Some time later the housekeeper knocked on our door and offered to sell us a loaf of white bread - at double the price. My mother had no choice but to pay.
As early as the first day after the men had run, many of them began to make their way homewards. These were the ones who had been caught up in the tide of events and dragged along by the current without having considered, too much, the significance of what they were doing, or those who, at the beginning of the journey eastwards, had discovered that they were unable to cope with the difficulties of the trek, be they physical or mental. Too, after a few days, there were many who turned back in spite of the fact that they had already covered a fair distance - they also were destined to fall into the hands of the Germans.
Rumours that many had returned spread like wildfire and my mother began to run here and there in ceaseless attempts to discover the merest information about our father and brother. She was not the only one: the houses of those who had returned were full of people like her, seeking a grain of information, some sign of life transmitted from their loved ones.
From those who had returned, were heard harrowing, emotional stories of the difficulties that they had encountered - the refugee-choked road between Lodz and Warsaw and together with the refugees, units of the escaping, demoralized Polish army; how the Luftwaffe shot them up, diving unhindered, directly above their heads, dropping bombs and spraying machine-gun fire; how people sought for their family among the dead, dying and untended injured in the midst of the turmoil of the attack, picking their way through the crowds of bodies lying in the roadway; how the marchers struggled with each other whenever a well, or some other source of water was discovered and almost killed one another in doing so; how, in the beginning, the farmers along the way had received them kindly and tried to help, giving them food and water and how their attitude gradually changed as the human tide swelled and eventually swamped them and their good-will, so-much-so that in the end they wouldn't let the refugees come near to their homes; how the soldiers threw away their arms and in their search for civilian clothing went so far as to strip the clothes from the many corpses lying about; how they were caught by special forward reconnaissance units of the advancing German army, taken prisoner, searched and, when identified as soldiers were shot on the spot together with the civilians who had fallen, willy-nilly into the net........
My mother asked everyone whom she met whether they had come across my father and brother; she showed them their photographs, described how they looked - and there were those whom she asked who thought that they may have seen them and told a lot of strange and even conflicting stories about them - some of them calming and some of them alarming. After a stubborn inquiry my mother came to the conclusion that most of what she had heard was pure imagination.
One of the men told her with great certainty that he had seen, with his own two eyes, my father and Mottel, fit and well, not far from Lodz and coming in our direction and was genuinely amazed that they had not yet arrived. Of course, when my mother walked in with this story to tell, the house became filled with joy. We expected that at any moment the door would open and there we would see, standing before us, our father and brother. For a few days I waited in front of the house from morning till night in order to be the first to see and welcome them.
My mother did not despair. Day after day she trailed around after the latest batch of home-comers and even rechecked her earlier inquiries a second time; each evening she would return from her search tired and dejected, telling us what she had heard, or she would become silent and introspective. Practically the whole of Poland had now been conquered and occupied by the Germans and Russians. Only encircled Warsaw still fought on. Every day Radio Warsaw broadcast greetings from the refugees who had managed to get there and we would sit in front of the shelter, our cellar, listening to thousands of names - but not ours.....
Despair and depression settled on the house; nobody smiled, everyone spoke in whispers - when they spoke at all. More often we retreated into our own private world with our own private thoughts. My sister read some books for days on end. I was unable to do anything. Thoughts kept whirling around in my head. I didn't for one moment lose the hope and belief that my father and brother were going to return safely to us. I was fearful of the thought that something bad had happened to them and couldn't help but recall the few orphaned children I knew and pitied; I could never understand how they could laugh and play. These children tended to behave rudely and cheekily so that adults would say of them that it wasn't at all surprising, after all, they had grown up without the restraining hand of a father. I fought hard against the gloomy, melancholy thoughts which troubled me but they wouldn't leave me. I recalled time and time again the dream, in which had appeared the three graves. When I questioned myself why the number three I suddenly recalled that my uncle Feivel was also involved in the present crisis. I was so angry with myself! How could I allow myself to think, to imagine even for a moment that my father, my brother Mottel and my uncle Feivel, were all numbered among the dead? I couldn't forgive myself. I prayed to God to pardon my treacherous thoughts. My mother, who was aware of my troubled state of mind did her best to cheer me up by chatting to me about this and that.
One day, I heard her speaking to one of the neighbours.
That boy worries me. I'm afraid that something will happen to him. He's become very withdrawn; just sits all the time thinking to himself. I really don't know what to do.......
I didn't understand what there was to worry about, neither did I know what to do to in order to stop her from doing so.
The days passed. Most of those who had run away had returned to their homes and of those who had not, most of their kin had received some kind of message concerning their welfare and whereabouts. Our neighbour on the ground floor received a message from her husband through the radio which told her that he was in Warsaw and well. Only we waited, day after day for a sign of life from our loved ones - the merest clue would have sufficed - but we waited and listened in vain....................
The lack of any information, however slender concerning my father and brother and the terrible need to be in touch with them, caused us to find relief from the frustration in dreams. Each morning, early, as soon as we awoke, we would gather round our mother's bed and ask each other which of our missing ones had appeared in our dreams. The dreamer would describe the dream and in this way we felt that somehow, a kind of contact had been established and that we had been the actual recipients of a cheering message. Every dream we explained as a good sign. We told each other only the good dreams. Not one of us dared to let on that he had had a depressing dream, in order to avoid hurting anyone else. One night I had a dream: I am walking in Kamienna Street when I see my father from far away, coming towards me, wearing dirty, muddy clothes and carrying in his hands two big parcels. The look on his face expresses great pain and sadness and his body seems as if about to collapse any second from the weight of the burden he is carrying. He looks at me...and starts to cry; I run towards him in order to throw myself into his arms and hug him but instead of coming closer to me, he seems to get further away from me.....I run after him with all my strength but his image gets further and further away and eventually disappears into Jan Kilinskiego Street.
I open my mouth to shout after him Daddy! but I'm unable to produce a sound; my throat is hurting and constricted from the effort of trying to shout until, in the end a strange voice escapes from me and I wake up covered in sweat with my heart pounding.
