Gathering the Fragments
A National Campaign to Rescue Personal Items from the Holocaust Period
"Nothing Remains of Stolpce" – The Story of the Tunik Family
My dear brother,
It is Friday night. We have had a very happy evening. We all sat around the table after the blessings and waited for the post with bated breath and indeed we did not wait in vain. A knock at the door and there it was on the table, a letter from you, really from you. We feel as if you are with us. We stayed where we were seated and impatiently read your 'lines'. The first thing that made us happy was that, thank G-d, you have reached the Holy Land that every one of us hopes to reach. When will we also get the opportunity to do so? It needs great merit and not everyone achieves it. I am very pleased by your pride, your courage and your behavior and this can bring a person to "aliyah."
At the age of 23 Yitzchak Tunik achieved the family dream and immigrated to Eretz Israel. The year was 1934. The members of his family left in Stolpce, his hometown, were his parents, Wolf (Zeev) and Bracha, and his nine siblings, Pesach, Noah, Azriel, Reuven, Moshe, Yaakov-Shlomo, Chava, Nachman and Leah.
Before the war, some 2,500 Jews lived in Stolpce, a town in the Nowogrodek region of western Poland, constituting one third of the population. The location of the town – on the bank of the Neiman River and the central train junction – caused trade to be one of the principle forms of income for the Jews of the town. The Tunik family owned a meat trading business. The First World War and a large fire that had raged through the town in 1915 had severely affected the financial situation and many of the town's Jews moved overseas. At the same time the Zionist movement in the town grew and the local Jewish school joined the "Tarbut" Zionist education network.
The Tunik family was a traditional and Zionist family; the Zionist education that the children received can be seen through their letters to their brother Yitzchak in which they express their amazement and excitement at his immigration to Eretz Israel. Their knowledge of Hebrew can also be seen in some of the letters. This is what his sister Leah wrote at the bottom of their brother Reuven's letter:
We celebrated my birthday yesterday! I'm seven years old. I go to the Beth Yaakov school every day and I can already read and write well. I'm also learning maths. I'm getting ready for the Hanukkah party, I even got a role in it. Send us news from Eretz Israel.
For seven years there was intense correspondence between Yitzchak in Eretz Israel and his family in Stolpce. Through their letters, his parents did their best to accompany their son along the path that he had chosen to pave for himself, alone, in the hot unknown country that he had reached:
From: Zeev (Father)
To my dear son Yitzchak,
Yesterday we received a letter from you in which we learned that you are "meandering through life." It takes a while to settle in but you don't need to get frustrated because it is impossible to get everything sorted out in such a short period of time. I think that if you have a job then "great" and if not, then visit the university in the meantime…
From: Bracha (Mother)
My dear son Yitzchak,
We received your letter. Thank G-d that we have heard about your health. He hasn't given us much comfort. It is obvious what you are worrying about but there is no need to give up hope. You have to hope that you will sort everything out in time… It is always like that when you arrive in a strange country; it takes time to get used to things and to meet people. I hope that the next letters will be happier…
I wish you happy news.
The children are asking after you and ask that you write to them as well and they will write to you.
The family's longing to go to Eretz Israel can be seen in the letters, a yearning that became ever stronger as the situation in Stolpce deteriorated.
From: Nachman (Brother, b. 1915)
Language: Hebrew with some Yiddish
To my brother Yitzchak,
At home we don't have any news, nothing has changed and it isn't going to improve. Yitzchak, I tell you, however difficult you are finding it, there is nothing for you to miss in Stolpce. Many people here are jealous of you and would be willing to go to Eretz Israel and to work hard because there is no other option here. As much as we hope that you will settle in soon, in reality you are our first pioneer. Slowly, slowly each one of us will follow in your footsteps. There is no way that we will agree to this sort of life. There is only one concern that needs to occupy us to change everything for the better and that is each and every person helping each other and leaving here for Eretz Israel.
...if I go to hachshara (training and preparation for life in Eretz Israel) then I can come to Eretz Israel before I am conscripted to the army. I can tell you that Chava and Yaakov-Shlomo were accepted to powszechna (Polish primary school) to the fifth class. I am hurrying because I need to go to the "Tu B'shvat" event where they are selling fruits from Eretz Israel. They are waiting for me. I have nothing else to write to you because I am unable. Itsha I remind you, be very happy. I assume that however things work out for you it will be better than here.
