Back Top Next

Chapter 3: The War


Constant increase in political tension could be felt throughout the  1930s.  German  militarism suppressed  artificially by  the Versailles  Treaty  exploded with  Hitler's coming  to power  in 1933. This was  followed by  immediate territorial claims toward neighboring countries. Germany demanded Alsace and Lorraine from France, the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, and the "Corridor" from Poland. These demands  were backed  in 1938 by action. The  Anschluss of Austria  in  March  1938 was  followed  by  the  invasion  of the Sudetenland, culminating in the Munich Pact in September of that year. Next came the invasion of Czechoslovakia, occupation of the Lithuanian port Klaipeda (Memel), and a sharp increase in the  demands  that  Poland  cede the  "Corridor",  Poland's only access to the sea.  Poland refused.  Germany threatened war.  Border skirmishes became common.  The prospect of war was in everyone's thoughts.
School children were instructed to collect pieces of metal to help the war effort.  I remember bringing empty cans of preserves and tubes of toothpaste, broken lead soldiers and crooked nails, rolls of twisted wire and old coins.  These were to be converted into new  tanks and  airplanes.  Instructions were  given to the civilian population to paste strips of paper on window-panes: in the event  of explosion  this was  supposed to keep fragments of broken glass  together.  War was in the center  of virtually every conversation. My mother remained optimistic, trusting that Germany would  not dare  to attack.  Had not  Britain and  France assured their support of Poland?

Antisemitism was never scarce in Europe. In the 1930s it was definitely on the rise throughout the continent. With Hitler and the Nazi Party at the helm, Germany was leading the trend.  Jews were blamed  for the  economic depression and for every ill that descended on  Europe,  and particularly  on Germany.  There were harassment and poisonous propaganda. Jewish stores and businesses were boycotted. Jewish property was damaged,  and a growing number of Jews were wounded and killed in anti-Jewish riots.
Some Jews escaped from Germany; many more were expelled. They dispersed everywhere. Some went to Palestine, some to America. Many, for whom  any "Polish  connection" could be  documented (such as parents born in Poland), were simply expelled to Poland. I remember a girl, my age, who came to our home daily for lunch. Her Polish was rudimentary and we could barely communicate. Her family had  just been expelled from Germany.  This influx of the "foreign element" from  Germany  contributed  to  the  increase  of antisemitism  in  Poland.  The  atmosphere  in  Poland  was  generally hostile to Jews, and was becoming worse.
Zionist leaders warned of an impending catastrophe and advised emigration to Palestine. Some Jews followed that advice. These were either youthful idealists, or families with meager economic means  unable  to  make  ends  meet  and with  no prospects  for improvement in Poland.  Many who wanted to go to Palestine could not obtain  a "certificate" of  the British mandatory government because of severe restrictions on Jewish immigration. A few went to other countries, hoping for a friendlier mood and a brighter future.  My father's  two cousins  emigrated to Australia.  They had both spent  the previous few years in Italy,  where Gina had studied pharmacy and Tosia had accompanied her husband Bernard Rappaport who studied medicine. In early 1939 they came to Poland to see their mother (Aunt  Liza) and sister  (Ziuta,  my father's  secretary, Fig. 2).  In June they paid us a farewell visit,  and a few days later returned to Italy. On September 21 they took passage on the Victoria, the  last  passenger  ship  to  leave  Genova,  on their  way to Australia - just in time to escape the war.
We returned from the summer vacation in Muszyna-Zdroj a few days before the end of August.

September 1. Because this was a Friday, the start of the school year was postponed till Monday. We were at home. I was standing on the balcony, looking out at the street. It  was a nice sunny morning. Suddenly, I heard remote thunder.  Strange, I thought, thunder on such a beautiful  sunny  day  with  no  rain  and no  clouds.  And yet, surprisingly, there was more and more thunder, and it seemed closer.  Then there  was a loud siren,  followed by several open ambulances speeding by our house, carrying wounded people.  Only then did my mother realize that the noises were explosions, not thunder. Somebody turned the radio on.  We heard announcements, often given in code, about enemy planes approaching, retreating, and approaching again. More explosions. People gathered on the streets, making  wild  guesses  and  predictions.  The war  had started.
The next couple of days were full of excitement. We listened to the radio, observed groups of people gathering on the streets, and every  once in  a while  ran to the shelter in the basement. The sound of explosions was always in the background. A  "house committee" was formed to take care of any emergencies that might arise. It consisted of my mother who was the chairwoman, and the elder Miss Wurm from the third floor, a committee member. They conducted conferences in our library, discussing such problems as the contents of the first aid kit,  drinking water for the shelter,  and designing  armbands for various local functionaries.  Every apartment building had such a house committee.
We lived in the north-western section of the city which was near a military compound. Therefore, my parents and Miss Wurm thought that our neighborhood was very likely to be exposed to German bombardment.  The  Wurms  decided to  spend the  "days of  war" ("it cannot last  much longer") with  their relatives  who lived in a safer section of town. My parents decided to go to Zbaraz, to stay with  Stella (my mother's sister) and her family (Fig. 9). Finding a taxicab was hard. We were not the only ones who wanted to travel. Many taxicabs were requisitioned by the army  and were  used by  officers to  take their families to safety. A two-day search was fruitless.
September 3. We heard on the radio that Britain and France had declared war  on Germany.  As soon as the newscast was over,  my mother and Miss Liza embraced each other and started crying. I was  puzzled:  Britain  and  France  have just  declared war  on Germany.  This meant  we were going to win quickly.  What was there to  worry and  cry about? But mother and Liza knew better; they remembered World War I.
Shortly after the newscast, we received personal news of more immediate importance: a taxicab had been found and we were going to Zbaraz. To be sure,  the cab had some serious drawbacks.  First, the total  of the digits of the licence plate number was 13. Under normal circumstances this alone would have been sufficient for my  mother to  reject the cab.  Also,  the driver's name was Weisberg.  Spelled  with  just  one  s,  to  be  sure,  but nonetheless...  With such a combination of bad omens,  my mother did not  want the  cab.  But my  father put his foot down:  "The Germans will start bombing Janowska Street soon,  and we have to get away. Our basement may not be safe enough and we do not have gas masks.” We hired Mr. Weisberg and his cab, and embarked on a trip to Zbaraz. Father rode in the front seat,  next to the driver.  Mother,  Marian  and I  sat in the back.  Miss Liza stayed in Lwow to protect the house.

