Sven Sonnenberg, born in 1931
Journey to Hell: Under Fascism
I was born in 1931 in Grudziądz, Poland. My family home and business were located in Jabłonowo, about twenty-five kilometers east of Grudziądz. This was less than twenty kilometers from the border of East Prussia, where the Germans mounted their invasion of western Poland in September 1939. In 1939 my family consisted of my father, Martin, my mother, Louise, my sister, Sylvia, and myself, age seven at that time. On the same premises lived my grandmother, Laura, and three uncles, Alfred, Magnus, and Ari.
The family owned and operated a wholesale warehouse situated in the center of Jabłonowo. The property consisted of two multistory houses and several utility buildings, all situated on a large piece of land. The warehouse was a distribution center for the vicinity, and it prospered. Before the outbreak of the war, expansion was contemplated.
My family was a close-knit unit, all working in the business at their assigned duties. My father was the accountant and salesman. My parents were very dedicated to each other; the feeling of mutual love between them permeated every single day as far back as I can remember. They never argued. This feeling of being blessed, of having each other, made any issue that could have come between them small and insignificant. Although my mother was a strict disciplinarian, her love and care for us children was obvious and ever present. Her devotion to us made any punishment that she meted out for my misbehavior bearable and of lasting educational value. This is how I remember them. Unfortunately, only very few photographs survived the Holocaust years.
My first year of school ended badly. I went into the recess of summer 1939 with turmoil in my seven-year-old head. Right from the start, the beautifully embroidered Tyrolese shorts my mother so insistently outfitted me with were trouble. The whole first grade and beyond had a field day. My first love, Zosia, a playful little blond, sneered at me mercilessly—but the end of my first-grade year was more serious and ominous.
One day the teacher asked the children, “Now, each of you tell me, what do you have on the wall over your bed?” The variety of things was not great, mostly crucifixes and the Virgin Mary. “Sven, what do you have?” I had the framed portrait of Marshal Śmigły-Rydz (the supreme commander of the Polish Forces). “Look children, a little Jew, and what a patriot!”
That has stayed with me to this day and will forever. I understood right there that I was different, and no matter what merit I might show, I was basically flawed, and there was no escape from that. From that point on, I tried to excel in whatever I was doing to diminish that flaw in the eyes of whomever I was with. Until, one day, I did not give a damn any more, and I experienced a reversal. I saw the entire gentile world with a healthy dose of skepticism and no longer did things because I was viewed as a Jew.
In August, during the school recess, exciting things were happening. The Polish army was conducting maneuvers and mock battles in the surrounding countryside. A contingent of soldiers camped in our yard, which was large, and slept in our utility buildings. To the utter dismay of my mother, I became uncontrollable. I would not eat her spinach, because I ate with the soldiers from their tins while sitting with them in a circle. The coarse dark bread was such a delight after the white fluffy rolls. The soldiers let me do little chores around their equipment. Great times!
At home the conversation was more and more about a possible war. My mother implored my father to leave Poland, to go to Switzerland, or anywhere out of the line of a possible German advance. Switzerland was most often discussed, because I think they had some connections there. I knew they had business associates and friends. I myself was not too concerned; the mighty Polish army would protect us. Certainly the parades through Main Street were impressive. The radio and the speeches were also very reassuring. “We will not let them have a single button” (from their uniforms, apparently). “If they attack us, we will be in Berlin in two weeks.” And so, a busy summer passed, the soldiers were leaving, and I was sad again.
I remember vividly the early morning of September 1, 1939. We children had just crawled into our parents’ bed, which was allowed on that day, and the weather was shaping up—it would be bright. That was clearly visible through the window opposite the bed. Suddenly, we heard rumblings as if a thunderstorm were approaching. My father said not to worry, as I was with them. I was always terrified by thunder and lightning. The rumbling got louder, and suddenly, a big explosion could be heard in our yard, and two fair-size holes appeared in the window. A shrapnel fragment embedded itself in a piece of furniture. That is how World War II began for us.
My parents grabbed us, and we ran into the basement. The basement was somewhat prepared, with sandbags in its windows, water containers, and some towels to put over our mouths as a protection against a possible gas attack. Looking back now, it was all naive to the point of stupidity. I think it matched Poland’s preparedness for war.
Once the shelling stopped, our family decided to pack a few things on our horse-drawn wagons and run deeper into Poland, since we lived only twenty kilometers from the border. So we ran—for three days. The smell of fresh hay in the barns where we slept in the countryside comes back now every time I mow the grass.
After we had meandered around for three days, we realized that the Germans were everywhere. The only logical thing to do was to head back home. At home the new instant owners—of what for generations had been ours—met us. These were the business tenants who rented store space in one of our buildings. They declared themselves to be of German ancestry and became what was called Volksdeutsche, which means ethnic Germans. Not Reichsdeutsche—which were real Germans. Still, Volksdeutsche were vastly superior to anyone other than Reichsdeutsche.
These “ethnics” wore distinguishing armbands and were “holier than thou”. We were “put up” in one room in what was once our house. All our belongings and business assets were under the control of this ethnic German family until further disposition by the new German military administration. In two weeks we learned that the territory would be made Judenfrei—free of Jews, and we were packed into a special train with one suitcase per person on our journey to—nobody knew where.
This was an ordinary train ride, you might say. The compartments were full, since all the Jewish families were crammed into a special car attached to a normally scheduled train. This car was shunted around a lot at several junction stations in order to be attached to other trains heading toward a destination only the Germans knew. I think there was only one car initially, because there were only a few Jewish families in Jabłonowo, judging from the attendance at the synagogue where Father took me on Saturdays.
We finally arrived at a station called Działdowo. To say that we stepped out would not be correct. When the train stopped, we saw soldiers alongside it holding sticks and waiting for the train to make a full stop. They then opened the doors and shouted, “Raus, schnell, raus, raus, Jüdishe Schweine!” (Out, quick, out, out, Jewish pigs!). They handled their sticks so as to hit selected people and made everybody hurry to form what turned out to be a long column, four in a row.
When that column was ready, the march began. Apparently, many rail cars like ours were assembled into a purely Jewish train. We marched through what appeared to be a small, dingy town and arrived at what looked like military barracks. The column stopped at an entrance, which turned into a fairly broad avenue with a tall chain-link fence on both sides. Alongside each fence there were soldiers stationed every few yards, each with a horsewhip in his hand. Then their fun began.
The commanding officer shouted, “Run to the barracks, on the double!” We started running, my parents on each side trying to shield my sister and me from the blows of the whip, which fell on us as frequently as the soldiers managed to bring their whips around. The commotion was huge. The sound of whips, the screams of people, and the shouting of the Germans, “Schneller, schneller!” (Faster, faster!) At first I was so terrified that I could not think of anything—the fear drowned all other emotions. The avenue was between fifty and a hundred yards long. No lashes reached me as we proceeded, because my father, by my right side, blocked them. I started to be concerned about Grandma, who was one row behind us; she was eighty years old then. I turned to see that my uncles were half carrying her, dragging her feet on the ground, terror on her face. The lashes fell on my three uncles, who managed to shield her perfectly.
Finally, we reached a building and ran inside. It was getting dark; we could barely make out the interior. It was a large interior, certainly not a barracks, rather like a huge storehouse or maybe an empty stable for horses. On both sides along the walls were areas with a layer of straw on the ground, framed by planks so as to form passageways in the middle along the vast interior. The space was filling up rapidly; families were grouping on the straw areas, lying down, making the best arrangement with the few meager belongings not lost during the running of the gauntlet.