Nachman didn't manage to carry out his plans to immigrate to Eretz Israel before his conscription. He was conscripted by the Polish army in 1937 and was supposed to be released about two years later but on the first day of the war, the 1st of September 1939, he fell in battle.
From: Zeev (Father)
To my dear son Yitzchak,
Today we received the letter in which you said that you have found work. Obviously I am very happy that you are not working hard…
The leather business is not going well and the sausages (kishkas) are going even worse. Our hope is still that we will be able to immigrate to Eretz Israel. Now that you are starting to get settled in maybe you could help with something for Moshe or for someone else. Maybe you could try Zalman Rovshov and see if he can help you. Speak to him on my behalf. We need to do something.
There is no news from us. The holiday is almost here and will already be over by the time that you receive this letter. I wish you happy holidays. Write to us and tell us where you were for the holiday and what you did. Thank G-d we already have Matzos and wine. G-d willing may you have a happy holiday and drink the Carmel wine. May we fulfill the verse "Next year in Jerusalem."
From: Bracha (Mother)
My dearest son, may you live and be happy in life.
… you ask if I made wine for Passover and I can write to you that I have made wine and we are lacking nothing. I am sorry that you are alone for your first Passover. Please G-d we will hear better news from you from afar. You write that you hope that next Passover we will be together. That is a fantasy; I don't believe that anyone is still able to leave. If only we could, Moishele would leave today. Even though we don’t exactly feel happy when people leave here; sometimes people go just in order to be somewhere else because here at home it is even worse.
I am only writing a little today because it is the holiday eve. I'm sure that you understand that there is plenty of work to be done. Be healthy and happy and may you have a happy holiday. That is what I wish you,
Your mother, Bruchka.
Yitzchak gradually became accustomed to life in Eretz Israel but his hopes to reunite with his family in Eretz Israel were to be disappointed. Only one brother, Noah, succeeded in reaching Eretz Israel before the war, in November 1938, as a student at the Hebrew University.
In September 1939, control of the Nowogrodek region passed to the Soviets. The younger brother Yaakov-Shlomo describes in his letter to his brothers in Eretz Israel the changes that had taken place in the region in the wake of the Soviet occupation and the arrival of a large number of refugees from Poland:
From: Yaakov-Shlomo (Brother)
Tuesday, 1st Sivan 5701
In general there has been a great change in the city in the past two years. First the 'atmosphere' - spirits are down, there is no Jewish life. There are lots of strangers; hundreds of refugees and also those who came from the East. There are many unemployed. The old Beit Midrash (Study hall) has turned into a glove factory. They have opened a cinema in the new synagogue and the old cemetery. The market has become a park, they have planted trees there and they are growing grass and flowers and there is a large statue of Lenin. A real Garden of Eden for the righteous. "They sit and enjoy…"
Be healthy and write 'soon' because we know that your situation is very serious. Everyone is asking after you and especially about Yigal.
About two weeks before the German occupation Bracha sent a postcard to her son in Eretz Israel. Bracha, it appears from the postcard, did not think that their correspondence would henceforth be severed but her deep fears about the future are clear from her short message:
From: Bracha (Mother)
My dears, live in happiness,
We received your postcard from 27/04. We were very worried because we hadn't received a letter from you for quite some time but thank G-d we have heard about all of you. There is no special news from us. Everything is as it is with no change. Noah, you ask that we send you longer letters and write everything. We also want to write about everything but at the moment we can't fit everything on a postcard and letters take a very long time and there is nothing in particular to write about. If only we could write something good, we would write, but unfortunately there is nothing good to write. We hope, but Heaven knows if we will be able to. The children finished the year well. Onwards, Moishel is working and so is Azriel, but father, may he live, is still wandering around. We get regular letters from Pessia. Onwards, we are proud of our grandchildren. Miminka and Yankale both stay close to home, may they all have long lives. May we hear good news from you and Yigal. Please send photos of you and Yigal. I am planning to go to Reuven to Horodyszcze for the Sabbath. Be healthy as your mother Bracha wishes you. Father is also asking after you and will write to you.
On the 27th of June 1941 the Germans entered Stolpce. Two days later they murdered about 200 of the 3,000 Jews of the town. The eldest brother Moshe's wife was killed by a sniper attack in the first days of the occupation. Pessach, who knew a number of languages, was taken by the Germans to work as a translator and no more is known of his fate.
