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Volume 7

August 28, 1993

The year of 1942, dubbed the year of unheard of suffering and degradation of humanity, drew to a close. Optimists were predicting improvements. They saw signs of change in many instances. Some instances would normally not have been noticed. A smile or a decent word by a German used to be taken as significant manifestation. Some reassuring words by the ghetto administration (Getto-Verwaltung in German) staff were immediately related to others. Such were the lines of communication, that those odd utterances became immediately known and analyzed for their significance and meaning.

The optimists were gaining ground as the war situation improved. The allies were doing well in North Africa. The Russians were putting up a tremendous defense against German advances. It was getting to be obvious that the great effort of the Germans to get to the Caucasus was getting stalled. Although the actual destruction of the huge German army had to wait another few days, the end of the year saw already a big blow to Nazi prestige. All this meant a lot to the deeply depressed ghetto population.

The pessimists were seeing doom in everything around them. They couldn't detect any hopeful signs at all. Although there wasn't any sudden outburst of religious nihilism, the pessimists saw no hope. There was on the other hand a deepening of mystical thoughts amongst the religious Jews. Cabalistic circles were forming around certain followers of Hassidic rabbis.

We left behind a terrible year of destruction, when 1943 rolled around. Our family survived physically the hellish year. We were living in a spiritual limbo. There was no knowledge of our dearest ones. All one knew was a casual word that was uttered by a German from the administration or some news that came through the clandestine radio. Health-wise we were still in a state of ability to do some work. Hunger, the nagging feeling of wanting to eat at any time, took its toll of our disposition and nerves. We could still find a cheer in ourselves when we used to get a good news bulletin. All hope didn't go yet. In our heart of hearts we were sure that the days of the occupation are nearing their end. That kept us going in spite of the deadly diseases that were spreading around. The number of people who could not make it grew by shocking statistics. Many of our relatives and good friends were not with us any more. One had to apply a lot of energy in order not to give up. To lose hope meant to lose resistance and resilience. The Bundist program in those days was especially addressed to this all important issue. It was a great effort on the part of those who were themselves weakened and distraught.

I was already an accomplished woodcutter. I operated a handsaw. I even gained knowledge of the workings of the other big and small machines inside the big compound. Esther was working now in the carpet factory. So was my mother. The Bundist kitchens were already closed by Rumkofsky's edict. Although I was already an 18-1/2 year old youth, I never stopped to think of a career or contact in any serious way with the opposite sex. I am not sure how many other young men or young women had romantic encounters in those stormy days. I remember that some did. Not too many, though, amongst my friends. Our common denominator was concentration on survival. It was also important for us to know of the world as much as we could gather. We learned to absorb all that went on around us. We were also trying to be in line with our main ideological thinking.

By any count, these last 3-1/3 years were behind us. They were on the whole terrible years of pain and deprivation.

 

September 6, 1993

The aftermath of 1942 was felt well into the new year. There were still the deportations. But compared to 1942 it was a much easier atmosphere. We, the emaciated ghetto inhabitants, carried on with the work in hand. Everybody knew of the first priority. To work or at least to be on the register of employed people meant an assurance of being left alone. Of course those assurances were only good as long as they lasted. It was however a state of mind.

It would probably be true to say that in those days, all who were in the ghetto were part of a work force. Typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, swollen limbs or what became known as Avitaminosa, were rampant.

Now and again we heard of certain medications getting into the ghetto. I also got once a prescription for the drug Vigantol. It was supposed to help with the general state of health. The rumours had it, that this Vigantol availability was mainly due to the efforts of the Sonder Kommando. This was the Jewish police unit that worked as the elite police force in the ghetto. They were led by one called David Gertler. I myself went with the prescription to the police station. I got the much desired drugs. The same David Gertler was sent away in 1943. He was apparently caught doing something that contravened the German rules. The Sonder Kommando was a direct force linked to the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police of the Germans. Between Rumkofsky and David Gertler there was a rivalry as to the top position in the ghetto hierarchy. The backing that Rumkofsky had was more powerful than Gertler's. Those who backed Rumkofsky were the people who made fortunes in running the ghetto production. They won out. We used to hear of those things through the ghetto gossip mill.

The winter and early spring of 1943 were harder to bear because of general exhaustion. We were, however, buoyed by the tremendous news of the destruction of the German army at Stalingrad. A whole corps was either annihilated or taken prisoner. We saw in that occurrence the definite sign of German disintegration. The North African campaign was also becoming victorious for the allies. Our will to survive and hope for an end to this ghetto nightmare got a tremendous boost.