I can’t remember how long we were kept there, camping on the straw the whole time. This is where family clusters organized their everyday lives, including all functions except going to the open latrine behind the building. Only two vivid memories remain from this long, terrifying sequence of events. The next day a small group of Germans (at that time I was unable to distinguish uniforms or services; they were all military of some sort) came in, with one of them obviously being the boss, for what looked like an inspection. He stopped at a place where he could be heard by most people and loudly announced, “These quarters were carefully prepared for your comfort. I want them kept clean. The passageways must be swept and free of even one stalk of straw. I do not want my soldiers to stumble and get hurt. Therefore severe punishment will follow any noncompliance.”
We saw the punishment the next day. One bastard, having found a straw, selected a young man from the group near where he found it and whipped him unconscious. Close to our family group camped another large family. There was a baby who started crying at some point and would not stop; we could not sleep because of it. The baby carried on most of the next day. Toward evening the mother spoke out loudly, “My baby is sick; something is wrong. Please pass this down the line. Is there a doctor somewhere? The baby has not peed for two days.”
Sure enough, there was a doctor; I was very curious and tried not to miss any detail. The doctor said that the little guy needed an operation on his penis because of a blockage. The doctor obviously did not have what was necessary for that, but he performed the operation anyway, with a pocketknife, and improvised with whatever the neighboring clusters of people were able to find for him. The little guy peed very soon, and we could sleep again. Happiness reigned among our neighbors.
Somehow my parents protected me from the entire nasty goings- on until our departure, which was, again, terrifying. I remember getting on the train under the blows of sticks wielded by the Germans. They obviously enjoyed herding us from place to place. From the safety of the compartment, I saw a scene to be repeated many times in the future. The train platform from which people were driven into the wagons, German soldiers milling around, some closing the doors, and everywhere there was debris left on the ground—some purses, hats, pieces of garments, and a body here or there. And so we set out for an unknown destination.
They unloaded us in Płock, a historic Polish town. The ghetto was installed in the midtown area along Szeroka (Wide) Street, ringed by monuments of this town’s splendid past. Cathedrals and churches and other places of historical significance sat all along the high banks of the Vistula River. With the onset of the extremely cold winter of 1940, life became harsh right away. The biggest problem was hunger. My father went out day after day trying to find some food for us. Little by little he sold the few pieces of jewelry my parents still had. Amazingly, there were buyers. The problem was—where to get food for the money.
The ghetto was a holding area for thousands of people without any normal economic activity. There were no jobs, no flow of supplies, and no stores.
This semblance of an isolated mini-society was in a state of suspension and lingered from day to day, waiting for various ominous developments. The only civic organization existing and allowed to function was the Gmina Żydowska—the Jewish Community Council—which passed German orders to the populace and attempted to distribute what meager supplies reached the ghetto from outside. It also organized the work contingents requested by the Germans and tried to implement all kinds of foul ordinances.
One day, in utter exasperation, my parents asked me to go outside the ghetto and buy some food. They agonized about it because it was very dangerous. Eventually, they decided that I did not look all that Jewish and had a chance to pass as Polish. Any Jew, if caught outside the ghetto, with or without the Star of David armband, could be shot. So, I went out of the ghetto. The store was only a block away, I got into line and soon arrived at the counter. “Two loaves of bread, please, and a quarter kilo of butter.” “Sure, but are you not a little Jew, by any chance?” “No.” “Well then, cross yourself.” To do that meant to take two fingers of the right hand and touch the forehead, left and right shoulders and belly in the right sequence. I did not know how to do that! This was a moment of terror I have never forgotten. I did not know what to do. Run? Not possible. The store was too crowded. So I stood there befuddled for a while.
“What is the holdup?” shouted from behind. “I think a little Jew has wiggled his way into the line here.” “Somebody get a policeman; I will hold him.” I was numb with terror. Suddenly an older woman pushed her way from behind until she was close to the counter and me. She spoke to the clerk. “What is going on here? What do you want from this little boy? Don’t you see that he has been scared stiff by you and the crowd here?” “What do you need, boy?” “I . . . I wanted bread and a piece of butter.” “To me he speaks perfect Polish. Give him the bread and don’t waste our time. I don’t want to have to complain to my son about the inefficiency in this store.” “Yes, Ma’am.”
I would never know who that lady was. With my purchase, I tried not to run home but to walk casually on my shaky legs, my face paper white from the slowly subsiding numbing terror.
The pervasive everyday hunger—that is what I remember most from the Płock ghetto. My father would come home in the evening with everything he had managed to get that day. Hunched over with sunken eyes, he would set it out on the table and wait for mother to figure out what to do with it. That usually was our only meal for the day. We would go to bed with the pangs of hunger only slightly dulled. There was another worry my parents had that seems silly in retrospect. It was my education. They found a teacher to prevent me from losing time. I wonder now if this was denial on their part, or did they genuinely not comprehend what was happening?
I received one lasting lesson and that was not from my teacher. One day, late in the afternoon, there was a commotion in our enclosed little yard, a yard surrounded by high walls on all sides with one entrance from the street. I was playing with some kids when the gate opened and a young man of about eighteen was thrown face down on the cobblestones. In the door stood two German soldiers. “Find yourself a place here, Jew.” “I am not a Jew, I was born a German, I am from Hanover. My name is Adler; please, I do not belong with these stinking Jews.” “You stink enough, and don’t make more trouble. Settle in.”
Adler got up and tried to move toward the gate. When he did so, one of the soldiers took the rifle slung over his shoulder and struck him in the stomach with the butt. Adler doubled over. The gate slammed shut, and we got a new inhabitant in our little world. From that moment on I saw Adler coming and going, always with his head high and contempt on his face for whoever was around. Only once did I hear him speak. Passing through the yard someone shouted to him, “Hello man, where are you from?” “You will address me as Mister Adler, and I have nothing to say to you except that I am from Hanover, and I do not belong here. I was born a German, and I will die as a German.”
People gossiped a little but not much. They said that he was from a mixed marriage. The Germans had strict rules of heritage by which they determined if one was Jewish or not.
That incident taught me a lesson never to forget. Never try to claim that you are anything but a Jew. I would learn this later to an even greater degree when I found myself among the Poles. They were usually such pure Poles! Although born in Poland, I was very impure. I had gotten a hint of that already in my first school year before the war.
Mister Adler had barely settled in when the Płock ghetto ended. One day there was an announcement by a German soldier with a loudspeaker from the middle of the yard. “All Jews must pack and be ready to assemble in the street tomorrow at daybreak. Only hand-carried luggage is allowed.” That message was repeated three or four times as the soldier turned to face each of the four sides of the yard. After the soldier left, we had all afternoon and night to “pack”. The streets were suddenly alive with people rushing in all directions in bewilderment, trying to find out more information or trying to place some prized possession with someone with a lesser burden. One woman on our floor, who was always elegantly dressed, brought over a pair of beautiful cherry-colored leather boots. The only trouble was, these ladies’ boots, with medium heels, did not fit my mother. She said to my mother, “Let your son put these on, and you pack his small shoes. If we get separated and
I cannot retrieve them, they are yours. I can’t bring myself to leave them behind. They are brand-new and a present.” Out of all the terrifying hours of that time, I still remember the lady’s face and my distress at being forced to put on those boots.
In the morning we were ready with our hand luggage and dressed in multiple layers of clothing. We put on everything we possibly could. My parents were sitting on their beds, my mother holding my sister in her lap. I was sitting by the side of my father, all of us in total silence, our anxiety mounting by the minute. Finally, we heard the troops entering the yard. The noise was unmistakable. We jumped up, ready for whatever might be coming.
