Growing Up in Poland



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Opinion & Society

At the Begining of the War

By Israel Turk


Chapter One

Like a video scene in my mind, I see it continuously taking them, dragging them, torturing, killing them, throwing them in a large pit by the thousands. How could we have known that everything would get so ugly?

We were a typical family in the small town of Pilzno, in southeast Poland. Our house sat on a hill that overlooked the valley as well as the nearby Wisloka River, a run-off of the country's largest river, the Vistula. This hilltop location provided an abundance of scenery as well as outdoor activities for every season. For a young boy like me, it was ideal.

In the summer, I spent a lot of time at the river with my friends. We fished, swam, caught frogs and, when things got too dull, pushed each other into the water. Even in the winter, we often ended up in the water, this time by way of sleds.

Handcrafted by the local carpenter and blacksmith, our sleds were extra long and extra fast. Not only were we able to cram seven or eight boys on one sled at one time, we were able to reach breakneck speeds. Usually we were happy racing down the hill near my house. When we felt extra daring, we dragged our sleds to a steep canyon close to the river. Led by the youthful need for excitement as well as the allure of thin ice, we skimmed down. If we were lucky, we hit the river; if we weren't, we hit a tree.

More than once we ended up with bruised legs and battered sleds but usually we ended up in the freezing water. When our wet clothes hit the cold winter air, we became walking icicles. But that didn't matter; we continued to sled. If we went home now - our clothes stiff, our bodies frozen - our parents would make us stay there. So we endured the cold as long as we could, secure knowing that when we finally did have enough, we had warm homes to go to.

Made of large logs, my family's home had four rooms and a kitchen. The floors were wooden boards and, for my mother, very difficult to scrub. For heat, there was a large stone oven. We also had a wood stove and a baking oven.

My parents moved into the ranch house when my grandfather died. Not only did he leave behind his home and the adjoining acres of fertile land, he left behind his wife. With his passing, Grandmother became a vital part of our family.

It was a big family. I had two older brothers, two younger sisters, and at the other end of town, plenty of cousins. My brothers, who went to trade school, wanted nothing to do with me. Leib was learning sheet metal and Michael was training to become a tailor. They had their own friends, their own places to go, their own interests. From my spying and eavesdropping, I knew that most of these interests centered on girls.

As for my sisters, they were too young to venture far and were usually happy at home with my mother. Sarel enjoyed practicing her schoolwork, reading and writing. Ester, who was too young for school, always copied her work and often did just as well if not better than her older sister. Sometimes Ester would walk across the street to the neighborhood seamstress' house and ask for clippings. The neighbor could never refuse; Ester's light red hair, snow-white complexion and innocent expressions made her an epitome of sweetness. Once she got these scraps of material home, she would make a doll.

My father spent his days in the fields. We grew wheat, potatoes, beans, and other vegetables. To help with the plowing, we had two horses. These were not prize winning thoroughbreds with silky tails and cute names; they were work horses. One of them was very skinny. Neglected by its previous owner, it looked weak and vulnerable. To me, this spelled opportunity. One day, as it stood blankly in the field waiting for its next chore, I jumped on its back and tried riding it - without a saddle. For days after that, I could barely walk.

The fruit trees that bordered our property were also fair game for me. Large and overgrown, they jutted onto the main road. When farmers passed by with their highly-stacked wagons, a tree branch would often scrape their load. On one such occasion, I had climbed our apple tree and was sitting among the boughs, waiting, watching. A farmer passed by and, as expected, one of the branches hit his mound of wheat. He stopped, looked at the tree, saw the apples and picked one. When he bit into it, his face twisted. The apples were sour. I began laughing, softly and then louder. The farmer looked up, searched for the voice coming from the tree. Because I was small, I was hard to detect. If he did see me, he said nothing. He tossed the apple into the field and continued on to his farm.

While most of my time was spent outdoors, most of my mother's time was spent indoors, cooking and cleaning and then cooking and cleaning some more. With five children and a live-in mother-in-law, it seemed her household chores were never ending. Especially arduous was the task of gathering firewood on cold mornings, which in Poland were plentiful. Each day she awoke at 5 a.m. in order to prepare the house for the rest of us. But she never complained; whether it was school or work, we all had our daily routines and that was hers.

