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Alex (Chaim Yitzchak) Folkman

Alex Folkman was born Chaim Yitzhak Rothenberg on June 10, 1922, to a Chassidic family in the small town of Tylicz, Poland. Nestled at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, Tylicz was in southern Poland, near the Czechoslovakian border and not far from the resort town of Krynica, where his family enjoyed cultural activities and recreation. The area was known for its rich mineral baths, which had therapeutic properties.

For seventeen years, Chaim lived a happy and wholesome life with his three younger brothers, parents, and grandparents, who were religious, business, and local political leaders. His father, a Bobove Chaside, owned a general store that also specialized in leather goods. He held a position as Radny in town, equivalent to a current-day councilman. Chaim Yitzhak learned much about agriculture, nature, local industries, and sports. From a very young age, he was mechanically inclined, inquisitive, and enterprising.

Many Jews at the time had two last names. In Chaim’s case, his grandparents were not married in civil court. Therefore, he assumed his paternal grandmother’s last name, Folkman. In school, he was Folkman-Rothenberg. He attended cheder and Polish public school until 8th grade. He was sent to Yeshiva outside Tylicz until the war broke out in 1939. He had no subsequent formal education after that.

Chaim’s first memories of war were the local Slovak insurgents, the henchmen of Hitler’s regime, entering Tylicz in September 1939. In the first week of the war, Chaim and his family escaped to a nearby town and returned one week later, only to find their homes and synagogues pillaged. Two weeks later, on Rosh Hashanah, about thirty German border patrol police entered the town and set up headquarters in the local school. They told the youth to pile all the Torahs and books from the synagogue into the yard and burn them. Years later, Chaim said he could still feel the smoke filling his nostrils. 

The oppression was cruel and relentless. One day, seventeen-year-old Chaim crossed paths with a German officer named Schmeiber. Schmeiber threw him up against a fence with a gun to his head. Chaim heard the pistol click as the officer questioned: “Sprichst du Deutch?” Chaim answered him in clear and proficient German, convincing the officer that he could help him by shining his boots and offering his mechanical skills. The officer agreed, and these tasks afforded Chaim some mobility in and out of town. 

Life was treacherous, but the family was still intact and remained in their homes until the fall of 1940, at which point Jews from Tylicz were ordered to leave and move to a more central town in Poland called Florynka. Their stay in Florynka was brief. In the summer of 1941, they were sent to a ghetto in Nova Sanz called Grybow. This was part of the Nazi’s plans to congregate Jews more centrally for deportation. 

In Grybow, Chaim Yitzhak’s brother, Avraham Meir, registered with the Judenrat, the Jewish Council in the ghetto, to obtain bread rations. However, by doing so, he was sent to a labor camp, where the conditions were unbearable. Chaim chose not to register for the half loaf of bread and instead procured food for his family from local farms at night by fishing and other methods.

On Yom Kippur, 1941, Avraham Meir escaped from the labor camp and returned to his home. Afraid of retribution by the Nazis, their parents made the heart-wrenching decision to send Chaim Yitzchak and Avraham Meir away. Their mother sent their two other brothers, Nosson Yehuda and Shimon Nehemia, out the back door and down the path to hand a small bag to their two older brothers, who were waiting in the bushes so as not to be seen leaving. In that bag was a set of underwear and their tefillin. That was the last time they saw their family.

They traveled by foot to the town of Bardejov, Slovakia. It took them about ten days as they hid in daylight and walked through the night. The Jewish population in Slovakia at that time was over 85,000, while the city of Bardejov had a Jewish population of over 4,000. The Jews of Bardejov still lived in their own homes, caring for over 300 refugees who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland. Chaim Yitzhak and Avraham Meir were among these refugees who found shelter with the Jewish population. 

Chaim started working as a cook in the Jewish community kitchen in Bardejov, where he earned the title of the “cuchar.” This also provided him the opportunity to have access to food for him and Avraham. However, that ended in the spring and summer of 1942, when mass deportations of Jews took place from Slovakia. In early April, over 650 young Jews were captured and lined up for deportation from Bardejov to Auschwitz. Chaim managed to escape from the transport, but his brother was tragically deported and later killed at Auschwitz. 

