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[Page 260-271]

Between the Jaws of Destiny

by L. Wanda

Translated by Moshe Shubinsky

Zloczew was a small town in Poland, which in 1939, was only a short distance from the German border. With the war about to begin, the town's Jews were gripped by fear. Experienced townspeople who knew what it was like to be at war from bitter experience of previous conflicts and especially from the First World War, only 22 years before, understood only too well that as Zloczew was so near the frontier, it would not be too long before war reached the town with all it horrors.

Without taking into accounts the disposition of the Polish and German forces, they knew that a town like Zloczew could pass from hand to hand several times and with the knowledge of how badly Jews were treated by the Nazi forces, they decided to try and put as much distance between them and the Germans and move to a more secure place until the time the trouble had passed. And so the town was in a grip of frenzied activity. Many Jews packed their belongings and liquidated their businesses and tried to transport anything of value out of the town to a place of safety, such as the nearby towns or the regional centres of Lodz and Warsaw.

My father went to Warsaw to transfer some valuables and leave them with our relatives, but before all that, a typical case, which I would like to recount here, occurred. Our family business in Zloczew consisted of a sawmill and a wood store and as was normal in such an establishment, wood and logs were stored in the yard and in sheds on the premises. With the tension increasing as war drew nearer, the mayor accompanied by the chief of police, came to our house and told my father to burn down the sawmill so as not leave any booty for the Germans to use. This gave us a shock and panicked the Jewish population into seeking to leave the town and on the day before the war broke out, Thursday the 31st of August 1939, there was no transport to be had for anybody seeking to leave. In spite of that, my father managed to get hold of a wagon and horses. We loaded our belongings and went out on the road.

It was decided that the men will stay behind and the women would go first, with the men completing the task of evacuating the house and the business and joining the women later. And so we left - my mother, grandmother, aunties, sisters and myself and we headed for Sieradz where we had some relations, but the events of the following morning changed everything. War broke out at dawn on Friday, the 1st of September and with the German bombings, we were meeting the first refugees on the roads from the town of Wielun (at that time, only a few miles from the German border) and, as we saw what was happening, we realised that we were too near the border and we were not going to achieve our aim of getting away from the fighting and the horrors of war.

In the meantime, the men of the family managed to join us and we tried to figure out what to do next and so it was decided to go further to the town of Lodz. This took us several days as we did not wish to travel on a Saturday and we stayed for a while with our relations in Zdunska Wola.

On the roads, we were seeing more and more the dislocations and the flight of refugees who were flooding them in the thousands, all sick with worry and anxious about what was going to happen. Food was getting harder and harder to get and terrible rumours started circulating about what was happening. When we got to Lodz, we went straight to our relations only to hear that the Germans were getting nearer and that they were taking all the men into concentration camps. As a result, many young men and women started to flee as they felt it was dangerous for them to stay where they were. And it became terrible to see how the multitudes were running for their lives. These images are still with me to this day.

Refugees are flooding the roads

Amongst the escapees were young men and women from my own family and when I saw the mass panic, I stood transfixed, stunned and shocked for a long time. They went like frightened hares, without going in any particular direction or aim and heading to G-d knows where with the eyes of the remainders accompanying them with sorrow and tears.

Returning to Zloczew

In time, we found out that there was a reason we had to leave the town in a hurry as the Germans entered the town on the first day of the war, first as a motorized patrol on motorcycles who stayed on the outskirts of the town for a while and then went back and later on as regular units with all their equipment, who walked in and set up camp. With this terrible fate visited on the whole region, our flight became pointless and my mother went back to see what happened to our town.

She came back a few days later with terrible news. The centre of the town was burnt out and many Jews who stayed behind paid with their own lives. As to our house, it was still standing, but strangers were living in it and what made it worse was that the person who was occupying our house was one of the sawmill workers, a Pole who worked for us for many years and now screamed at my mother and cursed her and told her not to come back.

