We left for Berlin at night and traveled in blacked-out coaches. Traveling through the stretches of Germany we thought about the reason for the blackout. Apparently the Allied bombardments. We amused ourselves with the thought that the day of liberation was at hand.
Arriving in Berlin, we made our way to the Palestine office on Meineke [?]. Hoffman had known Dr. Pick, the director of the Palestine office from before the war, which permitted us to speak freely. German Jews were very wary of foreign Jews during that time for fear of their being Gestapo collaborators, and even before the war they had not trusted Polish Jews. Dr. Pick at once informed Prof. Rabbi [Leo] Baeck, who was also the chairman of the Union of German Kehillot, of our arrival. They saw to our accommodations in the Hotel Carlton. Next day they moved us to an apartment and obtained ration cards for us on the basis of our permits. Passing through the streets of Berlin we discerned the pervasive shortages, apparently due to the boycott of Germany. It was possible to get meals in restaurants only in exchange for ration coupons. The coffee was Ersatz [artificial]. In some restaurants they served saccharine instead of sugar. The display windows looked pitiful, and in spite of their quick victories over Poland, we couldn't detect the people's enthusiasm. The streets were practically empty the men were in the army and the women worked in factories. In the shops it was possible to buy inferior quality goods in return for coupons except for eau de cologne and razor blades which were not rationed. As we heard from the housewife where we lodged there had been almost no bombardment of Berlin. Nevertheless, an absolute blackout was in force throughout the city.
That evening we were invited to attend the annual celebration of the Kulturband [Cultural Organization], whose proceeds were dedicated to the Winterhilfe [winter aid]. The party was held in one of the theaters. The men were dressed in tuxedos and the women in night gowns without jewelry. The participants already knew about the arrival of a Polish delegation and their curiosity was great. They wanted to know if the rumors about the terrible news that had reached Berlin were true, about the killing of Jews, the transports, and the burning of Jews in synagogues, and so forth. Many of those present had relatives or friends in Poland who had been deported via Zbaszyn [Zbonschen] in 1938.
They waited impatiently for the end of the official program of the Evening in order to be able to speak with us. After the speeches by Dr. Baeck and the chairman of the Kehilla, Dr. Stahl, in which they appealed for contributions to the Jewish Winter Aid Fund, they surrounded us and inundated us with their questions. We told all of the truth, left nothing out, although we had been asked to tread carefully for fear of informers that might have been present.
Next day, at noon, a special meeting of the Union of German Jews had been called. This was the official organ representing German Jewry. Around the table in the meeting hall of the organization sat sober, mature gentlemen, representatives of the major communities in Germany. Dr. Baeck presided, a Jewish leader of the same type as his friend Dr. Tuhn [a well-known Zionist figure in pre-war Poland]. When he learned that I had painted Dr. Tuhn's portrait several times, our relationship became very warm and replaced the former suspicion which had been in the air at our first meeting. Those present listened in sad silence to the report I delivered and to the urgent request on the speedy resolution of the emigration issue and financial help from the Union. They promised their help and informed us that they had substantial funds which could be unblocked only by order of the man in charge of the Reichsicherheitshauptamt [The Main Office of Government Security], which was run by a man called [Adolf] Eichmann, and the liaison with him was Dr. Pin [Fin Fein ?]. They assured me that our request would be transmitted at once for approval. As for the main purpose of our visit, it was made clear to us that the Reichsicherheitshauptamt issued exit permits to anyone wishing to leave Germany and that there was no objection to emigration.
We informed them of the order of the City Kommandant of Oshpitzin to open a Palestine office and to keep him abreast of the results of the registration. We also reported on the transfer of Jews from Silesia to Oshpitzin as a transit point until their emigration. I had thoughts of getting in touch with HIAS about emigration via the internationalized Danube River to Sulina and Varna. With regard to this they responded that two days hence they were expecting a delegation from the Center at Istanbul and that the Union would discuss this with them. We also learned that in the camps at Sulina and Varna there were already some 20,000 Jews, and there is no possibility to find enough ships to transfer them to Palestine. Moreover, the British were not permitting the transfer of Jews to Palestine. However, perhaps because of the worsening situation of the Jews in Poland, the Istanbul delegation might succeed in making their emigration possible.
At this point in time there are no obstacles as far as the German side is concerned, inasmuch as their goal is to be rid of the Jews at any price. Additionally, we learned that there was another possibility for emigration by means of some American travel agency in Berlin, but as to that we would receive further information from the Palestine Center office. The meeting ended with the resolution that Dr. Pin, the liaison with Dr. [Hjalmar] Schacht and [Adolf] Eichmann, would make efforts with respect to the transit permits for Jewish emigrants via Oshpitzin to the United States. A meeting was arranged for us in the Pal Amt [Palestine Bureau]. A tour of the Jewish institutions in Berlin was also arranged for the morrow, to be followed by a visit with Dr. Stahl at the Jewish Kehilla in Berlin.
After the meeting I was invited for lunch by Dr. Baeck. My colleagues went to see the city. After the meal Prof. Baeck and I freely exchanged ideas, and the first question I was asked if I knew someone named Munik Merin from Sosnowiec. I answered in the affirmative. He warned me about him, since the Union had information that he was a confidante of Himmler and Eichmann, that he carried a letter from them to all German authorities to assist him and in all questions that are in doubt he should be consulted. He, moreover, had been provided with a special office in the Gestapo at Katowice. Then he told me about the situation of German Jewry. The Jews were no longer running their businesses and most of them were now clerks and community workers of the Kehilla and its institutions. The only merchants were street-vendors standing near the Kehilla and its institutions selling notions and neckwear from a tray suspended from their necks, while the rest were hospitalized or in old-age homes. There were almost no youth, all awaiting a certificate or affidavit in order to be able to emigrate. In Dr. Baeck's opinion, those not able to emigrate would perish in the camps or from hunger. This was called the Final Solution.
