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[Pages 55-66, English section]

[Pages 128-140, Yiddish section]

Saved By A Peasant Family

by Albert Greenbaum

 

gome055.jpg
Albert Greenbaum

 

Chapter One

The Germans Occupy Gombin

On the twenty-fourth of August, 1939, at seven-thirty in the morning, I received a draft notification to report within two hours to the town hall for induction.  From there, they sent me to Warsaw, to join the 21st Infantry regiment. Nobody believed, at the time, that a war was imminent. Our regiment was sent to the Mlawa region, near the East-Prussian border.

When several days later the war did in fact break out, there was not a stable front. The Germans bombarded us day and night, with airplanes, artillery, armored cars and tanks. They did not permit us a moment's respite. We were constantly retreating under the pressure of their fire that inundated us from all sides. When the German steamroller finally came to a stop, our regiment, like the rest of the Polish army, fell apart. I changed into civilian clothes and started on foot for Gombin, walking approximately fifty kilometers a day.

My parents who thought I had perished in the war were naturally overjoyed when they saw me. But soon after my homecoming, in the early hours, in fact, I was struck by the havoc caused by the Germans; half the town was in ruins from the bombardment.

The real hell began when the Germans occupied Gombin. Jewish life became worthless. The Germans kept issuing new orders, but worse than the restrictions was that a German could approach a Jew in the street, beat him savagely and rob him.

Then they began seizing Jews in the streets and pressing them into work gangs, rewarding them with blows and abuse.

On a certain day, I was attacked, near our house, by the son of the Polish stone-cutter. He kicked my head with his boots repeatedly; I thought at the time, I would lose my hearing. He would have killed me had it not been for my mother who, tears in her eyes, pleaded with him to let me go. Another time, when I worked for the town hall, a German peasant who lived on the outskirts of Gombin, Mundt by name, dragged me inside the building. There, three Germans flung themselves at me and beat me until I lost consciousness. Then they poured cold water over me and threw me out in the street.

The civilian Germans, our neighbors for many years, began to cast covetous eyes at our store at the very beginning of the occupation. But the German command let us keep the business until the end of 1940. By a stroke of good fortune, my brother later was taken on as a bookkeeper by a German and when he came home from work, he brought eggs, butter and potatoes.  During that period he got married and his wife bore him a son, Izho, a very handsome boy who brought a bit of comfort and joy during those black and hopeless days. But even during the early months of his life, the boy acquired our fears.  Each time the door opened, his eyes opened wide, filled with panic. Only when he saw it was one of us did he calm down and smile.

 

Chapter Two

1940: In A Forced Labor Camp

In April or May, 1940, we already wore the yellow Star of David on our clothes. One night when I was fast asleep, the door of my room was smashed by a hand of Germans. They ordered me to dress quickly and dragged me to the marketplace, to a building which once housed the Bund library. Fifty terrified Jews were on the premises, when I was brought in, waiting to find out their fate. On the following morning, my mother and brother came and brought me some clothing and a little food. Soon several German S. S. men descended on us, whips in hand, formed two lines and made us run the gauntlet, beating us mercilessly as we ran, with whips, sticks and cudgels. Under the hail of blows we were chased toward waiting trucks then driven away to Gostynin. There, along with 300 Jews, we were flung inside a church. The doors were locked and we were left inside for twenty-four hours. We were crowded together, barely able to move, without a drop of water, without the most elementary sanitary facilities. It is impossible for me to describe what went on in the steaming, choking place. People simply went wild and many almost lost their minds.

On the following day, we were chased inside the trucks again, guarded by Germans with machine-guns. They drove us to Wloclawek and from there by freight-train to the work-camp Amsee, where we were “greeted” on arrival with fearful blows. Nursing our blows, hungry, thirsty, we were roused at dawn and dragged away to dig slit trenches. It was necessary to dig the trenches two meters in depth, one in width. The work began at six in the morning and not until evening did we receive a black liquid which they called coffee and two slices of bread. After returning from work, we received a plate of soup and a slice of bread. The cook, a Pole, beat over the head any Jew who dared ask for an additional spoonful of soup.

