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[Page 256]

Without Looking Back

Michael Goldman-Gilad

Translation edited by Lisa Newman

I spent my youth in Katowice, among its streets and gardens, hearing the rough sounds of the Silesian language. What does Katowice mean for me today? My automatic answer would be that today, it means to me a glorious Jewish community that was destroyed, synagogues that were burned to the ground, Jewish schools that were left empty and streets that are as hostile to Jews today as they were in my childhood.

I remember the Berek Joselewicz elementary school, which I attended, where school days regularly ended in brawls with the “HitlerJugend” kids and other anti-Semitic gangs. I remember the Radomsker Rabbi's shtibel, and the great synagogue we attended on the holidays to pray and to listen to lectures from the head Rabbis, Rabbi Fogelman and Rabbi Chameides. And I recall the national park on Kosciuszki Street, where we also had to face antisemitic hooligans, who often taunted Jews during their Saturday walks.

I loved to go by the “Astoria” café, to listen to the orchestra there. Neither I nor the Jewish owner could have known then that Rokita the violist, would later become an S.S. officer, deputy head of the Janowska camp near Lewow, where he was known as one of the cruelest, most heartless murderers of Jews. As a youth I loved the drugstores, and going shopping with my mother, especially before Christmas. Last but not least, I loved the youth group center, where I acquired Jewish pride, and the hope for a speedy Jewish national salvation through our yearned-for land of Israel. This whole early life was cut off for me suddenly one day, at the end of August 1939. We took a few light bags and a key, and left our house forever

Katowice was conquered by the Nazis in early September, but many of the Jews escaped east even earlier. My family went to the town of Przemysl, where we stayed with relatives. Two weeks after our arrival, the Germans conquered the area. Special S.S. units that followed the Wehrrmacht arrested and executed 500 of the community leaders.

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Michael Goldman-Gilad, as pupil in the Berek Joselewicz School

 

Shortly after that, the Soviet powers entered eastern Poland, including the area where we were, as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. The Russians didn't treat the Jewish refugees well; they were considered politically dangerous, and most, including Jews from Katowice and Silesia, were transported to eastern Russia, where they lived in extremely rough conditions. My father paid a lot of money to one of the local officers to buy us Russian identities to avoid this banishment. It was impossible for us to know back then that exile to Russia could turn out to be a life saver.

My older brother was recruited into the Soviet army in the spring of 1941. We lost all contact with him until 1960, when I found him in Russia, 19 years after he was believed to have died. Today he lives in Israel, a survivor of Stalin's Soviet hell.

After two years of relative peace, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1944. The Jews were once again the immediate victims. Many Jews were tortured, shot and even murdered in brutal riots two days after the invasion, mostly by the locals, while the Polish citizens watched and enjoyed. Then the extermination began. Gradually, persistently and with German precision.

I was assigned to do forced labor, building a bridge over the San River. At 17, hungry, freezing and dressed in rags, I became the only provider for my family. The little money I earned bought us just two loaves of bread a week. In exchange for my mother's jewelry, we bought some potatoes and oil that somehow got us through the winter of '41-'42.

In the spring of 1942 I was taken to a labor camp, that later became a concentration camp. The camp was supervised by the mass murderer Joseph Scwamberger, who was tracked down in Argentina after the war and was brought to trial in Germany. I left my parents and little sister; I saw them only once more, for the last time, on July 26nd, 1942, when they were brought with thousands of other Jews from the ghettos around Przemyslany, and put on trains. I never thought that would be the last time I'd see them, nor that they were headed to their last stop, to Belziec.

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Michael Goldman-Gilad in Soviet tankist uniform
during the period of battle against the Nazis

 

I never saw them again, though they are always on my mind. I will always regret not doing anything to take them off the train, or at least to join them for their last moments. I will be haunted to my last day on earth by my sister Golda'leh's blue eyes, by the frightened look that was in them; by my father's stubborn silence and my ill mother's acceptance of the situation, as if she knew it was the end of her struggle for existence. I was no better than them (quite the contrary, in fact) and I don't know why I was the one who was spared.

Our camp was closed down in September 1943; at the same time the ghetto was closed down, not without resistance. The camp was relocated to the west, near Krakow, to the infamous camp of Shwenja that was controlled by a beast, SS officer Gzimek. During one of his tantrums, he beat me 80 times, an episode that was brought as evidence at Eichmann's trials, and that inspired the motion picture “the 81st hit”.

