Chapter 2

After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, evil winds also started blowing in Poland. Echoes of Nazi propaganda found a receptive, even enthusiastic audience in large segments of the Polish nation. From one year to the next, anti-Semitism was on the rise. Movements designed to disseminate anti-Jewish venom were founded. Even in our town, a nationalistic group got together. It didn’t make do with just spreading general hatred; rather, it made a point of inciting youth to violent action. These young people would wander about town with the intention of harassing Jews. The streets became unsafe and it was dangerous to go out at night.

In 1938, about a year before the war began, things took a turn for the worse. The Polish prime minister openly supported anti-Semitic sentiments. Moreover, he founded a new populist movement that used state funds to establish clubs to spread the Nazi race doctrine in every city and town. In our town, such a club was founded in a prominent location – right at the central square. A large hall was bedecked with colorful flags and slogans, and it hosted dances with a live orchestra. Most of the town’s younger people flocked there. Even members of decent, respectable families, free of anti-Semitism themselves, were drawn to the club because of the entertainment and varied activities it provided. Meetings would feature lectures on patriotism and devotion to the homeland and spell out all the supposed “damages” inflicted on the Polish people and state by the Jews. Even enlightened youth started to become infected with the Nazis’ racist ideology.

At first it only amounted to passive propaganda, but soon enough it morphed into open and active anti-Jewish acts. A boycott was declared on Jewish shops and enforcers took turns standing in front of Jewish-owned businesses. Their supposed objective was to hand out anti-Semitic literature and persuade shoppers to buy elsewhere, but that was only their cover. In fact, they were armed with clubs and were physically preventing people from entering. If some Jew was naïve enough to complain to the police, he’d be told that according to directives received from on high, it was legally permissible for people to stand and hand out propaganda as long as they were three meters from the front door. Obviously, no policeman ever bothered to come out and check to see where the thugs were standing or to make sure that all they were doing was handing out leaflets.

Jewish property and, later on, Jewish lives lost all legal protection. One of the slogans non-Jews repeated, over and over again, was, “Leave Poland and go to Palestine.” All the young and most of the older Jews as well would gladly have left and immigrated to the land of Israel, but it was impossible. The British mandatory authorities demanded entrance visas known as “certificates.” Only the rich who could demonstrate that they possessed sufficient funds (about one thousand pounds, sterling) were awarded the right to immigrate. In our town hardly anyone qualified. Even those who were rich by local standards had no way of coming up with that amount. Another option was joining a pre-immigration training program run by the Zionist movement and wait for one’s turn to immigrate. The waiting list was very long and the certificates were provided only grudgingly. During all those years, only two people in my town received certificates. One was awarded to my father’s cousin after many years in the pre-immigration training program. All of the Jewish townsfolk were ecstatic and celebrated his good fortune with him. The Zionist movement held a festive goodbye party, where we sang and danced until daybreak. In the morning, a large group accompanied him to the train station. Members of the Zionist group and many others tagged along to wish him a bon voyage. Everyone was happy that at least one townsman was lucky enough to immigrate to Israel. But, of course, this was a drop in the bucket.

Meanwhile, the boycott was working. Many Jewish families were collapsing under the economic strain. Artisans, butchers and scrap dealers working village to village to make a living were coming home beaten and bruised. Those who used to sell their goods at the marketplace knew there was no point in risking showing up. If anyone did dare show up to market, he’d soon run into the boycott enforcers who prevented buyers from approaching, ensuring nothing was ever sold. More than once, the thugs would upend the Jewish-owned stand and steal their goods.

As if suffering at the hands of the boycott enforcers wasn’t enough, the shopkeepers were also easy prey to criminals exploiting the situation to extort money. They’d show up in the evening, after the enforcers had left, supposedly to buy on account without ever intending to settle their debt. If the shopkeeper demanded payment or tried taking his goods back, the criminals would threaten the owner or cause damage to the shop and beat him. In some cases, victims went to the police, but to no avail. The criminals easily enlisted false witnesses, and judges sensing which way the wind was blowing, tended to clear the accused of all charges. In most cases, the plaintiffs were also sued for compensation and court costs.

We learned that the law could no longer protect us. It was impossible to insist on our rights or hope that the damage suffered by a Jew would ever be redressed. If you wanted to defend yourself or fight back, your only option was to die with dignity. We were a helpless minority amid a hostile majority. Most of the town’s Jews simply gave up. They were preoccupied with making a living and easing the hunger they and their children suffered. Jews learned to avoid dangerous locations and taught their children to act meekly and not get into confrontations. They knew it was a lost cause. It was the way that generations of Jews had been brought up. From early childhood, the message was that it was better to lie low and wait for the evil to pass or for the Messiah to arrive.

