Summer 1939 - Winter 1939
Translated by Selwyn Rose
Nineteen-thirty nine was the best year in the life of my family!
My father, Moisheh Freiberg, was born in the town of Turobin, near Lublin. He was mobilized during the First World War and fought at the front with the Polish Armed Forces. Eventually, he was stationed at the Warsaw Fortress. It was while he was there that he met my mother, Rivka (Rebecca) Horowitz and after being released from military service, he married her and began to work in a factory manufacturing sweaters. To his hometown - the city of his birth - he was never to return.
He worked very hard and earned little, saving what he could until he had sufficient to buy an old, second-hand knitting machine, and with this, he turned himself into a sub-contractor.
The machine was placed in the one and only small living-room of the young couple and there my father worked hard from early morning until far into the night, my mother at his side, sharing together the tasks of stitching and winding, hour after hour on the ancient and primitive winding machine and equally antique sewing machine, which my father had added to the room, in order to realize his stubborn ambition of becoming the master of his own business - a manufacturer of sweaters, and a supplier to the retail trade at one and the same time.
When life in the 'factory-home' became absolutely intolerable, my father rented some woe-begone premises at 4 Mila Street and there he brought into being his own factory, adding more machines as time went by. He hired workers and sub-contracted some of his work. Nevertheless, he and my mother continued to work from early morning until well after midnight.
The business grew, becoming more firmly established and we moved to a more spacious apartment. Everything ran smoothly. Then came the great financial crisis - The Crash - of 1929 and, like so many other businesses, large and small, my father's, hard won, collapsed and all he had gained through the toil of the years disappeared.
Only because of his good name was he able to start again slowly, step by step, from the beginning and on a very modest level. In 1935 we moved to Lodz, where my father opened a factory in partnership with an investor. Again the business prospered. The partnership, however, ran aground and the two found it necessary to part after arbitration, under the terms of which my father was obliged to pay the defaulting partner his share of the investment. Because of this, my father found himself sunk deeply in debt and was saved only by the collateral provided by the otherwise flourishing business. He and my mother were again forced to labour for long hours and this time harder than ever. As time went by, my father began pleading with my mother to stop working, saying that again they had sufficient for all their needs and the time had come for her to rest. Even so, he applied no excessive pressure, since not only did he really need her help, but he had, in truth, also come to rely upon her contribution to the business.
With the arrival of 1939 we were, through industrious and dedicated hard work, a secure and well-established family.
The future seemed certain and assured.
We were four children. The eldest was my sister, Devorah, who, outside the home, was known as Dorka. In 1939 she was sixteen years of age, studying at the Warsaw School of Commerce. All who knew her recognized her as a 'revolutionary' - fighting tenaciously for everything that in her eyes seemed just and worthwhile. She was an excellent student but sometimes my mother would return from a parents' meeting, eyes glowing with pride, radiating happiness at the praises she had heard from the teachers, and my father would say with a sigh:
Who knows what will come out of this 'jewel' of yours; she is growing further and further away from her Jewishness and instead of helping round the house she is buried in her books the whole time...
When, however, my mother was hospitalized for a week, Devorah became completely dedicated to the running of the house and devoted to it all her energy. My father, who had never so much as poured a cup of tea for himself, was completely helpless without my mother at home but my sister succeeded in removing all worry from him. During that same week, frightened though I was with the terrible fears concerning my mother's illness, the nature and explanation of which was unknown to me, I nevertheless noticed that the relationship between my father and sister changed. It was a period of mutual understanding between them - a kind of a 'cease-fire' so to speak, - the like of which I had not known before, nor was I ever to see it again later. It was as if, during that one special week in their lives, they learned to know and value each other's qualities while at the same time remaining loyal to their own individual points of view - my father with his devotion to orthodox Judaism and his concepts of a conservative and capitalist society and my sister with her left-wing, anti-religious view point. Apparently my father didn't know that Devorah was an active member of the Left wing Hashomer Hatza'ir movement - or maybe he knew but decided that there was not much point in fighting it.
My brother Mottel was a talented student in a religious Seminary, a tall, broad-shouldered youth. In spite of the fact that he was older than I by only two years, the difference between us seemed much greater. He was a serious youth, industrious, introspective and given, to a degree, to a liking for solitude. He had an excellent pair of hands and was capable of doing anything, to the praise, mixed with envy, of all around him. I, who was totally incapable of doing anything with my hands, was very jealous of him. The relationship between my father and Mottel was not of the best: the two were given much to arguing, sometimes to such an extent that I truly believed that my father didn't love him. My father, who had his doubts as to whether Mottel would remain at the Yeshiva, or not, brought him into the factory and put him to work at one of the machines.
My mother would reprove him for this:
He's only a child, she would remonstrate, and yet you treat him like a worker!
Devorah and Mottel used to argue a lot as well and very often their arguments terminated with a 'break in relations' between them. In these cases I found myself acting as the mediator or go-between for them.
12 years old in 1939, I was the third child. Short, thin and sickly.
The fourth was seven-year-old Yankeleh, beautiful and spoiled, whom everyone loved and suffered from at one and the same time. Time after time he was 'waited on' by one or other of the family and he was never satisfied until his last finicky little wish had been fulfilled.
In the summer of 1939, my father rented a recently built summer chalet in a suburb of the small village of Çesarka-Timianka. The village numbered only a few hundred inhabitants and in order to get there one travelled from Lodz to Glowno by bus and then continued about eight kilometers by carriage. The chalet was one of many built as overflow accommodation for the main building - the pension - where most of the services, like the dining-room, were found. Our chalet occupied the summit of a hill overlooking the entire area of village, fields and forests. Here and there one could see the small bungalows and cabins of the local farmers scattered throughout the area, together with the various summer chalets, similar to ours, which were also available for rental. The chalet which my father had rented stood, somewhat alone, close to the edge of the forest, not far from the homes of some of the farmers. The holiday villages in the vicinity of Lodz were full to overflowing with thousands of holiday-makers and the chalets were built so close together that everyone felt cramped. We were lucky because the chalets in our holiday village were spaced far apart from each other and also among the trees so that we had a real sense of peace, quiet and seclusion. For the first week of the holiday our mother stayed with us, until we got used to the place and more-or-less 'learned the ropes', for this was the first time that we, the children, had ever been sent away on our own, without her. The first days were hard for me: I had to wash before every meal, to dress properly, arrive on time in the dining room and then suffer the eternal embarrassment of the young in having all eyes staring at me as I entered.