To this very day I can hear the bitter complaint which Rabbi Professor Baeck expressed against World Jewry and its leadership whose interest in their brethren under Hitler's rule was nil. For each of the repeated appeals to the Jews of England and the United States, which was passed to them by Dr. Ehrenpreiss of Stockholm, no one had responded. Our continuous cries of desperation were tongue-tied in a conspiracy of silence. The Germans have almost emptied Germany of its Jews, almost all have been deported to Poland, except for a few hundred families, mostly elderly. Now, after the conquest of Poland, the problem has become even more acute due to the difficulties of emigration which have no solution. The western countries have no intention of accepting the Jews. One should, therefore, expect a total disaster considering the merciless behavior of the German criminals and murderers. It is difficult to imagine of what excesses they are capable, especially should the United States participate in the war, something which Hitler fears. If the U.S. government would seriously bring pressure to bear, not only would the Germans permit the Jews to emigrate, but especially if the western countries would consent to receive them, it would bring about a solution for the Jewish problem. Dr. Baeck had reached the conclusion that even Roosevelt was not a faithful friend of the Jews. He could persuade the British to permit the entry of Jews to Palestine, or even Madagascar. During that conversation Dr. Baeck expressed the opinion, that the presence of our delegation was most important. It will make it possible to transmit the information about our situation to the Istanbul delegation. Dr. Baeck was afraid that even this last route for emigration would be closed off with the freezing over of the Danube. He said:
If the West does not come to our aid the Jews will be squeezed like a lemon for all their property and any means of physical sustenance, and then to be discarded and incinerated like a lemon rind. These were his parting words.
Now then, as I recall the words of this experienced veteran Jewish leader, who survived the war in Theresienstadt I must bow my head in saluting his wisdom and prescience in foreseeing the rapidly approaching Holocaust.
From Professor Baeck, I went to the Pal Amt, where I found my colleagues and Dr. Pick and Dr. Pin. We descended to the offices of the Irgun which dealt with emigration assistance, both legal and illegal. We were informed about emigration possibilities to South American countries, by obtaining citizenship in these countries which could be attained by proving land ownership there. Purchase of land and passports could be arranged via a certain travel agency. This avenue, however, did not mesh with the financial means of Polish Jewry, since it required vast expenditures. There remained the required Certificate of Uprightness [issued by the German Police] whose prerequisite was the presentation of a visa to any country that would permit entry. The Jewish organizations in other countries also did not display much initiative. The only hope for Jewish emigration from Poland remaining was via Sulina and Varna to Palestine. This could become a possibility through American pressure on Britain to drop the prohibition of the entry of Jews to Palestine. At that point we were not aware that the Americans also had their oil interests in Arab countries, and it would seem that that was the reason for its apathy as far as this issue was concerned.
I lay on my bed that night with a heavy heart, and was unable to sleep. I was still under the influence of my conversation with Dr. Baeck. I was not able to grasp that our brethren overseas, and especially in the U.S.A., were not doing everything possible in order to allow 20,000 Jews, who had, through risking their lives, escaped the Hitlerian Hell and were now on the coast of the Black Sea, to reach safety. I couldn't believe that any Jew in the U.S.A. could sleep peacefully knowing the situation of their brothers rotting away under Hitler's yoke. I could not imagine that Jews there would not close their businesses, not leave work, in order to go out and publicly demonstrate, raise a hue and cry, and demand the assistance of this mighty world power of freedom, the United States of America, for the Jews whose only one safe haven from the Nazi Hell was the road to oblivion. Lying abed, though, I also entertained other thoughts: Just maybe they don't really know as yet what is happening here; maybe they have not heard about the concentration camps and the torments to which the Nazis were deporting tens of thousands of Jews and what awaited them there; perhaps the cries of their brethren who were being increasingly annihilated by the accursed Nazi troops had not yet reached their ears. Maybe, maybe and when they become aware of this terrible atrocity they will certainly rush to their aid and do everything possible to save them. Then again, a doubt comes to mind: Who knows? Maybe our brethren in the U.S.A. are also obliged to be silent, in order not to anger their authorities and their president, and to remain good and loyal citizens? Who knows?
I dropped off after sunup, and in a nightmare I saw images of Jews burning like torches. After waking I could not put these images out of my mind. I remained in bed and in my imagination saw President Roosevelt, a handicapped president, and remembered his speeches full of wrath against Hitler.
After knocking on the door, my colleagues came in looking rested and in a good mood. While still in bed, I told them of the contents of my conversation with Dr. Baeck. They, however, disregarded his estimation of the situation. It was unthinkable, they claimed, that Morgenthau, Baruch, Warburg, Goldman, etc., would accept this. They had the support of the Jewish Agency, the Landsmannnschaften in the U.S.A. and the Jews of the whole world. It cannot be, they said, that in such a time they would distance themselves and not raise a hue and cry whilst their mothers and brothers were being exterminated in Poland, they would rend their garments, they said, and go out into the streets with sackcloth on their heads, and force Roosevelt and Churchill to bring us out of Poland just as they had brought out the Gerrer Rebbe and Rothschild. The Germans will be happy to let us go. All they want is to get rid of us and it was for that purpose that they are establishing the emigration offices.
I doubted that. I saw before me the face of Dr. Baeck
One of our escorts arrived and took us on a tour of the Kehilla institutions. We visited the gigantic marvelously appointed hospital, and the splendidly built old-age home, to which each resident could bring his own furniture in order to preserve the character of his family home. There were large libraries and modern dining rooms. The behavior of the residents was normal, they played chess and read books. Peace and tranquillity reigned everywhere. This was a quietude of self-delusion and deceit
I think they showed this to the Americans still stationed in Berlin.
We also visited the Kehilla offices. It was a huge building filled with offices, clerks running to and fro in the corridors carrying papers. We were told that the activity was crucial in order to prove that people were hard at work so that they could have the wherewithal to live.
The Chairman of the Kehilla, Stahl, received us in his well-appointed and beautifully arranged office. His brother was Goering's family physician. Around that time, a daughter was born to the Goerings and Dr. Stahl was the attending physician at the birth. Goering dealt with the criticism leveled against him for allowing a Jew to treat his family by saying: The well-being of my family stands higher than Party concerns, and as to who is a Jew that I determine. We knew about the tensions in the relationship between Stahl and Dr. Baeck. Stahl was pleased with our positive impressions of the Kehilla institutions, and promised to supply us with medicine and equipment from the community inventory when he received the authorization to do so.
When we returned to our lodgings we learned that the authorities had refused all our requests and that we would not be receiving any medical supplies, and we were to return at once to Poland.