Poverty had spread to every household. Even Moishele’s home, once so joyful, had become gloomy. His father didn’t sing anymore, his mother wore a sad face and had nightmares whenever her husband went to the villages to practice his craft. Beyond Poland’s borders, the news was grim and getting worse. Germany had annexed Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia and presented Poland with an ultimatum to cede its control of the port city of Gdansk, Poland’s gateway to the Baltic Sea.

Ironically, the tension between Poland and Germany provided rural Jews with a reprieve. The highest echelons of the Polish government had issued a ban on all anti-Semitic propaganda. The boycott enforcers were gone from the front of Jewish-owned stores, the persecution ceased, the anti-Semitic club closed, and its members scattered. As if a magic wand had been waved, all was restored to the way things were before. Popular rage was directed at Germany and Hitler’s gall. But the Jews’ sigh of relief didn’t last long, only until Germany invaded Poland. The Polish government had decided to fight rather than give in to Hitler’s ultimatum.

A general conscription was announced and my father was called up for service. My mother was crying and I was filled with anxiety. My father started to pack and prepared to travel, with my mother helping. Every few minutes she remembered another item that may come in handy on the front. We walked my father to the train. The station was crowded with new conscripts and their well-wishers. The noise and tumult were fierce. Women were weeping, young men accompanied by their girls sang and shouted empty slogans, “One Pole is worth ten Germans.” The train started to move. We stood squashed together in the mass of people and waved, following the train with our eyes until it disappeared into the horizon.

A thought, born of despair, comes into my mind, “Will I ever see my father again?” My mother and I return home. We walk in silence. Now there are just the two of us, because my older sister is in her third year at a boarding school in Warsaw. My heart twinges and tears start to fall from my eyes. I go into my room and lie down on my bed. My mother sits down next to me.

“This is not the first time your father has been called up for military service, you know,” she says, trying to comfort me. “He was also called up for the Great War and see – he came back safely. It happened before we were married. Because of his meritorious deeds, God will watch over him this time too. God willing, he’ll be back home safe and sound.” Her memories overflow and she tells me of my father’s devotion, kindheartedness and gallantry.

Her mind wanders back to their first meeting. It was a long time ago, when she was a young woman and still living with her parents. The times were tough; it was the eve of the Great War. Grandfather Yisrael, her father, had been a contractor and built many houses in a town near Warsaw. He sold the houses he’d built just before the war. But within a short period of time, because of rampant inflation, the money he’d received became worthless. The construction business hit a new low and the family was without an income – a family of seven children with my mother the oldest. She was around twenty years old and had a brutal job in a bakery. It was twenty-four hours a day of work, six days a week, with brief recesses for napping when the bread was in the oven. As if that weren’t enough, her mother, Grandmother Esther, had cancer and there was no money for medicine or a doctor. The cash had already run out and they were selling or pawning every object of value to keep the family alive. The younger children were hungry, constantly crying and begging for food. My mother’s wages were measly. In the meantime, war had broken out and many jobless people were willing to work for a pittance, even just for the chance to feed themselves. The situation was bleak and there seemed to be no way out.

One day, the matchmaker comes to propose a match for my mother. It goes without saying that my mother is vehemently opposed even to listening to what the woman has to say. She is now the sole breadwinner and she can’t abandon the family and think only of herself. To everyone’s surprise and despite her fatal disease, her mother intervenes saying the match was made in heaven. Grandmother Esther reminds everyone that my mother was born prematurely and that there was real reason to think she wouldn’t survive. They were unsure of what to call her: to name her for a relative that had passed away so that that person would be commemorated, but – God forbid! – the infant were to die there would be no way to commemorate that person because it was not the custom to give the same name to yet another child in the family. Having no idea how to resolve the problem, they did what Jews do under such circumstances: they traveled to see the rabbi and ask his advice. And the rabbi, from whom God has no secrets, congratulates them and tells them they have nothing to worry about: “With God’s help, you will live to raise her, see her meritorious deeds, and stand with her under her wedding canopy.”

“And now,” says Grandmother Esther, “his promise is coming true. It’s wrong to challenge destiny. Maybe the wheel of fortune is about to turn, maybe this is the start of something good and luck will again shine on us, and maybe everything will change for the better. The words of the holy rabbi are coming true and the family will be saved,” she says with emotion.

