Years After They Hid in Woods, Holocaust Survivors Meet in Toronto

Five people who survived the Holocaust in a makeshift shelter in a Ukrainian forest have been reunited for the first time since their liberation by the Russians in April 1944.

The five are the only remaining survivors of a group of 10 women and children from Rokitno, a town in the Volhynian district of Ukraine, who lived together in the forest for nearly two years.

Though several now live in Toronto, they had never gotten together until last month, when they met in Toronto with another survivor, Chaim Bar Or, a retired bus driver from Haifa.

“If you can picture a group of grown-up people crying like babies, that’s what it was like,” says Larry Gamulka, a retired English teacher. “We remembered every little detail.”

Gamulka was 7 when the Germans and Ukrainians rounded up the Jews in Rokitno’s market square and, instead of counting them as they had said they would, began slaughtering them with machine guns.

Amid the pandemonium, some people, including Gamulka and his mother, Gitel, ran behind some cattle cars from a freight train and escaped into the woods.

Deep within the forest, 10 refugees built a rough shelter. Aided by some partisans, they enlarged it into a low dugout with earthen walls and a roof made of branches.

It would be their home, summer and winter, for nearly two years.

“In the summer we would pick berries in the woods, which were plentiful. The fall and winter were tough,” Gamulka recalls.

“At night my mother and the older people would go out to the nearest village and beg. They would literally knock on doors at the peasants’ houses and beg for something to eat. Sometimes they would get a potato, sometimes they would be chased away. Some peasants were very kind; they themselves didn’t have much to eat, but they would give a few potatoes once in a while.”

They had no matches, axe or shoes. Their clothes were rags. They were half-starved and infested with lice and scabies.

“Sometimes, we had visitors — wolves,” Gamulka says. “The only way to get rid of them was with burning pieces of wood. They don’t approach you if you have fire in your hand.”

Two of their party died of dysentery and hunger.

“We buried them in the woods,” Gamulka says. “It was an experience that all of us still live with.”

After the Russians liberated the surviving group members, some went to Israel, some to Russia, some to Canada. Gamulka and his mother lived briefly in Linz, Austria, and came to Montreal in March 1948.

Ultimately he earned a master’s degree in English literature and became an English teacher. He moved to Toronto only recently.

Only about 200 of Rokitno’s roughly 2,000 Jews survived the war, Gamulka says.

Of the five remaining survivors of the forest group, “the four men all have memories from the forest, but the little girl, who was only 3, doesn’t have any memories,” Gamulka says.

“The happy news is that the five of us have made very good lives for ourselves,” he says. “We’ve managed. We enjoy life.”

NEXT STORY