About two months after our arrival, some 4,000 prisoners were removed and taken to Auschwitz in cattle cars. In documents that were recovered after the war, our shipment is recorded as follows: “November the 5th 1943.brought on an RSHA shipment 3898 Jews from Shwenja labor camp. After selection, 952 men (no.s 160.879-161.830) and 396 women (no. 6.72-67.097) were imprisoned. The other 2550 were killed by gas.” (Auschwitz records, no. 4, page 145). These numbers show that an additional 102 prisoners died on the way.

I was among the lucky ones who passed Doctor Mengele's selection on the ramp in Birkenau. An 18 year old prisoner, a nameless number 161135, a nobody, whose murder would simply win his killer extra cigarettes.

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The Auschwitz camp and its many branches were all located near Katowice. Many of the S.S. soldiers who served there spoke a Silesian dialect of German, and many of the kapos, the deadly guards, were either Silesian Germans, or “Volks Deutsche”, half-Poles who “joined” the Aryan nation. I met residents I knew from Katowice, who were employed as citizens at the “I.G. Farben” plant. Some were outright anti-Semitic, and didn't hide their feelings, but others recognized me as a former neighbor, and showed certain regret for my situation.

 

Katowice and Auschwitz

Katowice, the district's capital, was also made the Gestapo's headquarters in the area; the activity in all of the Auschwitz camps was managed and monitored from Katowice, apart from certain operational activities that were supervised directly by the RSHA office in Berlin, and that were reported to Himmler, Heidrich and Eichmann.

Katowice was one of the first cities in conquered Poland to have become “Judenrein” (cleared of Jews) within the first couple of months after the invasion. The first political prisoners were sent to Auschwitz from Katowice by the local Gestapo. The transport consisted of 23 prisoners, and arrived in the camp on June 22, 1940. In November 40 political prisoners were executed, as a penalty for sabotage activities performed against the German police in Katowice. The list of names was filed by Katowice's Gestapo unit.

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From left to right: Avraham Sirota in the Polish Army uniform, Ilonka Berber from Katowice
Michael Goldman-Gilad in Soviet tankist uniform, and another couple from Katowice

 

[Page 260]

In January 1941 Heinrich Himmler visited Katowice and authorized the opening the I.G. Farben compound, to make use of the cheap available labor force at hand, the Auschwitz prisoners. In July,1942 the mass expulsion of Jews from the ghettos of Sosnowiec, Bendzin and other cities to Auschwitz began, in the presence of Adolph Eichmann, and under the supervision of the city's Gestapo head officers: Dr. Scheifer, Dr. Knobloch and ubersturmfuhrer Alfred Drier. Most of them were taken straight to the gas chambers, in order to test those facilities for the mass murders that were to follow

A work contract was signed in July 1942 between the local Gestapo and two construction companies: “Huta Hoch und Tiefbau Lenz Co.”, and “Schles Industriebau”, for the construction of two large cremation facilities, in addition to those already in operation. The price of each facility was 133,756.65 German marks. At Katowice's bank, the finances of the Auschwitz camps were managed in an account under the name “S.S. Standort Verwaltug Auschwitz”.

UnterSturmfuhrer Ernest Grbner, Head of the S.S. Political department, was a member of the Katowice headquarters, to which he returned in December 1943 upon completing his despised role in Auschwitz. Adolph Eichmann paid frequent visits to the Gestapo building in Katowice. I heard of one of these visits in 1960 from the holocaust writer Yechiel DiNur (Ka Tzetnik), another former Auschwitz prisoner whom I met as a police officer and a member of the 06 chamber, which investigated Eichmann and gathered evidence against him. Katzetnik later testified in his trial, but didn't manage to speak about the details he had informed me of earlier, because he passed out just moments after starting his shocking testimony of “Planet Auschwitz”.

 

Escape and Revenge

In January 1945, as the Soviet frontline drew nearer to the German border, prisoners were being evacuated from camp in mass numbers. On the night of January 17 I left along with 14,000 other prisoners on one of the most horrific death marches in the history of the camps. In a line that stretched for miles, we walked an entire night through snow and freezing cold, surrounded by armed S.S. men and their dogs. Those whose legs couldn't bear them, and who fell to the ground, were rolled to the side of the road and shot.

