Tadeusz Iger, born in 1941
During and after the War
It took me a long time to decide to write about all of this, because it is so difficult for me. My father, a Communist by conviction even before the war (already then he belonged to the KPP, the Communist Party of Poland), used to tell me, “Son, you can be proud that you belong to the chosen people, chosen by God.” Often I thought about this. Chosen people? For what, for maltreatment, beatings, pogroms, insults, and, in the end, being burned in crematory ovens? As a true son of my people, I had a life full of dramatic events and difficult experiences, but I am not complaining.
I was born on January 1, 1941, in Czortków, in the Tarnopol province, in our little home in Wygnanka (a section of Czortków). My father celebrated my coming into this world with his friends, starting already on the morning of December 31, 1940, although I came into the world only the next day at two o’clock in the morning. Poland’s eastern regions, including our small town, were at this time already under Red Army occupation, so things were not exactly merry. Despite this, I was eagerly expected and loved. My father, Joel, a dental technician by profession, and my mama, Klara, née Haker, daughter of a poor tailor, belonged to families of moderate means.
Red Army occupation – on 17 September 1939 the Soviet Army invades eastern Poland under secret agreement between Germany and Soviet Union, the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement. Polish government evacuates through Romania, first to Paris, then to London..
In order for this marriage to take place, Father, unbeknownst to his family, had to secretly provide a dowry for Mama, and only then could he receive the blessing of Grandmother, Chaja Iger, the head of the family. (Grandfather Natan had been killed during World War I as a non-commissioned officer in the Austrian army.) But my parents did not enjoy their happiness for long.
In July 1941 Czortków and the surrounding area were occupied by the German army, and horrible things began to happen. Our Polish neighbor, a teacher, went into the forest and joined the AK [Armia Krajowa]. One night some Banderowcy came to his home and murdered his Ukrainian wife and their already grown daughter, after having brutally tortured them, chopping off their hands and legs. The number of such incidents was increasing, because Ukrainian nationalists began to feel masters of the situation.
AK [Armia Krajowa] – organized underground army in Poland that reported to the Polish government-in-exile in London; known in English as the Home Army. Banderowcy – guerrilla bands of Ukrainian nationalists, named after their leader, Stepan Bandera. They were anti-Polish as well as anti-Jewish.
In June 1942 the local Gestapo organized a ghetto in Czortków. My whole family ended up there—Grandma Chaja, Uncle Natan (my father’s brother), Father/Joel, Mama/Klara, Mama’s parents, and also myself. Many died from hunger and disease then or because of the substantial participation of Sich streltsy, the Ukrainian police. In 1943 Grandmother, Uncle, and Mama’s parents were murdered. Those who survived were transferred to the Świdowa labor camp, where rubber was produced. There, on January 20, 1944, my mother was killed, shot by a Ukrainian policeman who had been Father’s schoolmate. I survived by a miracle, tucked under the bed by my mother.
Sich streltsy [Sich Riflemen], an organization originally formed in a Cossack camp in Sich near Zaporozhe in the sixteenth century, it became a nationalistic military group during the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic of 1918–20. It was reactivated during the German occupation.A similar miracle happened when my father and his friend, before going to work, left their little sons in a workshop under the care of a friendly shepherd. A Ukrainian policeman wandered in there. I was able to explain who my father was and ask him not to kill me. He left me alone, but he shot the little son of my father’s friend. Many years after the war I often dreamed about this scene, and I would wake up screaming, all soaked with sweat and frightened.
One day a noncommissioned Wehrmacht [regular German army] officer we knew, Paweł Tomanek, a Silesian from Gliwice who spoke Polish very well, warned my father that in the next few days the SS Command was planning to liquidate the camp and that the prisoners would be shot. With Tomanek’s help, Father escaped from the camp with me on his back, having made a sort of backpack out of a sack.
We ended up in Father’s native village, Różanówka, where he was born and brought up and where his parents had lived and worked. The local peasants, many of them my father’s schoolmates, helped us, and sometimes even hid us. I remember best an elderly Ukrainian in a peasant flax shirt tied around his waist with a piece of string, who by his appearance, with a beard and long hair, reminded one of Vernyhora [a legendary Cossack]. He taught me Ukrainian songs and the language because he hated all things Polish. He didn’t like it when I spoke Polish. “Tell him to give up that rotten talk,” he used to tell my father. Despite this, he was an honorable man. Perhaps this was due to his attachment and gratitude to my grandfather, who had been the administrator of an estate and had treated the peasants in a fatherly fashion, helping them greatly. (After the war, in his résumé, my father described his father as a “farm worker,” which amused me greatly when I learned the truth.)
Everything, however, has its limits. The people in Różanówka were also afraid. Therefore most of the time we hid in the forest, in provisional holes dug in the ground. There, once again things turned out well for me. Father was tired and wanted to make something to eat and rest a bit. He hung me up in this makeshift knapsack on a branch of a nearby tree, very close to the road, along which, as bad luck would have it, two German soldiers came riding by on a motorcycle. They stopped very close to us but, fortunately, did not notice me and after a while moved on. My terrified father, hidden in a ditch, took this very hard. In this way, Father and I survived the German occupation until March 22, 1944, when the Red Army once again entered Czortków.
On February 5, 1946, as part of the repatriation program, Father and I arrived in Opole. Here Father became the head of the Jewish Committee. While performing this function, an unfortunate incident occurred, and he almost paid for it with his life. He was shot with a pistol by a man who came to the committee supposedly looking for help. It is unknown to this day whether it was a simple robbery or whether the act was politically motivated. Fortunately, it was only a superficial wound, and everything ended well.
