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PART 1

CHAPTER I



Not God, not man, but the devil

Many people still didn't believe that war was so imminent. Many still comforted themselves with the thought that in the very last moment a catastrophe would be avoided; that it is merely a political struggle which would somehow be settled before the world would become immersed in war. Nevertheless, the tension could be felt in the air. The danger was almost palpable. Hitler was making fiery hate speeches, threatening total war if he would not be granted his desires. The Polish Chief of the Army, Rydz-Smigly, fiercely proclaimed that "even a button from my uniform I will not relinquish," that he is ready for the struggle to defend his homeland. The raving of hundreds of thousands of aroused followers of the F¸hrer could be loudly heard shouting ceaselessly: Sieg Heil!

During the last days of August, 1939, it was already felt that war is unavoidable. Every day the newspapers announced alarming news with large headlines across the front page that a storm is approaching. Hitler's voice could be heard thundering on radio, threatening to annihilate anyone who would oppose him as he marched on his way to reach his aim. All diplomatic intervention, such as that of Chamberlain of England and Daladier of France, did not help. It appeared that the lion had freed himself from the chain and could no longer be held in check.

The Polish army mobilized all its troops, calling up all its reservists to organize the opposition. Young people with knapsacks could be seen everywhere, gathering at assembly points. At night blackouts were rehearsed. The city was enveloped in darkness. Commandos of the Air Force came around, checking if everyone was following the blackout instructions. Reflectors lit up the sky, searching for enemy planes over Polish territory. The youth were amused by this spectacle. The August nights were mild. In the air was the scent of ripe fruit and abundant fields. Boys and girls went about in the streets laughing, without worry and amused themselves in the darkness and alarm drills. They cast their eyes upwards to listen to the roar of the steel birds which patrolled the sky. It all appeared like a joke. It was called alarm preparedness for any eventuality, though it would not be needed.

***



Jews, who are generally very aware of danger, immediately felt the danger of the moment. Trouble could be sensed. Wealthy Jews immediately acquired passports. Others sent money out of the country so that they would have means to survive, should they have to wander. The poor tried to console themselves that these were only idle threats to scare the masses; that at the last moment a miracle would occur. There were also "strategists" who calculated that Hitler was incapable of waging war because he is unprepared; that the whole world would oppose him; that his tanks and cannons are made of plastic; that it was all swindle and bluff. In the cafÈs, discussions took place amidst joking and laughter throughout the crowd.

I escape from the border

During the last years before World War II, I lived and worked in Sosnowiec, an industrial city in Poland, a mere seven kilometers from Katowice, the capital of Oberschlesien. We were very close to the German border where Hitler had mobilized his troops, so it was expected that the first battle would take place here. Whoever had the possibility ran away to the hinterland in order to be as far away as possible from the line of fire. Even those who did not believe that there would be a war also wanted to be as far as possible from the border until the threat would pass. I myself also entertained this idea for two reasons: First of all, I wanted to be as far away as possible from the German border because even if the chance of only minor incidents occurring existed, it was wiser to be farther away. Secondly, at such a critical time I wanted to be near my mother who was living by herself in Ostrowiec. True, she was living with her family--her mother, a brother and nieces and other relatives, but none of her children were with her, so I, who was at that time unmarried, should be at my mother's side at such a critical time. As soon as I made my decision, I went to the station, purchased a ticket, and Wednesday, August 30, 1939, departed by train from Sosnowiec to Kielce and from there with another train to Ostrowiec. As I later discovered, that was the last civilian train to leave Sosnowiec. Already, at the train station, I felt the high tension in the air. Nervous military men were around, reservists, recruits and nurses who were hurrying to their garrisons. The speedy train passed by various stations very quickly, not pausing, as though there was no time. Everywhere one beheld the same scenes. Confused people were running back and forth, shoving one another, hurrying. Everyone had fear in their eyes. In Skarzysko, where I had to transfer, I could only manage with great difficulty to get into a regular coach train because it was full of army personnel. I squeezed in amongst the sweaty bodies. One could smell the strong odours of sweat and whisky. Many drunken voices could be heard all around singing some sort of military songs but without any rhythm. These were a variety of compositions, some of which were melancholic, full of longing. All this blended with the noise of the wheels and the steaming of the engine which wended its way through the thick Polish forests and endless plains. The train continued on its way urgently through the sunken-in-sleep villages, leaving an echo of military marches and the unsettling whistle of the locomotive which the wind carried through the neighbouring fields and forests.

