Day 116. Czech Republic, Prague

A woman with a big umbrella

My great-grandfather's cousin Rachel Rappoport (Rolya, as she was called in the family) was sent to the Minsk ghetto in July 1941, shortly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. What followed were two gruesome years of unspeakable suffering. Every day Rachel witnessed the brutal extermination of her friends, relatives and neighbors. Her aunt (my great-great-grandmother) died in 1943. “The second torment was hunger. I probably would have died of it if it weren’t for my friend Nyura. She herself was always famishing, but not a day went by without her bringing me a bowl of watered-down potato pottage. Sometimes she even got one or two boiled potatoes — an indescribable luxury”, — Rachel wrote in her book.

Fearing epidemic outbreaks and infections, the nazis did not rush to execute doctors in the ghetto. Since Rolya worked as a psychiatrist before the war, she was kept alive until the last moment.

Over time more and more people were killed in the ghetto every single day, and Rachel realized that time is running out for her. One summer morning in 1943 it was pouring rain. Rachel grabbed a large heavy umbrella and left the house. All the roads leading to the ghetto were under constant nazi surveillance but that day the tempestuous weather forced even the guards to remain indoors. Rolya was wading through the wall of water for hours. She left the ghetto behind and eventually arrived at a small Belorussian village. Local farmers gave her food and shelter for a night. In the morning they showed her the way to a Jewish partisan squad in the woods.

After that Rachel courageously fought with them for one year until the liberation of Minsk. And the ghetto was liquidated soon after she left — on 21 October 1943, with almost all the inhabitants either killed or sent to concentration camps.

Rolya told this story to my great-grandfather when she finally came to visit him in Moscow in July 1944. Oddly enough, tonight's downpour in Prague reminded me of that little woman with a huge umbrella who saved her life by walking out of hell.


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