Repatriation program – after the war ended, eastern territories, formerly in Poland, became part of the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania). Poles were given the opportunity to remain in the USSR and become Soviet citizens or relocate to Poland and be “repatriated”.
In Opole, I ended up in a kindergarten (or perhaps an orphanage?) for orphans and partially orphaned Jewish children. A wild and silent child of war, I shied away from other children, keeping my distance from them. The caretakers could not handle me, either. It was the head cook who finally took me under her wing. Her goodness, a piece of chocolate here, a handful of almonds or raisins there, and her kind words slowly did their work. I grew very attached to her. I made friends outside the walls of the kindergarten, among the children of the street. I was often there, striking up friendships, exchanging chocolate for bread with lard, enjoying myself and feeling good.
Perhaps it was because of me, or perhaps not, that my kindergarten friend, the head cook, and my father became acquainted. They became friends and, in the end, got married. Elfryda Niesporek, a Silesian from Bytom, a miner’s daughter, wanted to remedy what the Germans did to us, and I think she succeeded. My second mother (because after all that I owe her, I could not call her a stepmother) did everything to make me forget about the injustices and experiences of war. All that I am, I owe to her. She brought me up, was with me when I needed her, supported me through quizzes, dictations, colloquiums, and finally, examinations. She was the reason that no matter where I was (e.g., Wrocław or Warsaw), I returned home with pleasure. About my birth mother I know only that she saved my life and that she was a beautiful woman.
I once again had a father, a mother, and family warmth, as well as everything that could be called a normal, happy family. I was not an easy child. Quiet, closed up within myself, and stubborn, I often caused trouble for my parents. My friends and I once found a mortar emplacement from World War II and brought home two rounds of ammunition, nearly giving my father and mother a heart attack. On another occasion, hearing my neighbors say they were poor and going through hard times, I ran to our apartment without hesitation and took out several bundles of hundred- złoty banknotes from a suitcase under my bed and presented them with the money. Fortunately, they were honest people and gave it back to my parents. This was money meant for wages for my father’s employees (there were no banks then). My parents were shocked, but they did not punish me; I meant well, I had acted like a true Samaritan.
Wandering around with friends through Opole’s burned-out ruins (homes burned down by looters already after the war), we looked for things to play with. Once we found a couple of swords without handles. While fencing with a friend, I was accidentally hit in the neck. I have a scar to this day. Doctor Hołejko, the surgeon who sewed up the wound, told me, “Son, you have more luck than brains.” The sword missed my neck artery, literally, by millimeters. Had it been cut, I would have surely died. How could I not believe in God?
Although I do not practice my religion and don’t know anything about Jewish holidays, I do believe in God and in God’s providence. My adventures with God seemed amusing. Having neither a synagogue nor a religious model of my people around (Father was not a practicing Jew), I became interested in Catholicism. As a small boy, I often went with Haniczka, an old lady from the neighborhood, to the Opole Cathedral, where the quiet, mystical semidarkness, rich decorations, and a certain mysteriousness absorbed and fascinated me. I was often found sleeping in a pew. I sought quiet and solitude in the cathedral. When I began attending the first grade of elementary school, I once imprudently stayed for religion class. “Tadzio [Tadeusz], you can’t stay during religion classes, after all, you’re a little Jew,” my teacher told me, sending me out of the classroom.
The result of her very “educational” approach resulted, from that time on, in frequent fights and lots of aggressiveness on the part of the other boys and girls in the class. In this way I was very emphatically reminded who I was and where I belonged. Some people’s version of religion didn’t turn out to be as beautiful and wonderful as I had imagined. I used to come home beaten up, and the school’s principal would tell my parents that it was I who beat up someone else. Father transferred me to a school run by the Society of Friends of Children (_), which was far from home, but there I was not treated as an outsider or a leper.
Society of Friends of Children – Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Dzieci/TPD was a secular organization that operated a network of schools.
My second mama also encountered a great unpleasantness. She was Catholic and very devout. One day her confessor told her she was a disgrace and had no right to set foot in the church because she had married a Jew. Many years passed before she worked up enough courage to again go to Mass and confession, where another priest, a missionary, told her that getting married and caring for a child were noble acts and that her previous confessor was a fool.
Life is full of surprises. For instance, when I was in the sixth grade of elementary school, it so happened that one of the workers repairing the central heating in our apartment went out to the kiosk for cigarettes and never came back. The militia had taken him away. It turned out that one of his victims had recognized him. While serving in the SS during the war, he had murdered many people. This was a great shock to me.
Or another case—a friend of my second mother’s, a very religious woman who helped the elderly and was very kind to everybody, surprised me very much. After her death it turned out that her basement was full of wartime documents, letters, and photographs of her and her husband, an SS man. There were, for example, photographs in which her husband was holding a pistol to the head of a victim kneeling in front of a freshly dug pit, or another, where he was standing in front of a pit filled with bodies, while she held an elderly Jew by his beard, cutting it off with scissors. In yet another, she stands pressing her foot on a lying victim. In the letters were descriptions of events that made my hair stand on end. Unfortunately, all these things were later burned by the people cleaning out the basement. I finished a general-education lyceum, then a two-year dental technicians’ school, and finally, dentistry at the Medical Academy in Warsaw. I have been working as a dentist since October 1, 1969, keeping in mind my father’s words, “Act in such a way that you can sleep peacefully
at night.” I have tried to be dependable and honest.
After the disbanding of the Jewish Committee, my father went to work for the Union of Health Service Workers. He was head of the union within the provincial district almost to the day of his death, which occurred on March 29, 1961. My second mother, who outlived him by twenty years, died on April 11, 1981. I continue to live here in Opole. I work in my profession, which I enjoy. I am surrounded by friendly people. Simply put, I go on living.