The deportation of Jews from Bardejov continued until the end of 1942. Daily searches occurred for those who found refuge in hiding places. If discovered, they were sent to Sered and Nováky, new concentration camps established within Slovakia, as well as other camps. In Bardejov, Chaim assumed the name Alex Folkman, hoping it would make him less conspicuous as a Jew.

 In 1943, Alex and seven friends  (Jozef Fröhlich, Fred Bodner, Baila Meisels, Otto Warman, Abraham Jakuvovicz, Jakob Birnbaum, and Henek Majerovič) tried to organize a resistance group to defend themselves from the local Hlinka Guard who was still searching for those in hiding. Henry Majerovič obtained a small-caliber pistol with six bullets. It was the only weapon the group had to defend themselves. 

One day, when Alex was out of town trying to recruit more Jews to join their cause, his friends met in their hiding place. Abraham grabbed the pistol, which accidentally misfired. As a result, Jakub Birnbaum received a surface wound to the stomach. He walked to the hospital and had the bullet removed. Once the hospital reported the incident to the police, they arrested Abraham Jakuvovicz. The national newspaper Gardista carried a front-page article entitled, “Jews in Bardejov Have Guns.” This article scared them back into hiding in separate locations and publicized them as a partisan group within Bardejov.

Alex and his friends demonstrated guts and bravery in their efforts to avert capture by the Hlinka Guard and locals who would hunt for Jews regularly. Alex moved from hiding place to hiding place, but one day, he and three friends were caught and thrown in jail. They managed to pick the lock and escape. 

Alex was fortunate to meet several righteous, non-Jewish individuals in Bardejov. In early 1942, he met Federer (Feodor) Kostiszak, a native of a neighboring Muszynka Poland village and a Gestapo fugitive. Federer had known Alex’s parents in Tylicz and had shopped in their store. On routine visits to see his own family, Federer, whom Alex called by the nickname “Fetchko,” visited Alex’s family in the Grybow Ghetto. In the spring of 1942, he informed Alex of the terrible news that the ghetto had been liquidated. Alex’s parents and two younger brothers perished during the liquidation. 

In 1943, Alex met another righteous, non-Jewish man in Bardejov named Stefan Dzurus. Stefan was originally from Hertnik, where his family lived in a house on the edge of the forest in the  Čergov mountain range, located in the central part of the Prešov region of Slovakia. Stefan had a desire to help. He arranged for Alex to assume the name of his brother, Rudy Dzurus, who was still young and living with his parents. Using Rudy’s name, Stefan provided Alex with documents that allowed him to work at a shoe factory. His job was to travel to different towns, measuring police and guard’s shoe sizes for boots. This allowed Alex the mobility to canvas the areas and make connections. 

Stefan also introduced Alex and Federer to the local forest ranger, who had felt threatened by escapees known to be in the forest and was, therefore, seeking protection. Alex and Federer offered that protection and formed a trust with the ranger, who showed them around the Čergov forest. In doing so, they met three Russian POWs who had escaped from German prisons. One of them, Misko Chalidov, was a captain in the Russian Air Force. They joined forces immediately, moving into the ranger’s home, which became their partisan headquarters.

By day, they went into the forest, building bunkers. At night, they returned to the safety of the ranger’s barn. They were all armed with rifles, shotguns, and sidearms owned by the ranger. Within a short time, they grew from just six men to a group of about thirty to forty men, some of whom were Jews who had come out of hiding. Always resourceful, Alex figured out a way to make bullets for their weapons by retrofitting pieces of metal rods into discarded training bullet shells, which he collected from a military base located in Bardejov near the Polish border. Still, the group began to realize that they could not grow any larger without support from the major Allied powers. 

The Russians had an existing partisan group consisting of several fully armed divisions. They were located in the Bryansk Forest and wetlands, an area the Germans could not reach due to its terrain. The group was known as the Kovpak Partisan Group under the direction of Sydir Kovpak, the leader of the Soviet Partisans in Ukraine. After the Russian victory over Stalingrad, orders in the high command were to regroup the partisan divisions into battalions and dispatch them to the front lines. In the early spring of 1944, under the leadership of Colonel V.A. Karasev, one of the groups reached the forests of Čergov. Mishko Chalidov, a seasoned soldier, shared Alex’s history of bravery and loyalty with Karasev, and he and members of his group were provisionally absorbed into the battalion on the Čergov. They still had to prove themselves worthy. 