Nevertheless, I got used to it very quickly and soon fell in love with the place. In the morning I would wake up to the sound of birds singing and the sight of sunbeams streaming through the shutters. I would go outside and drink in the serene, rustic, scenery, so beautiful - and so different - from the scenery of my home in industrial Lodz, both inside the house and outside.
The holiday, and the measure of privacy it brought, enchanted me. I could do whatever came into my mind; I would wander, unrestricted, in the fields, through the village, occasionally visiting the local farms, just to watch the farmers at their work. I made friends with some of the children from the farms and especially with one of them, a boy of about my own age. I used to tell him what it was like living in Lodz and Warsaw, with their big, multi-storied buildings, the electric tram-cars and trains that rush along at frightening speeds; the cars; the traffic policemen; the cinemas and the military parades of the Polish Army on Independence Day. He would listen avidly to every word and beg me to tell him more and more. Yet I found myself jealous of him and his freedom and the fact that he was already skilled in all manner of farming tasks - he could look after horses and cows, all of which obeyed the sound of his voice as they would have to an old farm hand; he maintained absolute and complete control over the chickens and their young as if they spoke each other's language and understood one another. My brother, Mottel, would rebuke me and tell me that it was not a good idea to make friends with the Goyim and warned me strictly not to eat anything that they offered me - even a slice of bread - because ...its all treffe. More than once I was invited to eat some of the delicious things that the farmer's wife had prepared and always I had to refuse even a taste. I refused so often that eventually the farmer declared in a loud voice to one and all and to my great embarrassment:
So, it is forbidden for Jews to eat with the Poles!
I also made friends with youngsters from among the holiday-makers. As soon as we had finished breakfast we would run outside to play all sorts of competitive games. As a lithe and agile youngster I was quite good at a number of different activities but because I was considered weakly I gave in to my mother's request and promised that I would rest every day after lunch. I used to do this, lying in a hammock slung between two trees in the copse close by the chalet. I loved to lie, watching the tops of the trees, enjoying the play of the sunbeams on the branches and the murmur of the breeze rustling through the leaves - first gently - and then gradually increasing in strength only to die away again and start over. Everything was so peaceful and quiet, only, perhaps, the faint echo of a human voice here and there, from far away. It was as if I were in another world entirely. An infinity of thoughts would crowd into my mind and I would surrender myself to them, allowing them to awaken such, sometimes sweet, sometimes painful musings until, in the end I would drift off to sleep without even realizing it and, on awakening find it difficult to return to reality from the strange web of dreams that had enveloped me.
I enjoyed every moment of the great freedom that had, by virtue of the holiday, come my way but towards the end of the week I began to look forward to the arrival of my parents. On Friday morning the first guests began to arrive by carriage and car. Even though I knew that my parents were not the earliest of arrivals, I started at the sound of every vehicle that approached. As the hours passed and morning became afternoon, the village began to fill with visitors for the weekend. My impatience increased. My younger brother Yankeleh and I sat ourselves on the top of the hill, from where we could see the approach roads. As the time passed my impatience gradually turned to anxiety: had there been an accident? Not too long ago I had dreamt that I had seen my father stretched out, dead, on a bed, while in the living-room were three open graves; the family all gathered round the bed, standing in sad silence. However hard I tried to cast off the dream it would not leave me and, of course, I couldn't tell a soul about it.
As usual my father would be among the last to arrive from town and, breathing freely from relief, at last I jumped gladly up onto his carriage.
From the moment of my parents' arrival the chalet became the scene of the most feverish activity. Everyone wore their Sabbath clothes; my mother checked everyone's appearance from head to toe then, covering her head with a large 'kerchief, she blessed the Sabbath candles and wished us all Gut Shabbos. As she removed the covering from her head a smile of contentment suffused her face.
Then, my father, my two brothers and myself went to the synagogue that stood in a copse, not far away, its large windows open to the evening air and with wooden benches outside in the courtyard. It was a synagogue very different to the one I knew in Lodz. There, the synagogue was located in a rented apartment - dark, dingy and with a choking atmosphere smelling of candles and old books.
After prayers we went to the dining room - a large veranda enclosed by big windows as high as the ceiling, with all the tables laid and with lighted candles on each of them. One by one the families of holiday makers came in and took their places, all dressed in their Sabbath finery. As we took our places I looked with pride at my parents.
How handsome they are, I said to myself. Probably for the first time, I recognized what a beautiful woman my mother was and felt an almost irresistible urge to tell her so. I noticed that my father, too, kept looking at her with pleasure. Father filled all our glasses with wine and recited the Kiddush, then the waiters served the meal. Our father amused us with his stories and mother kept an eye on everything to make sure that all was well. When the Sabbath hymns filled the hall, I was too shy to join in but after my father's urgings I did so in a thin reedy voice! After our return to the chalet we sat on the veranda eating sweetmeats, drinking tea, talking about this and that, laughing until I, at least, became so tired that I just couldn't keep my eyes open, in spite of all my efforts to keep sitting and not miss anything. Half asleep, I became dimly aware of my father carrying me to bed and my mother undressing me, laying me down and covering me with the blankets.
One afternoon, my sister was boiling some water on the little spirit stove, when all of a sudden I saw her enveloped in flames. She instinctively threw the small burner away from her, and as it broke the flames spread instantly through the room. I jumped up and with my hands and my body managed to extinguish the flames engulfing her, without paying any attention to the fire spreading throughout the room. However, a woman, who was passing by, noticed what was happening and began to cry out, Help! Fire! Very quickly people heard and began to bring buckets of water with which they flooded the room and in a couple of minutes the fire was extinguished. People congregated around the chalet and listened to the detailed reports of eye-witnesses. The woman who had called for help told how, with my bare hands I, the child, had saved my sister. She asked me, in front of everyone, why I hadn't called for help.
If I hadn't chanced by, she said, the whole place would have gone up in flames.
