By Norman Beim
THE GERMAN OCCUPATION
We now lived in dread of what was in store for us under the Nazis. We woke to the sounds of marching feet. Through the rags that covered the remainder of our windows we looked out into the rubble filled streets as the German military took possession of our city. At first things were calm. People left the house to search for food and medicine to treat the wounded. People lined up at the soup kitchens hoping to get some bread and some water. Smoke and the stench of burning buildings filled the air. By noon the horror stories began to circulate.
On one street Jews were thrown out of their homes into the street and not allowed to take anything with them. Later in the afternoon we heard whispers. Watch out! They're snatching Jews from the street. Suddenly a German army truck would draw up to the food line. German soldiers jumped out of the truck and began to pull Jewish men out of the line and shove them into the truck. Jewish men were beaten and carted away. Jewish women, young and old were dragged by the hair, beaten and kicked. One old Jew tried to escape. He was hit over the head with the butt of a rifle. He fell to the ground. With their steel enforced boots, the solders proceeded to kick him. Blood pouring down his beard, he was shoved into the waiting truck.
Groups of Germans roamed the street. If they sighted someone they thought was Jewish they called out, Jew stop! They would then proceed to ridicule or abuse the victim before letting him go. Sometimes, to the embarrassment of decent Polish citizens, some young Polish anti-Semite would point out a Jew. Captured civilians were put to work filling the trenches and dismantling the barricades built to defend the city. Meanwhile they were kicked and bullied. One elderly Jew caught his foot under a stone and couldn't get up. He was kicked in the head until he was dead and then one of the soldiers ordered some of the other Jews, to Get rid of that filth!
The lucky ones had to clean an apartment so that it could be occupied by a Nazi officer, or transport furniture taken from a Jewish apartment. Soldiers would go into Jewish homes and drag men out. Sometimes an entire building was emptied this way. Thousands of men were sent to labor camps and never returned.
A group of men was assigned to the former building of the Polish Ministry of the Interior. They had to cart furniture from one storey to another. One frail man was told to lift a large wardrobe. When he found it impossible to move the officer in charge gave him some lighter work to do. He was taken into the yard and told to dig a ditch. When the ditch was deep enough he was told to jump inside. He was then shot and other workers were assigned to fill the ditch.
One Gestapo division took over the partially destroyed Polish Parliament building. All day long Jewish workers hauled rocks and dug ditches. Several times a day groups of twenty, thirty, sometimes fifty people were brought in and shot. Afterwards the Jewish workers were ordered to bury them. If anyone refused he was shot and buried along with the dead. The people that were executed were either Jews, or Poles who were suspected of anti Nazi activity or members of Polish nationalist organizations.
One rainy day several hundred Jews were taken to the outskirts of the town. Poles in the neighborhood were summoned and were shown how the Germans were ridding Poland of the Jewish plague. The Jews were ordered to strip down to their underwear and their clothes were distributed to the Poles. The half naked Jews were then ordered to fill in the defense dugouts with their bare hands.
The first official act of the Germans was to demand that the mayor hand over twelve hostages. If there were any disturbances the hostages would be shot. The mayor told Esther Ivinska, one of the leaders of the Bund and the sister of Victor Alter, one of its founders, that the Bund and the municipal council would have to supply two Jews, and that she would have to be one of them. I insisted that it would be to our eternal shame if we allowed a woman to be taken hostage. I volunteered to take her place. The mayor said that was impossible since I was a resident of Lodz. We ended up forging papers and I joined the twelve hostages. The fuss, however, turned out to be of little consequence since we were released very shortly.
After my release I joined twenty delegates of the Bund and the Jewish trade unions in a communal kitchen where we formed the Bund underground. With bowls of soup in front of us, in case we received a visit from the Gestapo, I chaired the meeting. We decided to set up soup kitchens throughout the city. We also set up tea rooms at all the union locals. These would be used to distribute food, as well as focal points so that we could stay in touch with one another and operate in an organized way. With five other workers I was elected to the executive committee of the underground.
The Germans ordered the Jewish community to establish a committee to represent them. This Judenrat was to be composed of twenty-four members. Adam Czerniakov, who was appointed chairman, asked the Bund to supply one member. Since I was already known to the Germans I volunteered. There was a great debate, however, before the Bund agreed to cooperate. It was obvious that the Germans would use the Judenrat to victimize the Jews. It was argued, however, that if we were there we might be able to alleviate the conditions. The Bund finally did agree to be represented, and we were joined by many prominent members of the community...businessmen, scholars, professional men, rabbis...with the same idea in mind, to offer the people some measure of protection.