The head of the camp was a German, a former prizefighter. One of his diversions was to select a couple of victims whom he beat until they fell unconscious. To wash ourselves, we bad to go outside. The camp was infested with insects and vermin. After several weeks even the healthiest were unrecognizable.  On a certain day, three brothers tried to escape. The Germans caught them and hanged them in public, their bodies swinging a whole day.

The Germans continued bringing in new Jewish victims from the small nearby towns who told us horrendous tales which we didn't want to believe. They told us that the Germans drove large members of Jews outside towns and massacred them. Soon S. S. men began visiting our camp on Sundays and when they left, took with them ten men. Later, we heard the men were made to dig graves, then shot.

I found out, during that period, that the Germans had seized my father and flung him in a camp. I was well aware of the fate awaiting elderly Jews and lived in constant fear about what would happen to my father. During the period, too, I was assigned as a helper to a German foreman who walked around with a thick cane and beat all those who did not work rapidly.

My family made repeated efforts to free me, until I succeeded, in escaping and to return home. When I came home, it was the beginning of winter. My brother revealed to me that our father was dead. A German bad killed him while he was carrying wood from the forest. My brother told me that our mother and sister did not know of the death and we kept it from them for a long time.

In those days, individuals came on occasion to Gombin and told us how they escaped from their own graves. Led with hundreds of other Jews outside town, they had been made to dig their own graves; then the Germans proceeded to mow them down with machine-guns. The few who escaped, succeeded because they played dead. After the Germans left, they clambered out of the graves and fled.

It can be imagined what impression these tales made upon us. My greatest concern was for my brother's boy, Izho. I was determined, come what may to save him. One day, I mounted my bicycle and rode out to neighboring villages, to find a friendly peasant, an acquaintance, who would take the child. I couldn't find anyone. They all refused.

My brother continued working as a book-keeper for a German firm that was in the construction business. My sister Rozia and I decided to run away from Gombin. Our plan was for my sister to go to the small town of Sierpien and pass as an “Aryan”, while I tried crossing the demarcation line that separated our part of Poland from the one the Germans named “Government   General” (Generalgouvernement”) where,   I hoped, conditions for the Jews were better.

 

Chapter Three

On The “Aryan” Side

During one of the market-days, I found a peasant woman who agreed to take me in her cart to the border of the “Protectorate”. My sister had left, as planned, to go to Sierpien. Prior to leaving, I ran home to say goodbye to my mother. But only my sister-in-law was there. To this day I can't forgive myself that I did not take leave of my mother and brother. I could not keep the peasant woman waiting too long and ran back to the mill where she stood near the cart, impatient.

It was night and bitter cold when we reached the border. She drove on and there I was alone, under the vast sky, in the middle of a winter night, not knowing what to do. I knocked on doors of several peasant huts but nobody let me in.

I spent the whole night in the open.  Toward morning, I met a peasant woman who had been at one time a servant in our house. She let me enter her hut, where I remained the whole day until dark.

The woman was to find a smuggler who would take me across the border. She went out to search for one, finally coming back to inform me that the border was well-guarded and nobody wanted to risk taking a Jew across. Staying on in her hut was out of the question, so I left and emerged in the burning frost. I began walking and gazing into the windows of the peasant huts, hoping someone would admit me. I finally came across on old man who let me enter his barn and spend the night. He warned me I must leave with daybreak.

There lived in this village a peasant named Chabar who at one time had been a customer in my parents' store. I asked the old peasant where Chabar lived and he told me. I went to his shack and Chabar let me in.  But I perceived that I could not remain there for any length of time as people kept coming all day long and each time someone came, I was forced to run and hide.  My situation was unbearable. Chabar, who was eager to help me, suddenly remembered there was a peasant in the village who was friendly to Jews. His name was Grabarek.