We sat, my sister and I, dumb - unable, as yet, to grasp the full significance of what had happened or that the situation might have developed into a major tragedy costing us our lives. Then somebody noticed that my sister was injured.
The girl's burnt. We've got to get her to a doctor as quickly as possible.
My sister's face and hands were indeed burnt, as were her eyelashes and some of her hair. Her dress looked like a rag. Somebody called a carriage and, accompanied by a neighbour and Mottel, my sister was taken to the doctor. The assembled crowd gradually dispersed after some of them had patted me on the head and said a few complimentary words. Yankeleh sat by my side and looked at me with big eyes. After about two hours or so, Devorah returned, her hands bandaged and face covered, here and there, in a white cream but in a good mood. She hugged me and gave me a kiss then, burst into laughter when she saw herself in the mirror. After a little while, however, she began to cry.
What on earth must I look like? She cried. Probably worse than a scarecrow.
My brother Mottel was serious but calm. According to his report the doctor had said that the burns were not serious; within a week or two no sign of them would remain. When mealtime came, my sister refused to come to eat.
With a face like this, how can I come to the dining room? In any case I'm not hungry, she insisted.
As it happened I, too, wasn't very keen on going to the dining room because I knew that everyone would fire questions at me and start giving their opinions and telling their stories of what had happened and I would start blushing and then everyone would start laughing at me.......and in the middle of all these thoughts the manager came to see how we were and tell us that our parents had been informed of the incident and were already on their way to see us that same evening.
It will soon be supper time, he added, so don't be late.
Silent glances passed between the two of us and in the end we decided to go and eat. When we sat down at our table, as expected, all eyes turned to us. Everyone came to congratulate me and praise me on my behaviour. As usual, I blushed. Our alarmed parents arrived late in the evening and calmed down only when they were convinced that we were completely all right and that no real lasting harm had been done. On Saturday morning, in the synagogue, I was called to the Reading of the Law, as is usual in such circumstances, to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for a safe delivery from harm and danger.
I don't remember when I first began to read newspapers but the disturbances of 1936 in Palestine, as it was then, had much to do with it.
Until then I had heard, more than once, the Christian children calling out, Jews, to Palestine! It was true that in all our prayers we hoped for the return to our land but we conceived of this being possible only together with the coming of the Messiah. Before I began to interest myself in the newspapers, all I really knew of Palestine was the 'Wailing Wall', Rachel's Tomb, the Cave of Machpelah and caravans of camels in the desert! The sole source of this profound knowledge came from studying the Torah and the illustrations on the cards traditionally sent to friends and family at the New Year, which I used to collect.
All of a sudden I discovered that, side by side with the Palestine of the distant past - the Palestine wherein had dwelt Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - there was the Palestine of our own day, in which Jews were still living. I used to visit my uncle Feivel sometimes and he used to read a lot of Zionist newspapers. I liked to look at the pictures of the pioneers working in the fields, Kibbutzim, Moshavim and other communities in the Galilee, Jordan and Jezreel Valleys, Tel-Aviv, Petah Tikva, signposts in Hebrew, Jewish policemen directing traffic, patrolling in the streets....it was a little strange to see grown men wearing short trousers but everyone seemed to be so proud and happy.
I longed to be one of them. I had no knowledge of what was happening in the country: the marauding Arab gangs, the British Army, the Balfour Declaration, 'The White Paper' - all these things were very vague or unknown concepts to me.
What exactly is happening in Palestine? My understanding was simply that Jews were going to that country in order to build a State for themselves. Every morning, on my way to school, I would run to the newspaper seller in order to read the headlines and learn about the battles that had taken place in Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews; how many Arabs had been killed and how many Jews. According to my reckoning, the Jews seemed to have the upper hand because as far as I could tell the number of Jews killed was less than the number of Arabs. There was no one with whom I could exchange thoughts and opinions. From the arguments and discussions that I heard at home it was clear to me that my father rejected Zionism in no uncertain terms. When I asked him one day why we were living in Poland among the Goyim and not in Palestine, he looked at me in a surprised fashion, as if to ask, Now where on earth did a child like you find a question like that!? Later, he smiled and said.
You're still too young to understand all these things. Then he added after a moment: When the Messiah comes we'll all live in Palestine.
My father's reply failed to satisfy me and I knew that he, too, was not over-sure of his ground because he continued to gaze at me. I never spoke with him again on the subject of Palestine but continued to keep myself informed of events taking place there, and to dream about being there.
My youthful brain easily absorbed many of the major world events of the time: the Civil War in Spain and General Franco's victory; the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia by Mussolini; the rise of Hitler to power in Germany some years previously and the widespread opinion that the man was a little mad and wouldn't last five minutes in a country as cultured as Germany; then the gradually increasing persecution of the Jews in that self-same country; the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich; the struggle for control of the Sudetenland and Chamberlain's final sell-out of the whole of Czechoslovakia for the sake of a few month's peace; the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop and, at last, of course, the claims of Germany to parts of Poland which led inevitably to World War Two.
The peace and serenity of the last weekends of the holiday were disturbed by much 'arm-chair talk' about the situation. Most people seemed to think that war would not break out; that Hitler was 'a big hero' for only as long as the world let him get away with it; now that it was being made clear to him that he couldn't get any more, he wouldn't endanger himself by chancing war with the whole of Europe - and perhaps even America! Anxiety, nevertheless, gnawed at the heart. The propaganda war between Poland and Germany worsened from day to day; here and there - a border incident. General Shmigly Rydze, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, declared, in a speech to the Nation that not one inch will be given to any man and if the Germans start a war we'll fight them until we win!
The farmers told us that they had found ...clear signs of war - caterpillars were attacking the fruit trees.....and not a few families had returned to their homes in town. My father, who had planned to spend the High Holidays in the village, was in no hurry to take us home, hoping and believing that everything would resolve itself quickly and for the best. We were virtually the last to leave. Only two days before war broke out and after the alarm caused by the general mobilization, did my father start to rush here and there, trying to get hold of some kind of conveyance to take us home. The feeling that the holiday-camp, and we with it, had been abandoned, that we remained almost alone, awoke within us real fears that war would break out and that we would be left in some forgotten corner of the world and that our father would not be able to get to us to take us home. I was also worried that if I stayed in the village I was going to miss this great adventure called 'war'. So when it came time to leave I didn't find it quite so difficult to turn my back on the place I loved so much and in which I had spent what was probably the happiest and best summer of my life.
