The True Story of David ben Kalma
David Zaid survived the horrors of the Holocaust, then survived combat duty with the Israeli army. He met his wife, also a death camp survivor, at a British relocation center. Their two sons now run a successful business in California.
(Note: Copies of this book may be purchased at the bookstore at www. I-Proclaim.com)
“Get the Jews!” came the distant shout from above and away, from up in the cold, dark forest above. The voice reverberated in the icy air, still at a distance. “Find them and take them! Don’t kill them unless you must!”
I could also hear a somewhat closer voice, almost a warning voice I was sure I recognized cutting through the cold, snowy air above our hole. The ominous voices snapped me, David Zaid, awake. Until that instant, and in spite of being sound asleep in a deep hole in the light colored earth of Poland eight miles outside the city of my birth, Pinczow, I was warm, dry and feeling relatively safe. At least as safe as any fourteen-year-old Jew could feel during those terrible years of death and torture and slaughter after the Germans came to Poland. But I was sleeping close beside my strong father, Kalma Zaid, who I knew would protect me. My father had always protected and cared for his family, never failing to provide food and shelter for us. Even in these terrible times a hole in the ground. Nearby was my loving mother, Freda Ickowicz Zaid, my beautiful younger sisters, Frimet and Golede, and my little brother, Zanvele, all of us hiding in a hole in the ground on a Polish farm two years after World War Two began. My older sister, Gitale, was not with us. We slept side by side on our earthen floor, head to feet, as close as sardines in a can in a grave-like space not much larger than an ample closet. But for all those reasons we were warm enough with our shared blankets to be comfortable, if not secure. Outside our hole, above, in the forest, it was very cold, and very hostile. But until that moment we had felt at least relatively secure.
We were Jews, in Poland, in the winter of 1943, with no real home anymore, no place to go, and no friends other than those who were with us. We were alone in an unfriendly and in fact very hostile world. We were hiding because that was the alternative to being put on a train and hauled away to a death camp.
From ancient times, and I knew of this even at my young age, many different cultures wandered the world in search of shelter and food and a place to live. Jews were one of those cultures, said to be descended from twelve wandering tribes of ancient Israel. Jews by then lived all over the world. We, my family and I, were some of the unlucky Jews, since we lived in Europe, and specifically in Poland, which was probably the worst place in the world for Jews to live during those dreadful years.
I knew of Adolph Hitler, of course. Even as a relatively young man, I knew of this maniacal leader and chancellor of the German Reich, actually the Third Reich, not that I was that worried about him at the moment in the hole outside Pinczow. Polish farmers, generally Catholics, were our immediate and most constant, terrible enemy. It was the Polish farmers we feared the most, for we knew they would kill us without conscience although we had once been their neighbors, if not their friends. We had known them; my father had done business with them, and I had attended school with their children. They called my father by his first name, and he used first names with them. We spoke on the street, and they spoke back, both greetings without a great deal of enthusiasm, but still spoken. These were the men above, in the distance, shouting.
But it was Adolph Hitler who started the killing and murdering, who had ordered the invasion of my native Poland in 1939 in his quest to rule the world. It was Hitler who brought about the physical terror we had grown to expect from our former neighbors, the nearby Polish farmers. It was Hitler who had hired Heinrich Himmler to head up some of the so-called “fuehrer’s” most terrible and terrifying plans, especially with regard to Jews.
Mild-looking little Himmler, back at the beginning of what would turn out to be the darkest days for Europe and certainly for the Jews in Poland, was in charge of the “final solution.” That is, the murder of every Jew in Europe. Our former neighbors, the local Polish Catholic farmers we knew by name and did business with and sometimes even spoke to on the streets of Pinczow, were only doing the bidding of the evil Himmler and his leader, Adolph Hitler.
How could this have happened? And why didn’t we Jews resist? These are questions still asked today. I now know some of the answers, but not all of them.
In 1929, when I was still a happy little toddler following my mother around and being babied by my older sisters, Himmler, who didn’t look at all like a proud, haughty, egotistical SS man, took over leadership of Hitler’s bodyguards. I was much too young to know or care that these zealots were called “Schutzstaffel,” or “SS.” There were only 280 of them at the beginning of the horror. But by the time Germany invaded Poland there were more than two hundred fifty thousand of these black-uniformed robots who would do anything, anything at all, to further their mad leader’s ambitions.
Made up of carefully selected, “racially pure” recruits from the aristocrats and wealthy middle class of Germany, they were tested, put through a nine month training period, and required before going to work to take a vow of absolute, unquestioning obedience in the presence of Hitler, himself. By the time their training was complete, they would do anything asked of them. They would kill, maim, torture, even rape, although that was politically frowned upon as taking the chance of soiling the genetics of the super race. They were too “pure” for that. They would smile as they tore a Jewish or Gypsy or Communist baby apart before a Jewish or Gypsy or Communist mother’s eyes, or shoot a prisoner of the same background between the eyes or in the head for stumbling and falling, or becoming ill. Sometimes they committed these atrocities merely to test their pistol to see if it was working, or even if a prisoner looked at them in a way they didn’t approve. They would beat or whip helpless Jews to death as their fellow SS men cheered. Some of these men, as I write this book, are still alive in Germany today, enjoying in their final years the love of their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Perhaps their memories are not so pure after all. Perhaps they don’t tell their grandchildren the truth about what they did.
Many of these “soldiers” wore shoes insulated with the hair of Jewish women, taken as they stood naked in the icy cold, desperately trying to protect their children before entering the “shower” at one of the dreadful death camps, the shower they were told by cruel guards that was to rid them of lice. But a shower that was, as we all know now, a carbon monoxide-or gas-fueled, tightly sealed execution chamber next to a row of incinerator ovens. No attempt by mothers to keep their children from breathing the killing fumes by holding their hands over precious little mouths would prevent the inevitable, and shortly the naked bodies of fathers, mothers and children would be burned.
Hitler and his lieutenant, Reichfuhrer-SS Himmler, selected my Poland as the beginning point of the horrible “final solution” goal since Poland had an ample Jewish population and was centrally located in Europe, as well as a doorway to Russia. At first Jews, who couldn’t believe the horror before them, were herded from hundreds of cities and small towns into ghettos in Warsaw and other towns, then sent by overcrowded trains to labor camps or death camps.
My family, led by my father, decided not to cooperate, and went into the forest instead.
I learned as time went on that it was Himmler who personally and on site approved the gas chambers in his three favorite Polish death camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
To run these camps, Himmler created an army of special SS troops called Totendopfverbande, or “Death’s Head Units.” Along with the Einsatzgruppen, permanent squads left behind in conquered cities to help kill Jews, the work was accomplished with frightening speed. Although most of the Jews in Europe, and even in Poland, and almost everyone else in the rest of the world, refused to believe such cruel humans existed, the highly-trained Germans ran the cities and the sorrowful camps with appalling efficiency.
What I did not know was that while we were hiding in the hole in the ground in Poland in 1943, Himmler was making one of his most infamous speeches to a group of SS leaders. He spoke openly and candidly, completely unafraid of world opinion. “It is one of those things which is easy to say,” Himmler said in his high voice, standing as tall as he was able in his immaculate, specially designed black uniform. “The Jewish race is to be exterminated,’ says every party member. ‘That’s clear, it’s part of our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination, right, we’ll do it.’ And then they all come along, the eighty million good Germans,” continued Himmler, “and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the other Jews are swine, but this one is a first-class Jew. Of all those who talk like this, not one has watched, not one has stood up to it. Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet, apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness, to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and shall never be written.”
Himmler then looked at his audience, and with a shift in his voice, continued. “We have taken from them the wealth they had. I have issued a strict order, which SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Pohl has carried out, that this wealth should, as a matter of course, be handed over to the Reich without reserve. We had the moral right; we had the duty to our people, to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us. Altogether, however, we can say that we have fulfilled this most difficult duty for the love of our people. And our spirit, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it.”
The audience applauded loudly for Himmler. But he was wrong. By the end of the war, when he was arrested by Adolph Hitler for trying to negotiate peace with the Allies, and then arrested by the British while trying to escape in the disguise of a common soldier, he was scheduled to be tried as a war criminal. Even when he tried to win asylum for himself and two hundred other Nazis in the final days of the war by offering cash and freedom of over three thousand Jews still held in concentration camps, he lost. The outcome of any trial of Heinrich Himmler was quite obvious. So he finally beat the hangman. He killed himself by biting down on a capsule of cyanide.
Yes, it has been said often and I, David Zaid, say it again; the world should be ashamed that they did almost nothing to stop this monstrous thing. Books have been written on the political reasons why other countries, including the United States, did nothing while millions of innocent Jews, learned men and beautiful women and innocent children, were gassed and burned. Books have been written on why his “holiness,” Pope Pius XII, refused to take a stand during the mass elimination of almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, and much of Europe.
Still, in spite of all this horror, the enemy of the Jews, and my family’s enemy that cold night outside Pinczow in 1943, was not German soldiers but other Poles. Polish Catholics, as a general rule, seemed to hate Jews, and this hatred was nourished by the German conquerors who were trained to hate Jews. A religion that taught love to millions of followers across the world, Catholicism hated Jews with a passion in Poland, and so many millions died because of this hatred. Hitler, although non-practicing a Catholic himself, convinced an impoverished Germany that their problems were caused by Jews and that by ridding the country of Jews, the problems would go away and prosperity would result.
Foolish? Yes, but the German people were hungry and any signs of recovery, even one as unlikely as the killing millions of innocent Jews, were accepted. I understood some of this from my hole in the ground outside Pinczow as the shouting voices of the farmers in the forest around us came closer. The Germans believed the tyrant Hitler who had moved up as high as corporal in the German army during the First World War. He was a small man who had actually shown some courage in battle, and who had a mesmerizing way of speaking to a massive crowed, a man who with carefully practiced gestures and tone of voice could hypnotize the masses into believing terrible things.
As the voices above drew closer and closer on that dark, snowy night outside Pinczow, one continued to stand out, and seemed almost to be warning us. When we came into the woods months before, we had asked a nearby farmer what we should do, how we should survive. He gave us some tools, some shovels, an axe, and then he told us how to stay warm.
“To stay warm,” I remember him telling my father, “you must dig out a rectangular hole in the ground about six feet wide and as long as you need. Make it like a very small, low room. The ground is still soft, and easy to dig. Then cut some branches from the trees in the woods. Put the branches on top of the hole.” He then gave us some straw. “Put this straw on top of the branches, then put some dirt on top of the straw to protect you from rain and snow, and to hold in some heat. Leave a small opening in the top so you can get in and out, so you can breathe.”
We did dig a hole six and a half feet deep and about seven feet wide. To camouflage the top of the hole, we scattered some leaves, pine needles and small branches about. My older friend, Mordechai Zaif, and his wife and baby had banded together with us, and joined us in an extension of the hole. Three brothers, the Oaks, from Pinczow, eventually joined us. They had been the finest tailors in the area. Later, a young couple came to live with us in the hole, and then, a few days later, a young man came. We were a growing family.
We had no extra clothing, of course. Only the clothes we were wearing. From time to time we removed some of our clothes and washed them without soap in a nearby river. But because we could not bathe on a regular basis, or wash our clothes properly, we all attracted hordes of body lice. To get rid of the lice we would make a small, carefully concealed fire then hold part of our clothes in the warm smoke over the flames. We knew by the popping noises that the lice were falling from our clothes and into the fire. We did this as often as we could, almost every day if we could safely manage it, for the lice were persistent tormenters and a health hazard as well.
The three Oaks brothers were owed some money by the Pinczow chief of police for uniforms they had made much earlier. Unable to pay them at the time, the chief had finally given them a written letter of recommendation, to be taken to a farmer in the village of Belek, for whatever favor or service the Oaks might need. Belek was very near the forest where we were living.
So the Oaks brothers went to the farmer, Josef Bartela, after we had moved to our hole in the ground, and Bartela read the letter, fed them a tasty dinner, then gave them some food to bring back to the rest of us. “You may come to me at night,” Bartela told them. “If you ever need something, come to my house. Also, I will from time to time bring food to you in the forest.” And the brave Bartela did bring us fresh baked bread, cakes, eggs, potatoes and other food. Although he often spoke in religious phrases, and was very careful not to be seen by other farmers, we grew to like him very much, for he was taking a great personal risk by helping us. All of the Polish farmers were not bad.
Another farmer by the name of Pilarski, who was from the nearby village of Sobovice, also visited us and brought us food. My father knew both men well from the days before we moved to the forest. We came to know Bartela as an angel, and Pilarski as something else. We valued him, of course, since he brought us food, but we also feared him. We weren’t sure we could trust him. It may have been Pilarski who was leading those who were searching for us.
“Where are the Jews?” this nearby voice demanded, and I knew it was our friend Bartela. He had been warning us that the farmers from Belek were going to try to find us and capture us and turn us over to the Germans. He was shouting loudly to warn us. Others responded, and the voices reverberated back and forth through the snow-covered trees, muffled but yet clear. We could hear them almost above us. I could not see them yet, but I could in my imagination see their bobbing torches of light as they went here and there. Although I had great faith in my father, and in his ability to protect and care for us, I was becoming very frightened.
“Get the dirty Jews!”
“Over here. Over here!”
We, my family and I, had been living in the hole along with the others, hiding from our Polish neighbors in three separate but adjoining holes, for nearly eight months. Yes, we had learned by this winter of 1943 that it was not, at least at that time, the Germans who were our worst enemy. Our real enemy was the Roman Catholic Polish farmers of the area, the long time haters of Jews, but with whom we had gone to school and even on some levels had socialized with. We had always been, and would always be even to today, despised by them and persecuted by them, and this would have been true even if the Nazis had not come. The Roman Catholic farmers and villagers, making up ninety percent of the local population, could afford to hate, I suppose, since we made up only the remaining ten percent. Polish Jews were a minority in Poland in 1942. Today, of course, only a few thousand Jews remain of the three million who lived in Poland before the war.
In only one more year, although I didn’t realize it at the time on the cold night listening to the voices above in the forest, I would be the only one left of those in the hole in the ground outside Pinczow. Adolph Hitler would decorate Heinrich Himmler for successfully carrying out to a grisly conclusion his “Judenrein” promise. That promise to a smiling Hitler was that Himmler would make Poland a country free of all Jews.
But my father had done business with most of the shouting farmers beating through the snow above, searching for us in a mood of desperation and celebration and hate. For every Jew they caught and handed over to the Germans, who at that time weren’t that involved in capturing runaways because they were so busy emptying out the ghettos and sending Jews to their deaths, they received a ration of sugar. Sugar was valuable then and well worth a cold night in the forest where the farmers were certain desperate Jews were hiding.
Yes, my father knew most of these men above by their first names. We had always had a delicate pre-war balance with them that allowed their children to throw stones at our children, and their adults to ridicule our adults with remarks about our “natural inferiority” and other even less pleasant things. All said and done without concern of retaliation, of course.
The reverse was not true, but it was a balance in my years of early childhood in Pinczow. I had attended Hebrew school, others of my age had not. As my father had always been, I was large for my age as a young boy, and did not “appear Jewish” with my blonde hair. But I was a Jew. I did not deny it, and all the other children knew it. It was a difficult childhood, but not impossible, and I do have some fond memories of those times before the terrible war began. The memories of my devoted and loving family, now long gone, are especially warm. I think of them with love even today, many years later.
When the Germans came to Poland, things became much worse for the Jews living there. The Germans, even though they were from far away, seemed to hate Jews as deeply as the Polish Catholics hated them. And the Polish Catholics, to curry favor with the Germans by doing things they had always done with pleasure anyhow, bowed to their captors and expanded their persecution of Jews. Of course the Germans encouraged this, and soon we began to disappear. Some Jews accepted life in the ghettos, and even crawled aboard the death trains, hoping against hope that they were only going to a work camp as their German captors promised.
Others, such as my family, took to the forests to hide or even to band together to fight. Better, thought my father, to battle nature in the cold forest for the survival of his family than to battle Polish Catholics and Germans. Better the icy forest and near starvation than to be herded into a rat- and flea-infested ghetto so crowded with people and so absent of food and medicine that the jammed trains seemed almost a relief. Better the forest than to be pulled apart, with women and children sent one way and men and boys the other, never to be reunited again. We were in a clean forest, in a well-insulated hole in the ground, and we could move out during the day to find potatoes and other staples to hold off starvation. My dear father was a strong man, and we followed him willingly, and with trust.
Perhaps the German soldiers would have overlooked the remaining few Jews in towns like Pinczow once the younger, stronger ones had been selected for work on the roads and the others sent away to camps. No, our real enemy, notwithstanding the history books, was above, shouting back and forth, trying to find us, shaking their pitchforks and shovels and scythes and occasional shotgun or rifle.
We had even left our holes once, several months earlier. For one thing, the boredom of living in a hole in the forest was almost unbearable. We had heard that the Jews in nearby towns like Dzaloszece, once the majority had been cleared out and sent away, were no longer the target of the Germans stationed there. As time went on the Germans had much greater worries than a few scattered and hiding Jews, or even a few small Jewish communities, as they considered the slowly advancing Russian army. The remaining Jews lived in their section of the widely separated little towns, sometimes with a German military barracks nearby. As long as the assigned number of working Jews showed up every morning to be taken away to work on the roads, and understanding that from time to time one or more of the Jews would be shot for doing something a German guard didn’t approve, things remained calm. The Germans wanted the roads widened for their military vehicles. They did not want extra trouble and the Polish civilians knew this. Perhaps the soldiers in the towns didn’t even know what was happening to many of the Jews who had been hauled away by train, as they had been hauled away from Pinczow and Dzaloszece and other towns. These Jews simply never came home again.
They were gone. They just disappeared. Thousands of them, millions of them.
But it was possible even in the early forties to visit the towns if you were careful, so my father and my long time older friend Mordechai Zaif, the two leaders of our group, said, “Why don’t we go into Dzaloszece and stay with some of our Jewish friends?”
These were shocking words at first, but we were so tired of the holes in the ground and when the adults talked about moving back to town they agreed that it was a good idea. Dzaloszece was only 20 kilometers away. We decided to carefully leave our holes that time months ago, and go into town. We did so at night, and quietly, and as my father and Mordechai had suspected, little attention was paid to us by those German soldiers who saw us. They assumed we were Polish farmers on the way to town to do business. We had fashioned weapons from wood to appear like rifles, in case we ran into real Polish farmers, but they were needed only once during our twenty-mile hike along the cold, dark road.
That time, as we moved quietly along in a row with my father and Mordechai in front, the women and children in the middle, and a couple of stronger men bringing up the rear, we were discovered. We knew we were in danger, that we were easy targets, that anyone could kill us and that nobody would care. The Polish people were bad. They would quickly rob and kill any Jew, and rape any Jewish woman, and nobody would care.
That one time during our hike to Dzaloszece a group of farmers, not certain who we were, attempted to stop us. But my father, a strong, courageous man with a formidable appearance, and Mordechai, equally strong and determined, stepped forward with their wooden sticks appearing in the dark to be guns. They loudly ordered the farmers aside. “If you don’t move away,” said my father in a loud, threatening voice as the others with their “rifles” stood ready, “I will put a bullet in every one of your heads.”
I was very proud of his audacity as the farmers quickly moved aside, all the time apologizing for stopping us.
The Jews in Dzaloszece welcomed us with open arms, and hugs and kisses, and tears, and gave us food and a place to sleep that was inside, under a real roof. They said, “You are our brothers, and we will share our food with you.” It was luxurious after our holes in the ground. I will always remember this time with fondness.
While we were there, we and those who were sheltering us would only go out at night to buy whatever food and supplies we could find from what little money we had.
Our stay in the town ended much too soon, however, when the Germans announced that they were taking all of the workers to another town. We knew we would become quite obvious if we were all brought together, and of course we had a deep fear of the Germans herding us together to take us anywhere. So we returned as a family to our hole in the forest, and we remained there until the terrible night when the farmers found us. If it had not been for the one farmer running ahead of the others, and shouting out loudly his desire to locate us and capture us or kill us, we would have been trapped and taken easily. But this farmer, almost certainly Bartela, had been tolerant of us in the fields, if not friendly. I had even built a real friendship with his son, who once took me to a party in a nearby town where I sang and danced with others my age. He told them I was his cousin from another town. He gave me a gentile name to use, and even allowed me to surreptitiously bag the leftover food from the party to take back to my family and friends in the holes in the nearby forest. The others at the party accepted me as just another young Polish farmer, and no trouble resulted. I wish I could remember the son’s name, but I cannot. So much has happened to me since, and that was so long ago.
It was the father who, once he realized a band of farmers was going to find us, ran ahead and shouted, warning us to flee.
The voices coming from the cold, dark above and drawing nearer and nearer struck terror into my young heart, and into the hearts of the others in the holes. What we hoped desperately would never happen was happening. The farmers knew of our general location, and they would soon find our holes in the ground.
“Run!” I heard my father shout. “Everybody run. Save yourselves, they’re coming, they’re coming!”
Farmers who, probably in a money- and travel- and manpower-saving effort by the Germans, had been offered five kilos of sugar for each Jew they brought in, knew we were in the forest nearby. They knew if they searched long enough, they could find us. We knew it too.
We knew we were in grave danger. We knew the desperate plan we had formed, the terrible plan that we so often prayed we would never have to use, would at that moment be put into effect.
The plan, conceived by my father and Mordechai, was one of marvelous simplicity. “If we are discovered,” they had said to the rest of us many months before, “we must scatter and run. We must scatter and run,” they repeated. “We must not look back, not try to help each other. The way to survive, to stay alive, is to scatter and run.”
The plan, one that obviously favored the younger and more healthy in our group, included a meeting place elsewhere in the forest for those who managed to escape from whoever had found us. When the stronger among us explained the plan to the weaker, when Mordechai described the plan to his beloved wife as she stood holding the newborn son he so loved, both he and she understood. Nor did we ever feel it would be German soldiers who would find us, for they were busy with other matters much more important to them. We knew it would probably be the local farmers who would be our downfall, and it was.
As the voices above drew ever closer, we threw back our blankets, leaped from all sides of our holes, and ran as fast as we could into the cold and snowy darkness in different directions. I was in reasonable health. I was young and not at all weak. My strength was still reasonably good enough even on the diet of potatoes and any periodic bread and eggs and food the two farmers in the group above brought to us. The forest was dark and I knew it well. And although the air was icy cold, I ran and ran and ran. I had no idea where my mother was, where my father was, where my sisters and brother were. I only knew that I was frightened beyond an ability to comprehend and understood that running faster and faster was life, and slowing could be death. I would slam into a tree in the dark, bounce off, ignore the pain, and continue running. Branches would slap at my head, knock me down, and I would leap up and desperately run on. The noise and screaming from the others faded behind me and finally the forest was quiet and I was alone, running and panting and sometimes staggering and occasionally falling but always moving away from what was happening behind.
I had no idea, even in my deepest fears, that I would never see my lovely mother or my little baby brother or my beautiful sisters again.
But I wasn’t thinking. I was only running through the cold, dark forest, dodging those trees I could see, trying to get away. I had no idea where anyone else was. Only when we finally gathered at the location that had been selected previously did we know who had escaped the farmers, those evil men with whom my father had once done business. Men my father knew by name.
Only then did we know who had not escaped.
How can one run away and leave one’s family behind? Now, many years later, as I think back and remember my father leaping from one side of the hole and my friend Mordechai from the other, and only hoping and praying the others might escape, I cannot explain. One must, as the old saying goes, “walk in the shoes” of the one running before one can understand why. It was Poland in the nineteen forties. We were Jews. Our own acquaintances were persecuting us, and the Germans were already sending us off to death camps. We were living in a hole in the ground in a cold, winter forest, far from whatever comforts we had known before, far from good food and water and warm houses.
We were living in constant fear and in hunger. To live was to win. The plan was to run. We ran. What else can I say?
The farmer who had shouted and warned us saved me and those who made it to our new location. My father made it. Mordechai made it. The rest of my family did not make it, nor did Mordechai’s wife and baby son. To this day I wonder if the sugar meant that much to my fellow Poles, the Catholic farmers, or even if they actually got their five kilos for each Jew, as the Germans had promised. Did they get five kilos for my mother, whom I loved, and five more for each of my two wonderful sisters and five for my little brother, and five each for Mordechai’s wife and baby? Perhaps the Germans only gave them half of that ration for a newborn baby.
We learned from a nearby farmer where my family had been taken, who had survived, and where they were being held. We learned that my mother, my sisters and my brother were being held captive in a Polish farmer’s house in a nearby village. Two of the Oaks brothers were missing, the youngest was being held. Mordechai’s wife and baby had survived and were being held. The young man of the couple who had joined us last was being held. His young wife was still missing.
The farmer who helped us knew about my friendship with his son. The father is certainly gone by now, but the son may still be living. I won’t, but occasionally I think about going back to visit the son. I would like to thank him for his father, and for the momentary rest and pleasure he gave me in a time of great stress and sadness. And I would also, if I could find them, visit the graves of my family, and the graves of Mordechai’s wife and baby, and the grave of the young man whose name I did not know, but who seemed very pleasant and polite.
All of them were soon shot dead by an uncaring German firing squad only doing as ordered for the terrible crime of being Jews hiding in the forest rather than agreeably going off to a death camp. But before they were shot, Mordechai made one last, desperate, courageous visit to them under the very eyes of the Polish farmer guards, some of whom knew him very well.
In a way we, my family and I and all who were with us in the hole in the ground in the soft earth of Poland, were part of the resistance, part of the answer to the question about why Jews didn’t seem to fight back at their Nazi and Polish oppressors. We, under the guidance of my beloved, strong, brave father, took to the forests rather than being herded like sheep and without argument onto a death train. Some Jews who went into the forest became resistance groups, men and women and even young people who fought back by blowing up German bridges and wrecking German troop trains and attacking German soldiers. Some, like my father, fought to protect his family, to help his loved ones survive, to keep them from the terrible death camps of Hitler and Himmler and the others.
Mordechai did visit his wife and baby while they were under guard at the farmer’s house after our frightening night in the forest. He had to see them, to try to help them escape, and although we tried to talk him out of going, he walked boldly in like he was from a nearby town and curious about the prisoners.
He knew some of the Polish farmer guards and they knew him, but he was big and strong and at first they didn’t try to stop him. In fact, they gave him a specific amount of time, one hour I believe, to visit with those being held in the farmhouse. Then, after the hour, they insisted he had to leave. Mordechai agreed and enjoyed a warm and pleasant visit with his family. But he neglected to pay attention to the time. Suddenly it was well past the deadline the guards on duty had allowed him. He had been there for four hours, and the guards had changed their duty shift outside. The new guards weren’t aware of any permission to visit, or any time schedule. Mordechai was trapped.
Mordechai knew he couldn’t help his family if he was a prisoner himself. So he discussed the matter with the new guards. He explained that he was not one of the captives, and that if they just took the trouble to count, they would know that. They thought they recognized him, and they weren’t impressed with what he was saying. Mordechai, a good-sized young man, spoke loudly. “I will tell the Germans that you allowed an outsider to visit the prisoners. You will have to kill me on the spot, and then the whole world will know what you have done. Furthermore, I will bash your heads in if you don’t allow me to leave.”
They did stand back and he walked back into the forest. Although he didn’t suspect it at the time, he was never to see his family again. But because he survived, my own life was later saved.
The Jews did fight back with what they had during the terrible war, but what they had was very little.
When the resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto pleaded with the Polish army, and with the Allies, and with England and the United States, for weapons with which to fight back, they got nothing. They were crowded into a filthy, vermin-infested, walled section of the town. They wanted to fight, but they had no weapons. Finally, when it was much too late, they were given a few rifles by the Polish home guard, under orders from the Polish government. They courageously attacked the well-armed Germans, and of course were quickly shot down.
This deadly conclusion, however, was not always the same.
One of the noted Jewish resistance fighters was Samuel Gruber, known as “Mietek.” Another was Yechiel Greenshpan, who eventually took his all-Jewish group of fighters into the forces of the Polish Communist partisans. Greenshpan’s group became known as the People’s Guard Unit “Chil,” and they blew up factories and bridges and trains routinely.
Meanwhile, Mietek’s fairly new group, always looking for ways to bring down the enemy, once stumbled across a forest ranger’s house in the woods temporarily occupied by a dozen half-drunk German soldiers. Mietek tossed in a hand grenade, killed the Germans, and from that small beginning a long war of resistance started.
Once while Mietek was healing from a battle wound, he had many conversations with an elderly Jew who had lived in Poland under the Russian czars. The old man explained to Mietek the reason for the hatred toward Jews by the Poles. Russian Orthodox priests, very powerful and respected men in those days, taught the Polish farmers that Jews were “Christ-killers” and dangerous revolutionaries. The Poles and Ukranians believed their priests. The Germans came along and reinforced these deeply held beliefs. So the poor Jewish tailors and bakers and shoemakers of my home town of Pinczow, pronounced “Peen’-choov,” suffered from these hand-me-down teachings, as did most of the Jews in Poland
Mietek, and many other fighting partisans, made their mark. Once, using explosives dropped from airplanes by Russians and the Polish Army in exile, Mietek and his men and women blew up town halls in Kalmionka, Garbow and Markoszow. Why? Because these buildings were being used as forced labor headquarters. He once sabotaged a German train filled with war equipment, then killed all the German prisoners he took. Partisan groups such as this showed no mercy to the enemy, as the enemy showed no mercy to the partisans or the Jews in death camps. The partisans killed German soldiers on sight, and the Germans often randomly picked and executed innocent Jewish civilians from the nearest town
On one occasion, Mietek lost two of his fighters when a group of Poles from a small town captured them, then, knowing they were Jews, executed them in the town square. Mietek was by then very weary of fighting both the Poles and the Germans.
