Outside, she could hear the matches scratching. As the village around them exploded in flames, the Nazis attempted to set the last house alight. Within these walls, Maria Weinstein huddled in the embrace of her newly adopted family. There, amid the chaos, Jew and gentile united as one family in fervent prayer.
Nearly seven decades later, this slight-framed octogenarian opened the door to her home. She seemed to be welcoming me more for a reunion than an interview. Maria instantly transformed from my newest subject to my adoptive grandmother. With a broad smile and the few English words she knew, she invited me into the living room of her daughter's family home. There, in her thick Russian accent and modest floral dress, Maria relayed her story through her grandson and interpreter, David Taube. It soon became clear that none of the horror would be lost in translation.
Less than a decade before the Second World War, on May 5, 1931, Maria Weinstein was born to a respectable Jewish family in a Polish village. With a successful businessman for a father and a loving homemaker for a mother, Maria, her older brother, and her younger sister were well provided for.
Until ten years old, I spent most of the time with my family," she reminisced. "I went to school, I went to the synagogue, and my [rabbi] grandfather taught me to pray." From the age of three, she began learning from relatives and tutors subjects ranging from language to religion. They taught her Russian, Hebrew and bits of Polish and Ukrainian, as well as celebrating holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover. Then her face became serious. "That was before the Germans came."
In 1941, everything changed for the Weinstein family; they were transferred from their village in Radekhiv, Volyns'ka, to the neighboring city of Luboml. Then, like cattle herded into a pen, they and other Jewish families were rounded up to form the Jewish ghetto. "It was difficult to live." Maria spoke in short sentences as she recalled. "They treated us very poorly."
Her father however, was able to afford documents allowing him passage out of the ghetto during the week to do business. Yet Yakov's wages were not in money, but in potatoes, a loaf of bread or perhaps some milk. For to the starving, food meant more than funds.
Then things got worse. 300 miles away in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot and killed at the Babi Yar ravine.1 "We were told that we would be fine, that we wouldn't be touched. And we believed them." But as time went on, the killings crept closer and a repeat of Babi Yar felt nearer and nearer. Guards appeared, stationed to stand watch. Barbed wire soon formed a cage around them. "Everyone knew that death was imminent."
Maria, then just barely eleven years old, ran to her room, dove under the covers, and began to pray, "God save us!" She knew she had to escape. She had nothing to lose. But her mother refused to leave, her son clinging fearfully to her side. So, equipped with the clothing on their backs and a blessing from their mother, Maria and her younger sister, Valya, fled.
When they reached the central exit and entrance, the guard halted them. "Are you a Jew?" he questioned Valya. When the eight year old denied it, he accused her of lying. The guard spun around, switching his interrogation to Maria. "I was delivering milk to some lady," she lied. Maria told me, "I never knew the [Ukrainian] word for lady, but it just ... came out."
Although the words were foreign to her tongue, they were enough to fool the guards. The two young girls were able to slip out of the barbed wire ghetto prison. It wasn't until several years later, through the account of a local Ukrainian boy, that she learned the fate of her mother and brother. When the boy recognized her name, he explained to her what had happened at the brick factory near their home. There, the families were told to dig large holes for necessary chemical disposal. "They didn't know that those holes were going to be their graves."
She explained to me, with evident pain, "They lined them up, made them strip down next to those mass graves, and then sprayed the bullets at the crowd." Afterward, they simply covered the mound of death with dirt. "For three days, you could see the ground moving."
After their father heard about the mass murders, he left the village en route to the city, watching for survivors. When he saw his two daughters on the road, he immediately asked where their mother and brother were. "We left," they answered. As he assumed the fate of his wife and son, he began to weep. There was nothing he could do.
With death hiding around every corner, the broken family was forced to go into hiding. They slept wherever they could: under trees, in bushes or even in a trench behind a church. Around two in the morning, while the girls slept in the dirt, Yakov would negotiate with obliging villagers to obtain small amounts of food.
But Nazi-paid Ukrainian spies were everywhere. Any villager could be the eye of the enemy. It wasn't long before they learned, through Yakov's connections, that they had been discovered. And so, with death following close behind, they were on the run again.