Mother was right. Whether it was the number 13 or the driver's name, the trip was a disaster. We left Lwow at 2 p.m., expecting to arrive  in Zbaraz  at 5, as the 150 km. trip should not have lasted more than three hours.  Instead,  six hours  later we  were in Zborow, somewhere between Lwow and Zbaraz.  During those six hours we had had every possible engine breakdown,  and on two occasions a flat tire. When we arrived in Zborow,  it was 8 p.m.  Continuing our trip at night, in this taxicab, was too risky.  So we looked for lodgings.  After  a while  we found  a Jewish inn on the main street, just opposite the town hall. It was not fancy, but they served meals and had rooms for rent. After a brief conversation with an incredibly fat smiling lady, who was apparently the owner, we ate a good home cooked dinner. The food was very much like that of my grandparents. Our room was spacious and had four beds and a table.  In the corner there was a basin for washing, a jug with water and two chamberpots. Each bed was covered by a huge eiderdown.  Marian remarked that  they were as  fat as  the hostess,  and everybody laughed. I wondered why we needed such heavy bed clothes in the middle  of  summer,  and was  assured  that  under these eiderdowns, we would  never catch  cold.  Our driver  slept in  a separate room. During  the night he must have done something to the  car  (perhaps  changed  the licence  plates),  because from Zborow to Zbaraz the trip was uneventful.

In Zbaraz we discovered a new world. The town had no running water.  Consequently,  there  were  no  bathrooms,  showers  or flush toilets. Every morning Stella's maid Bronia carried two pails  to a nearby well for the daily supply of water.  On a regular day,  two  such trips  sufficed for cooking and drinking needs.  On  a  bathing  or  a laundry  day much  more water  was necessary, and it all had to be carried upstairs.  I had never  before  realized  that  running water  was a  luxury.  For bathing,  water was  heated in  large pots  on the kitchen stove, then poured into a tin bathtub placed on the floor.  Cooking was done on  a stove heated by coal or wood.  Cooking gas was not available in Zbaraz.
There was no telephone at home. In the entire town (population  several  thousand), there  were  only  two  or three telephones. Before the war,  when Stella or uncle Gabriel wanted to call the family in Lwow,  they had to use the public phone at the post  office (the  only one  in town!) for which they had to place an order several hours in advance. The electric supply was unpredictable and  not  available at all in  some parts of town.    Because of frequent breakdowns,  everybody  had kerosene  lamps and candles ready.  As a  remnant of  older times,  the town  had a  peculiar  system for making public announcements.  Every  once in  a while,  a man dressed in a blue  uniform  and  carrying  a drum  would appear  in the  main square,  beat the  drum for  attention,  and when  enough people had gathered, would announce: "In the name of the mayor...". Amazing! The Seidenwergs had a radio, also a rarity in Zbaraz. We were, therefore, kept quite well informed on the progression of war, and on other world events.

One day rumors spread in Zbaraz that the town was about to be bombed  by the Germans. How  this  important information, including the  specific day of bombing, reached the Jews of Zbaraz, no one will ever  know.  And why should the Germans bomb a little provincial  town close to the Soviet border?  But to avoid the danger  of bombs,  we  decided to spend that critical day in relative safety on a farm in a nearby village, Rudniki. A family of  farmers  lived  there  who  were  Stella's  steady suppliers of dairy products.  Spending the day on their farm was easily arranged. Early that morning,  the Weissberg and Seidenwerg families and  the maid Bronia  boarded a horse-drawn country wagon driven by the  farmer himself,  and  left the town for a whole day.  It  was the first time that I had seen the primitive life of peasants in that part of the world.  The house consisted of only one room  in which  everybody cooked,  ate, slept, dressed, and,  very rarely,  washed.  There  was  no  flooring,  just  hardened  earth. Electricity and running water were unheard of. However, we were able to see how farmers make butter and cheese,  how cows are milked, how  hens  lay eggs, and  how everybody,  including the children, works. The picnic, with food provided by the farmer's wife,  was great fun. In the evening we returned to Zbaraz.  The town had not been bombed.

