“It Could Never Happen Here”: Before the Bolsheviks Came

Most in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur had felt safe in one of Russia's most isolated corners

In the fall of 1919, rumors of approaching Bolshevik partisans circulated through the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in the far eastern corner of  Siberia…

“We are not moving to Japan,” Ilya threw off the sheets and sat up, shrugging his wife off as if she were a snowflake on his collar. The tender mood of their morning tryst had evaporated.

“But…once the Amur freezes, there’ll be no getting out until May.” Luba pulled the cover back over herself. “It’s September and the river’s already covered with a layer of ice some mornings. Once the Amur freezes, we won’t be able to get out.” She swallowed hard. “My brother thinks it would be best if we move to Japan for the winter.”

Ilya sighed and shook his head. “What will I do in Hakodate? I have no business there. I barely speak the language.”

Luba knew he was right on one level, but their safety was more important to her. “Meyer’s offered for us to live with him. He has plenty of room in the house he rented. The two of you can work together.” With political tension on the rise, many of their friends talked of moving, but Ilya didn’t feel the need.

“I don’t want to be his lackey.” He scowled.

“What are you talking about? Meyer’s my brother.” Luba tugged on her husband’s shoulder. “And your closest friend.” She pressed her lips into a firm line. Why did Ilya always have to be in charge? His take-charge nature impressed her when they first married, but why couldn’t he at least consider her opinions?

Ilya pulled away. “Yes. When we’re here, on equal footing. But I don’t want to be beholden to him.” Confronted by his back, Luba grazed her fingertips lightly across it as she knew he liked. Ilya turned toward her.

Ilya Kaptzan just before the Nikolaevsk Massacre in 1920

“I know you’re used to being your own boss, Ilya moy.” She raked her hand through his chest hair and played with the brown tufts that sprouted in different directions. “But it would only be for the winter months. Until the trouble blows over.”

Luba hoped her touch would assuage her husband. Ilya leaned in and she thought he was capitulating; but then he pulled away, resisting the urge to soften. “The winter months make up more than half the year. And nobody else is moving away.”

“Nobody else has a place to go,” Luba pointed out.

Her husband rubbed his neck. “The trouble’s not here. It’s in the west. In St. Petersburg. Moscow.”

“Not anymore. You yourself told us the revolution was moving east.”

“A little. To Irkutsk…”

“You said Vladivostok. That’s about as far east as you can get.” She pictured the layout of the country on the globe in Ilya’s study.

“Vladivostok is 500 miles south of here. And Vladivostok is not Nikolaevsk.”

“Why is Meyer moving if there’s no cause for concern? Don’t you read your own newspaper?”

“Meyer and I have spoken. With his boys of high school age, he thinks they’ll get a better education abroad.”

Luba huffed in frustration.

“Stop being silly,” he whispered into her ear.

How she hated when he said that. She faced him squarely. “What if they take over, the Bolsheviks?”

Leon Trotsky and other members of the Bolshevik leadership, early 1920s. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: YIVO)

“What if, what if…!”

Luba’s blood pulsed like a volcano in her core. She took a deep breath. “Stop treating me like a child. I’m—”

Ilya lay back down and stared at the ceiling. “You sound like a child. You worry too much.”

Not another lecture. Why did they always have to argue lately? Once Ilya started, there was no stopping. The lawyer in him took over. She wished she could plug her ears.

“Haven’t I told you that our way of life here in Nikolaevsk represents what the revolutionaries are seeking? Freedom, business opportunities. Why would they want to cause trouble?”

Leaning on one elbow, Luba looked into her husband’s eyes. “Because we’re Jews?”

“The Jews hate the Tsar as much as the revolutionaries. Nobody’s going to take over our city.” Ilya threaded his fingers through his wife’s falling tresses, pushing some curls behind her ear. She could tell he wished she were still the adoring girl he married.

“How do you know?” Luba wanted him to convince her, to hush the whirring that rushed through her veins making her hum like a telegraph wire.

“We’re nestled way up here in the north. Like bears in a cave.” Ilya nudged his wife and tented the comforter over themselves. “Hibernating for the winter,” he joked as he nuzzled her neck.

Luba was tempted to succumb. “But what about the rumors? All the upheaval everywhere?” How could her husband be so blind?

“That’s been going on for years now. Up and down, up and down. In recent months, things have calmed considerably. Remember last year? It looked like the Reds were going to take over. And then, poof! We expelled them like that!” He snapped his fingers in Luba’s face. She flicked them away. He lay next to her on the pillows, and ran his finger softly down her arm.

Couldn’t he tell that she knew he was trying to distract her?

Luba with her five children after surviving the 1920 Nikolaevsk Massacre and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Yokohama

Finally, he gave up. “If you’re so worried,” he said, “why don’t you take the children and move to Hakodate yourself?”

