Houston’s Survivors

Michael Breston*

“When they told us to dig our graves, I saw people try to do something with their gold that they were still hiding. I was walking on gold coins and I didn’t pick them up. What’s the use? And I knew how hard the people who had the gold had to work, what they denied themselves. I cannot help to think every time I see people accumulating worldly possessions, including myself, what for, why not live a full life, enjoy life and be grateful for every day that comes along?”

As a child, Michael Breston spoke Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish—all necessary in a small town that had come under Polish control after World War I, but where the majority of the people were ethnic Ukrainians. Most were openly hostile to their Jewish neighbors. Michael remembered that “your security was pretty much in your own hands.” Fortunately, he had a large extended family and its members looked out for one another.

When German troops invaded Poland from the west in the fall of 1939, the USSR shocked the world community by overrunning eastern Poland. Under the terms of a secret protocol signed the month before, Poland was to be partitioned into Soviet and German spheres of influence. Rafałówka, Michael’s hometown, fell to the Soviets. Michael’s family managed to endure the Soviet occupation, but worse was yet to come. When Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, it occupied eastern Poland. The Jews of Rafałówka were isolated in a ghetto.

One day when Michael’s father was outside the ghetto on a work detail, all of the remaining inhabitants were ordered to dig holes. Michael refused, taking refuge in an attic, but his mother and brother reported as ordered. From his cramped hiding place, Michael heard shots being fired. That day, the Germans murdered 2,250 Jews. The holes that his mother and his brother had dug became their graves.

Eventually Michael was reunited with his father and the two managed to make contact with the Russian partisans. They stayed with the partisans for the rest of the war, living in the woods until Russian troops approached in early 1945. Michael was 14 when he was liberated.

After liberation, Michael went to Lublin and then to France where he completed his secondary education. Michael’s father came to the U.S. in 1949 and Michael followed in 1951. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, Michael worked for the U.S. Patent Office while he earned his law degree from George Washington University. A job with Schlumberger International brought him to Houston in 1960. He married Eva Zabarski and had four grown children: Alberta, Matthew, David and Daniel.

William (b. Wols) Berezniak, survived
Cypa Berezniak, d. Rafałówka, 1942

Mates, d. Rafałówka, 1942