The way home was hard and slow. The road was clogged with cars and carts and army vehicles. Our own cart moved very slowly and my father was angry and restless that he had not succeeded in finding a faster way of getting us home. We were all tense. The day was hot and stifling. The fields, after the harvest, were yellow with stubble. The military presence became more and more obvious the closer we got to Lodz. Along the roadside marched armed soldiers, dripping with sweat. These were not the same smartly turned-out and blanco-ed soldiers, that I knew so well from parades. My father, who had served in the First World War, pointed out to us the different types of weapons and their respective characteristics. The army vehicles were adorned with the branches of trees and when I asked why, my father explained that it was to disguise them from the pilots of enemy aircraft. The idea seemed very clever except that I couldn't understand how the pilots wouldn't think it strange to see branches travelling along the road! Everyone burst out laughing and my father explained to me that during an attack all the vehicles drove off the side of the road and stopped.
A strange atmosphere permeated the city's streets. Small groups of people gathered here and there and read the fly-posters that had suddenly appeared on all the walls; others stood and talked among themselves; newspaper sellers shouted, Special edition! Special edition, and the papers were snatched from their hands and read with worried faces.
It was good to return home after the tension we had experienced during the last few days. We all felt a certain joy, or gaiety, as if our own house was a sort of citadel, protecting us from all harm. Our neighbours received us happily and after examining me from every angle declared that I'd got fatter and that I looked fantastic! My mother was happy that we were home.
In the evening, we went to visit my grandparents, my father's parents. As we entered, I saw my grandfather sitting at the table, his head between his hands, a deep sadness in his eyes. Opposite him sat my grandmother, crying. My young uncle Feivel, dressed in army uniform, was striding round the room, talking. I had known my uncle Feivel for a few years, from when my grandparents had still been living in Turobin and we had visited them during the summer. My uncle and I had made friends quite quickly. He would take me on rambles to the surrounding villages, buy me sweets and tell me all sorts of stories. One day he came and took me to the forest. He was wearing some kind of a uniform and on his head was a forage cap with a Star of David. While we walked he told me about the youth movement Beitar - and its leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist, organizer of thousands of young men who, at the appointed time were to go to Palestine and conquer it for the Jewish people. In the forest we found a few score young men, all dressed in a similar uniform to that of my uncle. He sat me to one side. The men all stood in rows and in response to the orders of their commander, went through their drill exercises. Afterwards, they all sat in a circle. My uncle invited me to sit next to him and they all began to sing songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. They had a break to eat sandwiches and then, having rested, started singing again. I was very impressed.
My grandfather did not like my uncle. Father and son were constantly arguing. My grandfather would boil with anger and shout at his son, calling him a 'criminal' or a 'trouble-maker'. Now, my uncle stood in front of his parents dressed in the uniform of the Polish Armed Forces - he had been mobilized the previous day and had been given two hours to say his farewells to his loved ones. His battalion was ordered to the border and would be going the following day. My uncle was pleased to see us and in an attempt to reduce the tension in the room asked us how we had enjoyed our holiday and when had we returned.
Tell them that its not the end of the world, he said, turning to my father, you've been in the war.....
Eventually we parted from my uncle. My grandmother wailed in a loud voice and even my grandfather shed a tear. My uncle looked sad, tried unsuccessfully to smile and quickly left the house. The whole evening I sat and thought about him. I had always felt that my grandfather and grandmother had hated him; even my father hadn't seemed to like him very much and reacted with some indifference to him. Only my mother seemed to like him. Yet this evening everything was so different. Everyone had poured affection on him. I felt a personal sense of relief to discover that not only I liked him. In my imagination I saw him charging on a horse, fighting, killing Germans. Once, I pictured him wounded in the head, with a blood-stained bandage and another time wounded in the hand, this time with his arm in a sling, continuing to fight on bravely with his other hand.... I also saw him, in my imagination, getting killed but that picture I refused to accommodate for long. Nevertheless it would occasionally return of itself to disturb me. Again, I would see him returning home as a hero, decorated with medals for gallantry, he and I, walking hand-in-hand down Piotrkowska Street, with everyone looking at us.
The following morning, looking through the window, I saw my father in the courtyard with some neighbours digging trenches. When I went down to join him I found him sweating and breathing hard but otherwise in a good mood and laughing.
I heard, I said, that there're lines of people at the banks asking for their money and the banks are only allowing them a limited amount. I'm going there now to take all my money from the bank.
How much money have you got in the bank, sonny? Somebody asked. Thirty-six zloty, I answered. Everyone laughed.
I ran home, took my savings book and hurried to the bank where I joined the long line of other customers. After waiting about two hours I got to the head of the queue and received all my money. My brother Mottel, who arrived a couple of hours afterwards and had several hundred zloty in his account, was too late and as a consequence didn't receive a penny. During the day my father went to the factory and brought quite a few bundles of sweaters home and our bed-room was turned into a store-room. My mother said that all the food had disappeared from the shops.
When I woke up the following morning I found my parents with very gloomy faces.
Bereleh, get up and get dressed, said my father, we're at war! My mother's face was ashen. I threw a look through the window; everything seemed completely normal: the sun shone from a clear blue sky as though nothing had changed. The radio, however, told a different story: the Germans had crossed the frontier and were attacking. Our brave army had entered the fight to repel the invader. The Nation was called upon to stand firm against the enemy.
Suddenly we heard explosions and the roaring of aircraft engines. Our father ordered us immediately to go down to the cellar, under the house, which was used as a store for dairy-products and vegetables for the tenants of the house. A musty smell, compounded of rotting vegetables and sour milk pervaded the atmosphere. All the tenants were gathered together there, grouped as families. I stuck very close to my father but he wasn't the sort of man who could wait patiently for someone to come and tell him that the raid had ended. After a while he said to my mother that he was going out to take a look. My mother ordered him to stay put, but he took no notice and went out. After a minute or two he returned and said that there wasn't a soul in the street, only an occasional army vehicle passing by.