With my mother back in Lodz, we decided that there was no point in all of us staying any more and we all returned to Zloczew. As Poles occupied our house, we managed to get one room for ourselves after much trouble and tribulation and, having no choice, as we were in emergency accommodations. My father was still in Warsaw and our means of sustenance shrunk to the bare minimum. The sawmill was nationalised and a German trustee was placed in charge. In spite of that, we were still allowed to sell some of the stock in the stores. We also managed to sell some of our possessions that we still had from the old days and so we somehow survived from day to day.

Fortunately for us, a few days later, my father returned from Warsaw with my uncle and they told us what happened to Warsaw when it fell to the Germans - the bloody battles, the destruction, the bombing and the killing, the hunger and shortages and the suffering which befell the civilian population.

New Horrors

The German occupiers now started their brutal occupation regime and the Jews were singled out for special treatment. They were kidnapped off the streets for slave labour such as carrying goods and weeding the public footpaths and so on. The situation in our house worsened; we did not find a single piece of our furniture and even our utensils disappeared, probably looted and we had to try and organise ourselves by obtaining some elementary implements to cook with.

Cruelties, restrictions and persecutions at every turn

Near Zloczew was a small colony of Ethnic Germans who my father used to trade with before the war. When the Nazis came, those Germans were close to the regime and were favoured for government posts. One of them became a senior administrator for the region, based in Sieradz. In time, the Nazi oppression became more and more brutal and one of their common methods was the kidnapping of hostages.

One day, a uniformed German came to our house accompanied by an ethnic German civilian who knew my father, with the intention of taking my father as a hostage. The civilian tried to help my father to escape capture by using an original ruse. As soon as he entered our room, he gave us a hint by asking-“so, the owner is not here, is he?” knowing that my father was in the next room. We managed to tell him and he left the house and reached the German colony where one family gave him shelter, perhaps because he paid them. When he felt that this place was no longer safe, he left, but never came home. He made his way to Warsaw.

We are all moving to Warsaw

At the end of 1939, the Germans informed us that all the Jews must leave Zloczew voluntarily and all those who can, should make their own way. We were allowed to take goods and possessions apart from valuables and money, which we had to surrender to the Germans. Each family could take no more than 100 golden sovereigns with them and, as for the direction of the transports; this was to be one of three places - Radom, Lublin or Warsaw. Most of the people decided to leave, but some chose to stay behind whatever happened. The ones who left were divided into two groups - one heading for Lublin and one to Warsaw.

We chose to go to the capital city as we had relatives and friends there. We managed to obtain a horse and cart and, having loaded all our belongings, went on the road. It was winter and severely cold. This caused us much suffering. The road was long and tortuous and I remember how tired I felt and how I passed out for the first time in my life, as we could not obtain any food on the way. We had to use what food we had and ration it carefully. The roads were full of refugees from all kind of places and it was virtually impossible to find a place to stay for the night.

After four days of travelling, we managed to get to Warsaw where we stayed with one of our relations who gave us one room from their flat. A short while afterwards, we managed to find my father and we were together again. In the meantime, the situation in Warsaw worsened as many houses were destroyed during the fighting and there were shortages of all foodstuffs as well as goods and epidemics raged through the town. For now, we managed to live off our savings from Zloczew, but when my father saw that the money was running out he started trading in whatever he could get hold of to keep the family going. In time, we felt that things were getting worse and worse and that the ground was dropping beneath us. So, we decided to leave Warsaw and go to the nearby resort town of Otwock.

What persuaded us was the rumour that a ghetto was planned for Warsaw and that when it was established, Jews would be forbidden from leaving it. When we came to Otwock, we found the Meirovitch family from Zloczew there. There was no ghetto in the town, but Jews had to wear the yellow star on their sleeves - a Star of David with the letter “J” inside it. The Jews were also forbidden from using public transport, municipal or intercity.