“We must strike back,” he said to his group. “We must give them a lesson they will not soon forget.”
He and his men and women resistance fighters surrounded the village where the two Jewish partisans had been murdered. He then rode in, called all the people out into the town square where the executions had occurred, and spoke to them. He sternly lectured them on their lack of courage, the shame they should feel for collaborating with the Germans who had enslaved them, the deep humiliation they should feel for killing their own countrymen, then he ordered them all out of town. Somewhat chagrined and very, very frightened, the men, women and children of the village went out into the nearby fields. Then, as a hard message to other towns and villages and after turning all the livestock free, Meitek and his partisans burned the village to the ground.
After that, he spread leaflets throughout the area, explaining why he had taken such drastic action. Perhaps this helped, perhaps not, for everyone, Poles and Jews alike, were living in desperate fear in those days of their common enemy, the Germans. Certainly many innocent civilians died in retaliation for Meitek’s attack, for this was the way the German’s “gave hard lessons” not soon to be forgotten.
But the Jews of Poland did not simply fall down before the Germans, not all of them.
Once at Sobibor, the death camp in eastern Poland that accounted for two hundred fifty thousand Jewish murders, the longer-term prisoners revolted and managed an escape, including a future friend of mine. This happened on October 14, 1943. A couple dozen German and Ukranian guards were killed as a part of the escape plan of the Jews, and nearly three hundred Jews escaped by running frantically through German machine gun fire and a field of land mines. Some of them even survived the war. But hundreds were shot, including those who were too ill or too injured or too afraid to run from the camp, who remained behind hoping the Germans would understand that they had no part in the escape plan.
Throughout the history of the world, when a highly trained, heavily armed, massive army attacks a single group of peaceful and peace-loving people with no training at all, no weapons to speak of, no reason to feel they are in real danger, and secure in their own religion and homeland, the obvious will happen, and did happen. By the time the Jews, and the world, realized what was happening, it was too late to prevent massive slaughter. By the time the world decided to do something about it, millions of innocents had already been murdered.
There are few Jews left in Poland, very few. In my own town of Pinczow, the Jewish homes are gone, torn apart and torn down many years ago by Poles trying to find the gold they were certain we Jews had hidden in the rafters or between the walls. Pinczow gentiles thought we were all rich. Even today they continue to dig up the few remaining graves of Jews, looking for gold teeth. I have specifically told my two sons, Carl and Ben, never to visit this terrible, Jew-hating country.
Speaking of the famous German death camp, Sobibor, there is today a huge plaque on the site in eastern Poland. The actual camp is long gone, of course, for in an attempt to hide what they had done there the Germans covered it over before they ran from the approaching Russians. The monument, placed dozens of years later where the main gate once stood, does admit that the Germans murdered 250,000 people there. They were, according to the words on the stone tablet, made up mostly of Russian prisoners of war, with a few Communists, Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews thrown in. Today, even the people of Poland believe very few Jews were killed at Sobibor, a camp a few Jewish survivors called “horrifying” and “hell on earth.” The Catholic prelate of Poland, upon recently visiting the site, allowed that perhaps hundreds of Jews had died there, but that it was mostly Russian prisoners who were murdered. The Catholic Church, for whatever reason, is still attempting to destroy pure historic facts about the terror of Sobibor.
Not that long ago, one German guard who had served at Sobibor, and who was asked specifically who died at the terrible camp, lowered his head in shame and softly said, “only Jews...Jews...Jews.”
Still, with the world hoping not to hear the truth and with many hoping that the entire holocaust will simply “go away,” I expect one day nobody will really believe that an entire population of millions of Jews was massacred at German death camps. All of the camps, now known only as “labor camps,” are being “sanitized” in this same public relations way.
Except by Jews, who will never forget.
I recently saw a film shot by Nazis during their reign of terror. They made many such horrific films because they thought they would win the war, and they wanted the world they had conquered to know how they prevailed. Many of these films are sickening to watch, with innocent people being shot in the head before they are burned. But the one I remember with deep sadness, perhaps because I eventually had two sons of my own, depicts a group of women, one with a little boy of perhaps three or four. All he wants to do is be with his mother, who desperately wants him as well. Each time the guard pushes the little boy away, the boy rushes back to his mother. The guard once again pushes the little boy away, although where he wants him to go nobody can really tell. Finally, the frustrated guard merely kills the little boy with the butt of his gun. I am still deeply saddened by this film, shot by a Nazi photographer to show camp conditions.
The Nazis even tried to change the Ten Commandments. When Evangelical priest Sautter protested the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews, high Nazi official Stahle responded, “The fifth commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ is not God’s commandment at all; it is a Jewish invention.” We Jews, then, apparently have the great power to change the words of God.
We were happy as a family in Pinczow before the Germans invaded Poland. We awakened in the morning with smiles on our faces, ready for the new day. I loved my family then, and they loved me.
I knew that my sweet mother had worked in a food store in a nearby town until she met my father. He was in the store as a customer, and their eyes met, and they fell in love and married. Jewish ladies in those days didn’t usually keep a job after marriage. They got married; then they got pregnant. They had children, then, when they had children, there was plenty of work to do with kids in a poor household. For example, there was no water in the houses of the poor. There was no electricity in the houses of the poor. Water was carried in. There was only an oil lamp with kerosene or whatever other lighting oil was available. This was hung up, or set on the table, and that was the light at night.
But we were a close family, and happy together. I remember when I was about three years old; we lived in a rented house in Pinczow, a house with two apartments. We lived in one apartment; a gentile family lived in the other. My father liked the gentile man, a musician.
We were living there nice and quiet with a big back yard. The landlord, a neighbor, had a dog, a German shepherd, who often stayed in the yard. My mother rarely left the house. She was always busy cooking and cleaning. She would walk to the nearby bakery for bread, but that was about the only time she would be out with so many children around to watch. We were somewhat religious in that we ate only kosher food, and on Saturday a gentile woman came in to light our lamp.
“I’m walking over to the bakery,” my mother would say. It was a Jewish bakery. “I’m going over to bring back bread and cookies.”
On this day my mother was walking to the bakery and Inez, the landlady, was sitting outside with her children. She had to leave for just a moment as I was playing with the big German shepherd dog. I did something the dog didn’t like and suddenly he grabbed my head in his mouth. My whole head was in his mouth, and I was very frightened. I could feel the warmth, the points of his teeth, the saliva, and the pain as he clamped down.
Inez came back and saw what was happening. She grabbed a stick and hit the dog, and he released my head. My face had teeth marks all over it, but fortunately the skin hadn’t been broken and I wasn’t bleeding. I knew that in one more second the dog could have bitten my head off.
My father was very angry when came home from business and heard what happened. I didn’t want to tell him, but the landlady told him. He immediately went over to the landlord, a Polish man who also looked and dressed like a bum.
“Look, I like to live here,” my father said sternly. “I like you. But I want you to get rid of that dog. Look what he did to my son. I’m not going to sue you. But I want you to get rid of that dog.”
Meanwhile, the landlord had a cream that his doctor had given him, a doctor I remember who looked more like a witch doctor. They put that on my face.
“The dog is healthy,” the landlord insisted. “He will not do it again, ever.”
But my father told him, “You want me to stay here, you’ve got to get rid of that dog. Look what he did to my son. I love my son.”
The landlord refused. He said, “No, I won’t get rid of the dog. If you want to move, you move.”
So my father said, “Okay, next week we’re moving.” And we did. In spite of the difficulty of finding a place to live for a growing family like ours, and in a price range we could afford, we immediately moved. That was my father.
“Your face will heal,” he said to me softly, and in about three months the marks from the dog went away.
We were a solid unit, enjoying life together, with my father as our leader and provider. Pinczow is in the southern part of the Kielce Province alongside the Nida River, and is today an administrative center of the agricultural community of the area. Poland, many visitors say, is one of the greenest countries in all of Europe, and I do remember it that way. The climate is generally mild with only a handful of really snowy days a year.
It was the Jews, in fact, who settled in Pinczow in the 16th century, and, encouraged by the town’s owners, facilitated economic development. By 1673, Pinczow had a population of over 1000 citizens, of which 496 were Jews. But then along came the “partitions” of the Republic of Poland, and the Jews went from an asset to a liability.
Now, only about thirteen thousand people live there and there are few Jews left. There are few Jews left in all of Poland, either because they don’t want to live there, or because they are dead and cannot ever come home. But Pinczow is still a city with a vivid and abundant history, established in the late middle ages, in about 1428. By the sixteenth century, the town was flourishing as a cultural center, as well as a center of various faiths. It was also, beginning about that time, famous as location for quarrying of building stone used throughout Poland for building churches and castles. Some of these mighty buildings in Poland remain solid today, built of Pinczow stone. Today, exposed in the quarry area, there is a very unique fossil of the skeleton of a whale that died when the area was an ocean millions of years ago.
Not wealthy during my time as a child, we were a hard working and content family. I was born on November 1, 1926. I had a wonderful mother, a hard-working father, a beautiful older sister, two lovely younger sisters, and a fine younger brother. We lived in a one-room apartment with four beds lined up around the walls and a small kitchen area in one corner. We managed. With my father working as a peddler, buying from nearby farmers and selling in the town square, we were seldom hungry. My father, in fact, was a different kind of businessman. As a general rule, the Jews in Pinczow discouraged doing business with gentiles, but my father simply ignored this custom. He would buy fish from nearby farmers, haul them into town, and sell them to anyone who would buy. Live, the fish were worth more, so he would keep them alive in buckets. He realized that to limit himself to other Jews would be to limit what he could do for his family, and he could see nothing wrong in buying and selling from whoever would buy and sell.
Few of the five thousand Yiddish Jews in Pinczow, a town of thirty-five thousand at that time, were wealthy. We Jews were a minority, of course, since the other thirty thousand were mostly Roman Catholics, and I have already explained how the Catholics felt about the Jews. We lived with most of the other Jews near two temples, one a once-beautiful temple that still stands today in Pinczow as a burned out shell destroyed by the Poles and the Germans. It is now a somewhat haphazard museum, since there are not that many Jews left in Pinczow to care. It was from a pipe from the other temple, a much closer place, that we drew our family water supply when I was youngster.
How could a fine temple be located in a town made up mostly of Roman Catholics? Back at the turn of the 17th century, a Polish king by the name of Karzimerz Wielki decided to build some beautiful churches for the Polish people. However the king’s wife, a Jew, insisted that for every church he built, he should also build a temple. The king agreed, and since she was from the area of Pinczow, one of the finest temples was built there. Someday, perhaps, the interior will be restored, but probably not. After all, who does really care, even today since there are only a handful of Jews left in Pinczow? All the rest, as I said, are gone, murdered or, eventually, died off somewhere else in the world.
The synagogue, still celebrated for its pure Renaissance form and its splendid wall paintings and fine stone carvings, is getting some help. But not nearly enough for what is still listed as a historical monument in Poland. Some generous Americans donate money to help, but it is estimated that it will cost 350,000 zlotys (about $101,500) just to make the building safe and accessible to visitors. But to restore it will cost far more. Meanwhile, it continues to decay, and every year more of the plaster falls and more of the masonry structure weakens. Although the Pinczow synagogue may eventually rot away, it is still considered to be among the most impressive in all of Eastern Europe.
To give an idea about Jews and Pinczow, the town of my birth, a modern, colorful, rather expensive travel guide discusses the town, or at least the Catholic part of the town. The Polish government is always seeking tourists to visit and spend their money. That section of the guide concludes its discussion of Pinczow with, “Also worth seeing is the late Renaissance synagogue, which is the last remaining trace of the Jews who once lived in Pinczow.”
Adolph Hitler saw to that.
Times have changed, especially in the American schools my grandchildren attend. You don’t strike a young student in an American school. But in my early days in Pinczow, before the war started, I remember some tough teachers. They were very, very strict, allowing no levity at all in class.
They were also very anti-Semitic and, equally difficult to understand, very much against left-handers. I have always been left-handed, so that made two things my teachers didn’t care for about me. To be a left-handed Jew in an earlier Polish school was a challenge indeed. They couldn’t hit us hard enough to make us stop being a Jew, but they certainly hit we left-handers until we learned to write with the “correct” hand. Most of my friends at school were Jews, and almost all were lucky right-handers.
Catholic children were also very anti-Semitic although they were just children and it might not have been their fault. Jews, they were taught, were “different.” We did not repeat their prayers during prayer periods. Our fathers generally wore black coats and hats. We didn’t attend their churches, and our day of rest was Saturday, not Sunday, which was their day of rest. Most of the teachers told them crude Jewish jokes, and the Catholic parents taught them to hate what they called “Christ killers.” Yes, they would throw stones at us to and from school, while at Chadar, the Rabbi would tell us not to fight back.
In school I was taught that Jews were inferior, while at Chadar I learned that Jews were the Chosen ones. I was perhaps more confused during these years than at any other time in my life.
But I knew what a murdered Jew looked like by the time I was twelve years old. My parents had sent me to live in Bosko with my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and their children. He was a shoemaker. I also spent time with another uncle in Bosco, this one a tailor, and I began to learn how to sew together very nice clothes for the rich gentiles. Perhaps that would have become my trade in Poland, and why not? Tailors were respected; they earned a good living. My life as a tailor would have been comfortable.
The shop where I worked was like an American barbershop, where people stopped to gather and talk.
“The Nazis killed dozens of young Jewish students at a Chadar,” said one man. Others insisted that the war would come to our area soon. The news during that time was never good, especially for Jews. Just after my tailor uncle, finally convinced that war was coming, left town on his bicycle to find a better place to live, the Nazis arrived in Bosco.
They marched about fearlessly on that first day, shouting at everybody.
“Raus! Raus!” they would shout, and we would hurry. They made us raise our hands in the Nazi salute, and they seemed almost as confused as we were. Still, they allowed us to go home that first night, and we began to think it might not be as bad as we first thought. We were terribly wrong, though. On the way that night I found two orthodox Jewish men, dressed in black coats and hats, dead alongside the road. They had been shot down by the Nazis for being Jewish, and simply left there. It was not the last Jew I saw dead.
When I woke up the next morning, I could see columns of smoke rising from Pinczow in the distance sixteen miles away. I learned that the Polish Army, badly outnumbered and outgunned, had made a stand near my hometown. They had been annihilated, but not until they blew up a bridge across the river to slow down the German Army.
Pinczow paid for this. The Germans burned my town to the ground. It was so burned and knocked down that the few remaining street signs were the only guideposts for me to find my home. None of the familiar landmarks were there. Nor was my home, which was a smoking ruin. My family was gone, the neighbors were gone. Our temple, where we drew our water, was gone as well, although the king’s great temple was still standing.
But all of this had been foretold to me, although I had no idea when I was a child how terrible the future would be. I still remember the man’s name very well, for he eventually became very famous in Zionism. It was Jabotinsky. He was a Russian Jew who had visited Pinczow when I was six years old and attending Hebrew school conducted by our Rabbi. Jabotinsky, who, it turns out, was Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinksy, came to our town to deliver a speech to the Jewish population. He spoke from a balcony of the temple, very close to our schoolroom, and I managed to get a front row position. The yard in front of the temple was filled with Jews ready to listen to what this learned man had to say.
I don’t remember his talk word for word, but I do recall there were three main themes. I remember them well. In fact, I wish with all my heart that my family had followed Ze’ve Jabotinsky’s advice, as he, himself, did. This was before the war started, although there were always rumors of wars. So I stood and listened, a fairly bright six year old, to the foreboding words of Jabotinksy, from Russia.
“Dark clouds are coming for the Jews of Poland,” was one of his messages. He looked at us to see if we were listening.
“Things are going to be very, very bad for you,” he warned. How he knew this I do not know, but he spoke with authority.
“Those among you who are rich,” he suggested, “should help those among you who are poor.”
And finally, with his voice ringing, he said, “All of you should immediately pack up and go to Israel.”
Yes, I remember this to this day, and I wish my family had followed his advice to the letter. They may have survived the war if they had listened, and moved away. But to listen to one man with such eccentric advice and then to follow it was not the way of my family, or of the other Jews in our community. After all, how could he possibly know the future? We were as secure as a Jewish family in Poland could be when I was six years old with a strong father, a loving mother, and brothers and sisters for whom I cared very much. We were as happy as we could be. The Jews in the audience listened, or at least seemed to listen. They nodded their heads and whispered among themselves as the famous man spoke. They may even have believed some of what Ze’ve Jabotinsky was saying, but they did nothing.
Go to Israel? How could we possibly do that?
As a six year old I had no idea that I would one day fight in the Israeli army, that I would one day face yet another enemy of the Jews in hand to hand combat. And that I would by then have a family of my own.
Nor, as a six-year-old, did I really realize who the man speaking was to become. Ze’ve Jabotinsky, who I had the great pleasure of hearing when I was only six years old, was the eventual founder and spiritual leader of Revisionist Zionism. He was born in Odessa in Russia in 1880, and was in his late forties when he spoke to us in Pinczow. In Israel, he created the Jewish fighting brigades who joined the British war effort in both World Wars. Jabotinsky’s revisionism was the root of the Irgun Zvai Leumi militia from 1943 to the founding of the State of Israel, for whom I would eventually fight.
Members of the Irgun, in fact, founded various right-wing political parties in Israel, and they finally coalesced in 1973 to form the very powerful right of center Likud party.
Jabotinksy died in 1940 while working to build up North American
Zionism, and is now buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
And when I was only six years old I heard him speak in Poland before Hitler. But we didn’t listen. And so as a young man I was faced with my hometown in ruins, my own home destroyed, and my family only God knew where. The Germans had burned Pinczow because of what the Polish army did to them. There were still buildings standing including the great synagogue built by King Karzimerz Wielki, but the town was in ruins.
Another of my early boyhood heroes, and perhaps a man I had in my mind at that moment, was Jozef Klemens Pilsudski, who started with almost nothing and who became First Marshal of Poland. What would Jozef have done if he were in my shoes? A non-Jew, he was a great hero in Poland, especially to Polish Jews. It is said by some writers that certain leaders come along every few generations, and that more generations must pass before they can be added to the list of “great men.” These writers mention Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, and Charles DeGaulle as three of the greatest leaders in history, for their time. They seldom mention Jozef Pilsudski. Yet, today, Roosevelt has been relegated to a few paragraphs in history books. There is to my knowledge not even a street in London, England, named “Churchill.” And what role does DeGaulle now play as a symbol of France? These men were, according to these writers, great for their time, but they did not survive the test of generations.
Pilsudski, on the other hand, did, and even today he is a symbol of Polish identity. There are many statues to him, and songs are still sung about him, and even in modern Poland you cannot avoid the name Jozef Pidulski. A 1995 declaration of the Seym, the Lower House of the Parliament of the Republic of Poland, was recorded on the 60th anniversary of his death.
“Jozef Pilsudski will remain in the memory of our nation as the founder of independence and as the victorious leader who fended off a foreign assault that threatened the whole of Europe and is civilization. Jozef Pilduski served his motherland well, and has entered our history forever,” said the declaration.
Pilsudski crossed that impossible to measure barrier that separates those who were important from those who were truly “great.” If he had been alive when Hitler faked the incident that he then “responded” to by invading Poland and beginning the Second World War, maybe things might have worked out differently.
So, yes, perhaps he was on my mind as I wandered about my hometown of Pinczow, searching for my parents, praying they were still alive. Certainly Pilsudski would have searched for them, even under the eyes of the unfriendly Germans. Pilsudski was a fugitive from the Russians in Poland when he slipped into a Jewish temple and asked for help. The people in the temple disguised him as a Jew, and when the Russians came in they didn’t recognize him. He was saved. He never forgot, and when he later became a very powerful man in Poland, he ruled that anti-Semitism would not be tolerated. Although vilified at that time by some as a “Jew-lover,” he stuck to his orders and for more than twenty years Jews lived a reasonably pleasant life in Poland. Pilsudski, until his death in 1935, was a revered man in Poland, the father of the modern Polish nation, and when he died a political vacuum was created that was never truly filled again.
I did find my parents, finally, in a bathhouse in Pinczow. They were frightened, but alive and well. They hugged me and kissed me, and I did the same to them. Our months in the hole in the forest were still ahead of us. For that moment, we had to try to survive.
I was a young, frightened Jew looking for my parents in my hostile hometown, Pinczow, a town the Germans had made every effort to destroy. I recognized some of the streets, but there were German soldiers there, and they were not in a good mood. I didn’t know what else to do but search for my family. By then I knew of some of the speeches made by the leader of the soldiers, Adolph Hitler, and so I knew how he, and probably most of them, felt about Jews. I didn’t understand why, but I knew how they felt.
Before the Germans invaded Poland, Hitler said, “(In the event of war) the result will not be the bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory for Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The annihilation of me, my family, my culture, and my religion is what Hitler said. I didn’t understand, but I knew what he was saying, even before hostilities began.
Speaking to a massive crowd at the Sports Palace in Berlin on January 30, 1942, Hitler said, “…and we say that the war will not end as the Jews imagine it will, namely with the uprooting of the Aryans, but the result of this will war will be the complete annihilation of the Jews.”
I only knew that I did not want his war, and I had no idea or plan on how it would end once it arrived. I only knew that I wanted to survive.
Hitler said, “Now for the first time they will not bleed other people to death, but for the first time the old Jewish law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ will be applied.”
My family, and all of our friends, had been fortunate to live decent lives and to have food to eat and a roof over our heads. I’m not sure where Hitler got the idea that we were “bleeding” others to death.
Hitler said, “And the further this war spreads, the further will spread this fight against the world of the (Jew), and they will be used for food for every prison camp, and in every family, which will have it explained to it why, and the hour will come when the enemy of all times, or at least of the last thousand years, will have played his part to the end.”
How, I wondered as a young man on the ruined streets of Pinczow, could my family and I, and the other Jews in Pinczow, be “the enemy of all times,” or at least “the last thousand years,” to the Germans. We didn’t live in Germany: we didn’t even know that much about them. In fact, we didn’t even really care that much about them or their neighboring country. We had our own lives to live.
I wandered about Pinczow, avoiding German soldiers while searching for my family. I remembered the rumors from just before the war started.
“The Germans will come, and they will do bad things to Jewish men,” was one of the stories that passed around. Another was, “The Germans will enslave all the Jews, and make them work without pay for the war machine.” The rumors about what the Germans would do to the Jews were always very bad, I remembered as I walked around Pinczow looking for my parents, with German soldiers all around. Many houses were still smoking. My own house was gone, a burned out ruin. Finally I found somebody who recognized me and they told me my family had taken refuge at the town bathhouse, one of the few remaining structures still standing. I hurried there and to my great relief I found my parents, my sisters and my brother. They were huddled in a little room in the bathhouse. Other Jewish families had moved into other rooms in the building.
None of the families had clothes other than what they were wearing since they had been forced to leave their homes by the soldiers. They had no furniture, no food, no money, and even if they did have money there was nothing to buy. Businesses had shut down; many had burned down. Some families left the bathhouse to try to find a place to live in other Polish cities, but we remained. At least we had a roof over our heads, and we could try to find food. We stayed in the bathhouse until winter came, and then we moved to a classroom, along with eighteen other families, in the local gymna’zium. This is a 5th grade through 12th grade school, often considered a college preparatory school in Poland. It had been closed because of the war and was not being used. Directly across the street from the school where we were staying was a German army barracks. Still, at that time, we were not hiding from the Germans. They knew we were there.
The Germans made rules for those of us who stayed in Pinczow, and I learned later the same rules were made for Jews all over Poland.
“Every Jewish person is to wear a white band on the left arm with a prominent Star of David on it,” said the local commandant. “If you are caught without the arm band, you will be shot.” We became quite accustomed to the “you will be shot” warning, since it seemed to be the end result of any violation by any Jew of any of the many rules established by the Germans. They seemed to truly enjoy the “shooting” part of their rules and regulations and laws and did so for almost any reason, or sometimes it seemed for no reason at all. They could shoot a Jew on the streets, and often did, for the most remote violation, then they would conscript other Jews to remove the body.
But an uneasy truce did develop during our stay in the college classroom. The Germans needed laborers every day. We were their laborers, and those of us selected went to work as ordered. It was a way to stay alive. If a boy or a man didn’t come back at night, we all knew that he had probably violated a rule, or hadn’t worked hard enough to please the German guards, or had simply looked at a German the wrong way. So he had been routinely shot. We had no time for mourning although we felt sorry if the man or boy had a family staying with us in our classroom at the gymna’zium. We had to be ready for the next day. I never thought it would be possible to become accustomed to death, to merely accept it and move on, but we did. We had no real hope; we were only trying to survive.
I never thought it could get worse than that, but these days were easy compared to what was coming.
My father even managed to start up a small business to earn enough money for food for his family during this dangerous time. Food, of course, was the primary worry shared by all Jews under the watchful eyes of the Nazis. One must eat to stay alive. So my father went to some of the nearby villages and asked the farmers for chickens to sell. These were men he had known for years, if not friends at least acquaintances. He called them by their first names, and they did the same with him. He trusted them, and they trusted him. As Poles, they were not watched or harassed nearly as much by the Germans. Father would take the cleaned and dressed chickens back to town, to sell for a small profit, a profit he then shared with the farmers. One morning he took me with him to pick up some chickens and it occurred to him that people in larger towns might pay a little more for such food.
“I believe we should take our chickens to Krakow,” my father said to me.
“But how?” I asked. “We cannot walk there. We are not even permitted to leave Pinczow. So how can we get them all the way to Krakow?”
My father thought for a moment. “We’ll take the train,” he answered.
I was shocked. We were not permitted to leave town, and it was certainly not permitted for a Jew to take a train anywhere in Poland. This was a very serious offense. We could be shot for taking the train anywhere. But my father was adamant. He was sure he could fool the Germans, and get better food for his family. It must be remembered that my father was tall, and blonde. I was also tall and blonde. We probably looked more like Germans than many of the soldiers in Pinczow.
So, in violation of all the Nazi edicts, we took a train to Krakow. They had a reason for not permitting train travel, of course. Keeping Jews in their home cities was a way to keep them under German control. So the Nazis had decreed that Jewish people could not travel, could not leave the town in which they were living.
My father did take the chance, and he did make a much better profit than from selling the chickens in Pinczow. From time to time after that first visit he would take the train to Krakow with his sack of freshly dressed chickens. On those visits he would make enough profit to buy decent food for all of us. My father was a very brave man, especially since he had to remove the Star of David banner from his arm during the travels. He did carry the star banner in his coat pocket, for whatever good that might have done him. Yes, this was an offense that would result in his immediate execution by the first German soldier who realized that he was a Jew.
Skovrona and Sobovice were two villages near Pinczow in Poland. I have no idea if they are still there, but I am certain that if they are, there are no Jews living there. Yet both villages, really just clusters of homes surrounded by farms, gave me an earlier hope that the war might not touch my family more than it already had. We were homeless, had no clothing, and worked very hard to get what food we had, but we were alive, together, and in the very face of the German army.
Typhoid hit the families living in the classrooms of the gym’nazium and my father knew we had to leave very quickly. Whether or not the Germans cared was not the issue. We could stay according to their rules, and perhaps die, or we could try to find a safer place to live. So my father walked to Skovrona and found an empty house. He spoke to the owner and the man agreed to allow us to live there. It was a shell of a house, probably once owned by a Jew and thoroughly searched by the Polish farmers, but even in very poor condition it had a roof. There was no furniture, no beds, so we spread straw around on the floor, and we were as happy there as we could be. We still had to work for the Germans to help keep the roads clear, but we continued to survive. Yes, occasionally a Jew was shot for doing something the Germans didn’t like, but other than that - and one did become somewhat accustomed to that I’m sorry to say - we were getting along.
I decided to try to find some extra work. The farmers around Skovrona grew wheat, corn and potatoes, most of which went to the German army. They also tended small herds of horses and cows.
“I will work for food,” I told two of the local farmers. I knew them slightly, and they knew the desperate position of my family and myself. They knew I was a Jew, but they didn’t think they would be taking any chance by hiring me, and they knew I would work hard for very little.
They both offered me a job. “You will take our cows and horses out to pasture in the morning. You will ride one of our horses to do this. You will stay with the cows and horses during the day while they graze, then you will bring them back in the evening.
“For this we will give you breakfast in the morning. We will give you some potatoes you can cook for lunch while you are out in the fields, and when you come back in the evening, and we will give you dinner, for you will be very hungry.” The dinner, I recall, generally consisted of macaroni and milk, and it was healthy for young, growing man who up until then had very little nourishing food to eat.
Thus began one of the happiest times of my life, in spite of the ominous circumstances surrounding my family and me. I was allowed to stay over and sleep in the warm barn, on some clean hay, and very soon I became a friend with one particular horse. He was a magnificent animal to me, and my friend and co-worker. He taught me to ride, and to handle cattle.
Oh, what a horse we was! He was a beauty, and he loved me as I loved him. I used no saddle, of course, but rode him bareback. With the slightest touch of my knee, he knew what I wanted; he knew the way to go. He learned the names of the cows and I had but to mention a name and he would go directly to that very cow. He was a wonderful horse, and together he became even more perfect tending to cows and I became an expert horseman. Perhaps that would have been my future, working on a farm, since my pride in that horse and in my expertise on his back was mighty. I was happy in the morning to awaken, to see him waiting for me, to eat breakfast while he was enjoying his hay, and go to work. My horse was always happy to see me, and danced impatiently as I swung up onto his broad, bare back. When I think of my youth, this time with this marvelous horse is one of the happiest memories.