“Raus, schnell, raus!” (Out, quick, out!) As we entered the yard I saw Mister Adler fly out the opposite stairway entrance, shouting, “I am a German, I am a German.” One of the soldiers dispatching people at the door reached over and gave him a good whack over his shoulders. Then he was swept away by the stream of people, and I never saw him again.
We assembled on the street in rows by families, so that the whole long street (it was called Wide Street and had a median of grass and two cobblestone lanes on each side) was filled with people as far as one could see—everyone with a heap of clothes on and small suitcases in their hands. On the side lanes, German soldiers of all kinds of service units were busying themselves with maintaining order in the column. We were standing there waiting for who knows what.
Here and there, toward late afternoon, older people and the sick started fainting. We heard calls for water, but no water or food was delivered. The soldiers, oblivious to the cries, kept patrolling alongside the column. Later, the word was passed that the Germans would forgo the transfer of the ghetto to a new location for a price. People should give up their valuables, and if they did, the whole thing would be called off. The representatives of the ghetto council went along the column to collect whatever people threw into their baskets. When this was finished, I saw a group of soldiers appear from a side street. They all carried sticks. On command they fell upon the column, hitting left and right, and shouted, “Go home! Go home!”
Evidently, there were a number of groups of Germans whose job this was, to run people off the street fast. In panic, our family ran to the nearest door. We went into a building, and from the safety of a room that appeared to be an empty onetime store, I looked out onto the street and saw the by now all-too-familiar landscape. The area was strewn with all kinds of possessions—garments in pieces, packages, and here and there, a body lying motionless. One could see two or three silhouettes sitting up and rocking slowly back and forth under the darkening sky and the Germans walking over the area, casually poking with their sticks at this or that item on the ground.
The next day was quiet. Nothing happened, and we camped in that storeroom as best we could. The following day at dawn, the whole assembly in the street was repeated. No one was surprised at the ruse the Germans had played on us with the collection of valuables. In midmorning, trucks came, stopping at intervals along one side of the column. The Germans then separated out sections of the column and directed each section toward a truck. Usually a chair or stool was placed at the back of the truck so that people could climb up on that unstable support. Leading up to each truck was the familiar deployment of two rows of German soldiers with sticks. Then, there was more “fun”.
In front of us was a family with an obese man who could not get onto the truck. We waited as he kept falling off the chair under the blows of sticks. Finally, the Germans ordered him to stop trying and step aside. The two rows of soldiers closed around the fat man, and the real beating began. The heavy man fell to the ground and tried to protect his face and head with his arms. The Germans kept hitting him as if competing to see who could deliver more blows. After a short while they stepped away to resume the driving of people onto the truck. On the ground, I saw what looked like a big bundle of rags, motionless. A big balding head was stuck to it, with a bloody, messed-up face turned toward me, as we ran to the chair behind the truck, that now frightening piece of furniture. My father shielded me from the blows of the sticks.
After the truck was packed tight, it moved out. I do not remember a guard in the back with us. During this drive of a few hours, we passed small villages where people had lined up at the roadside and threw food into the truck. Apparently, they were from ghettos that were still in existence along our route.
Eventually, we ended up in Końskie, a dingy little place. From our stopping point we marched through the middle of town, and there was total indifference on the faces of the Polish townspeople, as if our march was the commonest everyday occurrence. We passed through town uneventfully and settled into the march to our destination about twelve miles away. That is how we arrived in the Drzewica ghetto, the last stop before Jews were taken to the extermination camps, one of which was Treblinka.
We stayed in Drzewica for a while. My father took care of our immediate family, whereas my three uncles and Grandma formed another group. We got a single room, and my uncles, a corner of a now empty synagogue. About two thousand people were crammed into a small area in this tiny village with no fences or guards. The perimeter of the ghetto was not even marked except later when typhoid fever kept breaking out. At the first Jewish house on each street, a poster would be placed—DANGER! TYPHOID FEVER BEYOND THIS POINT.
The ghetto formed a mini-society, with “rich” people, “middle-class” people, and the destitute. The rich were somehow trading their possessions for food, and that trade moved across the magic invisible ghetto boundary line. Middle-class people—artisans and service people—were somehow surviving. The poor and most newcomers to the place, like us, were starving. This group grew larger by the day. Soon, there was a routine horse-drawn wagon full of bodies of those who had died of starvation, departing every day from the village to the cemetery on the outskirts.
The Hasidim formed a distinct group. They ran a cheder (religious school) and prayed incessantly. They tried to maintain a corner of the synagogue and were constantly moving books in brown leather covers from one place to another, wherever they thought it more secure. Their behavior antagonized the rest of the community, and we became especially angry with them during the outbreak of typhoid fever. They would not let a doctor near them and, most dangerous, would not follow the basic rules of hygiene and quarantine. “If God wants me to die, I will die, no matter what is done.” They opposed any action aimed at containing the disease. They were also magnets for the German raiders who came to town periodically. The Germans would seek out a few Hasidim and line them up to amuse themselves by testing the sharpness of their bayonets on the beards of those poor devotees of God. When finished, the Germans would argue among themselves whose was the better shave.
The Drzewica ghetto was slowly starving. Amazingly, people were still preoccupied with trifles, and holy rituals were adhered to as much as possible. I remember an older man sitting on the stone steps at the entrance adjacent to our building. He was cutting his fingernails and very methodically collecting the cuttings on a white cloth. Asked why, he said, “Don’t you know that there is a commandment that requires hair and any other bodily clippings to be properly disposed of?” After that, I always wondered what I should properly do with my nail clippings.
Apart from the everyday mundane death scenes, there were some more dramatic ones. There was a man who lived in an abandoned railway freight car not far from our one-room dwelling. I saw him going about alone; evidently, he had no family. His loneliness and the fact that he had a railcar all to himself piqued my interest. One day I saw him sitting with his feet dangling, having a feast of goodies neatly placed on the floor at the car’s entrance. He ostentatiously drank and ate for everybody to see. Two days later, I saw the death wagon come by and some men carry the body of the loner out, to dump him on top of the already high heap of bodies. I was told that he had traded everything he had for food, ate it all, and hanged himself.
I witnessed the slow starvation of my grandmother and uncles. Uncle Ari died of typhoid fever and was carried out by the daily death wagon. Uncle Alfred and Uncle Magnus starved to death and were, one day, also taken out to the cemetery on the outskirts. I saw them first get thin, skeleton-like, and then become bloated and grotesquely swollen. That is the last image I have retained of both of them. I do not know exactly how Grandma died. One day I was told that she was not with us anymore.
The time came when rumors started that something big was going to happen, though nobody knew what. It was said, among other things, that the entire ghetto was to be sent somewhere. My life in the ghetto up to this point had been a strange mixture of feeling secure within my family and experiencing jolts of terror from all the goings-on around me. Whenever there was something terrible happening in the streets, I was always able to run to the relative safety of my family. Mom and Dad so far had managed to keep the most horrible things that were happening to others away from me. I felt somewhat alienated from other children because of my mixed parentage—my mother was German. No strong rejection, but the kids would call me a yeke. Since they saw me sometimes sitting on the steps in front of the house and sipping a cup of fake coffee, it became yeke mit a tepl kave. So, I was a yeke, and that stuck with me ever after. It reminds me of the famous orphan character from Sholem Aleichem who said, “Mir is git, ich bin a yusem” (I have it good, I am an orphan). I can say, “Mir is git, ich bin a yeke.”
Yeke is a pejorative expression for a German Jew, even though the author’s mother was a German gentile.