Alex was initially assigned to an area that included Bardejov. He was escorted by armed soldiers each time he met with his contacts to obtain intelligence information, such as military movements and police activities. His primary contact in Bardejov was Adam Bomba, a police officer in Bardejov and another righteous gentile. Adam helped many Jews and became a good friend to Alex. During one of his visits, Adam informed Alex that the Hlinka Guard was setting a trap to capture Alex alive and deliver him to the Gestapo. When Alex reported back to his commander, he decided to double their patrol and execute a preemptive strike against the Hlinka Guard.

However, when he shared his plans with his contacts in town, they felt the decision was too harsh for the city, which had not experienced that type of violence. When he reported back once again to his commander, the group agreed to change the order and instead destroy an important bridge over the Topla River near a military base in Bardejov. This order was executed in the early summer of 1944. 

By blowing up rail tracks and other operations, Alex’s group effectively hindered the delivery of supplies needed for Germans on the Eastern Front. In the winter of 1944-1945, the Russian Army advanced to the Hron River in the forests of Slovakia and faced the Germans on the other side of the river. On the night of February 12, 1945, Alex’s group received orders to cross the Hron River and attack the Germans from the rear. His group was carrying out orders to bring over four Slovak ministers destined to take positions in an interim Democratic Czechoslovakian government. Forty men in his group were killed in this fateful gun battle. Among the fallen was his dear friend and mentor, Federer Kostiszak, a loss that affected him greatly.

Alex’s partisan group was renamed Nitranska Partisanska Brigade and later, when joining the Russian Army, became part of the military division called the Pierva Guardejska Wowzdúšno Izvunogrodzka Bukaresko Divisia. This division was recognized for its participation in liberating the capital city of Prague. During the last months of the war, Alex served as an interrogator and interpreter of German prisoners of war. Alex received honorary citizenship in Czechoslovakia for his heroic actions during WWII. 

After being discharged from the Russian Army in 1945, Alex stayed in uniform with a side arm for a year. He traveled around to find survivors from his family and eventually located a second cousin, a little girl named Berta. Alex took advantage of the benefits awarded to him because of his service. He received a car, a driver, and a document that gave him preferential treatment to move around. The post-war period was still dangerous, and the fascist presence in the recently reformed Czechoslovakia was still a threat. Once Alex broke up a brawl where a group of fascist thugs was assaulting a young man in an alleyway in Bratislava. It wasn’t until much later that Alex discovered the identity of the individual he had helped. His name was Moshe Chertok (Moshe Sharett), and he would later become the second prime minister of Israel.

The time had come for Alex to look for ways to support himself financially. He tried different endeavors, including gathering and selling materials the Germans had left behind (such as typewriter ribbons and shoes). As the tides started to shift again with the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’etat of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC), he began questioning whether it was safe to stay in Europe altogether. He made plans to leave for the United States.

Remarkably, all the aforementioned trials, tribulations, losses, accomplishments, and acts of bravery transpired in Alex’s life by age 27. Alex lost his parents, grandparents, three brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins during the Holocaust. In November of 1950, he left Europe for the United States aboard the USS General Blatchford, hoping to create a new life for himself. 

Alex came to the United States with six dollars in his pocket. He found a room with some distant cousins in America who fed and cared for him for a while. Alex eventually became an expert scrap dealer and started a recycled plastics manufacturing business. In the early days of his work, Alex met his wife Rebecca (Rickie) at a company where she was the secretary. With Rickie at his side every step of the way, Alex built a successful business that grew, diversified and branched out to locations across the U.S., including New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, and California. 

Alex spoke eight languages: English, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, and Hebrew. Together with his wife, he was very involved and committed to his local Jewish community, yeshivas, and institutions in the U.S. and Israel. The establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, along with its strong army, gave Alex a feeling of redemption in his lifetime.

Rickie and Alex had three children, 11 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren, all of whom he was exceedingly proud of. Three of his grandchildren became soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. Alex passed away on April 27, 2023, at 100, a week after Yom HaShoah and the day after Yom Haazmaut. He is buried in Israel.