The Tunik family's house was burned down and the family moved to live in the basement. The family had no food and it was decided that the younger siblings – Chava aged 19, Yaakov-Shlomo 17 and Leah 14 – would move to the elder brother Reuven's house in Horodyszcze. Yaakov-Shlomo was murdered in a massacre of the Jews of the town. Chava and Leah managed to flee with Reuven and returned to the family in Stolpce.
In 1942 the Jews of Stolpce were crowded into a ghetto. In July 1942 drunken Lithuanians broke into the family home and murdered the father, Zeev. The brothers Moshe and Reuven were taken together with the other young men for forced labor in Minsk and murdered there.
The ghetto was liquidated in September 1942. In the large Aktion carried out during the week of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) 5703 the Jews were taken to a nearby forest where they were shot. Among those taken to their deaths were the mother Bracha, her daughters Chava and Leah and her granddaughter Miriam (Moshe and Rivka's daughter). During the night, Chava saw a group of men who were preparing to escape and she joined them. Together they joined a Jewish partisan unit in the Belarussian forest under the command of Shalom Cholawski.
Azriel was saved from the fate of the townspeople because he worked outside the ghetto but his wife and four-year-old son were among those murdered in the Aktion. Azriel was hidden by Janek, a Polish friend who had worked with him. Janek and his mother, in whose house Azriel hid until the liberation in 1944, were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. After the liberation Azriel returned to Stolpce where he met his sister Chava who had returned from the forest.
On the 28th of August 1944 Azriel wrote to his brothers Noah and Yitzchak in Eretz Israel:
My dear, beloved Yitzchak, Mania and Yigalka,
After four years in which we have not heard from each other I have the first difficult opportunity to write to you, my dear beloved ones.
After much suffering and trouble, and after terrible hardships and atrocities that have never been known in human history, I am writing a letter to you today, my dears. I have struggled over what to write to you. I have decided to write the truth, as terrible and as bitter as it will be. I assume that you have heard and read everything that it was decreed that we should undergo. Everything that you have heard is just the tip of the iceberg. At the moment I am not in a state that I can write all the details, maybe in the next letter.
Of our beautiful, good family just myself, your brother Azriel and our dear sister Chava are left. It is very upsetting but that is a fact. From the three thousand Jews of Stolpce there are only about a hundred souls remaining. There are families who have been completely wiped out. See for yourselves my dears that from the entire Tunik family in Stolpce only Chavale and I are left. I’m still hopeful about our brother Pessach. He fell into German hands and translated for them. In June 1942 we were still in contact with him.
My dearly beloved, I ask that you reply to me immediately. I am sending this to Mania's old address that I remember from before. At the moment I am a few days away from Moscow. I will also send you a telegram. I will now write briefly about myself and about Chava. Chava was a partisan for two years. I didn't know anything about what was happening to her for two years. I also suffered a great tragedy. I tried to save my loved ones but I was unable to do so. Chava disappeared with another group on the day of the pogrom and the connection between us was lost. After the liberation I found her thanks to the Red Army. Both of us had gone to Stolpce.
There is nothing left of Stolpce, not the people or the houses. Now we have only one aim, revenge. Nothing else interests us. Our lives have been shattered forever. We are no longer normal people. It is impossible to be human after so many tragedies. I ask of you, my dears, one thing, be strong and don't break. You are our entire hope and … apart from you we don't have anyone.
Write to us about yourselves, where are you at the moment and how are you getting on? I promise that my next letter will be more detailed. My dear Mania I'm sure that you want to hear about your close ones, … once again I hesitated, but I have decided to write the truth. None of them are left alive. Be strong my dear. I can imagine what a shock my letter will cause but our situation is worse, we experienced it ourselves and saw it all with our own eyes… I am not in a state of mind to write any further.
Be strong and healthy and remember us.
Send a letter to my address in Stolpce.
Best wishes to you from Chavale, she is in Stolpce and I am returning to her in a few days.
Chava moved to Eretz Israel in 1946 as did Azriel a year later. They both established families in Israel.
Yitzchak Tunik served as the State Comptroller between the years 1982-1987 .
Noah and Yitzchak's daughters came to Yad Vashem and gave the letters to Yad Vashem for posterity as part of the campaign "Gathering the Fragments".