The farmers, meanwhile, delivered their wheat and other produce to the German headquarters in Pinczow. Everything worked very well until one day the farmer who made the delivery became ill, and could not deliver the wheat and corn. One simply did “not deliver” a delivery to the Germans. This was a shooting offense. The Germans didn’t care if you were ill. When a delivery was scheduled, it was made, or else.
“David,” he asked, “Will you make the delivery today?”
“I am a Jew,” I told him. Then I spoke frankly. “I’m afraid.”
“You don’t look Jewish,” he answered from his sick bed. “I promise you they will not touch you. I guarantee it. And if you will do this for me for the next few deliveries, I will reward you with a bonus of 100 kilos of wheat at the end of the summer, when your job is over.” One hundred kilos of wheat was a very rich reward. Such an amount of wheat could bring some comfort to my family.
Just in case, he gave me a note saying I was his son. He said my name was “Danik,” which is Polish for David.
I agreed, although I did wear my Star of David armband so there would be no accusation of trying to hide my identity. The farmers provided two draft horses and a buggy filled with corn and wheat, and I drove it to the German headquarters. I was afraid, but I acted as though I knew what I was doing. As I expected, the Germans were very rude and mean, calling me bad names, but they did nothing more than that as they accepted the delivery.
However, a problem occurred during the second delivery, one month later, for by then the farmer felt that I had proven myself and could take over this job as well. There was a lineup of buggies carrying the food supplies the Germans had demanded from the local farmers. The Jewish workers used by the Germans to unload the buggies were working as fast as they could, but I could see that it would take some time to get to my buggy full of wheat and corn. There was even time, I decided, to take a quick walk around with two gentile teenagers driving other waiting buggies, I only wanted to take a quick look at my old hometown, to see what had changed.
“You!” I heard the shout. “You, Jew, come here.” The loud voice was from one of two German SS officers who were walking behind me. The other teenagers stepped away from me, of course. I stopped, and turned, looking down at the ground as we always did around German soldiers. They didn’t like us to look directly at them.
“We have a job for you,” they rudely snapped. “The sewers are backing up at our barracks. You will clean them.” They had stopped four other young Jewish men, who were waiting.
I was very afraid. Anytime the Germans gathered Jews together, it was bad news. Yet I couldn’t argue, I couldn’t tell them that I was delivering food from a nearby farmer to their headquarters. You simply didn’t argue, or even respond, to a German soldier during those frightening times. To do so could mean instant death. So I prepared to go with them to their camp to clean the sewers. If I survived, I hoped the farmers would understand.
Just at that moment, three Orthodox Jews, residents of Pinczow, walked slowly by, their heads down, their black coats and flat black hats obvious. They didn’t need a Star of David, but, of course, they wore the stars. The Germans recognized them immediately and, typically, started having some “fun.” They pulled at these men’s beards, they hit them in the face, and then they turned to my group.
“You may go,” they snapped. “You boys don’t have to do this filthy work. Let these dirty Jews do it.”
I was very happy for myself, and very happy to leave, but I was sincerely sorry for the three Jewish men. I hurried as fast as I could back to my horse and buggy and waited for the unloading to be finished, then I returned to the farm.
“Where have you been?” the farmer asked.
I didn’t tell him what had happened. I wanted no further problems. I just told him there had been a delay in the unloading, and that everything was all right. And that is how I continued to live, frightening days delivering wheat and wonderful days on my horse. But always in constant fear of the Germans, and also the Poles. I was never sure if I would survive the day, always knowing that the Germans could do what they wanted, kill me if they wanted, beat me if they wanted, send me away to a camp if they wanted, and all with no provocation at all. Yes, that is how my family and I lived those early years not long after the war started.
Could things get worse? They could, and did. For the holes in the ground in the Polish forest were still ahead of me and my family. Meanwhile, we lived in Skovrona, and I continued to work for the farmers, until the end of summer.
The owner of the house in which we were living finally told my father that he needed the space himself, so my father located a house in Sobovice, the other village of my early memory. I stayed with the farmers. My family moved to Sobovice. At the end of the summer, the farmers did give me the 100 kilos of wheat and they also bought me some clothes. They were pleased with the job I had done for them. It was a very sad moment when I said goodbye to my remarkable horse, knowing that I would probably never ride him again. Almost certainly he also sensed that we were parting forever, for he did look at me very sadly as I, with tears in my eyes, stroked his long nose. I said goodbye to the good farmers and went to Sobovice to stay with my family.
My fine horse friend is now long gone, of course, and even today this saddens me. But if I could meet with the two farmers today, even though they were Polish in a Poland very hostile to Jews, I would thank them for a very pleasant time of my life. But that won’t happen, for I shall never go back.
It shows, though, that not all Poles were bad to Jews. Most of them were, either because the Germans ordered it or because they simply hated us, but not all of them. For example, once during the months we spent in Sobovice I became very ill, with a high fever. My parents did not know what to do. They were afraid I was going to die. There were no doctors in the village, and no money to pay for one if there had been a doctor. So one of our Polish neighbors loaded me aboard his horse and buggy and drove me to the nearest town, where there was a doctor. I was diagnosed with pneumonia as well as the very bad influenza that was going around at that time. The doctor gave me a shot and some medicine, and my neighbor paid him for the care. My parents thanked the neighbor and offered to work off the debt, but they insisted they had done it for a friend in need. My father was quite moved by this, having lived with Poles and knowing how most of them felt about Jews. We remained in the house in Sobovice, doing as well as we could, until the fateful and very feared order came from the Germans.
“All Jews are to return to the cities,” the commandant ordered. “You will go back to the place you lived originally.”
So the most horrible part of it began for us. We had to return to Pinczow, and as I have explained, anytime the Germans began to gather Jews into larger groups, it was for one reason only. We knew this. We understood it. Yet we had no choice. Please remember that they could, and did, shoot us on the spot for any reason that pleased them. Even just to test to see if their pistol was working. They needed no excuse. It was their job to rid Poland and all of Europe of Jews, and although shooting us one at a time in the villages was not “efficient,” it was not frowned upon either.
So, with no choice in the matter, we returned to Pinczow. It was in the cities that the records were kept, and the Germans knew this. They could more easily identify Jews in the towns where they were born, and had lived.
Some of the town of Pinczow, we found, had been rebuilt, but not the house in which we once lived. So we went to a neighbor, an old friend, and asked permission to stay in his house. He gave us a single room in which to live. We were ordered to work for the Germans, to report for work in the morning, and we did. Since my father had to search for food, I was the one who reported to work at least three days every week, taking turns with my father. I remember one morning in particular. With nothing to eat, no breakfast at all, I reported to the work gang. My gentle mother came with me.
“He has had nothing to eat,” she told the German soldier in her soft voice as he was lining us up to go off to the worksite. That she was very frightened was obvious, but she was trying to help her son. “Do you have any food you can give him? He will work harder if he has something, anything, to eat.”
The German looked at her, then took out a whip he normally used on the working crew. “You dirty Jew!” he screamed. “You are not to give orders to me!” He struck my mother across the back with the whip. Then, as she cried out, he struck her again and again.
Crying, she looked at me in desperation. Not for help or for revenge, but knowing that I was ready to attack the German. In her eyes and in spite of her pain and humiliation, I could see her pleading with me to hold back. Please, she was saying to me, please do nothing. Please. I understood. The German would kill me, and what good would that do? She was right. She went away bent over and crying, and I, with tears in my eyes and pure hatred burning inside, went to work without food.
In the evening during this period of time, we Jews would get together to talk. We knew what was happening in Warsaw, in Krakow, and in many of the other larger cities in Poland. This was 1942, and though the Germans had bypassed the smaller towns like Pinczow, we knew they had gathered Jews together in larger towns into ghettos, then trainload by trainload shipped them away to camps. We knew that these camps, called “concentration camps,” were either work camps, or death camps. But we had been by-passed after the initial rounding up of the Jews in the larger towns and even some of the smaller towns like Pinczow. They knew we workers were Jews, but so far we had not been sent away.
We knew the Germans had put the Jews in ghettos in order to gather them into one place for easier handling, and from there they shipped them away in death trains. Orders were given to take five hundred to one thousand Jews at a time, and we knew this. The German’s selected young men to serve as police over the Jewish people. They appointed a Jewish governor to whom they could come with their demands. Finally other smaller towns began to be noticed by the Germans, towns like Pinczow. They would arrive, surround these towns, and take away any available Jews except for a few hundred to do the work. All the towns around Pinczow had been cleared of Jews. It is still very difficult to believe that humans could do this to other humans, and especially based upon religion alone, but that is what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were simply disappearing.
Finally, in the summer of 1942, the eliminators arrived in Pinczow.
My father called a secret meeting of Jews at the temple, among them many good friends. They knew of the three hundred Jewish men still living in Dzaloszice, a city about sixty kilometers from Pinczow. They knew that the wives, children, parents and grandparents of these men had been sent to Auschwitz. We knew it was only a matter of time before this would happen in Pinczow.
“There are about eighty-eight of us here,” my father said softly. “We have no more time. This very night, we will leave in groups of three or four so as not to be noticed. We will go into the forest, and try to survive there. The forest will be far better than a death train to a death camp from a death ghetto.”
We did that, under the leadership of my father and Mordechai. We quietly slipped out of Pinczow and walked into the nearby forest. My family group was the largest that night, but we managed to walk away to the forest without being noticed, fading softly into the trees. We headed for a designated meeting spot deep inside the forest.
We had worked out a series of birdcalls to use to communicate with each other. The trees in the forest were fairly young, and very thickly grouped, so as we entered the forest we simply disappeared from view. My father knew most of the farmers in the area, and a part of the plan was to ask some of them for help in the form of food. The river was nearby, so we knew we would not lack water. It was goodbye to Pinczow, and hello to the forest, not a very hospitable place but vastly better than a concentration camp, or a death camp.
There we dug our holes, and prepared to live in them for God only knew how long. In fact, after our first terrible experience in the holes, a time when I learned that my former neighbors were trying to kill me, I knew complete fear, terror, and shock. It was a time when I lost most of my family and many of my group, to neighbors with him I had spoken face to face only a short time before. Still, we had little choice but to regroup and dig more holes in yet another part of the forest outside Pinczow.
And before long, the farmer Pilarski found us again.
Pilarski would always bring food to our much smaller group. He would stay with us for hours, talking about the world situation, and our situation. My father, very lonely for my dear mother, began to trust him.
I did not. I had a bad feeling about farmer Pilarski.
“Something is wrong with him,” I told my father. “I don’t like him. He could be very dangerous to us.”
“What do you know about people,” my father would respond. “You’re still just a kid.”
One thing I remember about Pilarski. He always brought up the Gold family in his discussions. He always wanted to know where they were, and he always said he wanted to help them. In my opinion, it was very good for the Gold family that we did not know where they were. For we learned much later that Pilarski was known to solicit money and jewelry from the wealthiest Jews as a down payment for hiding them from the Nazis. For this money he would feed them until all danger had passed. We learned that Pilarski was all that time a spy for the right wing Polish underground, a group that hated Jews almost as much as the Nazis hated us, and one of the most anti-Semitic of all the Polish partisans.
Meanwhile, another man, a tall, handsome Jewish man, came to join us. He just seemed to appear out of the darkness of the forest. His name, we learned, was Libicz Herkowitz. He was also from the town of Pinczow, and had been in the town when the German eliminators arrived. We had already escaped for our first, tragic hideout in the forest. We were now in our second. Herkowitz described to us what had happened in town after we entered the forest.
“The people were ordered into the street. They were allowed to take only one suitcase for their most precious possessions. I,” said Herkowitz, “because I am big and strong, was appointed as a policeman by the Germans, and it was my job to help them get the all the Jews organized, in a line, out in the street. The lines were to be three to four persons wide. I did this as best I could. We did not know what was happening, but we knew we had little choice.
“There were some people who were too old, or too ill, to get into lines in the street, and then we knew. These people were shot to death on the spot, and it became my job to remove the dead bodies from the houses and streets, to find a place to put them. I thought this horrible job would save me, but it didn’t.”
Herkowitz paused in his story, and spellbound, we all waited to hear more. This was our hometown, this was Pinczow, the place we were born and raised.
“The Germans told me to come with them, and the lines of people, with me among them, walked about 14 kilometers to the nearest train station. Those who couldn’t walk that far, who fell out of line, were quickly shot.
“When we got to the train station,” Herkowitz continued, “we could see that the waiting train was not a passenger train, but a very long, one hundred car freight train, with cattle cars, and with barbed wire covering the windows. Many of the other cars were already packed tightly with Jews from other cities. Each car had a German guard with a machine gun on the roof.
“All of the remaining people, including myself, were pushed into the train cars, where they were pressed together, like sardines. We could not even sit down. Many of the people were frightened, and crying. The mothers were crying in fear for their children, and the men knew there was little they could do to prevent what was happening.
“The train traveled many hundreds of kilometers, and those people who died did not fall, for there was no room. They remained upright because of the crush of other people. Finally the train arrived in what I later learned was Treblinka, where it came to a stop just outside the gate. The conductor, who was Polish, counted twenty cars, and these cars were unhooked from the train and hauled through the gate and into the camp. The twenty-first car was my car. When the conductor returned to hook up my section an hour or so later, he looked up into the window and saw me looking out.”
“’Don’t you know why you are here?’ he asked.
“I said no, I didn’t know why I was there.
“He said, ‘You look big and strong, and you don’t even look Jewish. Yet you come here to die. This is a death camp. Couldn’t you have escaped and perhaps joined the underground to fight these bastards? In another few minutes, you’ll be dead.’
“Can you help me, I asked?
“The Polish train conductor looked up into the window at me. ‘I can try one thing, and only one thing. I can have my crew put a lot of water on the coals, to make a lot of smoke and steam. It will be very hard to see for a few moments. It will be like a dark night,’ the conductor said. ‘When I do this, you must break out the window and jump from the train and run.’”
“Soon the smoke and steam started, and I did jump through the window and I ran. A few others who were strong enough followed me. But I was the only one to get away. The guards shot the others with machine guns.
“I hid in the snow, then I started walking through the forest. I did not know which way to go, so I just kept walking. Finally I saw a house in the distance in the middle of the forest. I learned later that the house was a kitchen used to prepare food for the Germans who were running the camp. I looked through a window and saw only women inside. I was starving, so I just walked in. The women gave me food and some warm clothing, and they also gave me directions on the best way to leave the area of Treblinka. They also said I had to hurry, for the Germans were due to return in less than an hour.”
“Outside again, I saw boxes full of gold and money, jewelry and clothing. I knew that these items had come from the people who were killed in the camp, and I knew they didn’t need them anymore. So I took some of the money, because I knew I would need it.
“I walked in the forest only at night. During the day I would rest, or hide in the woods or the fields. Once I even got on a train because I was so tired of walking. As the train neared a town I saw that German soldiers were checking the papers of all the passengers. So I jumped off and kept walking. Finally, I arrived here,” he said.
Herkowitz told us how happy he was to see other people hiding from the Germans and asked to join us. We said yes, for this made us a total group of nineteen, and now we had some money to buy food. But Herkowitz’s story was the first solid information we had about what was happening to our friends and neighbors who remained behind. We were always exhausted so we slept all night and all the next day and finally woke up early the following day. We had no way of knowing if it was night or day with our hole so carefully covered. We only knew that we were within a mile or so of the site where the Germans had shot down our family. They had shot my mother, my sister, my brother, and Mordechai’s wife and baby, we learned from Pilarski.
“They killed everybody,” he said. “The Germans shot your families. Only one person escaped.”
We were shocked, so shocked that we couldn’t even cry.
My father spoke. “Go out and stand in the bushes,” he said softly. “We have ten minutes to pray for them, but we must be silent. Each of us must recite the Kaddish Prayer.”
Then we picked up what belongings we had, and moved to yet another part of the forest. Our loved ones were gone. We didn’t even think of revenge, but only survival. Once again we dug a hole large enough for all of us to hide in, and so, starving and cold, we crawled in.
By then, Mordechai’s brother-in-law, Haim, had joined us, and so had Herschel Radzinsky and his wife. Haim, who became my friend, was a shoemaker before the war started. He would sometimes go into town with his tools and move into a family home for a day or two to make some shoes. Sometimes I would join him and we would stay together. The family would feed us and give us a place to sleep until the shoes were finished, then we would go back into the forest. The Germans did not notice an extra Jew or two among the remaining Jewish workers in town, and it was a break for us from the holes in the ground in the cold forest.
But once again I learned that it was not a good idea to make friends during the terrible war. I am still very sad to relate what happened to Haim.
My father called us together to talk. We were starving and needed food desperately. “I know this area very well,” he said. “I know of a field not that far away where there are potatoes. We must be careful, and not allow the farmer to see that we are taking some potatoes, but we need the food. Who would like to go on his mission?” he asked.
Instantly my younger sister, and Haim, volunteered.
My father told them what to do. “You will go late at night so you will not be seen, so that nobody will know you are in the field. Here is what to do. The field is soft. At each potato plant, you will stick your hand down into the ground, and feel about for the largest potato. When you feel a potato of good size, you will pull it from the plant, trying not to disturb the other potatoes or the plant. Then you will fill in the dirt around the plant where your hand has been, and move on to another plant. Do you understand?”
Both Haim and my sister nodded that they understood. All they wanted to do was help the rest of us.
But while they were picking potatoes, the farmer who owned the field saw them. He came out into the field with a sharp pitchfork. Without warning, he stabbed the pitchfork into Haim’s stomach and chest. My sister screamed and ran away, but she could still see what was happening. She didn’t know what to do. She told us about Haim when she got back to our hole in the ground.
We learned from her that the farmer waited for the police. They arrived and surveyed the scene.
“What did you do?” they asked the farmer. “Why did you do this?”
Haim was on the ground in great pain, bleeding badly from the stabbing.
“They were stealing my potatoes,” the farmer said. “Another one of them got away.”
“You should be ashamed,” the police responded. “For a few potatoes you would kill a person?”
We learned that the police examined Haim and could tell he was badly wounded. They knew that he was suffering great pain. They discussed the matter, and deciding that they had no choice, that they had to stop Haim’s suffering that dark night, they shot my friend to death there in the potato field.
He was a Jew, after all, and to them it was no great loss.
The loss of Haim was just another incident to forget, to put aside, to try to file away in our constant quest for food, for survival. Haim was dead; we were alive, however temporarily. We were in yet another hole in the ground in the soft earth of Poland. Looking back, it is even difficult for me to believe what we were going through. It is difficult to imagine how one group of people could so hate another group of people that the lives of the hated ones were worth nothing at all, and in fact the taking of those lives, men, women and children, would be cause for celebration and reward.
There were other holes yet ahead of us, although I did not know it at that time. I do remember my silver pocket watch, one of my greatest and only treasures, and I remember the Polish gentile farmer, Pilarski. It was Pilarski who quickly found our new hiding place, and it was Pilarski who persuaded me to hand over my watch to him for “safekeeping.” I don’t know why I gave him my watch, a treasure that I guarded and protected, but as my father said, I was just a kid. Pilarski said I would very likely lose the watch in the woods, and that he would take care of it until the war ended, then he would return it to me.
Pilarski fell into the routine of visiting us every day or so. He would bring us food and other necessities. My father still trusted Pilarski, I did not, but at least he was bringing us food. But when he asked my father if we had any weapons, any axes or any other tools that could be used as weapons, I was even more suspicious. “I will collect them all, and take them to my farm and sharpen them for you,” said Pilarski. Since we had no “weapons” other than a few knives we felt we needed to protect ourselves, the offer to “help” meant nothing although it did reinforce my distrust of Pilarski. We, after all, were fighting for our life; he was perhaps just an opportunist who would do what needed done to make a profit for himself. This is what I believed, but even after the request for weapons, my father still believed in the Polish farmer who was “helping” us.
Pilarski always seemed like a very nice man. He was very, very sorry, he said, about those who lost their lives in the last raid. He was talking about my mother and the others, who had been shot. Yes, he seemed genuinely sorry, but I still didn't trust him.
So when he asked Radzinsky’s wife, who in the earlier times had been a professional seamstress, if she would come to town with him and sew for his wife, the warning signs in my heart began to scream. Worse yet, Radzinsky’s wife asked my sister to accompany her. Pilarski promised that they would be safe, that they would be well fed, and that they would have a clean place to sleep while the work was being done. When the work was finished, he said, the two women would be returned to us.
The work would take two or three days, and my father, and Mordechai, thought the food and shelter would be good for them. So my sister and Radzinsky’s wife left with Pilarski. The next day he came back to our hole with food. He told us that the girls were well and happy. We learned later that my sister had awakened very early one morning to the sound of voices downstairs, in the kitchen. She heard the voices talking about the “forest Jews,” and she heard carriages pull up outside the house. She knew that Pilarski was going to betray us, so she managed to sneak out through a door and run into the woods.
But she was not able to get to the hole in time, to warn us about what was going to happen. She hid in the woods and watched what happened. The farmers pulled up and ordered everybody out of the hole and into the cold winter air of Poland. One of the people in the carriages made a speech, telling us that they were from what he called the Underground Labor Organization.
“We have come here to help you,” the man assured us. “We want to help you get to the Russians before the Germans find you.”
I was sure that story was just to calm us, to ease our fears. He said in his speech that he was from the Russians, and of course the approaching Russian army was the one fact we clung to. Eventually the Russians would arrive, we knew. The Russians, who hated the Germans even more than the Germans hated us. The Russians would kill the Germans, and free us. So he said he had been sent by the Russians to help us, and some in our group believed him.
I did not.
They took us to a farmer’s house, and I heard them talking to the farmer.
“Is there another door to the room?” they asked.
“No,” said the farmer, “there are no other doors.”
So they herded us into the room without explanation. There were no more stories about the Russians. The instant they closed the door, Mordechai broke the window frame and jumped out. He didn’t make any plan. He didn’t ask us. That’s how we did it, how we knew it would be and should be. I instantly followed him out the window, and Radzinsky followed me. I have no idea who came next, if anybody, because I was once again running through the freezing forest as fast as I could run. One of my shoes came untied, to I stopped for an instant to just take both shoes off even though it was bitter cold. Then I continued to run through the darkness. I knew I was again running for my life. Nearby others were running, but I didn’t know who they were. I saw some twinkling lights far behind, and I thought they were candles being held by the farmers who were chasing us.
The lights were from guns. Bullets were being fired at us. I could see them hitting the snow around us as we ran.
About the time we realized, after running several miles, that we had lost the farmers behind, we came across another farmer’s house in the forest. Inside were a mother and her young son. Mordechai knew them, and when we explained to them why we were out in the forest in the middle of the night, so tired we could barely walk, she felt sorry for us. She gave us some food and allowed us to rest for awhile.
Then, sure that all the farmers had gone home after their unsuccessful attempt to capture us, Mordechai insisted that we go back and see what had happened to the others. Mordechai was right. It was quiet around the house where we had been held.
Mordechai awakened the farmer, and asked him what had happened.
The farmer was afraid, for now he was alone. “I’m so confused,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
Mordechai persisted in his questioning, and the farmer broke down. “They made me carry the bodies out into the woods,” he said, terrified at what we might do to him and his family. “I’ll show you where.”
Those who had not escaped had been shot. I looked at the bodies there in the dark forest. My father was not there. Mordechai, always the thinker, ordered me to take one of the warmer jackets from one of the bodies. I didn’t want to do it, but I did take the jacket.
“Where is our leader?” Mordechai demanded of the farmer. Where was my father?
“I saw him get shot,” said the farmer. “They shot him in the face,” he added, “and he fell right there. If he is not here, among the dead, then I have no idea where he is. Perhaps he escaped. Perhaps he is safe.”
The next morning we found not only my father, but also my sister. Father had been shot in the face during the murder of the entire group. He had suffered a broken cheekbone. He told us he had fallen on the spot and moved not a muscle. He wasn’t sure, but he felt he was still alive. When they looked at him, all they saw was blood all over his face. He was sure they would shoot him again, but bullets were precious and so they left him there with the other dead. Later, when he raised his head, he saw the Polish farmers were back in the house, perhaps planning what they would do with all the kilos of sugar the Germans would give them for killing Jews.
Father told us he got up and began to run, and run, into the forest. There he came across his daughter, my younger sister, who was still hiding. We survivors joined up. We were myself, my father, my younger sister, Mordechai, Radzinsky, two other men and one other lady. My father was badly wounded, and could eat very little. He could only chew very carefully on the right side, but there was no food to chew anyhow. Finding a doctor for my father was out of the question. We were fugitives deep in the woods, and being hunted by Polish farmers of the region.
We huddled together in some bushes in the forest to try to keep warm, to try to sleep. In the morning, Libicz, who still had a pocketful of money and jewels, offered to go into town to buy us some food. He must have been a tempting target, a Jew with a pocketful of money and no “law” to protect him. We never saw Libicz again, and I am sure to this day that he did not desert us. He was surely caught and killed.
What did we do? Yes, that’s correct. We dug yet another hole in yet another place in the forest. It was the dead of winter, and I remember that my feet felt terrible, especially my toes. I didn’t realize that my toes had been frostbitten during my frantic run through the forest. Soon the skin began peeling off my toes. Mordechai tried to help me by finding another pair of shoes. They were much too large, so he helped wrap my feet so they would fit in the shoes, but the damage had already been done to my feet, and especially my toes.
Meanwhile, we made a plan. The seven of us would sleep in our hole at night, where every night seemed a month long, and very carefully forage for food during the day. We would pair up to seek food, and each pair would go to one of the nearby fields. We would each try to find one potato, which would be our only food for that day. Only once did we vary this routine. We took a chance and gathered at a rock quarry where the Nazis had murdered eighty-three Jews. There we prayed, and said kadish.
By then I could not even wear the big shoes because of the condition of my toes. I was in constant, deep pain, and so was my father with his terrible face wound.
To add to our troubles, we were visited once again by a group of three well-armed Poles. We thought they were probably members of the left wing of the Polish underground, a somewhat less anti-Semitic group than the right wingers. They ordered us to lie on the ground, then the leader ordered my sister and the other woman in our group, a lovely young girl, to accompany him into the trench. He said, "We need to look for weapons.”
We knew why they wanted the girls in the trench, but we could do nothing about it but hope. While they were down in the trench, Mordechai insisted that he had to relieve himself. He begged the guard who had remained above to allow him to go into the bushes. The guard did permit this, and Mordechai went into the bushes, dropped his pants, and while the guard wasn’t looking, he just pulled them off and started running. In the ensuing confusion, I also began to run, although the pain in my feet was excruciating. We dodged right and left to avoid the bullets being fired at us. When we stopped after about a mile of running, Mordechai pointed at my arm. It was covered with blood. A bullet had gone completely through my arm, missing the bone, and I haven’t even noticed it. Mordechai pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and told me to urinate on it, then he wrapped the “bandage” around my arm. My feet were hurting so terribly that I couldn’t even really feel the pain in my arm.
We finally and very carefully returned to our trench and found that my father, Radzinsky and the young girl were alive and well. But my father looked very sad. My sister had tried to run away, and she was shot and killed. My father had already put her in the ground, so we said Kadish and then left to dig yet another trench.
Once again, Mordechai came through for us. He knew a man in a nearby village, a “Felcher.” This man was not a doctor, but the villagers called him that because they knew he could cure them of illnesses by using various herbs. Mordechai took me to him and he looked at my toes. Then he called Mordechai into another room in his house. He told Mordechai that the condition was so severe that I was going to lose both my legs. Mordechai told him that my father, who was back in the forest, was also hurt, and was expected to die soon. He told him that I had nobody, nowhere to go, and that I desperately needed help. That if I were to lose my legs, my life would be over. Please, begged Mordechai, tell us what to do.
“When the sun is out,” the Felcher said, “and the weather is warmer, sit in the field with your feet pointing toward the sun. Do this every day starting for about ten minutes and each day increase the time by five minutes.”
He then gave us some cream to use and also suggested we crush the leaves in the field and rub them on my toes. So while my own wounds were getting better, my father’s face wound was getting worse. He tried to stuff rags into the hole in his face to stop the still constant blood seepage, but that wasn’t helping much. He’d had no real food to eat since he had been shot, and so he was very weak and in great pain. Finally one day he left us to build a fire to brew some tea. He took the young girl with him to help. He chose a spot far enough away from our new trench so that we would not be found if he was noticed.
After several hours of waiting, we heard a scream, then a shot. We didn’t know what to do. Finally Radzinsky left to see what was going on. He hid behind a bush and watched as some Polish farmers beat the woman, demanding to know where the rest of us were. Then they raped her right there in the forest. When they were finished with her, they shot her in the head.
Beside them, on the ground throughout all of this, lay my father. He had been shot several times.
He was dead. My father, and one of our two leaders, was gone. When the Poles left, we went back and buried the bodies, said Kadish, then returned to our trench. I heard Mordechai say, “If it were not for the Polish people, we would still be a whole and complete group here in the forest. Now look at us, our leader is gone, and we are down to a very few.
Little by little, over the next several months in our hole in the ground, with my treatments being faithfully followed, my feet began to feel a little better. The pain was subsiding. And we were very lucky that we were not being bothered by any of the farmers in the area. If we had been, I would not have been able to run.
We did not see Pilarski again, but fortunately for us, the good farmer, Bartela, who had warned us of the first raid months ago, was still around. Although I did not know it at the time, we still had future dealings with him.
