by Aaron Leibel
Uzbekistan Stories: A Jewish Medic During WWII by Herman Taube. Washington, D.C.: Dryad Press, 2014. 50 pp. $12
Herman Taube’s life, like the lives of millions of other European Jews, was turned upside down by the ordeal of surviving both of the scourges of 20th-century Jewish life – Nazism and Soviet Communism. And yet, through all his suffering – the cold and hunger of his stay in Siberia, the anguish of not knowing what had happened to his family in Poland, the uncertainty over his own fate in Europe and later when he came to start a new life in the United States – he remained a mensch.
It’s that humanity that shines through from the poetry and prose of this slim volume – one of his two dozen or so books. Uzbekistan Stories was published shortly after his death in March. The stories in this collection were written in the 1940s in Yiddish.
Born in Lodz, Poland, Taube was a medic in the Polish army in 1939; his unit was captured by Soviet forces, which, together with their temporary Nazi allies, had ravaged and divided the unhappy Polish state.
He and his fellow enlisted men – the officers were imprisoned and later executed by the Soviets in the infamous Katyn Forest massacre – were taken to a work camp in Siberia, but were freed following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. After his release, Taube went to Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia and eventually joined the Polish army in exile. This book deals with that period in his life.
In Uzbekistan, he tells of kind, generous people, of a woman selling fruit who gave him a melon during his journey when he told her that he was hungry, but penniless; of an elderly Uzbeki couple in whose home he was given a room, who shared their meager rations with him when they first met because he had nothing to eat. The indigenous people are Muslims, to whom Taube’s Jewishness apparently was not a cause for hatred.
The Uzbeki people had converted to Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries, the author notes, and “they had long traditions of respect and hospitality to wanderers, particularly to elderly people, and greeted friends, neighbors, even strangers with the traditional welcome, Assalam alaikum.”
He goes to work in a malaria clinic, and his job description would daunt any Western nurse or medical worker. “I am responsible for washing, bathing, cutting hair, changing linen, cleaning urinals, feeding the ward patients,” he writes. “There are twenty beds on the malaria ward – when the duty hours end, the next shift has to count linen, towels, blankets and underwear that belong to the ward. Often we must count several times searching for concealed towels.”
We are reminded that Taube is living in the totalitarian Soviet state, in which any opposition to the authorities is a crime. He tells of an Uzbeki woman whose husband had been murdered by the state 15 years earlier for being “an underground mullah.” Now that woman is being treated in his clinic every evening after being beaten during NKVD interrogations. The secret police are searching for her son, Ali, who had disappeared when drafted into the Red Army. The woman refuses to divulge his whereabouts and eventually dies; her son, who had surrendered to the authorities upon hearing of his mother’s ordeal, disappears.
The author writes of the many Ukrainian families who had been evacuated to Uzbekistan. They knew that once the Nazis had conquered a region, “Ukrainian party members, government workers and Jews would be facing execution.”
Perhaps the most moving stories for me were about the medic Volodia Golomb and his special house guest for Yom Kippur in 1942 and a generous cobbler named Nehemiah.
Taube often said that he wanted to dedicate his life to keeping alive the memory of the Jews lost during the Holocaust. With this beautiful, little book – which presents an intimate, eyewitness account of a society and era so different from our own – his life’s work seems to continue even after his death.
Merrill Leffler, owner of Dryad Press and longtime publisher of Taube’s books, will speak Friday evening about that author at the “rabbi’s tish” – an evening of wine and cheese and Torah discussion beginning at 6:30 p.m. – at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath in Silver Spring.
Aaron Leibel is WJW’s copy chief. His novel Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at https://www.createspace.com/4601609, at amazon.com and in Kindle format.