Smuggling Meat to Warsaw

In the new town, we still had to contend with the grim realities of providing some food for our family. We managed to find an ingenious way to do so. As my appearance was not Jewish, we took the chance to put ourselves in danger, but keep the household going. As there was a severe shortage of food and meat in Warsaw, but not in Otwock, we started to smuggle meat into Warsaw. Without raising any suspicion, my father would buy meat from a Jewish butcher in Otwock, and we would take it into Warsaw by wearing special belts which contained special pockets for the meat and used the narrow gauge railway leading to the capital city, while trying to keep to the conspiracy rules and not drawing any attention to ourselves. In Warsaw, the Ghetto was established, but the movement of non-Jews into it was still unrestricted. This enabled us to sell the meat to the local Jews.

With the Aleksandrow Rabbi

On one of my frequent trips as part of the smuggling operation, I had a very moving experience, which I remembered for many years afterwards. My father was a follower of the famous Rabbi of Alexander as he was related to him and when the Germans went into his town, they looked for him so they could cause him some harm. This was part of a deliberate policy designed to get rid of the Jewish leaders and intellectuals so as to prevent any organisation of resistance to the mass murder of the Jews that was planned to take place later on. As soon as the Nazis arrived, they isolated the spiritual leaders, the intelligencia and community leaders with a view of killing them.

With these deeds, they did not stop from using any way they saw fit to carry out their policies. The notorious paper “Der Sturmer” put out many false stories about the Alexander Rebbe and they went looking for him. He, however, managed to escape their manhunt and hid in Warsaw in Dzinla Street where very few people knew who he was or where he was. My father knew where he was and tried to use my trips to pass a few things to the Rabbi. When I got there, I was received by one of his sons to whom I gave the goods and waited for the Rebbe to come and see me. The door opened and the Rabbi came out and said, “I wanted to see the daughter of Rabbi Joseph. He than asked me a few things and wished me good luck.

Page from “Der Sturmer” Nazi anti-Semitic paper

Escape to Czestochowa

Excited from the moving visit with the great Rabbi in Warsaw, I returned home and told my story to the whole family who listened with great curiosity. Meanwhile, a typhus epidemic broke out in Otwock laying hundreds of people low. My parents became sick, but fortunately for us there were still Jewish doctors in the town who tried their best to cure the sick. In addition to that, the kidnapping season started again with the Germans snatching people from the street or their houses and taking them for slave labour. They then ordered that every typhus afflicted property put out notices to that effect outside and many people took advantage of that edict to prevent their own kidnapping.

In time, the economic situation in Otwock worsened as did our own conditions and we started to suffer from food shortages. Our meat smuggling opportunities also narrowed, but here my Uncle Shlomo came to our help. He lived in Zloczew for many years, moving to Sieradz in 1937. With the outbreak of war, seeing the danger for the Jews, he managed to get some false papers for himself to pass himself off as a Roman Catholic and changed his name to Stefan which sounded very Polish. His outward appearance was not Jewish which helped him to pass himself off as a Pole and he acquired lodging in the Polish part of Warsaw. As a Pole, he could move around relatively easily and undertake all kinds of activities. He ran a sawmill on the outskirts of Warsaw and as a sawmill owner; he was able to help us. This he did to the best of his abilities.

Just as his special status as a Christian gave him some advantages, there was an additional factor that helped us in those dark days. As he was accepted by everybody as a Christian, his friends and colleagues were not guarded in his presence and sometime carried on conversations with him about Jews which gave him information to warn others. One day, he heard a rumour that the Germans are going to deport all the Jews of Warsaw to concentration camps and although he did not realise at the time what the real destination of the deportees was, he did not hesitate to tell us at the first opportunity what was happening, and the terrible news. For our part, before we managed to appreciate the significance of this news, we came to the conclusion that what was happening in the large towns will happen in the small towns and that the ground was burning under our feet and so we had to get out. We decided to leave this place as soon as possible and to move to Czenstechowa as we heard that in that town, life carried on almost normally.

We left as soon as we could and got to the town of Plenica by nightfall where we stayed with a Polish friend who hid us in his attic for a few days. While we were there, we contacted some of our relatives there who also told us to try and get to the Czenstochowa Ghetto.

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