There was, of course, much despair in our holes in the ground in the deep forest in Poland. There was also great boredom. We waited and waited, with nothing to do with our time. We waited for food. We waited for the Russians to arrive. What little news of the war we heard came from the farmers we occasionally met, but it was anybody’s guess how long we would continue to live as moles and watch our numbers steadily decline. We didn’t know if it would be the Nazis who would find us, and murder us, or the anti-Semitic Poles, although we feared the Poles most of all.
I will admit that some of us even daydreamed of being caught, of being shot, of ending the dreadful uncertainty of our lives once and for all. We didn’t want to die as so many others close to us had died, but life was so horrible that death sometimes seemed a peaceful release. When we dreamed at night, it was of potatoes, but not the potatoes we had just eaten. No, these dreams were of potatoes topped with butter and accompanied by kosher meat or chicken, smothered in hot gravy and herbs.
It was by then 1944, I was nearly sixteen years old. I had been hiding from the Poles and the Nazis for what seemed like a hundred years, though it had been about three years. I had lost my mother, my sisters, my little brother and finally, my dear father, all to Polish people, generally Polish farmers who were being paid by the Germans to kill their own fellow Poles for a minor reward.
All night and all day we itched in our hole in the ground as the ticks and body lice sucked our blood. If anyone was lucky enough not to be plagued by these creatures, the close quarters in which we lived ensured that the luck would not last. Once every day or so, we would build a fire then hold our clothes in the smoke over the flames. There was little satisfaction hearing the popping noise as the lice fell into the hot coals and perished, but it was something.
My sight began to fail during these months. I was almost blind at night, and during the day my vision was blurry. We knew the cause. I was not getting the proper food for health, and my eyes were paying the price. But my feet were much better. The Felcher’s treatment had worked, and I could walk again without pain. As for my eyes, I knew that if I could improve my diet, they would get better. If I could not, I would probably go blind.
Mordechai, who had become our primary leader with the death of my father, decided that we needed to improve our situation. He knew of a very wealthy Polish farmer not too many miles away. Very calmly and deliberately we decided we would go in and rob him. There was no discussion of the “right or wrong” of what we planned. We were far beyond that point. We had been living in holes in the ground for many, many months, plagued by Poles who wanted to kill us, and who had killed many of us. We decided to go in while the farmer and his family was sleeping. If he awakened, and made a problem, we would kill him. We didn’t even discuss it. We knew.
“We will go in like soldiers,” said Mordechai, and we did. “Out! Out of your beds!” ordered Mordechai as we stood by to do whatever was needed. The frightened farmer and his family did as they were told and we herded them into a room in the house. “Now, get down on your knees,” said Mordechai, “and turn your backs to us.”
Again, frightened as only we had been frightened in the past, they did as they were instructed.
Then Mordechai spoke to them. “We were sent by the Polish underground,” he said. “You must help us with money, clothing and jewelry. If you do not, we have orders to kill you.”
Immediately the Poles began to cry, and to beg for their lives. Mordechai continued. “If, on the other hand, you cooperate with us, and give us what we want, we will, after the war is over, see to it that you will be paid back for helping us.”
They agreed, as if they had a choice, so we asked them for sacks in which to carry away the loot. We went into their bedroom and opened the closets to find furs and very expensive suits and other clothing. They said nothing as we loaded our sacks with all of this, and all the money they said they had, and we left them frightened but still alive. Somehow it seemed to me that our lives had changed, had moved in a new direction, had started upward from a long, downward spiral. The fact that we had become thieves never entered my mind, only that we had a brief moment of relief ahead with warm clothes and money. We seemed now to be doing something that was under our own control, even if it was robbing a fellow Pole.
We crossed the river Nada and went to the farm of Joseph Bartela, our old supporter from the forest. Mordechai knew where he lived in the village of Belek, and we thought he would still help us if he could. Especially now that we had something to trade. Bartela’s barn was about sixty yards from his house, it was very dark, and so we made it into the barn without being discovered. The barn was full of hay and straw, and was warmer than the chilly outside, and dry. It appeared luxurious after our many holes in the ground. We hid the bags of clothing, money and jewelry, covered ourselves with warm hay, and fell asleep. At that time we had no idea that we would spend the next six months in the Bartela barn, much of the time within forty yards of a German field headquarters, filled with SS officers and solders and under heavy guard. For the Germans came along and took over Bartela’s house to be used for their own purposes.
This “refuge” would not have been possible without the clothing, money and jewels we were carrying, since it was these items that convinced Bartela, long before the Germans arrived, to give us shelter. But not until Mordechai, once Bartela discovered us in his barn, negotiated long and hard. Of course finding us in his barn was a great surprise to Bartela. We were sound asleep when one of Bartela’s helpers came into the barn and started up the grinding machine used to cut straw into bite-sized pieces for the farm animals, the cows and horses. The noisy machine, which required two people to operate, one turning the crank and the other feeding in the straw, awakened us. Mordechai lifted his head up out of the straw and caught the eye of Bartela, who quickly sent his helper off to do other chores.
“We are the only ones left of our original group,” Mordechai told Bartela. “All the others have been killed, not by the Nazis but by Poles. We have one very sick boy here. He cannot see well, and I believe it is because he isn’t getting the right vitamins in his food.”
Mordechai knew that I needed food like cooked liver to help my eyes.
Bartela was shocked to see us, and not at all pleased. He said it would be best if we left him alone.
“We are tired of the forest, and of holes in the ground,” said Mordechai. “We know the war is about over, and that the Russians are coming. We would like to stay in one place, like this barn.”
Immediately Bartela began to shake his head, but then Mordechai brought out one of the sacks of treasures we had taken from the rich farmer. The sight of the clothing and money and jewelry seemed to hypnotize Bartela, and he began to listen to Mordechai. Still, I must say even now that where the valuables caught Bartela’s attention, I think he truly wanted to help us.
“All of this will be yours if you allow us to stay out of sight in your barn, and bring us food to eat. You know the war will soon be over,” he repeated, “and think what this will mean to you when that happens.”
Bartela protested. “My family. What about my family? If the Nazis find you here, they will kill my family.”
“They will not find us here,” Mordechai insisted. “We will stay hidden. We will do as you say to do.”
“What about my neighbors?” Bartela asked, but we could see that he was weakening. We could see that he wanted the treasures in the bag on the floor before him, and that he wanted to help us as well. “If they see you, they will tell the Germans.”
“They will not see us,” Mordechai assured him.
Bartela paused. “Please, wait. I will bring you some food, then I will go in the house and think about it.” He brought us some bread and milk, then he said, “Eat, then rest. I will come back with my decision.”
When he came back, he said, “No, you must go now. I cannot take the chance with my family. The Nazis would kill them, and me, and all of you as well.”
“Please,” said Mordechai, “think some more about it. Will you do that?”
So Bartela again went into his house, and we worried. Would he just summon the Germans, the safest thing to do, or would our clothing and money persuade him to take a chance on hiding us? We waited, but frightening thoughts were going through our minds about what Bartela might do. We even thought of just running away. But Mordechai said, “We’ve taken so many chances. Let’s take one more chance, and wait. I believe he will allow us to stay.”
Finally, Bartela returned to the barn. It was by then late at night and we heard the barn door open. He came through the stable and into the room where we were hiding. He was carrying a basket of food and a pot of hot soup. “Come, eat,” he said.
We were very hungry, and began eating as Bartela spoke. “The Russian army, we know, is now near Warsaw. It will take them several more days to get here. My decision is to join forces with you. I will be lucky with you, or unlucky with you. Either way, you are going to stay here in my barn. I will hide you and feed you until the Russians arrive, and you are free.”
We were happy for the first time in months. Radzinski said softly that Bartela was his “angel.” Mordechai hugged the farmer, calling him his brother, the best brother he had ever had. I told Bartela he was my savior, my father, and I kissed his wrist. It must be understood that this was a joyous thing for us, to have a barn to sleep in, to have fresh straw to sleep on, to have decent food to eat, until the end of the war. Yes, it would cost us the treasures we had taken from the rich farmer, but what was that compared to our lives?
Bartela immediately began to prepare a more permanent place for us in his barn. He wanted nobody to know we were there, including his farm hands and his family. He cleared out one corner of the barn by moving back the hay, but about five inches of hay was left on the ground. Bartela then laid some wood planks to enclose a space about three feet by five feet, with more wood planks on top. Then around the planks and on top he piled hay so that it would appear the entire corner was filled with hay. Small cracks were left in the wall of the barn so we could breathe, and see outside, to see if it was day or night. Our little space was almost as nice as a fine hotel room in a great hotel in Warsaw. It was warm enough, and dry, and even clean enough compared to what we had been living in. There was a crawlspace, well concealed, to get out if we needed to leave, but we had no thought of leaving.
One evening Bartela came into the barn to tell us a story. It was perhaps his way of telling us why he was risking so much to give us a place to hide. He whispered the story so only we could hear it, and we could hear over the sounds of the horses and cows. But nobody outside could hear.
“The priest at church today told this story after services,” Bartela began. “It was after the prayer. ‘There were two shoemakers in one village,’ the priest said. ‘The people needed more than two shoemakers. They both made a good living. They made shoes for people. They made good money. They had big families. And they made – you know – they made a living but they worked hard,’ continued the priest in Bartela’s story. ‘If they worked hard, they made more money. Then one of the shoemakers decided to compete, to beat the other shoemaker. He wanted to get rich. So he talked and he began to knock the other guy down so that he would get more customers.’”
Bartela paused in the story he was telling about what the priest had said. He was obviously quite moved by the tale. He continued. “And then the priest said, ‘The first shoemaker would send out people to talk against the other shoemaker. He would say the other shoemaker wasn’t that good. He would say you are wasting your money going to him. The men he sent out would always say to go to the first shoemaker.’”
In a few months, Bartela told us that the priest revealed that the second shoemaker had lost all of his customers. All the customers went to the first shoemaker, the one who was telling the lies. He, on the other hand, was overloaded with work. He had to hire people even though they didn’t know how to work. He couldn’t handle all the work he had, while the second shoemaker no longer had money to buy food. His family was starving, the priest told Bartela, and he had six teenage children. So the children ran away to work, to another country, another city, anywhere they could find food.
Bartela said, “The second shoemaker lost his children. They didn’t want to just sit and starve. But he did try. He talked to people on the street, to tell them his work was good, but nobody wanted to listen. They continued to go to the first shoemaker. This is what the priest told me. The priest said, ‘Listen carefully, because I want you to understand. The kids are gone, and they don’t even write letters. What, are they are going to write to a poor home? They are trying to make a living somewhere,’”
Bartela continued the story. “Then the first shoemaker’s wife became sick from starvation and then she died. That’s what the priest told me. And the man didn’t know what to do and suddenly he got sick, with a high fever. He was confined to bed. And then, finally, the other people go around to the first shoemaker and say, ‘What did you do? What did you do? Do you know what you did? You ruined a family.’ Even the priest said, ‘You ruined a family. Someday you’re going to have to answer to God. God made the man a shoemaker, a good shoemaker, and you ruined him. Now he has lost his children, and lost his wife and now he is going to die. He’s barely alive,’ said the priest.”
Bartela continued to whisper out the story told to him by his priest, with the horses and cows moving about in the background. “The first shoemaker, according to the priest, realized his mistake. He said, ‘I’m going to do my best to save him. I’m going to give him whatever he wants. I’m going to give him half of my money. I want to help him. I made a big mistake. I’m going to go to his house. If he wants money, I’m going to give him most of my account from the bank. Whatever he wants. If he wants a doctor, I’ll bring the best doctor.’ The first shoemaker took his son and went to the house of the second shoemaker, the one he had ruined. The man was there in his bed. He could barely talk.”
Bartela said the first shoemaker asked what he could do to help. He saw that the second shoemaker’s bed was old, and he quickly promised him a new bed.
Bartela leaned close, and lowered his voice as though he were the second shoemaker. He spoke sadly. “ ‘My kids ran away, and my wife died,’” whispered Bartela, as though he were the ill shoemaker.
Then he spoke as the first shoemaker in his story from the priest. “ ‘But please, I’m ready to help you. Whatever you need. Anything you want. I’ll bring you money if you need money. I’ll bring you a doctor.’ ”
“But I don’t need any doctors anymore,” said the ill man according to the priest.
“I’m not going to go away until you tell me how I can help you. I’ll pay for a hospital. Anything’” whispered Bartela.
“I don’t need a hospital. It is too late for that.”
The first shoemaker, according to Bartela, who heard it directly from the priest, then begged the second shoemaker to allow him to help. He sat there beside the sick man for hours. “Tell me, please, I’m on the knees, what can I do to help you? I want to help you. I want to rescue you alive. I made a terrible mistake.”
The ill man, said the priest, weakly raised his head. “Alright, alright, take my pillow from under my head.”
“Just the pillow?”
Bartela continued the story in the barn, the story from the priest. “The ill man said, ‘Yes, take the pillow from under my head, then go to the backyard of the church and let out all the feathers.’”
The second shoemaker, said the priest through Bartela, grabbed the pillow and ran to the back of the church. There he sliced the pillow and shook out all the feathers, waving the pillowcase about to be sure every single feather has been thrown to the wind. He’s happy to help. Then he returned to the man dying in bed. “What else can I do for you. I did this, now what else?”
The ill man looked up again very weakly, said Bartela, continuing his story from the priest. “Now go back and pick up every feather, and return them to the pillow case and bring my pillow back. If you will do this, all will be well again.”
Then the second shoemaker died.
Bartela was very emotional, with tears in his eyes, as he arrived near the end of the story told to him by his priest. And I began to understand.
“The priest said that the people told the first shoemaker that he would have to answer not to other men, but either in hell or before God for what he did to the second shoemaker. When he went to the church, the priests said ‘We can’t help you for you did the wrong thing’.”
“I know what the priest meant,” said Bartela to us there in the barn. “He meant that we should do something good. Don’t do bad things to people, for all people are human beings. Do good things before it is too late. That’s what he meant.
“A lot of priests saw what the Germans were doing and didn’t care. But this priest was telling me to do something good, before it is too late.” There were tears flowing down the cheeks of the farmer Bartela as he finished his story, and I knew that in him we had a trustworthy friend.
Then the Germans came.
One day about two weeks after we moved in, some German officers in their crisp uniforms with their fancy decorations and their snappy hats came to the house and told Bartela that he had to move. They said they needed the house for a headquarters. The Russians were pushing the Germans back on all fronts in Poland, and they needed to make a stand. They gave Bartela three days notice to move out, telling him that if he did not find another place, they would find one for him. That place, they indicated, would not be a good place and in fact could be a hole in the ground, covered.
Bartela was shocked. This was something none of us expected. He even helped us as we went into the fields to dig a new hole, and he gave us containers of food and water. He helped us to disguise the hole. My eyesight was already improving on our better diets and I was sad to leave the warmth and comfort of the barn. Before Bartela left us in the field, he said to remain there. “I am going to beg the Germans to allow me to stay,” he said, “even if it is just one room in the house.”
The next morning, the German officers did come back, although by then we were hidden in the field with our cache of food. Bartela told us what happened.
“Please,” he said to the Germans, “allow me to stay in only one small room, and my wife will cook food for you. I will also deliver whiskey to you. You are mostly single men, and this home cooking will be something you will truly enjoy.”
The Germans thought about it, and then told Bartela that he could keep the house, that they would take only one corner of the largest front room for their headquarters. They said they would be back in four days to occupy the area, which gave Bartela time to come out in the field and find us.
“I have good news,” he said with a smile. “You can come back to the barn, but you must be very quiet all the time, for we will be surrounded by Germans until the Russians get here.”
We returned to the barn, and as they promised, the Germans came in four days and moved in. They assigned a soldier guard to the front door, and one to the rear door, but they ignored the barn. Every hour or two, a motorcycle courier would arrive with news from the approaching front. We could often hear the orders that were being shouted about. One time we heard the order to round up all the Polish farmers in the area to dig trenches for the army. Another time we heard the order to mobilize all the German soldiers in the area to go out and fight and kill the partisans, the underground fighters that sometimes seemed to hate us as much as they hated the Germans.
Apparently the partisans were making a mark helping the Russian army as it drew ever closer to the Bartela farm.
Then, one morning, there was silence. No more buzzing of motorcycles, or shouted orders. Most of the Germans had left during the night. Early that morning a carriage drawn by two horses arrived at the farm. It stopped in the backyard of the farm, and four partisans walked into the house. They put a pistol to Bartela’s head, we were told later, and said to him that they had seen him in the forest with Jews. They wanted to know where the Jews were now.
“Are you crazy?” Bartela protested. “Are you insane? That was three years ago, when I was walking in the woods. I haven’t seen them since. Also, I want you to know that the Germans have made their headquarters here. They are staying in this house. They just left to go find partisans, but they left two SS men who are even now watching the house. If they catch you,” said Bartela, “they will certainly kill you on the spot.”
Then he said in a loud, derisive voice, “And you are asking me about Jews I saw three years ago.”
The partisans asked him to lower his voice, then they apologized to him for intruding. They got back on their carriage and left.
For once in our life since the war started, the fact that the Germans were nearby had helped us rather than hurt us. This was one time we were very lucky that Germans were there.
Then the Germans, as Bartela had promised, returned. The front had shifted again, and the Russians had been pushed back. It was that way for the entire six months we remained hidden in Bartela’s barn, but he kept his word. He brought us food, and we were bored but relatively comfortable. Every month the group of officers and soldiers changed, and one point, the entire village was full of German army troops.
When I think of the name Joseph Bartela, I also think of another strange fact. Unlike the United States, where Jewish names are common, in Europe you could never hear the name David, or Abraham or Aaron unless you were in a Jewish neighborhood. These are Jewish names. So is Yamak and Usead. Even our friend Bartela finally began calling me not David, but Danik, a Polish name for David. He even called me his son, Danik. When I worked at the other farm taking out the cows, they called me Danik.
We could see out through the cracks in the barn wall, left there so we would have fresh air and light. But during the time the village was occupied, the coldest months of a very cold winter, one German solider wandered over to the yard of the barn. He had his rifle slung across his shoulder. He began to break the wooden fence so he could build a fire to warm himself. Bartela saw what he was doing and rushed out.
“Stop!” ordered Bartela. “What are you doing? You’re ruining my fence!”
Then Bartela grabbed a piece of wood from the fence and started hitting the soldier with it. “This is the German headquarters, you fool. If I tell them what you have been doing, they will have you shot.”
The soldier stopped breaking the fence and ran away. Once again I realized the inner bravery of this unique Polish farmer, one who was helping us instead of asking for sugar from the Germans.
Once this same brave farmer brought us food, but with no vegetables. They simply weren’t available. “I would like you to eat vegetables, but I cannot get them. Then, for me, he brought special a piece of liver to help with my eyesight. He told the others, “Don’t you eat, this is for Danik, my son.” Because he knew I needed it. I still couldn’t see well at night although finally my sight was restored. Bartela was in part responsible for this.
Transportation was a great problem for the German army during that time. They decided to call in all the farmers and demand their horses and buggies be turned over to the army. But the farmers knew what was happening, so they sent their livestock out into the fields, and they dismantled their buggies and stored the parts in and around their barns. Did this stop the Germans?
The Germans realized that if they set fire to the houses in town, the horse drawn fire wagons would come. And the farmers would rush in to help, driving their wagons. The Germans could then take the horses for their own use. So one night they set two houses on fire in the village about a mile from where we were hiding. The fire wagons did not come, and the fire began to spread throughout the village. Bartela came into the barn to tell us what was happening, and we could see the glow of the fire in the sky in the distance.
“I am frightened,” he admitted. “They are moving their headquarters from my house this very night. I do not know what is going to happen.” Bartela sat in the barn with us and talked for several hours. “I don’t know what the future holds for any of us. I do know that I don’t want my neighbors to see you leaving my barn. The Germans will surely kill my family and me if you are seen leaving, but what if they come and set fire to my house and my barn? You will have to just run and save yourself, and that is what I will do with my family.”
Then Bartela did something that once and for all made me see what a friend he was. He took us around the barnyard and nearby field, showing us where he had hidden not only the money and jewelry that we had given him, but also all of his own money and jewelry. He showed us place after place where he had buried things.
“If something happens to the house or the barn, just run away. But then late at night, come back and find the money. You cannot survive without money.” He also gave us a list of names of Poles who had done terrible things to Jews, Poles who had robbed Jews, or killed them, or turned them over to the Nazis.
“If you survive,” said the Polish farmer Bartela, “pay them back for what they did. Give them what they deserve.”
Bartela was a decent, honest, honorable man caught up in the war but certain about what was right and what was wrong. Later, we heard many planes in the air overhead, and shooting from the planes. Bartela came to us. He was so excited he could barely speak. “I hear – it’s true. I heard on the radio – the Russians are taking Warsaw. They are hitting the city, and the Germans very hard. That’s good. It shouldn’t take too long – you are going be free and suffer no more.”
In December the Germans started running. Russian planes were overhead. I looked out through a broken crack in the wall and I saw the Germans running. I saw one poor German soldier who wanted to hurry back to the toilets. He looked around, pulled down his pants, and sat down, and a Russian plane came in low and shot him with a machine gun right through his head before my very eyes. We looked out through the cracks in the barn wall and we could see German soldiers running. Then I saw what looked to be different uniforms. I knew it was the Russians. I looked out at the tanks, tanks that had been painted so you couldn’t say if they were German or Russian, but we knew they were Russian, and soon the field outside was filled with tanks. After awhile, we saw Russian soldiers marching, and tanks rumbling along. We could see this for as far as we could see.
Then, while I was outside the barn, some new tanks came roaring by. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “I am caught. Oh My God! I’m in trouble!” I rushed back into the barn.
But it was the Russians who had arrived. It was all right.
Bartela came into the barn smiling. He told us to come out from our place in the corner.
“You are free,” he said. “You are free!”
We hugged him and kissed him, calling him our angel from God. But even then he told us to wait. He went into the house and prepared some glasses of warm milk and walked out to the road. After serving the milk to passing Russian soldiers, he found an officer.
“Who is free now,” he asked the officer.
“Everyone is free,” answered the officer. “Everyone but the Germans.”
He then came into the barn and invited us into his house. We saw the room where the Germans had worked. We saw where they had burned many papers before they left. We saw the bunk beds where they had slept, and the large desk where they had done their paperwork. We saw the windows covered with lightproof shutters. We saw a large table, with chairs around it, where they had held their conferences.
Then Bartela and one of his workers brought food into the room, and set it on the table. They brought in a bottle of vodka to offer a toast. Bartela’s wife and three children came in to join us for dinner, and we were introduced. He told her that we had arrived with the Russians, so she never knew that we had been in her barn for many months.
Then came the greatest surprise of all. Bartela had been hiding not only us, but also the Oaks brothers. They came in, these young men we hadn’t seen years, and we all had dinner together. Their names were Nathan, and Isaac, and Moisha.
The Oaks brothers had ran from the farmers as we had ran when we all went in different directions to confuse them, but they had came straight to Bartela. They had hidden inside a very large closet in the house ever since. Once again, I understood the great bravery and the goodness of Polish farmer Bartela. Most of the Poles were cruel and evil to Jews, but some were not.
That night we talked until early in the morning, then Bartela asked us to stay in his house for at least two more weeks, to gain our strength. He only wavered on one thing. He asked us to promise him not to try to kill the Poles on the list he had given us.
“Please,” he said, now that he realized that we were all going to survive for at least the immediate future, “Please allow God to punish them.” It is likely that he felt that if suddenly those Poles were killed, it would come back to him and he and his family would suffer. This, I understood, and we made the promise. But we knew we had to leave. We were anxious to return to Pinczow, our nearby hometown, to see what was happening.
Early in the morning, as we walked back toward Pinczow, we saw Russian tanks and Russian soldiers on every road. We left the Oaks brothers behind at Bartela’s, since they had decided to stay there for a few more days. We were warned to use caution, since the Russians were still killing Germans. In fact, we saw dead German soldiers along the road to Pinczow. My shoes were tattered and torn, and we decided to take a pair of boots from a dead German soldier, but we failed. It was so cold the boots were frozen to his frozen feet, so we moved on.
On toward Pinczow, after so many years of hiding.
Early on a cold winter morning on January 15, 1945, we, Radzinsky, Mordechai and myself, walked toward Pinczow, avoiding where possible the very nervous Russian soldiers who were quick to fire upon any person they thought might be German. We certainly didn't look like German soldiers, dressed as we were, and we weren't carrying weapons, but in wartime many are shot by accident, by what they call "friendly fire." Especially in the dark before dawn, when soldiers tend to see things they don’t really see.
From the rear we could hear the roar of battle as the front moved from the fast retreating Germans to the attacking Russians. The sky was lit with the reflection of explosives as the two mighty armies battled. Behind us, men were fighting in hand to hand combat, with bayonets and knives and hand grenades and machine guns. Men were dying on both sides of the battle. We were walking away from that terrible carnage.
Walking, however, was not easy, since we had been in hiding in a barn for months and our legs were somewhat atrophied. Perhaps it might have been a better idea to stay at the Bartela farmhouse until things cooled down, as Bartela himself had suggested, but we were anxious to get into town. As we walked along, cold and once again getting hungry, my mind wandered. I thought of my murdered family, I thought about what might happen next. I asked myself, “Why am I here? Why am I the last one left in my family, the only one to survive the holocaust?”
Was I saved for a reason, or was it just by chance, I wondered? I was depressed even though we were free. I knew that I had been very, very lucky during the years of avoiding the Polish farmers, and the Germans. I had been found, and escaped. I had escaped without being captured and shot. Time after time I was in the hands of the enemy, or inches away from their hands, and I had escaped. One by one my family and friends had been murdered. Yet here I was, walking back to Pinczow with Mordechai and Radzinsky, in fairly good health and facing a future with reasonable prospects. Would I go back and live in Pinczow, and become a shoemaker, or a peddler, or a tailor, as I once thought might be the case. No, I would probably not stay in Pinczow, not after all that had happened. The Germans were bad enough, but the Poles, my former neighbors, had been the worst. It may not have been the Polish farmers who killed my mother and my sisters and my brother, but it was them who held my family until the Nazis came and killed them, so they were equally responsible.
Walking along the cold, dark, pre-dawn road toward Pinczow, I had many thoughts in my mind. I did not think about my sons, who were far in the future, but I think about them now, as I write this book about my past.
You may wonder why I have specifically asked my sons never to visit my homeland, Poland, and my old hometown of Pinczow. Is it because Jews were specifically excluded from the province of Kielce, the area of Pinczow, by royal "privilege" granted in 1535? An order that remained in effect until 1818?
Is it because most of the Jews in Poland were taken away and murdered by the Germans during the Second World War?
Is it because the Poles helped the Germans to eliminate the Jews during the war?
Not really, although this is a fact that resides in my mind now and forever.
A "pogrom" is an organized attack on a minority, most often Jews. Pogroms began in Russia during the czarist years, and thousands of Jews were killed. Why? Because they were Jews, that’s why. Is this the reason why I do not want my sons to visit Poland?
No. That war is over, although it will never be forgotten as long as Jews live on Earth.
One would think that after World War Two, a conflict that ended in the total defeat of the regime dedicated to the elimination of all Jews in Europe, that Jews would once again be safe in Poland. This, I am sorry to say, is not true.
Perhaps we are safe in other places in the world, but not in Poland.
I’ll tell you why I have asked my sons not to visit Poland. After the war ended, about two hundred Jews had returned to Kielce Province in Poland. Some were survivors of Nazi camps, some had hidden in the district as we had managed to hide for years, some came from Russia because of the anti-Semitism there. These Jews began to reconstruct a former Jewish community in Kielce in an effort to build a new life for themselves. This, oddly enough in view of what happened to Jews during the war, aroused the anger of many Polish anti-Semites. They didn’t like the idea of Jews forming into a group and settling in what they considered their territory. However, they kept this anger hidden inside themselves, waiting for an opportunity to act. They really needed a "reason" to show their anger.
The story of little nine-year-old Henryk Blaszcsyk, a Polish Catholic boy whose name will forever be stained, is well known. If you do not know the whole story, a quick visit to the Internet will give you the terrible details about how this misguided little boy was corrupted by adults. Just log in to “pogrom” and the Kielce pogrom will be easily found. The consequence of the "kidnapping" of little Henryk was a pogrom that resulted in the murder of forty-two innocent Jewish civilians and the wounding of dozens more by the Polish army, local police, and even Kielce citizens. This happened in 1946, months after the terrible war was over, months after the death of Hitler and his Third Reich and his cruel anti-Semitic regime. The name of little Henryk, who was a child and who is not responsible for the actions of the adults around him, adults who got him to change his story again and again, will forever be connected to this travesty, this murder of Jews.
Yes, a monument was erected in the Kielce Jewish cemetery to perpetuate the memory of the victims of the Kielce pogrom. That, of course, won’t bring these innocent men, women and children back to life anymore than monuments to the holocaust will bring back those poor innocent millions who were slaughtered in concentration and death camps.
It is my wish that my sons not visit this country, my own country and the country of their ancestors, even to seek the graves of my beloved father, and mother, and sisters and brother, and our friends. I do not believe they are safe in Poland as Jews, even today.
Russian tanks passed us on the road to Pinczow that cold night, their tracks clanking on the hard road. Russian soldiers on foot, looking as though they were walking in their sleep, passed us. One tank stopped, and the commander looked at us from his turret.
“Are you Germans?” he called down to us over the rumbling sound of the engine.
“No, we are Jews,” we responded, aware that for the first time we could say this aloud, and with a measure of pride in our heritage. Still, I felt very depressed and alone, very cold in our tattered clothes. And hungry, once again.