Moritz of Opoczno
Opoczno was a drab little town in the middle of rural Poland, about fifteen kilometers from Drzewica. In 1942 it was the seat of a German garrison for the district and had a few buildings fit for the occupying military and civilian authorities. The surrounding little towns and villages had no German forces stationed there and were controlled from Opoczno by frequent forays. In between, the Germans entrusted the administration to the blue-clad police recruited from Polish collaborators. Drzewica, as mentioned before, had no Germans stationed there, even during the existence of a Jewish ghetto in the years 1940 to 1942. There was no barbed wire outlining this ghetto’s boundaries. Everyone knew which was the last Jewish house on the central and side streets, and a Jew was not supposed to cross that unmarked line. If he did, the consequences were dire. Inside the ghetto, starvation was the order of the day, with no goods or human traffic crossing the “magic line”.
I once witnessed the following scene. My family’s dwelling in the ghetto was the last one on the “main” street before the boundary line, and looking out the window, I saw a girl about fifteen coming from the “Aryan side” toward the ghetto line. She had a bowl in front of her, which she held with outstretched arms, since it was large, like one used for kneading bread dough. She hurried to get across the line—and almost made it. A group of four young Polish men caught up with her, grabbed the bowl, and overturned it. Out poured a heap of potato peels. One of the men grabbed the girl by her long hair, and kneeing her in the back, pushed her over the line. The others laughed and made rude remarks, shouting, “That should teach you not to leave your Jewish place again!”
Undoubtedly, there were Poles who had given the girl the potato peels (cooked, they were a delicacy in those days). However, there were always those who willingly and voluntarily maintained a watch over Jews to keep them where the Germans intended. The locals who smuggled food into the ghetto ran the risk of denunciation by their own—and death. Many took that risk, and some, only some, are memorialized at Yad Vashem in the Avenue of the Righteous.
By and large the ghetto was isolated, with about two thousand sick and starving inhabitants crammed into a small area. Sporadic outbreaks of typhoid fever added to the terrible toll from starvation, and the isolation was made even more complete by the German scare propaganda.
The head of the commando unit stationed in Opoczno was named Moritz. He raided the district villages with German precision and regularity. Often, because of that German predictability, our ghetto was forewarned of his arrival. To be in the know often made the difference between life and death, since there was a nasty ordinance in place that the streets should be clear when he arrived. One day, a sunny summer day, he came unexpectedly. His three military vehicles, each holding a few of his cohorts, stopped in the middle of the town square. I was looking out the window and saw people running to get off the street into the nearest buildings and away from the town center where the Germans were jumping out of their cars.
The Germans hurried, with guns leveled at whoever was still in their line of vision. The shooting that began immediately left several bodies on the ground. I was mesmerized by one man who ran toward a fence in a zigzag pattern, one German shooting at him, loading his gun repeatedly, missing every time. Then, when the man got to the top of the fence and balanced there for a moment, the German aimed carefully. I did not hear the shot I expected. The man got over the fence, while the German swore loudly and started to pull at his gun breech. Unable to open it, he took his bayonet and with its handle tried to knock the gun open. He held the gun upright against the ground with his left hand, bent over, and swung at the breech with the bayonet, swearing all the time.
Before long all the shooting stopped, and from a corner of the half- open window, I saw what must have been Moritz, standing in the middle of the circle of his helmeted troops. He was slender, not tall, but carried himself very upright. He did not have a rifle or machine gun but a pistol holster and brown gloves. He swung energetically around as if surveying the scene and then barked some order that I did not hear. The helmets started moving out in a widening circle.
At that point fear started seeping into me; I slid onto the floor in the corner of the room so as to be totally out of sight. I did not know what to do next, so I sat there motionless. My mother, after going to the door and locking it, took my little sister and sat down under the window in the opposite corner with her in her lap. She signaled for silence with a finger at her lips. Soon we heard a commotion in the adjacent room. There was a locked door opposite the entrance of our single room that led to another dwelling that we knew was some kind of an administrative office with a telephone. I heard voices; among them was the loud commanding bark of what had to be Moritz.
Then there was silence. Shortly after, another set of noises became apparent under the window—sounds of footsteps, as if a number of people had gathered. Then the wailing and crying started. This was interrupted by a loud guttural shout “Ruhe!” (Silence!) After a moment a male voice, “Sir, please, the ropes are so tight; it hurts terribly.” I heard the crunching footsteps of a soldier’s nailed boots. “Yes, it is too tight.” Some muffled sounds, and after that, the man’s voice, “Thank you, sir, thank you.”
The wailing started again but very subdued. I could not make out the words mixed with the faint moaning. Shortly after that, there was the clatter typical of soldiers when they assemble. All the equipment they carried made a distinct noise of canteens dangling, boots grinding against the ground, et cetera. The sound of guns being loaded was unmistakable. The wailing became louder. Then, we heard “Fire!” and shots rang out.
After a short while, the commotion in the adjacent room started again. Moritz was at the telephone calling Opoczno, and his voice this time was sweet and gentle. He gave an account of the day’s work: “Darling, it was really great fun.” After this, he must have started eating his lunch, because whenever he spoke, it was as if with a full mouth.
We did not dare move until we heard the German cars departing. I stood up and looked out the window, trembling. Horse-drawn carts came close to the wall and assembled in a line.
Men carried the bodies and piled them up in the wagons. After this was done and the carts departed, two men with rakes came and raked dirt beside the wall below the window. Only when everybody had left did I venture out to look. The soil under the window was freshly raked, but I could clearly see darker spots, and here and there was what looked like a shiny ligament or a piece of flesh torn away by a bullet. That sight has never left me and is as fresh in my vision as if it had happened yesterday.
As mentioned before, the ghetto was not guarded. One autumn day we woke to noises in the street, a big commotion, and an announcement that we were all being sent to a larger ghetto. Consolidation. This time the ghetto was surrounded by a motley group of Germans and blue-uniformed police with some other troops said to be Ukrainians. We were trapped. We were told to pack, one suitcase per person, and be ready for transport in the morning. This time, in the evening, my parents held a soul-searching and dramatic meeting to decide whether to go along. It had finally dawned on them that something was very fishy and that we should not go. I remember some of the conversation. Mother: “If we must die, I want us to be together.” Father: “You cannot make such a decision for the children. We must save them. I will come out and join you when I can. We might raise suspicion if I disappear now, too. They might start looking for all of us. We cannot risk that.”
They decided that my mother would sneak out with both of us children, and Father would join us the following night, since he had learned of two groups being formed for transport. For this to succeed, he had to find a “blue” policeman and bribe him to let us through. So, in the morning before dawn, we sneaked past an “unseeing” blue-uniformed policeman and then hid in the forest for two or three days.
Finally, we ventured out of the forest. With my mother holding us both by the hand, we walked toward the village. There came a peasant with his horse and carriage. “What are you doing here, Jews? All the rest have gone to the gas. You can dig yourself a grave here. Do you want a shovel?” He drove off laughing. As we got closer to the village, we saw a cloud of feathers. That was the result of looting by the hordes of locals—ripping the feather bedding is a necessary step in the search for valuables.
We waited outside for one night, and the next day we entered the desolate area that had been the ghetto. Devastation was everywhere—a hurricane would have created a scene like this. Belongings and broken furniture lay in the streets, and many windows were smashed. My mother selected a half-caved-in house—hopefully, no one would claim this one for a while. We went in to hide there from the elements, since the autumn weather was growing worse. It was now November 1942.