We walked more than a hundred kilometers that night. The shooting was constant. At sunlight we arrived at an abandoned camp in Gliewic. After a short rest, we proceeded. We were taken in open train carts, squeezed together like cattle, with no food or water, and heavy snow falling on our bare heads.

After about two hours, we were taken down and resumed marching. I reached the edge of my strength, and decided that attempting escape would surely be better than just letting myself fall. At night, while we were passing through the village of Wielopole, I managed to sneak out of the line, literally dragging with me another friend with whom I had marched the entire time. We hid in a barn attic for six days and nights, behind a farmer's house. It turned out that he knew we were there, and secretly sent his daughter with bread and milk for us while we stayed in hiding, an obvious risk for the entire family.

village was conquered by the Soviet troops on January 26. We came out of the attic, walking as if in a dream. We still didn't know what was the end of the other prisoners, until a couple of months later the bodies, about 1,000 of them, were found in the snow somewhere south of the village. It turned out these were all prisoners from our march.

events following our escape are described in the memoirs of Mr. David Stein, former Auschwitz prisoner no. A-8550, who marched with us: “We arrived at the end of the village. There was a crossroad- one road led to another part of the village, and the other curved left. We took the latter.

road led into the thickest of the woods. We could already hear shooting in the distance, and I realized that the frontline must be nearby. Suddenly I heard an S.S. soldier shouting for all the Germans to step out of line. These were German prisoners, who were taken out of jail and became kapos and supervisors inside the camps. As soon as they stepped out of line, the S.S. officers handed them guns.

[Page 261]

the meanwhile, I saw that the SS soldiers escorting us had put on camouflage gear and entered the woods; anyone could tell it was the beginning of the end. Suddenly we heard loud machine guns. A few people, myself included, responded automatically by running into the woods. The S.S. men shot at us to go down, a shot in our direction. I lay down in the snow, and I felt someone tripping and falling on top of me. “This bullet missed me,” I thought, and waited for the next bullet which wouldn't miss…

The machine guns were harvesting bodies for a long while, and I kept on lying down in the snow, motionless, with my heart and mind working full speed. The shooting stopped eventually, and silence returned. I heard footsteps nearby. These could only have been the S.S. men, returning after their mission of murder was completed. I was shivering with anxiety. Luckily, they didn't notice me, but a few minutes later another S.S. officer approached me. He turned my head up. By then, the blood and brain spatters from the dead man lying on top of me had spilled all over my face and frozen, and so I just held my breath and didn't move. I sensed that they were doing something with me and the dead body, and then it went quiet again. I fell asleep out of exhaustion and excitement. When I woke up, it was nighttime. I tried to get up but couldn't, and realized that I was neatly wrapped in a blanket with the dead man. I just barely managed to raise myself. My limbs were frozen, and with great pain I somehow managed to start the slow march from the woods to the village…”

The survivor then continues to describe how he got to the village, escaped the S.S.'s search for survivors of the slaughter, and eventually found shelter, until he was finally released by the advancing Soviet army. He was taken to a hospital; as his thumbs were frozen and gangrenous, they were all amputated. After he recovered, he returned to his hometown, Satmer, Hungary, from where he finally travelled to Israel in 1962. David Stein closes his terrifying memoir with the following words: “I had to write this down, in order for the upcoming generation to know and remember what happened to the Jews in Europe during the Nazi reign. Everything that happened to us, happened because the Jews had no place to go; we didn't have a country! We mustn't forget that! Have we learned our lesson?”

To this day, there are long lines of mass graves in the woods near Wielopole, the graves of my brothers in sorrow and suffering, whose fate had been so cruel, whose redemption was so close, and who were murdered merely days before they could have been saved.

I went to the Soviet army headquarters and asked to volunteer about a month after I was released. I had to go through a series of unpleasant inquiries, but finally I joined a scout unit. After I was wounded, I was transferred to the artillery, where I fought until the end of the war. I was wounded again during the battles over Prague. Our unit then moved to the town of Stetin, on the Baltic shore, and from there, upon receiving a special leave, I headed to the newly re-conquered Katowice.

