Yitzchak Pomerantz was a son of Rabbi Menachem Biniamin Pomerantz from the town of Długosiodło, near Wyszków, Poland; the family belonged to the Gerrer Hasidim (Hasidei Gur). He was probably born in 1920 or in1921. 1 In the fall of 1939, having seen the abuses and wanton killings of Jews by the Nazi invaders, he decided to flee to the Soviet zone of occupation in Poland. He crossed the German-Soviet demarcation line and arrived in Białystok. From there, he attempted to cross the border to Lithuanian Vilnius, but was arrested and put into prison. Only in January 1941 was he put on trial and sentenced to five years in a Soviet prison camp. Then he was deported to the camp of Sukhobezvodnoe, ca. 500 kilometers east of Moscow.
Following the agreement between the Soviet Union and the Polish Government-in Exile, former Polish citizens were released from the Gulag camps. Thus, in the fall of 1941, Yitzchak was released, and eventually found himself on a kolkhoz (collective farm) near Osh, near the border between Uzbekistan and Kirggizstan. After Passover of 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to Moscow. However, instead of being sent to the front, Yitzhak began working at the Moscow ZIS military plant. In December 1943, he was transferred to the Seletskii training camp, east of Moscow, where a pro-Soviet Polish force, the 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division under the command of Zygmunt Berling was being formed. After some training, Pomerantz specialized in military topography and, with the rank of sergeant, was assigned to a 120-millimeter gun battalion.
As a deeply religious Jew, who even during forced labor and army service unswervingly followed Jewish law, keeping the Sabbath and kashrut, Pomerantz had many problems and more than once put his life at risk. On the other hand, seeing his steadfastness in following the commandments of Judaism and respecting this, some of his superiors made concessions for him. For example, the Russian commandant of the Seletskii training camp officially permitted him to pray shaharit (the morning prayer) instead of doing morning gymnastics. Besides, Yitzchak's situation was alleviated by the fact that he served with the Polish Kościuszko division rather than in the "Russian" Red Army: the Kościuszko division was the only military formation in the Soviet Union that had a military (Catholic) chaplain and where Catholic masses were served.
As an non-commissioned officer of the Red Army, the topographer Yitzchak Pomerantz fought in Volhynia, in Poland, where he participated in the capture of Warsaw and Danzig, and, then, in the battle for Pomerania. During the Soviet advance westward he passed through the Majdanek death camp and Góra Kalwaria, the home of the Gerrer Hasidim – but found the town empty of Jews. He finished the war near Berlin.
His superiors appreciated Pomerantz's achievements as a soldier and as an instructor in topography and, more than once, they recommended that he be sent to an officers' course. However, each time Yitzchak refused, recalling the prescription of "Pirkei Avot", 10: "Avoid getting too close to the government [the authorities]." Because of this he finished the war with the relatively low rank of sergeant-major (starshina).
All of his family perished in the Holocaust.
At the end of 1945 Pomerantz had a leave from the army and, with aid of the clandestine Brikha network, succeeded in leaving Poland for Czechoslovakia and then Austria. In 1948 he succeeded in reaching his goal, Israel.
[based on his memoirs Yitzchak Pomerantz, Itzik, Be Strong!, New York: CIS Publishers, 1993]
With Jewish members of the Red Army in a cemetery on the holiday of Shavuot
In the summer of 1944, Yitzchak Pomerantz's division entered Poland (in its new borders). On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot they entered the town of Józefów, where his unit was to rest.
"It was the festival of Matan Torah, and my heart was thirsting for a beis midrash and the warmth of a Jewish home. I was with Shlomo Bosol and a few other Jewish friends, and somehow, we felt drawn into the town. Deathlike silence enveloped the streets….
Not a word was spoken until we reached the cemetery, where we softly whispered the names that were engraved on the tombstones. We sat down under a tree near the fence of the cemetery and were surprised to realize that we were not alone. Standing not far from us were about eighty Jewish soldiers bearing anguished looks on their faces. Who had gathered us all to this spot? What impelled these non-observant Jewish young men to gather at a devastated Jewish cemetery that Shavuos before sunset?
We looked at each other. None of the soldiers had a siddur or knew the davening by heart. Assessing the situation, I thought of the Mishnah: 'In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader'. (Avos 2:6).
I stood up and gazed at the Jewish eyes that were eagerly focused on me.
'Rabboisai,' I announced. 'We are standing at the gates of Poland, a land that has been a makom Torah, a lodging of Torah, for hundreds of years, the bastion of Yiddishkeit in Eastern Europe. We do not know exactly what has happened in Poland during the upheaval that seized the world. Yet, as survivors of our great nation, we have been sent by Heaven to rescue our brothers from the claws of the Germans who aim to destroy the Jewish people. We have a divine promise that Yisrael will endure forever. Our hearts are all full of worries and misgivings. May we all find peace and tranquility, and may we all soon be able to live as true Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Today is Shavuos, the Yom Tov commemorating the giving of the Torah. In Devarim it is written, 'Ki lo sishachach mipi zaro, that it will never be lost from the mouths of their offspring' (Devarim, 31:21). At this twilight hour, let us pledge to be faithful to our Creator and to be good sons to out grieving nation. May we soon live to see the geula. Yisgadal veyiskadash shemei rabbah!'
There was not a dry eye in the crowd. Each soldier opened his heart and let his emotions flow freely. Never had the earth of Josefov [sic!] been drenched with tears more pure than these.
I davened Maariv aloud, and eighty voices responded to my tfillos with a thundering, tear-choked Amein."
[Yitzchak Pomerantz, Itzik, Be Strong!, New York: CIS Publishers, 1993, pp. 271-273]
- 1. He received his first call-up for the Polish Army in the summer of 1939.