Indeed, that very night we returned. We also did not wait for the arrival of the Istanbul delegation. We hoped that the report we had given to the leadership of German Jewry would somehow reach our brethren outside the country. The rest of our hopes evaporated
When we reached Katowice we met a Jew from Oshpitzin, who imparted the horrible news that the Great Synagogue had been burned down. A special Gestapo unit had come to town for that purpose, surrounded the area so that no one would be able to extinguish the fire, poured gasoline and set the synagogue on fire. With this act the feeling was that Oshpitzin Jewry was doomed. This Jew also told me that the Germans took advantage of my absence from Oshpitzin in order to burn down the synagogue.
During the journey from Katowice to Oshpitzin, Manheimer related the history of the synagogue, that this was not the first time that a synagogue in Oshpitzin was burnt down, this had already happened before, but that time the fire was started by burning candles. In its place a new modern synagogue was built, bigger and more beautiful than the previous one. The inside of the synagogue was decorated with splendid paintings. The domed ceiling was painted to resemble the blue skies, in which golden stars were strewn. Around the sky were depicted the signs of the zodiac and biblical musical instruments. In the center of the synagogue there was a green colored platform, the Holy Ark and the Lectern were made of elegant white marble. The gallery and a section of the ground floor designated for women was curtained off. So many quarrels there had been as to who would be the Gabbai! How many sighs were uttered and tears shed during the Yizkor Prayers. During the winter the prayers were conducted in the anteroom, because it was impossible to heat such a large synagogue. With the burning of the synagogue, the Jewish ambience of the Jews' Street ceased to exist.
On our return to Oshpitzin we felt helpless. To our surprise, people in Oshpitzin exhibited somewhat of an air of hopefulness.
Daily, on my way to the Kehilla offices, I would pass the high charred walls of the synagogue. Some days later, the Shamash of the synagogue died, and we conducted a funeral for him as for an important person which was attended by a large crowd. I understood that his heart could not bear the loss of the Shul. The only one who bore up and was not down-hearted was Jachtzel, the Gabbai of the synagogue, who encouraged us and invigorated us. He said that we would yet build a more beautiful synagogue than the one we lost, and if not we ourselves, then our children, and if not here then in Jerusalem, and even our bones would be resurrected and we would yet pray in our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When he saw that I was not able to sit in the office and work, he shouted at me and encouraged me. He told me that I needed to be as tough as steel. I was in a state of shock after Berlin, and then the synagogue's destruction to add to that, as if I had been hit over the head with a steel truncheon.
The Kehilla activities increased, more and more people required its services. The Kehilla Council demanded a report on my trip to Berlin, but I couldn't read it to the meeting. I was broken and mentally exhausted. I wanted to resign from the post at any price, since I was in a state of utter despair. The Jews in town knew this, and in order to encourage me they paid their Kehilla dues on time. I really had to get a hold of myself and return to my duties.
That day, I was summoned to the Mayor's office. He informed me that by order of the Gestapo in Bilice I was to house the Jews in the barracks at Zasula. I suspected that the German Mayor, formerly a baker in Silesia, wanted to create a ghetto for the Jews. I opposed that. When he began to shout at me I woke up from the state of shock in which I had been. I turned away from him and left his office. I went to the city Kommandant and told him of the Mayor's demand. I said that if he insisted on it, I would resign from the chairmanship of the Kehilla. The Kommandant grabbed the telephone and called the Mayor, rebuked him saying that as a Party Member he was to obey orders and not interfere in matters concerning the Jews. On that day I decided to refuse to supply people for forced labor (every day people went out to work at cleaning up the city). I also refused to supply men for the police with the argument that this was opposed to the Nuremberg Laws. The Police Chief was astounded and summoned me, and after I threatened to complain to the Gestapo, he withdrew his demand for the workers. I had stopped believing the Germans.
The honeymoon was over the order to wear the badges [of shame] came. I didn't hurry to pass it on. Ridiger phoned me and I was asked why I had stopped supplying the work-parties. I replied that I needed the men to build the old-age home and the hospital, and if he expected me to supply men for other work he should stop the transfer of Jews from Silesia to Oshpitzin. Indeed, Ridiger withdrew his demands and agreed that I continue to employ the men for the work we found necessary.
I called a meeting of the Council and gave the sad report on my meetings in Berlin. During the report Abraham Gross fainted and we were barely able to revive him. On returning to my home late that night, I found the villa lit up. German officers were seated in the dining room gobbling wild geese which they had caught in the Stawy and had been prepared by my housekeeper. I was enraged. None of them had noticed me when I came in and I heard their conversation. They were discussing the outcome of the war: What did we gain? Unless we successfully invade America, we can expect an unpleasant end. On hearing these words, I was very encouraged.
Next day another difficult day awaited me. Every day refugees of the Jewish intelligentsia arrived. Among them was Mrs. Lieberman's stepmother, a pleasant and cultured lady. There only hope was to bear up.
In Dr. Drucks' villa lived the most senior German officer in Oshpitzin, Major von Greif. One day I was summoned by him. After the maid had opened the gate and ushered me in, I saw the inside of that exceptionally well-appointed home, just as it had been, only with its former residents gone. After a long wait, an elderly officer entered and ordered me to sit. He was gray-haired, very wrinkled, and wore a civilian shirt and slippers. He sat down behind Dr. Drucks' desk. Impatiently I waited to learn why I had been summoned. I had decided to refuse all of his demands.