 

My visit in Katowice- 1945

There was no clear purpose to my visit to my hometown. I didn't know quite what I was looking for. I realized I wasn't going to find any family members, and knew that our old apartment's doors wouldn't just open up for me. I doubted the possibility of finding any Jews there at all, and was convinced that our non-Jewish neighbors from the past wouldn't be happy to see me. Yet, for some reason I was attracted to this city. Maybe I wanted to see it conquered and humiliated. Maybe I just wanted to walk its streets in a Soviet uniform, as an invader, to feel the opposite of what I had felt just months ago, when I left it as a persecuted man, and stood in front of the “Herren Volk” representatives like a leper.

When I arrived, the first place I went to see was the great synagogue on Mickewicza Street. I looked for the temple's dome from a distance, and was deeply disappointed to find no trace of this once magnificent building. Nothing was left of it.

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When I asked passersby in German what had happened to the temple, they replied that the synagogue was burned down and destroyed immediately after the Germans entered Katowice in September 1939 and then… they quickly turned away. The local marketplace buildings were situated nearby. They were half ruined, and not functioning as a marketplace at the time. There were still signs of looting on many of the stands: scattered cans and boxes, flour bags torn open and even liquor bottles here and there. Groups of Soviet soldiers patrolled around the market square, which was guarded by the military police.

I walked about randomly for a while, picked up two bottles of wine from the floor, and then continued towards our old apartment. After a ten minute walk, I found myself in front of our doors, and my heart was racing as I rang the doorbell. I wanted to believe that my mother was right behind it, waiting to hug me. That illusion vanished in a second, as the door was answered by a frightened lady, who asked for my intent in German. I answered in German, and told her that she needn't worry, that I just lived in this apartment once and would like to take a look at it. When the door opened, I saw a woman in her 30's, and two frightened children behind her. I calmed them down, and assured them that I only wished to check whether any of our belongings were left. The woman led me through the rooms, but as I saw the empty walls, the bare windows and meager furniture I couldn't find a trace of what once was our warm, lively home.

The woman explained that she had lived there from 1941, ever since she had lost her husband, a German soldier, and that the apartment was empty when they moved in. She may have been speaking the truth, but in any case, after finding nothing familiar there but the walls, I wasn't interested. Before I left I assured her that I had no intention of reclaiming the apartment. She thanked me with tears in her eyes, and I couldn't understand why she was crying.

From there, I went to the apartment of our old neighbor, Fritz Neugbauer, who had been an engineer at the local electric company. He was an elderly man, and we had lived as neighbors in relative calm until a few months before the war; right after his wife died, he had hung a picture of Adolf Hitler in his study.

The door was opened by Mrs. Freda, the housekeeper of whom I had good memories. Fritz stood in the hall and stared at the door. Both of them recognized me as soon I removed my helmet, but while Frida was happy, Fritz grew pale and showed obvious signs of fear. I reassured him that I had only come to announce that the Goldman family wasn't entirely wiped out, and to let them know that I had survived, in case someone else who also escaped being murdered came looking for survivors. I was invited to stay for dinner, during which Mr. Neugbauer repeatedly tried to convince me that he wasn't a Nazi, and that he had had no idea of what was being done to the Jews. I didn't believe him, as I didn't believe any of them.

The following day, I paid a visit to the office of the local Jewish committee. I inquired about relatives and acquaintances, but didn't find anything. Most of the committee members weren't originally from Katowice, and, to be honest, I didn't like them much. Later on, as I walked the streets, a Polish soldier came up to me. When we drew near, we recognized each other and hugged. It was Avraham Serota, a classmate of mine, who had also been saved miraculously and had come to Katowice in search of surviving family members. We decided to go and visit our old school the next day. The “tram” brought us there quickly. We went to see the classrooms, and specially the one of the last seventh grade, in which we learned together till July 1939. It was only six years earlier and yet seemed like generations ago.

A couple of days later I left the city and never returned, although I did spend a few months in the next town Gliwice, right after I was discharged.