That caught her off guard. “Without you?”

“If it makes you happy.” Oh, was she tempted. She pictured the family living in surroundings akin to their dacha, but far from the reach of encroaching partisans. Could she live without Ilya for seven months? What would people say? And to leave him behind with his mother who surely would not desert her son like her? Luba would never hear the end of it.

Ilya got out of bed. “I have to get to work. You wouldn’t have me arrive late, would you?”

“Of course not,” she grumbled under her breath. She watched him dress and leave, then plunged into her feather pillow. She didn’t really want to move to Japan where none of them spoke the language and the only people they knew were her brother and his family. She just didn’t want to remain in Nikolaevsk.

Luba shook herself.  Was she being silly after all? Could Ilya be right that the threats would melt like snow in Spring? That nothing bad would ever happen here?


Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, ca. 1900

The account above is a fictionalized exchange between my grandparents, Ilya and Luba Kaptzan, in the midst of a violent and unpredictable time. It appears in Red Winter, a novel inspired by the true story of what happened to my grandmother Luba during the winter of 1920. Her family was living in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, a thriving city on the far eastern coast of Siberia.

My grandfather Ilya was a businessman, lawyer and editor of the local newspaper, The Amursky Liman. He and Luba were born and raised in the city which was known for its natural resources—salmon, lumber, furs and mines—and also for its lack of religious persecution. The town had its own synagogue, mosque, church and cathedral and because it was frozen from the rest of the world for half of every year, all the occupants celebrated one another’s holidays together.

The residents were aware that trouble was brewing in the west since the Russian Revolution of 1917, but most felt safe in their remote location. Because my grandfather refused to leave, he ended up being one of the first to be imprisoned—and ultimately murdered—by the Bolshevik partisans who entered Nikolaevsk once the river froze, cutting the city off from all possible aid.

“Russians were murdered by the Bolsheviks in the thousands, their property plundered. Hundreds of human corpses were strewn outside the city, unburied.” From a description of the Nikolaevsk Massacre published in the Haaretz newspaper shortly afterwards. Click for the full article

Luba was left on her own with five young children, her mother-in-law and epileptic sister-in-law. At first, the family lived under house arrest when the Reds conscripted their home and relegated them to servant status. Later, they managed to escape, only to spend the winter months hiding in pigsties, warehouses and opium dens while the bloodthirsty intruders tried to track them down. By the end of the winter, ninety percent of Nikolaevsk’s population had been killed.


This article has been published 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.

Sukkot During World War I: Open Roofs and ‘Mysterious’ Ditches

Photo taken by an Austrian soldier provides a rare glimpse

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

Ditches at the entrances to all of the homes. Opened roofs. The year 1916 appears under the photograph featured on an aged postcard.

The setting: Seppl Alley, a Jewish street in Ivanovo – known as “Yanov” in Yiddish – a town then in the Russian Empire, near Pinsk in modern day Belarus.

The photo was taken during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, two years into the Great War.

Two elements stand out in particular: the houses’ opened roofs and rectangular ditches in front of every home.

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

The roofs can be rather clearly understood.

When the Jews of Ivanovo built their homes, they included a distinctly Jewish element found in many communities: roofs that opened up. When the holiday of Sukkot came every year, they would open up the roof, lay the traditional skhakh (covering for the sukkah made of natural materials) and live in their sukkah in accordance with Jewish law without having to fully leave the warmth and protection of their homes.

It was October in Russia, after all.

The ditches in front of the homes seem a bit more mysterious, though given the historical context it becomes clear that they are actually protective trenches, dug to safeguard the town’s residents from gunfire, a clear and present danger during this time of war.

The image is part of a series of photographs taken by the Austrians as they advanced into Russian-held territory during that particular stage of the war. It’s interesting to note that the photographer almost certainly had no idea what he was looking at and was likely confused by the locals opening their roofs in the middle of the chilly Eastern European autumn.

The postcard was published by “Verlag für allgemeines Wissen” (“Publisher of General Knowledge”), which distributed various images of the areas occupied by the Central Powers, particularly in Eastern Europe. It was part of the larger wartime propaganda effort.

This rare photo was captured by an anonymous Austrian soldier, perhaps providing the only surviving evidence of what Sukkot was like in Ivanovo in 1916.

Thousands of other soldiers on both sides carried private cameras into battle with them throughout the First World War. Some of the photos they took were kept in private hands, other were published in unit books or commemorative pamphlets. Some found their way onto the auction block or into public collections, while others – like this one – were featured on postcards, sold for pennies in markets and shops across Europe.