He smiled and waved. “Then you must be very careful on this road. You must be cautious, since my men are anxious to kill more Germans.” He then ducked back into his warm tank, and the huge vehicle roared, belched smoke, and rumbled on.
As dawn broke, we were very close to Pinczow. Along the side of the road we could see dead German soldiers. It was then that I tried to exchange boots with one of the corpses, but his body was frozen stiff, and his boots were frozen to his feet. This young man was just one more casualty who would never go home. We moved on.
Coming down the road toward us was a column of marching Russian soldiers. They looked more alert, more awake. They were marching with a row of noisy heavy equipment, tanks, half-tracks and trucks. One tank pulled out of the line and slowly and carefully brought its turret around with a whining sound, until the huge gun, and a machine gun manned by a soldier deep inside, was trained on us. We stopped and waited, and once again the thought went through my mind.
Do I really care?
What if they shoot? It would be a quick end to years of torment and sadness. I would no longer be cold, or hungry, or afraid, or sad. It would all be over, and maybe that would be best. We waited. The other tanks stopped.
The leader of the column of Russian troops and heavy machines was a Russian Colonel, actually a female soldier who had the badges of a nurse on her uniform. She was in a smaller vehicle that drew up beside us. She ordered the column of soldiers to a halt, stepped from her car, and walked up to us. I was afraid.
“Amchu,” she said, and I then nearly cried with emotion and relief. She had recognized us as Jews and used the Hebrew word that means, “you are from my nation.” It was word Jews used to identify each other. She was, I knew, a Jew. These Russians were not going to kill us.
“How did you ever survive?” she asked with courtesy.
We told her briefly of our years in the forest, in holes, and she listened intently.
“Then the gentiles were not good to you,” she stated.
We explained to her how the Poles hunted us, and what they had done to our families. Another Russian officer had joined our conversation.
“Where do you intend to go?” he asked us.
We told him we were going to try to find our old houses, try to find a place to rest.
“No, you should not do that,” he argued. “You are still in great danger.” He then took out a piece of paper and placed it on the vibrating fender of a loudly idling tank. He began to write. It was a letter to the Russian Embassy in Pinczow. He gave us directions on how to find the building among the wreckage of the town left by the Germans. “Take this to the Russian ambassador in Pinczow. He will take care of you.”
Then the officers returned to their vehicles and the Russian tank column drove on. Once again, although the Poles were still around, and still hated us, we knew we were free.
When we arrived at the Russian Embassy we were welcomed with warmth and smiles. We were shown into a room with three beds, a table and some chairs. “You may stay here,” said the Russian official who had met us at the door. “You will be safe here. There is a kitchen downstairs, with food. You may help yourself to whatever you want. You are welcome here for as long as you wish to stay.” He showed us where the bathroom was, and made arrangements for us to bathe and clean up. We were nearly overwhelmed by the treatment we were receiving from the Russians.
Downstairs we found delicious food, better than we had enjoyed for a long time. We brought the food back up to our room and ate without fear of being found, or of voices shouting, “Get the dirty Jews!”
Finally the top Russian in the area, the Russian Consul, came up to our room to talk with us. First, he said, “I have had a long talk with the local police. I have told them that we do not want anything to happen to you. I have told them that we want them to look after you, and see to it that nobody hurts you. But you may stay here with us for as long as you wish.”
Then he asked the same questions the other officers asked. “How were the local people to you? How did they treat you?”
He nodded when we told him that part of our story. Then he became very serious. “Did the local people cooperate with the Germans?”
Mordechai spoke up, asking for a piece of paper. When this was produced, he wrote a long list of names. “These are the names of the local people who cooperated with the Germans, who helped the Germans find any remaining Jews,” he said, handing over the paper to the Russian Consul. “These are also the people who robbed our houses after we were hauled away. They took all of our belongings because they thought we would never return. They tore down walls looking for valuables. Then, finally, they took over the properties and claimed them as their own.”
The conversation went on for hours. The Russian Consul wanted all the details, all the facts of how we were treated by the local citizens, the local farmers. And we told him every detail, with pleasure. The only thing we withheld was the story of courageous Bartela, but we knew we would eventually be free to tell that story as well. At first, though, we were keeping our promise to him.
Finally, after several hours of talking, The Russian official asked us where our houses were, or had been. We gave him the addresses, and he wrote a letter to the local mayor. The letter was hand-delivered by two very tough-looking Russian soldiers to a Mayor who was, at that moment, on very thin ice. He was a man who finally feared for his own life, and the life of his own family, after persecuting Jews for so long.
In the letter to official said, “And I want these houses emptied and ready for their true owners in the next two days.” He said in the letter that he didn’t really care where the occupants went, or what they did with their clothing and furniture. They could take these things, or leave them, but the houses were to be ready for us in two days, no more. Or, he suggested as an alternative, the man might become the mayor of Siberia rather than Pinczow.
In two days we left the Russian Embassy, with two local policemen as bodyguards just to be sure. In the past two days I had enjoyed sleeping in a warm bed, a real bed with blankets and all by myself, and it was wonderful. We were rested, well fed, and looking forward to the future. My eyes were much better and my feet were almost healed. The war was over and we were among friends. Although we were still careful, we knew that every Pole in Pinczow had been firmly warned to leave us alone, to bring no harm to us, or there would be serious retribution from the Russians. These were people who had been neighbors, then who had chased us and tried to kill us, who had turned our life into one of terror only days after we had stopped to talk in the street. Now they had been firmly warned that if anything happened to us, they would be very sorry. It was a wonderful feeling after our years in holes in the ground in the nearby forest, with no food, no place to clean up, lice-infested and afraid all the time that we would be found and killed.
Radzinsky insisted that we go to his house first, and we did. We found it standing, and empty of everything, furniture, clothes, drapery, bed clothing, everything. Radzinsky was a baker before the war and that is what he wanted to continue as a career. Mordechai wanted to help him. So their future seemed set for the time.
I wanted something else, and about that time Lieutenant Romek of the Pinczow Police Department appeared at our door. We had made Randzinsky’s house livable by going to the former German army bunker at the Jewish cemetery and stripping it of wooden shelves. We used the wood to make beds and tables and chairs, and the house became comfortable for us. The old bakery next door was opened, and soon we were baking bread for ourselves and for sale to all, including the Russian army.
It was during this visit to the bunker at the cemetery that we noticed many missing headstones. Some were overturned, others were gone. On the way to the cemetery during the next visit, to pick up more wood, we found the missing headstones. They were being used in the yards of gentiles as stepping stones, paths and walkways. The chief of police had one of the headstones as a step to his front door.
Lt. Romek, a Jew, was a true hero who had, early in the war, joined the Polish Labor Party Underground. This was an organization that accepted Jews into their ranks, and Romek served his time by blowing up German trains. When the Russians reorganized the Pinczow Police Department, Romek was given his job and his rank. One of the things he did was recruit young men to serve as policemen, and that is why he knocked at our door.
“The mayor has directed me to post a guard at your door,” he said, “but you would be even safer if you became policemen. As a member of the Pinczow Police Department, you would be authorized to carry weapons. You would be much more able to defend yourselves, if that need should arise.”
Mordechai and Radzinsky declined the offer. They said they would rather run the bakery, and they would take their chances with the Poles, who still hated Jews.
I, on the other hand, had no vocation. As a policeman I would be well armed. I would be carrying a rifle or a machine gun, and even a few hand grenades. I was interested, and filled out the application handed to me by Lt. Romek. I was only eighteen years old, and the minimum age was twenty-one, but Romek said he would overlook my age, and that I shouldn’t mention it to anyone else.
“Here is your Labor Party introduction booklet,” said Romek the very next day. “You should read it carefully. Here is your machine gun,” he added, handing me a loaded German weapon. “You are to report for weapons training an hour every day until you become proficient.”
After my training, during which time I became very good with the machine gun, I was assigned to guard the police station as my first job. I was to be on guard for three hours during each day and three every night, plus a few hours walking the streets of Pinczow. Armed, and with a license to kill, I was now guarding the very people who only a short time ago were trying to kill me. But I was free.
I was also alone, and the elation and hopefulness clouded the freedom. My family was gone, and although I still had Mordechai as a friend and protector, I had lost so much. Life, I realized, took some very strange turns.
I had idea of what was to come during my guard duty at the Police Department. The war was over, but it never really ended for the Jews. On the other hand, rather than hiding from potential killers, I soon found my skill with the machine gun to come in very handy. And although I enjoyed working with Lt. Romek, I had no idea of the tragic future this Jewish hero was to face.
No, the war was not over.
With my weapons securely at my side and my confidence in my ability to guard the police station high, I decided during some off-duty time to visit Bosko. I wanted to locate any remaining members of my family. Before the war, when I visited there, I was well on the way to learning the skills of tailoring, and had that career before me. My uncle, a skilled tailor, had been teaching me. Were any of them still alive?
Meanwhile, Radzinky’s house had become the main gathering place for Jewish survivors. In only a few days four people, survivors from other villages who had heard about us, asked us if they could stay with us. They were two brothers and two sisters. At about the same time, two other sisters, survivors of concentration camps, asked if they could stay. They had come to Pinczow to find relatives. We said yes, of course, especially since one of the girls was a cousin to Mordechai. They had no idea at the time that eventually she would become Mordechai’s wife.
Then along came a very nice gentile man with a Jewish friend who was looking for a place to stay. The Jew, in hiding of course, had been staying with his gentile friend, and the time had come for him to move on. The gentile had been a baker, and since he hadn’t done any baking during the war, he had hidden his Jewish friend in the oven.
The macabre meaning of this escaped us at the time, and in any case the man was made welcome in our growing community.
I could find not a trace of my relatives in Bosco. I even went to the Red Cross, who had a registry of displaced persons, but my relatives were not listed. Then I happened to meet a Jewish lady who had known my aunt before the war, a lady who was in Auschwitz when my grandmother and my aunt and her baby arrived there. She saw them, and talked to them.
“The Nazis separated them, sending your aunt to one line, and your grandmother and the baby to another line. But your aunt loudly protested, screaming that she would not give up her baby.” The lady continued the sad story. “So finally the Germans allowed her to join your grandmother, and to take her baby back into her arms. Before the day was over, all three were in the line to the gas chambers, and all three had been cremated. I am very sorry.”
The feelings that I had started to enjoy, the feelings of freedom and safety and the ability to make my own decisions, suddenly faded away. I thought of my poor aunt and her tiny baby, and my dear old grandmother, whom I had loved. Once again I started to feel hatred, and to feel alone.
I had tried, and the effort in Bosco, a city I earlier remembered with fondness, brought only sadness. I returned to Pinczow knowing that I would probably never visit Bosco again.
The two sisters, both of whom had been cramped into a concentration camp for years, were suffering from claustrophobia at Radzinsky’s house. I, myself, was thinking about finding better quarters. I still hadn’t made up my mind what I wanted to do in the long term, but I had my job with the Pinczow Police Department, it was going well, and I was settling back into a life of freedom. I did my nighttime guard duty at the station house, and I patrolled the streets during that part of my daily duty, always with a weapon at my side and always watchful.
One day while walking my beat in Pinczow I walked past my uncle’s old house, the shoemaker brother of my father. The house had been confiscated by a local gentile, a sausage maker. He lived in the house and had turned my uncle’s old shoe store next door into a delicatessen. He saw me walking by outside, and recognized me. He came out to talk, although it seemed to me not very willingly or pleasantly.
“I didn’t know you were still alive,” he said. “You are the lucky one. Everyone else died.” I couldn’t be sure if he was happy with this, or not happy.
“No,” I replied. “They did not all die. Some of them are coming back soon.” I knew this was not true. I knew they would never come home, that they were all dead. I knew that he had simply taken over an empty Jewish house, and I knew it had happened to dozens of other Jewish family houses in Pinczow.
Two days later, I walked by again. The house was empty. The sausage store was empty. The gentiles had all simply moved away. I went inside. There was nothing, no furniture, no shelves, nothing. To this day I do not know if the man did this on his own because of what I said about the Jews returning to claim their homes, or if he was instructed by the local mayor, or the Russian embassy, to move out. I only know that in two days he was gone. I moved in, and installed locks on the doors.
The two sisters also moved in, knowing they would have a little more space. I began by building beds in two of the rooms so we would have a place to sleep.
Between those at Randzinsky’s house, and the three of us at my house, we were about fifteen strong. Before the war, there were nearly four thousand Jews in Pinczow. There were four Temples, one very large and very beautiful built by King Kazimesh Wielky. Only the large one still stood, and it was battered and beaten, a shell of a building.
Fifteen of us had survived the war, and a few of the fifteen were not even originally from Pinczow.
One of my deep feelings at that time was to help other returning Jews, people who had survived the horror and returned to Pinczow. The coffee factory owner had never left, even though he was Jewish. His product was needed, I suppose. Another man returned after escaping from a death train by jumping out a window. His wife, probably because of their baby, was afraid to jump, and he never saw them again.
Being a policeman in the Pinczow Police Department was not perfect. There was still rampant anti-Semitism in Pinczow, and in the mostly gentile police department. Many of my fellow officers hated the fact that I, a Jew, was in their ranks. Once, during an inspection, I offered my cleaned and polished machine gun to the sergeant. He found a smudge of dirt.
He struck me in the face, and both he and I knew that he would never have done that to a gentile officer.
Only a few days after that, an off-duty policeman who thought he knew where I lived came to Radzinsky’s house and threw a hand grenade through a window. A second grenade fell from his grasp before he could toss it in, and exploded between his legs. One of his legs was blown off, the other was so severely damaged that it had to be amputated.
Inside the house where the first grenade exploded there were injuries. Two women had shrapnel wounds, but they survived.
The off-duty policeman, who I felt should have been hanged for his act, was never prosecuted. When I complained to Lt. Romek about this, he agreed with me but said the courts would never sentence the man to death for doing what he did. “It is enough,” said Romek, “that he will be a cripple who must spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”
Perhaps Romek was right.
But a plan that had been deeply hidden in my mind and heart came out. “Are you not afraid?” I asked Romek. “You are a Jew. Perhaps we should think about moving to Israel.”
“Israel is not even a country,” he said. “The British wouldn’t allow us in anyhow. No, as long as I have my gun, I’ll be safe.”
Just as things seemed to be calming down and we were all falling into a routine of eating and sleeping and doing our work, politics entered the picture. Poland had been occupied by Russia, leaving the country with no real government of its own. Various underground factions were fighting each other to become the one single leadership group. The problem for us was that the local police departments were the only real sign of law and order, and so we were at constant risk of being swallowed up by one of these groups. The one who could take over the local police department would be the one who was the government in that city. I had become good friends with a fellow officer. We even became a team on the Russian machine gun I always carried. He would feed the ammunition belt in, and I would aim and fire. We became very, very good shots.
Meanwhile, Mordechai was falling in love with Rachel, one of the girls who had moved in with them at Radzinsky’s house.
Then along came Polish Independence Day, May 3, 1945 All hell broke loose in Pinczow.
It began at about two in the morning. A train pulled into the station across the street from the police department while I was on duty with my friend. We were watching when suddenly a large group of right-wing extremists, all heavily armed, jumped off the train and charged across the street, firing their weapons at the police building. We were stunned at first, but I recovered.
I grabbed our machine gun. “Take as many ammunition cans as you can carry and follow me!” I shouted to my friend. Then I hurried to the roof of the building. “Over here!” I ordered, “Bring the ammo over here.” I looked out over the edge of the roof and saw the intruders moving toward the front door of the building. Slinging the muzzle over the edge, I began to fire down into their group. Immediately those still standing fell back in fear and panic. They weren’t expecting armed resistance. I continued to fire as they sought cover around the train station across the street.
They fired back at random, but with no accuracy, and every time I would see the flash of a rifle, I would aim my machine gun and fire at that spot.
The gun battle went on until the early morning hours but as the sun began to rise, I could see that we were about out of ammunition. The firing from across the street had trailed off to nothing, and my friend seemed to have nodded off to sleep beside me. I was exhausted as well, and rested my head on my gun to nap. Finally, with the coming of dawn, I looked down.
“I think they’re gone,” I said to my friend. nudging him to awaken him.
He gently rolled over and fell to the roof and only then did I see that he was dead, with two bullet holes in his head. Soon after the Polish army arrived to reinforce us, an arrangement of the Russians.
But the underground had left and the battle was over. Saving the Pinczow Police Department, however, made one thought very clear in my mind. I had nearly died saving the very people who had persecuted my friends, and me and who were responsible for the death of my family and many of my other friends. This did not seem right to me, so I listed carefully to Mordechai. He had heard the gunfire go on for hours, and was very worried about me. When I got home he gave me a great hug, then sat me down and spoke firmly to me.
“David, you survived the war, but you could have been killed tonight. I told your father I would look after you, but we are no longer safe here in Pinczow. You are not going back to the police department,” he said loudly. Then he took some train tickets out of his pocket. “We are going to Germany. Rachel is going with us. We’ll be married by the Rabbi in Sosnoviec on the way, where she has a good friend who will help with the marriage, then we’ll go on. I already have arranged for the Rabbi. Everything is all set up. It’ll be a wonderful trip,” he said with great enthusiasm, “and we’ll be much safer in Germany.”
Germany? It was probably the last place I thought I would be safe, and I said so to Mordechai.
“No, you don’t understand. First, the city we are going to go to is swarming with American and Russian soldiers. More important, there are no Poles there who know us to be Jews. We will be much safer there, than here.” We were no longer required, of course, to wear a star on our arm.
I knew that being a policeman in Pinczow was not what I wanted to do with my life, and Mordechai had always been my friend and the one who guided me. I nodded in agreement with his plan. “I’ll go down to the police department and tell them I’m leaving,” I said.
“No, you must not do that,” Mordechai argued. “They will not permit you to leave. We must just go and get on the train.”
“But I have a contractual obligation to them,” I said.
“And after tonight, when you were nearly killed, that contract is void,” said Mordechai. “Now let’s get collected and go. Just go.”
Since Radzinsky could not be persuaded to leave, we gathered up our meager possessions and walked to the train station. There the stationmaster told us the train to Germany was to arrive in about ninety minutes, too long for us to just sit in the station waiting to be seen by a police officer.
“They will take you back,” Mordechai warned, and Rachel agreed with him, of course.
So we went into a nearby cornfield to hide until the train arrived. Yes, it seemed almost like the war was still on, and we were going out into the forest to dig a hole and crawl in. I felt a chill run through me as we ducked down in the corn to stay out of sight. The war, after all, was over. Why were we hiding? Because we were Jews, of course. Because the police would not permit us to leave. I don’t know why, since they didn’t really want me anyhow, but it was true. If they had seen the three of us waiting in the station for the train to Germany, they would have interfered.
Finally, from out in the cornfield, we heard the sound of the approaching train. We waited until it stopped in the station, it’s engine puffing and steam wafting about. The timing had to be just right. The conductor was just ready to shut the door when we came out of the field, crossed the track, and stepped onto the train. The conductor didn’t care. He waved us to a chair car.
Our plan had worked perfectly. We were all relieved and happy, and Mordechai and Rachel held hands and smiled at each other as the train pulled out of the Pinczow station. It was the last time I would ever see my hometown again. Nor do I really care, although to this day I miss my wonderful, loving parents, my good sisters, and my little brother.
In Sosnoviec Mordechai married Rachel, a small party was held for the newlyweds, we stayed overnight at the friend’s house, and the next morning we got on the next train bound for Glivice, Germany, our ultimate destination.
The city was filled with Russian soldiers, but they paid little attention to us. Mordechai soon found an empty house with furniture still in place and with clothing in the closets. On the walls were pictures of German officers. He and Rachel moved in.
They asked me to move in with them, but I didn’t want to interfere, so I found an empty apartment furnished with furniture and clothing and even cookware. The apartment was located with the help of a nearby resident, a Jewish man named Jacov. He was a concentration camp survivor, and we soon became good friends. Friends enough, in fact, to start a business. It was originally his idea.
“We can take the clothing and furniture from the empty houses, take a train to Poland, and sell the goods at swap meets. We can make a handsome profit,” said Jacov.
He was right. On our very first trip we quickly sold out. We bought food with our earnings, and we had, for the first time in a long time, money in our pockets.
The selling was easy. In fact, on our second trip with our collection of clothing and small furniture, we met a Russian soldier. He had a pair of fur coats hanging over his arm. He had seen a bottle of vodka I was carrying, and wanted to trade. We traded after I first took a small sip to prove to him that the bottle did not contain poison. I was glad it didn’t, because I didn’t really know.
The fur coats brought us another tidy profit.
On our third trip, a week later, we sold our goods and started home. Jacov wanted to stop in Sosnowiec to visit some friends, so we made an arrangement to meet at the train station later. While I waited, I saw a column of beaten German prisoners of war approaching. They were under heavy Russian army guard. Most of the prisoners had a vague stare in their eyes and all had shoulders slumped as they trudged along. Almost certainly they knew what their fate would be under the unforgiving Russians. If one stumbled, he was immediately pounced upon and hit with the butt of a rifle by one of the Russians, who seemed to hate them as much as the Poles had hated us. If the prisoner fell, the butt of the rifle would be slammed into his head. It was a solemn, sad procession, witnessed by hundreds of Poles along the sidewalk, most of who were cheering and jeering at the Germans.
Following the walking troops came a group of captured German army and SS officers. These prisoners were confined to small wire cages just large enough to allow them to kneel. The cages were grouped on the back of flatbed trucks and the trucks moved slowly, at the pace of the walking prisoners.
The men in these cages, a sad lot indeed, were the former swaggering, arrogant “supermen” of Adolph Hitler. These were the contemptuous men who only short weeks before seemed on top of the world. Men in shining boots who casually slapped their fine leather gloves against their breeches as they strutted about haphazardly deciding which Jewish men, women and children would be sent to the showers, and which would be permitted to live for awhile to work for them. These frightened, dejected, filthy men in wire cages had only to flick their glove one way or the other to send people to life, such as it was, or death.
These were the men, now dirty, unshaven and frightened, and in filthy cages, who joked and laughed about the Jewish babies they had snatched from the arms of mothers, then slammed their little heads against a hard stone wall as the soon to be burned mother screamed. The gore from these episodes never seemed to stain their immaculate uniforms, so practiced were they at their grisly fun.
These were the men who had murdered my family.
Now, at last, what were they? Cringing, beaten animals with well-stained, filthy uniforms, dirtied by their own waste, huddled and unable to stand in little wire cages, fear shining from eyes that once looked with disdain at mass murder. Some of them were crying, some were berating their former leader Hitler with loud curses in an effort, I suppose, to garner sympathy from the onlookers. The Poles on the sidewalk, men and women who once bowed down and fawned before these men, now jeered and spit and threw garbage, and worse, at them.
They shouted, “Where is the madman Hitler now, when you need him?”
How everything had changed from a few short weeks ago, when these men were gods, or thought themselves as such, and ruled with the club and the whip and the pistol.
I was overwhelmed with feelings as I watched this procession move slowly by. Without thinking, I began to shout even louder than the others. I shouted at them at the top of my lungs, I waved at them and laughed. I could only think of my poor loved ones now long buried and gone forever. I was out of my mind as I cursed them. I felt not an instant of pity as I emptied out all my hatred loudly and with great enthusiasm. I wished aloud that my murdered parents and family could be with me to see what I was seeing.
It was a mistake to speak my mind so loudly for the others around me, shocked at my outburst, were suddenly quiet. I was so loud, so vociferous in my feelings, that a Polish police officer placed me under arrest.
“Why am I being arrested,” I asked.
“You will be told at the police station,” was the only answer I could get. I was taken to the local station house, and once again I felt deep fear.
At the police station they ordered me to empty my pockets. I did so, and the tough-looking gentile cops snatched up the money I had earned at the swap meet and stuffed it in a bag along with my belt. I was certain it was gone forever, regardless of what they did with me. In fact, I really did figure they were going to kill me.
“Why am I being held?” I asked again.
“You were disturbing the peace,” one of the policemen snapped back.
“I was muttering to myself,” I protested, “and to my parents, as I watched the Nazis in cages. The Nazis killed my parents. I was talking to them.”
“You will be silent!”
They put me in a cell, slammed the door shut, locked it, and left me alone with my thoughts. Once again, in Poland as usual, I was locked in a small place I didn’t like. What was the difference between this and a hole in the ground? Not much, I admitted to myself. I was very frightened as my thoughts wandered to whatever future I might have, since there was little I could do about the present.
Mordechai had previously and very quickly shot down my suggestion of at least thinking about going to Israel. He said that the British would not permit it, and he was probably right. We both knew that in 1939 the British, unable to maintain peace, had issued a “white paper” that restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. They did this because of the bitter guerilla fighting between Jews and Arabs.
Israel, a homeland for Jews throughout the world, had been no more than a dream among Jews since 1917. Most Jews didn’t have strong feelings about where this home would be, and many began to think that a country in the vastness of Africa might be right. But Chaim Weizmann, scientist, statesman, and Zionist, persuaded the British government to issue a statement favoring the establishment of such a state, a national home for Jews, in Palestine. This statement, I knew from school, was called the “Balfour Declaration,” and was issued by the British in part payment to the Jews for their support of the British against the Turks during World War One. After the war, the League of Nations ratified the declaration and in 1922 they appointed Britain to rule Palestine, the future homeland of the world’s wandering Jews.
This was enough incentive for optimistic Jews from all over the world to begin to migrate to Palestine, certain in their own hearts that eventually, sooner or later, a Jewish homeland would be declared. Then along came Hitler, and Jews with foresight began to look at Palestine more closely. It is not easy to pick up and leave one’s own homeland to go to a strange place with no idea of how to survive. Still, German and Polish Jews began to flood to the Middle Eastern country. Many of them probably listened to the earlier predictions of Ze’ev Jabotinksy, as I had listened. Jabotinksy, on the balcony of our Temple in Pinczow when I was a child, had said, “Go there before it is too late, for very bad things are going to happen to Jews who remain here.”
But this increasing immigration of Jews became a greater and greater problem for the Arabs, who did not want their country overrun by immigrants. By 1936, the fighting that continues on today had broken out. The British, unhappy with the whole situation, felt that as the ones in charge they had to do something. So they closed the doors to Jews seeking a future homeland in Palestine.
As I sat frightened in my jail cell in Poland, I thought about these things. Mordechai was probably right. The British would never allow us entry to Palestine. We were, for the time being, stuck in Germany or, in my case at least for the moment, in Poland. I had no idea what they planned to do with me, but I was certainly very worried about it.
I do know that Jews throughout the world felt betrayed by the order the British issued that stopped further immigration. Jews felt betrayed by the British, and throughout the world they bitterly opposed the policy. They looked as one to the United States for help and support.
In the United States, at that time, they found President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who seemed to be sympathetic to the Jewish cause but who also assured the Arabs that the United States would not intervene in the matter without talking to both parties, Jews and Arabs. This caused a great deal of uncertainty around the world. Where did the United States, the most powerful country in the world, stand on the question of Jews entering and making a life in Palestine? Nobody really knew.
President Roosevelt died, and suddenly President Harry S. Truman was in charge. Truman was typically a man who spoke his mind and left no doubt where he stood. And in this matter, he stood squarely on the side of the Jews of the world. He said he agreed with former President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of “self determination.” As a result of the holocaust, by then known throughout the world, Truman felt the Jews did need a homeland. This he said even though the U.S. Departments of War and State, who knew the value of Arab oil and how it could be restricted, advised against any U.S. intervention on behalf of the Jews in Palestine.
So naturally a middle of the road was sought. The “Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry,” in April 1946, decided the best thing to do was to allow neither the Jews nor the Arabs to be in charge in Palestine. The committee decided that any attempt to establish a nation would result in further civil strife, and that the Jews and Arabs should instead try to “work together.”
Finally, and perhaps most important, since the other decisions were perhaps too soft and too optimistic, the committee recommended that full Jewish immigration should once again be allowed into Palestine. They also recommended that two autonomous states be established with a strong central government to control Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Negev, the southernmost section of Palestine.
I thought to myself about going to Israel as I sat there in my jail cell in Poland, more and more frightened about what might happen to me very soon. I also thought of my friend, traveling companion and business associate Jacov, who I knew by then would be worried about me. Why wasn’t I at the railroad station, as we had planned? Then my thoughts were interrupted by a noisy commotion from another room. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could hear voices.
Loud voices, shouting back and forth to each other.
“I demand to know why he is being held!” said one voice.
“For disturbing the peace,” another angry voice answered.
I didn’t know that Lt. Romek, from the Pinczow Police Department, had coincidentally stopped in town to visit a friend, and learned that I was also in town. He had been unable to find me, and had surmised that I had been arrested by the Polish police. I also didn’t know that he had a machine gun under his arm during the shouting. He had come to the station ready to fight.
“I fought you Nazi bastards for five years,” the loud voice said. “I fought in the underground. I will fight you again if I must.”
“Don’t you dare call me a Nazi,” the voice I learned later was the Chief of Police snapped.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” came Romek’s voice. “TEN MINUTES!” he repeated. “If he is not free, I will shoot every single one of you Nazis, then I will blow up the station. Then I will burn everything, including you!”
This I heard from my cell, though I didn’t know until later who was doing all the shouting.
Very soon the door opened and I was escorted into the office of the Chief of Police. The chief looked frightened. His hands were shaking, and he was perspiring. But he was also very angry. At first he drew back his fist to hit me, then he reconsidered.
“Do you have a brother?” he snapped.
“No,” I answered. I once had a brother, but he was dead.