Later on, in spite of my mother's renewed pleading, my father again went out to the street and when I saw that no one was watching me I went and joined him. I found my father gazing at the heavens and when he saw me he pointed upwards and following his gaze I saw way up high an airplane about the size of a bird. Suddenly, as if awakening, he became aware of my presence and grabbing me by the hand we returned to the cellar together telling no one of our adventure, especially my mother.
In the meantime everyone had become used to the cramped conditions in the cellar and even felt themselves drawn somewhat closer together because of them. The feeling of anxiety and our common fate had made of us something in the nature of one big family. When the 'All-Clear' sounded, we all went out together into the fresh air.
After our stay in the cold cellar we found the sun nice and warm. Moreover, our enforced incarceration made it so much more pleasant just to stand freely under the sky, unrestricted, that none of us seemed to be in all that much of a hurry to go home.
War had broken out only a few hours ago; battles were raging hundreds of kilometers from Lodz and our lives had been instantly changed as if an entirely different universe had suddenly been brought into being: men no longer went to their places of business; children didn't go to school - even though, on that day - the first of September, the new school year commenced; families spent the whole day together as if it were a holiday. The tenants of the building, who from one year to the next hardly addressed a word to each other, in some cases didn't even know each other or have contact one with the other, found themselves drawn together by a shared experience. During the day we found it necessary to go down to the cellar several times and each time the atmosphere became more relaxed and intimate. Though all the families were sitting in their 'own' places, they were entering into conversation with each other spontaneously and the time passed much more quickly and easily.
Between alarms, we stuck strips of paper on the windows. My sister took control of the work and started to give everyone instructions on how it should be done in order to achieve the most æsthetically pleasing effect. My big brother, who concerned himself with the religious aspects of the work, made sure that the paper strips did not form the shape of a cross. Apart from one or two trivial arguments concerning the method of procedure, the work went forward quietly and industriously. So much so that within a couple of hours all the window-panes were properly protected with a criss-cross pattern of strips.
All this time my mother had been busy cooking and baking, preparing things that could last, if necessary, for a long time. When she came into the room and found us all working with such quiet, silent efficiency, she looked at us in pride. The day passed quickly.
Evening drew near. It was an evening that was different, somehow, from all its predecessors. I looked out of the window at a blacked-out world. The house opposite presented to the eye what appeared to be a completely blank wall unbroken by a lighted window and when a resident occasionally, and inadvertently - or perhaps carelessly, turned on a light without drawing the curtains in the room a voice immediately called out from the courtyard in angry command: Turn that light out! - and the light instantly vanished from sight. Although I was afraid of the dark, I was so curious to see the town in darkness that I steeled myself and crept out of the house. I ran down the stairs and through the courtyard as fast as I could and out to the street, scared out of my wits, heart pounding like a trip-hammer. I stopped near the gate to the courtyard and discovered to my relief that I was not alone: several of the tenants were also there, standing quietly, gazing at nothing in the inky blackness. My confidence slowly returned and I began to look about me.
At first, it seemed as though the whole world had been swallowed up by the complete darkness which had taken all the houses, as well as the street and pavements, together with it. Only our house remained in existence and all around a void - a complete and utter void. Cars that passed by, the glass of their headlamps painted a dark blue, seemed like mysterious ships sailing dimly on a river. As my eyes became adjusted to the darkness I began to discern the houses around me as denser areas of blackness punctuating the nothingness. The people standing near me were, in general, silent, exchanging, only now and again, a word or two in whispers.
Suddenly we heard a noise. Turning our heads towards the source we saw a dark group moving towards us, along the roadway and as it got closer we were able to recognize that it was two platoons of soldiers on armed and armoured vehicles and as I realized who and what they were, my heart began to thump with excitement: perhaps my uncle Feivel was among them? I ran to the edge of the pavement and scanned the faces of the men passing by. They all looked alike. I wanted to shout, Uncle Feivel! but was too embarrassed to do so. I felt a sudden fear and depression overcome me, as if I were alone in a dark forest. I ran home as fast as I could and when I entered the house my brother Mottel came down on me like a ton of bricks.
Where have you been? He demanded, angrily. My sister joined in: Don't you know there's a war going on? What are you looking for outside, in the dark?
My brother and sister, who never in their lives had agreed with each other, who were always at loggerheads with one another, now, suddenly and to my surprise, presented a united front, and were of one opinion. Our parents, who had entered the room, found nothing to add to the general criticism levelled at me, contented themselves for the moment with fixing their united and censorious eyes upon me. Eventually my father said:
Bereleh, you do not leave this house again without my permission. Is that clear? I nodded my head silently.
An atmosphere of disquiet reigned in the house. No one knew what to do. Everyone was lost in his own thoughts without sharing them with his neighbour. Consequently no one spoke and the silence bothered me. Only Yankeleh ran hither and thither and asked in vain for one of us to play with him. This time no one had the patience for him and he burst out crying from frustration. When we sat down to eat, our father tried to joke with us in order to relieve our tension - and perhaps his own - but in vain.
The war had started! Nobody knew, nor could guess how long it would last, what tomorrow would bring, what will happen to us, or what we must or should do. We were at the mercy of an unpredictable fate. One thing was startlingly clear: with the outbreak of war an era ended; a way of life that would not return. The daily order and routine of our lives changed as did our behaviour. An end had come to thoughts, hopes and dreams. For us, the children, we who had been living in a children's paradise, the change was particularly drastic. At night we were awoken and ordered to the cellar.
That night we were awoken and ordered to the cellar. Outside we heard the wailing of the sirens. In the cellar, in spite of the fact that our mother had given us extra, warm clothing, I was shivering with cold. We snuggled together in order to warm each other with our bodies. Yankeleh continued to sleep even though he was aware that he had been moved and taken down to the cellar and, later, taken back up again. The following morning the radio announced that there had been heavy fighting at the front; our forces had destroyed fifty of the enemy's tanks and were repelling him; the public was ordered to beware of spies and also of disseminators of false, depressing and defeatist rumours whose sole aim was to undermine the morale of the people. When my father and I went down together to the street, the housekeeper met us at the gate with a smiling, happy face.