While the experiences of life during that cold Sukkot over a century ago will remain in the realm of the unknown, the residents of Seppl Alley certainly tried – despite the difficult circumstances – to fulfill the ancient commandment to “rejoice in your feasts” during the festival of Sukkot.

This article has been published 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.

A Belated Kaddish for the Unnamed Victims of the Annaberg Transport

They were murdered days after Yom Kippur, yet my father survived

My father was born on Yom Kippur nearly a century ago.

Two days after he “celebrated” his nineteenth birthday in a cattle car, his life was spared.

His name was Fred Bachner and he arrived at Auschwitz on September 30, 1944, one of 1,437 men transported from the Annaberg labor camp. When the doors to the cattle cars opened, those who were still alive saw the smoke from the crematorium billowing up to the sky and grey ashes falling down on them, proof that the stories about Auschwitz were unimaginable, yet true.

They stood at the gates with the infamous words, “Arbeit Mache Frei” – “work sets you free” – and were not fooled. They already knew those three words were deceptive and cruel and that “death”, “crematorium”, and “gas chamber” were more accurate.

The main gate to Auschwitz. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)

The selection process “to the left or to the right” was not new to my father who had been in concentration camps for more than 18 months by then.  He knew his life depended on standing straight, looking healthy, and saying he had a skill that was useful to the Germans. My father said he was an auto mechanic, a claim he made at every concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.

According to the meticulous records the Germans kept, only 411 prisoners of the 1,437 from that transport were “admitted” to Auschwitz, branded sequentially beginning with B-10607 and put into Men’s Quarantine Camp B-IIa three days later.

I try to imagine what it was like for my father seeing hundreds of men from his transport forced in the other direction to their deaths. Although he survived that day’s selection, what my father saw was foreboding, a warning of how his life may likely end.

“I was in Auschwitz where we saw the ovens burning 24 hours a day and the transports arriving every day.  I was one step closer to death than before,” he later recalled.

I wonder how my teenaged father was able to control his emotions while standing at the place his beloved mother, Mutti, was murdered, the ominous smoke from the crematorium leaving no doubt that she was gassed and then burned.

“Mutti”, Fred’s mother, Erna Widmann Bachner. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

The last time my father saw his Mutti was February 18, 1943.

When he left for work delivering beer and soda by horse and carriage to labor camps, he saw German soldiers in the streets. He went back to warn his mother and that was the last time he saw her. His Mutti and the remaining Jews in Chrzanow, a small town in southern Poland, were taken on the last transport to Auschwitz where she was sent directly to the gas chamber.

The next day my father was taken to the Faulbruck-Graditz concentration camp and then to Annaberg in the summer of 1944.

Almost five years had passed since my father and his family were forced out of their home in Berlin and there was no end in sight to this unimaginable hell.

Fred Bachner’s parents, Abraham and Erna, at their wedding in Berlin. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

Living was much harder than dying and my father wanted to live.  The answer to what my father was thinking that day and every day during those horrific years comes from his testimonials:

“I wasn’t going to give up.  I used my inner strength and spirit and pulled myself together.  I talked to myself, ‘Fredi, you have to live.  You have to be there.  There’s another day tomorrow. You can’t let yourself down.  This is feasible.’ I needed to use my inner strength to overcome the hard work and mental anguish I knew I would be subjected to.”

That unwavering determination to do whatever is humanly possible was the same way my father lived every day of his life after the Holocaust. His determination, perseverance, and love for life are deep-rooted within me and are sources of strength.

The odds were against my father and the 410 others not murdered that day, just as they were stacked against every prisoner every day.

“I’m always asked the question how did I survive.  My only answer is that I never gave up hope,” he said.

Those admitted to Auschwitz for slave labor had numbers branded on their arms.  Their names and numbers were recorded in perfect German penmanship. My father was branded B-10618 and assigned to work as a slave laborer at IG Farben.

Slave laborers on their way to work in Auschwitz. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)

The Germans had no use for the other 1,026 prisoners from the Annaberg transport.

Like Mutti, they were sent en masse directly to the gas chambers, with no record of them by name. Their families might not have known they were murdered at Auschwitz or that their Yahrzeit is the thirteenth of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, three days after Yom Kippur.

In January 1945 my father was sent on a death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen and then got to Dachau a month later. In the middle of April, he was on a transport out of Dachau towards the Alps to be shot. He jumped off the train, hid in a farmhouse for a few days until the bombing stopped. When he came out he saw white flags and American soldiers and was taken to the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp in Germany, which just a few years prior had been a summer camp for the Hitler Youth.

Certificate issued by the US Army indicating that Fred Bachner was deported and kept for “compelsery” labor between Feb 18, 1943 and May 1, 1945 in the Graditz, Annaberg, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau concentration camps. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

By the following Yom Kippur, all of the concentration camps had been liberated.

