A chance e-mail received decades after the war helped Judy Maltz crack a mystery that had puzzled her since childhood: Who was the boy who showed up at her grandparents’ door in Galicia in 1944, and what became of him?
In late autumn 1944, an emaciated boy dressed in rags showed up with no warning at my grandparents’ doorstep, in the small town of Sokal, in eastern Poland. They rushed to find him some clean clothes and sat him down for a warm meal.
My grandparents were naturally overjoyed to discover that this landsman, who also happened to be a distant relative, had somehow survived the Holocaust. What they couldn’t figure out, though, was why it had taken him so long to find his way back, considering that the Germans had been gone for months - the Soviets had liberated this part of Eastern Europe as early as July 1944.
So why had this boy shown up only now? For a very simple reason, as he was to explain to my grandparents over a lengthy conversation at their kitchen table: It was only now that he had learned that the war was over and that the Germans were gone.
Since he had escaped the Sokal ghetto in May 1943, just before its final liquidation, he had been hiding out in the woods nearby, moving around from bunker to bunker to keep the Germans off his trail. But with the harsh days of winter approaching, he knew he would not be able to rely on the sun much longer to heat his food or keep himself warm. And so, he had ventured out into civilization in search of matches.
In the first town beyond the forest, he located the home of a gentile woman his family had known before the war. He knocked on her door and asked if she could spare a box of matches. Her response stunned him. “What are you still doing in the woods?” she asked. “All your friends are back in Sokal. Haven’t you heard that the war is over?”
This story of the boy who hadn’t known the war was over until he went out looking for matches fascinated me since I first heard it many years ago from my grandfather. What if he had never gone out on that foray? How long would he have continued hiding from the already defeated enemy? How was it that everyone else had figured out that the war was over? And whatever became of him? Read more.