Again and again I reconstructed every little detail of this dream. It distressed me unutterably: I had seen my father; why did it seem so bad? Why was he dressed so carelessly? Why did he cry? Above all, why on earth did he run away from me and disappear? I had never, ever seen him in similar circumstances. I decided that this was certainly one dream that I wasn't going to tell to a soul so, because I was so certain that my face would give me away, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I heard my mother tell Devorah not to wake me up and she left the house. Shortly after, I got up.
The dream would not, of course, leave me alone but kept appearing in front of my eyes. Suddenly, in spite of everything I found myself telling Devorah the dream in all its depressing details. Her eyes filled with tears. We both decided not to tell my dream to our mother.
A few days later I dreamt that we were in the Great Synagogue of Lodz. I had, in fact, visited there only once, on the New Year festival, thanks to my uncle Feivel who had been permitted to attend services there together with the rest of his Jewish comrades in the Armed Forces. Our house was not far from the army barracks. I waited next to the gate, getting there an hour early, until, at last, I saw my uncle, with the rest of his comrades, about fifty men, marching towards me in their best uniforms, under the command of a sergeant. I accompanied them along the streets of Lodz until we arrived at the synagogue. There, the sergeant put them through a drill, to the curious eyes of the Jewish onlookers gathered in front of the synagogue. When the sergeant dismissed them, I ran to my uncle and we went into the synagogue together, hand in hand. The immense synagogue hall, the gorgeous crystal chandeliers, the strong light everywhere, the central, stage-like platform from where the Torah was read, the eastern wall with the Ark in its centre, decorated with its thick, silk curtain heavily embroidered with silver thread, the Cantor and choir, the throng of people; all these made the strongest of impressions on me.
Now, in my dream I again see the great hall of the synagogue, beautiful beyond description, its strong illumination dazzling the eyes. The place is full to overflowing with people, respected, handsome, dressed in all their finest. I and my family, including Mottel, stand in the centre of the hall in a row, next to each other. Suddenly, an old, white-bearded Jew calls out my father's Hebrew name, calling him to the Reading of the Law. My father walks to the rostrum and stands there, next to the Reader, dressed in his finest suit, handsome, face shining and eyes sparkling, his whole appearance and attitude expressing satisfaction and pride, everyone is looking at him in admiration.....I sense that this is a very special, festive occasion and that my father is the one being especially honoured. My heart almost bursts with pride.
When I woke up I rushed gladly to tell my mother what a happy dream I'd had, looking into her eyes for an answering sign of pleasure. Instead, her face only became even more melancholy. To my dismay, when I had finished telling her, she burst out crying and clutching me to her, kissed me. I was confused and frustrated by my inability to understand. What was so terrible about my dream that made her burst into tears? Eventually, I interpreted the dream in the following way: my father is dead and his soul has gone up to Heaven. In my first dream, his soul had not been accepted because of the burden of his sins - his sadness, crying and the heavy parcels he was carrying, and his dishevelled appearance, testifying to his suffering. Without a doubt, his soul was restless and tormented... more than once I'd heard stories of restless tormented souls who had been refused entry into Heaven and knew no rest. At night one could hear their groans......but the second dream showed that my father's soul had been purified and accepted in the end with honour, hence - I surmised - my mother's sudden fit of relieved sobbing.
It was only some time later that I discovered the real reason for my mother's outburst. It seems that one of the men with whom my mother had first spoken on his return from the escape, had been able to furnish information that showed he had certainly been in company with my father and brother. However, as his story progressed and he entered into more detail he suddenly became silent and then began to furnish what seemed to be totally irrelevant information. When my mother tried to elicit further knowledge she got the impression that he was hiding something from her. After my mother had left his house, the man told his wife the true state of affairs and she persuaded him not to reveal it to anyone in case it should ultimately prove to be a case of mistaken identity. On the second visit he gave in to my mother's pleadings and told her what he knew: at first he met my father and brother on the road in a farmer's barn, where they spent the night. Subsequently they kept each other company. When they reached the vicinity of Pruszkow, a small village some twenty kilometers south-west of Warsaw, they were caught by the units of German soldiers looking for escaping Polish soldiers. They would pass among the refugees taking anyone who looked like they may be a soldier. Both my father and brother were among those selected. Later on someone came and told them that my father had been shot to death with a group of others while my brother, together with the rest of the prisoners, had been taken away by truck. The story had a ring of plausibility about it but simply because our informant had not, himself, been an actual eye-witness to the shooting, my mother retained that last spark of hope that my father was still alive. For this reason she forbore to tell us in order to spare us what might, after all be unnecessary anguish. She then realized that at their first meeting he had not been confused, as she had at first assumed, but had simply tried to avoid telling her unpleasant and painful facts.
After some time, we did, in fact receive a letter from Germany, from Mottel. Apparently, in spite of the fact that he had not yet reached his fifteenth birthday, Mottel had been sent together with Polish soldiers, to a prisoner-of-war camp. He wrote that he was well and, since he was the youngest among the captives everyone was looking after him. Moreover, when he fell ill and had to be hospitalized, they treated him well, he wrote. He hoped that soon he would be released and sent home. Concerning my father he wrote that at the time he was taken prisoner, he became separated from him and since then had neither seen him nor heard one word from, or about him; he begged us to write to him and tell us if we knew anything. A mixed feeling of joy and sadness filled the house. After long weeks of knowing absolutely nothing of our loved ones - a letter from my brother, written in his own hand, witness to the fact that he was alive and well. But what of the fate of my father? The news spread quickly and soon friends and neighbors filled the house, everyone reading the letter, everyone adding his comments and observations.
Eventually my mother said: I'll write to Mottel today, that we've received news of your father; that he's in Warsaw. Who knows what suffering the boy has already undergone and what anguish he is still having to bear....?
The bitter truth was that my brother's letter only helped to confirm what my mother had already discovered, and killed the faint hope that my father was still alive. Indeed, during those same days, Warsaw finally surrendered to the German army and again a stream of refugees arrived at Lodz. From them, we received some messages from our family in Warsaw and it was clear that our father had not arrived there. Gently and by dropping a hint here and there, our mother gradually instilled into our minds that our father was no more and as the days passed told us the whole story of his end......
