Jacob Karolinski was born on July 13th, 1911 in Poland. He had five brothers: four older, and one younger. Their father owned a tanning factory. At that time, there were only private schools available, but there were too many children in the family and their father could not afford to send them. The only education the children received was their religious education at home.
Jacob was drafted into the Polish army in 1936. He married his first wife Malka in 1937 and immediately returned to his military service. War broke out between Poland and Germany in 1939. Jacob remembers the Russians taking all of the rich Poles to Siberia. They also took away the family’s factory. During this time, Jacob was forced to work in a lumber factory. He soon came down with appendicitis and was sent home to his mother in law. His father was still running the tannery, but was working under the Russian government. This was favorable because it ensured him a job and a home for his family.
In 1941, the Russians built a large airplane base near the German border. Jacob was drafted into the Russian army and was forced to leave everything behind, including his new wife and children. He remembers fleeing from the Germans, who pursued and bombed Russian cities in their path. At this point, Jacob was sent out of the Russian army, but he had nowhere to go. He went to another draft office, but was turned away again. He recalls how the Nazis bombed all over the countryside. Jacob then returned to his home to see his family. He took his wife and children to live with a sister who lived outside of the city. He recalls there being a strict curfew of 5pm for the Jews.
Jacob soon fled Poland again. Once more he left his family behind and fled to Russia. There, he remembers living with a large group of people. Together, they lived in the woods. At this time, the Russian government established a labor camp in Siberia, and came to Jacob’s settlement looking for laborers. He volunteered with a friend to work as a roofer. In the camp, they built barracks and ammunitions factories.
Jacob remembers Yom Kippur in the camp. He tells a story about how he commented that they should observe. His fellow workers then began to wonder if they had done something to deserve what happened, and so they all stopped working and began to pray. However, their makeshift service was discovered by the Russians who accused them of having an unauthorized meeting and dispersed the group.
Jacob soon became a supervisor in his camp. He recalls the sense of community that he felt there. All of the inmates helped each other get by. Soon, the Russian authorities came seeking someone who knew how to make leather. Jacob knew because of his father’s factory. This led to a job making clothing and shoes for the Russian military.
In 1943, a treaty was signed requiring Jacob to go back to the Polish army and fight the Nazis. However, he was able to retain his position in the Russian army. Once the war ended, Jacob assumed he could return home like the rest of the soldiers. However, the Russian authorities told him that he had to stay in the army. They offered to station him wherever he chose, but he wanted to return to Poland. Eventually, he was granted special permission to do so. Jacob had learned by this time that his wife, his children, and two of his brothers had been killed in the camps, and he never heard anything about the rest of his family. Jacob knew that if he didn’t marry he would have to stay in Russia in jail, so he left the country with a girl he met who also wanted to leave. The two traveled to her hometown to visit her parents, then got married soon after.
Once in Poland, Jacob was arrested for not having fought in the Polish army. His new wife bailed him out, and the two tried to get visas to avoid having to go back to jail. They worked on a German kibbutz in Poland for a while, then left and went into Czechoslovakia, then to Vienna, then through a series of displaced persons camps. The Jewish Federation wanted to send the two to Israel, but Jacob wanted to come to America to find one of his older brothers who had moved here before Jacob was born. He got in touch with his brother, who sent him the money to make the trip. Jacob and his wife soon moved to America to live with his brother.
Interviewed by Barbara Applebaum