Somewhere in the depths of the forest, two Ukrainians working for the Nazi regime caught up with them. "It doesn't scare me if you kill me," Maria's father said, "Just let the girls live." One of the men began to soften. But as one calmed, the other became more enraged. Maria remembers, "He was shaking with anger ... he wanted to kill us all." As the calm soldier worked to placate his partner, Yakov and his daughters were able to escape.
Again they ran; again they hid. Sleeping beneath the tree branches, they were joined by other Jews. At one point, eleven of them were united in the forest, each living a nomadic life of fear. But when Yakov went to a familiar house to ask for food, they turned him away, saying, "You can't come here anymore. They know I'm helping Jews."
They needed to relocate, and fast. Sitting in the bushes, they planned their next move. They would go to another Polish house nearby, where Maria would plead for food with what little Polish she knew. But as soon as she stepped out of the bushes, she beheld a terrible sight.
A troop of men, each dressed in black, had surrounded the area. The moment they saw her emerge from the shrubbery, the chase began. Maria quickly signaled to her father and sister that it was time to run, and others followed suit. Unfortunately, the only way for them to escape was to flee across an open expanse, and Maria said, "As soon as a few people emerged to run across the field, the bullets began to fly." As they fled, the army in black shot after them, aiming for the larger targets. Although Maria was separated from her family and running alone, she remembers, "At that moment, I wasn't afraid. Somehow I got the strength inside to run in another direction."
Maria escaped into a thicket of trees, crouched into a little ball, and began to think, "What if I'm left alone?" There she sat by herself, dazed and distressed, for so long that she fell asleep. Suddenly, she heard footsteps. Little Maria was face to face with a wolf. Even as the wild animal began to sniff closer, she was unafraid. Then, just as quickly as it came, the wolf was gone. But it failed to leave her mind. "I clearly felt it was a sign from God that I needed to leave at that moment."
Just as she did so, she caught sight of her sister. "Where's Poppa?" Maria asked. Valya pointed and said, "Over there. They killed him." As soon as their father had realized the killers were aiming for the larger individuals, he had pushed his youngest daughter into a little ditch. He figured that this would prevent his murder from also becoming hers.
Suddenly, an eleven-year-old and an eight-year-old were left to fend for themselves in the forest. As the weather became colder with the changing of the seasons, conditions became even more difficult. The few times they could find food, Maria said, "Our throats couldn't swallow it. We were so parched." Without wool jackets or gloves, the snowy weather soon turned their skin into raw meat. Maria said it "began to stink as if it were rotting."
As the climate wore on their bodies, the girls would search for barns or sheds. There, unbeknownst to the owners, Maria and Valya would burrow into the hay to rest. Even as she told me of this suffering, she managed to lighten the mood, saying, "At the time, I didn't really understand I was suffering in extreme cold. But now, if it gets a little chilly in the house, I sit next to the fireplace."
Regardless of the smile in her eyes, I knew the horrors of her past lingered. For three days, the girls slept in the hay without food or water. They were lost, parched and starved. Desperate in their suffering, the girls would lick leaves in search of some form of nutrition. The see-saw between hope and despair became a daily battle, and some days, Maria said, "We had no desire or motivation to live." In resignation, the sisters decided to head back to the ghetto to die.
When they approached, Luboml was enveloped in an eerie silence. The very land seemed dead. Suddenly, in the midst of the silence, Maria spotted an old gentleman. With nothing to lose, she approached the stranger, asking him for help. "You're Jews," he accused. "We're Polish," Maria lied. She explained to me: "If we had said we were Jews, there's no way he would have helped us. But if we said we were Polish, there was a 50/50 chance."
Whether the man believed them or not, that night, the runaways were allowed to sleep in safety. As Maria and Valya left his home the following morning, they expected to find the Germans at the doorstep. Instead, they were met with a blue sky and shining sun. The beautiful weather rejuvenated their spirits, and with their fresh desire to live, the girls headed in a new direction.
Now that they weren't headed for the ghetto, the girls were lost. With no houses in sight, Maria simply picked a direction and started walking. Maria said, "If [we come across] a peaceful village, we'll live. If it's a dangerous area, we'll die."
