Rubin Pizem was born in the early 1930s in Przemyslany, then in Poland, presently in Ukraine. His parents were Chaim Wiederkher, who was born in Narajov, and Sophia Turkisz-Pizem, who was born in Przemnsylany.
Chaim, a learned person who received smicha from the Brezyan Rav, was from a warm, pious family, part of the Chortkov Chassidim who were connected to the Belzer Rav. Sophia’s family, also religious, worked in the agricultural business and oversaw hundreds of acres in the surrounding villages. They employed hundreds of workers and were known for their generosity and hospitality. They often provided housing to those in need and ensured the villagers, Jews, and gentiles alike, were taken care of and safe.
After serving in WWI and barely surviving a leg injury, Chaim returned to his full-time religious learning, marrying Sophia, who managed their businesses, importing agricultural machinery and manufacturing rugs and carpets. They had three children: Esther, Rubin, and Ida. They grew up in an observant Jewish loving home and spoke Yiddish, Polish and Ukrainian. The family was incredibly close and supportive of each other, and neighbors and employees always knew they were a kind, welcoming family.
At the time of Rubin’s birth, Jews made up one-third of the citizens of Przemnsylany.
By 1939, Russians were in the town of Przemyslany. The family tried to maintain their way of living but knew that there were dangerous times ahead. They remained in contact with the Belzer Rebbe’s supporters and arrangements were made to house the Belzer Rebbe’s son, Rav Moishele, in the Wiederkehr family home.
In July 1941, the Ukranians torched the main shul in Przemyslany, near the Wiederkehr home, where the Belzer Rebbez had previously davened and once hidden. Reb Moishele noticed the main synagogue in flames and believing the rumors that his father, the Belzer Rav, was still in hiding in the attic above the shul, cried out in a panic for his father. This alerted the German murderers, and they threw him into the burning shul.
By November 1941, the situation had become more dire for the Jews. There was a mandate issued for men between the ages of 15-65 to register for work. No details about the kind of work were provided, but many assumed it would be for the German military. Chaim and his brothers-in-law Nuchim and Wolf followed the mandate and went to the meeting place in a nearby forest. The Germans told them to dig a large pit and then shot them.
The horrors continued. The Germans then came to the Wiederkehr home and “converted” it to a Jewish hospital as the actiones began. Jews were brought to the local police and killed on the spot or transported to labor camps.
By 1942, the ghetto was established. Jews were forced to move into crowded apartments without basic provisions and lived under difficult conditions. Many died from diseases, starvation, and physical torture. Esther was shot on the run in the ghetto in 1942, date unknown, while trying to find food for the family.
By May 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, but Sophia and her remaining two children hid under a concealed bunker and managed to run to the home of Mikhail Sokolik, an employee who had been employed by Sophia’s family. Mikhail and his 23-year-old son, Ivan, dug a pit in the barn, padded it with straw on the inside, and covered it over with wooden planks. The Pizems stayed in that place for more than three months, receiving their daily meals from Mikhail ’s wife Katerina or her young daughters. Despite the many precautions that the Sokoliks took, their neighbors noticed that something about them was different, and rumors began to spread that they were hiding someone. To prevent disaster, Mikhail hurried to take the Pizems away from the village, and brought them to the woods of Czemerynci, where other Jews were hiding. (The Sokoliks were recognized by Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations in 2003.)
Sophia and her children endured bitter winters, dangerous heat waves, lice, and other indescribable conditions.
After over a horrific year of hiding, the Red Army drove the Germans out of the area in July 1944. Sophia and her remaining two children stayed in Przemyślany (by then Peremyshliany), until 1956 and then left for Poland.
Life was difficult in a different way after the war ended. The government gave them a small apartment and a modest stipend for living, but they rarely had enough food or other necessities. Sophia took on housekeeping jobs and was determined to provide bar mitzvah lessons for Rubin while rebuilding their lives. Rubin and Ida attended public school and devoted themselves to their mother and to school. Rubin excelled in academics, eventually enrolling at Lvov University where he intended to study law but was denied entrance because he was Jewish. A trusted professor encouraged him to enroll in the Russian program and then transfer to a different department. Despite his excellence, Rubin was only admitted to the History department.
Antisemitism was still rampant, and Sophia knew she had to find a way to leave for the west. Finally, they were able to leave. Rubin came to New York in the mid 1960s. His mother and sister followed within the year.
Rubin wanted to find a teaching job, but no one recognized his non-American degrees, so he resorted to manual labor in a clothing factory and drove a taxi. After a few years, he managed to secure a teaching position in Allendale High School, New Jersey, where he was a beloved teacher of History and Russian. After that, he found a job at NYANA, the New York Association for New Americans. As a trusted case worker, he helped new immigrants avoid the difficulties he endured.
Rubin married and lovingly raised a family in New Jersey. Rubin died on July 20, 2020.