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Cutting nippers used by a Polish Jewish refugee conscripted as a shoemaker by the Soviet Army

Object | Accession Number: 2004.523.22

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    Cutting nippers used by a Polish Jewish refugee conscripted as a shoemaker by the Soviet Army


    Brief Narrative
    Cutting nippers used by Simon Gelbart, who was conscripted into the Soviet Army from 1943-1945 because of his shoemaking skills. Simon was a master shoemaker and kept his shoemaking kit with him all through the war. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Simon kept moving his family, his wife, Sara, and sons David, 9, and Haim, 5, east to escape persecution. Soon after they reached Soviet territory, the family was arrested and sent to Siberian Labor Camp #70, where a daughter was born. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, they were released. Due to a bombing raid on their train, they were detained and that winter, the Soviets sent the family to Krotovka collective farm. Everything had been confiscated for the war effort and the farmers were Jew haters who would not help them. Haim died of starvation, but a devout Christian women took in David. In 1943, Simon was forced to join the Red Army to repair shoes for the soldiers. He was stationed on the front lines and his family followed him until the war ended in May 1945. Simon was released from service in 1946 and the family returned to Łódź. Because of the vicious antisemitism there, Simon paid the underground to take them to west Germany where they were sent to Eschwege displaced persons camp. Denied permission to emigrate to Israel, the family went to the United States in 1951. Simon carried his shoemaking kit with him, but he never made shoes again.
    use:  1925-1951
    use: Soviet Union
    use: Poland
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of David Gelbart
    upper handle, stamped : ITALY
    Subject: Simon Gelbart
    Simon Aaron Gelbart was born on March 15, 1908, in Warta, Poland, the youngest of thirteen children. His father, Israel David, was a prosperous orchard keeper and fur trader who died in 1915. Simon’s mother died soon after. None of Simon’s siblings, who had families of their own, took him in and 7 year old Simon became homeless and lived on the street. In 1923, Simon became an apprentice shoemaker to an Orthodox Jew, Zisha Nitka, in Kalisz, Poland. Simon married his daughter, Sura Rivka (Sara), in 1929. They lived and worked in a single basement room without running water or electricity. Sara bought old shoes from which they salvaged the leather and sold the scraps to other craftsman. Simon was well known for his high quality work making and repairing shoes. The couple had two sons, David, born September 17, 1930, and Haim, in 1934. The household was kept kosher, but Simon’s family was not Orthodox, although they observed the Sabbath and holidays. The family spoke Yiddish.
    On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The family fled, taking a baby carriage filled with belongings. Zisha, too old to run, stayed behind. The Polish Army set fire to anything that could be useful to the Germans. The family walked twenty miles to a small town where they stayed with Sara’s brother. A week later, the Germans ordered refugees to return home and the Gelbart’s returned to Kalisz. In January 1940, the Germans began to round-up Jews for deportation. They were held in an open area enclosed by a double barbed wire fence. When Simon learned that they were to be deported, he hollowed out the heels of everyone’s shoes to hide their money. The family was marched out of their home and the apartment sealed. Simon took his shoemaking tools and left a window open in case they needed to get back in. Once imprisoned, Simon realized that he had left his razor and sharpening stone behind. David escaped through a hole in the fence, returned and entered through the window. He retrieved the items and returned to the camp.
    The family was deported to Warsaw and told they must move into the ghetto. Simon refused and the family took a train to Sompolno. Within a month, the Germans ordered the Jews into the ghetto. Again, Simon refused. They headed east, renting a horse and carriage at the next town. They were ferried across a river by smugglers, and, unable to afford a guide, followed a guided group. The next morning, they met a farmer took them to Russian occupied Siemiatycze (Semyatich). Zisha passed away. Simon worked as a shoemaker and Sara as a maid.
    In 1940, two Jewish men with red armbands asked Simon to become a Russian citizen and he declined. Russian soldiers arrested the family. Simon took his shoemaking tools, and Sara, a can of seasoned beef fat. They were transported to Siberia and loaded onto horse pulled carts that ran on wooden rails. Prisoners coming from the opposite direction yelled at them to keep any edible plants they could find. The family arrived at Siberian Labor Camp #70 on the Volyshka River near the Arctic Circle. They lived in one room with wooden beds without bedding and a wood burning stove. There were no guards because there was nowhere to go. The boys attended a Russian school. Simon, ill from malnutrition and ung disease, cleaned stables and groomed the horses. Sara worked as a maid. During the Russo-Finnish war, November 30th, 1939-March 13th, 1940, the prisoners were forgotten and received one daily piece of bread. To feed the camp, Simon slaughtered horses from which the cooks made soup. He would sneak some meat and Sara cooked it in the beef fat. Simon was reassigned to hard labor cutting down trees and hauling wood. On his first day, he failed to make the quota and was imprisoned for six months. A pregnant Sara left to have her baby in the main camp, Labor Camp #1, leaving David and Haim alone until Simon’s release. Their daughter, Sina, was born prematurely, and with the lack of food, she became mentally handicapped. To survive, the starving family ate dead fish Simon found in the river.
    On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded Russia. The family was released and left for Stalingrad. The Germans bombed the railroad and the family was detained in Kuibyshev. In the winter of 1942, the Russian government transferred them to the Krotovka collective farm on the Volga River near Ulianovsk. They lived in a large house without heat, electricity, or water, with another Jewish family. They had no food and the other farmers were Jew haters who refused to help. Haim died from starvation. Simon repaired shoes when scraps of leather could be found. The family moved to a smaller house that they shared with the Mida family. One day, Simon and Mida saw dogs eating horse carcasses near the stable. The farmers would not eat meat from animals that died from unknown causes, but Simon and Mida cut meat from the carcasses for their families. Everything from the farm had been confiscated by the government for the war effort. They were all ill from starvation. Sara used shoe wax to fry any scraps of food they found. David learned to make the sign of the cross and say “Christ has risen” and, on Christian holidays, went to villages and used his Christian gestures to beg for food. A devout Christian women, Pashinka Bravina, took David in and kept him fed regularly with milk and bread for eighteen months.