Have you heard the news, Mr. Freiberg? We destroyed fifty of their tanks! That'll show 'em! That'll show those damned Schwabs just what it means to start with us!
In a quieter voice she told my father that one of the tenants, a 'Volksdeutsch' - a Pole of German extraction - had failed to return home last night and his wife and their children were not showing their noses outside the door of their flat.
He's probably a spy, she said, adding, they should kill him as soon as they catch him!
The housekeeper and her family, together with the German family, as well as the few Christian families who were tenants, were friendly and we all got along well together. Consequently, I was most surprised and not a little disturbed to hear the housekeeper speak in such an aggressive and openly unfriendly fashion.
Close to the courtyard gate of our house stood several neighbours, arguing and debating in loud voices. The information concerning the destruction of the German tanks, which was known to all, together with the new information that the British had declared war against Germany, raised the spirits of all of us after a day of depression and lack of information. At the same time, just to counteract all the good news, the wildest stories were circulating: hordes of spies were wandering around the city, signalling with mirrors to the German aircraft and guiding them to their targets; a few had already been caught. Others told that hundreds of German paratroops had landed in different places and I began to suspect all who passed by me in the street.
During the day the rumours grew alarmingly. They were frightening. Stories were circulating that in the bombing raids that had already taken place four-storey houses had been destroyed; they had simply collapsed - disintegrated, as if one had taken a flimsy matchbox and crushed it in the hand; that people close by had been picked up by the blast and thrown tens of meters into the air and every-which-way on the ground; soldiers returning from the front line related how the Germans were attacking incessantly and had already succeeded in bringing about the complete collapse of the Polish defenses on the ground; that the Polish army was beaten, retreating in confusion and was unable to re-group and form a second line of defense; thousands had already been killed; the Polish army blown to smithereens; the soldiers who remained were without officers; were robbing civilians of their clothes; were throwing away their uniforms and weapons......
The good news coming from the radio and especially the plea not to give credence to rumours and rumour-mongers, together with the instinctive and natural desire to believe that all was well, helped people to pay not too much attention to the negative stories but it was difficult to ignore the rumours entirely and they succeeded in destroying much of the effect of the euphoria of the morning.
When I returned home I met Jadzia, the maid from the family living on the ground floor. Jadzia was a country-girl of about eighteen, average height, full-figured but not fat. She was very innocent-looking and had skin as smooth as silk. Her hair was long and fair, usually arranged in a thick pig-tail hanging down her back. Her eyes were blue and nearly always smiling. She had very generous breasts and her clothes, which always seemed a few sizes too small for her, as if they were left-overs from a time when she had been slimmer, accentuated interestingly every part of her body which needed to be accentuated! I was not unaware of her. Our paths would often cross on the stairs, in the morning, while I was on my way to school. Sometimes it seemed as if she were waiting for me behind the door, having planned the confrontation in order to make me wish her Good morning. On hearing my greeting she would invariably reply: Good morning, my beloved/my sweetheart/my heart, or some other term of affection and then insist on delaying me with a friendly question or inquiry; sometimes she would even pat me. I tried, as well as I could, to avoid all this but at the same time I liked her. Whenever I passed through the courtyard, I would always glance in the direction of the kitchen window, where I knew she was working, in the hope of seeing her. I loved her as if she were a beautiful painting but I didn't want to speak with her and I certainly didn't want her to touch me. Although her touch was pleasant to me and I liked it, it awoke within me feelings of guilt and shame.
Now she stood in front of me, an old suitcase in her hand, a large 'kerchief on her head, eyes red from crying. I was deeply stirred with pity for her when she told me that she had decided to return to her village and family. Now that war has broken out, who knows what will happen tomorrow. Nevertheless, the parting from the family she had been working for was very hard for her; she had grown to love them - they had become a part of her everyday existence. Crying, she said to me:
Who knows if we'll ever see each other again?
Kneeling down suddenly in front of me she patted me and held me to her very tightly kissing my head and my cheeks and then planting a juicy prolonged kiss on my mouth. I didn't resist. I allowed her to do whatever she wanted. I stood there, my head pressed against her breasts, her arms entwined around me, a tide of pleasurable feelings previously unknown to me, rising within me as a result of the warm lingering kiss. When she finally released me from her grip and stood up, I remained stock-still in front of her as one hypnotized. I was unable to utter a syllable. Eventually, I managed, somehow, to say: Bye-bye, although there were so many more things in my heart that I wanted to say. She replied to my Bye-bye with her own farewell, adding, ...beloved child, and we each went our separate ways. For long afterwards I was unable to free myself from the memory of that parting. At night I would reconstruct and relive every detail of every moment that I had spent with her.
I noticed that my father became more and more gloomy, silent and introspective, striding, serious-faced through the house, as he used to do during the crisis-days of his business, or during one of the strikes in his factory - or during the rows with his ex-partner; but then, at least, he would talk, shout, curse even. Now, this time, silence. He might whisper once or twice with my mother and again wrap himself in a silence. My mother tried a few times to cheer him up but without significant success. I heard her say to him once or twice:
Thank God you're here with us and not in the army.
Yet, as the days went by, I saw his mood gradually get worse and worse. One day I came home to find him, perplexed, standing helpless, as if before a fateful decision he was unable to make. Towards evening my mother also began to seem worried and anxious and her face showed that she had, in fact, been crying. I became filled with a kind of choking dread but I dared not ask anyone anything.
Most of that night we spent sitting in the cellar. From time to time we heard the sound of muffled explosions, to which we had more-or-less become accustomed. At last we returned home, trembling from cold and lack of sleep and sat by the table. My mother served tea and cake and my father, who seemed more relaxed than he had for days - and even managed a smile - turned to us and said.
Look, I want you all to listen to me. The situation at the front is not good. According to what we're getting from the radio, the Germans are advancing very rapidly and they're not all that far from Lodz. I have decided that I cannot and will not allow myself to fall into their hands. I have no intention of tolerating the acts of humiliation that we know they did to the Jews of Austria and Czechoslovakia. If the Germans get any closer to us and look like overrunning Lodz, I shall take Mottel, who is already a big boy, and escape to Warsaw. As far as we know there is no danger for women and children. I'll prepare a place for us in Warsaw and send for you all as soon as I can. If they look like taking Warsaw, then we'll escape to Bialystok, where I have very good friends. If they get close to us there, then we'll make a break for Russia because I, - he said with utter finality, will not fall into the hands of the Germans.