Until the fall of 1942 we had been confined to the smaller of the two market squares in the village of Drzewica. The larger square was adjacent to it, beyond a row of houses. These houses divided Drzewica and made a barrier through the middle of the village. Opposite these houses was a large church complex. The ghetto territory was enclosed around the smaller square. To one side, right by the dividing row of houses that allowed a narrow passage between the two squares, was the synagogue. Drzewica served as a center for the surrounding countryside. The odpusty (church fairs) were held on the church grounds, and I would guess that before the war, the synagogue also served the needs of some nearby Jewish families from the smaller settlements.
The house that Mother selected for our dwelling was tucked in the corner of the smaller square with its back to the larger square and facing the synagogue. This house, partially caved in, looked like a heap of rubble from the outside. Beyond the debris inside, we found a room intact with a window looking out toward the now empty and looted synagogue. The view was partially obstructed by beams and other parts of the house. It looked as if one corner had collapsed and wrapped itself around the front of what remained standing.
We settled into this room. From the possessions strewn around the ruins, we were able to arrange relatively comfortable living quarters. For a stranger looking at the heap of rubble, with the small portion still standing but partially obstructed by debris, it would seem improbable that someone could live there. Of course, our settling there was largely by chance, but once there, we felt that its appearance was perhaps what was needed for a reasonable “hiding” place. The problem now was how to sustain ourselves.
The greatest danger came from the locals. Would they leave us alone or would they denounce us to the Germans—especially to the gendarmes or the SS outfits that passed sporadically through the village to make forays into suspected partisan strongholds? Drzewica now, as before the liquidation of the ghetto, was free of any German military presence. The Nowe Miasto gendarme outpost was twenty kilometers away, and Moritz, with his outfit, was in Opoczno, about fifteen kilometers away. Drzewica was free of Germans except for actions that were carried out after being precipitated by a variety of factors.
These actions or forays struck terror in us. Most of the time we had some warning, because the Germans came into the village by two access roads, both of which led into the big square. There the Germans would make their base, and the commotion gave us time to hurry into the adjacent woods before they fanned out into the village. We would spend the day, or whatever time was necessary, waiting until they left. We could tell what was happening by approaching the edge of the woods close to the village. The actions mounted by the Germans usually lasted a few hours until their goals had been achieved, whatever they were. The danger to us was that some of the locals might point out our ruin, and that would doom us. The next worry was food. Hunger was our ever-present torment, went out to forage into the fields for leftovers from the harvest. I dug out and collected everything I could find, frozen or not. Carrots and potatoes were sometimes buried deep enough to be edible. One day I hit a bonanza. I found an abandoned flour mill, and the flour and grain I collected from crevices sustained us for a short while. Times became better when the crops began to ripen. I went out and collected (stole) much of what was needed to keep us from outright starvation.
Our everyday hope was that Father would come back as was planned. That hope sustained Mother; she was so sure that we would see him any day. That was not to be, but Mother never lost hope, although the chance that we would see him again at all diminished with every passing month. The three of us marked the days in fear and desperation, hoping for some change for the better. By this time we were approaching the winter of 1943, almost a year from the time of our escape from the ghetto.
What saved us was an event that occurred before the winter set in, quite some time after the ghetto liquidation. On the other side of the river, a huge commotion started one day. Construction equipment arrived, along with a lot of black-uniformed Todt Organization units. This organization, named after General Todt, had the mission of supporting troops by constructing roads, fortifications, and whatever was necessary. This was their mission and concern, not chasing Jews or any other military/ political pursuit. With typical German single-minded dedication to their narrow mission, they went about their task to build barracks for young Polish conscripts in a work organization called Junacy–Young Men’s Labor Brigade. These young Polish men did all kinds of auxiliary work for the German war machine. They were rounded up and given a choice: To be sent to Germany for slave labor or to “volunteer” for the Junacy organization and stay closer to home, doing work for the Germans out of their “free will”. I think the Germans considered that arrangement more efficient.
When that camp started functioning, and we continued to be pressed for food (my digger-gatherer activity barely allowed us to stay ahead of starvation), my mother said one day, “Children, I have to go there and see if I can get some work. Maybe they need some kitchen help.” “But Mother ….” “Sven, I have no choice; we will starve otherwise. These are Todt people; maybe I will find some human soul there. I will tell them some story about how we are temporarily here, waiting for our paperwork to be processed to restore my rights as a pure German (a Reichsdeutche).” So, my mother got a job as kitchen help in the Junacy work camp.
This had an immediate and huge benefit; it gave us food, and it also confused the locals utterly as to our status. Now they saw my mother go to work every day in the German compound. I was a little bit more relaxed and did not scurry around like a hunted animal anymore. I ventured out to go and watch the kids play a game called palant—something akin to baseball. I stood there on the side, a picture of shyness and poised to run at any sign of hostility. One boy much older than I—a lot of them were sixteen or older—moved in my direction and said, “Hey, little Jew, catch that ball.”
He threw the makeshift baseball in my direction, and I caught it nonchalantly with my left hand. His face went from a derisive smile to very serious. “Do you want to try a game with us? I will put you on my team.” No doubt that I would try a game! I became a prized player. The team captains would draw lots to decide which team I would be on. I was proficient catching with my left hand, and that was a premium. I gained confidence and felt safe as long as I was in the company of these familiar boys. Being now more on the Aryan side, I had a chance for a bit of insight into the life of Polish society during the years of the German occupation. The days now passed in an effort to avoid dangerous situations and, most important, dangerous people.
The village and the surrounding countryside were teeming with partisan activity. There were many factions constantly feuding with each other. On the average there were two funerals a day in Drzewica as a result of assassinations carried out by rival units against each other. All I knew was to keep from crossing the path of any of those units. I was unable to distinguish between the Communists (AL), the Home Army (AK) and the Nationalists (NSZ). At times some of them would behave so brazenly as to parade in prewar Polish military uniforms through the village. While none of them ever bothered us, danger nonetheless loomed everywhere. There was a large farm/estate run for the Germans by its Polish tenants. This is where I went, when crops were ripening, to dig out some new potatoes and look for anything else that was edible. One day a farmer who had no interest in protecting German property (or so it seemed) caught me. His fields were not even adjacent, but here he had caught a Jew obviously stealing German property, and my uncertain status notwithstanding, this should do me in. He tied me to his cart with a rope and started dragging me to the nearest German authority. Where would he find one close enough so that I would still be alive after being dragged like this? I did not know. The farmer was driving his horse, and I ran behind the cart in terror, stumbling and wiggling, trying to free myself. Eventually I was able to scrape the rope against the rough wood of the farm cart and break it. I ran into the nearby bushes and escaped. The bastard gave up looking for me after a while—the head start I had before he could stop the horse and get off the cart made the difference.
AL was the acronym for Armia Ludowa [People’s Army], AK for Armia Krajowa [Home Army] and NSZ for the right-wing group Narodowe Siły Zbrojne [National Armed Forces], all underground fighting organizations.
There was a brief period of heightened fear, and it was not directly from the Germans; in 1944 the Warsaw Uprising took place. We watched the glowing sky over Warsaw in the distance, and after a while, refugees from Warsaw started arriving in Drzewica. A number of people escaped the burning capital city, which was being systematically dynamited, house by house, by German troops. People scattered in all directions, and a number ended up in Drzewica.
Some turned out to be nasty. City slickers—they tried to show off. Inevitably, some got interested in my family, trying to show how tough one ought to be with Jews. They started harassing me at every turn. What saved us, and particularly me, from harm were the tough local farm boys whose respect I had gained through games. Besides, they had their own animosity toward the so annoyingly arrogant city slickers.