After informing me that his unit was leaving town, I noticed the packed suitcases which filled the courtyard. He removed a small letter from a drawer in the desk and gave it to me saying that I should guard it like an amulet and always keep it with me. I read what it said; that I had saved the life of a German pilot. The letter bore the insignia of the military unit and was signed by him. He thanked me once more for having saved the pilot, said goodbye, and accompanied me to the gate, then remembered something and wanted to return to his room. He said that I should be very wary of someone named Munik Merin from Sosnowiec and from his superior Kommissar Dreier from the Gestapo in Katowice. He pointed out that he was telling me this because he trusted me. I left preoccupied. This was the second time I had been warned about this Jew whom I had never met. On returning to the Kehilla I began to ask and get information about him, but no one had ever heard his name before. Some days later they brought me one of the Jews who had moved from Katowice who told me that in Sosnowiec, the Germans upon entering the city had seized young Jews for various tasks and to clean the streets and had appointed one of them Munik Merin as the Brigadier (group-leader). It seemed he was married and from a good family, but a careerist. At that time Sosnowiec was still comprised of a Jewish Kehilla composed of the best people. Merin had become the chief supplier of the German officers and troops, and after that a trusted collaborator. He would come to the Jewish community with various demands on behalf of the Germans. The Kehilla responded as far as it could, but could not always meet all their demands. Munik Merin exploited this in order to incite the Germans against the Kehilla. I should point out that the situation in Katowice differed from that of Oshpitzin in that they, immediately after the Germans came, were under the authority of the Gestapo, while Oshpitzin was under the authority of the Wehrmacht. The men of the Gestapo in Katowice were extremely dangerous. Right away they established a work camp in Szrodula, and in the barracks there they concentrated the Jews that had been seized for labor, so that they should be available at all times for work. Merin's cohorts who lived with him in the those barracks, among them members of the Chavura organization, persuaded him to seize the reins of the Kehilla with the help of the Germans. After that Kommissar Dreier from the Katowice Gestapo appeared at the Kehilla offices, disbanded it and appointed Munik Merin as Judensalter and he was to select a Judenrat as he saw fit. He chose for his Judenrat mainly reckless people and as his clerks he appointed Jews from the city's intelligentsia. In the same manner he organized, by order of the Gestapo, Judenrat in Zawierce and all the towns under the authority of the center in Sosnowiec.
He developed broad activity within the Judenrat in Sosnowiec. The financial resources for the activities he attained through a special tax (contribution) which he levied on the Kehilla and other taxes were levied on those Jews known to be wealthy. There were cases where people refused to pay, and this led to arrest in the jail at the Szrodula Camp and murderous beatings by the Gestapo, so that only after a few days of torture they were willing to hand over all they had. The story went, that the owner of an iron works by the name of Fürstenberg who had been taken there, was tied naked as they day he was born to a truck and dragged along a road full of debris until his skin was flayed off until he passed out, and then was put into a small dark room with a cement floor. Next day when Merin came into the room, he immediately agreed to pay the entire sum. It was hard for me to believe these hair-raising stories. I was reminded of what my grandfather had told me in order to deter me from accepting a public office. He told me as follows:
When he had been vacationing in Karlsbad he got to know a Jew who introduced himself as the head of the Kehilla in Mielec. Some years later, when grandfather was in Mielec on business, he wanted to visit him and asked for his address from the first Jew he met, who answered: That crook, that robber and he walked away. He asked a second and a third Jew, and all heaped abuse and scorn on the head of the Kehilla adding additional curses. Finally he asked a Christian who showed him the way to the Jewish Kehilla building. The head of the Kehilla was very pleased to see him and with difficulty was able to free himself from his workload for a conversation. Grandfather asked him: I see you are working hard, how much do they pay you? He answered: What a question? I work without pay. Head of the Kehilla that is an honorary position
To my sorrow I came to learn that these stories about Munik Merin were nothing compared to the reality.
In the meantime, my father and all of my family returned after many hardships from Kazimierz to Krakow. A German officer, an acquaintance of the wounded pilot who had lodged with me, traveled to Krakow and took me along. We traveled through Bubrik [?], where the Germans had built a temporary bridge over the Vistula. Chelmek and Libiaz were completely burned down, and we saw only the remains of walls and chimneys. At Trzebinia we passed its burnt out synagogue. When the German officer's car reached Augustianska Street in Krakow, to the house where my sister-in-law Teichtahl lived together with my mother-in-law, they were very frightened, especially when they saw a man in civilian clothes getting out of the car they hadn't recognized me after I had shaved off my beard. After knocking on the door for a long time they finally opened the door and recognized the civilian who had frightened them. It was me.
My father, wife and children lived next door. My father tearfully related what had happened to them on their way back to Krakow. They rode on a farmer's wagon, and German soldiers that passed them on the road ordered the horses to be unharnessed and for my father to pull the wagon. Fortunately they met someone he knew who helped them and arranged a place for them to spend the night in some village.
My father had decided not to return to Oshpitzin and to remain with his wife in Krakow. He never saw Oshpitzin again. My wife and children returned with me to Oshpitzin.
The pilot who was in my house was not feeling well. It turned out that aside from the fracture, he also had a dislocation in his arm which had been improperly set in the military hospital. I summoned Enoch Jr. and he reset it properly. After that he traveled to a convalescent home in Lunz. In his place we accommodated another officer who would not consent to live with me in one apartment, and I was obliged to uproot myself and stay in the attic of my villa. He permitted me to take some pieces of furniture and replaced them with new furniture he had brought with him, probably confiscated from where he had been stationed earlier. It will suffice me to note one detail to characterize the personality of this officer. Next to the pond in my garden there stood a magnificent little statue, which had been fashioned by Hochman. The German kicked it into the pond.
