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July 12, 1991 - Image 23

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1991-07-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

that would never heal.
Those who survived do
not forget. Among them
is Elkhonon Yoffe of Bir-
mingham.

T

he first to occupy Elk-
honon Yoffe's country
were the Soviets. As
part of the Ribbentrop-
Molotov Pact, the German-
Soviet non-agression treaty
signed on Aug. 23, 1939, the
Nazis "allowed" the Com-
munists to take over Latvia.
Elkhonon was 11 at • the
time. "It was very exciting
for us boys," he says of the
invasion. "One boy was
running around calling,
`Let's go watch! The tanks
are coming!' We'd never
seen tanks in our lives."
Though fierce — the
Communist invaders for-
bade Jewish education and
religious practice — the
Soviet control of Latvia
was short-lived. Less than
a year after the Ribben-
trop-Molotov Pact was
signed, Germany began
advancing toward Latvia.
"Like many Jewish
families, we decided to
leave Riga," says Mr.
Yoffe, now librarian for the
Detroit Symphony Or-
chestra. "We were not sure
which of the two bads was
worse. But we knew Ger-
many was killing the Jews.
Russia didn't have such a
policy; all peoples were op-
pressed there."
The train Elkohon Yoffe
and his family boarded
that June 28 afternoon
belonged to the Red Army.
It was the last to leave
Latvia, and at first the
Yoffes doubted they would
be able to get on.
"The train was already
overloaded," Mr. Yoffe
recalls. "We saw people
trying to pull their
relatives on board, through
the windows."
At the last minute,
Zalman Yoffe noticed a
baggage car at the back of
the train. He opened the
door and jumped in, follow-
ed by his family and hun-
dreds of other Jews.
"We knew only that the
train was taking us east,

away from the Germans,"
Mr. Yoffe says.
The train eventually
stopped at a kolkhoz, a
Russian collective farm.
Zalman Yoffe worked cut-
ting grass and storing and
drying food for the winter.
His wife also worked on the
farm and in the evenings
painted houses for nearby
residents.
Elkhonon's first job was
digging gardens during the
spring. His pay for one
day's work was a cup of
raw rice. Later, he found a
job at a shop near the
railroad, four miles from
the kolkhoz. He learned to
cut metal.
"The teacher handed me
a hammer and tools, then
told me to hammer hard
and not to look at my hands
when I worked. My fingers
became all bloody," Mr.
Yoffe recalls. "It was a
hard education."

Elkhonon's only pleasure
was singing. Once a mem-
ber of the Riga Boy's Choir,
he attracted his Soviet
boss' attention one day
while singing a Russian
folk song.
"Sing louder!" the boss
told him. Other workers
drew near to listen. Later,
they dubbed Elkhonon
"Carmen," in honor of the
opera in which he had sung
in Riga. "They didn't know
Carmen is a lady's name."

Like every other family
they knew, the Yoffes hung
a large map in their home.
It showed Europe and the
Soviet Union, and the
Yoffes regularly traced
with small flag pins the
progress of the Allied
army. Their hero was
Stalin.
"We belieVed Stalin was
our liberator," Mr. Yoffe
says. "Everyone did. The
propaganda was working
full force.
"We had neighbors from
Leningrad who had a
grandpa with a large,
white beard. They were not
Jewish, but the grand-
father was speaking so
much against Stalin.
"We couldn't even listen
to him," Mr. Yoffe says. "It

Above:
Elkhonon Yoffe just
after the war: "God
opened the door for
us."

Below:
Elkhonon Yoffe
playing xylophone
with the Riga State
Symphony.

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