A few days later the Gestapo, using a search for arms as an excuse, entered the headquarters of the Jewish council. They confiscated all the funds that were set aside for staff and teacher salaries. They ordered Adam Czerniakov to report to Gestapo headquarters. They kept him there for two days, abusing him and forcing him to listen to anti-Semitic propaganda. He was ordered to provide them with the names of rich Jews and those Jews active in community affairs. He was told that he would be responsible for carrying out orders issued by the Gestapo. The Gestapo was to decide the fate of the Jews and he was forbidden to approach any other Nazi official. He was not to question or dispute their orders and to carry them out to the letter...or else.
At a meeting of the Judenrat there was a discussion about men being taken off the street and forced into labor. People were afraid to leave their homes to go to work or to get food and supplies. It was decided that we ourselves would organize a labor pool and supply the Gestapo with the men that they wanted. The Gestapo accepted the suggestion and demanded 2,000 workers a day. This seemed to work for a time as less people were taken off the streets. Then the random seizures started up again. When we complained to the Gestapo they said it couldn't be helped. It was the military, not the Gestapo, that was responsible. As a result things were worse than ever. Men were pulled off the street and pressed into labor and, in addition, the Judenrat ended up supplying the 2,000 workers each day.
Early one morning, Adam Czerniakov called an emergency meeting. The night before he'd been summoned to the Gestapo headquarters. It seemed that there'd been some sort of feud between a Jewish underworld character and a Polish policeman in the employ of the Gestapo, and the Jew shot the policeman. The Gestapo took fifty-three Jews into custody. They announced that unless the Jewish community paid a huge fine these hostages would be shot. In addition to that, five members of the Judenrat would be held as hostages, to ensure the payment, which was to be made within forty-eight hours. Unfortunately the Germans had frozen all Jewish funds. While we were deciding on the five members to be turned over one man had a heart attack and was taken from the room to be treated. I got up and insisted that we get in touch with the Poles. The Nazis were deliberately trying to arouse anti-Semitism among the Poles. The Poles would have to be told that the Jewish community would not be held responsible for the act of one man. The motion was accepted and carried out.
Several hundred Jews were called in and asked to contribute. People contributed as much as they could. Many of the wealthy Jews had lost all or most of their money. The greatest sacrifice was made by the poorest. Eventually the sum required was collected and turned over to the Gestapo within the specified deadline. Meanwhile there was grave doubt about the survival of the fifty three hostages. Rumors circulated that they'd been executed. Time passed. People came to the community center inquiring about their loved ones. We went to the Gestapo to demand the release of the hostages. We were told that they knew nothing about the hostages. They'd been handed over to the Polish police. Czerniakov went to the Polish police. He was told that all fifty-three hostages were executed because of insolent behavior during the investigation.
Czerniakov was faced with telling the relatives of the hostages about the fate of their loved ones. The members of the Judenrat who couldn't bear being present were allowed to leave. I remained. Czerniakov burst into tears as he made the announcement. Most of the friends and relatives wept. The weeping and wailing went on for hours. No one wanted to go home. Why should they go home? There was no one to go home to. One woman went home and committed suicide. It was later learned that there'd been no investigation. The fifty-three hostages were shot at once.
The Jewish community was held solely responsible for maintaining hospitals which had formerly been supported by the city. Thousands of typhus and yellow spotted fever patients were crowded into a hospital that was meant to contain several hundred. Thousands of patients lay in unheated rooms. Often there wasn't enough food to feed them all. Medical supplies had been confiscated and operations had to be performed without anesthetics on children as well as adults. Doctors who protested were dismissed.
The Gestapo ordered two new temporary hospitals to be set up within twenty four hours. Refusal or inability to follow these orders was considered sabotage and punishable by death. Somehow the money was raised and the temporary hospitals and quarantine centers were established. They were then flooded with Polish as well as Jewish patients. The epidemic got out of hand and the new quarters was quarantined. The death rate rose alarmingly. The Jews were charged an enormous sum compared to what the gentiles were charged to bury their dead. It was more expensive to die than it was to live.
Jewish schools together with Polish schools were shut down. We attempted time and time again to persuade the Nazis to reopen the schools. Eventually elementary schools were opened. High schools and colleges were forbidden. Teachers took their life in their hands and conducted classes surreptitiously.
A six sided memorial was erected over his grave in the Workman's Cemetery, Mt. Carmel, N.Y.
The six sides represent the six million who died in the holocaust. It is crowned with a carving of the eternal flame.
This is an excerpt from the book, "Zygielbaum's Journey" a highly recomemded reading to understanding the frustration in alerting the nations of the world to the impending holocaust and to their non-reaction to the systematic murder of six million Jews. The Jewish Magazine highly recommends this book. The book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the author, Norman Beim at email firstname.lastname@example.org
* * * * *
The author wishes to give credit for for much of the information in the book of Shmuel Zygielbaum to Aviva Ravel as presented in her book, Faithful Unto Death. The cover design of "Zygielbaum's Journey" is by Homer Guerra.
from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
Material in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.