by Florence Keller-Malmeth
Translated by Pamela Russ
My eight-year-old daughter has just come in, full of enthusiasm. She is becoming a member of a club. Mother, she says to me, can we have the club meeting at our home? Will you put out refreshments so that the meeting will really become like a party for the club?
Certainly, I answered, looking at her shining face and realizing that my little girl was already a grown-up young lady. As in so many other instances, I began to think about my own childhood.
The sheaves of the calendar suddenly turn back and it is the year 1934. I was a ten-year-old girl, a little older than my own daughter Baila Genendel, and I was then about to join my first club. But this is where the similarity ends. My club was organized to meet on a sunny summer day in the Polish town of Gostynin.
God works in mysterious ways. People like to think that they control their fates, but with time they begin to understand that maybe they should stop and rethink this. In the early 1920s, there was …
… a mass exodus from the European countries to the large country of greater opportunity, the United States. The woman with the torch in the New York harbor stretched out her welcoming arms to my parents, Shmuel and Chana Keller. Just as others, they left their country of birth, their families, and their friends. Many came, but more than six million remained behind.
In 1934, after thirteen years in America, my mother felt a deep longing, and maybe this was an unknown foreshadowing of what was to come, to see her beloved town of Gostynin. When school was over for me, my mother and I went to Poland to her hometown, for a vacation. This experience has remained in my memory until today.
I will never forget these happy times that I spent in Gostynin. Since I was born and grew up in the tall tenements of New York, at first glance I felt strange, as someone living in a story or in a magical tale.
The small houses, the large marketplace, the horses and wagons, gave the town the feeling of olden times.
We arrived in Gostynin on a Sunday morning. The entire city was still wrapped in a deep sleep, when we arrived at the house of my grandmother, Genendel Bagno. Laughter and tears, hugs and kisses - what a welcome greeted us! Soon, all kinds of people streamed in to see the Americans. I felt the warmth of my grandmother's hands when she embraced me close to her. I felt that she couldn't hold me close enough to her. What can be more beloved for a grandchild's heart? A mother is a mother, but there is still room in a little girl's heart for a grandmother.… It is God's gift that my children were fortunate to have this at the first moment of their lives, when I was only given this gift at the age of ten.
Soon there were other experiences. One of the most exciting moments of that morning was when I met my …
… other grandmother, my father's mother. Looking through the window, I saw an elegant woman walking towards us through the crooked, small streets. This is my father's mother, my mother informed me, whispering in my ear. Oh, I knew quite well who she was. I remembered all the stories that my father told us about his beloved mother whom he described as a Jewish queen. With an instinctive love that only very young children can feel, I ran to meet her. Her grandchild was with her, my cousin Yisroel Itche, whom she had raised. That's how the first few days went, filled with joy to have met relatives and friends.
As everything else in life, our visit to Gostynin fell into a routine. I wanted ice-cream, so my mother bought lody (Polish word for ice-cream), but it didn't taste like ice-cream back home and I expressed that openly. I didn't think that my words would offend the vendor, but he took this to heart. The next morning, he gave me a portion of ice-cream with pride, calling it American lody. That hit the spot. From that time on I was able to taste the full flavor of the Gostynin ice-cream.
Days and weeks passed. I saw places, met people about whom my father had talked about. I saw my parents' home where they had hours of pleasure and joy. I went swimming in the Ratei Lake, and went to shul (synagogue) where my grandfathers used to pray. I experienced the market days in town, and on those days the town was full of activity. My grandmothers' and uncles' stores were filled with noise and business. Then my grandmother, Baila Faiga, took me to her home where it was calm and peaceful.
As I was holding my dearest doll in my arms, which was to me as if alive, I passed through the streets and the marketplace on the way to her home. The peasants saw this kind of doll for the first time and thought that it was a living child. On those days, my grandmother would …
… tell me and my young cousin all kinds of stories about kings and princes from a faraway land, and open photo albums and show us all kinds of pictures and photos ….