“Well some crazy man with a machine gun threatened to kill us all if we didn’t release you. He said he would blow up my station. He called us all Nazis. We are not Nazis!” he shouted at me. He was fighting to control both his anger and his fear,
Rarely in those days did I get angry enough to shout, but anger boiled up inside me. I shouted into his face, “Then you are all Nazi sympathizers!”
He started to hit me again, but again, after a quick thought, he stopped. Instead, he threw me the bag with my belongings, shouting, “Get out! Get out of my station! I never want to see you again!”
I left the station quickly and went to the house of Jacov’s friend. There, I found Jacov, and there I learned the name of the one who had charged into the police station with a machine gun and probably saved my life. It was Jacov who had told Lt. Romek I was in town, after which he surmised that I had been arrested.
That evening, on the train back to Germany, I thought more about Israel. Britain, tired of the whole Palestine matter and anxious to just get out of the situation, turned to the United Nations in April, 1947. By that time Jewish-Arab communications had collapsed and terrorism had taken over. Britain formally requested that the UN General Assembly set up a Special Committee on Palestine. This committee recommended that the British mandate over Palestine be ended and that the territory be partitioned into two states. This pleased some Jews, but not all of them. The latter wanted control over all of Palestine, while the former realized that perhaps the time had come to accept something less in order to finally, at last, have a homeland.
Nor did all of the Arabs like the idea either. Palestine had always belonged to them. But when the United States weighed in on the side of partitioning the territory, it was only a matter of time. The plan was for the creation of a Jewish homeland and a Palestinian homeland. The 1947 UN Partition divided the area into three entities, a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international zone around Jerusalem. In May, 1948, the Provisional Government of Israel was formed; President Truman recognized it officially – angering many top-ranking officials in the United States.
Within two days, Arab armies invaded Israel.
That, I would eventually understand, is how the first Arab-Israel war began. There would be many more, and I, although that thought wasn’t even in my mind as I sat in the train on the way back to Germany. Nor was it in my mind that I would lead Israeli troops to victory in one battle in one of the many wars.
More immediately, it was not in my mind that I would have further dealings with the Polish police, but that was to be. On our very next trip to Poland, after a big party in Germany to celebrate my release from jail, Jacov and I found a one of the largest swap meets we had yet seen. Before noon we sold all of the items of clothing and furniture we had scrounged from empty homes in Germany. As we usually did, we bought some food and other supplies and boarded the train for home. We had the supplies in our luggage, and extra money our pocket, and were singing rousing Polish songs with other passengers when the train came to a halt.
Three tough-looking policemen dressed in dark olive green and black uniforms boarded the cars and began to walk down the aisles looking at the passengers. They did not ask for identification, nor did they look into any of the luggage. I was certain they were looking for Jews, survivors trying to make a new life, but they didn’t say. They just moved slowly down the aisle, looking at each passenger very carefully. They looked evil in the dark uniforms and with the weapons they were carrying as they moved slowly toward us. I could tell they enjoyed looking very evil. They were almost like actors on a stage; sure of themselves, confident in what they were doing. Their eyes were cruel. They said not a word, but they knew that every passenger was frightened, and they were enjoying that. Almost immediately I realized how much they reminded me of Nazis.
They stopped at the seat of Jacov and myself. I had blonde hair and blue eyes. They hardly glanced at me. But they looked at him very carefully.
“Stand up,” they ordered.
“You will come with us,” they said, taking his arm.
“Why? What have I done?” Jacov protested.
“You will come with us. You will be told why later.”
It was exactly what a different policeman, but still a Polish cop, had said to me only a week or two before. Just as the three sinister policemen were leading Jacov off the train, he signaled to me with a downward look of his eyes. “Take over my luggage,” he was saying. They left the train, and then two of them re-boarded it moments later, without Jacov. I knew better than to question. The two continued their walk down the aisle of the car, then got off the other end. I guessed that the third one was holding Jacov outside the train. The train, which had been stopped for about thirty minutes, moved on.
When it arrived in Sosvonice, one of the larger towns in Poland, I grabbed the luggage and got off. I found the Jewish community and told them what had happened, and that I was very concerned about Jacov. Immediately they started calling other cities in Poland to track him down.
I returned to the railroad station and got on the next train to Germany. When I got home, I did the same thing. I went to the Jewish community and told them what happened.
By noon on the same day, Jacov walked in smiling.
“What happened?” I asked him. “What did they do to you?” I told him how worried I was, and what I had done.
“I was also very worried,” he admitted. “As they were leading me to the police department, I saw a group of Russian officers and soldiers.” Jacov was obviously enjoying the story. “So I began to shout and scream. ‘You Nazi murderers!’ I yelled. ‘You killed a lot of people, and now you want to kill me!’ I said. ‘I was in a concentration camp for five years and I barely survived. Now you want to kill me!’ I shouted,” said my friend Jacov.
“Immediately the Russian officers and soldiers came over to see what the shouting was about,” said Jacov.
“‘What is going on?’ asked the Russian officer. Among the officers was a Russian captain who was a Jew,” said Jacov. “He seemed especially interested in what the police were doing to me, and why they had arrested me, and where they were taking me. The police, meanwhile, had suddenly lost their air of authority. From three bullies they had turned into three very frightened Polish cops.”
Jacov concluded his story by telling me that the Russians arrested the three Polish policemen. “They said ‘We will take care of them. You may go on about your business.’”
“So I did. I came home,” said Jacov with a grin. “And now I am here.”
However, Jacov and I decided that in spite of how great business had been in Poland, we would not go back there again. If the Russians had not been there, Jacov would not have returned. We knew that. So we closed our Polish business and looked for other means of support.
We were both thinking very seriously of Israel. It seemed to us that the time for decision had arrived.
It is said that in life there are many coincidences over which you have no real control, or even knowledge that you are at a “turning point” in your life. You turn right instead of left, you go through this door instead of that door, and you live or die, or become rich or poor, or meet your life’s mate, or never meet him or her. You never know, unfortunately, when these otherwise insignificant actions are taken. If you did, you would have complete control over your life, but instead we all just go forward as best we can. I had been very, very lucky so far, avoiding death and continuing to survive. I had without even knowing it taken the turns that were best for David Zaid.
The two men most responsible for my years in holes in the forest in Poland and the cold murder of my family were dead. Hitler, the hypnotic little speaker with the amusing mustache and the dynamic gestures, the man who could control a massive crowd with his speeches, had shot himself rather than face his crimes. Himmler, another strange little man of two faces, either shy or tyrannical, took cyanide rather than to face his crimes. The latter one, the son of a devout Catholic Bavarian teacher, became one of the most noted mass murderers in the history of the world. He was a man who became ill at the first execution by firing squad he himself had ordered, and who then quickly turned to gas as a death instrument. Always devastated that he was too young for World War One, he imagined himself in the uniform of a naval officer. The uniform he finally and proudly wore was black, with a death’s head insignia. He ended his life as a traitor to his leader, Adolph Hitler, and a deserter to his men.
The Third Reich was dead; the regime that thought it could rule the world. And it would be a world free of Jews, its leaders thought. The last and final crime of this despicable regime was against its own people. Old men and children were ordered to fight to the death the final battles on the outskirts of Berlin against a vastly superior combined American and Russian force with modern war machines. They were to die protecting their leaders who were at the time cringing in a deeply buried, reinforced bunker in central Berlin. The formerly protected super-race children with blonde hair, guarded and guided during the early stages of the terrible war, children who were to become the future leaders of the new world, were shoved onto the front lines and died by the thousands. This was the final crime of the Third Reich.
What we had always suspected, and what we finally now know, is that the Vatican in Rome was at that moment, while I was dreaming of a home in Israel, helping dozens and dozens of top ranking German SS officers to escape to South America. These were Catholic men, some practicing and some not, but men who were in charge of the merciless execution of millions of Jews. These were men, and some women, who were being sought by the Allied tribunals for trial and punishment, but who were spirited away with falsified papers and travel money by sympathetic Vatican high priests who “forgave” them of their sins and helped them to a new life.
Some of these criminals were later discovered by tenacious and persevering Jewish holocaust hunters known as “Nokmin,” or “The Avengers,” and brought back for punishment. Most of the hunters had lost loved ones to the Nazi’s, and were diligent in their job.
One real prize captured by Nokmin was Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an SS Lieutenant Colonel and Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo during the war, implemented the “final solution” which aimed at the total extermination of European Jewry. Eichmann was specifically responsible for the design of death camps and gassing techniques. A beaten, frightened man at the end who insisted in court that he was only “following orders,” Eichmann was tried by the State of Israel, convicted, and hanged in Israel for his horrible crimes against the Jewish people.
But some others may still be alive today in South America as I write this book, including the sadistic concentration camp doctor Joseph Mengele. Jewish agents almost captured him once, but they missed. Some bones were discovered many years later and said to be from a man who drowned and who could have been Mengele. This cruel man’s name will come up later, for he almost killed my dear wife, Miriam, who faced him eye to eye in a concentration camp as he was “selecting” women upon whom to conduct his evil experiments. I have always been very thankful that Mengele was distracted by some SS officers, and finally moved away from my beloved Miriam or her younger sister.
Meanwhile, another very important coincidence was nearing in my own young life.
Back in Germany and with a vow never to return to Poland again, I read in the local newspaper that a Lt. Romek, a policeman in the Pinczow, Poland, Police Department, was missing without a trace. He had apparently just disappeared. Nobody knew where he was. I was concerned, in fact very suspicious, since it was Lt. Romek who had saved me from probable death by threatening to kill every policeman in the building with his machine gun, and to then burn to down their station. I owed him my life, and certainly my freedom. He had been a good strong friend when I needed a good strong friend. Yes, I was worried about him.
My concerns were answered in another newspaper, almost two weeks later. Lt. Romek had been found. That is, his body had been found. In pieces. The brave Lieutenant of police had been murdered, and then his body had been cut into parts. His body parts were found in a burlap bag near a deserted water mill. The Poles had killed yet another Jew, and almost certainly there would be no investigation and, of course, no prosecution.
I wish he had listened to me when I told him that he was not safe in Poland, and that sooner or later, even though he felt his guns would protect him, the Poles would get him. As strong as he was, they finally did.
A “kibbutz” is a community, often a rural community; a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice, a socioeconomic system based upon the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education. In fact, the word kibbutz is a Hebrew word meaning “communal settlement.”
Kibbutzim, the plural of kibbutz, were organized long before Israel became a state. They were founded by Jewish pioneers who came from Eastern Europe to reclaim the Palestinian soil of their ancient homeland. These brave settlers were faced with many obstacles as they tried to put together a society of Jews in Palestine. The environment was hostile, they had little experience with physical labor and a lack of knowledge about agriculture, and they were settling a land that had been desolate for centuries. There was always a shortage of water, and a shortage of funds. But they came together in kibbutzim and struggled to create societies that eventually became thriving communities. These communities, in fact, became important many years later in the establishment of the State of Israel.
As for the coincidence, Jacov and I were just walking down the street when we met two Jewish boys about our age. We began to talk and I learned that they belonged to a kibbutz in the city, a group of Jews who were organized with the idea of going to Israel when that move became a possibility. They were living in an office building, and had a Hebrew and Jewish history teacher among them. There were eighteen of them in all, about half boys and half girls. They seemed very happy with their group as they made their plans to go to Palestine, since it had not yet become Israel and was still under the direct command of the British.
They said they had one room for two left, and that would be perfect for us. They asked us to join them, and we did.
A kibbutz functions as a democracy. The group elects officers, formulates policy, authorizes the kibbutz budget and approves new members. The group is the decision making body as well as a forum where individual members get the chance to express their views and opinions. Day to day operations are handled by committees elected by the group. These committees are formed to deal with such matters as housing, finance, planning, health and culture, among whatever else is important to that group. A secretary, who is the main leader of the group, leads an executive committee often made up of two or three other fulltime members.
It was the driving force in this kibbutz to eventually go to Israel and establish a community there.
The kibbutzim of today, in Israel, are the result of three generations of Jews working together in a unique communal society. Yes, some in Israel fear that the kibbutz is abandoning many of the principles that made them strong, while others believe that the ability to compromise in a changing society is the very key to the survival of kibbutzim.
The more I considered the local kibbutz I had been invited to join, the more I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was finished with Poland, and finished with Germany, and finished with constantly facing anti-Semitism. I wanted to be in a land where Jews could function without worry about outside forces, and without worry about someone casually taking their life, as happened to Lt. Romek, solely because they were a Jew. I understood that the British still managed the Palestinian State, and had forbidden the immigration of Jews. But the world was constantly changing, and there was always hope, especially with the strong position taken by the United States with regard to the Jews having a homeland of their own. The British edict could be withdrawn, and Jews could once again go to their ancient homeland in peace.
That was the hope that sustained us.
Meanwhile, Jacov and I found a home in the kibbutz. We made friends very quickly and became a part of the life of the group. We felt as though we were at home. The Red Cross supplemented food at the kibbutz, and we never started a meal without singing traditional Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Work was handed out according to those who could best handle the task. When I told Mordechai and Rachel of my decision to join the kibbutz, they wished me well.
“Good Luck. And please keep in touch with us,” said Mordechai, “for I take my promise to your father about taking care of you very seriously. And if you are ever hungry, come to our home for dinner.”
One of my first and best friends was a young woman who, like myself, looked more German than Jew. Her kibbutz name was “Shiksa,” and mine soon became “Shagitz.” Shiksa was from a small town in Poland, and had been saved by a Catholic priest who hid her in his church during the occupation. We did have a great deal in common, and I even found myself thinking that she might eventually become my life’s mate.
When Jacov and I, and the others, were not working, the men often joined in a rousing soccer game. This brought about a strange thing. Young men were very scarce in Germany at that time and young German women from Glivice were just naturally drawn to a field full of healthy, laughing and shouting young men regardless of their religion. So we played and young German women cheered and it was wonderful.
I felt at home, but I still dreamed of eventually going to Israel.
During the winter of 1945 the kibbutz finally received travel papers from the Red Cross. We were warned that the journey to the Holy Land would be long and difficult, and that even then we would not know what was going to happen when we reached our Promised Land. We were told that we would be traveling as Greek Jews, not Polish or German Jews, and thus we should not talk except to use the few Greek expressions that we would have to memorize. We were even instructed to wear berets in the Greek tradition.
But we desperately wanted to go to Israel, to go to our ancient homeland, to be in a place where there was no anti-Semitism, where everybody was a Jew. A place we could call our own, a place we could defend from enemies. We were tired of relying on others. We wanted to take command of our own lives in our own country. No matter how difficult the journey, we wanted to get started as soon as possible.
I can remember to this day the sickening smell of spoiled baby food, although it does not bring back bad memories. Here’s what happened. One of the women in the kibbutz approached me the night before we were to leave. She had a heavy bag, and she asked me to help her carry it during our journey.
“I will pay you five thousand Marks if you will help me get the bag through,” she promised.
When I asked her where she would ever get five thousand Marks, she showed me what was in the bag. It was filled with many thousands of Marks. But to show me the money, she had to move aside a layer of baby food that was quite obviously very rotten. She was concerned that if she had to open the bag at one of the many checkpoints we were certain to face, the money would be confiscated by guards who would then share it among themselves. She figured that the smell of the rotten food would discourage any guard from digging into the bag.
I knew that I would not see five thousand Marks for a long time to come, so I agreed to help her carry the bag of money.
Our journey to Fohrenwald, Germany, where we were to spend some time in a displaced persons camp, was, indeed, arduous. On the very first leg of the trek, on a train, we had to go back to Poland. That was a frightening thought, to once again face the anti-Semitic Poles, but it was decided for whatever the reason that it would be easier for us to get to the American side of Germany through Poland rather than through Russian dominated East Berlin. So our route would take us to Poland, then to Czechoslovakia, and then to West Germany. We were all traveling in fear as our train entered Poland, but there was no trouble. Only when we stopped at the Czech border did we face our first obstacle.
“Open the bag!” snapped the border guard. He was speaking of the heavy bag full of thousands of Marks that I was helping the woman carry. There was little I could do but open it.
“My God!” uttered the guard as he stepped back. By then the stink of the rotten baby food was overwhelming. His eyes were watering, and so were mine. He had no desire to go further with his search. “Close it immediately!” he ordered. I did so with great relief, and as they moved on I could hear the guards making fun of Greeks who would feed such rotten food to their babies.
We went on to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where three Jewish men met us, walked us to a building, and offered us sandwiches and tea. The building had been damaged during the war but it had a roof and we stayed overnight in comfort. In the morning we boarded a bus and were moved to a camp of empty barracks that had been converted to rooms for four. There we remained, waiting for more Jews who were due to arrive from Rumania.
The wait was not unpleasant, but then buses came and we were moved to a small village named Ash, on the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia. When we jumped off the bus, we were told that we were to hike through the mountains, carrying our possessions, to a German town on the “American side” called Hoff. It was necessary to take this circuitous
route since Hoff was under the direct rule of the American army, and the only way we could eventually hope to immigrate to Israel. The walk through the nighttime mountains was also not unpleasant, at least for the younger, healthier travelers like myself. All any of us knew, since we were being directed and guided by Jewish experts who knew about such things, was that with each move, we were getting closer to our dream. From the little town of Hoff we boarded a train to Munich, then the next morning busses moved us to Fohrenwald, Germany, a suburb of Wolfrathusen.
During the war, this town had been used by German scientists to continue to develop sophisticated weapons of war for the Nazis. We were shown to long rows of empty apartments once used by the scientists and their families while they conducted their work. The entire complex had become a United Nations Displaced Persons Camp, a “DP Camp,” and although we had no idea how long we would be there, we were fed three meals a day and offered schooling in anything from Hebrew to Physics. There was an auditorium for shows and where we could have parties and dance, and except for the fact that I was relieved of most of the five thousand marks the lady had given me for carrying her bag, life was good.
I said “almost” all, not all.
Shortly after we arrived, the leader of our kibbutz informed me that my reward had to be turned over to the treasury of our group and I knew that this was how kibbutzim operated. The group operated on a “one for all and all for one” principle, so I agreed to turn over the money. Our leader did, however, permit me to keep a little of the money, and he also told me that I should go out and buy something for myself rather than keeping the cash. So I did. I went into Walfrathusen where I found a beautiful gold watch to buy. I had for a long time missed the watch I gave to farmer Pilarski in the cold winter forest of Poland for safekeeping, and I wanted another. The one I purchased was a gold watch studded with diamonds, a beautiful item to see, and I loved it. I also bought some snow skis, and a motorcycle once owned by the son of the man who sold it to me. The younger man had been killed in the war.
Unfortunately, I had fallen into a habit of removing my watch at night and placing it on the night table by my bed. One morning I awakened to find the watch gone. None of my kibbutz roommates would admit to the theft, but it did color my opinion on kibbutzim in general, and when a young man named Jakob Biskuvicz came along and tried to convince me to leave the kibbutz, I listened. He told me I had a right to be angry about the theft, and furthermore, that I didn’t need to be a member of a kibbutz to get to Israel. Not only did Jakob offer me friendship, but also he suggested we move into a condominium together and plan our own trip to the homeland.
“You do not need the kibbutz to make it to Israel,” Jakob insisted. “And you have been treated poorly by them.”
“But I need to be a part of the group,” I argued.
“No,” insisted Jakob. “And I can also get you into the Displaced Persons Police Department,” he said. He was, I knew, himself a member of the DP Police Department, and he convinced me to join him.
“Besides,” he added, “being a member of the department will enhance your position in the camp and much improve your standard of living.” Eventually, Jakob and I became best friends and as I write this book he is still a policeman in Israel. It was some time before I learned that Jakob was one of the handful of Jews who had escaped during the famous breakout from the death camp, Sobibor.
Also joining us in our condominium apartment was Mair Ravevet, a Jew who had also been a member of, and left, a kibbutz. He had left his group because his eventual plan was to go to America, and they did not support that. But Mair had an uncle in New York who owned a shoe store, so his plan seemed logical to the rest of us. I even signed up with the United Nations to go to the United States with Mair, certain in my own mind that I would go to the first of the two countries, Palestine or the United States, that offered us asylum. We were able at the camp to visit the tables manned by immigration officials from various countries, to talk to them, to learn of the waiting period, often at least two years. We learned from the American table that without relatives already in America to sponsor us, we had almost no chance for at least the full two years waiting. This I could not accept. I knew I would not stay in the DP camp for two more years. Especially when I learned from a spokesman for Beitar, a right wing Jewish group created to move as many Jews as possible to Israel, that we did qualify. Even though I believed only part of what they said, I signed with them as well.
I just wanted to get on with my life.
My job with the police was to roam the streets of the settlement to watch for problems, and also to maintain order at the food depot, which sometimes could get out of hand as people shoved and pushed at each other to be near the front of the line. I did not get paid in money, unfortunately, but in support packages consisting generally of sardines, clothing, cigarettes and chocolate. Gradually the apartments filled with more and more Jews seeking a homeland in Palestine, or, as in the case of Mair, elsewhere.
Young men usually think of young women at least a thousand times every day, and we were no exception. And girls were no problem. Mair and I had agreed to go into business together, to try to earn some money, and the first thing that came to our minds was to go into the city and acquire merchandise that we could sell at the DP camp. So we jumped on the motorcycle to go into town, to see what was available, and before we began we stopped at a bar for a beer. Almost immediately we were accosted by dozens of German girls hungry for the companionship of men.
“What do you want with us,” I asked. “We are Jews.”
“We don’t care,” they screamed almost as one. “We’ll even become Jewish,” some of them said. When we told them we lived at the DP camp, they said they didn’t care. It was as though they were sharks circling food, and we were the food. We finally left and soon after that we learned that most of the German merchants in town wanted their money up front. Can’t blame them for that, right? We would probably have done the same. But finally one of them offered us three barrels of herring if we promised to return with a percentage of our sales. Mair had once said to us that he could sell anything.
“Can you sell herring?” I asked him.
“Of course I can sell herring, or any other kind of fish,” he insisted, “just as long as they are smoked.
Here is how it worked out, in a roundabout way. I knew a German in town who was desperate for cigarettes. I had a pack of American Camel cigarettes I had received as part payment for my police work, and he wanted the pack very badly. He exchanged his ring for the cigarettes. A Jewish man skilled at jewelry offered me fifteen hundred marks for the ring, and I used the marks to pay a German fish smoker in town to smoke the herring.
Mair then very quickly sold the smoked herring, and we had a wonderful time in Wolfrathusen spending the profits.
One day in February, 1947, a man knocked on the door of our apartment. It was four in the morning. He was from a kibbutz in the neighborhood.
“We are leaving on a train in two hours for France. We will from there take a ship to Israel. If you wish to go with us, you are welcome, but you must decide right now,” he said.
The British, I knew, had closed Palestine, to all Jews. Still, this was my dream coming true. I wanted desperately to go. But Jakob, my best friend, had gone to visit an aunt in another German town.
The man at the door saw my hesitation. “You must come now. If you do not, you may not get another chance for at least a year.”
My best friend, or Israel. I didn’t know what to do.
“I will leave you to make your decision. You must join us within the hour if you wish to go,” the man said. Then he left.
“Can’t you please wait just a few more hours?” I asked him.
“No, we cannot. This is our chance,” he answered.
“Then…then I must say no,” I said sadly. “I cannot go without my friend.”
“That is your decision. Good luck,” he said. “If you change your mind, we are leaving in two hours, no more.” He then closed the door.
There will be other times, I told myself. Jakob was my friend. He would want me to go. Maybe he could even catch up with me in Israel, when he arrived there. I wanted to go. Oh, yes, I wanted to go very badly. But we had only about an hour left. Then, only one half-hour. I went back to bed.
And, amazingly, Jakob walked through the door.
In a few minutes we joined the group, and were soon on our way to Marseilles. At last, we were truly on our way to what we hoped would be our new homeland, Israel. We weren’t there yet, and the British still didn’t want us, but we were on the way and we looked forward to the future with great excitement and real joy. As thoughts of the Promised Land filled my mind and heart, memories of Hitler and Himmler and Eichmann and Polish Catholic farmers began to fade. They will never be truly gone, but our new land was all that I could think of, and dream about.
It is difficult to believe that a very famous, very honored Hollywood screenwriter of the day, Ben Hecht, would have any effect at all on the life of a young Jew trying to work his way to what would eventually become the State of Israel. Not only did Hecht have a profound effect, he was also responsible for some of the sickest, most miserable, but in the end, happiest days of my life. We also would never have believed that we were heading, not for the Promised Land, but for yet another concentration camp, this one managed by the British.
Ben Hecht, the famous playwright, had been an apolitical Jew, but he had finally become frustrated by the failure he perceived of the United States government, and of American Jews in general, to take a positive position on the fate of European Jewry. He finally spoke out with his best weapon, his talent as a writer of plays.
Still, Broadway in 1946 wasn’t that interested in Zionism. But on September 4, 1946, a play starring renowned actors Paul Muni and Celia Adler, and a young, relatively unknown actor by the name of Marlon Brando, opened on Broadway. Ben Hecht wrote the play. It was called “A Flag is Born.”
In fact, it was a blatantly propagandistic melodrama advocating for a Jewish homeland. Furthermore, the actors and others in the production worked without wages, or at minimum union wages. War journalist Quentin Reynolds served as the narrator of the play, and also donated his wages to the cause of a Jewish homeland.
It was also propaganda that moved audiences very deeply. The play moved them to tears, and drew a swell of American support to the cause of a Jewish homeland. It strongly indicted Anglo-American Jews, with lines from “David,” played by Brando, that said, “Where were you Jews…when the killing was going on? When the six million were burned and buried alive in lime, where were you? Where was your voice crying out against the slaughter? We didn’t hear any voice. There was no voice, you Jews of America. Where was your cry of rage? Nowhere! Because you were ashamed to cry as Jews! A curse on your silence! And now, you speak a little. Your hearts squeak – and you have a dollar for the Jews of Europe. Thank you. Thank you.” Brando would end his angry and then sarcastic lines with his head down in shame.
Each night, when Brando finished, the audience would be in tears.
It was hard theater, but it reached people, and raised, in the end, nearly one half million dollars for the American League for a Free Palestine.
What does all this have to do with me, David Zaid, and with the sickest days of my life?
Several hundred of us boarded trucks outside the condominium complex, and the trucks hauled us to the train station. After a quick medical checkup, we got on a train bound for Marseilles, France.
There we were greeted by smiling young Jews who had been waiting for us, men and women and children. They handed us baskets of fruit and sandwiches, and I looked into their eyes. They had no more than those in our own group, but they laughed and celebrated with us. They were also Jewish survivors, and they were waiting to go to Israel, where they knew they might even die in the defense of the beleaguered nation, but they were happy for us, the latest arrivals. We were all the future of Israel, we knew, and we accepted it.
“May God bless you and keep you safe,” they said to us as they handed us food. Then we boarded a bus to Grenoble, and after waiting two weeks in a fine luxury hotel, Jakob and I and all the others boarded a retired German WWII cargo ship that finally arrived in the harbor. The ship was crewed by Americans and a few French sailors, and had been outfitted as a banana boat in Norfolk, Virginia. At that time the old ship was known as the “Alriet.” Earlier, Prime Minister Ben Gurion had sent Shepard Broad to America assigned to get some ships ready to transport Jews from France to Israel. This ship, designed for a crew of about twelve, was being outfitted with racks deep down in the hold, ostensibly to hold bananas. But secretly the workers were making the racks into bunks for six hundred passengers, under the direction of Broad.
Food for the long trip to Palestine was also being loaded. It was to be, in the main, two tons of salami donated by a Jewish butcher in New York. He knew the passengers would want kosher food, even if it were salami alone. Later, during the voyage, the cook came up with a wide variety of salami dishes, including salami soup, salami roast, fried salami, salami and eggs, and other tasty dishes, and as long as it was kosher, most of the passengers enjoyed it. I, as you will read, did not, but that is another matter.
The vessel had been bought and paid for by Ben Hecht, from the proceeds from his Broadway play “A Flag is Born.” It had been commissioned specifically by Hecht to haul Jews to Palestine. So, Ben Hecht did have a very strong influence in my life.
However, less than a day into the voyage, the voyage we had waited for and prayed for and dreamed of for so long, I realized that I was not a sailor. Jakob and I had been near the front of the line, eager to board the rather rusty and rundown old cargo boat. We were young and enthusiastic, and we certainly didn’t want to be left behind. What we didn’t know was that the boat was to be filled from the bottom to the top, so we early boarders were sent below, far below. We were down where the air was rather stale, where never is sunshine seen, and where cargo might have been happy, but not young Jews unaccustomed to sea voyages in a rolling, bouncing boat.
Not long after we left the harbor at Marseilles I became desperately ill with seasickness. Oh, I was sick! You might say I was lucky that I didn’t have to endure nothing but salami for the next eight days, since I couldn’t eat at all, but even today the thought of salami makes my stomach churn. Above, in the meantime, other voyagers were eating salami for breakfast, and again for lunch, and again for dinner. And many of them were nearly as ill as myself, although I cannot imagine anyone else in the history of the world being quite as sick as I during that voyage. Once Jakob helped me stagger up to the top deck where the night air was fresh and clean. He was nearly in tears.
“You will die if you do not eat!” he said.
He had scavenged some of the finest food on the ship from the crew’s quarters, hoping that these gourmet items would whet my appetite, would tempt my palate.
“I cannot,” I groaned. “Thank you, Jakob, but I can eat nothing.”