The importance of judging people by subtle or not-so-subtle clues was hammered into me by another memorable incident. One day I went to meet Mom at the Junacy compound. Usually I waited near the main gate, out of sight, though, at an abandoned shack. The windows of the shack were missing, and the part of the wall away from the compound was missing, too. I would join Mom when she came out after she finished her shift. On that day I saw a girl, about eighteen years old, dressed in a lightweight black dress. The dress was short, showing her legs, and it was snug around her breasts, which being nicely outlined appeared very firm. Her face was handsome but bore a strange expression of bewilderment and absence of mind. Her movements toward the gate were erratic, as if she was not sure of her purpose. She had a bag slung over her shoulder, the kind beggars sometimes have to hold things. One of the Junacy was standing at the gate, and the girl asked if she could get some leftover food. The man said, “Wait here, I will check.”
He walked back into the compound, and I saw him collecting some other young men, and four of them came out of the gate. Seeing this, the girl started drifting toward the shack, and I was able to pick up the conversation among them. The leader said, “We need a rope or something to tie her dress above her head. One of you, go get it.” One of the other men added, “Yeah, I saw her before. I am sure she is a mental case; she won’t know what happened.”
The girl was moving around aimlessly. The men came toward the shack and corralled her there. One of the men pulled her dress up over her head; the other quickly tied it up with the rope. They pulled her panties down. The girl was moaning and thrashing around trying to free herself, and it was now that for the first time I saw a naked girl. She was beautifully shaped. Her dress pulled up high over her breasts, conical shaped breasts, firm and tipped up. The men forced her down in a corner. At that moment, there was a shout from the gate, “Hey guys what are you doing there outside the compound?” “Nothing, Sarge, just having a smoke.” “Back inside, on the double!”
Obviously, he could not see the girl inside the shack. The four men moved in a hurry toward the gate and the sergeant. Shaking, I went over and untied the rope; I saw her face close—it was sheer terror. She was moaning and sobbing softly. I picked up her bag, she slung it over her shoulder, and still sobbing, she moved away without a word. I sat down with my face covered, devastated. Among all the horrors of that war, this one episode has etched itself into my memory, so that, whenever I think back to the war, that scene floats up every time. I resolved then and there to redouble my caution around people, be they German or not. Nonetheless, my curiosity about all kinds of trades brought me into contact with a local Polish cabinetmaker named Ramus, living with his family and working in his shop near our hiding place—the abandoned ruin. I would spend a lot of time in his shop, helping with whatever he allowed me to do. He also gave us shelter if there was an unexpected raid, especially in winter, when it would be difficult to hide in the forest. He did so matter-of-factly, with a calm demeanor, as if it were the most routine thing. He risked the destruction of his family, if not worse, by doing this, and he knew it.
Soon the Russians were approaching, and the situation changed dramatically. We heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. There was anticipation, anxiety about impending events. The German occupation was drawing to an end. In addition, there was the assassination attempt on Hitler, which temporarily threw the Germans into some confusion. I remember frontline soldiers marching westward through the village, bedraggled, foraging for food, and ingratiatingly saying, “Hitler kaputt.”
Suddenly, the area was flooded with Wehrmacht troops from all kinds of units, preparing to take a stand. We huddled in the deepest crevices of the building we had found, not daring to breathe loudly. One morning we saw two German soldiers searching, and eventually they came upon us. A tall sergeant yanked me out of a corner. “People here tell us that you are Jews. Are you?” “Ehhh …” “You, boy, come with us to the major.” The major asked a few questions, but his main interest was to see if I spoke fluent German, which I did. “You will be assigned to the sergeant, boy. We will give you some provisions now, and you report tomorrow at dawn to him. We have trenches to dig, and you will translate instructions to the locals who are already organized in work groups.”
Some more bastards tried again. One day, while going busily about the trenches, I saw a vehicle stop in the distance. Out came four or five black-clad Totenkopf SS (the skull insignia was their mark, placed on their caps). One of the trench diggers stopped and went over to the SS men, and I saw him pointing in our direction. I could feel the blood draining out of my face. All one had to do was to point a finger and say Jude (Jew) to these guys. The sergeant, as if alerted by something, looked at my face. “What is the matter?” I barely came out with a whisper, “SS.” He took one look and barked, “Get behind me.” We inched toward the nearest structure. “Crawl into a hole and stay there until I come for you.” I heard his boots crunching away in the direction of the SS men.
The Totenkopf (“death’s head”) group of the SS was a particularly vicious group.
The end of the German presence came swiftly. One day, in the morning, we heard all hell break loose. Heavy guns were thundering and small firearms crackling. We ran into the cellar and stayed there until all was quiet. After we left the cellar, I went exploring with the throng of people that also came out of their hiding places. The first dead German soldier I saw was lying facedown in the middle of the street; his boots, belt, and coat were gone.
We moved beyond the river where the fiercest fighting had taken place. Bodies lay everywhere on top of the trenches as if killed in the process of trying to get out and run.
Most of them were stripped naked. The ones still partially in uniform were being stripped before my eyes. Looters with armfuls of all kinds of German clothing were running toward home in fear that someone would stop them. I saw an elderly man pick up a handkerchief and put it on the exposed genitals of a soldier who lay on his back—an exception. Some wounds were terrible. One German had his skull partially blown off—little blood, just the exposed brain.
The throng of people was moving like a swarm of bees from one place of excitement to another. The Russian soldiers moved in groups, rounding up hiding Germans. I went back to the town square and saw a lone German soldier wandering around in a daze. He kept muttering, “Mein lieber Gott, meine Frau, meine Kinder” (My dear God, my wife, my children). He repeated the phrase over and over. One of the Russian commanding officers pointed to a group of other Germans and told him to go there.
In a little while, two Russian soldiers marched the group toward the other side of the river. The spectators followed. The Germans were lined up at the edge of a trench, and the executions started. One of the Germans, apparently only painfully wounded, fell to his knees and made a movement with his right hand as if asking for more shots, to be finished.
The Russians turned around and left. The people fell upon the dead to strip them naked. Some were left in their long johns.
Mother decided to wait in Drzewica long enough for Father to return and find us. The next day Russian soldiers came to the ruin where we lived and took me to their officer. My mother did not speak Polish. “Who are you people?” “We are Jews who escaped from the ghetto and have been hiding here in this ruin since then.” “You were pointed out to us by the locals here as having aided the Germans.” “When the Germans came to town, we were pointed out to them as fugitive Jews and our hiding place disclosed. The Germans forced me to interpret for them. We were trying to survive.” That was the end of that. I established good relations with some of the Russian soldiers and stayed around them as much as I could, fascinated with their equipment.
After the war, we waited for my father in that cursed place, Drzewica. Out of two thousand people, only twenty-five showed up to look for their relatives. Many more had taken the initiative to run and hide, but like my father, they never came back. Two weeks passed, and Father did not show up, so Mother decided to go to Łódź, a big city. The Jewish Committee placed my sister and me in a children’s home in Helenówek, a suburb of Łódź, and gave Mother a job in the kitchen as a cook.
One day we traveled to our home in Jabłonowo, where we found both our houses were a heap of burned-out bricks. All the rest of our business establishment was gone. Not an item from that extensive property remained, and all that was left to us was a few acres of wasteland. The war was over. All that was left of our family was the three of us, Mother, my sister, and me, with the shabby rags on our backs as our only possessions. Mother kept hoping that Father was alive and would find us. She kept that hope to the end of her life. She died in 1949.