When he realized the fear and confusion into which his words had thrown us, he added: Don't get so upset about this. The war is going to last more than just a couple of days. They're not going to conquer Poland so quickly or so easily. The Germans aren't at the gates of Lodz yet and I haven't yet gone! Now go to sleep.
Not one of us asked a question; not one of us dared to give enough free rein to the anxiety which gnawed at the mind, to put our thoughts into words.
Lying in bed, I tried to absorb what I had heard. A confused mixture of different thoughts filled my brain but refused to crystallize out into a cohesive whole. I prayed to God that we should all remain together. When I awoke in the morning the conversation of the previous night seemed like a dream but when I realized that my brother was not in his bed my heart began to pound. I rushed to the other room and when I found no one there either I ran to the kitchen. There, I found everyone sitting eating breakfast - everyone, that is, except my father.
Where's Daddy? I asked.
Daddy went to arrange a few things, answered my mother with a smile and when my sister joined in with her smile I felt less worried; my father had not deserted us.
During the day we were witness to a lot of military traffic coming and going. We heard tremendous explosions in the vicinity. We sat for hours in the cellar. My father told us that he had visited his parents, my grandfather and grandmother. He had found my grandmother crying and my grandfather praying for the safety of his son, my uncle Feivel. The evening and night passed quietly - there were no alarms and we all slept well. We were awoken by a thunderous knocking at the door and when we opened it we found one of our neighbours standing there.
What are you all doing sleeping, she asked, so excited she seemed almost angry. Don't you know what's going on? The whole town's awake.
The radio has announced that all the men have to escape eastwards; everyone's running; the streets are full of people and soldiers.
We all got dressed immediately and while we were doing so my father gave instructions to Mottel to dress in warm clothes. He himself, once dressed, busied himself with packing a suitcase and another small parcel. Everything was done in silence. We all stood around watching as if the whole incident was normal and expected. My father asked us not to go with him and Mottel and with a kiss for all of us he turned to the door. There, parting from my mother, he suddenly burst out crying and walked out of the door with my brother. Everything happened so quickly there was not really time for the emotions to catch up and react. Never in my life had I seen my father and mother kissing each other - he rarely, if ever, kissed us, the children; the last time I remember him kissing me was a long time ago, when I had lain ill in bed.....and now, here he was, kissing all of us, even my big sister - and last of all, the final picture, my father and mother kissing each other and holding on to each other tightly as if not wanting to let go and my father sobbing like a little boy. I found it all deeply disturbing.
Those of us who remained sat close together and cried. My mother, who was now holding Yankeleh on her knee, asked us all to go back to sleep. I lay in bed, imagining to myself my father and brother running through the streets at night, clutching each other by the hand, surrounded by hordes of people and being chased by the Germans. I was so jealous of my brother that my father had chosen him to run away with. Why was I the smaller? If I had been taller he would surely have taken me as well! I imagined them both returning home to us, my brother full of stories about their adventures together outside the house and of course, the focus of excited admiration. The following morning, I planted myself next to my mother, feeling that that's where I should be. My sister also refused to leave the house all day. My mother seemed more relaxed - organized, dressed pleasantly and well, her hair combed tidily back. Only her red eyes were witnesses to her fatigue and the turmoil within. Her external serenity calmed me and lessened the tension which had engulfed me but at the same time I could not come to terms with the fact that my father and big brother had left me at the very time that I needed them most. At the sound of every footfall coming from the courtyard or stairwell we would fall silent and listen. Every knock at the door would bring us upright in our chairs. Where could they be? How did they escape? Walking or by train? I knew that there were no answers to my questions but I had to ask them, nevertheless.
Don't ask silly questions. Who knows? said Devorah in a voice mildly angry and laughing somewhat, at the same time.
My mother said: Listen, children. Your father has already experienced difficult times. He knows very well how to cope with the situation and as soon as he can do so he'll let us know what's happening. In the meantime its good that there are two of you, so you can always help one another. You don't need to worry.
My mother asked Devorah to go to our grandparent's home and, after asking how they are, let them know that our father had escaped during the night, together with Mottel. She also told my sister not to dawdle anywhere but to come straight home. My sister apparently thought - like me - that our father and brother were about to reappear any minute because she kept putting off her departure with all manner of little excuses.
I'll go, I said. I can do it quicker.
My mother thought for a moment, then packing a small parcel of food which she handed to me, sent me on my way warning me to be careful. It was strange to see Jedenastego-Listopada Street - one of the main thoroughfares, almost empty of people: no tramcars, no cars, no police and no soldiers. I crossed the street at a run. At Wolnosci Plac, I saw a white flag flying from the Town Hall. I turned into Piotrkowska Street, the main street. That, too, was virtually empty and silent. By the time I arrived at my grandparents home I was breathing heavily and when they realized that I had come alone asked if I hadn't been afraid. I told them that Mummy had sent me and that Daddy and Mottel had run away together to Warsaw.
We know, replied my grandfather. They came to tell us in the night but it's good that you came to let us know as well.
Do you know anything about uncle Feivel? I asked.
No, son. said my grandfather and my grandmother began crying, making me feel sorry that I had asked the question.
I ran all the way home, paying no attention to my surroundings. As I neared the house I suddenly heard the roar of engines and in front of me appeared four motorbikes with side cars. On each one sat three German soldiers dressed in grey raincoats, jackboots and wearing steel helmets on their heads. I followed after them with my eyes until they were lost to sight and then burst into the house excitedly with the news:
I've just seen German soldiers!
I described their appearance to my mother and sister, who both remained silent. My mother paled. The Germans' appearance so stunned me that I completely forgot to report on my visit to my grandparents.
No one is to leave the house. commanded my mother and I knew why.
I remembered the stories that I had heard about the First World War and how, when the Cossacks had passed through Jewish villages, pogroms had taken place. Later, when the Polish army came along, they, too, set about the Jews.