After darkness descended, he took me to Grabarek's dwelling that consisted of two huts. Both huts were filled with people.  In addition to Grabarek and his wife and their four children, there lived two old Poles who had been sent out of their villages. Chabar did not introduce me as a Jew. He said I was a Pole from Poznan who at one time carted stones, when they were building a road to Lonsk. He told me I could remain three days with him and pay him well for it. Grabarek did not suspect I was Jewish and agreed. His wife immediately prepared supper and we sat down at the table. During the meal I became aware of the fact that the two elderly peasants were whispering and darting sharp glances at me. Obviously, I mused, they knew I was a Jew. But they did not say anything about it.

 

gome062.jpg
Mrs. Grabarek brings me food
to the barn where I was hiding

 

After supper, Grabarek started with me for the barn where I was to spend the night. Walking toward the barn, a very strange thing occurred; I cannot explain it to this day. But it saved my life. As we were nearing the barn, a huge dog suddenly came hurtling out of the dark, barking fearfully. The dog was so wild and mean, his owner kept him leashed day and night. But as it happened, Grabarek had forgotten to tie him up. As the dog sprang towards me, Grabarek feared he would tear me to bits. But here something inexplicable occurred.  Instead of attacking me, the dog stopped as though transfixed. The peasant stared at his animal in astonishment and raised his hand to cross himself. This incident evidently convinced him that I was not to be taken for an ordinary mortal. When the three days were over, he let me stay on.

The condition for my staying on, naturally, was bound up with my paying him a large sum of money. Buy this was not the worst of it. My staying at Grabarek's was bound up with other difficulties that were growing more complex every day.

I knew that my sister, Rozia was on the “Aryan” side, in the small town of Sierpien, where she lived as a Christian and I began writing to her. We had made up that she will answer my letters on Chabar's address, the only person in the village who knew I was Jewish. Chabar thus became the intermediary between my sister and me. But soon it became apparent that the enterprise was fraught with danger. The letters, it appeared, instead of going directly to Chabar, arrived at the Town Hall, where the old Grabarek, father of the peasant with whom I was staying, became suspicious. One day he came to the house and pointing at me, said I was a Jew who will someday bring misfortune upon the whole village. He demanded his son send me away immediately, or he would tell the Germans. The younger Grabarek became panicky and was ready to send me away. But I pleaded with his wife, suggesting to her that she tell her father-in-law they had sent me away.  Fortunately, she agreed and prevailed upon her husband to do the same. I wrote to my sister, instructing her to stop writing me to Chabar's address and to send the letters directly to me, addressed to one of the elderly Poles. The matter appeared settled but for me there began a period of unrelieved hell.

Until now, I had been able to show my face before people under the guise of a Pole who ran away from the “Reich.” But from now on I was forced to hide and not be seen by strange eyes. It meant that outside Grabarek, his wife, their children and the two elderly Poles, nobody in the village must know of my presence. It became necessary to find a hiding place.

The peasant's dwelling consisted of two huts, the second of which had a door leading to the stable, where the Grabareks kept their cow and pigs. During the first few months, I stood for days on end by the window and when someone came near the house, I fled to the stable. This was very tiring and a drain on my emotions, as well. Early in the spring, when Grabarek began to trim his trees, I suggested he place the branches and twigs on a fence and thus make a shelter where I could spend the daylight hours, unnoticed.

The place proved effective as a hiding place, but after a couple of weeks my bones were so stiff, I couldn't stand it any longer. Later, when the wheat in the field grew to its full height, instead of hiding among the branches, I spent my days among the stalks in the field, returning to the stable at night. But lying in the field also had its disadvantages because of the sun that burned pitilessly during the day. Having no alternatives, I lay still, fearing I might bump into some stranger if I rose.

Fortunately, another occurrence took place strengthening my position among the superstitious peasants. One day, while I hid in the field, a gypsy entered the house and told everyone's fortune. Grabarek called me from the field, insisting that I too have my fortune told. I begged him to let me off. Some stranger might enter the house while I was present. But Grabarek was not to be put off. He virtually led me back to the house and nudged me into a chair beside the gypsy.