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On the road to Israel

I left Poland in March 1946 for Germany, to board one of the illegal ships sailing for Israel from European seaports. Europe was nothing but one big cemetery to me, and I had nothing left there. After a short stay in Munich, the “escape” organization transferred me to Italy, and in May of 1947 I joined other immigrants on the ship Hatikvah (“The Hope”). After a battle with two British warships near the Israeli coast, our ship was taken to Haifa port, from which I and another 1,400 immigrants were banished to a detention camp in Cyprus on the ship “Ocean Vigor”. I spent 20 long months behind the fences. Watching over us from the guarding towers were no S.S. soldiers, for a change, but British soldiers of Great Britain, a country that had once promised to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Israel… I was freed in late 1948, and finally became a citizen of the free Jewish state.

 

Poland and I

Over the years, I travelled the world a lot, mostly as an emissary of the Israeli state and its institutions. I also made personal trips and toured many countries, but from the day I came to Israel not once did I set foot on Polish soil. I don't miss it, just as I don't miss my hometown of Katowice. I have no reason or justification to miss the land I was born in, as sad as this fact is…

When I chance to meet Jews who came to Israel from different countries, countries such as the United States, England and countries in Latin America, I often envy the way they feel about their homelands, the warmth and nostalgia with which they talk of their childhoods there. I wish I could feel the same, I wish I could tell my children and my native Israeli wife of Poland's green fields, of its rivers and forests, its culture and poetry, of the great city I grew up in. But how can I tell these stories, when Poland's fields remind me of the camps, its cities the ghettos, and its forests heaps of dead bodies? How can I tell them of the Polish people, without remembering the “Spitzels” who were looking for Jews outside the ghetto walls like beasts lurking for prey, in order to blackmail and then turn them in? How can I forget the man who asked me “How come they didn't kill you yet?”. I know that I shouldn't generalize. There were others too, people who saved Jews at the risk of losing their own lives. I was saved this way myself, by a family of peasants in that distant village, Wielopole. Yes, there were others, but they were so few, so different from the rest, so extraordinary…

Should I decide to go there one of these days, it will only be in order to show my family the places where I went through such great suffering, the empty yards on which magnificent temples once stood, and the Jewry of Poland, which can now only be reflected through hundreds of thousands of tombstones in the cemeteries of Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice and other cities. If I return to Poland, it will be so that they can cross with me the railroads that led our dearest ones to their deaths; so that they can travel the roads we walked on the death march. And all of this will be in order for them to understand why we cling to Israel's independence so dearly, and why we are so anxious about its strength and very existence.

 

Instead of an Epilogue

Writing about Katowice was difficult for me, and telling my personal story was even harder. For a long time I doubted my ability to carry out this mission. I wrote down exactly what I felt. I wrote because I find it my duty, a debt we owe those tens of thousands from our city who didn't make it. Katowice was beautiful, its streets were clean, and Jewish culture once blossomed in it. Its community was well-organized, its Rabbis were famous and respected even by non-Jews, but all of this is gone now. Therefore, I have nothing to do with it today. Memories are all that's left. Some of them are pleasant, but mostly they are tragic. We shall remember the good ones, and mourn the rest.

I'm honored to conclude this article with an excellent piece of poetry, written by Dr. Naomi Fogelman, the Katowice-born poet and daughter of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Fogelman, who today lives in Tel Aviv:

“Our senses rusted,
Can once-living leaves rust…?
Nuances of toned beauty
Guard orphan strings,
At the side of a weeping holy ghost.”


[Page 264]

The 81st strike

Josef Chrust

Translation edited by Lisa Newman

Michael Gilad, then Goldman, was a boy prisoner at the Przemysl camp when he was beaten 80 times with a whip that had a lead knob on the end. The man who beat him was the camp commander, S.S. HauftScharfuhrer Franz Joseph Schwamberger.

Today, Gilad is a married man of 64, and a high ranking official at the Jewish Agency. Previously he headed department B in Police chamber 06, the department that prepared the grounds and gathered information for the arrest of Adolf Eichmann. Gilad was one of the two officers who witnessed Eichmann's execution, the burning of his body and the scattering of his ashes into the sea.

Schwamberger would use his whip on people regularly. Prisoners whom he struck 25 times, if they survived, were immediately removed to the non-worker's ghetto, where their execution was merely a matter of time and output. Then came Michael Goldman's turn. The Jewish boys had been sent to clear the house of the deputy manager of the train station, a converted Jew who had been executed several days earlier. There were many books about trains and railways in the house, and the boy didn't want the Nazi to get hold of them, as he knew they were using trains to send Jews to death camps. It was a mistake, since the Nazis actually had searched the apartment in the past, and were quite interested in these books. The boys hid the books in a few safe places.