 

September 7, 1993

At the beginning of 1943, we learned from some radio dispatches about resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. It was hard to make out the nature of the resistance. News was sketchy. It did however evoke undreamed of thoughts among our Bundist youth. For security reasons, we could not talk about it to any stranger. Even the usual chats that we had amongst the groups of five, the so-called Fiftlekh, were veiled. Somehow there was no follow-up news. Although it excited our spirits and imagination, we had to keep going and hoping. Contact with the outside was virtually non-existent. Only the casual word of the Germans in the administration and radio bulletins, were the sources of news. We did not have to wait too long for developments. As the Jewish Passover holiday was ushered in, in April, we learned of the outbreak of the first open revolt in Warsaw. At first it was too stunning to comprehend and discuss this outburst of resistance to German genocide. No other place on the occupied continent of Europe took up arms openly against the occupiers.

As news filtered in, we learned of heroic deeds by the ghetto fighters. We had no idea who was amongst the leaders of the uprising. It was an unheard of deed of tremendous courage and anger. We met in any manner that was possible. The only topic was the uprising. We became eager to learn how they did it. Where did they get their arms from? Who was in charge, what were the numbers of fighters? In feverish expectation, we bunched together. I remember meeting comrades from my Jewish socialist SKIF. We wanted to go out and do something about forming fighting units. We kept on learning about the fate of the uprising. We knew already about the multi-party co-ordination. Unfortunately, we knew almost nothing about our comrades in Warsaw.

Our problems in the ghetto were enormous as far as getting arms or any contact with the traditional friends amongst the Poles or even ethnic Germans was concerned. We simply did not have anything to fight with. The ghetto had been sealed to the world quite effectively. The production of any weapons in the ghetto was never contemplated in any serious way. I did not know then about the component parts of any arms. The ghetto had no way to procure anything that was outside the requisitions of the German administrators. I know now that there were even suggestions to produce axes and wooden bats to fight with. It was not at all a serious idea. It did not stand a chance. We were not ready to do what Warsaw did. We watched with awe and trepidation, as the uprising progressed. There could not have been any other outcome, save the one that took place. The ghetto was burned down by the well-equipped German army. Only a small number managed to get out through the sewers. We were both elated and depressed at the same time. To have lived through the period of glorious Jewish deeds to our downtrodden people was to have lived in an imaginative world of spiritual elevation. To have witnessed the fall of that effort was a very hard knock to cope with. We met amongst ourselves and tried to assess the situation. We were all profoundly disturbed by this development.

Our situation as far as life in the ghetto was concerned, was not affected by this outburst of the spirit of resistance. The Germans never let on, how much they were affected. It was for all intents and purposes another event in the occupiers' war experience. For us it was earth shattering.

 

September 8, 1993

Looking back on the close to 3 years in the ghetto and its preceding period, many things stand out as clearly marked events and periods. Other happenings around me and my family and relatives and friends seem obscure and hazy. The answer might be found in the tempo of ghetto life and its rhythm. After all, we were most of the time not only little cogs in the ghetto reality. We were sometimes just numbers. Things that the reality of the ghetto embroiled us in, were often results of fear, panic and disorientation.

For the largest periods in the war, we were just driven. The main aim at the time was just plain, naked survival. I could only picture myself as being in the hide of a hunted animal. So many of the reactions were results of this overpowering, psychic state, that it is no wonder so many real encounters and human contacts were obscured by the never ending efforts, sometimes purely instinctive, to elude the continuous drive towards destruction. After all, we were still in the same neighbourhoods that we knew well. Lots of people from other localities and districts already managed to get used to ghetto geography.

We spoke the same languages as before the calamity descended upon us. Strange as it may seem, but Yiddish, the language of the vast majority of Polish Jewry, became the official means of communication between the ghetto elder and the ghetto population. It was always a bone of contention between the assimilated groups of professionals and the Yiddish-speaking folk intelligentsia, which of the languages: Polish, or Yiddish, should be used in inter-Jewish contacts. I don't know what prompted Rumkofsky, the headstrong Zionist, to adapt himself to the Yiddish language. The fact was nonetheless real. To inform the ghetto population on current ghetto news, he ordered the publication of a ghetto newspaper, all in Yiddish. Polish almost ceased to be officially recognized.