And again an inexplicable thing happened. No sooner did the gypsy take my hand than she said to the peasants: “This man is a very good friend to you.  He suffered much sorrow until now on account of his near ones. But anyway, the person who is very near to him and himself, too, will survive and have a bright future from which all of you will benefit.”

The gypsy's words made a deep impression on the peasants. I could discern by their glance that they now held me to be an asset instead of a liability.

The gypsy could not have come at a more propitious time. I had spent all my money and did not have any left with which to pay my host. I had promised Grabarek to reward him a hundredfold, after the war. Now, having heard what the gypsy said, they were inclined to believe what I had promised.

In the meantime, my situation turned for the worse. The wheat having been cut down, I could not lie in the field any longer. I therefore suggested to Grabarek's wife that we dig a pit in the clay beneath the path leading to the stable and the entrance of the pit be covered with straw. After this was done, I would climb down in the morning and remain in the pit until night. But it soon became apparent that the idea was not a very good one. In the first place, the pit was damp and dark and my clothes were soaked through; secondly, the Germans who often came to the peasants in search of pigs, sometimes dug underground for their quarry.

We decided to fill up the pit and find a new hiding place. Stacking the wheat in the stable, we hollowed a little “chamber”, with an entrance to the pig-sty. It could not have occurred to anyone that a human being took shelter in this “chamber”. There I lay days on end. When I went out, I covered the entrance with straw and dirt. Thus the matter of a hiding place was for the time being solved. During the day I lay hidden in the wheat, at night in the stable. Now, however, new trials arose.

The cause of the new difficulties was the two old Poles whom the Grabareks accused of eating too much. The two old men fought back. “Why”, they demanded, “have you sharp eyes for what we eat but feed the damn Jew for nothing?” Because of the argument and sudden accusations that the children too ate more than they should, the Grabareks' fourteen year old daughter ran away from the house. I was terrified lest she talk about me to the peasants in the village. But she came back at night, having spent the day in the fields as a protest against her parents' accusations.

To calm the frayed nerves, I reasoned with the peasants that it was not worthwhile to argue over bread and potatoes because after the termination of the war I would reward them for everything. My little talk had its desired effect and the arguments about excessive eating stopped. But for each problem that was solved, a new one emerged.

It suddenly became necessary for me to be doubly careful. In the first place, Grabarek hired a peasant to help him dig potatoes. This hired hand made it a habit of hanging around the stable all night long, intending to steal from the neighboring peasants. So it became necessary for me to be on guard at night, as well as during the day; the tiniest bit of noise might betray my presence. Added to this new peril was even a greater misfortune.

One day Grabarek said to his wife: “Since you took a damn Jew into the house, I'm going to take in three partisans”.

Soon they arrived, three young Poles, who remained in the house until the day of liberation. Now my life was in constant peril, making it necessary for me to lie motionless in the wheat “chamber” during the day and at night - in the stable, paralyzing my limbs. My existence became an endless torture.

To my physical difficulties were added moral ones. Returning from the fair one day, the Grabareks told me of a peasant family that was found by the Germans to conceal a Jew. All concerned were shot: husband, wife, their little children, as well as the Jew. I beard Grabarek saying to his wife that day: “If they discover us, I won't wait till they shoot you. On the way to the execution place I will beat you to death”.

On another occasion, as I was hiding at the entrance to the hut, I heard him telling his wife: “I can't chase him out. He might inform on us that we hid him. But I got hold of a revolver. I will kill him and bury him someplace and nobody will know”.

The Grabarek woman said: “I couldn't endure it if you did such a thing. Yanek's (that is what they called me) sad eyes would always accuse me”.

I began to live in constant fear that Grabarek would enter my hiding place at any time and kill me. I wrote a letter to my sister to be prepared for “any eventuality”.

The nearer the war's end came, the worse became my situation. My hiding was bound up with new and greater perils. One day Polish policemen, searching for pigs, stumbled on my hiding place. By some miracle they failed to see me but I had no difficulty making out their faces. On another occasion, the Germans came to make a search for someone who thrashed one of their men. Then too they were only a hair removed from my hiding place. A third time, someone came to the stable to steal wheat. Catching sight of me, the thief seized a piece of wood to strike. He would have killed me, had I not jumped aside just in time. Then he fled, believing he'd encountered the owner.