Two days later, Goldman was called to report to Schwamberger. After a brief interrogation, throughout which the boy didn't confess, Schwamberger ordered one of his helpers to bring a bench, and the beating began. The boy passed out after 12 strikes, and when he regained consciousness, he realized he was still being beaten, and passed out again, while the lead knob continued to cut into his flesh. After it was all over, he just barely walked to the booth's entrance, where he collapsed on the floor. Someone bandaged his wounds, and surprisingly enough, the bare flesh began to heal. A few days later he learned that he had taken 80 strikes.

Years later, in Israel, he had a conversation with a famous person. They talked in Yiddish. For some reason, Gilad told the man the story of the beating. The man listened, then turned to his wife and said, in Hebrew: “these poor men have been through so much that they can't tell reality from fantasy”. Gilad understood his words, as he knew some Hebrew, and it was enough to cause him to withdraw and close himself up about the beating for the next twenty years.

During Eichmann's trial, Gilad chanced to meet one of the witnesses who were summoned to testify, Doctor Bushminsky; it turned out that he was the doctor who had bandaged his wounds after the beating. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Bushminsky testified on the stand: “As a doctor, I believe that a young boy could not possibly survive more than 50 whip strikes. I know of only one exception, in which a boy was beaten 80 times with a whip, and still remained alive.” The prosecutor, Dr. Hausner, asked whether he could see this boy in the courtroom; Bushminsky pointed without hesitation at the police officer who sat next to Hausner himself, Michael Goldman.

During the break that followed the doctor's testimony, the prosecutor complained to Goldman about never having told him the story of his beating. In reply, Goldman related the traumatic conversation he had had with that certain person 20 years ago and said that to him, the man's words were the 81st strike he had received. The famous writer Chaim Guri who covered Eichmann's trial for “Lamerhav” newspaper used this theme in his reknowned movie, “The 81st strike”.

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The identification marking of the youth who received 80 lashings

 


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Car number 62

Dr. Nathan Grinboim

Translation edited by Lisa Newman

“I didn't steal! I didn't mean to put these people's lives in danger! I didn't want to take away their last hope!” I woke up from a nightmare. My forehead was sweaty, my body shivering; surges of confusion and embarrassment filled me. An Israeli sun was smiling at me from outside the window, and bright light crept in through the shades. I calmed down slowly, gradually catching my breath. I was dozing off when my thoughts transferred me to another place, not that distant time and space, and yet so dark and different.

Teheran in 1942 appeared as if there was no war in the world, as if the shortages and the distress, the thunder of artillery and explosives belonged on another planet. Its trees were covered with fresh leaves and its streets filled with new, foreign faces. Women, children and elderly men, all of them dressed strangely, walked about and didn't blend in. A mixture of tongues was heard on these streets now, a blend of Polish Yiddish and Russian; some spoke German and even Hebrew. We dragged our feet in between the dazzling display windows on Lazzler Street. The underground Bazaar's alleys blinded us with a wealth of gold, silver and diamonds. After the Kolkhoz in Afghanistan, after the Siberian snow, the distant village at the thickest of the woods, the hunger, the thirst and the constant anxiety, after hundreds of miles travelled by train and weeks of wandering, after the exhausting labor of cotton picking and channel digging, after all of this, the transition was too quick, too extreme.

We were housed in tents in a military base just outside Teheran; there were hundreds of tents in neat rows, on both sides of the tiled paths. It was still hard to believe, that we were allowed to move from place to place, to walk out of the gate and march into the city, to enjoy the fresh air and the locals' warm welcome. Suddenly we could relish the scents, enjoy the sights, talk and laugh in loud voices and fall into a heavy sleep and dream…

“I didn't steal! I didn't mean to put these people in danger! I didn't want to take away their last hope!” Threads of sleep still covered my eyes, and a blazing light was blinding me. My stomach cramps, a bland taste in my mouth. Something was pushing inside my throat. Where am I?

It was an odd Passover eve. We sat on the floor, on mattresses. Before us were shiny copper bowls, all filled with delicacies- heaps of vegetables, rice and meat, as well matzo breads. Our hosts, a Jewish Persian family did everything they could for us to have a pleasant evening. All of their movements were graceful, and their expressions always kind. We couldn't understand one another's language, and though an occasional Hebrew word was said, their accent was too weird for us to understand.