Her chores intrigued me. Since I slept in an area off of the kitchen, I could usually hear her tiptoeing around at 5 a.m. As I lied in bed with one of our many cats, I would listen intently to her movements. I could hear her gently open the door and step softly outside to fetch firewood. I listened as she assembled the wood, lit the oven. The smell of the burning wood, the crackling sounds, the warmth all of these brought me instant comfort, covered me like a thick wool blanket.

My senses told me what to expect next. I listened anxiously as my mother opened a cupboard door, took out a mixing bowl. My stomach rumbled and my mouth salivated. Her noises assured me that she was getting ready to prepare the breads and cakes that I loved so much.

This I could not sleep through. No longer did my blanket or the heat of the stove provide comfort and warmth; now the thought of baking dough did. I pushed the cat aside and carefully slid out of bed. I snuck into the kitchen and stood in awe watching her. The entire process of baking bread fascinated me and the fact that my mother was preparing it kept me spellbound. I watched as she kneaded the dough, shaped the dough, baked the dough. The fear of being caught out of bed by my father melted as quickly as butter. My stomach growled with delight.

"What are you doing here?" my mother cried in hushed tones. "Go back to bed, go back to bed! You have to be at school at 7 a.m. You need your sleep."

Caught like a thief, I stood speechless then asked her for a small piece of dough. I wanted my own piece, to shape, to bake, to taste. As always, she looked at me sternly but endearingly and then handed me a piece of dough. After watching me bake it and savor it, she sent me back to my bed.

My grandmother, whom I called Bubbeh, knew my weakness and often bribed me with food. Whenever she wanted to feel useful, she volunteered to cook. I was always the first one in the kitchen, curious to see what she was making. She was pleased to let me sample her works in progress and was even more pleased to see that I enjoyed every bite. In essence, she was taking advantage of my bottomless appetite. By giving me food samples then, she knew she could depend on me later.

Because of a back and leg problem, Grandmother had trouble getting up from a seated position. This did not stop her from doing the things she enjoyed, such as sitting in the fields pulling weeds. After a few hours of yanking vegetables, she would call out to me. "Come on, come on; help me get up." Knowing that the next time she was in the kitchen I would be rewarded, I gladly obliged.

But our relationship went further than that. Grandmother's favorite place to sit was on a wooden bench that was next to the heating oven. Wearing her short leather and fur coat, she would sit there for hours, warming her frigid bones.

My father would yell to her: "Move away, you're too close to the flames, you're going to catch on fire." She ignored her son and sat there anyways. On many occasions, I sat there with her. We were a typical family in a typical small town. There was, however, one difference. We were Jewish.

Chapter Two

Although Pilzno's small population consisted of several hundred Jews, we were the only Jewish family in our immediate neighborhood. We were surrounded by devout Catholics.

This never bothered us and we never questioned it. They had their religion, we had ours. They had their church, we had our synagogue. We were always kind and helpful to each other and religion was never a factor. When my father needed tools, they lent him some. If their cows needed grass to graze on, we opened our field gates. The neighborly gestures sometimes went beyond the usual lend and borrow. Had it not been for the caring hands of a Catholic, my siblings and I might not have been born - the woman who lived across the street from us was a midwife; she delivered us all.

The friends I went swimming, fishing and sledding with were neighborhood boys, non-Jews. Together we brought mischievousness into the fields of Pilzno.

Several of the boys in our group were older than me, more daring. Usually to fish in the river, we would dip large baskets in the water and see what we came up with. Typically our find included small white fish or frogs. To get the bigger fish, the carp, our baskets weren't sufficient. Using an explosive powder, one of the older boys would blast the fish to the surface.

Our biggest adventure at the river was the building of a shack in the nearby woods. Even my brother Michael came down a few times to help build it. Once it was finished, we would all gather in there, to talk, to joke and to laugh. When we tired of it, we set it on fire. The flames grew so big and spread so fast, that we panicked and ran, leaving it to burn. The neighboring farmers came out, ran to the fire and put it out. Although they suspected we were the ones who did it, they said nothing and we admitted nothing.