Religious people gathered in semi-legal assembly places. There was a rabbinate and through word of mouth, they pronounced themselves on certain matters like Kashrut and observances. Ostensibly, an image of some sort of reality. Yet, it was not real at all. It was becoming more and more a kind of living in limbo. As if suspended from what used to form our daily lives before that nebulous night descended upon us. Many occurrences in those days were important and I am sure instructive in their meaning. I am almost sure, that part of this haze that clouds those days is a protective curtain. It may be the mind's way of guiding the total person, through the intricacies of existence. I would have gladly allowed at least a little lifting of reminiscences, with close people, even at the price of likely hurt. The sum total of life is the interaction between people. Without that, life is almost meaningless. Yes, we carried on existing and hoping in those dark days after the outburst of the Warsaw Ghetto. Such seems to be the basic call of life. Doubts and thoughts were with us then. We began to be aware of the terrible reality of life as Jews under Nazi rule.

 

September 9, 1993

As the fires were still smouldering on the territory of the Warsaw Ghetto area, we were confronted with a direct follow-up on those events. From later accounts of survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto, there was still sporadic resistance, by small groups and individuals, hidden in underground bunkers. It lasted by some accounts till well into the summer of 1943. This heroic uprising both inspired and terrified us.

Like another thunderbolt, totally unexpected, came the news from London, England. Our leader and close comrade to the Bundists of Lodz, Shmul Arthur Zygelboim, committed suicide. He was the representative of the Bund in the Polish parliament in exile. He escaped miraculously from occupied Warsaw at the beginning of the war. Having gone through many dangerous places on the way to the West, he was entrusted with the responsibility to represent the Polish Jews, together with another Polish Jew, in the halls of Poland's fight for freedom. He never tired to tell the world, the Jewish population in Great Britain, the international trade unions, the socialist parties the world over, of the terrible plight of his family, friends and the whole Jewish population in occupied Poland and other parts of Europe. His efforts were met with little understanding by those whom he approached. As if there was a conspiracy to keep quiet on this terrible tragedy. He was then already aware of the existence of huge extermination camps. The news was not well documented yet. It was sporadic, for lack of on-the-spot investigations. But the signals coming to him from resistance groups in Poland and the casual stories of runaways, pointed ominously in the terrible direction. He communicated those signs to the whole world. Those that were able to pick up the news bulletins from London or even from inside Poland's clandestine radio, were aware of the calamity.

Since very little was achieved in that superhuman effort of his, he decided to sacrifice his own life. His fervent hope was expressed in a farewell letter to the Bund, the Polish president and the Allied powers. He hoped by his act to arouse the conscience of the world. He thought, as expressed in his last letter, that if he could not help his beloved family, friends and Polish Jews in general, whilst alive, maybe his death would stir the free world to rescue the still large numbers of Jews alive in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. It was very depressing for the friends and comrades of S.A. Zygelboim to receive such news. It was all on top of the still fresh trauma of the Warsaw Ghetto.

S.A. Zygelboim lived the last three years before the war in Lodz. He was assigned to Lodz by the Central Committee of the Bund. He helped in 1937 to free my father from the jaws of the brutal Polish police. Generally, the Polish police was reactionary, bigoted and racist. Zygelboim also brought his family from Warsaw. His youngest son, Artek, was a personal friend of my sister's. They were in the same class in the Medem Shule (the socialist oriented secular Jewish school). His fate, and the circumstances in which it all took place, left us shattered in the Lodz Ghetto. His message to the world, and his pleas for help which went unanswered, cast a big shadow on the whole Jewish population of the ghetto. On the Bund it had a devastating effect.

 

September 10, 1993

Time was rolling on. Again took over the every day, every hour quest for survival. I don't know if all people in the world have the same capacity to face hardships and at times almost insurmountable obstacles in order just to stay alive. I have witnessed the almost superhuman will to push on under such adverse conditions, that looking back on it I am sometimes not quite sure that I actually saw it and was part of that struggle. There is such a difference in realities between then and now, that it makes one wonder what is real at all. We, as a community and as individuals, lived through continuous blows that looked like the ultimate and yet when it was over, even for a short spell, life's demands and the simple physical fact of being alive, made it imperative to just carry on. Maybe others have that capacity too. When putting these thoughts down on paper, a poem by a well known poet comes to my mind: "I pick myself up and walk on". This is but one line of a song that I heard already many times since the war. I didn't know it then. But it aptly conveys the spirit of our way through those nightmarish days. The constant hunger and fragile health that we experienced were taking their toll. More often than not, we encountered living skeletons. Sometimes we didn't even recognize close people that we had not seen for some time. Although we kept on getting better war news as the year progressed, we were weaker and less able to cheer on in our minds the fighters for their and our freedom. The allies landed already in Italy in pursuit of the fascist and Nazi armies in North Africa. Resistance movements sprung up almost in every German-occupied land. The march to eradicate the hated and despised occupiers was gaining momentum.

