Introduction – San Francisco 2009
I was one year old in Warsaw in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and World War II started. Within weeks my father was called into the army and never returned, so I never knew him. Within 3 years my grandparents, uncles and aunts, about a dozen family members in all, had been killed by the Nazis. Only my mother and I were still alive. We were Jewish, so according to the Nazi plan, we were alive illegally. My mother dyed her hair blond and bought the ID documents of a Catholic woman who had died. I neither looked nor knew that I was Jewish, so shortly after my 3rd birthday my mother smuggled me out of the Warsaw ghetto, then paid various Polish Catholic families to hide me and raise me with their own children. I never knew when my mother would visit me, nor if she would. On some visits she took me to a new family with whom I would live for awhile and sometimes she told me a new last name that I must remember in case anyone asked who I was. This tenuous life went on for almost 4 years till the war ended and I was almost 7, then to a lesser extent for another 4 years which included my being sent to France, where only a broken leg kept me from continuing to Palestine. I returned to Poland, but stability came only when my mother and I arrived in the U.S. in late 1949.
Thinking about those years, I realize that most of my past was painful, sometimes too painful to remember, and my future was so uncertain and unpredictable that I did not plan or anticipate things. I learned to live in the present, with neither yesterdays nor tomorrows to enjoy or console myself, and to some extent this habit has remained into my adulthood. I refused to relive the wartime tragedy through books and films, as my mother did, and I avoided making long-term or strategic plans, preferring to tackle each situation as it came. For years my wife and friends suggested that I put my most poignant experiences to paper, if for no one else than for my son, yet I ignored their suggestions. Even a 1995 visit to the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem did not change my mind, though it made me understand that my mother, who saved me and herself by luck and strength and wits, all with full awareness of the constant danger and death (which I was too young to understand), could not have come through this horrible experience without some deep emotional scarring.
Apparently I was not yet ready to visit my yesterdays. Then a few months ago I saw the film “Paper Clips” about a middle school in a small Tennessee town whose project on diversity was to explore the Holocaust and, as part of it, to collect 6 million paper clips from around the world to symbolize the 6 million victims of the Nazis. One of the film’s scenes shows a meeting of the students and teachers with a group of aged Holocaust survivors who travelled from New York to meet with the students and tell their personal stories. These painful stories of the survivors were very familiar to me, but the heartfelt response and tears of the students and teachers who, for the first time, were face to face with the personal side of the Holocaust, moved me beyond any previous encounters and memories. When the film ended and my wife again suggested, as she had many times before, that I document my memories, I thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and said “I will.” And the next day I started.
Umschlagplatz (German for “collection or loading point”)
Suddenly there was loud shouting coming from the courtyard, then the entire apartment complex was filled with ear-splitting noise: shouts, screams, doors banging everywhere, and heavy running footsteps. My grandmother ran into the room holding my coat, grabbed my hand and led me to the staircase which was filled with people, all going downstairs. When we reached the courtyard it was already full of people, crowded together in groups, with soldiers in dark-green uniforms shouting and walking between the groups. My grandmother held my hand tightly as we were pushed back-and-forth by the crowd till finally we were standing at the edge of our group, facing the large arched entry gate that led from the street into our courtyard. It seemed we stood there a long, long time, and I recall being glad that my grandmother put my coat on me, and seeing some groups being led by soldiers out of the courtyard through the big gate. Then suddenly I saw my mother running in through the gate holding a piece of paper in her hand, showing the paper to some soldiers, talking with them, and finally coming to us and leading us out of the courtyard. It was only years later, after the war, did I understand what happened: the Nazis were emptying out Warsaw ghetto, apartment block at a time, and shipping the residents to concentration camps. My mother, who was working at a factory in the ghetto which the Germans authorized the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“JOINT”) to manage and make uniforms for the German army, somehow learned that our apartment block was being emptied that day, and got from the factory director an official document allowing her to keep her family in place. With this document, in effect a temporary permit to continue living, she managed to convince the German officer commanding that day’s sweep to let us go. Had she arrived a few minutes later, it might have been too late.
“We can only speak in whispers here,” my grandmother told me. We were now in a large shed, with corrugated metal walls and ceiling, pieces of rusting metal equipment strewn about, and our bags and blankets on the floor. Several families were here with us, though no one that I recognized, all with bags, suitcases, and blankets. One family even had a little black dachshund, and they told us that it never barks. I petted his soft fur. Some of the people played cards, some knitted, but no one talked except in quiet whispers. My grandmother took some bread and sausage from her bag, made tea on a small primus burner, and that was our dinner. When it got dark, no one lit any candles. We wrapped ourselves in our blankets and slept. I woke up in the morning and wanted to pet the little dachshund, but it was gone. I asked its owners where it is, but their only answer was that it’s gone. (Years later, my mother told me that during the night its owners had to choke it to keep it from barking at footsteps near the shed.) The day, or perhaps days, went slowly in the near silence, the only sounds coming from outside the shed. There was a big hole in the shed’s roof through which I watched white clouds on the blue sky. Once I saw an airplane with black crosses on its wings flying across the sky. At the time I didn’t know that it was a German airplane and the black crosses were the German insignia. It looked so beautiful to me against the blue sky, not constrained in a dark shed as I was, and I felt strangely drawn to it, wanted to be in it, wanted to be with it. I’ve never lost that feeling and an interest in airplanes: a few years later after the war I read avidly the Polish aviation magazine “Wings and Motor”, then in high school in Oregon I built and flew model airplanes, in college I majored in aeronautical engineering, then worked in the aerospace industry, took flying lessons, got a private pilot license, and for 20 years flew hang gliders in California. However, I have never forgotten that airplane against the blue sky through the hole in the roof, and the feeling of awe and exhilaration it gave me.
The Soup and the Machine Gun
It was a cold winter day, and I was sitting at the table eating hot, thick soup. I had been living in this household for some time and my mother would visit me every so often, though as a four-year-old I couldn’t really tell how often. There were other people who lived there for a while, then left and someone else took their place. One of the newcomers was a big, blond woman from the city of Lodz whom the others called Lovichanka (meaning “a woman from Lodz”), and I remember not liking her. It was getting dark and someone was lighting a kerosene lamp on the table when there were loud bangs at the front door and shouts in German, then heavy footsteps. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps because I was hungry, I did not get up to see what was happening but continued eating my soup, until I realized that right beside me a German soldier was standing, looking down at me. I looked up, noticed his heavy winter coat and a rifle on his shoulder, but this rifle had a very big barrel with big holes around it (I now know it’s the cooling jacket of a machine gun’s barrel). I recall staring at it, fascinated by the many holes, then looking at the soldier and smiling, and then continuing to eat my soup. The soldier stood there for a moment more, then moved on, and in a short while he and the others left the house and all was quiet and normal again. Only years later, after the war, did I learn that had I shown any fear the soldier would have made me drop my pants to check if I was circumcised (only Jews were circumcised in Poland), and I would have never reached my 5th birthday.