That which I had feared, had come. I was an orphan. I no longer had a father. I knew that people got killed in wars but never in my life had I imagined to myself that such a thing could happen to my father - and why to us? Everyone whom we knew was alive and well; not one had been killed, not even injured. Why had this terrible thing happened precisely to father - just like that, with no reason? He was not a soldier neither had he fought against the enemy. What was I to do? How was I to behave? Everyone was telling me that I ....had to be strong, But I didn't know how to be strong. I couldn't stop thinking about my father and all the time I felt a choking sensation in my throat. From the moment that my father and brother had left the house I had almost not thought about my brother Mottel, nor about my uncle Feivel, whom I also loved. Only after Mottel's letter arrived from the prisoner-of-war camp did I begin to think of his circumstances and of his hopes of returning home to us.
I was reluctant, or even refused to accept that my father was no longer alive. I could not give up the hope that he would return to us well. I had heard stories from eye-witnesses who had seen people die in front of their eyes - the mourners had sat and mourned and suddenly - the 'dead' had appeared, alive and well! I waited for such a miracle....
I sat long hours in front of the window looking at the street thinking that perhaps, after all I would see my father striding home; day after day I waited for the postman to bring a letter telling us that he had been taken to a camp other than the one to which Mottel had been sent.
My mother? She decided that she must find my father's remains and bring them home for a proper Jewish burial. We could not accept that my father should be counted among the ranks of 'the missing' whose burial place is unknown, nor that we should not keep the obligatory seven-day's mourning, nor that the 'Kaddish', the prayer for the dead, should not be said for the peace of his soul. My mother saw in this an obligation and responsibility of the utmost and solemn importance that she had to fulfill at all costs - it was also the only thing that she could now do for our father. It was in vain that friends insisted with her that the roads were not safe, that danger lurked everywhere and that in any case, this was no time to leave house and children unattended, that the chances of succeeding - and actually finding my father were virtually zero.
Since the railways were being used almost exclusively by the German military and only very few were available for the public, nearly all travel required a license and because the buses weren't operating at all, my mother looked for - and found - Jewish wagon drivers who were carrying people to-and-fro between Lodz and Warsaw. With that she was on her way, after parting from us and promising to return as soon as possible. Only one month ago my father and brother had left home. Now - my mother.
Fear and worry consumed me - how could my mother travel the roads, a woman alone among Poles and Germans; how would she search for and find my father from among the thousands of dead? Were they spread along the roadsides like people said, or perhaps they were buried and if that were so, how would she find him....bring him home? I felt the need to see my father once more. Until now I had never seen a dead person and I was somewhat afraid to think of how my father's face would look now he was dead. I was sure that a wagon, with two black horses harnessed to it would come, bearing my father's body and that his body would be placed in his coffin and that I would walk alongside my mother and Devorah..........
..........And little Yankeleh, who wasn't yet old enough to understand anything, would he walk with us, too? Would there be many at the funeral? Would the cortège travel through the streets of Lodz, as I had seen several others already - and how about all the pity I had felt for the other children who had lost their fathers, never imagining for one moment that one day it was going to happen to me? In the cemetery, they would put my father in a hole in the ground and then I would have to recite the Kaddish over the open grave. It was true that I had not yet been Bar Mitzvah-ed, I was not yet thirteen, but the only other one who was eligible was Mottel and he, too, was not with us.......
I thought all these thoughts and as I thought them I felt myself choking with my tears. How could I possibly do this at the graveside of my father? I wasn't courageous enough to reveal my thoughts to anyone. I didn't even tell my sister. I avoided my friends: they seemed like strangers to me. When I met one of them I felt uncomfortable. They seemed to belong to another world. I prayed that my brother, Mottel, would return quickly from captivity so that I wouldn't be alone; he was always at my right hand when I needed his help. It was always nice to feel that I had a big brother, in spite of the fact that I didn't like it too much when he would scold me now and again, for doing something that he thought was wrong, or telling me what to do and how to behave. Very often, I would automatically reject his authority, even though I knew that on more than one occasion he was right. Now, I missed him badly, I needed him, his nearness. I wanted to see how he would act and behave in the new circumstances in which we found ourselves. I wanted him to show me how to live after what had happened to us; that he should remove from me the burden of responsibility that I felt had descended upon my shoulders. It seemed to me, that when he should come, I could tell him everything that was weighing me down. Together the shared load would be lighter.
Most of my thoughts, though, were given over to my mother, who was now somewhere between Lodz and Warsaw, searching for my father's dead body. A thousand imaginary pictures jostled each other in my mind as to what was happening to her and what might befall her. I was so worried about her that I thought less and less about my father. I counted the hours that had passed since my mother had left the house and how much time remained until she returned on Friday evening - the deadline she had promised. Time stood still.............
In order to help pass the time, I went every day to visit my grandparents but each time that I walked through the door, I felt that I wanted to run away. I couldn't look at their faces, I didn't now what to say to them; they themselves were able to exchange only a very few words with me. I knew that they had no news of my uncle Feivel. I sensed very deeply the suffering of the two old people. My grandfather sat by the table, an open book in front of him, looking so sad. When our eyes met my whole body trembled. My grandmother sat in a corner of the room, like a stone and all wrapped up, as if frozen from the cold. Each of them alone with their suffering and it seemed to me that there was no contact of any kind between them - as if they were two complete strangers. I was not even able to decide if my visits to them were welcome, or not. Somehow I felt that I was disturbing them, that the relationship that we had once shared was no more. I parted from them each time using different excuses.
I walked home along the main roads of the town. When I got to Wolnosci Plac I discovered that the statue of Kosciuszko, which had always graced the square, was no longer there: it had been blown up by the Germans overnight and by the time morning came, no trace of it remained. The plaza seemed totally naked and bare without it.
One of the largest stores had been taken over by the Germans and turned into their Headquarters. A heavy machine-gun had been mounted on the pavement, with a belt of ammunition fed into the breech. Two soldiers sat next to it. All the public buildings in town appeared to be guarded by armed soldiers. The swastika flew everywhere. Some of the shops were closed, in some cases ownership changed hands from Jewish proprietorship, to Polish. Signs in German blossomed while those in Yiddish disappeared. The streets were thronged with people - Poles, German soldiers, Germans in civilian clothes speaking in loud voices. German military vehicles dashed unceasingly all over the place. The trams, full of people, passed by clanging their bells. Life returned to normal...... but not for the Jews.