From here on I embarked on new a journey through another bewildering period, of the Stalinist regime in Poland. My drifting alone through space continued, a stranger in any group of people no matter what its make-up. The feeling of not belonging anywhere deepened as I moved along the path of my new journey. In 1968, during the anti-Zionist campaign in Poland, I emigrated to the U.S. and began a new life.
Anti-Zionist campaign in Poland – in 1968, there were student demonstrations in Poland against government censorship. They were crushed by the Communist regime and blamed on “Zionists” (some of the students and professors who backed them were Jewish). A wave of anti-Zionism and antisemitism followed. Jews were accused of not being loyal to Poland and were often demoted or summarily dismissed from their jobs. Many Jews who had survived in Poland or returned to Poland after the war then emigrated (about 30,000).
After reading this remembrance, some people have asked me how the experience has changed me. And further, what were my emotions during these years of calamity? The first question is a very valid one, and I will address it in detail below. The answer to the second question lies within the text and any reasonably sensitive and imaginative person can figure this one out. I will, however, describe one other episode from those hellish years that has been evoked by this question.
THE PERSONAL CHANGES.
I have often tried to imagine what and who I might have been if I had not experienced all of these horrors and sustained the losses. I can see what I might have become by simply observing people who have been blessed with a normal sheltered life, affluence at home, a carefree youth, no war, no army service, college, and then a smooth transition to a job, marriage after that, et cetera, et cetera—so smug and confident, believing themselves to be virtually invincible. It is tempting to wish for that innocence, and yet I would no longer have within me the knowledge of human nature, the understanding of the level of evil to which a human can descend, and the height of sacrifice and goodness of which man is capable. I have seen and experienced and learned the mechanics of human behavior in a laboratory that is impossible to duplicate in normal life. In short, I feel as if I have a kind of wisdom that is so much a part of me, it defines me and makes it impossible for me to imagine anything so remote as a life without horror.
What is the price of that wisdom in the makeup of my character? Did I acquire a hatred for Germans, Poles, and Russians? Did I become permanently depressed or otherwise strange? The answer is complicated. I did not fall into a permanent state of bitterness or hate, although I’d be less than truthful if I did not admit to having those moments of hatred, especially against the Germans, and powerless fury with an intensity that is much too well earned. More often I am reminded of Don Corleone in The Godfather, who verbalized a principle which I practiced by instinct all along. “Never hate your enemies; it will cloud your judgment.”
This understanding came to me with great ease. To avoid the bastards one meets in life and to fight them down, if necessary, is just business. That spared me an all-consuming desire for revenge or the constant torment of remembering how profoundly I had been wronged. Indeed, I sometimes felt guilty that I did not join the magnificent Simon Wiesenthal in his pursuit of the Nazi perpetrators but instead went on to build a “normal” life. The justifying rationalization is clearly that I was a mere youngster after the war and unfit to do any such thing at the time.
In a sense I have been walking through life as if in an altered state of being, wherein I am able to see a level of complexity that few around me can perceive or even imagine. I would argue that it has indeed made me “strange”, and perhaps more so over the years. I am generally in a state of anxiety, always expecting or at least prepared for doom, with a predominantly pessimistic outlook. I am trusting and friendly but with a healthy dose of suspicion and caution. President Reagan had the right idea but butchered the pronunciation of the famous Russian saying: “Doveryai, no proveryai” (Trust, but verify).
I seem to have been born with, or have somehow developed, the perceptive ability to determine an individual’s trustworthiness, and this ability has spared me many disappointments. My experiences have also made me brooding and introverted yet very proactive in life situations. A well-known statesman once said, “When I close my eyes, I see the map of the earth and the tumult of battle, the cries of suffering, and death rising above it.” I do not have to close my eyes; this image is with me all the time. It does not leave me, even in moments of exhilaration and joy, which are always muted and tinged with a dark underpinning. Indeed,
I have become essentially a sad person, and that sadness became a scar that was impossible to conceal and made me appear strange to other people.
Having said all that, one might wonder whether I would exchange this emotional burden for the innocence of an unscathed life. Perhaps the fact that I cannot imagine such a life speaks volumes in itself. If I met my more fortunate clone or some parallel-universe version of myself, I would no doubt consider him immature, naive to a fault, and view him with a tinge of contempt and affection, like an old soldier views a greenhorn recruit. I would wish to warn him, “Wake up, man, to the real world that surrounds you. Wake up to the beauty and the evil that are only a fraction of an inch away from each other.”
I cannot emphasize more strongly that the price of my sad wisdom is both horrible and unacceptable, and yet it is not possible to wish it away. Under no circumstances would I knowingly set someone on a course of life like mine to gain the sad wisdom I have acquired. It truly would be akin to condemning a human being to hell, and hence the title of this narrative. The fantasy I often thought of would be to have some of the experiences I had—but with a happy ending. Nobody gets killed, the family reunites, the previous conditions of life are restored. That would be an ideal lasting education, albeit still unspeakably harsh, to appreciate life and its complexities. Yet sadly that is not possible, and I am left to grieve for my lost family and my parents mostly, who were such magnificent human beings, and yet God allowed them to perish in suffering. Who could be idiotic enough to believe “what does not kill us, makes us stronger”? Such fools “know not what they say”.
Finding the words to convey an emotional experience seems almost impossible. Reading the greatest literary works describing emotional states still leaves even the sensitive and imaginative person without a true feeling of what the subject experienced. It was my intention in writing this to communicate the events rather than to attempt a futile analysis and conveyance of my emotional turbulence. There is, however, one emotionally charged experience that floated to the forefront of my memory as a result of this discussion.
We were playing the cherished palant game in Drzewica during the somewhat “looser” times of our hiding on the Aryan side, when a boy came running and shouting, “The Germans, the Germans, they are fanning out and surrounding the village!” Panic set in immediately. Some of the boys were teenagers and were always afraid of being caught up in a roundup and sent for slave labor to the Reich. I, of course, was in danger for my very life. We abandoned all implements, and, in a herd, without a moment’s hesitation, started running toward the forest. Without much thinking, I followed the leader and the throng.
We scattered a bit and ran at top speed toward the trees about a hundred yards or so away. Suddenly, we heard the ominously characteristic crackling of submachine fire. Looking back, we saw a line of German soldiers advancing toward us. They were not catching up, because they had stopped to aim and fire; their advance was thus not as fast, and bit by bit, we were leaving them behind.
Nevertheless, the bullets were whistling around us, although I did not see anybody hit. That was one rare instant when I turned to God, and I remember putting my hands together for a brief moment of prayer, begging to be spared. That never happened again, not for myself anyway. I prayed for others, but to no avail. My chest was heaving, and my head flashing fragmentary horrible scenes of being doomed. In all this there was an instinctive retainment of reason that often makes the difference between death and life. Once I heard the machine gun fire, I started weaving to thwart the aim. Utterly exhausted and out of breath, we reached the tree line. Once inside the forest, we just looked back for a brief moment to see that the Germans were giving up the chase. The shooting stopped once the last of us reached the trees.
The terror slowly subsided, but we all proceeded deeper into the forest as fast as we could, regaining our composure. The moment I felt safe, the worry and the feeling of helplessness about my mother and sister set in, and the overwhelming guilt of leaving them behind became unbearable. I tried to rationalize and console myself, reasoning that
I would not have been of any help and also that it was all so sudden, that it was an instinctive reaction. Nevertheless, the hollowness in my stomach and fear for their safety would not leave me until I returned—and found them shaken, but alive. It was just a flash raid again, and they had stayed in the ruin until the Germans left. I wandered with some of the boys deep into the forest and came upon a small settlement where people spoke a strange dialect and never saw a German. They heard that there was a war somewhere but did not know what it was all about. We lingered there for a day before heading back to our village. That experience, seeing those people as if from another world, utterly amazed me, and I cannot forget their strangely different faces and the way they moved around their primitive huts doing their daily chores.