We also had to contend and assimilate another blow. This time it came from the communist side. Two of our most respected and dedicated leaders, H. Erlich and V. Alter, who when the war broke out found themselves in the Russian-occupied part of Poland. They were seized and kept in prison for many years. Once they were even released. They were entrusted with a mission to form an anti-fascist committee. Before they could proceed with that task, which was to their liking and aspirations, they were re-arrested and never again seen. After numerous interventions by all kinds of highly placed government officials and prominent trade union and socialist leaders from all over the world, the Soviets admitted a few years later, that they were executed on the charge of being German spies. This accusation and act of summary execution became known to us, soon after the Zygelboim tragedy. We just could not fathom the perniciousness of such a hideous deed. It depressed us even more. We still carried on our fight for survival. It was getting to be almost at the end of our endurance. I had the privilege of seeing those two noble people on one occasion before the war. It was at the Bundist party headquarters in Lodz. I still see their serene and deep and thoughtful eyes. We were all so proud to have such venerated people as our leaders and spokesmen. I also remember hearing at home about H. Erlich who was a prominent lawyer, taking on a case for little or no fee, from an accused communist acquaintance of my parents. My father was instrumental in persuading Erlich to come especially from Warsaw for that purpose. These people were then very happy, because Erlich managed to get that man freed. How our comrade could have been a spy for the Nazis, boggles my mind. How could he have even been accused of such ignominious deed? It certainly was a most awesome act of hate and revenge on two crystal clear personalities, who did not share the communist doctrine of dictatorship and disregard for human values.

That deed and subsequent oppressive politics made me see the communists as unworthy of comradely consideration.

 

September 11, 1993

News was now filtering into the ghetto of huge battles in many parts of Europe. Partisan armies and resistance units were waging aggressive attacks on German installations almost in every country that they occupied.

We were very excited with these developments. Poland too contributed to the general movement of making life very miserable for the occupiers. It seems to have been a mental breakthrough, when the Warsaw Ghetto went out into the first organized rebellion. Unfortunately, Lodz did not rise up too. The huge German ethnic population of prewar, plus a big influx of ethnic Germans from parts of Russia and the Baltics, made the city a powerless place to wage large scale resistance. The city was also part of the German Reich. This was done right at the beginning of the war. There was not too much contact with the other parts of Poland. The legendary fame of Lodz as a revolutionary city did not show itself in this war. The ghetto was isolated from the city by heavy guards and barbed wire fences.

We could only live and feel connected to those ongoing events, because of the few clandestine radio sets. Those that operated those radios were in constant danger. They, the operators, were a group of dedicated people. It wasn't exactly a political party tool. I never knew all the operators. Although I had the mission to relay the news bulletins, I was never told where they came from. Of course I was instructed by the committee on the items to be brought up and divulged. It could not go further than that. Any form of inquisitiveness would rightly be construed as lack of discretion and a breach of conspiratorial rules.

I did however stumble upon something that made me feel initiated and at the same time frightened. One summer evening, I took a short walk to the house of a family that my family knew well. I used to go there often enough, as several other families that I knew lived near there. I walked up to the first floor and seeing the door slightly ajar, I knocked and not getting any reply, I went into the kitchen, which was the first room in the apartment. The sight that greeted me was one of the biggest shocks that I ever experienced. On the kitchen table stood a radio. It wasn't a covered unit like we were used to see around. It was just a concoction of tubes and wires. It was switched on. No sound came from it. The loudspeaker was disconnected. It had earphones lying next to the radio. At first I was too stunned to even know what was happening around me. I could not quite fathom the situation. In those days, this encounter could mean either instant death if caught on the scene or torture. I even for a split second thought that I am in the wrong place. In such a state of being glued to the floor in sheer stupor, the door suddenly swung open. Auntie Klara as we all knew her, burst into the kitchen in a state of crazed anticipation. She noticed me and yelled out in a voice that till this day gives me the shivers: "Run, run for your dear life."