Still, all of us tried to be as upbeat and happy as possible. Even in my hard bunk deep in the hold of the old ship, with my stomach rolling, I knew we were going home, at last. And on the eighth day of our voyage, the port of Haifa appeared on the distant horizon. I managed to forget my illness with the sight of land ahead. I laughed and rejoiced with the others. We could see our new homeland. The very sight off in the distance seemed to cure me, although it may have been the old seasickness relief formula known to any sailor of seeing a horizon filled with solid land.
We could almost feel the earth of Palestine beneath our feet, but then an armada of six British warships appeared, and surrounded us. This, I recognized, was not good. The panting and puffing old “Ben Hecht” glided to a stop in the ocean twelve miles offshore.
“Who are you?” came the call from the bullhorn on the nearest British warship. “Where are you headed?” We could see that we were flying no flag of identification on our mast.
“We are headed to Bolivia,” our captain answered, and we knew he was telling a lie.
“Why are you not flying a flag?” the British captain asked over the fifty yards of smooth water between us. But he didn’t really seem to care for an answer. Instead, the British aligned their ships between our ship and the Port of Haifa. This, however, was not meant to stop us and did open a passageway on to Bolivia, as though that was really our destination. We began to move forward very slowly, in the general direction of Haifa. Then we heard a loud and piercing siren coming from up on the bridge. The sound shrieked across the water and we had to hold our ears against the painful noise.
When the sound of the siren died, the British captain called across the water. “What is your problem, captain?”
“We have a serious problem with our main engine. We must put in at Haifa to get repairs,” our captain answered with his own bullhorn across the water. “Let us proceed, please.”
We all waited with baited breath for the outcome of this exchange, knowing that we were very close, but not yet home.
The answer came from the British captain soon enough. “We know who you are and where you want to go. Please, display your flag.”
Our hearts swelled with pride and joy when the American captain came out of the wheelhouse and attached and raised the blue flag of Israel on the mast. They knew who we were, we knew who we were, and we wanted the world to know who we were. Almost without notice, completely spontaneously, we all began to sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. We sang loudly, so the British could hear. For a few minutes after the singing, it was very quiet there on the high seas off Haifa. Then the captain of the British vessel close by us spoke over his bullhorn. His voice boomed across the water, clear in its clipped British accent.
“Don’t try to fight us, please. We are going to come aboard and take you over. We know who you are, and we will allow you entry into Israel when we decide. We are well armed. If you decide to fight us, you will be hurt.”
The small flagship of the small British fleet approached us until the two ships were almost touching. All the while they were announcing, “Do not try to fight. If you do, you will be killed!”
He need not have spoken. We grabbed whatever weapons were available. Some of us found sticks, others found bottles. One older man began to throw salami at the boarding British, causing one British sailor to fall into the ocean as others climbed over our rail. The British sailors, with machine guns ready, ducked and moved forward, very quickly subduing us. We were captured without much of a fight, since they had loaded machine guns, and we had sticks and bottles…and, of course, salami.
We were gathered together and then distributed among the several British warships standing by. On these ships, we were taken into the Port of Haifa. It was not the way we had planned to arrive in our homeland, but for the time we were at least walking on the soil of Israel.
Not for long.
The British de-loused us with an unpleasant, ill-smelling powder, then forced us back on their boats. Before we knew it we were at sea again for an all night voyage. In the morning we arrived at the port of Cyprus. We were again ordered off the boats, loaded onto British army trucks that were waiting with typical British efficiency, and taken to an encampment named “Camp 66,” or “Winter Camp.” Nearby were camps “64” and “65,” already filled with Jewish refugees from other boats that had tried to enter the Port of Haifa. Nearly all of the people in the camps were men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five and almost all of what was left of European Jewry.
Within the next few days, the British “captured” another old ship off Haifa with more Jews aboard. This boat, the “Theodore Herztel,” was loaded with survivors of concentration camps from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They were taken to another, nearby camp named “Camp 68,” where they organized into kibbutzim. Their camp was mainly made up of tents.
Our camp had metal barracks, an encircling fence and watch towers. By then it was the beginning of March, 1947. We weren’t very happy as we organized ourselves, but at least each of us had our own bed, with a mattress, and there were showers. The British guards were gentler than the Nazis, but they were still guards. We could not leave if we wanted to, so in that sense it was still a prison. We were only a few thousand yards from the Promised Land, but we hadn’t quite made it. In fact, it was almost as though we were once again in a German concentration camp.
Boredom was our major enemy, and we constantly looked for things to do at the British DP camp in Cyprus. I did several things at the beginning of our stay. In fact, I took on some very important things, such as my study of arts and crafts. OK, OK, but remember, we had very little to do. Perhaps a little more significant, I followed what had become a natural course for me and joined the camp police department, a group that quickly accepted me due to my previous experience. Somewhat more important, I also took up the study of mathematics and Hebrew.
Then, as a sideline, I went into business again. I have always believed that there is nothing like keeping busy to make time pass. We still had no idea how long we would be on Cyprus. Sooner or later we knew we would be allowed to cross the stretch of Mediterranean Sea between our island and the mainland, and enter Israel, but we didn’t know when.
What was to be the single most significant, most wonderful thing in my entire life was just ahead, but I didn’t know it. It was something that was to be a part of me forever. I had no idea, but I was about to take another turn, this time right or left or whatever. Had I not made that turn, my life would have been entirely different, certainly not nearly as warm and loving and satisfying as it finally became.
While the British cargo ship Theodore Hertzel was bringing in the residents of Camp 68, I was working with my friend, Jakob, on a brand new enterprise. The local store in our camp sold the usual merchandise; whiskey, candy, fruit, other items somewhat better than we were being given at the mess hall. But it took money to enjoy these “luxury” things, and we didn’t have any money. Meanwhile, the United Nations was providing us with warm jackets. First of all, we didn’t really need jackets in the middle of the desert, and second, our living space was very limited, with almost no closet space. Finally, most of us already had enough clothing to last until we could finally enter Palestine. Many of the jackets were simply thrown away, into the camp trash bins.
What Jakob and I realized was that the Turks really liked the UN jackets. So we waited around the trash areas until the British trucks came to unload. We then carried away as many of the jackets as we could handle, took them to our side of the fence, and handed them over to Turks who pushed money through the fence at us. Our business paid off very nicely for some time, and we were regular visitors to the camp store.
On the day that I made the fateful turn, I decided to visit the new arrivals at Camp 68. As a camp policeman, I had this right, and I thought it would be interesting to hear the stories of the Jews who had survived concentration camps during the war. They were exactly like us; they wanted to live in the Promised Land.
During this visit I met a beautiful young eighteen-year-old woman. Her name was Miriam. She was living with her two younger sisters in a left wing kibbutz in the camp, and I believe I fell in love with her at first sight. I didn’t give a thought to the possibility that I might not be welcome with my more right wing political views. I visited her again, and then again, and she seemed to welcome the visits. During our long walks together, she asked me, and I told her my story, how I had survived and ended up on Cyprus. And then I listened with rapt attention on more walks as she told me her story.
I learned that she had lived in Czechoslovakia before the war. Her mother had died giving birth, so she had been raised by her stepmother, Ethel, her father, Nathan, and seven brothers and five sisters. I learned that in 1942, the Nazis carried away her two oldest brothers for work digging trenches on the Russian front. She never saw her brothers again. Then in 1944 the Nazis returned, ordered her remaining family along with many others out of their homes, and forced them all on a train.
The train’s destination was Auschwitz.
“Even then, we didn’t really know we were on our way to an infamous Nazi death camp,” Miriam said to me. “When we arrived, tired, sick, and frightened after four days without food or water or bathroom facilities, with some of us already dead but unable to fall because of the tightly packed people in the railroad cars, we weren’t sure what was happening. We saw on the wall outside the camp a huge sign as we tumbled, lost and confused, from the cars.”
“ARBEIT MACHT DAS LEBEN SIES,” the sign announced.
In German, this loosely means “Work Makes Life Sweeter.”
Outside the cars was pandemonium, said Miriam. German soldiers slammed open the doors of the cars screaming, “Raus, raus,” at the confused Jews. Some prisoners were helped along with a blow from the clubs carried by the Nazis. Dogs were barking and snarling at the prisoners, and at Miriam.
On the opposite side of the sign, visible after they entered the camp, were more words.
“ARBEIT MACHT DAS LEBEN FREI”
Loosely, “Work Makes Life Free.”
What they didn’t understand for awhile was the arranging of the group into two lines just inside the gate. “There was a group of Jewish singers at the gate competing with the noise, and they were singing in Yiddish,” Miriam explained to me. “They were singing a song that instructed us to say we were sixteen years old or more, but not elderly, and that we were ready and willing to work hard for them. Meanwhile, a German officer who may still be alive today since he was only ‘doing as ordered’ flipped his thumb either right or left as the group moved past him. Those with the right thumb flip formed on the right; those who got the left thumb flip formed on the left,” said Miriam on one of our long walks.
Still confused, unhappy but fairly sure they were in a work camp, the weakened prisoners, innocent of any wrongdoing, numbly did as they were told.
“My father, my mother, my two youngest sisters and my five brothers were herded into the line on the left,” Miriam said to me as we walked along. “This group was made up of older men and women, and although the German officer had to make instant decisions, those he thought were younger than sixteen.”
Miriam and her two other sisters, including the twelve-year-old, were casually thumb-flipped to the right line, where they waited. One must wonder even today if the German officer gave much thought as he dined that night to the macabre job he was doing. Probably not, since by then the murder of Jews had become quite routine.
The left line moved directly to the gas chambers. The last sight Miriam had of her father and mother and brothers and sisters was them looking back at her sadly. Even then they weren’t sure what was going to happen to them, since the lovely strains of a Mozart waltz were being played by the camp musicians. But they were beginning to suspect. They were in the nightmare of Auschwitz, the premier Nazi death camp in southwestern Poland. Soon it was too late to do anything, and they were gone forever. Confused and bewildered, they never even had a chance to say goodbye to Miriam, although we can only wonder at the sadness they felt as they said goodbye to each other.
“We were taken to another place in the camp where our hair was cut off, for ‘sanitary reasons, they said,’ then we were given a tattoo on our arms as an identification number,” Miriam said to me. “Then were taken to a large barrack and were told to sleep there.”
Miriam was very tired, and very frightened, when they interviewed the prisoners again. “We were asked if we had any experience with hammer and nails. We did not, and admitted it, so they put us to work carrying boards to various construction sites within the camp,” Miriam said to me. “We were given very little food, perhaps a small bit of soup and a piece of bread, and so for the most part we were always hungry and tired. In fact, we were slowly starving. My body was drying out. I had to stop scratching at mosquito bites, for my skin would come off in puffs of powder.”
But there was much wood in the barrack, stacked in various places. So one could shift the wood planks about, and create a place in which to hide.
“I hid for the better part of one whole day,” said Miriam. “I was so tired and hungry I just couldn’t go to work. But one time I was lying behind the stack of lumber when I looked out through the cracks in the wall. I saw many trucks being driven by German soldiers bringing in more Jewish people. There were even some gentiles among them from what I could see. The Germans ordered the people down from the trucks and gave them shovels. Then they ordered them to dig holes in the ground. After the holes had been dug, and before some high-ranking German officers, the German soldiers shot the prisoners in the head. Finally they pushed them into the holes they had dug and covered them with dirt.”
One must wonder if that was the execution that made Adolph Hitler’s chief lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, ill. He did attend the first such execution he ordered in person, and did become ill. Further, he was known to make regular visits to his death camps, since he was very proud of them and what they accomplished. I try to imagine him thinking about some of these poor Jews as the self-administered strychnine began to twist his funny little face into a crooked smile during his last moments on earth.
One of Miriam’s closest encounters with a terrible death came several months after her internment. She was still living in the Auschwitz barracks with her two sisters when about two hundred women were ordered to line up out in the yard in front. In the group of German officers awaiting the formation she recognized the infamous Josef Mengele, a man who sometimes enjoyed being the “links oder recht” officer directing Jews to the right line or the left line just after they arrived. She also had learned by then that Mengele had become known by a name that pleased him greatly, “Doctor Death.”
Josef Mengele was considered by many to be somewhat handsome, although darker and of olive-tinted skin unlike the true “super race” of Germans. When this cruel man became involved with Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party, and the “final solution” of the Jewish question, he sank to depths that no human can imagine. Mengele, a doctor by profession, conducted experiments that are beyond the belief of normal people. Sending people to their death in a gas chamber, or to work details in a horrible camp, was recreation for him. He enjoyed the job, and spoke of it often to fellow officers. They, in turn, remarked at how calm and studied he seemed to be as he made his selections, often whistling a tune from one of Wagner’s operas. But this was his enjoyable hobby. Sometimes he would put on a “show” for visiting SS officers. One such incident was described by Annani Silovich Pet’ko, a Russian inmate at Auschwitz, during Mengele’s trial in Israel many years latter. Dr. Death did not, unfortunately, attend this trial since he was living a pleasant life in South America and could not be found to face his crimes.
Mengele had caused a huge pit to be dug in the yard, then charged with gasoline, according to Pet’ko under oath at the trial. “After awhile a large group of SS officers arrived on motorcycles, Mengele among them. They drove into the yard and got off their motorcycles. Upon arriving they had circled the flames, which were burning almost horizontally. We watched to see what would follow.”
Trucks filled with frightened Jewish children backed up to the scalding conflagration, said a weeping Pet’ko. There, under Mangle’s’ direction, German soldiers, some of whom may still be alive today, pushed the screaming children into the fire. If one of the poor children tried to crawl out of the fire, a solider would push him back in with a long pole. This, Mengele enjoyed watching, and often he would laugh as a particularly strong child tried again and again, burning and screaming all the time, to crawl from the fire. “Hoess (the Auschwitz commandant, who was later hanged) and Mengele were present and were giving orders,” swore Pet’ko.
These were some of Mangle’s’ recreations. His job at Auschwitz was even more inhuman, if that is possible. At the height of his career as a Nazi, he became a cold-blooded monster impossible for most of us to even imagine. Based on the teachings of his idol, Dr. Ernst Rudin, he believed that doctors had the responsibility to destroy “those lives not worth living,” to remove such people from the general population of the world. This well publicized belief, in fact, is what drew Adolph Hitler to bring Mengele into positions of authority in the Third Reich.
It was Mengele’s belief that any human demonstrating the “flaws” of feeblemindedness, schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, hereditary blindness, deafness, physical deformities, Huntington’s disease, and alcoholism, should be removed from the living. In May of 1943, Mengele was assigned as a camp doctor at death factory of Auschwitz, a place of human misery. His job was not to heal Germans or Jews, but to eradicate inferior gene strands from the human population, thus adding volumes to the annals of human cruelty.
He inspired fear not only among Jews, but even among fellow SS officers for sending thousands to the gas chambers because they were “unworthy” or “sub-species.” While some of the German officers and soldiers actually did dislike their work in concentration camps, Mengele loved the job. Some of the Germans, it is said, had to get drunk before sending innocents to their death, but Mengele didn’t believe in stimulants of any kind. He once said, “There are only two gifted people in the world, Germans and Jews, and it’s a question of who will be superior. I have decided that the Jews must be destroyed.” This is a job he did with great enthusiasm and enjoyment.
Occasionally he would exhibit a terrible temper. He once grabbed a Jewish woman by the neck who was caught trying to escape, even though by then she was on her way to the gas chamber. He hit her and slapped her, always her head, screaming at the top of his voice, “You want to escape, don’t you? But now you are going to burn like the others, you are going to croak, you dirty Jew.” Her head was a bloody pulp as she was carried to the gas chamber. Mengele, whistling brightly, went into his quarters and with perfumed soap carefully washed the gore from his hands.
Perhaps “The Crime Laboratory,” in their discussion on Mengele, summarized him best. “In addition to the selections and beatings, Mengele occupied his time with other numerous acts of the most base cruelty, including the dissection of live infants; the castration of boys and men without the use of an anesthetic; and the administering of high-voltage electric shocks to women inmates under the auspices of testing their endurance. On one occasion Mengele sterilized a group of Polish nuns with an X-ray machine, leaving the celibate women horribly burned.”
In my view, the demonic nature of Josef Mengele, who was preparing himself to select his next group of victims, was representative of the general population of Nazi soldiers and officers. I know that many of them later said they “didn’t know the facts” or were “unaware of what was really happening” or even that they “were only following hateful orders, and would have been shot themselves if they failed in their duty to the fatherland.” I know there are acts of horror in all wars between people, but these are usually isolated incidents by officers and soldiers acting alone, and not a planned campaign to kill all members of one religion.
Now this cruel Nazi “doctor” was planning to make a selection, and it could have included Miriam. This so-called “Angel of Death” was out in front of the group of women in his perfectly pressed, distinctive green uniform, smiling with a great love for his work, ready to begin his next round of “research” on prisoners. This is the man who strolled forward, slapping his gloves against his breeches, to make his selection, with Miriam in the line. And there he stood, before Miriam, preparing to select his next “children,” as he called them.
In fact, Miriam’s younger sister Hedva was in the front line, in direct, eye-to-eye contact with the butcher. He looked at her carefully, then asked her age.
“Seventeen and a half,” she said. Just a few prisoners away was Miriam, frightened for her sister.
But Mengele just laughed heartily, almost falling over he was so amused. What was so amusing wasn’t clear, but he continued to chuckle until he was approached by some SS officers. He turned to them and Hedva slipped back into the second line of women. By the time Mengele concluded his business with the SS men and turned back to the group of women, he had apparently forgotten about the young woman who claimed to be more than seventeen.
The SS officers began to count the women, and when they reached two hundred, they ordered them onto trucks. This included Miriam and her sisters. That was the last time, to their great good fortune, they ever saw Mengele. Did the death doctor, Josef Mengele, pay for his crimes?
No, he never did. He escaped, with the help of the Vatican in Rome, to South America, where he lived out much of his life. It is said that he finally, as a senior citizen, drowned while swimming during a vacation, and bones were found that seem to bear out this possibility.
“They took us to a small town, to an ammunitions plant inside Germany,” Miriam said to me on our long walks around the DP camps on Cyprus. “Surrounding the plant was a pleasant looking German town with nice homes. We were told we would labor to produce cartridges for the German army, and if we did a good job, we would be treated well. It could not have been worse than Auschwitz, so we considered ourselves lucky. On the first day, we met our new commandant, a tough-looking woman in a military outfit with the rank of Colonel on the shoulders. All of the guards were women, also in uniform. We expected the worst from the commandant based upon how tough she looked, but she was not at all hard on us. In fact, the commandant looked at Hedva on that first day,” said Miriam. “She said. ‘You are only a child. You will not be able to work in the factory. You won’t be able to use the machines. You might lose your arms. So for you, I am going to bring in a sewing machine. I will bring in some clothing and material. You can play with the machine all you want while you learn. But if you see a strange face, such as an army inspector, then you must sit down and pretend you are mending clothes for the other workers. And every morning, when you open the machine’s drawer, you will find a ham sandwich. You need to eat better. Do you understand?’ asked the commandant.”
Hedva nodded that she understood, and the commandant carried out her promise to take better care of her, to Miriam’s great pleasure.
One night, the commandant secretly came into the girl’s rooms and asked them to gather in the common room. She spoke softly. “I will try to take care of you as best I can,” she said. “I will be like a mother to you, and you will be my children. Hitler, I believe, is crazy. I will do everything in my power to see that you are treated well, that you are not harmed, even to putting my own life on the line. My husband is a Field Marshal and my son is a General on the Russian front, so they will listen to me. But I must warn you,” the tough-looking female commandant continued, “if we are ever inspected by the army, I might have to act very tough. I might even have to scream, and hit one of you.”
But, the lady went on, “I will apologize later, after the army leaves. I will kiss you, and say I’m sorry.” As if to prove her point, the commandant was able to double the rations the women were receiving at Auschwitz. It still wasn’t nearly enough, but it did keep the women alive.
It was a strange way to live, but it was survival, and Miriam and the other women accepted the fact that the commandant really was their friend and protector. They knew they were lucky, if such a word can be used for such miserable circumstances.
They also knew they were Jews, and that every effort to fight the Germans should be used. They were making munitions for German soldiers, some of which was almost certainly being used to murder innocent Jews.
Miriam confessed to me on one of our walks, visits that were gradually drawing us closer and closer together. “We all got together and discussed what to do. A decision was made. Although the commandant was trying to help us, we decided to put only a fraction of the correct amount of gunpowder into each bullet. The leftover powder we put into the pockets of our aprons, and every time we visited the toilet, we flushed it down the drain.”
This plan was carried out for nearly two months. Meanwhile, the food supply was running very low and finally it ran out. There was no more food for the women. All food was being sent to German soldiers on the Russian front. The women and Miriam and her sisters were slowly starving to death, but nothing the commandant said to her superiors was helping. They told her nothing could be done, that the soldiers needed the food, and that she would have to fend for herself and her workers. So she did. Knowing the food was being shipped from nearby, she picked ten volunteers from among the workforce. She said she would protect them if they were caught, then sent them to the railroad station to steal food.
Her plan was successful, food was obtained, and the women knew they would eat at least something for the next month or so.
They needn’t have worried, since well before the food ran out a convoy of trucks pulled up to the factory. The trucks were loaded with SS soldiers with guns, and they were very unhappy. One angry officer stepped from the lead truck and demanded entrance to the factory.
“We have traced a great deal of bad ammunition to this factory,” he said loudly. “Open the gate!” he ordered.
The women inside could hear him. They knew they had been discovered, and the fate they would probably face. But the commandant also heard the noise and confusion outside, and came to the gate.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded of the stern SS officer. “Nobody is allowed in here without my personal permission.”
The officer produced a letter from his tunic. He handed it to her. “This will explain, Colonel. This is an order to remove all the women from this factory. The ammunition from this site has not been satisfactory, has not been made properly. The bullets from this plant are not working right. Every one of these women will be shot!”
The commandant immediately began to shout. “Are you crazy? Are you from the Russian front all mad? In my factory, everything is perfect! Everything is under my complete control. I am here twenty-four hours every day, and I oversee everything. Are you mad?”
She was just getting warmed up. “I will call my husband, the Field Marshal on the Russian front, and ask him personally. I will also call my son, a General in the German army, and ask him. Then you will be very, very sorry,” she shouted loud enough for half the town to hear. “You will be in very big trouble indeed!”
Lucky for Miriam, her sisters, and all the other women, the SS officer backed down, crawled back into the lead truck, and the convoy drove away. They heard nothing more from them.
I knew that I had grown to love Miriam during our walks and talks, but there was still more of her story for me to hear. And more to hear about the lady commandant, who was a solid German who did not seem to hate Jews at all.
The long walks between Miriam and I at the displaced persons camps on the Island of Cyprus during that happy, tender, anticipatory time drew us closer and closer together. We were young, and healthy, and without ties. Many in our families were dead. We had survived the most horrible of world events, the holocaust, we had what we hoped might be a wonderful future ahead. We wanted nothing more than to be together. Gradually we began to realize that we wanted whatever the future might bring to happen to us really together, as a husband and a wife, as a family.
We both knew we were falling in love, and we didn’t try to stop this from happening. I encouraged it, and Miriam didn’t resist.
“It was early in 1945,” Miriam said to me. “The Russians had started to push the Germans back. As they drew closer and closer to Germany, we received orders from German headquarters, through our commandant, to leave everything behind and start to walk deeper into Germany. So, with our lady leader and our lady guards alongside, we started out.”
Miriam remembered the hard walk. “We walked during the day, and slept in the fields at night. Of course, we had no food and we were starving. Even though we wondered every morning how we could go on, we continued to walk. Still, we would often see groups of German soldiers running toward the heart of Germany, and that made us happy. They didn’t bother us, and we certainly didn’t bother them.”
Just when it seemed they could go no further, the group of starving women including Miriam found themselves surrounded by tired, battle-weary Russian soldiers. They were happy at first but the soldiers, they quickly learned, were more interested in the fact that they were women, than in freeing them. The soldiers hadn’t been around women in a long time, and they were men. The tough-looking female commandant thrust herself between the women and the advancing soldiers, and she was a formidable barrier. She shouted at the soldiers.
“They are all sick, and weak, and starving. They would be of no use to you!”
Surprised, the advancing, women-hungry Russian soldiers paused. Finally a Russian officer intervened. He took charge and ordered his grumbling soldiers to stand back, and then he arrested the German guards, and the tough-looking female commandant.
“You are free,” said the leader of the Russian troops to the group of Jewish women. “You may go home now.”
Quickly, without apparent discussion, they stood the commandant alone in the field and lined up a firing squad for her execution. She didn’t protest, but instead looked sadly but with courage at the Jewish women she almost considered her children. She had been fair with them. She had done what she could to protect them, to care for them. She was moments from execution in the cold German field by the Russian firing squad. Miriam and her fellow prisoners knew they had to do something, and quickly.
“We all rushed forward and surrounded her,” said Miriam. “We held our arms together, shielding her from the firing squad. Yes, they may have fired anyhow, but they didn’t. In fact, the Russian officer in charge was confused by our actions.”
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Why are you protecting this Nazi pig, this woman who enslaved you?”
“We all began to scream together,” Miriam went on with her story. “We shouted, ‘don’t shoot her!’ and ‘don’t touch her!’ and ‘she saved our lives!’”
“She is our mother!” the women shouted to the Russian officer and the firing squad.
The Russian officer smiled, although he still didn’t understand. Perhaps he had more important things to do than shoot a lone German woman in an icy field when his group was fighting toward the heart of Germany, toward the great murderer Adolph Hitler and his henchmen.
“Alright, alright,” he said, motioning to the firing squad to lower their weapons. “I believe you. I do not understand, but I believe you. We must go on. You may go where you wish. But do so in smaller groups, so you will not be noticed by our army, or by retreating Germans.”
Miriam took the officer’s advice, and the group broke up.
“Since we were behind Russian lines, and we were really free, we separated from the German guards and the commandant,” Miriam said at the end of her story. “They went their way, and we went our way. I do not know what happened to them or to her. I hope she lived through the rest of the war in safety, and in going our way we managed to reach home.”
Her home, however, no longer belonged to her. It was the same old story. A gentile family had taken over Miriam’s home, and was still living there. Miriam remembered that her father had hidden some gold under the floorboards of the house, so they asked if they could just look around and reminisce for awhile. While her sisters occupied the people in the house, she looked in the place where the gold had been hidden. It was gone.
A neighbor who recognized the three girls took them in, and they rested and enjoyed decent food for a few days. Finally they felt they had the strength to go on to Hungary, where they had heard of the left wing Jewish group that was planning to go to Israel.
“We finally made it to the group heading for Israel,” she said to me, “and we all made it to the Theodore Hertzel. Then we were not permitted to land at Haifa, and here I am.” Nothing could have made me happier than the fact that she was “here,” with me.
So we married and lived happily ever after? Not exactly. Remember that Miriam’s kibbutz was left wing while most of my group was right wing. The groups did not care for each other. The first time I visited Miriam, I recall I was confronted by a group of young men who screamed at me that I was not wanted there. The left wingers wanted to just get along with the Palestinians, and were willing to agree to separate states in Palestine. My right wingers, and myself, wanted a separate Jewish state.
They wanted to share the country; we wanted our own country.
The British had set up an immigration system that allowed a trickle of Jews into Palestine. My time was coming soon, but then we learned that Miriam’s time to immigrate was much later. How could we be sure of finding each other if I went on ahead into a strange land that was still being torn by strife? How could we ever get together again? We talked about it, and made a decision that warmed us both and made us happy.
Miriam and I just wanted to be together, in Israel. We decided to get married sooner rather than later. I would then stay on Cyprus with her until we could go to Palestine together. On November 11, 1947, when Miriam was eighteen years old and I was twenty years old, we were married in Cyprus by a Rabbi from the displaced persons camp. Nor was it a quiet, poorly attended wedding as you might expect under the very unique circumstances.
There was in one of the camps a radio that had been smuggled in, and had become our own news source outside what the British told us. The man who owned the radio was also the man who carried messages between our camps. He heard of our wedding plans and decided to make certain that since it was such a rare occurrence, it would be well attended.
Our wedding became an historic event and we found ourselves the celebrities of the moment. From back when word of our marriage first went out, when the two groups were resisting our union, to later, when leaders from both sides intervened and explained that even though political differences separated our two groups, thwarting love between two young Jews would not be tolerated. In the end, almost everybody agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to bond our two groups with at least one wedding. It is difficult to comprehend even today, many years later, but our wedding was attended by no less than ten thousand cheering Jews from both camps. It was wonderful, and we were both very, very happy.
Even the British, who were interested and supportive of anything that could cause our two groups to blend without political and even physical fighting, attended and snapped many pictures.
Both groups drank and sang together all night long. Both groups brought food. We had all agreed to get along for at least that one night, and we all did get along very well. They weren’t so bad after all, and I believe they found my side acceptable, although even with all the cheering and drinking, they sat with their side and my group sat together.
Miriam and I? We sat with each other, and we both knew without a doubt that we would be together for life.
While we were setting up housekeeping in two small rooms in a barracks that we shared with another married couple, the United Nations was struggling with the Palestinian problem. The British wanted out of their job as overseer of the region. As Miriam and I began our married life together, and continued to attend school, the UN was working on the matter. Jakob made tools from scissors and screwdrivers, and I mastered the art of stone carving. I made statues and picture frames and anything else that would sell. I became quite adept at cutting stone, a skill that has remained with me through my life.