At the synagogue, the chandeliers cast a bright light. The stage was decorated, and a dozen richly patterned mats covered the floors and the walls. We waited to hear the cantor's voice, but it turned out that there were many cantors: Most of the prayers were sung by the entire crowd, together. We couldn't understand a thing, from the order of the service to its structure and style. Was it just our strangeness, or a deeper embarrassment?

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It was the first time in two years that we could sleep comfortably; we finally went to sleep undisturbed and satisfied, even overfed. I was used to being constantly nauseous, thanks to the endless traveling, by trains, on horseback and by wagon. The last journey that brought us to Teheran was the worst. We drove through a winding, narrow mountain path, dozens of us crowded onto a wagon with no seats.

We were struck by ravenous hunger earlier as well, when we stopped at the Persian port city of Phalaway. Our hollow, empty stomachs digested massive amounts of dates and dried figs; some of it we bought in exchange for our few belongings, and the rest was stolen by Avrahamle from the merchants that crowded around us like bees. Some were seeking to hear news from Russia, and others simply tried to sell to us. As tired as we were, we were still able to satisfy their curiosity. We communicated mainly through gestures, and also in bits of broken Russian and German, which some of the merchants spoke.

Sailing from Kresnovodsk to Phalaway took an entire night; a sleepless, night full of excitement. We couldn't believe we were really on our way out, that we were leaving Russia for good. We couldn't grasp that our time of hardship and insults, fear and despair, was finally over. We reached a safe coast near dawn. The harbour was still sleepy. While waiting for the trucks to take us to Teheran, we lay down flat on the ground and fell asleep.

“I didn't steal! I didn't mean to risk these people's lives!” What happened less than 12 hours earlier returned to me, and disturbed my conscience. How did I dare play with others' lives? Was it right to put 60 souls in danger, in order to save two? I was restless with regret, until finally the sun rose and brought me some relief, and good Avrahamale showed up with a packet of dried figs in his hand.

I traveled many roads after leaving Katowice in 1939. The war caught me in Bzozow, my father's hometown, where I spent time with my cousins. I left the city on foot with my father and brother, and we fled east, with the German army quickly advancing behind us. We then rented a wagon, and made our way east, trying to avoid the German bombings and the Polish bullets, until we were stopped by Russian forces that were moving in to conquer eastern Poland. After a few days by train we arrived at my aunt's house in Rozdul, near Lwow. It was there that we were caught, on a June night, by Soviet soldiers and were dragged to the train station. After a few weeks' journey we reached asino, a city in Siberia. From there we were taken on a steamboat, and then by foot through the forests, to the end of the world, a single shack that stood in the woods, with a pit in the ground and a hanging rope above it…

After a year we were relocated, to a kolhoz near the city of Shechriziabezk, south of Tashkent; and once again had to go through a tough journey of a couple of weeks, from Siberia's forests to the plains of Khazakhastan and Uzbekistan. This was the last straw: the cotton picking was rather entertaining at first, but then became merely depressing, bone-breaking labor. The work was hard, and the food insufficient: we received two pita breads for a day's work. The canal diggers were paid five pitas, so we went to do digging. The fatiguing work weakened our bodies, and soon enough we caught typhus. When we were released from the hospital, with nothing but the clothes we were wearing, we found out that everything we had left at the kolhoz had been stolen. We were left exhausted, with no belongings and no means of survival in a strange country.

Our salvation came from the Polish army. When the German attack grew harsher, the Russians had decided to recruit Polish citizens. A recruiting office was opened in the nearby town, and my older brother enrolled while my father and I were in the hospital. We were able to get some food in a kitchen at one of the military bases, that was feeding Polish citizens. Yet, our situation was beyond bearable.

[Page 267]

Things grew even harder after my brother was sent away to the Polish military base in Guzar, miles away from where we were staying. And then came the news: the Polish soldiers in Andreas' army were about to be sent to the middle east, and so all 'military families' who had a son in this army were to be transferred to Persia. An office was opened, and people went to register for the trip. The line was long. A clerk sat behind the window and checked the requests. when I came up, he asked for my last name and declared, upon hearing it, that “Jews were no longer accepted.” I was only 14 years old back then, but life had already taught me to be wary of the future. I knew what was in store for my father and me, should we not manage to get on the list and join the convoy: The Polish army would leave, as would my brother and his brigade, and what about us?