I suddenly got into a panic. The whole thing seemed so eerie. I knew the family well. We spent some vacations with that family when I was still a small boy. It was there amongst them that I had fond memories of childish antics. They were always offering me things to my liking, like butterflies and candies, if only I would make a speech.

The shock was so great that I got through the stairwell probably in one jump. I ran without looking back until I was near my home. Auntie Klara only mentioned the things which could befall me if caught in their place then. Bono, her nephew, went downstairs to the outhouse. She just went to a neighbour's for a one-word chat. All she said was the following: "if Bono will catch you here, he will kill you." I certainly wasn't privy to the fact that they or Bono alone harboured a radio set. It dawned on me that given Bono's known temper and the strict need for conspiracy, I might have ended up dead. I don't think I ever ran that fast before. In spite of being worn out by years of hunger, fear put wings into my legs. I probably flew instead of running. I never mentioned this encounter to anyone until well after the war. The party that I was so frightened of frequently visits us now. When looking back upon that happening, I, even now, shudder with an inner fear.

Well, the radios of the ghetto were dishing out better news than before. Deportations were still going on. Hunger and disease were rampant. My good friend Krebsman and his family were deported. It was a big blow to me. We were friends for a very long time. We also used to indulge in daydreaming. Both of us were from working class backgrounds. I remember him with fondness and respect. We were still carrying on with our daily ghetto existence as before.

 

September 12, 1993

The year 1943 was drawing to an end. Starvation and freezing weather were keeping each other company. They were managing to weaken, debilitate and take the last ounces of energy out of the already emaciated ghetto population. Towards the end of November or beginning of December, Rumkofsky proclaimed a one-day curfew for the whole ghetto. We were not aware of the reason for it. There was no work that day. At about 9:30 a.m. there was a knock on the door. We opened with surprise and trepidation. It was too early for a social visit by a neighbour. To our shocking surprise it was a police patrol. They inquired about me. Their warrant was to bring me to the ghetto prison. They did not know the reason for this order.

I managed to get together some articles of clothing and warmer items like coat, scarf and other items. I was escorted by foot to the Charniecka Street. There I was put into a fairly large room. There were many people there already. When I asked for the reason for the arrest, I was told that there is a working party being assembled. The destination was to be to an outside of the ghetto place of labour. Slowly the cell got filled up with other people, who like me, were picked up in their homes.

We were told that we will be going through a medical test before being sent away. This news put us in a very curious state of mind. Up till then, the deportations were indiscriminate as to health, weak or strong, old or young. Because it was such an attitude of indifference as to the state of health before, we in the ghetto assumed that the worst is in store for the deportees. Coupled with the terrible news coming out of the underground, through the radio waves, we felt that these deportations were ignominiously misrepresented by the authorities. They were still telling the ghetto people that the people that were being sent away were for purposes of resettlement and wartime labour. The occasional postcard gave some credence to this assertion. It was still too hard to believe that people could be sent away for other reasons. Our basic human understanding of the German motives, were still operating on a normal scale. Everything that looked pointedly to a dastardly situation was pushed into the category of: such things don't happen, it is civilized people we are dealing with. It was, however, still frighteningly strange not to know the whereabouts of all those tens of thousands who were deported already in the course of at least two years.

The manner in which we were being processed by the prison guards and doctors gave us a hope that we are being sent somewhere to work for the German war machine. The prison regime was tolerable. Food was more or less what we were getting in the ghetto. Mother and Esther came frequently to the barred windows and sometimes even brought something to eat. I don't know how they managed out of their meagre rations to offer even the slightest thing. A few friends and acquaintances of mine were also put in the prison. We exchanged ideas as to the place we were going to be sent to. The number of arrested people grew into quite a large crowd. The imprisonment lasted until the 4th March 1944. On that day we left the ghetto in a somewhat subdued but hopeful frame of mind. We were marched off to the Radogosc-Marysin rail siding, just outside the ghetto wires. The loading into freight cars and the handing out of bread and marmalade went through in a very efficient way. Some fellow ghetto inmates even sang whilst marching. I could not join them. The songs were spicy and I wasn't accustomed to such hilarity. In such a style and manner I left the ghetto after 4 12 years of war and ghetto imprisonment. I was too numb to take in the significance of the event. I suppose I went into a self-protecting shell of nothingness.


 

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