During the afternoon, the noise, movement and tumult of the German army vehicles increased. The vibrations set up by all the clamour caused the windows to rattle alarmingly. I was filled with curiosity, wanting to see the German army pass by in the street but didn't dare ask my mother's permission to do so. With all this excitement, I had forgotten that it was Friday. Not so my mother! Towards evening she ordered us to get washed and put on our Sabbath clothes and, as on every Sabbath eve, she spread a fresh, crisp white tablecloth on the table. Then, placing a bottle of wine, challot, covered with a cloth and four silver candlesticks on the table, she covered her head with a 'kerchief, lit the candles and recited the appropriate blessing, crying softly to herself the whole time. When she had finished, she wiped her tears and turning to us said.
Gut Shabbos - and may we hear good news.
Amen, we all answered fervently in unison.
When the stars became visible in the sky, I took my prayer book and began to recite the Friday evening prayers. Until that evening, that moment, I had never paid the slightest attention to the meaning of the prayers, sometimes skipping words or even paragraphs. This time I didn't miss a word, even though I didn't understand all of it. I took care to pronounce God's name very carefully each time it occurred. In the deep silence I could sense, rather than hear, that my mother and sister were praying together with me. Even little Yankeleh was silent and not interfering with his demands for attention, as he usually did. When I had finished we all felt slightly confused and a little embarrassed: the table was laid as it should be - correctly for the Sabbath eve - but how were we going to continue without father? How? Simply to sit and eat without the proper, warm ceremony of Friday evening didn't seem possible. Eventually my mother made a decision telling us all to sit at our normal places, leaving our father's chair and the one on his left - Mottel's - vacant. Then she turned to me and said.
Bereleh! Say the 'Kiddush'...you are now the head of the family until we are all together again....
.I felt myself overcome with mixed feelings of pride and fear. Rising shakily to my feet, I took the bottle of wine and filled the glasses of all present. I raised the Master cup and intoned the Friday night blessing for the wine, my voice shaking with nervousness. Even though I raised it in an attempt to hide the fact, I am sure that those present were able to discern the fact. In any case, they certainly saw my shaking hand! I then blessed the special sweet bread waving the knife above it in the approved fashion before slicing it, dipping each piece in salt before offering it to the members of my family, each act exactly according to the ritual I had seen my father perform so often that the memory seemed to stretch back to the day I had been born and beyond. I was terrified of looking up since I was sure that my mother's and sister's eyes were glued to me. I wasn't particularly hungry but I was so determined not to appear like a spoiled little child in my new role that I ate everything that my mother served me without complaint or comment.
I knew that, according to ritual, I should chant the Friday evening hymns but I just couldn't bring myself to do it and, in the event no one asked me to do so. What could not be ignored was the Grace after meals. When I had finished that prayer my mother came and kissed me and I felt, all at once, that I had ceased to be a child.
The following morning - Saturday - a German soldier appeared in the courtyard and raising his voice called out: All Jews down here in the courtyard.
We all gathered downstairs men, women and children, all of us not a little afraid A middle-aged Jew of about fifty said to us: Don't worry! I know the Germans from the First World War. I know how to get along with them.
He approached the German and said a few words to him in German. The German looked at him in surprise for a few seconds and then suddenly struck him in the face shouting: Get back in line Jew-pig!
The man was obviously dumbfounded and unable to comprehend this totally unexpected reaction. The German, for his part, continued as if nothing had happened, turning to us saying:
I don't need women and children...I need men for work. - and so saying he took the men with him. Thank God my father and brother had got away in time, I thought to myself. Had they been here they would surely have been taken, too.......
In front of the house a lorry was standing loaded with Jewish men who had been snatched from their homes and taken away for work. In the street, columns of German soldiers were marching about, their numbers increasing by the hour. The street was full of people, mainly Poles and Germans in different types and shades of uniform, all of them smart and tidy, as if made-to-measure, with their gleaming, leg-fitting jackboots. They were armed with pistols and had leather Sam Brown belts running diagonally across their chests. On their heads they were wearing hard peaked caps, decorated with silver or gold braid. The arrogance in their faces inspired fear. Among the population, military and otherwise, were a number of people distinguished by swastika arm bands. These were the 'Volksdeutsche' who had suddenly sprung up from nowhere, like mushrooms after the rain. There were also a few Jews hurrying, as inconspicuously as possible, to their destinations.
All that Saturday we sat at home, our thoughts dwelling on our father and Mottel, their whereabouts and progress. What was happening to them? Were they well? Had they been fortunate enough to get to Warsaw yet? The news on the radio didn't indicate how far the Germans had penetrated but the citizens of Warsaw were ordered to build barricades and resist the invader to the last drop of blood. Yet another announcement informed us that enemy bombers had attacked Warsaw, that there were many killed and wounded and the residents were asked to donate blood. There was also an announcement on the radio that a stream of refugees was flooding into Warsaw and the public was asked to receive them kindly and share whatever they could spare with them.
The following morning, Sunday, I went out to the front of the house and as I got there I saw a number of people going by carrying loaves of white bread. I walked in the direction they were coming from and after a while came across the baker's shop in one of the side streets where people were waiting patiently in line to buy bread. A German soldier kept order. The delicious warm aroma of fresh bread was wafted into my nostrils. I ran home and asked for some money to go and buy some bread, then running all the way back again, I joined the queue. After a few minutes, a young Polish girl, who had been standing behind me came up to me and said very aggressively: Clear off, Jew, you're not going to get any bread here!
I ignored her completely, neither answering her, nor moving from my place in the queue.
The people standing around me ignored the whole affair as if they were deaf and blind. After a minute or so the girl returned and as she got close to me again said: I'm telling you, you're not going to get any bread here, so you'd better clear off before I tell the German!
I looked around me but could see no Jewish face among the throng to help me. I began to feel a little afraid and alone and the nearer I got to the front of the shop, the more afraid I felt. Nevertheless, I hung on and refused to budge. Something inside refused to allow me to give in to the girl. When I actually arrived at the shop front and was next to the soldier, the girl turned to him and, pointing at me said.
Jude, Jude. The German looked me in the face and shouted: Jude! Clear off from here. I gave up, confused and ashamed to the point of tears.
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 © 1999-2023 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 28 Oct 2007 by LA