We started by foot behind the luggage wagons, seven kilometers to the train station, where a train to Kresnovodsk was waiting to take the families. Those who were listed received supplies for the road, bread, cans of food and groceries. We got nothing. We squeezed into one of the cars, and my eye caught the number 62. Where will we end up this time? Finally, the train started moving, and we were inside. The sound of the wheels on the track banged against my ears like a hammer. Hours passed; at dinner time, people reach for their bags, and all we could do was swallow our own saliva.

I looked around me. Seated, standing and lying around the car were skinny and tormented people. Most of them were Jews who had somehow made it onto the list. Their clothes were shabby, their few belongings carefully wrapped in small parcels. This ride was their last hope: should they not make it to Persia, should they be left in Russia, they were destined to die. They would have no chance of recovery.

After two days of a tiresome, despairing yet hopeful trip, we finally reached our destination. The city was crowded with people; our train alone had 70 cars with dozens of women, children and elderly men in each. The people walked about the streets, trading goods. Someone got a guitar in exchange for a watch. Music was playing, and someone began to sing. Fog covered my eyes, after sleepless nights and days without eating: would we really be able to leave with everyone?

We stayed close to the people from our car. I followed the man who held the passenger list; I knew that we weren't on it. At first I thought I'd convince the man to add us, but decided not to risk it. Night fell, and people gathered at the port, where the ship to freedom was anchored.

The passengers formed groups on the platform, according to their car numbers. Dozens of soldiers and police officers stood on the platform, their colorful, ironed uniforms as stiff as those who wore them. They looked at every passenger and checked the papers they were holding. They began calling groups to board the ship, starting with car number 1.

As the groups were called up, we grew more and more anxious. “Car number 14! Number 15!” The names were shouted one by one, and every man whose name was called had to leave the group, walk down the marked path, and have the officers examine his face and check his papers before he was let on board. “Number 26! Number 27!” They weren't going to call our names. What are we going to do, alone and empty handed in this strange city? “Car number 38!”.

I made a sudden decision and sneaked behind the man with the list, secretly following his movements. “Car number 50! 51!”. People crowded behind the supervisor, moving in blocs in the dark. I could see a single torch casting light over the list in the supervisor's hand. He was calling one name at a time. All of a sudden, a cloud crossed the sky and hid the moon for a few seconds, putting the crowd in shadow. I reached for the man's pocket. The list was in there; the folded paper shone white, as though wishing to be grabbed. With a racing heart, I decided to help it. Dizzy with hesitation, I couldn't tell whether I was doing the right thing at all. Would they let us on board without the list? Was I not closing our last window of hope?

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“Car number 55!” I could hear the commander shout. The car supervisor took the list out of his pocket, and began to call the names. I already had our car's list in my hand. I sneaked off quickly and stepped away from the crowd. Without a sound, I drew near the water, my movements muffled by the wind and the waves. The torn shreds of paper silently hummed a song of freedom as they sank into the water.

“Car number 60!” I walked faster. A few more steps and I was within the crowd again, clinging to my father and holding his hand. “Car number 62!” called the commander. The crowd froze for a second. All eyes were on the supervisor, who reached for his pocket. He then tried his other pocket, the coat's inner pockets: “The list is gone.” He got confused for a second, and then cleared a circle around himself and searched on the floor. Then, with the slightest hesitation, he told the commander: “These are the people of car 62”, and pointed at the group of people that surrounded him. The commander scanned him from head to toe with his eyes, and then raised his hand and ordered: “Let them on board!”.

My father squeezed my hand. I felt a surge of immense heat going through my body; my heart beat like a thousand hammers. Together, we moved forward with the gradually dissolving group of people, until we reached the bridge and fell into the ship.

A gentle knock on the door shakes me out of my passing thoughts. Sara, my counselor at the youth village stepped inside, accompanied by my friend Avrahamale. “What happened?” Sara asked, “Everyone has already finished breakfast!” Avrahamale approached the bed, and with a mischievous wink handed me a packet of dried figs.

kat268.jpg
Moses and the tablets by Szmuel Solc

 

 

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