Two weeks passed. September 17. My mother and Stella stood by the window  and saw something that was apparently very exciting. They called to us: "Children, come here quickly and look! The Bolsheviks are  here!". We had  heard the word Bolshevik before, and while we did not understand its exact meaning,  we knew that it was something related to Russia, something very bad.  We soon found out: Russian soldiers in peculiar uniforms appeared on horseback. The Soviets had invaded Poland.
Later that day we saw many Soviet tanks,  all coming from the  directon of  the Soviet border,  just a few kilometers away. Later still, we were shocked to see Polish prisoners of war  led by Soviet soldiers.  Seeing Polish soldiers stripped of  their  weapons  and  rank  was  terribly  depressing:  the beginning  of  a  new  era.  During  the  next few  days printed propaganda  posters  appeared  on  the  walls.  They  were  very offensive  and  criticized  the  Polish  government  and  the "oppressive bourgeoisie  class".  They contained  messages about freeing the  Western Ukraine  from Polish  oppression.  All this strongly reminded  us of  what we  had learned about the Russian oppression  during  the  123 years  of  partitioned  Poland.  My parents were depressed.
A few days later my father and Uncle Gabriel went to Lwow. When Gabriel returned after a week, he brought more depressing news. First, he said, Lwow had been destroyed by bombing. Later we discovered that  the descriptions  of "destruction" were grossly exaggerated. A number of houses had been destroyed.  The most severe damage  was  to  the  central railway  station.  Janowska street remained  untouched.  Second,  my  father's  business  had  been "nationalized".  The  new  rulers  emptied  the  store  of  its contents, loaded it all on trucks and drove away. The two owners, my father and Uncle Izak, were simply thrown out. The employees became masters of the empty store. Luckily,  the owners had not been arrested; that  would come  later.  Uncle Gabriel owned a textile store in Zbaraz, so now he knew what to expect. But somehow the process of nationalization did not affect him during the first month of Soviet occupation.

Finding means of transport for a return to Lwow proved to be even more difficult than getting to Zbaraz.  After a two-week search, my father was summoned to Zbaraz. Finally, in the middle of October,  his efforts were rewarded by finding a sleigh drawn by two  horses,  that would  take us to Tarnopol.  This town was very close to Zbaraz, but was much bigger,  and a capital of the Tarnopol Region.  It was not unreasonable to hope that a taxicab might be found there.
Winter started very early that year. The roads were covered with snow,  and travelling in a sleigh was great fun.  We travelled against a strong wind,  and were wrapped in blankets,  with only our eyes  and noses  sticking out.  Traffic  was as heavy as the snow would permit, much of it Soviet military transport.  Civilian traffic was  mostly  by sleigh.  We  had no  mechanical breakdown  and arrived in  Tarnopol safely.  While father looked for a taxicab, mother  located  the  home  of  Dr.  Jozef  Gold, a close friend and high-school classmate of  Uncle Jozek.  Dr.  Gold knew our family very well, and had attended my parents' wedding.  Accordingly,  our reception was very warm. We spent most of the day there, until a taxicab was found. Later that evening we were home in Lwow.

Several surprises awaited us. Mrs. Wurm, who had left her home at the beginning of  September in  order to  spend the  war in  a safer section of town, had been killed during the bombing.  Her family was back  at  home,  mourning.  Another victim  of the bombardment  was Mrs. Wasser, the mother of my classmate Juliusz Wasser. He wore a black armband, a common sign of mourning in Poland.
School opened with considerable changes in the curriculum. The Ukrainian language was taught much more than before,  and it was called  Ukrainian,  not  Ruthenian.  Russian  was  added to  the curriculum,  but was  not considered  a foreign  language.  As a foreign  language  we  started  studying  German.  Political indoctrination  started  very  early  at  all  levels  and  was heavy-handed.  We were taught that the Soviet presence in Poland was not an occupation, but the liberation of the Western Ukraine. In fact,  we  were  not  in  Poland at  all,  but in  the Ukrainian Republic  of  the  Soviet  Union,  of  which  we had become  instant citizens.
Criticism of the Polish government, the Polish army, Polish pre-war politics  and  particularly Polish  hostility toward  the Soviet Union, was  very sharp  and could  be felt everywhere.  Political posters  on  the  streets  were  full  of  propaganda,  such  as Pilsudski having been the greatest enemy of the people.  Children were strongly encouraged  to join  the "Pioneer" youth movement which replaced  the  pre-war Boy Scouts.  Pioneers  wore red  neckties (color of  freedom) and  prepared to  become members  of the Komsomol,  the fully  political communist organization for older children and young adults.  Because joining the Pioneers was not obligatory,  my brother  and I did not join.  In fact,  I am not sure that we would have been accepted,  because we belonged to a "reactionary",  bourgeois family.  I  remember well a comment by one of  my classmates,  when  on a  cold day I changed to warmer clothes: "Bourgeois, every day a new suit!".
All this was very upsetting for me and my brother. Remembering the history  of Poland in the 19th century,  we eagerly expected and anticipated  an uprising against the Soviets.  For just such an  eventuality  we  started  collecting used  bullets which  we melted in  empty small tin boxes.  We used the stove in the kitchen, while Zosia was cooking lunch. In order to increase the amount  of metal,  we added some lead soldiers selected from our toys,  and  whatever else we could find.  On one occasion we found an unfired rifle bullet,  and having difficulty separating the missile  from the  cartridge,  we decided  to put the entire bullet in a tin box on the hot stove,  between cooking pots.  It took  just  a  few  seconds for  us to  realize our  mistake:  a powerful explosion  shook the kitchen.  Fortunately,  no one was injured, but this was the end of our underground arsenal and our preparation for an uprising.