Despite my friendship with my non-Jewish neighbors, at school my siblings and I mostly kept to ourselves. Even though we looked and dressed the same as our peers, we still stood out. Our kosher food was different and our religious classes were different. On a few occasions, the others would call us names, Jews, but we were never exposed to anything we couldn't handle. A non-Jewish friend of mine tried to protect me from the name calling. The name Israel was quite noticeably Jewish. So, when introducing me to others, he used an assumed name, a Polish name. The people he introduced me to always laughed. The name he gave me meant "old timer."

Among my siblings, I was teased the most, but not because of my religion. My vision was poor and I wore no glasses. I could not see far distances. Much to my dismay, but much to the delight of the other students, the chalkboard was often far from where I sat. When the teacher asked me to read something from the board, I usually responded with something totally wrong. As can be expected, the students laughed and teased me about it throughout the day. Even my brothers got in on the fun. When they heard through the school grapevine that I said something stupid in class, they too made me the butt of their jokes.

This never bothered me and I often laughed along with them. The things they joked about - my lack of vision, my lack of height, being Jewish, didn't seem like problems to me. As for not seeing properly, I considered it a temporary condition. My lack of height allowed me to get around quicker. And as for being Jewish, I relished the fact that we were not Catholic - each day, when the priest came in to teach religion, Jewish students were excused. It was the moment we were waiting for; outside we played, roughhoused, and made the most of our burst of freedom.

But we did not escape religion classes. Everyday after lunch, we would leave the public school to attend Cheider, the Hebrew school across the street from our synagogue. Here we learned history according to the book of Torah, beginning with the creation and ending with modern medicine and law. Since the five books were written in Hebrew, we also had to learn how to read and write in Hebrew.

The teachers at Cheider were strict and the work was challenging but, for me, this was the best part of the day. Usually I would run to get there, not because I was anxious to see the teachers or to learn the Hebrew alphabet, but because I wanted to see my friends. Because of the shortage of classrooms and the abundance of students, we learned in groups. While one age group was inside learning, the other was outside playing in the fields behind the school.

Because of my outspoken nature and willingness to fight, I was the ringleader of our group. This was my turn to shine, my turn to be the big guy. During our half hour recess, we played in the river, climbed trees, hid from each other, and got into friendly rumbles. More than once, we went back into the classroom with scratches on our face.

Although I was tough outdoors, in the classroom I was a wimp. Even at Cheider, I was exposed to ridicule. But this time it was generated by the teacher. The instructors at Hebrew school made those at public school seem as soft as chewing gum. In public school, when I could not answer a question or when I gave the wrong answer, the teacher simply told me to be seated. At Cheider, when the letters blurred and I read a word incorrectly, the teacher derided me.

"What are you blind?" he would yell. "Can't you see?"

I was too respectful of his authority, too humble, too embarrassed to tell him that no, I could not see.

In the Jewish household, there were no exceptions to being very religious. We, therefore, spent just about as much time at Cheider as we did our regular school. I left each day as the sun was rising and would not get home until after sundown. Rather than become burdensome, this daily routine helped make my childhood days cozy, content and happy. Life, as I knew it, was centered on religion, play and the kitchen stove.

I began going to Hebrew classes before I began attending public school. The synagogue was about half a mile from our house. Since I was only five years old and not familiar with the neighborhood, my brother Michael walked me there once. As for going home that night, I found out fast that I could not depend on him.

I stood outside of the Cheider, waiting and waiting for him to come to get me. He didn't show. I watched all the other students leave and wondered what to do. There I was, alone. My mother and everyone else at home had no idea that Michael had left me here, had deserted me. Where was my brother?

The teacher looked out the window and saw me. "What are you still doing here? Why don't you go home?" he asked.

"No one came to pick me up," I explained.

"Go, walk along the side of the road, you'll be alright," he assured. "Just get on the road and keep going, slowly, just go slowly."