As soon as they reached a village, they started knocking. "We went to one house, to two houses, to three houses, and every single family said, 'You're Jews. Get out of here.'" Those who didn't immediately reject them would simply offer excuses, sending them to another home, which would then do the same. As night fell, so did the feeling of defeat. Alone and rejected in a foreign village, the young girls made their bed in a heap of hay and dreamed of death. Maria said, "I wasn't afraid of any animals. I didn't care about snakes or wolves or anything. But if I heard the sound of a man, I was petrified. It was as if it were a monster."
In the morning, they decided once again to head for the ghetto. On their way back, they passed a woman and her daughter weaving cloth. The woman called out: "Little girls, come over here," and asked, "Whose are you?" When they approached and answered, the woman recognized their surname and knew they were Jews. Yet Mrs. Yanyuk still said, "Well, you'll just stay with us." Somehow, when they weren't trying, the girls had found a home.
This "adoption" was beshert (destined). In 1939, the Yanyuk family had lost twins. Four years later, it was as if these Jewish girls, Maria and Valya, had come to heal the wound. It was not long before the barriers between natural born (there were three other Yanyuk children) and new additions melted away.
What Maria and Valya did not know was that the Yanyuks had taken them in fully aware that there was a mandatory death sentence for anyone who assisted fugitive Jews. The Yanyuks were strong believers in Jesus and were convinced that it was not only right to protect these children, it was what their Messiah would have them do. In fact, the Yanyuks had explained this to their natural-born children, and the family had entered into an agreement to harbor the two young girls even if it meant death to their entire family.
Mere months after the girls had been taken in, the family's resolve was put to the test; the monsters came knocking. "We heard you're hiding Jews," the Nazis at the doorstep accused. When their adoptive mother denied this, they threatened, "We're going to kill your entire family if you don't give them up." But betrayal was not an option. Mrs. Yanyuk was resolute. "These are all my children," she told them.
After this incident, Maria and Valya understood the commitment the family had made to protect them. The girls were overwhelmed by their courage and love for them. "Through how they lived, we began to realize that they had something special," Maria said. The Yanyuks had already explained to the girls that they believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But they never made the girls attend church with them. However, after the Nazis had come to the doorstep, Maria and Valya wanted to go to the place of worship the Yanyuks attended and learn more about how their faith could give them that kind of love and courage. They wondered, Could their God be the same God that we as Jews have learned to honor?
Maria already had a love for the Torah, and she immediately became engaged as she heard the Scriptures expounded by the pastor. She recognized passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, and when she saw evidence in those passages, as well as in the New Testament, that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, she was not shocked. "I was very familiar with who the Messiah was supposed to be—we [Jews] were awaiting him," she explained. "So it wasn't a total change in my understanding. I just came to see that the Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus), had already come. When I was a little girl, my mother would tell me, 'Be sure you're sensitive to God, so if he comes knocking on the door to take you to the Promised Land, you won't miss it.'" Maria remembered her mother's advice. This was simply the answer to a long-standing religious question: the Messiah had come and he was Jesus.
Later, when the Nazis returned to burn the village, the family held together. They huddled in prayer inside their home, and as the Nazis attempted to set it ablaze, their faith did not falter. And somehow, their house did not burn.
In 1951, six years after the war ended, Maria married. She smiled as she told me, "He was a very good guy and I was a very good catch. His family didn't want to let me go." Over the next few years, she and Dmitri gave birth to four children. When the youngest was merely two months old, Dmitri died of cancer, leaving Maria a widow at 27 years old.
Vera Taube, one of Maria's daughters, interjected. "Four or five men came to marry her after my father [died], but she refused everybody. She said, 'I am the wife of one man.'" Maria raised her four children alone. She now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, near Vera and grandchildren David and Elena.
Of his grandmother, David said, "Her years of devotion to God through love, perseverance and forgiveness have provided me a map to life which I have tried to follow since my childhood. It is not an easy route to follow by any means, but as my Babushka Maria always says, 'with God all things are possible.'"
It is apparent that Maria Weinstein did more than pass on her genes. She has left behind a rich legacy. She not only survived to tell her story, but to be an example of faith in the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Because of her living story, she has inspired two faith-filled generations—four children and twelve grandchildren. "With the kind of life that I had to live through," the 80-year-old Maria reflected, "there's no way I would have survived without Jesus. I put my hope and trust in him and he guided me. By his mercy, I'm still alive."