I met many people about whom I had heard in New York, and among them was the dark Fraida. It was actually through her that I met her grandchild Franja Bender who became my closest friend. Franja Bender and her family took me in as their own. I ate there, played there in her father's wheat, and played on Plock Street. Fraida, then 106 years old, sat in front of Franja's house and watched out for us with her eyes that sparkled with the wisdom of generations. Franja and I thought about organizing a girls' club in Gostynin. With childish simplicity, we prepared the initial work of the organization. Since I was the initiator of this idea, I automatically became the president, and she, the vice-president. Our membership fee was one penny (groshen) a day. Our group had a total of eight girls. Even though our finances were meager, our plans were grand. We planned a picnic. But it seemed that our slim taxes did not amount to a significant sum. We were very upset.
My uncle Efraim Motel came to the rescue, and he gave us five zlotys. Great joy! Our picnic took place and our club was saved.
The highlight each evening was our trip to the cinema. One Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night), my mother and I took my uncle Leibish Bagno to the theater. The theater usher was a different one than we were used to seeing. He was probably a temporary one. In the back, there were tables with baked goods and sweets. Between scenes, there were breaks where the lights were turned on. People went over to the tables to eat and socialize. Even though the atmosphere was foreign to me, nonetheless, I probably …
… enjoyed myself at least somewhat, because they were showing an American film with Polish subtitles.
A treasured memory that will remain the dearest and most sentimental for me, was the day I left Gostynin. Years later, I understood Shakespeare, who said Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Our departure began like a yom tov (holiday). The train was to leave Kutno in the middle of the night. That night, people came and left. Even though we had said our good-byes, that had not left the impact of actually separating. Finally, my friends came. Franja and her family gave me a small autograph book as a gift. Everyone wrote something in it - some in Yiddish, some in Polish. It didn't really matter how long the inscription was, there was so much warmth in each letter. Among all my personal mementos that I have, I will most treasure this Gostynin memory. I kissed Franja, we promised one another to write. We were certain that we would see each other in the future.
Suddenly, the time came. In front of the small house on Koval Street there was a special bus that would take the entire families Keller and Bagno to Kutno. My father's brothers Moishe, Yekhiel Meyer, Sholom, Aron, their wives, dear Aunt Charna, my mother's brother Leibish, all of them, all of them wanted to be with us until the final moments when we would be seated on the international train on our way home.
Standing in the small window of the train, I saw our Gostynin family that was a sea of faces, with hands that waved with hankies, escorting us with the finest of blessings.
by Sh. B. Bagno (Belgium)
Translated by Pamela Russ
In the year 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the German armies began to take over Poland. The first army marched across our city Gostynin on the way to Warsaw, but a few days later the German army retreated to the German border. Their marching back through our town went until nighttime.
On one particular day, my father was not at home. He had gone with other merchants to Kutno. At nightfall, our mother became restless. We heard the loud noise of the soldiers, the clang of the horseshoes, and the clattering of the cannon wheels. Suddenly, we heard a loud banging. We heard an order for us to open the door, and if we would be resisting, they would break down the door. My mother, trembling with fear, unlocked the door. There stood German soldiers with bayonets aimed at us.
Where is the owner of this house?
When my mother explained that my father had gone away, the senior officer ordered to search the house from attic to cellar. When they didn't find my father, the officer ordered that they take me, a nineteen-year-old boy, and my brother, thirteen years old.
When we went outside, I became very confused. The street was …
…. filled with military. They put us among the horsemen and took us on the road to Koval. When we crossed the little bridge, I heard a soldier say to my brother that he could go home; he was just too young.
After an entire night of splashing through mud puddles, we entered the town of Koval where the military had stopped off for a few minutes. There I saw a few other people from Gostynin: Aron Bresler, the wealthiest man in the city, Jahne the pharmacist, and a Russian policeman.
We were forbidden to speak to one another, so we communicated with looks of all kinds, and then soon once again dragged ourselves back on the road. We passed through Wloclawek, Aleksandrow, and other towns.
On the third day, we arrived in the German city of Toruń where they took us directly to prison. The first welcome we received was from an official who told us to undress fully. Two doctors examined us, and after that we put on the prison clothes.