So I began walking. I had no choice. When the teacher instructed you to do something, you did it. The darkness stood before me like a heavy curtain and I feared what was behind it. I told myself that, since everyone in Pilzno was kind and friendly, there was no boogie man waiting to jump out from the forest. But I could not convince myself that there were no animals there. Most farmers had dogs; many of them ran loose. I worried that a wild dog was chasing me and began walking faster, running. To catch my breath, I began walking again. With each step, I wondered why my brother deserted me and I wondered what was in the trees. Despite my fear, I kept walking. I had to; I wanted to get home.

I made it home safely and, after that, was on my own. Every weekday I walked back and forth to Cheider, by myself.

Chapter Three

From Friday afternoon to late Saturday night, our lives were put on hold. This was the time to celebrate the Sabbath. It was a special period, full of religious awareness as well as taste bud awareness. But it was also a restrictive period and there were many rules to abide by. For instance, other than heating food, no cooking was to be done during the Sabbath. Also, you could not clean or do any other chores. Because of this, my family and especially my mother spent the entire week preparing for our weekend of food and rest.

Our weekly calendar seemed to move in a loop, which gave us the comfort of knowing what to expect. Sunday, the day after Sabbath, was cleanup day for my mother. For my father, it was back to the fields. Leib, Michael, Sarel and I attended Hebrew school all day, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Fortunately we were allowed to walk home for lunch - the Sabbath leftovers made the day worthwhile. The cleaning continued on Monday and sometimes lasted the entire day.

Scrubbing the wood floors was very difficult, yet my mother usually only asked for help when filling the water bucket. We had been at public school and Cheider all day and at night had homework to do; she did not want to bother us.

By Tuesday, the cleaning was almost complete. This was an easier day for my mother and gave her a well-needed rest before heading into Wednesday, the shopping day. At the market, she would buy meat, flour and other necessities. Thursday mornings she would wake up at 5 a.m. to start the dough for eight large breads and the desserts. The final products were filled with homegrown goodness. On top of the challah, the braided egg bread, my mother would sprinkle fresh poppy seeds from our plants outside. For the apple cake, she used the fruit from our tree.

Grandmother's task in the kitchen wasn't as appealing. Our self-proclaimed kosher inspector, she was in charge of checking the meat. After pulling the guts out, she would examine the chicken internally to be sure it was free of disease, broken bones or tears. Only after her final okay, was the bird deemed suitable for cooking.

Since Sabbath began around 3:30 or 4 p.m. on Friday, any final preparations were done in the morning. As children, we looked forward to this half day. As soon as my brothers and I got home from school, my father would take us to the public Jewish bathhouse to bathe. This ritual assured that we were properly cleansed for the Sabbath. We then would rush home and put on a nice outfit.

Dressing formally helped add to the festive atmosphere. My sisters would choose a nice dress to wear and my mother, who had dark hair and dark-toned skin, would replace her usual religious cover, a kerchief, with a light brown wig.

Together, we would then attend Kiddush, the night service that blessed us and prepared us for the food we would receive the following day.

On Saturday, everything had to be left as is. If a bed was unraveled, you just rolled it up and left it that way. If dishes had to be washed, you just left them in the sink. The food could be heated, but you no longer could cook anything. You also were prohibited from lighting a fire. Therefore, in order to heat our food, we would ask a non-Jewish neighbor to come over and light our wood stove.

After services, we ate, and we ate, and then we ate some more. It seemed there was nothing else to do but eat. When the meal was over, my parents would take a late-afternoon nap. Although they may have been exhausted from the week's preparations, I was not. Rather than sleep, I would meet my friends from Cheider. We would walk to the nearby pine forest to sit around, climb trees, tell stories and sing songs. This was not a mischievous gathering; it was a religious one.

The oldest boy from our group automatically became our designated reader. For hours, he would read to us from Jewish books. We heard stories about history, famous people, adventure, and suspense. Sometimes we even heard spooky stories. Whenever he finished, we begged him to continue. "Read some more, read some more." His religious-based tales often helped prepare me for what came next.

Once at home again, my father would sit individually with me and my brothers. He then would ask us to review what we learned that week in Cheider. If we had nothing to say, if we had forgotten what we learned, we were punished. That's how it was; you couldn't question.

We then returned to the House of Learning for our final lesson of the day - a special lesson that was about manners, behavior and growing up.

