From the couch in her apartment, Old Bridge resident Poline Belote shared the trials and tribulations of her family during the Holocaust and how she managed to see her “first dream” become a reality in America.
In June 1941, Adolf Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union commenced. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, the violent siege of territory spanned 1,800 miles across Eastern Europe. By July 1941, the Nazis would reach and occupy the Ukrainian city of Shepetovka, the hometown of Poline Belote.
Considered a location of importance for its railroad infrastructure, Shepetovka, now called Shepetivka, became a target of the German advance in World War II. In lieu of the Nazis’ imminent arrival, Belote’s father, Aaron Merkher, opted to remain in the city temporarily while his wife, Maria Zalis, fled with their children to safety.
With a limited timeframe to escape, Belote’s mother, who worked as a nurse, snuck the children onto a military train with wounded soldiers. With the train destined for Russia, Belote, her mother and her seven-year-old brother, Yefim, left Shepetovka without their father.
Thankfully, her father, who served as the head of the town’s largest bank, would also barely escape as the Germans arrived.
Belote explained that before fleeing, her father traveled to Kiev to share important documents regarding the bank. To get to Kiev, he boarded the last departing train, which she says was reminiscent of a movie scene.
“He was last going out. He was a very honest person. He decided to take old papers from the bank to Kiev, because Kiev was the capital of Ukraine.
“Like a report of how he left the bank and in what condition. He went on a train, on the last wagon, it was like in a movie. He went out and Germans come at the same track,” Belote said.
Between 1941 and 1942, it’s estimated that more than 4,000 Jews from Shepetovka perished from mass executions, labor camps and typhus.
Despite narrowly escaping persecution, the misfortunes for Belote’s family continued.
At just one year and three months old, Belote became severely ill with a blood disease during the slow voyage to Russia. As a result, she, along with her mother and brother, were thrown off the train into the field.
Determined to reach safety, her mother continued the difficult journey on foot, walking 24 miles to the nearest town where Belote’s family would be split again.
Shortly after arriving, Belote and her mother were admitted into a hospital where she remained with her mother for two weeks. Her brother was briefly placed into an orphanage that unbeknownst to Belote’s mother, would be evacuated from town to avoid Germans.
With another time-sensitive decision to make, Belote’s mother decided to search for her son and entrusted a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl named Valentina Pochiluk to care for her daughter.
“She went to the town because she wanted to put me in the hospital. So, she came to the hospital, they had her with me. But my brother was put in an orphanage for a while. I was with mother for two weeks in the hospital. When we came out, the orphanage was evacuated with my brother.
“My mother left me with a young woman, 16 years old, taking care of me for a while, to find the orphanage and to find my brother. She and my brother could not come back to the town because Germans came there.
“I became alone with that young woman, 16 years old. I know her name because I call her mother for four years. Her name is Valentina Pochiluk,” she said.
While in Pochiluk’s care, Belote lived in a small village amongst farm animals and humorously recalls being chased by “scary” roosters and pigs. For her, these “small things” were core memories that reflected the simple moments of her childhood.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Belote said that Pochiluk made a conscious effort to not only protect her, but to love her.
“She loved me very much, I know that for sure. What she gave me, I know now. I call her mother, and this is how I survived,” Belote said.
Despite the heartfelt reflections, the harsh reality of her situation was still at the forefront. Three years had elapsed since Belote was with her family. With the war still raging on, their whereabouts were still unknown.
However, in early 1944, Pochiluk and Belote would cross the Volga River in Russia. On the other side, an unexpected miracle awaited them.
“We went across the Volga. We came to some village. I remember that was my mother crying. Probably, because we found each other. I don’t know too much about it,” Belote said.
Belote explained that her mother was stricken with guilt for leaving her behind. Even decades later, she said that her mother avoided conversations about those traumatic experiences. Thus, giving Belote limited information about what truly happened.
Besides her mother, Belote’s brother and several family members were also living in the village. Although miraculously reunited, Belote says her mother struggled with caring for both children.