In my father's villa on Jagielonska 36, changes had also been made. After the military headquarters moved elsewhere, the Employment Bureau took its place. The clerks of this office were generally young Volksdeutsche from Bielsko, enthusiastic admirers of Hitler whom it was best to avoid. They seized young farmers and shipped them off for agricultural work in Germany. Those that refused to go they locked up in the basement and worked them over until they agreed to go. Quite often, I heard the screams of the Poles being tortured during the night in my father's villa, just opposite mine. Things in the Jewish community also worsened. No word had come from Berlin about Jewish emigration. Manheimer pressured forcefully for instructions from the HIAS representatives in Slovakia and demanded that at the very least the children who had been registered should be sent. They would only have had to go to Cieszyn and cross the border to Slovakia during the night. Winter was already here. I had heard about German troop movements in Slovakia. It was hard for me to decide. The danger was too great, especially when it concerned children. One evening, with the consent of the parents, Manheimer gathered several dozen children and sent them off. The children were caught somewhere near the border and brought back to Oshpitzin, their parents were arrested and interrogated to find out if I was involved. They also interrogated the children (some of whom had been employed by the Kehilla Council), and they testified that I had not been involved. This allowed me to try and intervene to free the children and their parents from jail. I argued that this was a childish adventure, organized by the children themselves, as they were convinced that the German authorities supported Jewish emigration as evidenced by the posted announcements throughout the town. The children and their parents were released. This whole episode made me feel terrible. The echoes of my report in Berlin must surely had to have reached overseas, and yet no response whatsoever. Our hope was America. During the daytime I didn't even have time to think. There was much work to be done in the Kehilla. Meetings, consultations, committee work, tax assessment computations, etc. The trustees' of the businesses required various documents in order to be enabled to travel and bring merchandise. Jews also needed various permits. From time to time someone would be arrested and there was the subsequent necessity for trying to gain his release, this one had been beaten and the other had had his merchandise illegally seized. There was the need to furnish necessities for the needy, to provide housing for the Jews who were being transferred in to town, and so on and so forth. During the nighttime, however, I couldn't sleep. I always had the feeling that I was aboard a sinking ship in a stormy sea with no help in sight. When I did doze off, I dreamt I saw America, the people working in factories, doing business, commuters packed into the subways, skimming through their newspapers, especially the sport and stock market sections. Do they have any time to think about us? In my dream I also saw London, this great city, in blackout, bombed at times, Churchill, Eden will they be thinking about getting us out of here? Can we really expect them to respond to our cries for help?
I thought about the daughter of Lord Malchett [?], the Lady Ervis [?], who had in the past visited us in Krakow together with Leib Jaffe in regards to the Keren Hayesod. But how do we make contact?
The war had developed badly for us. The hope we had pegged on General Gamelin [?] had waned. The Germans were nearing Paris, and the English had escaped via Dunkirk, and bad news came from Krakow.
The Germans had organized a Party with Jewish women. They stripped them, and made pornographic films. They had confiscated everything of value. Jews were afraid to go out into the streets, because of the seizures for work parties. In Lodz a ghetto had been established with a Jewish police, the printing of Jewish money, and passages from window to opposite window via a bridge built over the Aryan Street.
Unexpectedly, one day Munik Merin and his secretary appeared in my office at the Kehilla. She was a young blonde, he in his thirties, short of stature, thin, unpleasant face, mousy eyes, dark hair, and semi-literate. He had come in his personal Volkswagen driven by his own chauffeur, also a Jew. He said to me that he had heard of the excellent organization of the Jewish Kehilla in Oshpitzin, and requested I tell him about my visit in Berlin in the offices of the Union of German Jews and about the work of the Pal Amt. He was interested in the methods of financing our Kehilla and how we had succeeded in keeping the Jewish shops operating. He then asked me to accompany him for a visit to Sosnowiec to learn about the Center of Jewish Kehillot that he had organized. I went with him, and on the way he showed me the document about which Dr. Baeck had told me, which said:
Israel Munik Merin is acting under my orders. All officials of the German government are to regard his instructions
as if they came from me. Any questions requiring clarification should be addressed to me.
Signed: Heinrich Himmler.
The certificate was accompanied with Merin's photograph.
In Sosnowiec he had appropriated the old building of the Kehilla Council and added two adjacent buildings to it, from which he had evicted all the residents. He had a large staff. Looking at the faces of his men, one could assume that they were porters and the like. These were in essence his private guard. In addition, he already was then in charge of the Ordnungsdienst, the Jewish police, who had not as yet received their uniforms. The men wore dark-blue hats, with a red band and a tin emblem in the form of a Magen David, an armband on which was written Ordnungsdienst. All of the Jews in Sosnowiec were already wearing the Jew-Badge on their arms, and Merin sported an armband, which had the inscription JudenAelster. By the way they didn't always wear them. I visited the financial departments of the Kehilla and learned that the budget was covered by assessments. I asked if people paid their assessed taxes in a suitable manner. I was told that the collections were greeted with growing refusals, and it was apparently due to the fact that people had run out of money, especially after their shops and merchandise had been confiscated. Under the circumstances, they are obliged to levy Contributions [forced assessments] on all of the communities over which they have authority. Any Kehilla that does not pay, all those responsible as well as the members of the Council are arrested and sent to work camps. Merin interrupted my conversation about finances and invited me to one of the halls, where he introduced me to a youth delegation from the work camp in Szrodula. These were youths, former members of Hachshara, in whose attitude I saw the readiness to do whatever was required. After they learned that I was in Sosnowiec they had come to determine what chances existed for making Aliyah. It seems that the news of the opening of a Palestine emigration office in Oshpitzin and my journey to Berlin had spread through almost all of Poland. I had to disabuse them of the possibility to make Aliyah legally and told them that I was still awaiting further instructions. I hinted that the only possibility remaining was illegal Aliyah. For that, one would have to smuggle over the border. Merin became increasingly nervous. I realized that they wanted to speak to me in private, and some of them began to argue about it with Merin. He refused to agree to this, and quickly took me away for lunch.
He had a special restaurant for the Kehilla Council. Set tables covered with white tablecloths, and waiters dressed in white shirts, with white napkins draped on their arms. They served the best Jewish cuisine: Liver, chopped onions, large portions of gefilte fish, etc.
In the middle of the meal which was towards evening several nervous and sweaty people came in and whispered something to Merin, and he, along with other Council members, got up at once and went out in to the courtyard. The sight that greeted our eyes was horrible: In the street, between two rows of Gestapo men in their black uniforms holding burning torches, a group of bleeding Jews were being driven. It was a scene out of the Middle Ages. Merin called over two Jews from the 'Police station and began to argue with them. It turned out that the Kehilla Center, of which Merin was the chairman, had assessed the Zawierce Judenrat the sum of 30,000 Mark and they had not been able to come up with the money, and that was why they had arrested all the members of the Kehilla council. These bleeding Jews were the Zawierce Kehilla officials. After a long argument, Merin agreed to accept a smaller amount, with the assurance that they would attempt to raise the entire sum if at all possible. Merin regarded the beaten and tortured Jews with indifference, and called to the Gestapo group-leader. He came over and stood at attention, and Merin instructed him to call off his men. The Gestapo men put out their torches and dispersed. We returned to the dining room where we were served huge portions of all kinds of meat, and they, while laughing, resumed eating heartily, as if in celebration of a great victory. I, on the other hand, couldn't swallow a thing. At my request, Merin ordered his driver to return me to Oshpitzin.