In the prison there were civilian prisoners along with criminals. The German thugs made fun of our embittered situation, with ugly comments. In a few days, they brought in more men; among them were three from Gostynin: Leizer Schneider's son, and Yekhiel Zalman Motel and his brother-in-law (I've forgotten his name). We spent a dark few weeks in prison, and we lost hope that we would ever be freed.
One day, they took us and put us into closed wagons and took us to the big camp Schneidermuhl. Aron Bresler and Jahne remained behind.
There were thousands of Russian prisoners in Schneidermuhl, along with many Poles and Jews.
The conditions were intolerable. The Germans even at that time were murderers. They beat us mercilessly for the slightest thing. Many men remained crippled from these beatings.
Those of us from Gostynin were afraid to ask for a piece of bread, so we starved. On top of that, there was terrible cold. We slept on the cold, hard floor, and insects of all sorts swarmed around us.
That's how we suffered all winter. In spring of 1915, the Germans removed all the civilian prisoners to the Havelberg camp. It was even worse there. Typhus was rampant and swallowed up new victims each day. That camp was the worst one in terms of hygiene. We lived in constant fear that the disease should not swallow us up as well. Those who weren't sick were taken to work in the fields. We were still hungry, but it was better than being locked up all day in the dirty camp.
After a few days of working in the fields, my Gostynin friends did not return. A rumor that they had escaped circulated around the camp. My thoughts also turned around such a plan, but they guarded us closely, and in the meantime, any thought of escaping was impossible.
They stopped sending us into the fields. There were very difficult days, without an end, until one morning they took us to work not far from the Belgian border.
The hard labor under the burning sun was unbearable. We dropped from weakness. I decided that now was the time to escape. I secretly told the plan to a young man by the name of Braverman, from Lodz. He agreed to take the daring step with me.
We hid until it was dark. Then we began to crawl across fields and hills. Just at daybreak, we noticed that we were close to a town. Since we didn't know if this was still Germany or if it was Belgium, we entered the town. We sneaked through the streets, when our ears caught the sounds of the Yiddish …
… language. We approached with great joy, and then saw that these were actually our Jewish brothers.
We told them from where we had come. They were frightened, and they took us in and calmed our hunger. After we finished eating, they urged us to leave this small Belgian town and told us to go to the large city of Brussels, where we should go ask for help from the organization Ezra.
That same day, we arrived in Brussels. When we saw German officers and military in the streets, we were terrified. We went from one street to another. Everyone who even glanced at us, made us shudder.
Suddenly, at a distance, we noticed a shul(synagogue), and a Jew was going over there and unlocking the door. We went into the shul and told the Jews what had happened and what our situation was. The shamash(synagogue attendant) promised to help us.
Meanwhile, more Jews arrived, and they began their prayers. The shamash brought us a siddur (prayer book), and I felt that it had been two years since I last held a siddur in my hands. After mincha and maariv (the evening prayers), the shamash took us over to Ezra. He presented us to the Ezra workers, and when one heard my name and that I came from Gostynin, he was very excited because he too was from Gostynin, from the Kruk family.
I will never forget how he welcomed us. He helped us along with hundreds of other Jews by hiding us for about one year.
In the year 1918, the German army suffered one of their worst defeats on the French front. This was the end of the German rule and also the end of World War I. The German military, in the greatest confusion, began …
… their retreat from all their occupied countries. Belgium became a free, quiet country again. Hundreds of Polish Jews remained in Belgium, and I among them. We rebuilt our lives in this free land. Almost everyone brought relatives over from anti-Semitic Poland. From Gostynin, there was: a son of Moishe Brakman, a son of Henokh Makowski, Efraim Kaufman with his sister Khavtche, my three brothers - Yosef, Yakov, Sholom, and my sister Hinde and her husband.
One by one, the Jews settled down, and conducted a quiet life, until the year 1939 when the Germans once again set the world on fire.