In light of her little speech, the decision is made to accept the matchmaker’s offer, or at least to arrange for an introductory meeting. During the next couple of days and with the baker’s permission, my mother teaches her younger sister, the next child in line, the work so that she can support the family in the meantime.

At the time set for the first meeting, my mother Henya and her parents, Yisrael and Esther, traveled to the matchmaker’s town, which also happened to be where my father lived. The meeting was held in the evening at the home of my father’s father, Eliezer Waldman. Grandfather Eliezer was considered the town squire. His two-story home was made of whitewashed brick and built in a U-shape with a fruit orchard planted in the interior courtyard. The three shops he owned all faced the town’s central square. One shop had been leased and he ran the other two shops himself. One was a grocery and dry goods shop and the other one served as a tavern. He also owned cement and construction material warehouses as well as cellars where they stored ice in the winter to serve as ice box coolant in the summer. The cellars were also used to keep pickled vegetables and various dried and smoked sausages and meats.

Grandfather Eliezer also owned apartments he rented out and in his courtyard he had a gazebo with a roof that opened up like a pair of wings. On the Festival of Sukkot, the residents, neighbors and relatives living in the adjacent apartments would all gather there for the festive meal. Every household head would chant the words to the Kiddush [1] in his own special tune, glasses would be clinked, toasts proposed, songs sung and jokes and stories told. At the end of the meal, everyone would recite grace together. There was joy in that sukka [2].

Indoors, Grandfather had set up a prayer hall, complete with a Torah ark. Family members and residents would hold prayer services there on the Sabbath and during festivals. At the end of the service, all attending would be treated to Kiddush and cake. By breaking down the interior walls, he had also converted one of the ground-floor apartments into a hall to be used by the Zionist movement, the only one of its kind in town. On summer evenings, when the hall’s windows were thrown wide open, songs about Zion could be heard from several blocks away. The Zionist movement gave Hebrew classes and presented plays on biblical themes and the life of the pioneers in the land of Israel.

Before the initial meeting between my mother and her intended fiancé, refreshments of every sort were prepared. The future in-laws quickly found topics of shared interest: Hassidism, the righteous rabbis and lessons from the Torah. They enjoyed a glass of schnapps and nibbled on pastries, but most importantly – the young man took a shine to the young woman and vice versa. Everything was going perfectly. That is, until the talk turned to the young woman’s dowry. A sudden crisis. Grandfather Eliezer was not going to give up: “A bride for Asher, my eldest, without a dowry? Out of the question!”

The two families parted without settling a thing.

At this point, my mother’s eyes cloud with tears. With evident awe and amazement, she recounts my father’s gallantry. “I think it was love at first sight,” my mother says, “because after that first meeting, he couldn’t let me go.”

That night my father lay sleepless. He got out of bed, got dressed and quietly left his room and entered the courtyard. But now he had a problem: he had to scale the fence – a good four meters tall – because Grandfather Eliezer kept the gate locked at night, and my father was afraid to go into his father’s room to take the keys lest he wake him. This would have wrecked the plan he’d hatched. So he climbed over the gate and, at midnight, arrived at the matchmaker’s house where my mother’s family was staying. My father woke them up to propose that they promise a dowry so that he wouldn’t have to defy his father and thus sadden him. “You have to understand,” my mother now says, “that my parents weren’t easily convinced.” The proposal wasn’t to their liking.

“How can we promise a dowry when we don’t have a zloty to our name?” They had only barely covered the cost of the trip to my father’s town, something they were too embarrassed to admit to my father. A dowry meant thousands of zlotys. But my father wouldn’t back down, saying that there’s nothing they actually had to do to fulfill the promise. They should feel free to promise away. First let’s have the betrothal. By the time the wedding comes around – well, God is great and luck could perhaps shine on them once more. “And if, God forbid, you can’t keep your word,” my father continued, “well, no need to worry then either. I’ll think of something. I’ve been in business since I was a kid and I’ll find a way to pay for the dowry if it comes to that.”

Long story short, my father made a good impression on my mother’s parents and managed to persuade them. A dowry was pledged and the betrothal was held the next day. My mother was enchanted by the chivalry of her intended. She saw a man with daring and resolve, and she was flattered by his willingness to forgo a dowry to marry her. Her parents were jubilant at the heaven-sent miracle.

My father kept his promise and helped his future bride’s family as much as he could. When he became aware of just how poor they were, he supported them however he could. He never again spoke of the supposed dowry. Every time he came to visit, he’d redeem the jewelry he had bought my mother as engagement presents, which my mother had pawned to pay for her mother’s doctor and medications. He started employing her younger siblings in all sorts of make-work projects, sending them on deliveries or asking them to tape together bills that got torn from overuse. Inflation was rampant and the money was hardly worth anything, so the paper on which the bills were printed must also have been of poor quality because the bills tore easily. When my father came to visit, he’d bring a suitcase full of bills. He paid handsomely to have them sorted and taped. That way he spared the family the embarrassment and hurt that might have been caused had he offered them outright financial support.