On the return trip in Merin's car I began for the first time to consider the necessity for convening an underground court in order to eliminate Jewish traitors of Merin's ilk and other Hitler collaborators.
Some two weeks later, I received a letter from Merin's center that I, by order
of Kommissar Dreier of the Gestapo in Katowice, was to initiate a meeting of the
delegates of the Kehillot for consultations regarding Jewish emigration and the
attendant organizational problems. The next day I received a similar letter from
Ridiger in Bielsko, which instructed me to call this meeting. I sent invitations
to various Kehillot, among them Lodz and Warsaw. The meeting was attended only
by Silesian delegates, as the rest had not received travel permits from the
German authorities. Merin came to the meeting with a letter from the Gestapo in
Katowice in which he appointed Merin as the Chairman of the Center over all the
Judenrat. After a consultation among all the delegates not including
Merin which was convened in another room after we had stated that we were
not Judenrat, but representatives of religious Kehillot, and therefore we
rejected the demand that the Kehillot would be subsumed under the Central
Judenrat of Sosnowiec, as stated in the order of the German authorities.
It was, indeed, clear to us that this would result in the disbanding of the Kehillot by the Germans and that they would soon appoint different administrations.
After we had considered the way Merin operated we did not want to organize Judenrat. Merin left the conference in a fury and with that we dispersed. It was immediately obvious that Merin was dumbfounded when I informed him of our decision, despite the document he had in his possession. The other Kehilla heads were in full accord with me on the decision that had been adopted.
Notwithstanding our position, Merin transmitted an order that the Jewish Kehilla in Oshpitzin must pay a Contribution of 30,000 Mark within a few days. After consultation with the Kehilla council it was decided to gather the required sum. A committee was formed to collect the money and everyone, without demur, paid the sum he was asked, and the next day the money was deposited in the Kehilla treasury. At the same time we sent a telegram and letter to the Union of Kehillot in Berlin in which I requested instructions how to deal with the matter. Two days later, I received a telegram from the Gestapo in Katowice, which said that the Contribution had been annulled. In spite of the opposition of the Kehilla council members Josef Gross, Ahron Silbiger, and one of the Henenbergs, I pushed through the resolution to refund the money we had collected. Thus, I returned the funds to their owners. This was the first instance of opposition to my views in the Kehilla Council.
About two weeks later someone by the name of Bernstein came from Dabrowa with a letter from the Gestapo in Katowice, which instructed me to transfer the management of the Kehilla to Bernstein, a government Kommissar appointed to conduct the affairs of the Kehilla in Oshpitzin. Indeed, I followed instructions and this was properly entered into the minutes, I left the Kehilla offices and went home. The Kehilla Council members Yitzchak Hutterer, Jachtzel, Grinbaum, and Abraham Gross also ended their activity in the Kehilla.
Some two weeks later I was suddenly summoned to the Kehilla offices where I found Merin and a number of Gestapo officers, including Ridiger from Bielice and Kommissar Dreier from Katowice. Dreier asked me if I knew what a Katzet was, and I replied that I knew it was a concentration camp. He asked me if I was prepared to come back to manage the Judenrat in Oshpitzin. I answered with absolute calm that I was not prepared to do so. For some time I had been ready for the worst. They ordered that I be taken to the jail in the municipal building, and a little later I was joined in my cell by Jachtzel, Hutterer, Abraham Gross and Baruch Grinbaum. They detained us for two weeks, and then released us. Meanwhile, Josef Gross had been appointed Judenaelster of Oshpitzin and his brother-in-law Lerhaft was appointed with him to the Judenrat. Lerhaft later became the head of the Ordnungsdienst in Sosnowiec. After my release, Merin summoned my wife to the Judenrat and advised her that I leave Oshpitzin at once, and if not it wouldn't be good for me. This time I obeyed
Very early in the morning I left my villa, again by the back gate, and walked through the fields in the direction of Trzebinia. As the sun rose, I had reached the Libiaz forest. I had brought with me nothing other than Talith and T'filin and a coat. The trees in the forest still had snow on their branches and as the sun began to rise the treetops glistened. I stopped near one of the trees in the middle of the forest, donned my Talith and T'filin, said the morning prayers, with the feeling that the Rock of Israel was watching over me. During the Amidah [Silent Devotion], the words were infused with a strange significance I had never experienced before. From afar the sounds of snow falling from the branches reached me. Aside from that utter silence reigned. Since then, whenever I come to the end of the Amidah, my mind flashes back to that prayer I said in 1940 during my flight.
We thank thee, Oh Lord . for our lives which are in thy charge and for our souls which are in your care, for thy miracles which are daily with us, and for thy continual wonders and favors, evening, morning and noon. Beneficent One, whose mercies never fail, whose kindnesses never cease, thou hast always been our hope
During that prayer it felt as if I were in the Great Synagogue in Oshpitzin.
The Last Days of Oshpitzin
On the 22nd of June 1941, with the invasion of Russia by Germany, the mass extermination of Jews began.
On the 20th of January 1942, the decisions on the Final Solution were taken. On that day, in the Wannsee district of Berlin, the senior officials of the Third Reich gathered: Heydrich, the Gestapo Chief Mueller, the President of the People's Courts Preisler, Adolf Eichmann and other senior civil servants and Gauleiter, who decided on the total extermination of the Jews in gas chambers by the most efficient poison Zyklon.
When I was in Krakow, Wieliczka, Tarnow, and Bochnia I met Jews who had succeeded in escaping from Oshpitzin. They told me about the trains filled with Jews that came to Oshpitzin.
The panic amongst the Jews right after my flight from Oshpitzin subsided. The Kehilla Council operated as before, and there were those who thanked God that they were rid of me, that stubborn man who knew how to insist on his rights in a continuous struggle with the Germans. There was a need for more thoughtful people in order to persevere through the hard times. The Americans, after all, will land some day in Europe and defeat the Germans. I had adopted the policy of encouraging escape and emigration to Palestine, an act which required abandoning home and possessions, and people didn't have the will to leave even a pot behind. Whoever wanted to please, go, but to force people to emigrate and help Hitler to rid himself of the Jews was seen by many as tantamount to suicide. People still ran their shops; the German soldiers crowded into them and bought almost everything; the Polish trustees were very accommodating, since no German soldier dared to take any merchandise without paying for it. There was only the one tax of 3% of the turnover to be paid to the Judenrat, no other taxes at all, and although it was unpleasant to wear the yellow badges, one could after all get used to that too.
