandfather’s Rendezvous with History” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. It is the culmination of countless hours of detective work spanning more than 40 years of research, including taped interviews in 1972, obtaining scraps of family photos, letters, documents, reading countless WWI related books, and using the GesherGalicia and JewishGen’s archives.
It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.