“My brother was there, and some family was there. It was a lot of people living in that little house, I don’t know what it was.
“I remember I was sleeping on a very little red blanket. I remember somebody put milk in a little cup near me on the floor. I was crying without stopping for a long time.
“My mother was suffering a lot with us,” Belote said.
Her mother eventually found work as a nurse, as Pochiluk helped to watch the children. Belote credits her mother for saving them as they relocated to Chernivtsi, Ukraine, in 1944. By this time, Chernivtsi had been “liberated” by the Red Army in March.
According to Belote, they were permitted into Chernivtsi because of her mother’s Ukrainian nationality and occupation as a nurse. On the contrary, she states that her father, who was Jewish, could not enter the city as some Jews were denied entry. But since Belote’s mother was Ukrainian, an exception was made that granted him access to the city.
Yet, despite the complete reunification of their family, antisemitism in Chernivtsi would introduce new threats and challenges. The Jews who survived the war developed a cohesive identity that strengthened their resolve.
In response, concerned Soviet authorities classified this demographic as a potential threat to Soviet ideals. Furthermore, government malpractice combined with a severe drought resulted in a prolonged famine that killed an estimated 100,000 to one million people.
“Some Ukrainian nationalists were behaving worse than Nazis. They were killing people in Chernivtsi. We went through a lot of bad things there. They were killing children; they were doing awful things there. It was 1944, 1945. In 1946 we had famine, in 1947 we had famine. There was nothing to eat.
“My father used to go to the villages. He was working for the Soviet government. Each time mother was crying when he used to go for work. But that’s how we survived, we had something to eat. He used to bring something from the villages,” Belote said.
Belote’s family managed to survive the aftermath of World War II and the country-wide famine. As she grew older, she continued to face rejection and discrimination. Antisemitism remained a constant obstacle in her life while working and studying in Ukraine and Russia. However, she ultimately channeled her work ethic and love of education to attend college and become an engineer.
With a husband and two children of her own, she grew weary of the poor living conditions in Chernivtsi. Her family of four resided in a single cramped space that shared a kitchen and bathroom with two other families. The unwelcomed presence of rats and the existence of numerous health hazards reinforced Belote’s decision to finally leave the country.
“I was living in horror … that’s why I decided to move from the country as soon as possible, I couldn’t take it. So, I’d been living in that apartment for a long time with my small children. Three times a year, they had pneumonia.
“I was sick, my husband was sick because it was very wet. My walls were half-black from the water. It was very bad, and I was happy to leave the country,” Belote said.
At the beginning of 1973, Belote and her family finally immigrated to America via Brooklyn, New York.
They arrived with $300 to a second-floor apartment in East Flatbush near Kings County Hospital. Although the apartment was completely empty, it still featured what Belote never had back home.
“Drywalls, I was kissing them all the time. It was a bed, it was a toilet, it was everything that I didn’t have,” she said.
For Belote, the culture shock and unfamiliar scenery signified a new beginning for not only her, but the next generation.
“We came to the United States with a dream, to give education to my children. It was my first dream, number one … They are both married, healthy, and have families. They have children. What else do I need? Whatever I dreamed, I got it.
“I was happy to come to this country. I love this country. I got my children an education. I got a good job in my profession … In eight-and-a-half years, I bought a house. Could you believe it? I was proud that I did it. Nobody gave me anything,” Belote said.
Belote’s two sons, Miroslav and Jan, both went on to graduate college and find success in their respective careers. In total, Belote has five grandchildren and four great grandchildren, with two on the way.
Belote’s younger sister, Nona, was born near the conclusion of the war and survived. She eventually immigrated to the United States in 1974 together with her parents. Their brother, Yefim, also survived and made it to the United States, where he passed away in 2009.
In 2007, Belote’s beloved childhood caretaker, Valentina Pochiluk, passed away in Ukraine.
Belote’s parents, Aaron and Maria, also came to the United States. Maria passed away in 1991, while Aaron passed away in 2002.
Now, after enduring a lifetime of struggle, Belote lives in solace and peace with her cat, Count Mishkin.