Then suddenly, the sweet dream was interrupted. Germans from the Reich arrived, drove the Jews from their shops along with the Polish trustees and appropriated their shops and merchandise. Some of the people in the labor gangs returned exhausted and battered. Most did not return at all they had been sent to labor camps in Germany. They took hostages and molested them. Any little incident was an excuse for the cruel conquerors to take them out to be shot. An order of execution, for some reason, was carried out against Baruch Grinbaum and the Waxman brothers. The Judenrat begged Merin to intercede on their behalf but in vain.
Jewish boys who were working on the other side of the Sola on barrack renovations told about the Poles who had been brought to the camp that was being built there; about the tortures inflicted on these Poles apparently political prisoners.
Merin came one day to Oshpitzin and announced that preparations were to be made to transfer the Jews to Sosnowiec by wagon on which they could bring the few things they had left and would be housed in the barracks at Szrodula. The former members of the Oshpitzin Judenrat were put to work in the Sosnowiec Central Judenrat. One of them was even appointed as the head of the Ordnungsdienst and he rounded up Jewish men and women who were sent away to work in Germany and to the Sudetenland. There were those who worked in the Jewish Arbeitsamt[Labor Bureau]. A doctor selected those who had been picked up for work according to their fitness. The former members of the Oshpitzin Judenrat tried to ease the plight of their townsmen and delayed whenever possible their transfer to labor camps. Everyone attempted to get through the period and save himself even if it was at the expense of another. In this struggle for their very existence, even the fair-minded and best of them lost their essential humanity. Their feeling for others atrophied and they didn't feel the distress of their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters, and certainly not that of other Jews. At times, in exchange for bribes they were able to free those who were to be sent away, but others had to replace them. Then, too, there were those who gave away their last penny to the ones in charge of the Arbeitseinsatz[work battalion], in the Judenrat, or to the Sicherheitsdienst [security service], etc., in order to save their relatives.
The roundups increased. People died in the barracks, which lacked the most elementary hygienic facilities.
In 1943 the remaining Jews from Oshpitzin in Szrodula were sent to the camps, the greater part to Auschwitz. The younger ones were sent to Mauthausen, Giessen, and other camps in Germany. Merin continued his activity in Sosnowiec.
Meanwhile, in Oshpitzin all of the buildings on the left bank of the Zasula were demolished to create an open area around the camp. They built plants to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuel for the I. G. Farben Industry. The factory was put up on the acreage formerly occupied by several villages from Dwory [?] outwards. Some 20,000 prisoners worked there. Dwellings were built for the Germans and next to the Jewish cemetery barracks were erected for French P.O.W.'s. In Brzezynski [Birkenau] they built a spark-plug factory for the Union Company. Not far from there, they built barracks for Jews and Gypsies. They also built a huge crematorium with a special rail spur leading to it. Kuperman's factory in Bobrik was transformed into the Siemens motor assembly plant. These dreadful things are well known and I have nothing to add about them.
Jewish women, who knew that they would eventually be sent off to the camps, placed their children with trusted Polish families. Occasionally a lone certificate arrived, with which it was possible to make Aliyah or be sent to a distinct camp designated for alien citizens. Frequently, the Judenrat officials would substitute the photograph on their special passes and sell them to others. Thus began a commerce in false documents which enabled their holders to live outside the ghetto.
One day a certificate was received for a young woman in Sosnowiec. Merin, instead of informing her of its arrival, sent her to work in the Sudetenland and gave her certificate to another young woman. This was discovered in some manner by the young woman for whom it had been intended, and she let her relatives overseas know. Unexpectedly, a committee from the Gestapo Passport Bureau in Berlin arrived and summoned Merin to Katowice. He went there as usual with his secretary and they were summarily sent off to the camp at Auschwitz. He was brought to the camp in his car and arrived at the time when the prisoners were returning from their work. When the news of his arrival spread, the prisoners came out of their barracks, attacked him and beat him to death. The shots by the guards and the blows of the Kapos were to no avail and even the women inmates took part in the lynching.
During that period, Jews began to hide in the woods, with the Poles in their cellars, in attics, and any other possible hiding place. A few women obtained Aryan documents. The struggle to gain time was at its height.
Again it was decided to send messengers overseas in order to inform them what was happening. A plane was scheduled to arrive in order to extricate the leader of the Polish Socialist Party and bring him to London. [These were to be] Arczyszewski [?] and a representative of the Joint. After consultations it was decided to land the plane in a pasture near Tarnow, close to a German airport but safely out of sight of the Germans. The plane was supposed to land at a designated time and place during the night, where they would be signaled with coal miner's lamps. The delegates arrived after dark on farm wagons. Finally, there was hope that the free world would be informed by our delegation to London what was happening to us and what was going on here. Night fell. Some 1000 meters away the airfield and the German pilots' dwellings could be seen. Our heartbeats were like hammer blows as we heard our plane in the distance. Instantly the men with the lamps came out of the woods and lit their lanterns directing the beams upwards. The rest of the men lay on the grass or in the woods looking skyward. The plane came in lower and they were waved to the exact landing spot by the men holding the lamps, and ran back to the woods for fear of some mix-up. The plane lowered its wheels and landed gently on the grass. Some shadowy figures emerged to remain in Poland, and others ran towards the plane. Our delegation boarded immediately. The pilot revved the motors but could not budge from his place as the wheels had sunk into the soft ground. At once, they removed the wooden boards from a farm wagon, and fixed them under the wheels of the plane. The plane began to move, lifted up into the sky, and disappeared from view among the stars. Those remaining looked towards the German airfield and determined that the plane had not been spotted. The people disappeared silently into the depths of the forest.
