The Baker Legacy

As a young married couple, Riva and Erwin Baker survived the Holocaust narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Germans in the western Ukraine. Riva, born Rivka Leah Burko, came from the shtetl (village) of Miedzyrec (the Polish name) or Mezeritsh (the Yiddish name). She was one of eight children born to Mordechai and Faiga Burko. Erwin, born Izak Bebczuk, was born in the neighboring town of Ludwipol (Polish) or Selitsch (Yiddish) to Leib and Gisia Bebczuk and was the oldest of four children. Rivka and Izak were the sole survivors of their immediate families. With the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Mezeritsh fell under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union. However, on July 2, 1941, the German Army occupied the town, forcing all Jews to register and wear a yellow Star of David. Izak was conscripted into working for the Germans as a ghetto was formed in the town. On May 25, 1942, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the first massacre occurred in Mezeritsh. Rivka recalled hearing Germans shouting "Jews to your death!" As her family fled, Rivka insisted on waiting for her husband. When Izak returned, they hid first in a neighboring house behind an armoire and then in an attic. On the outskirts of the town, the Jews of Mezeritsh were made to dig their own graves and then were machine-gunned. Izak returned to work for the Germans. Rivka's mother, who had survived this first mass murder, deposited Rivka with Polish non-Jews whom she bribed with gold. When the Polish gentile refused to harbor her any longer, Rivka pleaded with him to wait for her


husband. When she was about to be driven out, Izak arrived and the two of them ran off to the forest. There, Izak dug a hole in the ground, covered it with branches, and they hid there for one and a half years. Rivka referred to it as "the grave." On September 23, 1942, the first day of Succoth, the remainder of the Jews of Mezeritsh was slaughtered.

Liberated by the Russians in 1944, Rivka and Izak returned to Mezeritsh to learn that none of their family members had survived. Prostitutes now inhabited their house and family photographs were strewn on the floor. Rivka salvaged the pictures and pleaded with Izak to take her from the town. They eventually made their way to a displaced persons' camp in Italy. Izak's uncles in Detroit brought them to America where they became Erwin and Riva Baker. The Holocaust left the Bakers with permanent wounds, with Riva plagued by questions about her own survival. When Erwin died, she cried: "He saved me from Hitler!" The Bakers did not become bitter people. They maintained their devotion to Yiddish culture and Orthodox Judaism. Although the Bakers had no children, Steven Gershman (whose father came from the same town as Riva) took care of Riva for 25 years. It was to him that she recounted her stories of what she and her husband had endured. Riva died on September 23, 2004, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most solemn holiday in the Jewish calendar, and on the 62nd anniversary of the annihilation of the Jewish community of Mezeritsh.

Collage of photos of Erwin and Riva Baker