Chapter 21: War on the Horizon
Several days later, Wolf received a frantic phone call from Stefania. In a tearful voice she told him that street thugs had attacked her elderly father, the dentist Ilia Freidberg, and he was in a hospital in Warsaw, unconscious. Wolf was stunned when he heard the news and promised her that he would make every effort to arrive the next day together with Ida.
While he was making arrangements for his trip to Warsaw, Stefania once again called and told him that he did not have to rush to come as Ilia had died. She would let him know of the funeral arrangements as soon as things were finalized.
The funeral was set for two days hence.
The family came from all over Poland. David came together with Adam, Moses came with his wife Cesia; they were accompanied by their son Jerzy, Wolf and Ida came with Lily and Izio, Aunt Bertha came with Stanislaw, and Eugenia and Dr. Herman and his family drove all the way from Lodz.
Mila, Stefania and her husband Cesari, all dressed in black, stood at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery and greeted the mourners. This was the same cemetery where Ilia’s father, the writer Abraham Shalom Friedberg, was buried. The body was transported on a carriage that was pushed by the members of the burial society. Stefania and Mila, who wished their father to have a traditional Jewish burial, had requested that an officiating rabbi be present.
The carriage stopped alongside the open grave and the mourners filed past the body which was wrapped in a white shroud and covered with a talit, a prayer shawl. The rabbi read a few chapters of psalms aloud and proceeded to tear the clothes of Ilia’s two daughters. After the body was placed into the grave, every man threw a shovelful of earth on the corpse. When the grave was filled and the body covered, the rabbi chanted the prayer Keil Moleh Rachamin (prayer for a deceased). Everybody stood still with their heads bowed, while the cries of Stefania and Mila echoed over the heads of everyone.
The rabbi approached Cesari and told him that since the girls could not recite the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, he should say it in their stead. Cesari apologized and told the rabbi that he was not halachically Jewish and therefore could not recite it. The rabbi then asked David to recite it, but he too refused, explaining that he didn’t know how to pronounce the Aramaic words. Finally the rabbi himself recited the Kaddish and all answered Amen.
By mid-November 1938, the first reports of the horrific Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews of Germany reached Poland. During the riots, 91 Jews were killed and nearly all the synagogues, 1700 of them, were set ablaze. Jewish shops were looted and burnt, while tens of thousands of Jews were taken by force and sent to concentration camps. The Jewish communities were required to pay compensation for the damage caused by the pogrom.
People began to realize that the black clouds hovering over the skies of Germany were slowly making their way over to Poland.
Stanislaw was the first to understand that the situation would gradually get worse and decided to do something drastic. The next morning he drove quickly to Warsaw and began searching for a vacant apartment. He did not have to look for long before he found a ground-floor apartment in a small building in the outskirts of the city near a church. It was a strictly Catholic neighborhood; no Jews lived there.
The landlady, a middle-aged single woman, dressed in black with a gray scarf covering her head, stared at the young good-looking man standing in front of her.
“I am Stanislaw Czajkowski from Lodz. I recently got a job here in Warsaw and I am looking for an apartment for myself and my sick wife.”
The woman invited him to sit down and offered him a cup of hot tea. They sat and talked for about an hour. The woman was very impressed with Stanislaw, especially when he told her that it was important to him that the church was so close to home.
He told her, “When I was growing up, my parents’ house was adjacent to a church. If I did not hear the church bells ringing every hour, I could not fall asleep.”
After each sentence he said ”Chwala Bogu,” praise the Lord, and either crossed himself or placed the palm of his hand on his heart. The woman was “convinced” that Stanislaw was a good and trustworthy person, so she agreed to rent the apartment to him. Stanislaw inspected the apartment and found everything to be in good order. Although the furniture was of poor quality, everything was there; nothing was missing. They agreed on a price, drew up a simple contract on a piece of paper and both signed it. Stanislaw paid her a year’s rent up front and she gave him the keys.
In large letters on a sheet of paper he wrote the name Stanislaw Czajkowski and hung it on the front door. He put the keys in his pocket, but not before he hung a small wooden cross on the door.
He now had to make a minor change on his identity card with regards to the spelling of his name. He had to replace the letter “S” at the beginning of his family name with the letter “C” to make it more Polish and Christian sounding.
When he got home to Wloszczowa, Stanislaw did not tell anybody what he had done, not even his wife. The only one he told was his brother Juziek and advised him to do the same.
In the meantime, Wolf was deliberating whether to make Lilly come back to Wloszczowa or to let her stay in Cracow. He knew that she would never forgive him if she had to stop her acting studies because of him. He decided to consult with his friend Isaac Zaidenbaum, father of Adek and Simon.
Isaac was very concerned with what was going on. The economic situation was worsening as people were unemployed and had no money. He had stopped all production and was just concentrating on selling whatever inventory he had.
“I want to send Adek and Simon to Palestine,” he told Wolf almost in a whisper.
Wolf knew that Isaac was a man of means, a very rich man, and if he was thinking in that direction, perhaps he should be thinking the same way.
“What is so great about Palestine that you choose to send them there,” Wolf inquired.
“There is nothing really there. It is under British rule, Arabs attack Jews, the climate is harsh, malaria and typhoid are rampant and who knows what else. But you know, my good friend Wolf, it is where the hope of the Jewish people lies; it is your country, your homeland and nobody there will call you a “dirty Jew.” If the British do not grant independence to the state that will be established, the Jews will fight them and send them back to England in coffins. Jewish leadership has been organizing and young people are learning how to use weapons, the training taking place in kibbutzim.