The crematoria in the camps, all the while, were in operation day and night. A thick cloud of smoke emerging from the chimneys could be seen from afar over Auschwitz. The transports to the death-camps increased. Dogs were loosed on the exhausted arrivals and ravaged them. The Doctor Beasts performed their medical experiments on the unfortunate victims. Their gold teeth were extracted, their heads shaved, their prosthetic limbs removed, their spectacles from their faces, and the dolls clutched from their children, and they all straight to the crematoria and the whole world was silent
When we went out of Egypt the Jews were counted. In this dying town in which 9000 had lived, there are now seven, seven Jewish souls! As many as the days of the week. In six days God created the world and on the seventh he rested
Sages foresaw terrible events which were to transpire before the coming of the Redeemer and the Revival of Israel. This vision has come to pass, to our sorrow and grief, in all of its dread and wrath.
When the Belzer Rebbe was in the Bochnian ghetto and observed the disaster that was befalling Israel, he accepted the decree and said: The Lord is righteous in all his ways.
Then, I also, looked at the greatest of the tragedies that had befallen the Jewish People, in its historic and national ramifications and significance. I also grappled in trying to justify this terrible judgment. I wanted to find some kind of explanation for this earthquake but in vain.
Can you at all contemplate, citizens of the free State of Israel, that it would have been possible to secure the agreement of the nations of the world for an independent Israel in its historic homeland, were it not for the destruction of a third of our people? Would the rulers of the nations have recognized the state, which had been proclaimed by our leaders on the 5th of Iyar 5708 [May 14th 1948], were it not for the terrible Shoah in which six million had perished only three four years before then?
I take the liberty to declare that the affirmative attitude of the world's nations at that time to Israel's independence in our land stemmed, primarily, from feelings of guilt that remained in the consciences of the leaders and rulers with respect to the millions of Jews who had been exterminated, murdered, slaughtered, burned, and buried alive by the Nazis and their accomplices in the countries of Enlightened Europe. Now, that the work of destruction had come to an end, the leaders of the free world felt a bit of pang of conscience for their apathy to what was being perpetrated on millions of innocent people, whose only fault was that they were Jews. During all those years of terror they had stood aside, they had been neutral, had not reacted in any way to the atrocities that befell a defenseless people. Their conscience was aroused only after they had been able to consider their blunder, their conspiracy of silence, in the wake of the murder of a million Jewish children and suckling infants that had been perpetrated for five whole years. They began to feel the debt which the world owes the Jews who had all of this happen to them because they had no homeland. It was deemed a necessity to allow the escaped remnant to establish their home in their country, their historic homeland, into which would be gathered the refugees of the murder and destruction of Europe and the other Diasporas so that they could live normal lives like all other people, without fear and apprehension, and that their fate would no longer be dependent on the benevolence of the rulers of other nations.
My intent is not to deprecate the roles of the heroes of Israel in the land before the State, who fought with valor and great sacrifice to liberate the land from the yoke of foreigners and for independence. The recognition of the world's nations, however, in the complex prevailing conditions at the time of the proclamation of the State came to us primarily thanks to the millions of Jews killed in the years of murder and destruction in the various European countries.
You, the citizens of the State of Israel, must remember these facts and to be aware of them.
So also you should remember and realize, that not only did the state come about in the wake of the deaths of the millions in all of the various ways, but that its very establishment, its rebuilding, its development, were made possible in no small measure by the reparations that the state received, and is still receiving from Germany in the form of various grants, as a small compensation for the enormous wealth and vast property stolen and robbed from the Jewish victims by the Nazi criminals.
Please remember, citizens of Israel, that our martyred brothers financed and continue to finance the upbuilding of the land. The funds of these departed have built cities, established industries, developed agriculture, bought ships, etc. provided the foundation and wherewithal of its economic strength.
May this truth guide you in all your endeavors; repeat it to your children after you so that they can transmit it to the coming generations.
May unity and fraternity be a cornerstone in the building of your society. Expel from your midst the tricksters, the avaricious, the ambitious climbers, and traitors of all kinds. Let your encampment be holy!
Be courageous in your political and military struggles. Don't rely on anyone but yourselves. Don't expect favors from others. Put not your trust in Princes, and do not rely even on your brothers in the Diaspora. They are liable to disappoint you, God forbid.
Also we, the Jews from the town of Oshpitzin, have sacrificed all that is dear to us, our parents and children, our brothers and sisters, our relatives and loved ones, on the altar of the redemption of the Land and the People.
Their memories will remain with us forever and will light the way for the coming generations.
A problem that arises in translation is how to transmit the internal integrity of the piece and how to preserve the nuances inherent in the language, while trying to make it understandable to the English reader who lacks the background of terms and concepts discussed. The latter problem was resolved through a glossary, while attempts to handle the former constrained me to adhere to the punctuation, and sometimes overcomplicated sentence-structure.
I cannot but salute the author, a trained artist, for his eye, his memory, and personal integrity. The piece is an important microcosm of the upheaval in small Jewish Communities from the months just before the war until February 1940, a small slice of the more than 5-year period of Nazi rule when the author was resident there, as well as the months subsequent to the liberation. It clarifies and exemplifies the rapid and steady ravages of the helpless Jews and the steps taken very early in the period when the "Final Solution" had not yet been the known goal and the open policy of the local German administrations.
These first steps, in hindsight, were so crucial and incrementally devastating, while those experiencing them without our hindsight could have no real inkling of the ultimate result. The author, who was the Rosh Hakehilla until he was ousted and replaced by the German appointed Judenrat, paints a detailed portrait of his town and the initial period of German occupation. Regrettably, he omits the next five years of his ordeal and how he survived during that time in other locations, (since the Yizkor Book format deals primarily with Oshpitzin), and resumes with the story of his town's remaining 7 Jews on his return.
An important trait of Oshpitzin, which might be missed by the casual reader, arouses profound admiration, since it is universally lacking in modern times. Having over the centuries experienced the repeated waves of refugees fleeing expulsions and massacres, this interstitial community had a highly developed sense of compassion and a tradition for caring, housing, and support for these frequent invasions of impoverished and traumatized Jews. It is no wonder that Schenker was moved to make enormous efforts to save and accept the Jews from Bielsko and surrounding areas. He could not have done so without the knowledge that his townsmen would rally to him in a community-wide effort.
Nowadays, we seem to rely solely on relief organizations and rarely personally participate in amelioration of major tragedies.
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.
Oswiecim, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 15 Mar 2015 by OR