Our principal, Mr. Wladyka, disappeared from school. He was arrested at  a very  early stage,  and exiled with his family to Kirgizi-Djalal-Abad in  the region  of Semipalatinsk,  near the Chinese  border.  I  remember his  address,  because my  mother, together  with  other  ladies  from the  former Parent-Teacher Association,  sent him  food parcels.  The correspondence with Mr. Wladyka lasted until 1941, when his wife informed us of his  death  from  disease  and starvation.  A  short time  later Germany  attacked  the  Soviet  Union and  all contact  with the Wladykas ceased.

At home things changed as well. The Soviet invasion of Poland was  never intended to  be temporary.  "Liberated" Lwow  was to become a permanent part of the Soviet Union.  Accordingly,  the army was  promptly followed by officers' families,  who came to settle  in  Lwow. Prior to their arrival,  the  officers went house-searching for suitable living quarters. They came in groups of two or three, walked in unceremoniously,  demanded to see the apartment, and selected rooms for themselves.  Eventually, three officers of the Tank Corps moved into our home.  The dining  room went to the political commissar ("Politruk") Lieutenant  Vladimir  Dorogokupla. His  wife  Tania was  a  simple country girl, 22 years old.  A couch was brought into the dining room,  on which Tania became pregnant.  On the same couch she delivered a boy in July of the next year. This birth was  my  mother's  first and last experience of midwifery. Captain Grisha Nabokov, his wife Pania and their son Lonia, my age, settled in our living  room. Lonia and I often played together, but he went to a different school,  a special one for the children of  officers. The library was taken over by Lieutenant Andre Garanin, a bachelor. He was tall,  handsome, cheerful and intelligent, but frequently drank vodka, sometimes treating Marian and me to  some, to my mother's great disapproval. He came from an aristocratic  family background, of which he should not have boasted. But vodka often loosened his tongue. Politruk Dorogokupla just listened...

The customs of our new neighbors differed from ours in many ways, causing us uninterrupted surprise and excitement, at least at the beginning.  The  Dorogokuplas and  the Nabokovs had never seen a flush toilet or a porcelain bathtub before,  and at first did not know what they were. Tania used to wash her hands and face in the toilet,  until  this  was  noticed  by  my  mother,  who  gently explained  to  her  our  strange “Western” ways.  Running water, particularly hot water,  was another amazing novelty.  My mother gave Tania and Pania some of her silk nightgowns; they used them as  elegant  dresses  for  special  occasions.  My  mother  was understanding and  helpful,  and Tania  and Pania learned  quickly.  Andre Garanin  came from a different cultural stock. He obviously had received a different kind of upbringing,  and probably came from a big city.

We had to adjust to the new reality. My parents had to find jobs. This was necessary not only for living,  but even more so, to cease  being members of the bourgeois class,  and to become "useful" members of  the new  society.  My father  joined a  new cooperative "Chervonyi Tekstylchyk" ("The Red Textile Worker"). It was to be a textile factory, run, like everything else, by the government, but nevertheless called a "cooperative". With my father's expertise in textiles, he was accepted as a purchaser. One of his functions involved travelling frequently to Bialystok,  a  city  about  400 km  north  of  Lwow,  now  also "liberated" by the  Soviets,  which had had a well developed  textile  industry for  a long  time.  There  he  would  purchase  raw materials for the cooperative.  "Tekstylchyk" started developing quite well and my father seemed to have a secure job.  My mother joined the  "Klara Zetkin  Cooperative",  named after the German communist  who  died  in  the  Soviet  Union.  This  cooperative produced  brooches  from beads  and pieces  of suede  leather or cloth. I still have one such brooch made by my mother. With both parents working,  we  thought that we had now become legitimate members of the "working class". Until one night...