When our Sabbath commitments were over and we were asleep in our beds, my father would make his nightly rounds. With a small kerosene lamp, he peeked into each of our rooms to check on us, to make sure we were okay and to make sure we were asleep. Usually we weren't asleep the kerosene light was so bright, it woke us up.

Our days were rigid and strict but, within that, we found happiness, fun and contentment. The Sabbath and the weekly preparation for it enriched our lives by giving us a continual purpose as well as the perpetual excitement of an upcoming holiday.

The only thing my family anticipated more than the weekly Sabbath was Passover. This was a major event, a time when relatives and friends gathered to make matzo. The holiday was threefold: Not only we get to see our cousins - Berel, Moshe, Carol, Icik, Jacob, Johevet, and Rachel, we got to eat fresh matzo, and we usually got to buy new clothes.

Our lives in Pilzno were based on family, friends, religion, school, and holidays. We lived simply, wholesomely. Never could we have envisioned that within the next year our simple, wholesome world would be turned upside-down.

Chapter Four

Once a week I went to the market with my mother to help her carry home the bags. My brothers always seemed to be busy and my sisters were too young to be of any use. It was during one of these shopping trips that we realized life in Pilzno was about to change.

Most of the businesses in central Pilzno were operated by Jews. It had been that way for years and no one ever had a problem with it. Once Hitler was elected to power in 1937, non-Jewish businesses began to appear. In addition to competition, this brought about harassment.

Polish men would stand outside of Jewish businesses in an intimidating fashion. When non-Jews approached, they would gather around them like vultures on a carcass. "Don't go in there, don't go to the Jews." The Polish police would look the other way.

They never approached my mother and me; they knew who we were and knew we were Jewish. Their words of persuasion were geared toward the non-Jews. At first people continued shopping at the Jewish stores they routinely frequented, but within time the mounting public pressure steered them away. The same community that was so gracious to us was now turning against us.

My parents talked about the dissention and contemplated leaving the area. But they did not want to. We loved living in Pilzno, loved the mountainous terrain, the rivers, the pine forests, the fertile soil. Our farm, our home, our school, our synagogue were here. Why would a well-rooted family want to pick up, move and start again? Plus, we had Grandmother. Not only would relocating be too difficult for her, she expected to finish her life in the home of her marriage.

"Maybe it will pass," my mother said. She reminded us of the history of the Jews, how they have always been blamed, how they have always been considered potholes on the road to salvation. With her guidance, we ignored the negative comments and held onto our pride. We were Jewish, we were born Jewish and we were proud to be Jewish.

But the harassment did not go away.

The radio broadcastings from Germany were harsh and bold. We heard them in our homes and in our stores the Jews are corrupt, the Jews are the cause of society's ills, the Jews are like roaches and should be eradicated. Hitler's brainwashing tactics crept into Pilzno and penetrated the souls of our kind, generous neighbors. Whenever we walked by, our kind, generous neighbors would repeat Hitler's cruel, malicious remarks.

Since our house was right along the road, it was impossible not to see our neighbors walking to church each Sunday morning. The ladies wore big, fancy hats and the men wore black suits. Usually this was a pleasing sight, but with the turn of events, it became threatening. With their sheer volume, the Polish churchgoers reminded us that we were outnumbered.

It did not end there. Once at their holy churches, our Polish neighbors listened intently as their holy preachers stood at the holy pulpits and, with insinuating words, furthered the political agenda of the Third Reich. Nazi propaganda encouraged cooperation of neighboring countries. Through his blatant radio speeches, Hitler opened the door; the Polish people were now walking inside.

The hatefulness crept into the youth. Late one night, a group of teens on their way home from trade school threw rocks onto our tin roof. As expected, the sound startled us. When we looked outside, we saw their shadows running away, heard their laughter. The next night, they did it again, and the next night, again. Finally, I hid with my father and brothers in a ditch near the street. When the teens walked by and threw the stones, we leaped out from the ditch and chased them. My father caught up with one of them and shook sense into him. The next day, the boy's mother came to our house complaining that my father mishandled her son. We explained the situation and, after that, our nights were quiet.

But the tormenting continued.

Late at night when we were asleep, someone would sneak into our yard and cause a little damage, namely, uproot small or newly planted trees. The trees were fixable - my brother Michael would go outside and replant them. But the damage to my family's morale was not.