Meanwhile, the White House in the United States was being bombarded by correspondence. During this time the president, Harry S. Truman, received 48,600 telegrams, 790,575 cards and 81,200 other pieces of mail on the subject of Palestine. Not just from American Jews, or world Jews, but from people of all faiths. President Truman had already announced his support of a Jewish homeland. In February of the year we were married, 1947, the British finally threw in the towel. They announced they would terminate their mandate for Palestine. They had had enough of Jews fighting Arabs. They decided to refer the problem to the UN. The UN appointed an eleven nation Special Committee on Palestine to study the matter and report back by no later than September, 1947. We knew this was going on, of course.
Finally, after many months of negotiating, on May 14, at exactly 6:11 PM Eastern Standard Time in the United States, the US Government recognized Israel on a de facto basis. The White House, creating uproar among politicians and diplomats (as Harry Truman was inclined to do) issued the following statement.
“This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”
This document is on display both at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum in Missouri, and online. Jews throughout the world wept and rejoiced. It was finally true.
The Jews had a homeland.
Unfortunately, the next action by the leaders of nations was to have a strong effect on me. For on May 15, 1948, only one day later, the Arab states issued their response to the recognition of Israel with a statement of opposition. Immediately after that, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq attacked Israel, and war was on. It is, in the strictest sense, a war that rages on today, although terrorists and suicide bombers have replaced soldiers in many places.
Israel was perhaps the most ill equipped nation in the history of the world to go to war with the five hostile and very well armed Arab nations surrounding her. Israel had the Haganah, the army that had been fighting guerilla warfare, but she had no real weapons, no real guns, no real airplanes, and no armor. Well, she did have some ancient Czechoslovakian rifles, two old airplanes, a Piper Cub and a biplane of mixed ancestry, and one or two pickup trucks that had been “converted” into armed weapons carriers by the addition of some plate metal. That was the real Israeli army on the day their neighbors attacked. The attackers promised to “drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea.”
To the rest of the world, This appeared to be a very likely conclusion to the war. But then a strange and wonderful thing happened. Other nations in the world came to the aid of Israel, especially America although Russia jumped in hoping the new state would become Communist. Meanwhile, nothing could stop the temporary joy of the people of Israel after the declaration of independence by David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, and then Harry Truman, President of the United States. The joy lasted for two days, with constant parties, and dancing in the streets, as the people, knowing what was coming, wanted to enjoy the moment. They saw the Bible coming true in their time.
Then came the war to quickly stamp out this new state. Bombs were dropped from Egyptian airplanes on Tel Aviv, and although the damage was minor, the war was on. It was to be a war to stamp out this new state before it took its first breath. Famous American motion picture and TV actor Hal Linden, prominent in the Jewish cause, said, “Israel had no fallback position. They had no choice but to fight.” Another expert said, “Israel did have a secret weapon, however. It was ‘no alternative’.”
So Israel fought back with her poorly trained, poorly equipped army. Many of my friends from the camps, friends I had considered lucky because they were sent to Israel before me, died in the opening days of the war. Men would arrive at Haifa fresh from the camps on Cyprus, be handed a weapon of some type, and sent into battle the same day. They had no training, but they were very willing, even anxious to fight. They had a great desire to protect their new homeland. In the morning they were leaving their camp on Cyprus, by evening they were dead on a battlefield. But as they entered action they were proud to be fighting under a flag that boldly displayed the Star of David, once a symbol made shameful during the holocaust but by then flying proudly if a bit tattered as the symbol of the new State of Israel.
Israel had about 500,000 citizens when that war began. But 100,000 were children, another 100,000 were women, and yet another 100,000 were elderly. Everybody else fought, but it was still a very small army. The Talmud says, “In a place where there are no men, be yourself a man,” and each man took that seriously to heart.
People around the world felt that Israel had no serious chance of winning against the overwhelming odds she was facing. But quietly Ben Gurion had sent representatives to the United States and other nations to ask for help in what he knew was coming. He needed fighters, experts at war, pilots, and weapons. Gradually, from around the world, volunteers began to arrive, especially from the United States. These were Jews, and even some non-Jews, who were trained in warfare, and who, after WWII, had no place to use their skills. They were willing to fight with whatever weapons were available, including German Messerschmitts built in Czechoslovakia. Some of the pilots arrived one day and even before sleeping jumped into an unfamiliar fighter plane and took off to meet incoming Arab fighter planes. One pilot recalled that he didn’t know which button raised the gunsight, and which button fired the guns. Still, he shot down an Arab in a Spitfire, provided by the British, on that first day.
Another recalls the “pipe bombs” he was handed to drop on enemy forces on the ground. The “bomb” was nothing more than a four-foot sewer pipe filled with powder. A fuse was sticking out one end. The pilot’s instructions were simple. He was to fly low, light the fuse, open his canopy, and throw out the device. But the bomb was heavy, over one hundred pounds, and one pilot on his first such mission found that after he lighted the fuse he couldn’t get the long bomb out of the cockpit. Finally, in a last ditch effort, he rolled the plane upside down and the bomb fell out.
“I don’t even know if it went off or not,” he said later, “but I was sure happy to see it falling away from the airplane.”
On another occasion, when a squadron of Arab airplanes was seen to be inbound on Israel, ground radio operators began to order Israeli squadrons into the air. “Flight 140, Scramble!” came the crisp order over the radio. “Flight 141, Flight 142, Scramble” followed this. It all sounded very military, and very efficient. The problem was, there were no “flights 140, 141, and 142,” and the radio operators knew this. But the frightened Arab pilots did not, and they quickly turned around and headed for home.
The fact is, the first Israeli general in the first war was an American. The first commander of the Israeli navy was an American. The Americans played a compelling role in the Israeli victory in the first war, a war where Israel became known for moving forward, ever forward, after stopping an invading force. Israeli soldiers would continue on into the enemy’s territory, driving him back further and further. Even today, Israel controls some territory won by this tactic, although other territories, such as the Sinai Peninsula, have been returned to their original owners by United Nations mandates.
In September of the same year, four months after Israel independence and well into the first war, a son we named after my father Kalman and now known as Carl, was born on Cyprus. Miriam desperately wanted a Jewish doctor to deliver our boy, but the British held firm that nobody would be allowed entry into Israel until their proper time. They did, however, arrange to bring a Jewish doctor from Israel to manage the delivery. And talk about luck. The doctor was also a Rabbi, so the circumcision was performed eight days after the birth of Carl. As for my part, I built my new son a tiny crib, a small piece of furniture that would remain with us.
The British, very happy to do so, left Israel and almost immediately the Israelis sent boats to empty the British concentration camps on Cyprus. There were over 70,000 Jewish people on the island in British camps, and we were among the first 800 to be told to we could go. Finally, the day we had prayed for had arrived. On January 28, 1949, two years after we arrived at the displaced persons camp on Cyprus, the so-called “Island of Aphrodite,” Miriam and I and three month old Carl in his little crib, and several hundred others, boarded a boat for Haifa in Israel two hundred kilometers south, our new homeland. We were so happy as we watched for the first sign of the port off in the distance. Then, rising ahead of us and causing the breath to catch in our throats as we stood holding hands on the deck with our baby son between us, was Israel. It was beautiful.
Finally the ship drew near the shore, and we could see the streets of the city. The announcement came over the ship’s public address system.
“Will passengers please come to the main deck.”
Most of us were already there, but the others hurried up and as the ship tied up, we could see a parade on the street along the wharf. It was the Israeli Army giving us a salute, and we were overwhelmed with happiness. A band was playing, and as we disembarked, civilians there to welcome us began to throw flowers at us. They cheered and laughed and shook hands with us, and hugged us, and it was wonderful. They all seemed as delighted to see us, as we were to see them. We all paused to sing Hatikvah together. Ten years earlier my house in Pinczow had been burned to the ground, and my family and I had slipped into the cold Polish forest to dig a hole in which to attempt to survive. I had survived and with my lovely new wife and my pretty little son, I was finally at my new home.
In the crowd to welcome us were Miriam’s two sisters, who had arrived earlier. They had a happy reunion with hugs and kisses and tears. We were loaded onto trucks and driven to place where temporary housing had been arranged. It was a former British military camp, but it wasn’t like the German concentration camps and it wasn’t like the British displaced persons camps. This was a camp where we could come and go as we pleased. It was a camp where we could decorate, where we could enjoy life. We were told we would stay there until apartments were finished for us.
In Sweden, during the war, citizens saved countless Jews by insisting to the Germans that they were needed as laborers to build Nazi trucks. The ruse worked. Now, in Israel, apartments were being built in Rishon Le Zion for new immigrants such as us. The apartments, one of which would eventually be occupied by Miriam and Carl and I, were being paid for by the Swedish government, who had long supported a Jewish homeland.
Soon I found a job picking oranges, and I loved it. The sun was warm and the people were friendly, and though the wages weren’t large, it was honest work leading to an evening at home with those I loved. Of course I knew that Israel was at war with her neighbors. I knew that all Israeli men and unmarried women eventually serve in the army. I knew my time would come, and I did not fear it. I had no idea of the action I would see in the months ahead, but I moved forward with vigor to do whatever I was called upon to do. I looked forward to my service for my new homeland, though I knew that young men, some of who had been my close friends, were dying on battlefields around the borders of Israel.
As a member of the famed Golani Brigade, one of the toughest fighting groups in the entire Israeli Army, I was a proud soldier, a volunteer. The Golani Brigade or Brigade Number 1 was the first brigade in the Israeli Defense Force. The first soldiers in the famed brigade were farmers from villages and kibbutzim from the Galilee, the Jordan and the Hula valleys. These brave fighters left their work and united in the unit to defend their homes and their country in the War of Independence in 1948. It was the battles against attacks from the Syrian Golan Heights that gave the brigade its name.
Although a regular infantry unit of the IDF, the soldiers were all volunteers known for their great courage, their devotion to duty, and a special esprit d’corps of mutual help and loyalty.
“After Me” is not just a motto for commanders of the Golani Brigade. It is their practice, the way they fight. The leaders of the Golani Brigade are always the first into battle, leading their troops by example. The brigade symbol is a green tree with its roots on a light brown background. This symbolizes the color of the soil and the fields, the growth and the strong roots in the Land of Israel.
As a member of this famous fighting group, I became quite familiar with a world famous lake, known by two other names throughout the world. This lake is, to Biblical scholars, The Sea of Galilee. It was near the Galilee, just southwest of the Golan Heights in northern Israel, that I saw fierce action, sometimes hand to hand combat with bloodthirsty Syrians in superior force.
Galilee, a lake in northern Israel and a name in history that otherwise seems to speak peace, is also known as Lake Kenneret to Israelis today, or, to some “Lake Tiberias.” It is only thirteen miles by seven miles, but it is a body of water with beautiful shores and a beautiful history. It was on these shores that Jesus Christ is said to have delivered his sermons and performed his miracles. A town near the lake, Capernaum, is home to at least five of the twelve Disciples of Christ. The nearby Church of the Beautitudes is said to be where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Tabgha, on the Galilee, is believed to be the site where Jesus fed 5000 followers from five loaves of bread and two fish. On this site is now the Church of the Multiplication. The nearby lakeside town of Magdala is the hometown of Mary Magdalene.
On the same shores I saw bloody action in defense of my new homeland.
A modern map of Israel, printed in color with “political” boundaries (at least as of the writing of this book) will show most of the land in one color.
But then, in another color, are the “Israeli occupied territories.” These territories include a very large area north of the Dead Sea called the “West Bank” in central Israel. Then there is an area around Gaza, the “Gaza Strip.” In northern Israel, East of the Sea of Galilee, is the “Golan Heights,” a critically important area than once belonged to Syria until they made the mistake of attacking us from this critically important strategic area. Most of these territories we took after armies from the other side attacked us. We responded, pushed them back with great losses to both sides, then just kept going. In the case of the largest area, the West Bank, we took back Jersulem from invaders and then spread out from there. We kept going all the way east to the shores of the Dead Sea, near the site of Masada, and north along the Jordan River nearly to the Sea of Galilee, to territory we already occupied. We claimed and still hold, with “limited” Palestinian self-government, everything west of these boundaries, thus the “West” Bank. This is how Israel has always fought wars. If Israel is pushed into a fight, she will fight all the way with an army that doesn’t know how to lose. There are to this day the deep scars of modern machine gun bullets on the walls of the “Old City,” the walled section of Jersulem, where Christ once walked. We fired these bullets as we regained control of this sacred site. The famed Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall” in the Old City of Jersulem, built almost three thousand years ago as the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by King Solomon and then rebuilt by Jews and refashioned by King Herod, is still open to all. It is a very sacred and inspiring religious site, if only for its great antiquity. Many different religions come there to pray.
In fact, the magnificent Dome of the Rock, the only early Islamic sanctuary to have survived intact the many destructions of the temple around it and thought to be the site where Abraham offered up his son in sacrifice, is still the third holiest place in Islam. This after the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. It is still used as a place of worship by that religion.
Miriam and I had settled down in our new home in our new homeland with our new son Carl, and we were happy in spite of the perilous situation of our country. We knew that the moment our new homeland was declared an independent state, war with several neighbors would begin. And it immediately did. We also knew that military service in Israel is required of most young people, and most young Jews were willing to serve to defend their country. I was willing to serve, and knowing that sooner or later I would be called, and knowing where I wanted to serve, I enlisted in the Golani Brigade, a unit similar to the Green Berets in the United States. The Golanis were the toughest, the roughest; they were called upon for the most difficult fights. I was proud to be a member, and soon was sent to an officer’s school.
I became a sergeant, with a squad of my own to command. Eventually, after a particular battle, I was elevated even higher.
The hard-fighting Golani Brigade was created on February 28, 1948, just before I arrived in Israel, when the famous Levanoni Brigade was divided. The Levononi was deployed on Israel’s Lebanese border. Golani, one of the divisions, was stationed in the valleys and hills of the Lower Galilee in northern Israel, a beautiful part of my new country filled with rolling hills and waterfalls and lovely pastures.
The Golani included members of the Haganah, residents of settlements in the areas of combat, and enlisted soldiers from all over the country such as myself. The brigade had fought, prior to independence, in the areas of Mishmar Ha’emek, Tiberias, Migdal, Zemach and Rosh Pinna. Their mission was to defend from all attackers the Upper Galilee and the Galilee valleys. The brigade also participated in the victory at Safed in Operation Yiftach, and captured Arab Sejera and Bet Shean and its surrounding territory.
When the State was founded, Arab armies invaded. In the north, it was Syria as well as Iraq, Lebanon and the Kaukji’s irregulars. The Golani Brigade was sent to face this threat although it was small and short of equipment, and, frankly, very short of trained combat soldiers. The brigade was using frail Czech rifles with only five rounds of ammunition built in. They were using Sten machine guns that were originally designed as a cheap throwaway for British paratroopers, who used them only until their “real” weapons were dropped.
However, the Golani Brigade still stopped the entire Syrian army of armor and infantry, often with Molotov cocktails and hand to hand fighting with grenades and bayonets. The Golani simply wouldn’t give up, although the losses of young Jewish fighters were frightening. At one point in the constant fighting, it was revealed that Israel had lost more than one percent of its entire population in wars.
When I joined the brigade as a sergeant destined to fight many difficult battles with the Arabs, it was a proud unit of the Israeli army. My first combat action was against the Syrians, after they had gained control of Tel Mutila in the north. This area of the Golan Heights gave the Syrians a perfect launching point for battles, and for harassing innocent Jews around the Sea of Galilee, fishermen and villagers who only wanted to be left alone to live their lives.
I remember how it was then. I would go to bed at night with Miriam, Carl alongside in a little crib. It would be quiet outside, and we would peacefully drift off to sleep. I would be tired after a day of working at my new trade, plastering, a difficult and tiring job but a job I enjoyed and was well paid for. I would sleep looking forward to the next morning, to talking to Miriam and playing with Carl.
Then, always it seemed, around two in the morning, there would be a knock at my door. It would be a loud knock. When I would go to the door, there would be a soldier from the army telling me to come with him in his Jeep. That would be that. In a few hours, I would be in full combat gear, fighting for my life in a battle near the Sea of Galilee. That is how it was then, in Israel, a brand new independent country fighting for its existence.
In the history of the Israeli army there are certain “wars” listed, but in fact the nation was constantly at war. There was the War of Independence, from 1948 to 1949, known as the “first Arab-Israeli war.” I arrived in Israel shortly after this, although hostilities never did really cease.
Then came a series of retaliatory actions, and I was deeply involved in these. Other states fought the announcement of an independent state of Israel with raids on territories taken by Israel in defense of their own people, such as the Golan Heights near the Sea of Galilee.
The “second war” also involved me. This was the 1956 Sinai Campaign, also known as the “Suez War,” and the mission of the Golani was to capture the Rafah area in order to provide Israeli armored forces with a clear road into Egyptian territory. This we did, and my soldiers and I helped.
In each of those wars, I remember particular battles. Two of them stand out in my mind. The first, in the north, was the famous fight at Tel Mutila. Our Commanding General was Ariel Sharon, eventually to become Prime Minister of Israel. My own commander in that battle, present on the lines, was Rehavam Ze’evi, a name held in high esteem in Israel to this day. Ze’evi’s army career was rich and varied. In 1949, about the time I was arriving in Israel, he was serving as an operations officer in the Northern Command. By 1953 he had been appointed head of the Israel Defense League’s operations division in the Operations Directorate.
The wars have never really stopped. On October 17, 2001, my commanding officer at Tel Mutila, known as “Ghandi” by his troops (although it was a name the hawkish Ze’evi hated), was shot to death by a hard-line Palestinian assassin as revenge for Israel’s assassination of a Palestinian leader. A very right-wing former army officer, Ze’evi was shot at close range in a Jerusalem hotel, and was found in a pool of blood by his wife in what appeared to be a carefully planned operation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he would “step up” the military response to such acts of terror.
The battle at Tel Mutila, now a well-known hill in Jewish history near the shoreline town of Tiberias, is one about which I rarely speak. Books have been written about the battle at Tel Mutila, and I was there. On our every Sunday morning walks in Ventura, California, with my second son, Benjamin, I generally avoided talk of that fierce and very bloody battle. I even told Benny that it was the one time in my life when I am ashamed to admit that I envied a badly wounded soldier I was trying to comfort. If the soldier survived, he would be going home while the rest of us still had to face thousands of Syrians who wanted nothing more than to kill us all. Only much later did I learn that many combat veterans have had the very same feelings of envy of another soldier, even a badly wounded one, for home is what we all longed for and dreamed of as the terrible battle progressed.
This is what happened at Tel Mutila.
I was a sergeant in charge of a group of forty-two men. I had been called out of a warm bed, ordered to duty, and trucked to the area of concern. Our assignment was to patrol the rolling hills below the Golan Heights, near the somber houses of the town of Tiberias. We were lightly armed with older weapons, but we did have some bags full of hand grenades. It was a quiet, almost peaceful night in this beautiful northern territory by Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee that was the native land of Jesus. The town of Tiberias had been founded centuries earlier by Herod Antipas, and was named after the reigning emperor, so we were in very historic hills. We were walking, in fact, where Jesus almost certainly walked. Although Jews refused to live there back in AD 17, when the town was founded, the city and surrounding territory eventually became a still-contested part of Israel.
My troops and I were almost enjoying the duty, since we were among friends with whom we had served many times before, and danger did not seem near. Still, we were being very quiet as we continued our patrol. The area had long been infested with Syrians who would fire down upon innocent Israeli fishermen in the lake, and civilians in the town. Then, from over a low hill toward the Golan Heights, we heard the sounds of gunfire. Carefully we crawled up the hill and looked down the other side. There were thousands of Syrian soldiers massing for an attack. They had killed some Jews who had wandered into their formation. They were coming up the hill toward us, and would be upon is in a few minutes. I decided to make a stand after sending one soldier for help. I called my forty-odd soldiers together.
“Men,” I said softly. “We are in the Israeli army to protect our beloved homeland. We have sworn to die if we must. And now,” I continued quickly but quietly, “that time has come and we must die. We must face this enemy, and kill as many as we can before we are overrun.”
Around me in the semi-darkness I could see the faces of my men. They were somewhat sad, but resolute. They understood what was going to happen. They were prepared for what seemed inevitable. The Syrians charged over the hill and we began to fire. This surprised them, and momentarily they stopped. Many had fallen, and my men were still unharmed.
“Keep firing, men,” I ordered. By then, from down the line, I could hear more firing, and I knew that my commander, Ghandi, in real life Rehavam Ze’evi, was by then aware of the attack. I had my own hill to defend. Behind us was Tiberias, a sleepy town of innocent Jews. They, we knew, would be murdered man, woman and child, if the enemy passed us.
More Syrians charged over the hill, and we kept firing. But they were getting closer and closer, their gunfire more and more accurate, and men were dropping around me. Some were dead; some had lost arms or legs, and were in great pain. It was then that I saw the wounded soldier and as I shouted for a medic, I wished with all my heart to change places with him, and to just go home. But I could not. We fought on as the Syrians came closer. Some were close enough to kill with bayonets, and we did that. Then I had an idea.
Two of my soldiers who happened to be brothers had charge of the bags of grenades we were carrying. I called them to me in a temporary lull in the battle. I showed them once again how to throw a grenade, and how long to hold it before releasing it.
“The next time they charge us,” I instructed, “you begin to throw the grenades. Throw them as though you have a million of them, so they will think our supply is inexhaustible. But,” I cautioned softly there on the dark hill called Tel Mutila near Tiberias below the Golan Heights, a hill that is well known to all the children in schools in Israel, “do not throw them at the nearest troops. Throw them over their heads, into the second wave.”
The two brothers looked at me to be sure they understood.
“Over their heads,” I said again, “into the second wave.”
The next time the Syrians attacked, the brothers did exactly as I ordered. Although men were still falling all around on both sides of the battle, they lobbed their grenades behind the first wave while other charging Syrian soldiers were near enough again for hand to hand combat. And then what I hoped would happen, began to happen.
There was confusion in the charging army attacking us. Men were falling by the dozen behind the frontal attack. Those in front looked back and saw what was happening. A man-to-man, bloody battle of this type is a mini-world of confusion, explosions, screams, emotion, and death. There is no other universe but this one surrounding the warriors. They know only each other, they know they must kill or be killed. The two brothers continued to lob grenades into the second wave, and the front wave faltered.
We took advantage of this and moved toward them, and miracle of miracles, they began to fall back over their own dead.
“Charge them!” I shouted. “Kill them!”
Those of my men who were left followed me, and we killed as many Syrians as we could catch.
I do not claim that my order to lob grenades into the second wave won the battle, or saved the day, or anything like that. But I knew that in my area of the front line of battle, I had beaten them with grenades. And this action did keep those of us who were left alive. For that we were very grateful.
Very soon I had the chance to talk with Colonel Ze’evi, for I gave the order to continue to advance into Syria. To follow the enemy, and to continue to kill him. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to go all the way to Damascus, to take the whole country with what was left of my squad. Ze’evi stopped me, of course. He said my point in the lines of battle had been critical, and had helped turn the tide along the entire front. He explained that if we pursued the defeated soldiers into Syria we might start World War Three, even though he, a noted hawk in the history of Israel even then, would have enjoyed doing the same.
Later Ze’evi and I and our remaining troops were welcomed into Tiberias with cheers and kisses and flowers. They welcomed us as heroes. They held a parade, and I was personally honored by the mayor with a medal.
I was proud to have served my homeland in that historic battle at Tel Mutila, and, yes, hope that as school children in Israel study that critical event, they may come across my name somewhere in their books.
Later, however, well after the famous battle at Tel Mutila, there was a military inquest that could even have led to court martials for the leaders in the battle, including me. The question had to do with the frightening loss of Jewish soldiers in the battle, and whether or not this could have been prevented. After the top generals met and discussed the matter, it was decided that the casualty rate could not have been prevented, and instead of court martials, we were given medals.
I was promoted to Lieutenant.
The second major battle that stands out in my mind during my service to Israel was in the southern sector, in 1956. By then we had added Benjamin to our family, and I was working every day as a plasterer. All was going well with us, although we knew that Israel was still at war.
Once again, my Golani Battalion led the way. I was awaked in the middle of the night and told to report for duty. I suppose I didn’t think enough about Miriam and Carl and Benny, who recognized what was happening and who knew that I might not come home again. But they knew, as I knew, that it was my duty to go, and I never would have done otherwise.
Miriam and I said goodbye, I held Carl and then Benny for an extra moment of closeness with my sons, and walked out the door. I knew just as well that I might never return. Still, there was a relatively pleasant side to these calls. I would be joining men I knew, soldiers I had fought with, men with whom I had a bond that would never fade. So where we knew we were going into battle, it was also a grand reunion of old friends. As we gathered before we started our move south, a strange thing happened. We were crowded into a room with some supplies in the corner. One of the bags of sugar tipped over, and it spilled across the floor.
Men smiled and slapped each other on the back, for there could not have been a better sign of good luck than to have sugar accidentally spilled.
My unit and I were quickly moved to the Egyptian front in what is known as “The Sinai War,” where we were just as quickly put into action. This is the war, the so-called “second” of the great Israeli wars, that is also known as the “Suez War.” The lower border of Israel stretches from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea north to the Mediterranean Sea. On one side of the border is Israel, on the other is somewhat separate area known as the Sinai Peninsula, a territory of Egypt between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez, and bordered on the north by the Mediterranean. Israel invaded and conquered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while France and Great Britain seized the Suez Canal so that it could not be blocked, as threatened by the Egyptians.
My part in this war as a commissioned officer and platoon leader was to lead my men in battle with the Egyptians near El Arish, now a tourist city, and I did this. Once, I remember, my unit captured so many prisoners near this Egyptian town there on the shore of the Mediterranean in this very vital contested area that I ran out of guards. So I marched the prisoners, hundreds of them, into the sea, into waist high water. There they stood, requiring far fewer guards because they were not in a position to move quickly.
There was an Egyptian general in charge of the troops in my sector, and he was having a very real and serious problem. We Jews were committed to battle, to protect our country and to take the Sinai. Every day this general’s troops would fight us, but every night more and more of them would simply walk away, heading for home. The Egyptians were never very good fighters, certainly not on the level of Israeli soldiers, most of who would have died rather than desert. This general’s ranks were reduced during the day as we killed his reluctant soldiers, and at night as they deserted, not that I could blame them.
Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon’s forces had attacked the Sinai directly between the two charging Egyptian forces. Unseen and undiscovered, they had moved all the way across the Peninsula to the Suez Canal. We were moving across the same Peninsula along the coast of the Mediterranean. The Egyptians soon found themselves cut off from their supply lines, and their homeland. The British tried to help the Egyptians against us. Once they sent a flight of five Spitfire fighter planes to strafe us, but our forces shot down all five and the British decided it would be best to stand by and watch rather than participate.
In the particular battle I remember very well, we had advanced and overran a battalion of Egyptians in their own camp along the coast so quickly that they had apparently had no chance to retreat. We were known as an army that didn’t like to take too many prisoners, and they knew it. My soldiers upon entering the camp before the sun rose figured at first that it was empty that the enemy had fled. Their equipment was still there, even food had been left on the tables, but they were gone. By dawn, one of the strangest sights ever seen on a field of battle faced us. There were hundreds of pairs army boots lying about where they had been dropped. And we knew why.
The Egyptians were accustomed to going barefooted, or wearing light sandals. They knew they could run faster without the boots, so as they retreated they tore the boots off their feet. And there they lie, hundreds of them, in the morning sun.
Those who could not escape had decided to jump into a long defensive trench they had previously dug, and then to try to hide by pulling in sand on top of themselves. They literally buried themselves alive to keep us from killing them, and I am sure than many of them died of suffocation.
Then my men realized what was happening. “They are here!” one of them shouted. “They are here in the sand! Kill them!”
That quickly, my men were firing into the trenches, into the sand, killing the Egyptians where they were hiding.
I rushed forward. “Stop!” I ordered. “Cease fire!”
My men stopped firing, and looked at me.
“Many of you are survivors of concentration camps,” I shouted to them. “You have survived the holocaust. But you have seen the Germans do this to your family and your friends. Now will you do this to the Egyptians, other human beings, who are defeated and frightened and hiding, as you once were?”
They looked at me and lowered their guns. They shot no more Egyptians cowering in their sandy hole.
I gave the frightened Egyptian soldiers the chance to surrender to my much smaller force, and they did so quickly and willingly. We gave them water. Even their general, dressed in a regular soldier’s clothes in an attempt to hide his identity, surrendered to me.
We began to talk, the general and I, and soon we were chatting openly about the war and the Sinai and the world condition in general. He really wasn’t all that bad a person. In fact, he took me into his former quarters and gave me his uniform as a friendly gesture.
I told you the Egyptians were strange soldiers.
The uniform, carefully tailored down by my wife to fit my son Carl, served as a fine costume at a later Purim Festival, a carnival of fun that has been a part of Jewish life from thousands of years ago. The partygoers always dress in costumes, and the little uniform of Carl was the hit of the party.
By 1960, following continued Syrian harassment of farmers in the demilitarized zone in northern Israel, a Golani force attacked a Syrian outpost at Tawfiq and the wars went on. Meanwhile, we were thinking of immigrating to the United States at the continuing requests of Miriam’s sister, who lived in Orange County in California. Although I was a skilled plasterer, and loved living in Israel, I was getting less and less work. Unions had taken over my profession, and we were required to report to a union hall where work was assigned. I was never a political person, and I found that most of the work and the best jobs were going to the friends and relatives of the man who was doing the assignments. I did find that when I threatened the assignment man with bodily harm, something I did more and more often to put fear of retribution into him, I would get some work. But that was no way to live. I couldn’t go through life threatening my fellow workers, who knew that I would carry out the threats if I couldn’t support my family.
The United States of America looked more and more appealing to Miriam and I.