Jews - once again - were not to be seen walking at leisure or standing casually and at ease in the streets - not in front of their houses and not in front of shop windows. Now, used the streets as quickly as possible and disappeared from sight.
When my mother had left the house, she had gone to one of the street junctions where the drivers tended to congregate with their wagons and carts.
The first stage of her journey was to Glowno. There, she had to wait until the evening when she continued her journey all through the night, in another wagon full of other passengers. On the way they passed various German check-points and shortly before dawn they arrived at Pruszkow.
When my mother told the local Jewish community why she had come, they referred her to their Rabbi. The Rabbi and his wife received her in a very warm and friendly fashion, offered her the spare room and all that a guest could wish for. The Rabbi listened carefully to my mother's story and asked for one or two additional details. When they had completed their conversation he said that he would do everything that was in his power to assist her in finishing the honourable task she had set out to perform. The Rabbi invited several local Jews who were known to have many contacts with the surrounding villages and asked them if they had any information concerning a party of fleeing Jews who had been shot by the Germans. He asked them to investigate the matter with all the farmers in the area. He also passed on the information to the congregation of his synagogue and told them to look upon the discovery of my father's remains as a religious and meritorious obligation.
News of my mother's arrival spread rapidly among the members of the community and many of them came and informed her that they had heard of more than one case of firing-parties of Germans shooting groups of Jews and added that they knew of several common graves in the vicinity. Not one of them, however, had a solid fact to help in the specific search for my father's corpse.
My mother hired a wagon and went round the local villages and farms. She went from house to house asking, inquiring. As a rule, the replies she got were rather abrupt and disinterested, such as: Don't know. Haven't heard, and answers of that type. More than once she was answered with definite hostility and she was even driven away with threats of violence. There were also villagers who received her warmly and with great understanding, welcomed her almost as a guest and did whatever they could to assist her in her quest. She visited the local churches and spoke with the vicars, donated what money she could and begged them to inform their congregations on Sunday, when they come to worship, why she had come and that she would reward well any person who could genuinely help her to find her dead husband's body. With evening, she returned to the Rabbi's house, where she was welcomed by the Rabbi and his wife with a hot meal and a cheering, encouraging conversation. This went on all week, from morning until evening, with no sign of success but with a sublime faith that in the end she would achieve her aim.
Thursday morning my mother returned home. We greeted her with unbridled joy. For a few moments we forgot all our problems and worries in the pleasure of having our mother back with us. When the excitement died down a little we could see from her face something of what she must have been through during her week's mission, including the fatigue of a whole night's journey, just completed, in a simple drayman's cart, during a stormy, Polish autumn. Her coat was wet and crumpled, her shoes covered in mud. When she removed the 'kerchief from her head, we could see that her hair was laid flat. Her face, which was red when she had entered, now seemed to be a shade of yellow. Her forehead wrinkled with lines that I had never noticed before. Her eyes had sunk into her head it seemed, and she hardly opened them. We sat before her silently, not daring to ask the obvious, painful question on all our lips.
She understood our silence and said: So far, I haven't found your father; on Sunday I'll go back and start again. Now, I've got to lie down and rest a bit.
My mother slept deeply for hours. In the meantime, my sister prepared lunch and we all waited, hungry, for our mother to wake up. When she did wake up, she was angry that she had slept so long and after she had washed and dressed, she again looked beautiful and even managed to spread a smile on her face. While she ate, my mother told us that she needed to arrange quite a few things before Sunday morning: she needed money and was not sure where she might get it in a hurry; she also wanted to meet again the man who told her about our father's death, in the hope that he may be able to offer some further, more accurate information as to the locality. She intended to renew her quest on Sunday morning and therefore she needed to purchase and prepare food for the week. Her speech was incisive and full of self-confidence, leaving no doubt as to her capability of coping with everything that lay before her. She finished eating and went out on her errands. In the evening, she sat and told us everything that had happened to her during the week that had passed: the difficult journey to Pruszkow; the Rabbi and his wife, with their kindness; her visits to the villages and the different people she had met; she also described for us her hunt for the various common graves to which she had been directed; the moments of hope, fear and despair which she experienced. A warm and pleasant atmosphere pervaded our home that Shabbat. It was good to wake up in the morning and know that our mother was there; to sit at the table together with her and listen to her relate her experiences to the people who came to visit us. I absorbed every word that she said and marvelled at her courage.
Since my mother had left home on her search I had noticed a significant change in her. She seemed much more certain of herself, full of energy and bursting with self-confidence and the belief in her ability to achieve what she had set out to do. In the past, she had managed the house, given a hand to our father in the factory. Our father, however, had the final word in business matters and in family decisions; my mother never did a thing without his agreement and permission. Without him she had never bought a thing - except of course food - and even though our father was constantly busy, he always went with us to buy clothes. When my father had finished an important business transaction, he would spend a long time explaining to my mother its importance until he had convinced her of his viewpoint.
On more than one occasion, when my father had argued with people, my mother would comment on his stubborn approach and try to get him to compromise on the issue. In these instances my father would lose his temper completely, prowl around the house, shout - even plead with her to agree with him and when, in spite of that, she still insisted on maintaining her own point of view, he would be overcome with a kind of sadness and become silent for hours on end. Our mother derived much pleasure, as did we, from being relieved of the burden of responsibility by having my father take the decisions but now that our father was no longer here, things had changed entirely.
When my mother decided to go and look for my father's remains, she didn't really know what lay before her and neither did she think too much about it. She recognized only the target that she had set herself and with that recognition came the realization that she was alone with no one to help her, to decide for her; she could plan and do things that she had never before considered as being within her capabilities. The discovery made a significant change in her behaviour.