To add to my trouble, Grabareks' daughter married and a new person was added to the household from whom I had to hide. There were now four persons in the house - the three partisans and the son-in-law  -  who were not to know of my existence.

In the meantime, an uprising broke out in Warsaw and one of those evacuated from that city came to stay with the Grabareks. This added another person from whom I had to hide. But in addition, the new tenant liked to keep busy; he came every night to the stable, where I lay hidden and made brooms and besoms out of twigs. Lying there, hearing his every breath, I was afraid to make a move; if I heard him breathing, he certainly would hear the rustling of the wheat.

To add to my difficulties, there appeared one night in my hiding place a water mouse. I lived in constant fear of being bitten, while asleep, by this mouse that I knew was poisonous. I told my hosts about it and we all started a hunt for the intruder. We blocked all exits and the mouse was forced into my area and I killed it.

No matter bow careful I was, it was inevitable that I be seen on occasion by persons who were not supposed to know of my presence. Several times I saw at close range and from a distance   the partisans who stayed with my host, the son-in-law and even the peasant who made brooms in the stable. But each time I fled and Grabarek made up a story that it was someone passing through the village.

One day I received an alarming letter from my sister, informing me she was in great danger. In order to maintain the fiction that she was a pure “Aryan,” and to conceal her Jewish appearance, she periodically washed her hair with hydrogen peroxide to impart to it a blond color. But now she had run short of the peroxide and soon her hair would revert to its natural brown, unless she could get hold of the precious liquid. Could I help her?

I pleaded with the Grabareks to go to the neighboring town and buy at the apothecary's a bottle of peroxide. But they would not hear of it.

As my sister's life was at stake, I warned the Grabareks that I would go myself and risk being caught. But this too proved of no avail. Finally, Grabarek used the incident with the peroxide to try and blackmail me. As my money had run out, he said, and as the war dragged on interminably and he would have to wait a very long time before collecting his reward, he insisted that I start earning money and pay my keep. To begin with, he suggested, I might help him thresh the wheat, although this was bound up with great peril, as someone might come in and see me. Later, be demanded that I go out and steal. His plan was for me to burglarize the neighbors at night and bring him the loot. It goes without saying I would not hear of it; but Grabarek returned to the matter of the peroxide for my sister's hair. If, he suggested, I stole several chicken from the neighbor, he Grabarek, would go to the apothecary's for the peroxide. I had no alternative and acquiesced. But the manner in which I carried out my part of the bargain, was designed to discourage Grabarek from such adventures in the future; instead of taking two or three chickens the night I stole into the neighbors' yard, I took fifteen. Twisting their necks, I brought my haul to Grabarek. Shocked, my host stared at the dead fowl, fearing the neighbor would surely sound the alarm on the following morning. He grabbed the chickens and got rid of them, somehow, instructing me not to go out and steal again on his behalf. Then he went to the apothecary's and bought the peroxide which I sent to my sister.

The end of 1944 was drawing near. It became daily more apparent that the Germans who were suffering reverses on all fronts, would be compelled to leave our village. But the nearer we drew to the end, the more difficult became my situation.

The Germans, we beard over and over again, although on their last legs, did not cease for an instant their hunt for hidden Jews whom they murdered, when they found them, along with those who had given them shelter. As the retreating Germans neared our village, the fear and terror preceded them. One day several wagons full of Ukrainians dressed in German uniforms arrived in the village. My hosts feared the Ukrainians would invade their stable and take the straw and find me. It was decided to find another hiding place for me, temporarily. There was a recess behind the stable wall with enough room only to stand erect. Here the Grabareks put me and kept me for four days.

What made the ordeal bearable was the knowledge that the front was daily coming nearer. Soon one heard the bombing of Russian artillery. But because of the altered military situation and the ensuing chaos I lost contact with my sister.