Years later, reading The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński and seeing the reaction of people to it—“Fantasy, it could not be true”—I answer their skepticism, “Do not tell me, I was there!” It is now with thorough understanding that I view films like Deliverance. I often wonder what people feel and think when they see war stories like Schindler’s List or other true depictions from the Holocaust or other wars. I could not watch Schindler’s List. When I saw an excerpt and the little boy in the transport, I was saying, “That was me there.” I lived through it once, and I am not going to live through it again.
It is at moments like that when my fury of helplessness and hatred flares up. Indeed, I must admit that what propels me in life is a well of spitefulness; I feel it in my chest. I want to thumb my nose at the human or heavenly (if there are any) generated forces that are trying to stomp me down and strike blows—as if to see if they can knock me down for good. Even in retirement, after a lifetime of combat, these forces do not give me rest. Instead they struck one of the cruelest blows by taking my only joy in life, my beloved wife. We always expect the good outcome of human stories, the “Hollywood ending”, where the lovers walk on the seashore, hand in hand, as the credits roll. It gives us a smidgen of hope that things can be right and maybe we, too, will have our share of happiness in the final reels of our own lives. The best I can offer in terms of hope is that I have survived to write this, and I have won some battles. I am preparing myself for the ones yet to come; maybe I will win some of those as I managed to do in the past.
My ghetto experiences come out of the recesses of my memory at the slightest stimulation. Even a seemingly remote association is enough.
Reading Bruno Bettelheim’s essay “Freedom from Ghetto Thinking” easily brought it out and made me go back in time in an attempt to examine my state of mind and that of my parents and fellow ghetto dwellers. The central point of Mr. Bettelheim’s thesis is that Jews in the ghettos, by a long tradition maintained in the Diaspora, acquired an attitude of total submission and meekness, making the job of their extermination astonishingly easy for the Germans.
“Freedom from Ghetto Thinking” – Bruno Bettelheim, Freud’s Vienna & Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
What was my state of mind at that time, at age eleven? I had no broad historic knowledge of the Nazi movement or its stated goals, of course. Fear, hunger, and preoccupation with the day’s survival are the only things I remember. Mr. Bettelheim considers it a given that even minimally educated Jews must have known the truth about the Nazis. My parents certainly were very well educated. Had they seriously considered or talked about the ultimate consequences of what the Germans were doing? Not that I remember. There was disbelief about the possibility of mass extermination even when someone hinted at it.
“This is the twentieth century, things like this are unthinkable,” was the usual consensus. What about events like the ones described? These were thought to be the excesses of a few devilish types like Moritz. If only the higher German authorities might learn about them!
To add confusion to Mr. Bettelheim’s argument that the eastern ghettos were bereft of those who had had the initiative to leave the ghettos for the “past three generations”, I must point out that the ghettos established by the Germans collected all those who were outside in the gentile world, like my parents. So there were plenty of bright, modern, educated people in each of the ghettos, people who had freed themselves from ghetto culture. What perhaps might be a plausible explanation is that these people hadn’t had the time, willingness, or opportunity to bond with the “masses” from the ghetto and become their leaders and turn them away from “ghetto thinking”. The so-called masses of Jewish shopkeepers, shoe repairmen, and tailors had no inkling of the world outside their narrow confines, much less about Hitler’s writings and the global political goals of the Germans. The elite were naive, trusting, and “innocent”. Sometimes people develop an instinct without too much theorizing or verbalizing; they “feel” that something is out of kilter and then act. Even for this to happen, there needs to be leadership. Advocates of a certain course of action have to come forward.
In Poland instinct and leadership were lacking. I grant this to Mr. Bettelheim. Suppose they were present—this instinct and leadership—what then, given the hostile surroundings where even the Poles were murdering each other across the political spectrum without any German encouragement? When I later lived outside the ghetto, I saw at least two funerals a day resulting from fights between different Polish partisan factions. Should a Jewish leadership (if there had been one) have attempted to organize armed resistance with that kind of outside conditions, plus the aversion of the ghetto Jew to even looking at a gun? Theoretically, it was possible. It did happen in a few places—with suicidal results. Should this have been the norm rather than the exception? Yes! I would, however, refrain from pinning blame on those poor, lost, bewildered, disoriented, and leaderless souls who, dazed, went to the slaughter.
The ghetto people felt trapped on all sides. The murderous Germans! The hostility outside! For many who ventured to leave the ghetto, it meant instant death if caught and delivered to the Germans. Mr. Bettelheim cites the fact that once the Jews took up resistance there was help from the outside, as in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. That was far from even a hope in Drzewica. So, Mr. Bettelheim, I would not be so ready to attach blame to the poor masses of downtrodden ghetto dwellers. Besides, to organize resistance, one needed not only leaders but also some rudimentary vestiges of the defiant and combative attitudes that were totally lacking in those unhappy souls beaten down for generations. So the notion that something could have been done is purely theoretical and unrealistic given the circumstances of that period. Do I wish we had fought, run, hidden, done anything but go on the transports? Definitely! What permeates me is not shame but regret that we did not fight.
To suggest, as Mr. Bettelheim does, that escape through the Pripet Marshes was possible is sheer fantasy. To ask a shopkeeper with a flock of small kids to pack up his family and head over the marshes into the Soviet Empire is completely unrealistic. Under Stalin, traditional, murderous Russian anti–Semitism was simmering, and Jewish leadership and culture were being destroyed. That much knowledge seeped through to the ghettos. The people who went to the Soviet Union were mostly Communist political activists acutely aware that they would be shot by their competitors, the Nazis, Jew or not. Their Soviet political comrades shot many on arrival anyway.
I accept Mr. Bettelheim’s concept of ghetto thinking. For it is within me to a large degree. I have to watch myself and be careful not to fall too easily into that mold, even now. My first instinct is always appeasement, even if it is obvious that it would have a very temporary effect. I act on my second impulse and fight only if I am cornered without an escape route. Not fighting, even in extreme circumstances, was the survival method for the Jews in the Diaspora for ages. This conditioned them to ghetto thinking. However, the circumstances during World War II in the German occupied territories included the additional element of total entrapment; it would have been difficult for any national group even with the best attributes for resistance and fighting.
So, let’s leave the total undiminished blame on the murderous Germans and the szmalcownicy (those Poles who hunted down Jews for profit)! It is also difficult to accept Mr. Bettelheim’s assertion that “German Jews (and those of Poland, too) permitted themselves to remain innocent, avoided eating from the tree of knowledge and remained ignorant of the nature of the enemy.”
To lump the other Jewish communities with those of Germany is not right. The Jews of other European countries had a right to expect protection, as had their gentile population. I clearly remember the Polish propaganda slogan just before the war’s outbreak—“We will not let them have one button.” Poland was smashed in six weeks, hardly much longer than the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lasted. When almost every neighbor of Germany crumbled in short order, there was shock and disbelief. How about those governments and elites, including the Polish? Were they stupid and incompetent? Were they “innocent”? If not, what were they? To expect from the Jews a superior foresight as to the outcome of the German onslaught is a bit much. I think one cannot escape the thought that things were much more complex than just the psychological makeup of the ghetto Jew.
So, we survived. I have to give this to Mr. Bettelheim; passivity was a sure death sentence. Many also perished by being betrayed, as I was—outside the ghetto.