Her intuition told her that she was close to discovering the whereabouts of my father's body and she had already planned to hire labourers to open the common grave in which he had been laid and to arrange for a proper Jewish burial. She was undecided as to where it was proper to bury my father's remains. It seemed reasonable to bury them in Pruzskow, in which case it would be necessary to come and fetch both me and Devorah to the ceremony; it would not be possible to leave little Yankeleh with my grandparents, because in their present circumstances it would be difficult for them to look after him, so she asked one of our neighbors to look after him at the appropriate time. I happened to be present at this conversation and was suddenly weighed down with apprehension. This time, I was not so afraid of what might happen to my mother during her journey; I was terrified of my approaching encounter with death. I felt that I would be unable to cope with a face-to-face meeting with my dead father. Somewhere deep within me I prayed that my mother wouldn't find my father's body.
Success did not crown my mother's second journey, either. On this occasion, heavy rains thwarted all her attempts to continue with her search: the whole area was turned into a veritable sea of mud and quite a number of the fields which were suspected of hiding common graves were covered in water, so that all and any signs that may have led to their discovery were obliterated. All her efforts to find my father at this stage, ended in failure. Despairing and at a loss for advice, my mother listened to the opinion of one of the priests who suggested that she wait for the spring and more congenial conditions, when the farmers would begin to plough their fields and the graves certainly discovered. Then the bodies could be transferred for reburial; maybe then it would also be possible to identify the bodies of the victims.
As a result of this advice, my mother again went round all the villages in the area of Pruzskow, meeting with the priests and village leaders, describing my father and leaving them money and our address together with the address of the Rabbi of Pruzskow. She returned home disappointed but at the same time certain that she had done all that it was possible at that time and full of the hope that, in the end, she will succeed and her search bear fruit.
These were the last days of autumn, stormy, rainy. Everything was grey and depressing, the days short and the nights long. We all sat at home waiting for we knew not what. In the evenings, our neighbour from downstairs would visit us and my mother would relate to her stories from days gone by, stories that I had never in my life heard from her. In an impassioned voice, aflame with excitement, eyes sparkling, tears time and time again breaking into the flow of words, she told how my father first appeared at her home - a young soldier, tall and slim, introducing himself as a distant relation, telling them that he was serving in the Fortress not far from my mother's house and that his parents had given him their address so that he could stay in a Jewish house. My father, so my mother said, behaved very shyly and even stuttered from lack of confidence - totally unlike the smooth-tongued young men from Warsaw with whom she was so familiar.
That very first evening the young soldier captured my heart, said my mother. I didn't close my eyes all night from thinking about him. With eyes peeled she awaited his next visit, anxious in case he should not come. After he had been to the house a few times he began to relax a little and overcome his shyness and my mother would avidly drink in all his stories of his adventures in the army and at the front - all of them spiced with humour.
The first time that my father invited my mother out for a walk, she accepted without hesitation, although it was not quite the thing for a young girl to be seen walking out with a soldier - something which was likely to affect her good name. The two walked around for a while, enjoying each other's company, without talking too much and when, during the walk they passed by a cafe, he invited her in for a pastry.
My mother's happiness knew no bounds. My father had only to step over the threshold of the courtyard and she instantly recognized his confident footsteps and ran to the window. All the girls in the building would look on with envy. Scared that they would steal him from her, she severed relations with all her friends.
According to my mother, my father would leave camp on occasion, without permission, in order to be with her. Since he certainly could be punished if caught, this caused her great anxiety but at the same time she was so proud that he took the risk for her sake. One day, when it happened that he hadn't been to visit for some time, my mother became impatient and went looking for him. A young Jewish girl, hanging round the gates of the Fortress was certainly a rare sight and many soldiers gathered round her, some flirting with her, a few trying to help her find my father.
I wouldn't have gone there for all the money in the world, said my mother. I don't know what came over me or what gave me the courage to go there.
Eventually one of the soldiers came and told her that my father was on a training exercise with his unit about three kilometers away. The soldier told her that it was in a military zone and that civilians were not permitted there or to approach the area but my mother paid him no attention.
Without intending to, without even really being aware of it, I found myself walking in the direction indicated by the soldier. Suddenly I was stopped dead in my tracks by a voice shouting - 'Halt!' - and a soldier on duty called to me to return along the path I'd just come down and to approach him. His rifle was pointed at me and I was very frightened. When I got close to him he began shouting at me.
'What the hell d'you think you're doing here. This is a military zone. Do you know you're on a mine-field? You can get killed!'
When he calmed down a bit, he began to ask me what I was doing there. I didn't know what to answer him. I couldn't very well tell him that I was there looking for my Moisheh, went on my mother smiling reminiscently. So I told him that I was just out for a walk. The soldier looked me in the eyes and said:
'You're lying. You'll have to wait here until my relief comes and then we're going to the command-post, you and me. The officers there will know how to get the truth out of you. You may be a spy for all I know,' he concluded.
I was scared out of my wits, my mother said. I was sure I was going to end up in a prison, on trial before a military tribunal and condemned to be hanged for spying! She finished her story by bursting into laughter, while I fought to stem tears of emotion as I visualized her feelings.
The German occupation, becoming more firmly established from day to day, produced a fresh batch of anti-Jewish regulations every day. Jews were removed from all government and civic positions of work; they were forbidden to find employment in the free professions - teachers, journalists, lawyers. Jews in Poland would, from this day hence no longer be doctors in the hospitals. There was no end to these anti-Jewish edicts.
More than once one new order contradicted its predecessor. One day they brought out an order commanding people to open their shops and businesses and the next day an order appeared forbidding anyone to trade without a license. When Jews came to the office to obtain a license they were not only refused one but were refused entry to the office. The Germans waged a campaign of degradation and shame against the Jews. Time and time again, German trucks would arrive outside Jewish shops, businesses and warehouses, where the soldiers would get off, empty the premises of its stock and more often than not arrest the owner. Very soon the Germans found that they had many helpers in the shape of informers, among them Jews. They sprang up all over the place and when they were seen riding in German vehicles everyone was struck with fear and anxiety.