Prior to this, in one of our last letters, we pledged to return to Gombin, after it was all over, and there be reunited.

And that is what happened.

 

Chapter Four

Liberation And Reunion

In the house the refrain became louder about the Germans fleeing west, often leaving their arms behind. My isolation in the hiding place became daily more unbearable, but the Grabareks would not let me out. There were reports that the Germans, even with their dying gasp, continued searching for Jews. In one of the neighboring villages, it was said, a couple of Jews were discovered and shot with their Polish hosts.

One day, the three partisans who lived in the Grabarek house dug out their guns and left. A day later, we heard one of the partisans had been killed attempting to disarm a German. Despite the fact that German demise was near, the peril was still very great. All the roads and paths were blocked by German wagons, trucks and motorcycles.  The sound of Russian artillery drew nearer daily. I lay in my hiding place in a feverish state wondering whether I would survive these final hours. The Grabareks insisted I must be more careful now than in the past and I obeyed. But I longed to go out and behold with my own eyes the humiliation and defeat of history's most bloodthirsty murderers.

Finally a day came and the shooting ceased. The Grabareks informed me there was not any longer a German in sight but it was advisable for me to stay in hiding and avoid unpleasant surprises. That day darkness came early. It was a wintry day, January 1945. In the middle of the night there was a loud knocking on the door.  The Grabareks opened and saw Russian soldiers who asked for a place to spend the night. Among the Russians were several women attired in military uniforms. Grabarek ran inside the stable, roused me and said: “Come. You can come out now. Our liberators have come.

I followed Grabarek into the house. I gazed at the Russian uniform, at their insignia: the hammer and sickle. But I was too spent to feel or display any joy. The Russians paid no more attention to me than they did to the others, taking all of us to be Polish peasants. There were a couple of bottles of vodka on the table and Grabarek was soon drunk. He embraced me and said: “Well, what do you say now? I rescued you, eh?”

His son-in-law could not get over the fact that I had been hiding in the house all this time without his discovering it. Mrs. Grabarek and the children appeared genuinely happy that I had survived.

I was to leave for Gombin in the morning but my hosts counseled me not to do it; the roads were still unsafe, infested as they were by retreating Germans and hostile Poles.

I remained with the Grabareks three days longer. I did not even venture into the village, reluctant to test the peasants' reaction to a living Jew. But on the fourth day my patience had run out. I said goodbye to my hosts and asked permission of several Russian soldiers in a truck if I could ride with them.

They let me mount and we started off. My fear and premonition increased with every passing mile. When we were quite near Gombin, I asked the driver to let me off; I would go the rest of the way on foot.

I got off and walked. Nearing my town, tears filled my eyes. I did not encounter one person; it was a cold day and the people remained indoors.

Approaching Nowy Rynek, I met a former neighbor, Tadeusz Jankowski. His face brightened and he flung his arms around me. As his house was directly across the street of ours, I asked him: “Has my sister come back?” It was the first question I put to him.

“No,” he replied and led me into his house. There I met his wife and children and they all seemed genuinely happy to see me.

Jankowski informed me that some strangers were occupying our house. At first, the Germans lived there, but several days ago they left and a Polish family moved in. I ate a warm meal and went across the street to our house and knocked on the door. There was no reply. The “owners” were not at home. I waited until they came back and told them the house was mine and demanded they leave. They regarded me without saying a word.

I went inside. Everything seemed familiar and yet strange. The old feeling of cozy intimacy had evaporated. The walls were permeated with the odor of Germans and Poles who lived here for three years. My eyes filled with tears, I started a fire in the oven and lay down to sleep.

I spent a whole week in the empty house. Although I was in constant peril of being murdered by some hostile Pole in my sleep, I remained in the house, clinging to the window from morning till night, hoping for my sister to come.

And it finally came to pass. On the eighth day of my watch, I heard someone at the door. The movements, it seemed to me, were familiar. Bathed in sweat as though I had a fever, I flung myself at the door and opened it. There stood my sister.

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