Presumably no one said Kaddish on that first Yahrzeit for the 1,026 unnamed prisoners from the “RSHA transport of the Reich” who traveled with my father and were gassed at Auschwitz.

Now, 75 years later, I plan on saying Kaddish for them as a group to honor and remember them.


This article has been published 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.

A ‘High Holiday Prayer’ to the Czar

After he freed the serfs, Alexander II was virtually deified by one leading Jewish newspaper

As far as 19th century Russian autocrats went, Czar Alexander II did some decent things for the Jews. He abolished the cruel “Cantonist school” system, which ripped Jewish children away from their families and into decades of forced military service. He allowed some Jews to attend high school and even university. While the ultimate goal was certainly Russification, Alexander generally promoted a gentler form of it than others.

In 1861, the day before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States, a no less significant event took place across the world. On March 3 of that year, Czar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Manifesto, which, along with accompanying legislation, freed some 23 million serfs across the Russian Empire.

Liberty was not immediate even for those officially freed by the proclamation, and for the 2.5 million disenfranchised Jews living in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the Manifesto held little to no meaning.

The Jewish market in Minsk, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Pale of Settlement. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via NLI’s Digital Collection

Nonetheless, the editors of HaMelitz, a leading Jewish weekly published in Odessa, celebrated the Emancipation Manifesto and its signer as if it were the High Holidays and Alexander was the Almighty Himself.

HaMelitz generally championed values of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and played a critical role in the modern rebirth of the Hebrew language during the second half of the 19th century. It thus only seems natural that a modern take on traditional Jewish liturgy praising the Czar of Russia instead of the God of Abraham graced the publication’s cover shortly after the Emancipation Manifesto.

And it wasn’t subtle.

Following the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, worshippers traditionally say “Today, the world came into being, today [He] will stand in judgment…”, as they plead for God’s compassion and favor.

The difficult-to-translate Hebrew words “Hayom harat” begin this prayer, and they, along with other identical terms, open the ‘liturgy’ published by HaMelitz, as well: “Today the success of our Land came into being, today a KING [large font in the original] of justice and righteousness will stand…”

Perhaps the most well-known High Holiday refrain “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) also makes an appearance, as Alexander is referred to as “Avinu Malkeinu HaRachaman“, “Our Merciful Father and King”.

Alexander II in his coronation robes. From The Coronation of the Russian Monarch Beginning with Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich to the Emperor Alexander III, Hermann Hoppe Publishing, 1883 (Public Domain)

While other Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tropes continue throughout, additional Jewish holidays make appearances as well.

The Hebrew term for “light and happiness”, which famously appears in the Book of Esther after the Jews are saved from the hands of  the evil Haman, is here employed to refer to the day the beneficent Russian monarch freed 23 million serfs, with the latter referenced in a manner clearly reminiscent of the wording used to recount the myriads of Jewish slaves miraculously redeemed from Egyptian servitude.

The “prayer” concludes with a call for all who “loyally love the land of our birth” to “Bless the one who has granted us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day” – the exact text of the well-known “Shehecheyanu” prayer, seemingly directed towards the King of Russia, as opposed to the King of the Universe.

Front cover of the HaMelitz newspaper, Thursday, March 28, 1861. The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II is the lead item. Click image to browse the paper
The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II, published in HaMelitz, Thursday, March 28, 1861. Click image to enlarge

Similar works were written in honor of Alexander II across the Empire. In fact, over the course of his reign, Hebrew texts were composed to mark other events as well, including his anniversary and his survival of an assassination attempt (at least one of them). Some of these texts were even intended to be read in synagogue. This phenomenon is not specific to the czar, however. Over the centuries, countless Hebrew prayers, songs and poems have been composed to fete leaders around the globe – sometimes written from a place of authentic appreciation and gratitude, while other times more out of fear or attempted groveling.

While Biblical phrases and wording generally reserved for God may have sometimes been utilized by anti-religious authors in order to denigrate tradition and sanctify secularism and modernity, that was certainly not always the intention, as prior to the broader development of modern Hebrew, the language’s lexicon and contexts were overwhelmingly religious in nature. Hamelitz  specifically served as a major force driving the modernization and secularization of Hebrew, helping enable it to be used more widely.

A contemporary illustration of Alexander II’s assassination (Public Domain)

On March 13, 1881, an assassin’s bomb tore Alexander II’s body apart. He bled to death in the same room in which he had signed the Emancipation Manifesto almost exactly two decades earlier.

Alexander’s son would immediately go on to rule with an iron fist and usher in an era of state-supported anti-Semitism. His grandson, present in the Winter Palace for the assassination’s aftermath, would be the last Czar of Russia.


This article has been published 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.