They came after midnight, both wearing NKVD uniforms. (NKVD or "People's Department  for Internal  Affairs" later known as KGB, was  the  all-powerful  apparatus  for  political  control  and oppression.) One was big, fat, blond, and looked like a pig. His name was  Brasilovsky.  The other  was small,  thin,  dark,  and looked  like  a rat.  His  name was  Bornstein.  Both were  arrogant and  threatening,  particularly when my mother dared to ask an occasional question. Of course,  her questions were never answered.  They came  to  search.  They looked  into all  our closets and lockers, into every drawer.  I do not know what they found and  what they took.  My parents never discussed this with me. The search lasted a couple of hours. At the end they informed  my  father that  he was  under arrest  and told  him to dress. Then he was led away.  My mother was frightened to death and so was I. The collapse of our empire was now complete.
The next day my mother was notified that we would all  be exiled to Siberia, unless  we paid  a "contribution" of one kilogram of gold coins  to the  Soviet Government.  The money had to be paid within 24 hours. Somehow mother made the necessary arrangements and 1 kg  of  US$ 20  coins was provided on time. The next day my father was released. He returned home without a smile and never told me what happened  to him during those two days.  Whatever my mother knew,  she  kept  to  herself.  As  we  later  found  out,  the "contribution" went straight into the pockets of Brasilovsky and Bornstein.  A short  time later their scam of searching homes of wealthy  people and extorting “contributions” was uncovered  and they  were arrested.  During their  trial  my  father  was  subpoenaed  as a  witness.  After answering questions, he was told that the gold would be returned. 57 years later I am still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.

Recollecting these events, it is obvious that in comparison with what was  to come later,  under the Nazis,  we were treated very gently.  My  father  was  under  arrest  for  only two  days and returned home unharmed. Still,  this was my first encounter with the arrest of one of my parents. Seeing my father being led away by a pig and a rat, both in NKVD uniforms,  left indelible marks on my way of thinking.  It immensely influenced my philosophy of life,  and to  a large extent my later political allegiances.  I became  permanently  distrustful  of  the  Soviet  Union and  of everything that smelled of communism.

The relationships of my mother with our Soviet neighbors remained correct, even friendly. She helped a lot during the difficult part of  Tania Dorogokupla's pregnancy,  and during the birth of her  baby,  which took  place at home.  In July 1940, shortly after the birth,  Tania and  her politruk-husband  rushed to inform the  NKVD,  that in spite of our anti-socialist past,  we were still very rich, and contrary to all concepts of justice, we still occupied  two rooms  of our  former apartment,  whereas they had just one room, as did the Nabokovs.  We did not have to wait long for  results.  In August an order came for us to vacate our apartment promptly.  We  had lived in my mother's palace for only two years,  one  year before the outbreak of war,  and another, while our empire was disintegrating.

We moved in with my grandparents who gave us the dining room, while they stayed in the bedroom. Lorenc, who still lived with them, moved into the kitchen.  A short time later he married and moved out. We stayed at Podzamcze for a couple of months, and then moved to a small apartment house in a remote section of town, at 27 Bialolecka Street. It was in a pretty residential area with many one-family houses surrounded by small gardens, without any Jews. We rented a two-room third floor apartment.  The  kitchen was  shared with  our landlady,  Miss Kisielewska, a  spinster in her sixties. She lived in a small room adjacent to the kitchen,  barely large enough for a bed, that may have served once as sleeping quarters for a maid. There was a toilet, but no bath or shower, no gas for cooking and no  telephone.  Miss Kisielewska loved cats and kept several of them in the kitchen. A particular favorite of hers was an old black male  named Pussy.  I  hated Pussy  because he  was always around,  entered  our  rooms,  and  even  my  bed,  without  any inhibitions.  Zosia,  our pre-war  maid, continued to work for my mother, coming every day and doing most of the housework.

We kept on going to the same school, which was now a 30-minute tram    ride from our home.  Some new teachers came to the school; a few of my former classmates disappeared: they were exiled with their parents  to  Siberia.  These  were  mostly Jewish  families who had escaped from the  Germans at  the beginning  of the war.  As refugees from  western  Poland,  now  occupied  by  Germany,  they  were considered an "unsafe" element by the Soviets, and, according to Stalinist logic,  had to be exiled.  Who would expect that their exile  would  save  them  from  the  Holocaust? Our  political education intensified,  with plenty of criticism of Britain and the pre-war Polish regime, but none against Germany.

As the summer of 1941 approached, we observed massive movements of the  Soviet armed  forces. Large numbers of tanks and cavalry units passed the town almost daily, usually at night, moving westward, toward the German border. No one understood the significance of  that.

Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941. Very early that morning  I  was  awakened  from  sleep  by  the  sound  of  "thunder". Again,  as on September 1, 1939, I was surprised by the  sound.  There  was no  rain; the  weather was beautiful.  But it  did not  take long to discover the source of this thunder.  We  listened to  the radio  news and heard that German planes  were bombing Lwow and many other cities.  On that day we  also heard  important speeches  by Hitler and the Soviet foreign  minister  Molotov.  Each  accused  the  other  side  of aggression and  they all  promised a quick victory.  The bombing attacks  were  frequent and  caused us  to run  to the  shelter. Cooking became irregular, and we ate mostly bread with dry salami. Because everybody was hungry, it tasted excellent.