In the meantime, my father is drafted into the army. It is clear he’ll be sent to the front because the war keeps raging. When my father comes to say goodbye to my mother, he finds her deeply anxious. She’s afraid for him, scared that he’ll be hurt, but she also has troubles of her own. She’s saddened by her mother’s illness and her family’s dire economic straits. She’s collapsing under her workload and the effort to support a family of nine, in addition to caring for her dying mother. My father is moved. Without hesitation, he puts all the money he had planned to take with him in my grandmother’s medicine cabinet. He doesn’t say a word about it to my mother; she discovers it later, when he’s already on his way to the enlistment center. Because of this gallantry, my father finds himself in a foreign land, penniless and hungry. But what’s done can’t be undone. The army is on the march, so there’s no point in contacting Grandfather Eliezer for help because my father has no fixed address. There is no steady stream of supplies; whatever arrives comes in dribs and drabs.

After many months of hardship, the war ends. My father comes home, but en route he stops in to see his fiancée – my mother. Grandmother Esther is still bedridden, racked by pain. Her condition has worsened, but her mind is clear. She turns to my father and asks that a wedding date be set in the near future. Among her reasons is that erecting a wedding canopy near a sickbed is a segula [3] for healing.

My mother explains to me that my grandmother knew she had cancer and that there was no cure, but she still clung to her belief in the rabbi’s promise and blessing that she would live to stand with her daughter under the wedding canopy. As long as my mother had not yet been married off, her mother was unable to die in peace. After all, the rabbi had made a promise.

My father and mother are getting married. The huppah [4] is set up next to Grandmother Esther’s sickbed. Obviously, there’s no dowry. Not only that, but my father has lent my grandfather – his new father-in-law – money to lease a large shop in Warsaw. They’ve divided the premises into two: one part is turned into a paint and chemical shop and the other is a grocery store that also sells fresh produce. (The paint and chemical shop is subsequently given as the dowry to the next daughter in line in my mother’s family). My mother’s two youngest sisters run the grocery store. At first, the family’s living comes only from the store’s income, but the situation eases considerably when Grandfather Yisrael (my mother’s father) gets a job on the city’s Jewish Committee. When the third sister gets married, she receives the grocery store, and another shop is bought for sister number four.

My mother’s reminiscing fades away. She comes back to the present and says to me, “See here, we mustn’t lose hope. Despite all the hardships we suffered, Grandmother Esther was right. She didn’t despair and she insisted on listening to the matchmaker. That’s how I met your father, and with his help and God’s help all changed for the better. My family was saved from having to beg and I was blessed with years of love and joy and appreciation… I’m only sorry your grandmother wasn’t similarly blessed…”

Grandmother Esther passed away soon after my parents’ wedding. My mother truly believed that my father’s good deeds – deeds he performed every day of his life – would protect him and that, as had been the case in World War I, God would watch over him this time too so that he’d come back home safe and sound.

In the very first days of the war, just after war with Germany was declared in September 1939, Poland turned into chaos. The Luftwaffe was dropping bombs, paralyzing all modes of transportation: train tracks, bridges and other strategic targets throughout Poland became nothing but rubble. No supplies were being shipped. Long lines formed at grocery stores and fuel and gasoline grew scarce. For days, there were long lines in front of our store too, until everything was sold. The shop had nothing left on its shelves. People were buying everything in sight, but no new shipments were coming in.

I was fourteen and my sister seventeen. She was still in Warsaw, at school, but then directives were broadcast on the radio instructing Warsaw residents to leave the capital and go east. The trains were no longer running and the roads were jammed with cars stuck without gasoline or bombed into wrecks. Enemy planes flew low, gunning down the fleeing civilians. The slaughter was everywhere.

Among those fleeing was my sister. She miraculously survived the bombing and arrived home on foot. When she found out that our father had been called up, she collapsed emotionally. For hours, she alternated between sobbing and laughing until, exhausted, she fell asleep. The sleep did her good. The next day she woke up calm, though sad.

The sky filled with German planes. They spared the town, but bombed the railway line. There was nothing stopping them. The Polish army seemed to have neither an air force nor anti-aircraft defenses. People gathered around the few radio sets in town to listen to the gloomy newscasts.

