Chapter 24: Sounds of War
On March 15, 1939, the German army invaded Czechoslovakia and occupied it without a firing a single shot. After Czechoslovakia had surrendered Germany immediately announced the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Czechoslovakia thus ceased to exist and was virtually erased from the map.
Poland, apprehensive about such a fate, had, earlier in the decade, initiated intensive diplomatic activity with Germany, resulting in the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact being signed on January 26, 1934. According to the Pact, both countries pledged to resolve their problems through bilateral negotiations and to forgo armed conflict for a period of ten years. In October, 1938, the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop pressed Poland to renew the non-aggression treaty in exchange for allowing the city of Danzig (Gdańsk) to be annexed by Germany. Poland viewed this as a demand, which it couldn’t accept. As a consequence, the Non-Aggression Pact was unilaterally cancelled by Adolf Hitler, and Germany renewed its territorial claims against Poland.
As a result, in March 1939, Poland asked for, and received, a guarantee from Britain of assistance in the event of being attacked by Germany. At the same time, Germany sent von Ribbentrop to Russia where he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol that divided territories of Romania, Poland and several other countries into German and Soviet “spheres of influence.”
That year, the third of April was Passover eve. Since the Friedberg, Nachimson and Wolowelsky families were totally secular, they never celebrated Passover. They took no notice of it, other than perhaps knowing of its arrival, due to the preparations being done by the traditional and Orthodox population. For them, the holiday had no significance, in part, perhaps, because they did not know the meaning of it.
Currently, with the increasing threat to the existence of Poland as a country and to the survival of its Jewish citizens, the desire to belong to the Jewish people and maybe take part in their destiny was suddenly awakened in the hearts of those who had never identified with religion at all.
Wolf consulted with Moses about perhaps celebrating Passover that year. They decided that they would celebrate the seder jointly in Warsaw in Moses’ house. When Ida invited her sisters and their families, they were thrilled about the idea.
Stanislaw and Eugenia arrived by train together with Roza. From Wloszczowa they took the new direct line to Kielce and then changed to the Cracow-Warsaw line. Wolf came by car and took along his mother Paulina, his wife Ida and his children Lilly and Jerzy. Berta and Hermann came from Lodz with their two children, Irka and Mietek, along with Ilia’s two daughters, Stephanie and her husband Cezary and her sister Mila. Adam and David came from Brest-Litovsk.
The table was tastefully and magnificently set, surrounded by chairs with colorful cushions. At the end of the table a chair stood empty with a silver cup filled with wine in front of it that was reserved for Elijah the Prophet. Everyone took their places and at the head of the table opposite Elijah’s seat, Hermann took his seat. Since he was the “expert” among the group, he was chosen to lead the seder.
On the table there was the “Seder Plate” which contained matzah, maror (bitter herbs), haroseth and an egg. Hermann did a wonderful job explaining the significance of eating these items.
Nobody dared to touch the delicious smelling food; they just sat listening to a long story of the exodus of Children of Israel from Egypt many years ago. For most, this was the first seder they had ever attended.
After listening to Hermann relate the story, they all raised their wine filled cups and Hermann recited the blessing on the wine. He then recited the blessing, “Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Who has sustained us and provided for us and helped us reach this time.” They all responded with “Amen”.
After they ate the matzah, maror (bitter herbs), haroseth and the egg, the waiters began serving the meal which consisted of chicken soup with a large matzah ball floating in it and then a sumptuous portion of meat with side dishes.
Everybody sat mesmerized and did not want to spoil the spirit of the evening that symbolized the feeling of slavery and the yearning of Jews dispersed throughout the world to be a free people in their homeland.
Wolf, who was sitting next to Lilly turned to her and said, “Perhaps I should have let you go to Palestine. Who knows if in my stupidity I was actually wrong.”
Lilly rested her head on his shoulder and placed her on his hand on his back and said, “Papa, nobody knows what will be. I realize that you acted out of love and concern for me.”
Stanislaw took a piece of paper with the words of the traditional Passover song ”Leshanah Haba B’Yerushalayim" (Next year in Jerusalem) were transliterated and began to sing and everybody joined in.
Suddenly Moses stood up and asked for permission to speak to everyone.