The progress of the German armed forces was very quick; they were rapidly approaching Lwow.  Many people,  particularly Jews, were afraid  of the coming change.  Some packed their belongings and followed the retreating Soviet Army,  to escape the Germans. My parents' sad experience during the past two years caused them to think differently. They were happy at the sight of the Soviet retreat.  Of  course,  they had  heard  about  the  Nazis  and their antisemitism.  They knew  that in  Germany,  Jewish property was confiscated, Jews were taken to labor camps,  were not permitted to study,  and lost  their jobs.  They had read about the anti-Jewish riots. They did not like Hitler.  But in their minds the Germans were a civilized  nation.  My father  said:  "If we do not like their antisemitism, we can always leave.  From the Soviets there is no way out; we will be locked in forever." So we stayed and waited for the Germans.

The German Army reached Lwow on June 29, and on June 30 the town was theirs. They marched in singing and smiling.  They were greeted with enthusiasm by an elated Ukrainian population. Girls in  traditional  Ukrainian  dresses  embraced  the  soldiers and showered them  with flowers.  After  looking at the celebrations through the window for a while, my brother and I went down to the street,  for  a better view.  A number of youths spotted us, recognized us as  Jews,  and greeted us with curses and stones.  We retreated back home.
During the days that followed, the enthusiasm of the Ukrainians became overwhelming.  The proclamation of an independent Ukraine was expected  any day. Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags appeared everywhere. A Ukrainian militia was created.  One of its main functions was  rounding up Jews for forced labor or for sadistic humiliation,  beating,  torture and  murder.  This activity culminated on Petlura  Day  celebrated  in  memory  of  the  Ukrainian  leader assassinated in  France 15 years earlier.  On that day Jews were beaten savagely  and several thousand were killed on the streets or taken away and shot in the woods of Lesienice.
Shortly after conquering Lwow, the Germans opened the gates of the major city jails: Brygidki, Zamarstynow, Lackiego. Many people rushed to meet their jailed relatives,  only to find that all the prisoners,  thousands of them, had been murdered by the Soviets shortly  before  they left.  Many  of the bodies had been  mutilated,  with bellies  split  open,  breasts  cut  off.  Some  inmates  had  been strangled; some had been  locked in,  with  the windows and doors walled up,  and had died a slow death from suffocation.  A fire had been lit in  the Brygidki  jail,  and the prisoners had been burned alive.  All this was disclosed by the Germans and brought about more anger and savagery against Jews.
Unpleasant surprises were in store for just about everybody. On the  night  of  July  3  scores  of  Polish  intellectuals and community  leaders  were  arrested  by  the  Germans  and  their Ukrainian  collaborators.  Those  arrested  were  scientists, university professors,  artists,  writers,  and former political leaders,  all-in-all  the  crème  de  la  crème  of  Polish society,  hence  the  term  "Professors' Night".  Among  those arrested was  my father's brother,  Uncle Izak,  although he was neither a  professor nor  a leader.  For a long time we wondered what had happened  to him  and expected some sign of life.  Later it became known  that all  those arrested were shot.  Many  of  the  bodies were  later discovered  in the Wulecki Hills.  The  "Professors' Night" was followed by several days of  similar arrests  and murders  of Polish  intellectuals. Thousands perished.
The Ukrainian expectation of an independent state did not materialize. Instead,  Lwow became part of Generalgouvernement - the Nazi  term for  German-occupied Poland.  In  the territories conquered east  of the  former Polish-Soviet border a new entity was  created:  Ostland  ("The  Eastern  Country"),  with  Alfred Rosenberg as Governor.
Food rationing came very early. It was highly selective and based on ethnic and national origin. The Germans could obtain everything,  including  a  variety  of  chocolates and  imported Italian and Spanish oranges. These were available in stores "for Germans only". The rationing was much more serious for Poles and Ukrainians.  Jews received  one-half of  the quantity granted to  the others. The meager rations were scarcely sufficient to sustain life, but  they were rarely available.  The stores "for Jews only" were virtually  empty.  But for those who could afford it, everything  was  available on the black  market.  We were  not hungry,  but I  remember people  searching in  garbage heaps for potato peelings and similar edibles.

My father remained on the job in the textile factory. The name Chervonyi Tekstylchyk was changed to Textilia and the production line was totally diverted to supplying cloth for German military uniforms. There was no need for a "purchaser" now, and my father became  a  simple  laborer.  The  job  gave  him  an  employment certificate, which proved in time to be an essential element for survival.  The  Klara  Zetkin Cooperative  ceased to  exist (who needed brooches now?) and my mother became unemployed. However, we all were protected, or so we thought,  by father's employment certificate.