Open your eyes, Wolf, there is a new reality out there. The Balfour Declaration has given new hope to the Jewish people. The anti-Semitic Polish government wants to rid Poland of the Jews, so a delegation traveled to the island of Madagascar to establish a Jewish state there. There was even talk about going to Africa. Who needs these places when we have Palestine.”
When Isaac finished talking, he took a deep breath and his eyes burnt with enthusiasm.
“Tell me, what is so bad with America or Argentina?” Wolf asked.
“Nothing is bad, but the doors of all countries are closed to Jewish refugees,” Isaac answered, staring Wolf straight in the eyes.
“I am sure that Adek is going to want to take Lilly with him. Be prepared for her to come to tell you the news.”
“Lilly is not going any place, not with Adek and not without him. I am very pleased that they are together, but she is not going with him.” Wolf said firmly.
Wolf returned home all excited and agitated from his conversation with Isaac. He was in need of immediate bed rest because he felt his blood pressure had risen. Ida placed some leeches around his neck and sat next to him until he fell asleep.
For many years, out of the twelve representatives on the Wloszczowa City Council, six were Jewish. In the local elections that took place at the end of 1938, only two Jewish representatives were elected. This was a direct response of the opposition of the Christian population against the Jews of Wloszczowa.
In the days following the elections an economic boycott of Jewish shops and businesses began, which lead to the worsening of the economic situation for them.
One day a new reality set in. It was announced that municipal offices were prohibited from purchasing supplies or any type of products from Jewish establishments. Wolf immediately ordered Ida that from then on, she was to purchase products only from Jewish merchants.
Wolf decided that it was too dangerous to leave Lilly in Cracow, and therefore decided to take her home. He called the theatre’s offices to advise them of his decision. The phone rang and rang for a long time, but there was no response. There was still no response when he tried again several hours later. He called Isaac and asked him if he had heard from his son Adek recently. When Isaac informed him that he had not, Wolf decided he could wait no longer and set out for Cracow. He asked Simon, Adek’s brother, to join him on the trip.
Since they were both very tense, little was said the entire trip. Because there had recently been a tremendous increase in hostile activities against the Jews, Simon had an iron bar with nails attached to it on him, that he could use in case of an attack.
As they approached Cracow, traffic slowed to a crawl due to a multi-vehicle accident. Several people were standing by the roadside waving their hands, asking passing cars to stop and help. Wolf stepped on the accelerator and went around them as their cries of rage could be heard.
He kept on driving until they reached the city. They decided to first go to the theater’s offices and see if Lilly was there. As they pulled up alongside the building, they looked inside and could see shattered windows, doors ripped off the hinges and broken furniture everywhere. Wolf did not even get out of the car and just continued to the next address on his list, that of the home of Lilly’s friend, Anna Mandel.
Wolf noticed that the streets were deserted. Cafés were empty and hardly any cars were on the road. There was an atmosphere of tension in the air, as people walked quickly, constantly looking around and behind them. Many walked holding rolled-up newspapers in their hands, which clearly concealed a stick for protection.
As they approached the Jewish quarter, the Kazimierz district, they found people, mostly young in the streets. Wolf stopped his car and asked one of the youngsters for directions to the address he was looking for. It turned out that they were very close as it was the next street. When he found the address, Wolf parked the car and they both entered the building.
“Papa, what are you doing here?” Lilly shouted as she opened the door and saw Wolf standing there. She hugged her father and Simon, who was standing right behind him.
“Please come in, I am alone at home. Anna and her parents went to a relative who lives in a small village outside the city. They are afraid of getting hurt, especially after nearly every wall in the city was painted with the words “Death to the Jews.” The offices of the theater was damaged and it is temporarily closed” Lilly reported.
“Lilly, how is Adek?” Simon asked.
“He is doing just fine. He is continuing his studies at the university. He has a Polish Catholic friend who watches over him that nobody harms him. Not all Poles are Jew haters,” she said.
“We came to take you back home with us,” Wolf said.
Lilly did not resist her father’s proposition. She actually seemed quite frightened by everything taking place around her. Simon’s presence gave her a bit of confidence.
When they arrived at his apartment, Adek was there, studying. Simon went upstairs to try to persuade him to return home with them, but Adek resisted and said that he had upcoming exams and if he missed them, his whole year of studying would have been for naught. Simon warned him that the situation would only worsen and he would be all alone with nobody around to defend him. When Simon told him about the hateful graffiti painted on the walls of the city, Adek turned pale and immediately decided to return home with them.
The trip home went smoothly. Wolf drove slowly and was forced to stop several times to rest and to give the noisy, smoking engine a chance to rest.
By early evening they arrived in Wloszczowa. When Wolf dropped the two brothers at their father’s business, Isaac came out to them and shouted ”Chwala Bogu,” thank the Lord, and embraced his sons with tears in his eyes.
Lilly hugged Adek tightly, placed her head on his shoulder and said pleadingly, “My darling, please come to visit me tomorrow.”
“I promise,” he said as they took leave of each other.
All the newspaper headlines read the same thing, “War on the Horizon.” However, it was unclear whether the war would be initiated by the Russians or by the Germans. The main topic of discussion among the people was “when will it start” as everyone was sure that it would start.