Edmund Rudolf de Pellier, born in 1931
First in Line to Go to Heaven
We were children of happiness and joy, my twin sister, Ida-Joanna, and I. Our mama—Luiza, née Sprecher—had a degree in pharmacy, while Papa
—Jan—was a physician. Our mama’s family was among the wealthiest in Lwów. We had many factories, hotels (including the famous Hotel George), apartment buildings, movie theaters, etc. The Sprechers were also active in charity work for the poor, whether for Jews, Poles, or Ukrainians. They built a hospital for Jews on Kurkowa Street and continued to support it. Gifts to the poor were distributed from our chocolate factories (called Branka and Hazet), while our pharmaceutical company, Lancon, provided assistance to hospitals and drugstores.
We lived together with Grandpa and Grandma, the parents of our mama, at 2 Akademicka Street, across the street from our Hotel George. We occupied the sixth floor. The building was eight stories tall and was the tallest structure in Lwów. People called it “the skyscraper”. Outside (and inside) the walls were covered with light brown marble. The building was beautiful and modern and had an iron-reinforced concrete structure and a high-speed elevator.
In 1936 my sister and I entered first grade at Saint Kinga’s School. It was a large and beautiful school. Grandpa used to take us to school in a very pretty Fiat or a Mercedes or sometimes in a bryczka. Once a week after school we drove around with Grandpa and Grandma to our family’s different enterprises—to the Branka chocolate factory, to the Lancon pharmaceutical company, to the hotels, and to other properties. On Mondays the children at school always waited for us because we used to bring lots of candy and pastries. On Saint Nicholas Day we would go to school in the bryczka, and Saint Nicholas would ride with us with packages for children—poor and wealthy, Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian, for everyone who went to school with us.
A bryczka is an open four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a retractable top.
Each year Grandpa would take one of the poor children on vacation with us. We went to Gdańsk, Berlin, and Paris. We spent the years from 1936 to 1939 without a worry—studying and going on family trips. We studied very diligently and had a tutor at home who did homework with us and taught us good manners—proper behavior both in school and at the table, as well as respect for every religion and for older people and also love of family. At times, I close my eyes and can see our carefree childhood of those years. Like a dark night, everything is gone—it is not a dream, it is the tragic truth.
It was 1939, and antiaircraft drills were being conducted on the streets. The threat of war was hanging over us. We children paid little attention—we didn’t understand the danger. Everyone at home was issued gas masks, and Grandpa ordered a shelter prepared in our iron-reinforced concrete “skyscraper”. The cellar had two levels, and within a few days four rooms were furnished like salons; they differed little from the rooms above. There was so much food gathered in the pantries that we could have lived off it for two years without going outside. Grandpa, Uncle, and Grandma said that no bomb could touch us there, because it was a genuine bunker. In the first days of school in September 1939, our Polish language teacher, Mr. Wójcicki, told us, with tears in his eyes, “Dear, beloved children, in the next few days we will certainly have to interrupt our lessons, and perhaps we will never see each other again, because this is war. Do not forget God and the Fatherland.” And then it started. During the first air raid, bombs fell on the Mikolasch Arcade and the railroad station. The blast was so powerful that our whole house shook. We started crying and cowering in our parents’ arms. We understood that something terrible was happening, but this was only the beginning of the war.
Everything that was beautiful in our family—happiness, joy, wealth—were all nothing in the face of war; they all vanished. It is difficult to describe all of it, but life became a road of torment. The war of 1939 lasted only a very short time. I remember, as if through a fog, that there were always guests in our house, even during air raids. These were officers, magnates, manufacturers, all deliberating what to do. My papa and mama had American passports and hoped that this would save us.
September 17: In Lwów there was a great shock, because the war was with the Germans, but it was the Soviet army that marched into Lwów. From a window in our skyscraper, we watched how crowds of people greeted the Bolsheviks. We also noticed that the Polish higher-ranking officers had changed into civilian clothes.
This was the first blow for our family, because the Bolsheviks mainly looked for factory owners, bankers, and other rich people. We were at the top of the list for deportation to Siberia. We thus thought about going into hiding. We had to watch out for certain Jewish neighbors whom we knew to be Communists. In our whole family there was panic and fear—what will become of the children? Nobody worried about our possessions anymore.
For a few days there was dead silence. One day my sister and I were in Hotel George, across the street from our skyscraper, because all sorts of valuables there were being packed up. When we went out of the hotel with our uncle, we saw that there were two Russian cars and a large army truck in front of our house. Uncle tried to convince us that we should wait on the street until they went away or go back to the hotel, but we insisted that we wanted to go to Mama and Papa. It turned out that the house was full of guests. These were high-ranking Russian officers, and we later found out they were Bolshevik NKVD [Soviet Secret Police]. We did not sense any fear at home; Mama was lively, and the officers were very courteous. This whole crowd was brought to us by a Communist named Ari Zusman, who came from a poor Jewish family and not so long before was still selling lemonade at the market.
Mama was delighted when we arrived. There was plenty of food and wine on the table, and Zusman behaved as if he were in his own home. We were told that we were in no danger and that although the Soviet government would take over our properties, Papa would still remain in charge. The feast lasted until late into the night. Nobody believed Zusman, and the family decided to escape, as far from Lwów as possible.