The approaching winter made the progress of the German armed forces difficult.  The  Germans,  trained and  dressed for a war conducted  in  a European  climate,  were not  prepared for  the hardships of  the Russian winter.  Terms such as “General Winter”, “General  Snow”  and  “General  Mud”  became  common  in war terminology.  An  order  was  issued  to  turn  in all  skis and ski-boots to the German army.  People stood in long lines to turn  such  items in. There were separate collection points for Jews. Next  came furs and then radio receivers. The purpose of confiscating  radio  receivers was to prevent  people  from listening  to  enemy  radio  broadcasts.  Only  official  German broadcasts were  legal,  and these  were fed  to the  population by loudspeakers placed in the main streets on lampposts and trees.  Private possession of a radio receiver was punishable by death. Radios all but disappeared from private homes.

Shortly after entering Lwow the Germans created a Jewish Council (Judenrat) whose  purpose  was  to  regulate the  life of  the Jewish community  and to serve as an intermediary between it and the German  authorities.  The Judenrat  was totally under German control and was created  only to  carry out  German orders.  For  executing  those  orders  a  Jewish  police force was organized. It consisted of conscienceless collaborators, who hoped to  save their  own skins by turning in others into the hands of the SS. Indeed, their main function was to supply able-bodied men to the Arbeitsamt (Labor Office).  Jewish policemen,  as well as people employed  directly by  the Arbeitsamt,  helped Germans and Ukrainians to  arrest Jews.  The arrests were carried out either at  home,  or  by  sporadic  "catching" of  passers-by  on  the streets.  Specified quotas  were supplied  at the  demand of the Arbeitsamt:  able-bodied men were sent to  slave labor; the weaker,  elderly and children,  to the extermination camps.
Another function of the Judenrat was to collect the ever-increasing  contributions  of money,  gold,  silver  and jewelry required by  the German  authorities.  The first chairman of the Judenrat was Dr.  Jozef Parnas.  Shortly after his nomination he was shot  for refusing  further cooperation with the Nazis.  The next chairman,  Adolf  Rotfeld, was  killed in early 1942. He was followed by  Dr.  Henryk Landsberg who served the Nazis well but eventually,  in  September  1942, he was hanged. The  last Judenrat chairman, Dr.  Eberson, was shot in January 1943. The fate of the Jewish police  was no better.  They were all eventually arrested and  sent  to  extermination  camps.  The climax  of  their extermination was  the hanging  of 12 Jewish  policemen from the balconies on  Lokietka Street on September 1, 1942. This was to revenge the act of  a desperate  Jew who wounded a German.  Another horror was the  liquidation of  the Jewish hospital in the ghetto.  The patients were  thrown out of the windows,  and their bodies were collected from  the street  for a  common burial while some were still alive.