Nobody had any idea what was really going on, or what the object was of all these things. The lack of information was complete - and as a result a thousand rumours quickly spread. In every Jewish house stormy arguments took place round the question - 'What to do?' Rumour followed rumour: 'There's an agreement between the Russians and the Germans' - 'They will soon evacuate Lodz and the Russians will come in their place' (when I saw a German convoy travelling westwards, I told everyone that the Germans were already leaving the town); 'the Germans were going to annex all of Western Poland, except Lodz and in the remaining parts of Poland they would create a civil administration under their own auspices'; 'Jews who had fled to Russia had been well received - many had returned to collect their families and take them there and entire families had left the town peacefully, leaving behind them all their property'; 'the situation there was worse than in Poland - many crossing the Russian border are arrested and sent to Siberia and those who are not imprisoned are left to wander around with no roof over their heads and not a crust of bread to eat'; 'thousands who crossed the border were sent back by the Russians and the Germans opened fire on them....' and so on indefinitely.
Two families left our own apartment block. Into the flat above moved a German family. When my mother went out in the morning, she met the housewife on the stairs who introduced herself and spoke with my mother in a friendly fashion. My mother spoke with her half-German half-Yiddish and they understood each other quite well. When I went out I was surprised to see them talking together. The woman was about forty-ish, tall, slim and good looking. She was dressed in a long, flowered house-coat. I didn't quite know how to react or behave in this situation and, asking to be excused, made to return to our flat but the woman called to me in German and asked me my name. Embarrassed, I let out my name in a weak voice and laughingly she patted me. Later my mother told me that the woman's husband had been given work in Lodz and that she was looking forward to a neighbourly relationship between them. She asked if my mother would loan her a few house-cleaning materials for a day or so until she had time to purchase her own. She entered the flat together with my mother, looked around casually, received the articles she had asked for and, thanking my mother, went out. After she had gone my mother sat deep in thought.
The woman visited us several times in the morning after her husband had gone out to work. She always politely asked to be forgiven for the intrusion, always found an excuse for coming, either to return some article or other that she had borrowed, ask for the loan of something else, or just to ask a question while standing on the threshold. Sometimes, out of politeness, my mother would invite her in but she always refused saying that she had too much work waiting for her at home. On more than one occasion she offered to purchase food-stuffs for my mother which were known to be difficult to obtain, but my mother always refused the offer with a grateful word of thanks. One day she said to my mother that, because of the war, many nasty people had appeared who were making a lot of trouble for the Jews; if there should be any problems of that sort, my mother shouldn't hesitate to tell her - her husband was an important man and could do much to help us......
One day our mother told us that our father had appeared to her in a dream and told her to open the factory and get it working and she had decided that that is what she must do. It would be difficult and dangerous even for someone with much experience; how much more so for a woman who had merely known the business from the limited standpoint of having helped her husband in the production aspects of the factory. Her first target was to utilize all the raw materials that were stored, and manufacture goods to sell; the proceeds we could use to leave Lodz, if that's what we decided to do. She fell upon her mission with all her new found zeal. Running around from morning till evening looking for workers, negotiating with agents and merchants and of course encountering difficulties every step of the way. In the evening she would return home exhausted but talking endlessly about the business, or making calculations, writing lists. When people came to the house she would show them the goods explaining and arguing about the price. The atmosphere at home was changed. It was if it had come to life again but only during the day...with evening, the depression returned and descended upon us and upon the house.
My mother succeeded in finding two workers and a machinist. The three of them began to work and the factory to produce. Then began the problem of transferring the merchandise from place to place - we were without any kind of license and German patrols in the streets were stopping anyone they found carrying parcels and examining them. I told my mother that if I wrap myself in layers of cloth and then put on my overcoat, no one will ever know what I'm carrying underneath. She liked my idea and my 'smuggling operation' went off very well. One day I was walking passed a building outside of which a German soldier was standing on guard. As I neared him I thought it wiser to cross to the other side of the street. I did so but as I came level with him I threw him a glance and catching my eye he called me over. I was horrified, knowing what I was carrying and believing his suspicions were already aroused. I thought for the moment of running but realized that I was too close to him and that I had left it too late. Shaking all over, I stood in front of him and then he took out some money and asked me to go and buy him a packet of cigarettes. When I brought him his cigarettes and change, he thanked me.........
The direct encounter with the German soldier had given me quite a bit of self-confidence. I continued to walk to the factory in a good mood although when I returned home my mother immediately asked me:
Bereleh, what happened?
Apparently, something of my experience showed on my face. I told my mother what had happened and she said that that was the last time I was to carry anything. I pleaded with her endlessly and tried to convince her that, especially now, the incident had given me so much confidence that I really wasn't afraid any more but she was adamant.
The following morning, very early, there was a loud knocking at the door and without further warning a group of five German men burst into the flat - and straight into the living-room. One of them, dressed in brown uniform carried in his hand a pistol which he kept pointed in our general direction. Two of the soldiers had holstered pistols and two were dressed as civilians.
One of them shouted: Heil Hitler!
We stood there frightened. When the German in the brown uniform asked why we had not returned his salute we did so with a united Heil Hitler! They looked in all the rooms and dragged out all the parcelled up goods that my father had brought from the factory on the eve of the war. One of them opened the sideboard and took out silverware that had been arranged on the shelves - the special silver cup, with which we blessed the wine every Friday night, four silver candlesticks and a few other items, most of them valued gifts and purchases from over the years.
We stood together in a group, petrified. The German in the brown uniform guarded us with his drawn pistol. My mother, to my terror, began to speak with the German. She asked that he leave us a few sweaters, at least. I was afraid that he would shoot her out of hand but he looked at us, thought for a moment and then, with a smile, called over the soldier who was carrying one of the parcels and drew four sweaters from it and threw them at us with a look that suggested we thank him for his kindness and generosity.
Thank you, my mother said,
When they had finished collecting everything they could find, they left the apartment as quickly as possible, which made us suspicious that they had not been sent officially by the authorities but rather had done what they had done on their own initiative. After they had left, my mother began crying. While we were still sitting there in shock, our German neighbour came in. When my mother told her what had just that moment occurred, she broke in with an angry shout.
My God! Why didn't you come and call me? I wouldn't have allowed them to do that to you.
She began to ask my mother all sorts of questions about them; had they shown her any document to verify that they had come on official business; had they given her a receipt - and so on. In the end she concluded that they were simply thieves and advised us to contact the Gestapo. She would mention it to her husband in the meantime, and maybe through the two agencies the thieves will get caught and we'll get our property back. When my mother told some friends about the advice she had received - to report the matter to the Gestapo - she heard stories that would make one's hair curl: people who had gone to the Gestapo had been beaten instead of helped and there were those who disappeared never to be seen again.