    In late 1943, Simon was drafted into the Russian Workers Army to work in a government cartel repairing shoes for the soldiers. He lived with a communist Jewish family in Ulianovsk. Then he was sent to the frontlines near Odessa and the family followed. Simon worked after hours repairing shoes and Sara sold leather scraps. The extra money allowed David to go to the movies and the family to buy food. Simon stole enough leather to make fifteen year old David a pair of too large Russian style boots that David could wear for many years. The war ended in May 1945, and in 1946, the family was released and returned to Łódź. Antisemitism was prevalent and Simon felt it put his family at risk. He paid an underground Zionist group to help the family leave Poland for Germany. They were transported to Berlin by a Russian truck and driver. At the border of Russian occupied Berlin, the driver told the guard he was transporting German prisoners. The guard said they should be killed, but the driver gave him a bottle of vodka and some pork and the guard let them pass. The Gelbarts walked to the American zone and then were sent to Eschwege displaced persons camp. A son, Abraham, was born there on June 18, 1946. David went to auto mechanics school, joined a Zionist organization, and was recruited into Haganah, a defense organization active in the struggle for an independent state of Israel. Simon wanted to emigrate to Palestine and bought shoemaking equipment to open a shop. He found out that only David, as an able-bodied soldier, now in officer training school in France, was permitted to emigrate. Simon went to France and told David’s commanding officer that if David was to go to Palestine the whole family had to go. The commander said this was not possible and David returned to Germany. A few months later, the family received visas to emigrate to the United States. They arrived in New York in March 1951 and settled in Omaha, Nebraska. Simon sometimes repaired, but never made, another pair of shoes. Simon, 71, died of lung cancer on June 1, 1980, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sara, 85, passed away on September 28, 1992, in Omaha.

    Physical Details

    Tools and Equipment
    Hand tools
    Object Type
    Nippers (aat)
    Physical Description
    Black steel cutting nippers with 2 cylindrical handles that extend and widen into a circular cutting head with pointed pincers that meet at the flat edges. The 2 sections connect and pivot with a rivet. The front and back of the handles are flat and the sides are rounded. English text is engraved on the handle near the rivet. One pincer edge is chipped and there is white residue on the pincers.
    overall: Height: 7.750 inches (19.685 cm) | Width: 2.000 inches (5.08 cm) | Depth: 1.000 inches (2.54 cm)
    overall : metal

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    No restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    The cutting nippers were donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2004 by David Gelbart, the son of Simon Gelbart.
    Funding Note
    The cataloging of this artifact has been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
    Record last modified:
    2022-08-30 15:10:13
    This page:

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