By Abigail Leibowitz
“I ran for my life, and they ran after me for three pounds of salt,” explained Isaac Gendelman as he recounted running from farmers trying to capture and turn him over to the Nazis.
Sitting in the 96 year old’s warm, inviting home, you feel as if you are in a museum of Eastern European Jewry. The walls are lined with black and white photographs of his parents, grandparents and siblings. His living room contains a collection of hundreds of samovars and candlesticks, some dating back to the 1700s. As he tells his stories, Gendelman brings the Rokitno, Poland, of the 1930s to life.
Growing up in a religious family where his parents spoke Polish and Yiddish, Isaac attended Beit Sefer Tarbut, a Jewish school of about 360 children. Hebrew was not spoken among European Jews, but Gendelman is proud that everything in his school “was be-Ivrit” — in Hebrew.
Despite the anti-Semitic environment of Rokitno, Isaac and his peers enjoyed the same recreational activities many teens do today: playing soccer, attending youth group events, visiting his zeidi (grandfather) and helping at his family’s store.
At 16, his world was turned upside down. Until 1941, the Soviets controlled one side of the Bug River, where Rokitno was located, and the Germans controlled the other. But in September 1941, the Germans invaded.
All of a sudden, he had to wear patches on his clothing to identify himself as a Jew. When he visited his zeidi in a nearby city, Poles threw sticks and yelled the slur “zhyd” at him. The worst, however, was yet to come.
All the families in Rokitno were crammed into a ghetto, where the harsh living conditions were unbearable. “My mom was so hungry I had to pick weeds outside and make them into patties to feed my family,” Gendelman said.
After a year, the Germans rounded everyone up for deportation to concentration camps. Isaac, then 17, realized this was a death sentence. He heard someone yell “run!” and the Germans opened fire on hundreds of Jews. Chaos broke out. Isaac ran for his life as bullets grazed his head.
Isaac found refuge deep in the forest outside of town. That’s where he met up with another escapee, Chaim Weiner. For the next two years, Isaac and Chaim lived deep in the forest, running from one hiding place to another, always on the lookout for the German Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) and Polish collaborators.
While on the move, Isaac and Chaim begged farmers for potato scraps to stay alive. Salt was scarce and the Nazis had promised three pounds of salt to any farmer who turned in a runaway Jew. One farmer, seeing Isaac on a wagon and recognizing him as Jewish from his clothing, chased him — but Isaac was faster. The farmer was chasing money, while Isaac was running to save his life.
To distract themselves, Isaac and Chaim played ping pong using fallen pine cones and sticks. “I was a champion!” Gendelman said, adding that the two “saved each other’s lives countless times.” They were “like blood brothers.”
Toward the end of the war, Isaac and Chaim realized from the sound and direction of the artillery that the Soviets had liberated the area. The two parted ways. Chaim jumped on a train heading east toward Russia, and for the next 30 years, Gendelman did not know his friend’s whereabouts. Gendelman was one of the only Jews from Roktino to survive — his entire family had perished, and he was now a refugee. With a renewed sense of purpose, he found refuge in a community of 5,000 Jews in Hungary.
In Hungary, Isaac’s fervent Zionism stood out: “I am Jewish. I suffered, so I had to help other Jews who suffered,” he said recently. He was among the six selected out of thousands to be part of the Bricha movement — an underground effort that helped Holocaust survivors escape to British-ruled Palestine.
For months, he woke up groups of refugees in the middle of the night and led them clandestinely through the mountains to departure points from which they would journey to Palestine.
“Luckily,” Gendelman explained, “while working for the Bricha in the Russian Zone, I bribed the Russian soldiers with watches, jewelry and cigarettes. We became buddy-buddy.”
This strategy paid off. After six risky months, his cover was blown. The British sent out two motorcycles to arrest him, but his “buddy-buddy” Russian soldiers tipped him off. By the time the British soldiers arrived, Gendelman was gone.
He made his way to Linz, Austria, where he lived in the Bindermichl Displaced Persons Camp. Gendelman was at a loss, as DPs could not leave unless they had family in another country. While at the DP camp, he reconnected with an old neighbor from Rokitno, Mr. Greenberg.
Remembering that he had an aunt who lived in Washington, D.C., he asked Mr. Greenberg to help him find her. All Gendelman remembered was that her name was Annie. Mr. Greenberg promised he would ask his niece in Argentina for help finding Annie’s contact information. It was a long shot, but Gendelman never left any stone unturned.
Gendelman received a telegram from Aunt Annie Sherman within 12 hours. Although
Gendelman had always dreamed of going to Palestine, he had to listen to his aunt.
“Seventeen of my family members were killed, so I had to go where I found family,” Gendelman said.
Finally, after three years in the DP camp, Gendelman arrived in Washington, and was greeted by Annie and her family.
Once here, Gendelman applied his can-do attitude to finding a job. He began working at his uncle’s restaurant. Four years later, he switched to a mom and pop store that eventually became Shoppers Food Warehouse, where he worked his way up to senior vice president. In 1954, he married Goldie Woloch, and they began raising a family in Silver Spring.
One night in 1975, Isaac and Golda were having dinner with an old friend from Rokitno, Miriam Broder, who was visiting from Detroit. During dinner, they made a startling discovery. Broder turned out to be Chaim’s aunt.
Isaac had thought Chaim was dead. But hearing that Chaim was alive and living in Florida, Gendelman made a phone call. Two weeks later, the blood brothers had an emotional reunion in Florida. Chaim died in 2016, but their families remain close friends to this day.
As a longtime member of Congregation Har Tzeon- Agudath Achim (HTAA), in Wheaton, Gendelman became involved in community affairs and gave talks to both Jews and non-Jews about his story.
Sitting in his house and shmoozing with Gendelman, one gets a sense of his three passions: collecting antiques, gardening and recounting his history. Each time I visit him, I am reminded of his giving and gracious personality and his love and pride in his multi-generational family. As he offers us fresh figs from his garden and home-baked mandelbread, he can’t stop kvelling about his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.
But as you can expect, the coronavirus has taken a toll on him, too. “I miss going to shul every Shabbos,” says Gendelman, who had been one of the first to arrive every Saturday morning at HTAA. Once the COVID restrictions are over, I know he’ll be back, inspiring the community and sharing his story of survival and perseverance.
Abigail Leibowitz, a senior at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, is the founder of F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform (studentsfair.com). She’s a member of Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.