Late at night I arrived at the Ostrowiec station. I could barely manage to squeeze my way out with my valise. In the darkness of night the coachman, Yosel Kabaleh, recognized me. He grabbed the valise from me, pushed me into a packed wagon and brought me to the sleeping city. My mother, frightened and trembling, hearing my voice, opened the door and rejoiced at the sight of me, as though God Himself had sent an angel to her. She would at least have one child beside her so that she would not feel so lonely during such dreadful days. I felt that I had instilled a new spirit in my mother. I recalled that long ago, when I was a young child, I would cuddle up in this way, with my mother, seeking her protection when there would be thunder and lightening outside.





CHAPTER 2

My first contact with the shtetl

When, on the following day, Thursday, people saw me in the village, they looked at me wonderingly. I used to come sometimes to the shtetl for Passover and sometimes for the High Holidays, but they could not understand what I was doing there on an ordinary Thursday. What had happened? They started to interrogate me, to question me: "Is it true that there is already fear at the border?" Since I just came from the border, they assumed that I must know. When I went out in the street I could see, in the distance, how my mother was explaining my sudden appearance to the neighbours.

My first visit was to the Jewish cemetery to the grave of my father, of blessed memory. This was beside the home of the Ostrowiec rebbe, Reb Maier Yechiel Halevi, of blessed memory. While I was praying at the grave site, a cool wind blew and the branches of the trees swayed religiously as though they were saying prayers together with me. I exited the cemetery comforted, feeling as though I had fulfilled a holy obligation upon which my destiny depended.

Outside, Jews came to greet me, to say Shalom Aleichem, as though wanting to prove that I am truly present. The news of my sudden arrival spread quickly throughout the shtetl and was discussed in every home. My arrival had instilled fear and anxiety in everyone's heart, but the Jews didn't have to wait long for confirmation. The very next day, Friday, September l, at dawn, the German air force bombed the hinterland of Ostrowiec, in the part called "The Security Triangle." This was supposed to be the security zone. In government circles it had been preplanned that, should the enemy attack border positions and start attacking the capital, Warsaw, the government should then be transferred to this "Triangle" which was situated between Congressional Poland and Galicia. The German air force, however, was swift, overtaking the skies, and already in the initial hours of the war, bombed the district. This caused great panic in the shtetl, as it did throughout the land. This was totally unexpected. There were already victims. The ambulances sped back and forth and there was chaos. This was a warning to the Polish government. You have no place to run to because we will always precede you. There was no longer any planned strategy. There wasn't even time to organize the regiments because immediately in the first hours of the war everything fell apart like a pack of cards, as though the enemy was blocking the plans, simultaneously attacking the border and hinterland, not allowing for a method of concentrating the forces and establishing counter-offence positions.

We sat by the radio listening to the dramatic reports of the war correspondents. We also heard the German Rundfunk, which triumphantly, to the accompaniment of military marches, announced the speedy advance of the German motorized forces. The airspace was totally overrun by German planes. Nowhere was a Polish plane seen. Soon reports arrived that the German forces were in Krakow, in Kielce, in Radom and that they are already on the march towards Warsaw. On Sunday, alarming reports arrived that the Germans are already approaching Ostrowiec, that they are a mere 10 kilometers from the city. At the same time, gruesome reports were being reported about horrible murders of Jews by German troops. Panic prevailed in the city. People scuttled about like poisoned mice, not knowing where to run, nor where to hide in face of the looming danger. Our neighbours, Jews and Christians, left the city during the night. My mother, pale and frightened, came running with the news, wringing her hands and asking in a quivering voice: "Maybe you also should escape from the city? My heart is fearful. I will remain because I don't have the strength to run and wander. I'm too old for that. But as for you… What do you say?" So it was that we decided that the very next day, at dawn, I would be on my way toward Solc in the direction of the Vistula, because there was speculation that there the Polish Army would post themselves and prevent the advance of German troops.



CHAPTER 3

People on the run

Before dawn my mother saw me on my way out of the house. She accompanied me, with tears in her eyes and a prayer softly spoken, as far as the outskirts of the city. In her moist eyes I saw the whole tragedy. People were running from all streets and intersections, many on wagons, others on bicycles and many on ...


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