We felt terrible, betrayed. The snubs from our neighbors, the vicious remarks, the destruction - for no valid reason we were being ejected from our society. For no valid reason, our town was turning against us.

Were we not vital elements of Pilzno? Our families had been here since 1830. Since then, we have opened shops to vitalize the economy, tilled the soil to produce crop, united at our synagogues to create a community. Were we not as much a part of Pilzno as the others?

Perhaps, we thought, they are just jealous. The newly opened non-Jewish businesses were having a difficult time competing against the more established Jewish stores, where prices were lower and inventory was greater.

Or perhaps it was all just friendly jesting, like the matzo tale. The rumor was that in order to make the holy crackers, Jews had to kill a non-Jewish child and use its blood in the recipe. This tale had been told by non-Jews for years. Even though they knew it was not true, that it was in fact absurd, they still repeated it. Ironically, when the matzos were freshly baked, non-Jews were always some of the first in line to taste them.

Despite our feelings of rejection, we tried to convince ourselves that, like the Matzo rumor, the negative propaganda was harmless. It was beyond our scope of reasoning to imagine anything else, to imagine what lied ahead of us.

We assured ourselves that we were merely the scapegoats in Hitler's attempt to occupy Poland. But, still, one question remained; one we would never be able to answer: If this was an occupation ploy, why were so many Polish citizens eager to play along?

Chapter Five

The radio talk grew more vicious. Hitler announced that he was coming to Poland and that, even before he enters, he is going to murder the Jews. He pledged that all Jews would be eliminated by 1942 and that any who survived would be crippled.

We crouched around the radio and listened, day after day, hoping to somehow prepare ourselves through his embittered words. We anticipated something was going to happen but downplayed our role in it. As we braced ourselves for the inevitable, we held onto the belief that Hitler's speeches were nothing other than wartime propaganda. It was Poland and Russia he was after, not the Jews.

My father, who had served in two previous wars including WWI, took out his military gun, something he rarely did. After cleaning the gun, he opened the basement door and fired it.

On August 30, 1939, Poland issued a general mobilization of the army. My father was one of the first to enlist. This was a big shock to us. He was not a young soldier primed for action; he was nearly 50 years old, a religious man with a family, a farm, and a heavy beard.

My mother and grandmother told him we need him at home and pleaded with him to stay. "If you leave, who will tend to the fields?" Grandmother asked.

But he would not listen. "I gotta go, I gotta go," he insisted.

They pointed out that several of our non-Jewish neighbors went into hiding to avoid going to war, and suggested he do the same. He still would not listen. For him, the battle was a worthy one, a necessary one, a personal one. Many of his Jewish friends, who were the same age as him, were also reporting for service. Like my father, no one could hold them back.

After a quick goodbye, he went to a military base near the city. We were left with a feeling of helplessness, abandonment. The head of our family, our strength, was gone.

At the base, he realized he forgot his religious items, namely, the tefillin. Leather cubes with Hebrew Scriptures inside, my father wore these on his head and arm during morning prayers. Although the impending war was about to upset his traditional life, he refused to let it upset his religious one. He sent a message to my brothers asking them to bring the items.

When my brothers got to the base, German military planes were flying overhead, attacking. They were not able to talk to him but there were able to deliver the goods. A few days later, my father's unit moved west to surprise the invading German armies. But when the German troops moved in closer, the Polish army suddenly retreated. My father came home. He walked into the house dressed in full military gear. I looked at him and saw a different person. His beard was gone, he wore a uniform, he wore a gun. His face looked deeper, his eyes distanced. He scared me and he worried me. The uniform and the gun signified danger, war, life and death.

"Where are all your people?" I asked, knowing he was the head of his battalion.

"They're okay, they're okay," my father responded.

He spent the night in our house while his battalion camped in the nearby fields. The next day, he left again. My mother again pleaded with him to stay. She told him the situation was hopeless, that the German troops were expected to invade the city any day now. She told him we needed him there, needed his support, his bravery, his guidance. He would not consider it. He marched away with the rest of the troops.

