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"If Not for Him..."

Document | Not Digitized | Accession Number: 2014.433.1

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    Consists of one memoir entitled "If Not For Him..." written by Jakob Yovel (Volovelski, now Yaakov Yovel), originally of Pruzhani, Poland (now Belarus). The memoir, originally written in Hebrew in 1945-1946, when Mr. Yovel was a teenager, documents the friendship between Mr. Yovel and Kalman Grossman, their deportation, and their experiences together in the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen, and Melk concentration camps. Includes photographs of the original Hebrew text as well as an English language translation of the same.
    inclusive:  1945-2006
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Yaakov Yovel
    Collection Creator
    Yaakov Yovel
    Yaakov Yovel (born Jakob Volovelski) is the son of to Israel Baruch Volovelski (b. 1884, Drahichyn) and Tzippora Faygel Abramovitch (b. 1886. Pruzhany). He was born in Pruzhany, Poland on December 10, 1924 and had five older siblings: Genya (b. 1909), Sheinche (b. 1911), Sara (b. 1913), Moshe (b. 1915) and Eliyahu (b. 1917). When Jakob was young, the family moved to Zelva where his father operated a large sawmill and sold lumber for houses. He also had a flour mill and later added a textile factory to train youngsters prior to their immigrating to Palestine. Business boomed initially but due to its overexpansion, Israel Volovelski experienced economic difficulties. In 1933 the family returned to Pruzhany where Jakob's father opened a paint store. The Volovelskis were all committed Zionists; and Jakob's brother Eliyahu immigrated to Palestine in 1937 and his sister Genya followed in 1938. The rest of the family hoped to immigrate as well. Jakob attended the Hebrew language Tarbut School, where he became a close friend with a youngster by the name of Kalman Grossman. After the start of World War II, the Soviet Union occupied Pruzhany. The following year Moshe, another of Jakob's brothers, died of lung disease while serving in the Polish army. The Soviets closed private stores and Hebrew schools. Jakob's father became a manager of an oil factory, and Jakob transferred to a Russian gymnasium. His friend Kalman left school to assist his father, a leather worker, but the two youths maintained their friendship.
    On June 23, 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and unleashed the Holocaust in Eastern Poland. Jakob's oldest sister Sheinche, her husband and young daughter were shot to death in 1941 with most of the Jews in their town of Drahichyn. In July 1941, the Germans established a Judenrat in Pruzhany, but at first it operated as a mutual aid organization to care for the welfare of the Jewish community. Jakob worked for the Judenrat picking up and delivering medicines on his bicycle. The pharmacist was a Polish friend of his father, and he also gave Jakob bread or cheese to bring back to the ghetto. Jakob hid the food under the prescriptions in his bicycle basket. Since he knew both the SS guard and the Jewish policeman at the gate, neither searched him. Before entering the ghetto, Jakob's father gave his cow to a Polish neighbor and friend. Each morning he snuck out to milk the cow and bring home some milk as well as vegetables from their field. This continued for one year. Then on November 1, 1942, SS guards surrounded the ghetto and prohibited anyone to enter or leave. Three months later the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto.
    On January 29, after his parents were deported, Kalman went to Jakob's house. At first the two youth decided to either hide or make a run for it, but they eventually decided to join everyone else on the transport. The train brought them to Birkenau; Jakob and his father were separated from his mother sister Sara, and they kissed goodbye. A minute later Jakob was separated from his father who went to the right. Jakob's parents and sister all were killed. Jakob was given a haircut and shower and a lice infested garment, and sent to a barrack together with his uncle Bezalel Abramovich, who died almost immediately. The next day, Jakob was tattooed with the number 99074 and a triangle indicating his is Jewish. He was then sent to another camp about a kilometer away where he was put first in Barrack 17 and then in Barrack 18. Six weeks later, on March 19, 1943 he was transferred to Auschwitz. Jakob later described his experiences in his memoir "If it were not for him," where he credits his survival to the support from his friendship with Kalman.
    On January 17, 1945 Jakob and Kalman were evacuated by foot from Auschwitz and sent to Gleiwitz; they then went by open train car to Mauthausen and then to the sub-camp Melk, arriving on January 29, 1945. Life in Melk was even more difficult than in Auschwitz. Jakob had to dig tunnels, which was extremely difficult work. He could not shower and became covered with lice. Jakob had acquired two watches in Auschwitz which he used to bribe a hospital supervisor to admit Kalman and him to the ward. They remained in the hospital until they were sent to Ebensee on a death march leaving April 14 and arriving April 20. On May 5th, 1945 all of the prisoners left in Ebensee were called for the last roll call. The camp captain appeared and said that the Americans were getting closer. They suggested that the inmates hide in a tunnel in the mountain to be safe from the bombing. The prisoners refused and later learned that the Germans had placed explosives in the tunnel and planned to blow it up together with the prisoners. On May 6th, the Germans disappeared having fled during the night.

    After gathering their strength for a few weeks, Kalman and Jakob decided to return to Pruzhany and crossed into the Russian zone. There they were caught, drafted into the Russian army and marched in the direction of Vienna. When they stopped in a cowshed on the first night, the two youth decided to hide and not continue on. They had planned to go by train to Vienna, but were spotted by a local woman who noticed how different hey looked and soon were arrested as army deserters. When the Russian mayor of the town asked who they were, they explained that they were newly released concentration camp victims and did not have the strength to serve in the army. The mayor responded in Yiddish and told them to disappear. They decided not to go to Pruzhany but rather to try to get to Palestine via Budapest. Once in Budapest, they were sent to an address where they were told they would get help. There Jakob met a soldier from the Jewish Brigade who upon hearing his name asked him if he had a brother Eliyahu in Kibbutz Dafna. He told him he would be meeting him there days later in Tarvisio and would smuggle the boys there. Jakob met his brother for the first time on June 31, 1945. Jakob was given a Jewish Brigade uniform and sent with a group of soldiers returning home via the port of Bari. However the ruse did not work and Jakob was sent back to a training course for new immigrants where he remained until September 1945 arriving in Palestine on September 21. Jakob joined the Haganah and was part of a unit that guarded the Haifa-Athlit road. He met and married Rivka, a nurse from Pruzhany, on September 29, 1948. They have two children and six grandchildren.

    Physical Details

    Hebrew English Polish
    2 folders

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    Keywords & Subjects

    Geographic Name
    Pruz︠h︡any (Belarus)

    Administrative Notes

    Yaakov Yovel donated his memoir to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2012.
    Record last modified:
    2023-02-24 13:38:21
    This page:

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