Already at the beginning of World War II, the Jews in Belgium were uneasy. Their fear grew daily. In May 1940, Hitler began a lightening attack (blitzkrieg) on Belgium. The Germans bombed Brussels. People were running from the city, Jewish families were running to hide, and in particular Jewish men were running to cross the border to France. I and my two brothers Yosef and Sholom were among these men.
They caught all three of us at the border and separated us immediately. I never saw my brothers again.
The Gestapo assumed that I was French because of my name, which was a French name, and because of my fluent French, and they packed me along with hundreds of other Frenchmen into cattlecars. There was nothing to sit on. They stuffed us all together like herring in a barrel. They took us to Mathausen in Austria.
The very first day in the camp, we went through hellish tortures. The food was very meager and foul. When it was already late in the evening, the SS moved us into barracks, where we fell onto sacks from hay in total exhaustion.
One morning, the chief of the Gestapo came in along with two SS men, and they told us to stand in rows. They took out some men from each row, I was one of those. They took us through dark hallways and when we came outside …
… they stuffed us into cargo trucks. We were taken to the camp Wiener Neustadt.
There we found many internees, and among them were Jews from Austria, Poland, and Germany.
We were counted, sorted, some sent to the right, some to the left. I, the Frenchmen, and the Belgians, were sent to the right. After that we were all sent to wooden barracks. A hell began - sadistic tortures, very heavy, physical, forced labor. Daily, the food became less and less, and worse and worse. We were in this camp for more than a year, and went through the seven gates of hell. Then we were sent to a third camp, Nagaike.
Everyone in the Gestapo carried a revolver and rod which he used at every opportunity, whether it was necessary or not. Very often, the internees were hanged there. Every time they hanged someone, the murderers made a whole show of it.
One thing was clear: If not for the extraordinary will to live and survive, it would have been impossible for anyone to survive the first few months of 1945. Of course there were victims, but the majority survived even the worst tortures and punishments…
In April 1945, there was news that the American army was already battling on the European continent.
In a few days' time, we already heard the shooting of cannons.
In the camps, everything continued as before with German precision, but we saw that at night the SS kept the entire camp in the dark.
A few more days passed. We began hearing louder shooting. We saw American air bombers flying over the camp. We thought they would soon start dropping bombs over our heads and that we would all die.
We lived through many difficult hours in fear. There was chaos among the Gestapo and the SS. We had to be very careful that they shouldn't see our rage. Our terror grew with each minute, hoping that in these final minutes they would not kill us all before our liberation.
But still on that same day, everyone began to shout that the Americans had broken into our camp. All the internees, comprised of sick, starved, and half-dead people, suddenly acquired super-human strength and began jumping through doorways and from windows in order to meet our liberators and saviors as quickly as possible.
The camp guards soon hung out white flags.
That was in May 1945, when the American army liberated us from Hitler's hell. The entire camp was soon filled with liberated people who kissed and hugged for joy.
For me, the joy lasted only a few minutes. I remembered my wife and child, my mother, and my brother Leibish and his family from Gostynin, my three sisters and their families, and three brothers and their families.
Are they still alive? I asked myself, and I cried bitterly…
The American army treated us very well, showed us friendship, gave us good food, clothing, and even cigarettes. I will be thankful to them all my life.
That same month, May 25, the American pilots from Linz sent us over to France by airplane.
When we arrived at the Paris station, the French officers gave everyone papers with questions to answer: name, place of birth, religion, and where we were going.
When they took back the papers, I heard my name being called. With great fear, I barely came forward…
… to the table where a young man was sitting, wearing a French uniform. When he asked me if my name was Bagno, I became very upset. I began to shake. One more second and I would have fallen to the ground, if the Frenchman would not have caught me and led me to a chair. He sat down next to me and said that he too is a Bagno. His father Avrohom and his grandfather Yekhezkel Bagno were also from Gostynin.
Tears ran from his eyes. From our conversation we discovered that we were close relatives.
In all my wanderings and experiences, during World War I and World War II, in all the roads and steps, I found Jews from Gostynin …. We recognized one another, helped, and carried the love for one another deep inside….
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