My aunt came by and invited us to come to her house for food. "You'll need something in case the Germans occupy the town," she insisted. Later that evening my mother and I set out to walk to my aunt's house as well as to the market. Unlike our usual Wednesday jaunts to the market, this was not a safe, happy stroll. I felt vulnerable. We no longer had the protection of my father; he was busy protecting the entire country. We no longer had the comfort of routine; uncertainty now nested in our hearts. And we no longer had the security of our mother; she was agitated and frightened.

As if walking into a lion's den, we stepped cautiously, nervously. Our anxiety was not unfounded. In the near distance, we heard the frenzied firing of a machine gun.

"This is it, the Germans are here," my mother said, her voice quavering.

She grabbed my hand and we ran toward our home. The machine gun continued. Polish military men, some with a horse and wagon, were running for cover. I thought of my father and am sure my mother did too. We ran and ran and when the bullets sounded too near we ducked; ran and ducked, ran and ducked, until we finally reached our home. My mother pushed me inside and locked the door behind us. We never made it to my aunt's and we never made it to the market.

In the small, quaint town of Pilzno, chaos had erupted.

My grandmother informed us that Leib and Michael, my two older brothers, were gone. Like several others their age, they fled east, to hide out in a section of Poland that was occupied by the Russians. Since they were young, male and Jewish, their lives were in danger; they felt they would be safer there. Shooting sounds continued, randomly, frightfully. We could not stay in our home. Without my father and brothers we were scared and vulnerable. I was now the only male in the house and I was only 14 years old.

My mother decided we should go to the home of the Matugas, one of our non-Jewish neighbors. Mrs. Matuga was always friendly and helpful. Her husband, who had spent the last few years building their large house, recently died from cancer. As a result, Mrs. Matuga was left to raise two young daughters and an older son, Celek, who was a school friend of my brother Michael.

My mother knew they had a large basement and knew they would not turn us away. Mrs. Matuga welcomed us at the door and ushered us downstairs. With another Jewish family, we sat in the basement, quietly, motionless, listening, waiting. The shooting got louder and closer.

I sat in silence, wondering what would happen next. Are the Germans going to come into the houses? Are they going to kill us? I knew the situation, had heard Hitler's radio broadcasts. We were Jews, the Jews of Hitler's speeches. I was a Jew, my mother was a Jew, my sisters were Jews, my Bubbeh was a Jew, my father, my brothers. We were the hunted species. I fell asleep frightened and worried.

We awoke the next morning to an awkward stillness. The shooting had stopped. Maybe things weren't so bad after all. Maybe the Polish army sent the German troops scrambling home. Maybe it was all a bad dream.

I peeked out from the small basement window, nervously yet excitedly, hoping the silence signaled a return to normalcy. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to school, back to Cheider, back to the river with my friends.

My heart sunk. Lined up in the fields across the street were German tanks and trucks. They were everywhere.

My mother came over to see what I saw. "They're here," she said in a terrified voice.

After our initial shock, we realized we needed to return to our home. We could not hide out in the neighbor's basement forever; we had to get on with our lives. I looked out the window and saw a woman, a non-Jewish neighbor, talking with one of the German soldiers. Maybe they're not such bad guys after all, I thought. Maybe they're approachable. We decided it was safe enough to head home.

I took the hand of my grandmother, my Bubbeh, while my mother took the hands of my younger sisters. We left our neighbor's and walked slowly past the German soldiers, past the trucks and tanks, past the house that lied between ours and the Matuga's, onto our front yard. We went into our house and bolted the front door.

Once we were safely locked inside, we realized we were not prepared to be holed up indefinitely. We needed things from the market. Looking outside, we saw one of our Polish neighbors walking down the street, then another, and another. Seeing them move freely about gave us courage to leave our house. My mother and I left to complete our mission of the previous day. We went to my aunt's house and then to the market.

The outer double doors at the market were shut. I saw that the inside glass doors were still open, so we went inside. The shelves were nearly empty. We got what we needed and left.

Except for the German troops, the streets were deserted. The few people we did see said nothing. The soldiers were everywhere, watching us. We saw their stares, knew what was happening, but didn't dare talk about it.

Click here for Part Two...


from the October 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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