From that moment onwards, our German neighbour stopped visiting us and avoided meeting us on the stairs or outside.
My mother eventually learned that she wasn't able to overcome all the difficulties associated with operating the factory, so she sold all the material that she had in stock at a low price and exchanged it for gold and again we sat at home with nothing to do.
When Mottel comes back from captivity, she said, and times will perhaps be a little better, we'll start again.
In the meantime, the best medicine for overcoming our family tragedy - something to do - was missing. For the short period we had been occupied with the factory, the atmosphere at home really was more relaxed, calm and positive. We hadn't forgotten our father, it was simply that other things occupied our minds and time, and it was cheering to see our mother busy and pleased with herself.
My love for my mother deepened significantly during this period. My heart went out to her. I felt that there wasn't anyone in the world who could be more unfortunate than she; and now that she had absolutely nothing to do, she again became gloomy and melancholy. Mourning and depression returned to our home and reigned supreme. The memory of our father was as strong as ever.
One day our mother returned home to tell us that our uncle Feivel had been killed. Two soldiers who had served together with him had returned home from captivity and related how, on the second day of the war, when their unit got to the front, the Germans attacked before they even had time to organize themselves, killing some of them and taking the rest captive. Since the outbreak of war, we had heard no word of Feivel nor received any other sign from him. We knew, to be sure, that the Polish army had been beaten and broken but we retained and nurtured the faint hope that Feivel had fallen captive, or perhaps even managed to escape eastwards, to Russia. Now the hope had gone. My beloved uncle Feivel was dead. I will never see him again. We all went round to my grandparents' home to be together with them during the week of mourning. The beginning of the period with them was very hard. All day long we were together in the same room, enveloped in misery and gloom. I felt as if the ghost of Feivel was floating around the room. Usually I loved to visit their home and I especially loved to look through the window of their flat, which faced onto Piotrkowska Street, the main street of Lodz. On national holidays I would watch the army parades and processions or on other days, demonstrations or funerals of notables, or just enjoy watching what was going on, unceasingly, in the noisy street.
Now, during the week of mourning, I didn't dare to go anywhere near the window for fear that I might be drawn out of the heavy and depressing atmosphere. After all, I came to the house to mourn together with my grandparents and God forbid that I should be guilty of profaning the mourning week. My grandfather prayed and read Psalms all the day. My grandmother sat without moving. Restless, I didn't know what to do. My grandfather placed a book in my hands and instructed me to read. I sat there, the book open in front of me, unable to concentrate, unable to say a word. Each morning and evening relatives, neighbors and friends joined us for the usual prayers and my grandfather recited the prayer for the dead - the 'Kaddish.'
Will I also have to say 'Kaddish' for a whole year, three times a day?
In the morning, I went, after all, to the window. One felt in the atmosphere that something special was going on. I saw lots of Germans in different uniforms and a few Jews marching rapidly and disappearing into the courtyards of the houses. Fire-engines threw their long ladders up against the fronts of the buildings and their crews climbed up to hang large flags - red with a swastika in the centre - as they would for a Polish National holiday or other festive occasion - except that this time the flags were different. What was usually a gladdening sight became, this time, a source of frustration. I moved away from the window with a promise to myself not to look again.
During the day, we learned that Germany had annexed Lodz to the Third Reich and had changed the city's name to Litzmannstadt. Piotrkowska Street also received a new name - Hitlerstrasse! Moreover, rumour had it that Hitler himself was coming to Lodz to visit and a parade and march-past would be held in the main square by the German army. Clearly, the rumours and hopes that the Germans were leaving were false.
In my uncle's room, I found a comprehensive treasure-trove of old pamphlets and magazines, most of them published by various Zionist organizations. Looking through them, I found myself transported into another world - beautiful, full of hopes and dreams. I became so involved in what I was reading that I was totally unaware of the passage of time. So much so, that when my mother came in to see what I was doing, I woke up startled as if from a dream and blushed, as if I had been caught in some wrong-doing. I expected my mother to rebuke me for reading Epicurean material but to my surprise she merely smiled and said: Carry on reading, Bereleh.
When she was already outside the door, I heard her saying:
Bereleh's sitting and reading.
My grandfather reacted by saying: It's not good that the lad should be reading that drivel.
To which my mother instantly retorted:
It's better that he should read that than be totally absorbed in his thoughts all day long. I'm afraid that he'll go crazy from so much introspection.
There, in my uncle's little room, I discovered 'Literature', and for the remaining six days of the mourning period, I read from morning to night and the time flew past quickly. When at last we returned home, our own apartment seemed so large and spacious; we all felt a measure of relief. Yankeleh, who was quiet and very restricted in our grandparents' home, felt the difference and immediately began to run around wildly as if released from a cage. As for me, the moment I entered the house, thoughts of my father returned and once more completely consumed my attention.
One day, a woman whom I had never seen in my life before, pleasant, about 30 years of age, came to visit my mother. I noticed that my mother paled and blushed alternately at the sight of her. After some slight hesitation which I also noticed, she invited the guest in and I wondered what it was that gave our visitor her somewhat special appearance - the way she dressed, her hairstyle, or perhaps her sad face - I also found it difficult to determine if she was Jewish, or not. For a moment my mother and the woman sat silently facing each other and then the woman asked.
Do you know who I am?
Yes, I know, replied my mother and again there was silence.
After a while the woman said that she had heard of the tragedy that had befallen us. My mother introduced us to her but in the face of the woman's obvious embarrassment she then asked us to leave the room. My curiosity was aroused. Who is this woman? I placed myself close to the door and peeked. The woman was saying to my mother:
I came to you because I felt I must speak to someone in the family. Something tells me that you won't slam the door in my face; that you'll listen to me.