I remember, as if it were today, that very late at night in November 1939, the NKVD came to our house accompanied by several Jews we knew (because formerly, they had been our employees), dressed in Russian uniforms. These Jews were very aggressive. My mama was very beautiful, and as I recall from a subsequent conversation between my grandparents, two of these Jews with the NKVD wanted to rape her. An officer calmed them down.
They demanded that the documentation of the factories, hotels, movie theaters, and other property be turned over to them. “You are no longer the masters; the Communist authorities now rule,” they said. My parents remained calm and asked them to sit down and have some tea, but they said they would make it themselves and walked around the apartment, opening drawers. The Russian officer told them not to touch anything. An argument ensued; the officer told them he was in charge and took out his pistol. The situation became dangerous. He put them at attention and told them to get out.
The house was filled with fear. The officer received all the documents; he even made out a receipt and said, “Now, my host, give us some vodka.” There was plenty of that dreadful stuff in our house. They got food and drink. There were three of them, and they even sent for those who had been told to get out. They ate and drank their fill, and each got several bottles of Baczewski vodka and plenty of food for the road.
Baczewski vodka was a well-known brand of vodka produced in Lwów before the war.But these Jews who had worked for us and were now in Russian uniforms in drunken condition insisted that the NKVD officer take us this very day to prison. Once again it nearly ended in shooting. In the end, the officer telephoned military headquarters, which quickly sent some people who handcuffed those four Jews collaborating with the NKVD and took them away in their car. As we found out later, they were shot to death in the jail on Jachowicza Street. This didn’t change much, only postponed the verdict. As members of the bourgeoisie, we were doomed anyway to be deported to Siberia or killed on the spot.
We survived the Bolshevik invasion. Our family consisted of twenty- nine people. Nearly everyone avoided the Bolshevik deportations to Siberia, except for one uncle, my mother’s brother, who committed suicide in 1940. We were in hiding with our good friends. We were completely safe and living in very good conditions, divided into five groups. In 1941 the Bolshevik Army was decisively defeated and fled. After the Germans arrived, we came out of hiding. We returned home unimpeded. However, the situation soon repeated itself. One day Germans came to our house. They behaved elegantly—they said they knew about our holdings, that we were in no danger. They said a separate district would soon be set up in Zamarstynów, where all the Jews would live and work. These visits by German officers recurred several times.
From the time the Nazis entered Lwów, Papa and Mama were employed in our Lancon pharmaceutical plant at 6 Zamkowa Street. They wore green armbands with the Star of David, designating them as workers at a military plant.
We experienced much ill treatment from the Judenrat and the Jewish police. This happened later, in the ghetto, but for the time being, we lived on the Aryan side, except that we all had to wear armbands with the Star of David. Once again, there was danger and fear, because it was clear that this would be the end for us. People who did not live through this horrible nightmare and know it only from stories will never understand. As I remember it, I was living in constant fear and dread.
The Judenrat was the Jewish council appointed by the Germans to interface with the Jewish population and carry out German orders.
Later, an announcement appeared saying that all Jews and their families had to move to the outskirts of Lwów. There we were to make our homes and live—such was the order of the Stadthauptman [commander] of the city of Lwów. We were enclosed in a ghetto. There was an unceasing commotion—shooting, fires, inhuman cries. My twin sister and I took all of this very hard. Papa used to give us some kind of medication so we wouldn’t cry or be afraid. We were completely numb to everything. As long as our parents were with us, we got the medication. After they were gone, we were left alone and had to hide like mice. We had no medication, and we experienced this whole horror in its full intensity.
But God’s hand protected us. Before the liquidation of the ghetto, we were taken in by an Aryan family who knew our parents from before the war. They saved my life, but my sister perished. This was a very decent family, linked to the AK. I owe my miserable life to them. Mr. Stanisław Grabowski, with whom I was in hiding, received recognition by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the medal of Righteous Among the Nations of the World from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His family received four such medals.
I was brought back to Poland by Dr. Smerek, who handed me over to the Kędzierski family in Przemyśl. Dr. Kędzierski, in turn, placed me with his relatives in Kraków, a physician couple, Maria and Eliasz Kędzierski.
This was in 1946. I was a wreck, and I was placed in a hospital. I spent about three months there. A certain nightmare torments and haunts me all the time—fire, screams, fear, no place to hide. But it passes and then things get better. I constantly receive medications, and when I don’t forget to take them, things are quite good. I live like a cosmonaut, but I live. Because of my illness, I couldn’t work anywhere. When my condition deteriorated, I was treated at a mental hospital. I am presently receiving outpatient treatment at a mental health clinic. When I take my medication, nothing bothers me. I am not afraid; I don’t feel any anxiety or fear. But the memories sometimes return, and then my world collapses. The doctors tell me I shouldn’t think about those years and that when something haunts me, I should immediately take my medication.
…“back to Poland” – after the war was over, Poland’s borders shifted west, and Lwów was no longer in Poland; it became part of Ukraine.
The things I went through on this earth will remain in books, in films. I should be the first in line to go to heaven for all that I have gone through, for our suffering, abuses, and humiliations.