From the beginning of the German occupation, official government decrees and  draconian orders  were posted every few days in the streets, bringing new world order into life. They were in German and in  Polish,  sometimes also  in Ukrainian,  and were usually signed  by  Stadthauptmann (City  Governor) Kujath.  They stated clearly that  any disobedience  would be  punished by  death.  In August 1941, all  Jews were  ordered to  wear identifying  white armbands with  the blue  Star of David.  The armbands were 10 cm wide.  In  September  the  schools  opened,  but  Jews  were not permitted to attend. As a temporary measure, our parents found for us  a private  teacher of  the German  language,  so that we would not waste our time totally. The lessons, although private, were strictly illegal, because Jews were not permitted to study.
In October orders came for "elimination of the Semitic element from the Aryan environment". This meant the creation of a Jewish quarter, later to be converted to a fenced-off ghetto. Initially, the Jewish quarter consisted of the neglected sections of town  in  Zamarstynow,  Kleparow and  the adjacent areas. Within days, we had to vacate the apartment in Bialolecka Street,  which  now  became purely Aryan. We  moved  to  a room-and-kitchen apartment at 125 Zolkiewska Street. This was in the best  part of what was to become the Jewish quarter.  Before the  war  the apartment  was owned  by my  grandmother's cousin, Shmuel Dawid Silberman, who had died a year earlier at age 84. It was now  occupied by  his former  maid Rozia,  an elderly Jewish spinster.  Employing our  former maid Zosia - an Aryan -  was now out of the question, but Rozia stayed to live with us and to work as my mother's  maid.  We stayed  at Zolkiewska for just one month, because the  Germans soon discovered that the Jewish quarter was not  crowded  enough.  Naturally, the best section, including Zolkiewska, became  Aryan.  Again, we had to leave. Just before that, our last  furniture had been  confiscated by a Gestapo man for his own use.
This time we moved to a real slum at 18 Przechod Street in the Zniesienie section.  It  was a  one-room apartment  with a small kitchenette  in  a  two-family  house.  The  toilet  was in  the backyard and  consisted of  a wooden hut with a deep hole in the ground,  partially  covered  with  timber  boards.  The  other apartment was  occupied by  a family of professional thieves.  I had  never  had such  close contact  with people  known to  be thieves.  One night they entered our apartment through the attic and took much of our clothing and kitchen utensils. They moved quietly and nobody woke up. Next day they admitted to the theft, but insisted  that the  stolen goods  were now theirs,  and never returned  anything.  Notifying  the  police  could  result  in somebody's death.  My  parents were  afraid and  decided just  to ignore the incident.
The humidity level in the house was incredible. The walls were wet at all times, and during winter nights that water froze. Sleeping in a very narrow bed,  I was close to the wall, and often  woke up  in the morning to find my   pyjamas frozen to  the wall.  In  order to  get out  of bed,  I had to undress first, then my mother would pour hot water over the ice, to melt it and free the pyjamas.
Walking from the center of town to the Jewish section, we often met  groups  of  youths  who attacked  us and  took whatever  we carried, or just took pleasure in beating us up or throwing stones.  Worst  of all  was the total uncertainty regarding the future.  The  feeling  of  insecurity  and  hopelessness  became overwhelming.  No one  felt safe.  Even  my mother  ceased to be optimistic. That winter our German teacher disappeared and we no longer studied or did anything useful. We spent most of the time on  the  streets,  meeting  friends.  Sometimes  we visited  our grandparents in their new ghetto apartment. Whatever we did,  we were supposed to be at home well before the curfew hour.
One evening, my brother Marian, then 9 years old, did not return home. We knew of many people who disappeared and never came back.  Usually that meant death or imprisonment. But where? In what jail? In what concentration camp? Without a telephone there was no  way to contact anybody to find out.  Even if we had one, whom could we call? With the curfew hour approaching,  there was no possibility  to go to look  for Marian on the streets,  and anyway,  where would  we look  for him? We were all frightened and worried. My mother was hysterical,  crying,  looking for Marian through the window. She walked back and forth between the room  and the  kitchen,  her hands  covering her face.  This torture lasted  all night.  No  one went  to sleep.  During that night,  my mother's  hair turned from brown to white.  In the morning  Marian  returned.  He had  been picked up  by a  Ukrainian policeman on the street for no reason, which was not unusual. He had neglected to wear the Jewish armband,  and therefore was not suspected of  being a  Jew.  With his  good instinct,  he used a Polish name  while being questioned,  and in the morning was released. My mother's hair remained white. She never dyed it. When the shock subsided,  she  used to  joke,  saying that  she became an instant platinum blonde.
We did not stay at Zniesienie for long. The frequent Actions and regular shipment  of Jews  for labor  and extermination caused a thinning of the population, enabling further cuts in the size of the ghetto.  By  spring Zniesienie  became Aryan.  We moved to a room-and-kitchen apartment at 11 Wagowa Street. It was in many ways better than the slum at Zniesienie. Away from those neighbors, with less humidity, and a flush toilet shared with several other families. No less important, it was in a much more centrally located part of the ghetto, closer to the city center. It was much easier for my father to get to work in Textilia. Also, meeting friends became less problematic, and walking to and from the ghetto was not usually interrupted by hoodlums attacking Jews, which was routine at Zniesienie.
For a while life in the ghetto seemed to be stabilizing. Some friends came  to visit  us,  which never happened at Zniesienie. But in May there was another Action. Several thousand people were taken to extermination camps.  During the last days of July and  early August there were rumors  of  more  Actions and increasing terror in other big cities, particularly in Warsaw. Monday, August 10, 1942 was the beginning of the most murderous of all Actions in Lwow.

The extermination of Jews in Lwow can be expressed by some grim statistical  data.  Jews had settled  in Lwow  and lived  there uninterruptedly since  the days of King Casimir the Great in the 14th  century.  Before   World  War  II  the  city's  Jewish population numbered about 130,000. This number was increased by about 20,000 by the influx of refugees from the  west at the beginning of the war.  Some of  these refugees had been exiled  by the Soviets to Siberia in 1940-41. Some had avoided Siberia and returned to  German-occupied Poland by crossing the border illegally. According to the German registration records, the number of Jews registered for food distribution was as follows:
October 1941 119,000
March 1942 96,000
September 1942 36,000
December 1942 24,000 2

(TODO - add footnote 2)
In the beginning of January 1943, a further 15,000 Jews were exterminated. At the same time the Judenrat was dissolved and its last chairman, Dr. Eberson, was shot. In  June 1943 the remaining few  thousand Jews  were sent to the Janowska camp for final extermination and the ghetto was liquidated. 3  In 1943, a resistance movement arose,  with an illegal press.  Groups of Jews tried to escape the  ghetto and  join partisans in the woods. Very few succeeded.3 According to the same source,  of the entire pre-war Jewish population of Lwow,  only 823 persons, a  little  more  than  one-half  of  one percent,  survived  the holocaust.3 3


2 Ref: F. Friedman: Zaglada Zydow Lwowskich (Extermination of the Jews of Lwow), Lodz, 1945, p. 19.
3 Ref: L. Podhorecki: Dzieje Lwowa (The History of Lwow), Oficyna  Wydawnicza Volumen, Warsaw, 1993, p. 229.

Back Top Next