A sudden intuition told me who she was. For a long time, I had been aware of a close relative of my father's who had become a Christian, had married a Pole and was working as a senior clerk in the council offices of Lodz. The sorrow and shame felt by the family was so great that no one in the family dared to mention the convert's name. So-much-so, that everyone tried to forget that she ever existed - her parents actually went through the traditional seven-day mourning period for her, broke all contact with her and felt so ashamed and disgraced that they isolated themselves from society. The only person whom I knew from the same branch of my father's family, was the woman's brother, who used to visit us occasionally and since he was extremely anti-religious always ended up quarreling with my father, at first reasonably, eventually heatedly and loudly, to my great anxiety. My mother would try to quieten the two of them, not very often successfully. At the same time, I rather think she enjoyed the arguments herself. My father's opponent would insist that the very appearance of the ultra-orthodox, with their long beards, side-curls, odd dress and a very definite style of behaviour which was totally different from everyone around them, in itself generated the anti-Semitism and brought tragedy down on the heads of all Jews. My father, on the other hand, would reply in his usual measured tone:
Look what happened in Germany! There, the Jews became so completely assimilated that they themselves forgot that they were even Jews! Did that help them?
The two antagonized each other consistently, every time they met and more than once I felt that they really hated one another except that time and time again they would greet each other on meeting, warmly and with real friendship.
I never heard the man speak of his sister. It was as if there was an unwritten law in the family not to refer to the painful subject. That being so, the convert in our family seemed in my eyes as mysterious and a little frightening. I never asked my father and mother a thing on the subject. Somehow I sensed it to be a forbidden topic. About a year before the war broke out, the woman's mother died - from a broken heart, they said - and when my parents returned from the funeral, I heard them arguing.
Where did she find the cheek to come to the funeral? My father asked. She was the one that killed her!
My mother, however, took her part, almost as a defence attorney: Do you think that it was easy for her to come, knowing and sensing the hostility everyone feels towards her. Didn't you see how she stood to one side lonely and isolated, crying? Moisheh, I'll tell you the truth, I felt like going up to her and comforting her......
My father reacted with a short laugh.
Yes! He said. I can well believe you would. I can imagine if the Devil himself stood in front of you with a sad face you'd want to comfort him as well.
Now this same woman, this forgotten convert, sat in our house, unfolding before my mother the story of her life. She spoke rapidly and unceasingly. She told my mother that her marriage had not worked out well. It was true that her husband was a good man and she loved him but his anti-Semitic family, who considered her to be Jewish, in spite of her conversion, were unpleasant to her and treated her as an unwanted stranger and intruder into the family. With that background it was not long before the couple began to argue.
In the end the family won, and we got divorced, she said, and two weeks ago I was fired from my job at the Town Hall because I'm Jewish. In the eyes of the Christians I remain Jewish and in the eyes of the Jews I'm a Christian. I seem to have no place in this world..... Again silence settled on the room. After a moment, my mother invited the woman to stay for lunch. She declined, however, and parted from us with a forced smile. On the threshold, my mother said to her that our home was always open to her and that she should always feel free to come and visit - indeed - my mother specifically asked her to do so. The woman replied with a nod.
My mother was worried and accused herself of not being able to find the right words to cheer the depressed woman.
I'm afraid that she may go and do something stupid to herself. She said.
We never saw the woman again. In my imagination, I saw her jumping from the roof of a high building.
Then came the day when we were struck dumb by a new law - The Germans decreed that all Jews were henceforth to wear a yellow distinguishing badge. Throughout history the Jews of Poland had known persecution, pogroms and discrimination but they had learned to live with them as a people prone to natural disaster by the will of heaven, a people of unpreventable, inevitable, uncontrollable tragedies. With that, for all that the authorities encouraged out-breaks against Jews, never had they done so openly and publicly - it had always been sufficient for them that the 'work' was done. Hitler, on the other hand, openly declared a campaign against the Jewish people, creating a State apparatus for dealing with them. From the moment that the Germans' control on our city took hold, we began to experience the first harbingers of oppression and degradation. The decrees which were promulgated against us made our lives noticeably more bitter in all sectors and seriously affected our means of supporting ourselves. With each new decree, we felt that things could get no worse. Yet, before many days passed, along came another one which did just that - and so it went on without pause. It is difficult, if not impossible to describe, the measure of the insult, the awful feeling of being marked, distinguished from all others, identifiable externally as being inferior, deprived of the rights allowed to others, the non-Jews, with no appeal.
The decree was quite clear and precise: every Jew, of any age, without exception, will henceforth wear on his chest and back, at all times and in all places, a yellow patch in the shape of a Star of David, of designated size, from the moment he leaves his house. The whole idea seemed a bit strange to me but especially the use of the Star of David - the emblem used to decorate the synagogues, the Scrolls of the Law, our flag - the very emblem which was, after all a source of pride and hope, the Germans converted into a symbol of shame. My mother stitched the yellow patch on all our coats and made every effort to ensure that the work was done æsthetically so that it would look nice, while we all sat around her watching in silence. My sister cried and said she wouldn't leave the house - she had no intention of being used as an exhibition for the 'Goyim'.
The first time I left the house wearing the yellow star, I stopped at the gate and looked around me. Among the people passing by those wearing the star were most conspicuous but this was not the Star of David which proudly decorated our precious objects: this was a badge both ugly and prominent. The Germans and Poles looked upon the wearers of these badges as if they were some kind of strange creatures. They smiled at each other, some broke into laughter and some heaped scorn and abuse on the heads of their victims. The Jews, their faces pale and set, hurried by, walking close to the walls of the buildings trying, for all that, not to be conspicuous. I walked out into the street. I felt as if everyone was staring at me. Suddenly, I was a stranger even to those whom I knew; I found myself trying to avoid their eyes.
Our neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood. The residents were both Poles and Jews. The closer I came to the mainly Jewish area, the more numerous were the yellow stars - the easier and less conspicuous I felt. Very quickly it became clear that the shock with which the new decree had hit us and which we could not imagine it possible to bear was not the end of the world; it was possible to carry on living. We got used to it. Lodz, a city half of whose population was Jewish, was divided into two 'camps' - the one, the wearers of the yellow star and the other those who were exempt from doing so. The force of habit was so strong that it was not long before we could imagine, or even convince ourselves that thus it had always been.....
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
The Last of the Freibergs Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 28 Oct 2007 by LA