“My dear family,” he began. “I would like to thank you all for coming. I view Passover not just as a Jewish festival, but as wonderful opportunity for the family to get together, to see each other, talk, exchange ideas and enjoy each other’s company. That is precisely why I organized this seder. May it be His will that we turn this into a yearly tradition and meet once or even twice a year. Perhaps we can even get a double mitzvah (good deed) and meet for the Jewish holidays, such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. And now, let us raise our wine glasses in honor of the unity of our family and of our people. May we always be aware of who we are and with whom we belong.”
He then added jokingly, “Has anyone forgotten to bring a kippah (skullcap)? Don’t forget one next time.” Everybody laughed and sipped from their glass of wine.
The conversation then turned to politics. Everyone was very concerned about the agreement signed between Russia and Germany and the partitioning of Poland between them.
“Let us hope that Britain will come to our aid if we are attacked,” Stanislaw said.
“Moses waved his hand as if nullifying what Stanislaw said.“And how exactly do you propose the British would get here?” he asked. Nobody had an answer.
Moses, who could not be accused of being a Zionist, surprised everybody when he told that last July he had attended a speech given by Zeev Jabotinsky in Warsaw, where he clearly warned the audience that a great tragedy was about to befall the Jewish people.
Moses reported that Jabotinsky opened his speech with following words.
“For the past three years I have been relentlessly begging, pleading and warning that there is an imminent disaster waiting to happen. How do you not see the volcano ready to erupt and spew its flames of death and annihilation?”
The audience sitting in the auditorium raised their voices in protest, but in his typical emotional and passionate style, he continued speaking despite the protests.
“I see a terrible scene,” he continued. “The time remaining to rescue yourselves is diminishing and quickly disappearing. I know that it is difficult for you to see it, due to the daily concerns that are troubling and confusing you, but I beg you to please listen to me, to please listen to what I have to say. We are at the final hours. For God’s sake, save yourselves now while you still have a chance, because time is running out.”
The people then sat in silence and no more voices of protest were heard. Jabotinsky seized the moment and ended his speech with a personal vision and said, “Whoever takes advantage of this moment, will merit great happiness as he will be a builder of the establishment of the Jewish state. I will not see this in my lifetime, but my son will. I am sure of this, just as I am sure that tomorrow the sun will rise.”
On September 1, 1939, at 4:45am, Warsaw was attacked from the air. German fighter planes suddenly appeared over the city in wave after wave, dropping incendiary bombs. In the first wave of attack, 1,500 people were killed. Entire districts began to burn and high-rise buildings collapsed, burying their inhabitants. The German invasion of Poland marked the official beginning of the Second World War.
People who had lost all their possessions and seen their homes destroyed, began to wander aimlessly in the streets, lost and confused. Convoys of Christian and Jewish residents, laden with packages that they had been able to salvage, began marching toward the Bug River northeast of Warsaw. In the following days, when there was a lull in the bombing and shelling of the cities and towns even in the periphery, a mass exodus began. The inhabitants wanted to escape the bombing and the approaching Nazi army that was heading towards the Polish capital.
On September 6th, the Polish citizenry heard a dramatic radio broadcast by Colonel Roman Umiastowski, head of the propaganda department in the Polish High Staff, calling on all young men to gather at the Bug River in order to prepare an additional line of defense against the advancing German army.
President Ignacy Mościcki dissolved the Polish government in September 1939 and fled to Romania, while chaos reigned throughout country. At the end of the first week of September, when the death toll had reached nearly 10,000, the German army was at the gates of Warsaw. Hundreds of thousands of people fled for their lives to the east, blocking major traffic arteries and making it even more difficult for the Polish military vehicles to get to the front lines. German warplanes were constantly circling overhead.
Before the outbreak of the war, Warsaw had one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, with close to four hundred thousand Jews living in the city. That represented nearly one third of the city’s population.
Jews and Christians alike were called into the army for the defense of the homeland. For the moment the loathing and hatred was forgotten and a unity was forged to defeat the common enemy. In villages, as well as in the cities, recruits dug canals, buried the dead and cleared the rubble while Jewish doctors provided care to the wounded. Locals from surrounding villages brought food and blankets to the needy civilians, of whatever faith.