Twelve or thirteen days after the war broke out, a German armored vehicle drove through our town. Most of Poland was already in German hands, though Warsaw had yet to surrender. Irregular Polish army units and lone soldiers whose units had been destroyed or scattered wandered about with no purpose. Among them was my father, who managed to arrive home.

The situation was unclear. One day German armored cars would drive through town and the next day vanquished Polish army units would be there, withdrawing from the front. One such unit, of about twenty men, decided to stop the advance of the German army in – of all places – our town. Łaskarzew was situated some seventy kilometers southeast of Warsaw and some three hundred kilometers from the German border. It was seven kilometers from the main highway, so it’s not as if it was an important junction or a strategic asset that could have helped stop the inexorable move of the front. There was absolutely no logic to it. The German army bypassed the town and advanced and conquered most of Poland up to the Bug River. At the same time, based on the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, the Russians were advancing from the east and with hardly a battle, seized control of one-third of Poland, up to the Bug. The Germans were already in control of the land west of the river.

A German combat unit was stationed just outside of our town and it started surrounding us from every direction. After several days of preparation, the unit launched its attack. The town was shelled with cannons and heavy artillery. A handful of Polish soldiers had taken up positions they’d prepared in homes located around the central square. Their weapons were meager, consisting of rifles and a few machine guns. After the shelling, the Germans started advancing into town, systematically torching every house they passed.

A few days earlier, my family had moved in with Grandfather Eliezer. The whole family huddled in an interior room that offered better protection against bullets and shell fragments than other parts of the house. On the day of the attack, we lay on the floor listening to nearby shells exploding and the pitiful retorts of the defenders’ light weapons. We shook with fear caused not only by the explosions, but the fear of what awaited us after the German conquest. There was no doubt the town would fall before long.

Close to noon, the neighbor’s roof caught fire. Sparks falling on our own roof flared into flames and it, too, started blazing. My father got his brother and some other men in the house together to go upstairs and put the fire out. The bucket brigade started with the water barrels that had been prepared for just such an eventuality and led to the roof. The buckets were passed up from hand to hand, the water dousing the flames. All the while, the battle raged and bullets and shells shrieked overhead. I watched the men’s heroic actions, and this filled me with a confidence that lasted a long time: every time I felt endangered or distressed, I would remember my father standing on the roof, ignoring the danger, and putting out the fire. It made me think that it takes a long time before one is wounded in action.

Within just a short while, German soldiers burst into the house. Pointing their guns, they ordered all the men outside. The women and children remained indoors. Flames were burning all around; the roof beams were going and the upper story started to burn right above us. Having no choice, my mother, sister and I fled outside and ran down the alleys, flames licking at us all the way. Bullets and shells kept falling all around, but somehow we made it out of town without getting hurt. We reached the stream, crossed it, and lay down in a ditch on the other side. Behind us were just a few grain silos. Our assumption was that the Germans had decided to burn the town and all it contained down to the ground.

We managed to rest only for a few minutes because the shelling started again. This time they were aimed at the silos. Some of the shells landed just a few meters away from us. We got up and started running again. We put considerable distance between us and the town before we lay down in a field to rest. I looked toward the town: flames and thick smoke were rising to the sky. The sun was setting. The red of the evening sky merged with the red of the flames. Together, they created a huge, threatening, crimson stain.

I was terrified for my father, a captive in German hands, along with my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts and all my other relatives. What had become of Rachelka and her family? I thought about the fate awaiting us all with the German conquest. The sun had already set, but the sky was still red. A cool wind made me shiver. We got up to seek shelter in a nearby village. We came to a thatched-roof wooden house. It was a typical rural home for our part of the world. We knocked at the door. An older woman in rustic dress opened the door. She immediately recognized my mother from the shop; she had been one of our steady customers. She welcomed us kindly and asked us in. We were exhausted and asked her if we could climb into her hayloft to rest. She brought us blankets, a loaf of bread, and a pot with warm milk. My mother didn’t eat anything, only sipped a little of the milk. My sister and I shared the bread and drank the soothing milk. I finally stopped shaking and soon fell asleep.

[1]Kiddush (literally “sanctification”) is a blessing recited on the Sabbath and festivals over a cup of wine after sundown and evening prayers and before the evening meal.
[2]A sukka (literally “booth”) is a temporary dwelling with a roof made of greenery, branches, etc., where traditional Jews spend their time during the festival of Sukkot.
[3]A segula (literally “treasure,” “remedy” or “protection”) is a protective or benevolent charm or ritual in Kabbalistic and Talmudic tradition.
[4]Wedding canopy.