The son of a newspaper printer in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), Ben knew about Nazi anti-Semitism long before the war. In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, Wilno was occupied by the Soviets. But in 1941, the Nazis occupied the city, and Ben fled with some friends. His family remained behind, convinced that the Germans would not harm them. He never saw his family again. From Minsk, he was recruited into a Russian labor corps and worked near the Volga River until that region, too, was occupied by the Germans. He fled into the Ural Mountains where he worked as a lumberjack – and also met his wife Bernice. At the end of the war he was permitted to return to Wilno but found no one he knew. He learned later that his mother had been shot and his father sent to a camp in Estonia, where he caught typhoid and was burned to death with other sick prisoners in a human bonfire. He did, however, eventually find a sister who had escaped into Russia.
He came to the United States and worked as a printer in Jackson, Mississippi. Later he found a better job at the Dayton Daily News, where he worked until retirement in 1986. He and Bernice have two children and four grandchildren.
Wilno, Vilna, Vilnius – the capital of Lithuania has been part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and the realm of the Teutonic Knights. It was founded in the tenth century and was capital of Lithuania after 1323. From 1795 to 1915 it was under Russian control, and during that period flourished as a center of rabbinic studies. Between the world wars, Vilna was the capital of a Polish province, and the 1931 census showed a Jewish population of 54,000. As a result of the notorious non-aggression pact of August 1939, Vilna became the capital of the new Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. Nazi occupation troops held it from June 1941 until July 1944, and during those three years nearly the entire Jewish population was murdered or taken away to camps. It is still the capital of Lithuania, now an independent state.
Born Bronia Fogel in Poland in 1925, Bernice was fourteen when the war broke out and her village came under German control. Departing Russian troops gave her family and neighbors thirty minutes to decide whether they wanted to be evacuated to Russia. Knowing their possible fate under Nazi rule, the Fogels decided to go. They went to an uncle’s house in Vladimir, but in 1940 were sent on to a work camp in the Urals and later settled in a nearby town. Bernice was able to attend school for the next few years, but also worked twelve hours a day. She met Ben Muler while in Russia. Her father died in Russia in 1944 for lack of medical treatment, but she, her brother and sister continued to live with their mother in a one-room apartment. Life was very hard, but they knew that they would not have survived in Poland. They were permitted to leave the Soviet Union and Bernice came to the United States in 1949, with husband Ben and their young son, Leon. She and Leon are pictured on a ship on the way to America. She later had a daughter, Elizabeth, in the U.S. Her mother and sister eventually settled in Israel. The Mulers recently moved to Florida.
While protecting eastern European Jews from Nazi genocide, the Soviet Union often forced them into conditions approaching slave labor. Able-bodied Jews dug ditches, laid railroad track, and sometimes died under harsh conditions – but hundreds of thousands were saved from the death camps. The Soviet government helped families to reunite and allowed the fugitives some freedom of movement. After the war most of these survivors came to the United States or to Israel. Of the Soviet Jews who lived in areas occupied by the Nazis, 107,000 died in Russia and 900,000 in the Ukraine.