Bearded Jews could be seen carrying weapons in their hands and joining the retreating Polish army. Among the Polish Jews there was a strong sense of identity with Poland which found itself in great distress. Many Jews believed that this would bring about a change of attitude on the part of the Christians, and in the future when the political situation would change, the Christians would appreciate the loyalty shown by the Jews in the defense of the Polish homeland.
Since telephone service to Warsaw was severed, Wolf was unable to call Moses. He was able to contact his son David in Mierzewicz Podlaska. He sounded very worried and said that they had experienced one air raid, but that no buildings were destroyed.
Wolf calmed him down and assured him that in Wloszczowa there were no attacks and that things were relatively calm and quiet, although tension could be felt in the deserted streets. “We all just sit at home waiting to see what was going to happen. Do not even try to come here because the roads are very dangerous,” he warned David.
Jewish refugees, mainly from heavily bombed Lodz, began arriving in Wloszczowa. The local residents welcomed them with open arms and offered them food, clothing and shelter. Many were housed in schools and sports halls.
The mayor of Warsaw, Stefan Starzyński, issued an order for all able-bodied citizens to aid in the fortification of the city. They had to prepare basements to be used as shelters, set up barricades on the main roads and dig trenches in order to stop the advancement of the oncoming motor vehicles and tanks. Jews and Christians worked shoulder to shoulder, united in the face of the external threat that was moving toward town.
On September 8th cannons rolled close to Warsaw and began shelling the city. At the same time warplanes flew overhead destroying every building they hit, while incendiary bombs set fire to entire districts. There was a shortage of medical supplies and drugs, and the fear of disease was increasing due to the great number of corpses lying in the streets and under the rubble of buildings. Citizens began digging makeshift graves in public parks.
The city was plunged into darkness with food, water and gas in very short supply. Thousands fled the city as the German army was progressing towards it. Their bravery melted away in the face of the organized armed forces of the enemy that was about to enter the city.
Those fleeing used every mode of transport they could find. They used carts, wagons and horses that were emaciated, exhausted and frightened from the noise of the bombardments. They would leave in the dark of night on their endless journey, with their belongings on their backs while their wives and children trailed behind them. Some fled through the woods where they could not be seen by the pilots who sowed death on the convoys of the fleeing people.
The rumors about German soldiers abusing and mistreating villagers whom they encountered, quickly reached the ears of the residents who remained behind. Rumors circulated about soldiers who burned dozens of people alive and about others who tortured civilians for hours until they died. There were rumors from the city of Lodz about the torture and murder of two hundred civilians, including women and children.
Stanislaw unexpectedly arrived at Wolf’s house alone. He knocked on the door and called for them to quickly open it. He was pale and nervous. He asked for all the family members to gather in the living room as he had something important to say. They offered him a glass of water and he began to talk.
“Listen to me carefully,” he began. “I am leaving with my wife Eugenia for Warsaw, where I have got a job in a saw mill outside the city. I beg of you, please do not try to contact me. I have rented a small apartment at this address. I am giving it to you so that you have it, but please do not try to come see me or write to me, as I am pretending to be a Christian Pole. I have forged my documents and changed the first letter of my family name so it is a more Christian Polish sounding name. I changed the name Szajkowski to Czajkowski, same as the famous Russian composer.”
As he left, he hugged everybody and said that when the situation quietened down he would be in touch with them.
That evening, he borrowed a vehicle from his workplace to transport his belongings to his new home. He loaded the car with the few possessions he owned, mainly clothing and food stuffs, and he and his wife were off to Warsaw. He left just in time, immediately before the German army entered the city.
They arrived at their apartment in the middle of the night. Stanislaw brought his belongings into the modest apartment, closed the shutters, left Eugenia in the apartment with the door locked and went back to Wloszczowa to return the car.
The next morning his boss did not know where he was, as he had left the vehicle in the yard with a note requesting a day off to look after his “sick” wife. He went to the train station and took the next train back to Warsaw.
It pained him greatly to have to leave his family behind; his brother Juziek, Wolf, Ida Lilly, Jerzy, Rosa and all his colleagues at work. He knew that in times as these, he could not worry about everybody. It was difficult enough just to fend for himself.
When he entered his apartment, he hugged his wife Eugenia and both burst into tears.