Chapter 9: Parting from Poland
New school, new classmates. As in Falenica, some were friendly, others
hostile. It was difficult for me to get used to my
new environment. I had built up a good reputation with my
teachers in Falenica, and missed many of them. More important, I had
left all my friends back in Zatrzebie, and missed them greatly.
I never became used to Walbrzych, and did not like the small-town
mentality of its residents. There was a quiet corner in a nearby city
park, where I used to sit alone on a bench and read books. In school I
had few friends. I felt lonely, and for a while
contemplated going back to Zatrzebie. Eventually, I
gave up on that idea, because it would undoubtedly offend Stella
and Gabriel, who treated me as their own son.
School work was not a problem. The two years of diligent study had
brought me to the top of the class in Falenica,
and I easily remained at the top during the following
two years in the Lyceum, until my matriculation
in 1949. I continued to study hard, provoking
frequent scolding from Stella, who
thought that incessant study would make me tired and
too much reading would ruin my eyes. She insisted that I
was not getting enough sleep and rest, and that I did not
eat enough. She used to enter my room several times each night,
to check whether I was asleep, or reading. More often than not, she
would find me with a textbook, reading and making notes. A tirade
followed, in which she tried to convince me that I
already “knew everything better than all the professors”;
that I should get some rest and go to sleep, etc. If she
did find me asleep, she would close the window, so that I would not
"catch cold", and cover me with an additional blanket which I
would discover in the morning.
Stella assumed totally the role of my mother, both at home and in
school, where she regularly attended parent-teacher meetings to hear
about my progress, always returning home with pride. Marek
and Adam became my little brothers. Neither was
interested in studying. Stella set me up as an example they were
supposed to follow, but her efforts were by and large wasted.
While I did not have many close friends in school, my relationships
with the teachers were excellent. I have particularly fond memories of
Mr. Marian Weinert, my class tutor, who
was also the gym instructor. An intelligent and extremely nice person,
he understood the students and their problems well. He organized a
physical education group, in which I participated. Every morning at 7
o'clock, an hour before the beginning of classes, our group gathered in
the school yard for one hour of advanced gymnastics, using vaulting
horses, parallel bars and other gym equipment. Our efforts culminated
in an impressive gym show at the end of the school year. When I left
school after my matriculation, Mr. Weinert also left. He moved to
Wroclaw, where he became the Rector of the Academy of Physical
I participated in the school choir, singing in the bass section. There
was no music teacher in our school. The choir was directed and
conducted by Edward Doszla, a student one year ahead of me. After his
graduation from the Lyceum, he stayed on as the music teacher, and
continued to conduct the choir.
Another of my favorite teachers was Mrs. Manikowa who taught
chemistry. I took her subject most seriously and
often argued with her about the
structures of molecules and other controversial
points. In spite (or because?) of our arguments, she thought of
me as her best student, and insisted that
I continue to study chemistry and make it my future. At the end of
the school year I was awarded
a prize for excellence in chemistry. It is amazing,
how little of that knowledge remains today!
There was only one teacher with whom I did not get along: Mr.
Rossowski. He taught drawing, which was obligatory. I never
learned to draw properly, and all
my efforts resulted in ridiculous forms, which Mr.
Rossowski interpreted as disrespect and contempt for him and his
subject. His interpretation of my work was incorrect; I respected
all my teachers, but could just not draw any better.
We retained serious antipathy for each other,
which lasted well beyond the period of my study at the
Among all my schoolmates, I did have one close friend: Marek
Rucinski. Classes in the Lyceum were separated into three
parallel orientations: biologic, mathematical-physical and
humanist. I studied in the biologically
oriented class; Marek, in the humanist. Despite
the separate classes, we were mentally and
spiritually close, and liked each other.
He lived with his mother. His father, a physician and former
officer in the Polish Army of General Anders, could not return to
communist Poland for fear of being imprisoned, and so
continued to live abroad. We often studied together, exchanged
forbidden political jokes, and looked forward to medical
studies, which was our common dream. Later we became classmates
in the Medical School of Wroclaw University ("The Wroclaw
Medical Academy"), where we remained close friends.
Our relationship is a living denial of the theory of
incompatibility of Polish Catholics and Jews as
friends. Today Marek is a gynecologist. He still lives in Walbrzych. I
visited him recently and found him as nice as ever, and the town
unattractive and unchanged.
* * *
In April, 1948, Poland celebrated the fifth anniversary of the
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The monument
of Nathan Rapaport - Memorial to the Ghetto
Heroes - was to be uncovered on the ruins of the
Warsaw Ghetto. Many dignitaries and other
visitors arrived from abroad. Virtually
all Jews who had survived the Holocaust and were
still living in Poland attended the ceremony. Stella, Gabriel, Marek,
Adam and I took a night train to Warsaw.
While in Warsaw, we were approached on the street by a man who
recognized Stella. As soon as he started talking, I recognized him. He
was Bernard Kutyn, my father's pre-war accountant, the only
one of my father's employees who survived the
war. He survived due to his military service in
the Soviet Army. We continued to talk for a while, telling
him all about our family’s fate. He mentioned the subject of my
relatives in Australia: my father's two cousins Tosia and
Gina, who had emigrated in 1939. He knew and remembered them well,
because their sister Ziuta, who had been a secretary in my father's
office, used to work with him in the same room. He was quite surprised
to hear that I had not contacted them; they were, after all, my only
surviving paternal relatives.
The idea had not occurred to me. Also, I had no idea of their
whereabouts in Australia. Kutyn insisted that I should at least make an
effort, and suggested that I write to the Medical Association of
Australia and through them try to
locate Dr. Bronislaw Rappaport, Tosia's husband. Kutyn's
idea seemed unrealistic to me, but Stella took it
seriously, and when we were back in Walbrzych,
managed to convince me to follow his advice.
Composing a letter in English at that time
was beyond my capability. I contemplated writing in
German, but eventually composed a letter in Polish, asking the Medical
Association of Australia to try to locate Dr. Bronislaw
Rappaport. The only identifying details I could provide were
Bronek's country of birth - Poland - and the facts that he had studied
medicine in Italy and had emigrated to Australia in 1939.
Not knowing the Association's address, I mailed
the letter to the Medical Association of
Much to my surprise, within a month I received a reply. The letter,
written in Polish, was from Dr. Bernard
(changed from Bronislaw) Rappaport, Tosia's husband, and my late
parents' close friend. It was very emotional. The
Australian branch of the family had lost all hope that any of us
had survived the War. Bernard and Tosia offered to bring me
to Australia and to take me into their care. They did not have
children. A lively correspondence developed between me and my
family in Australia. This was followed by parcels of food, clothing and
later medical books, which they continued to send to me in
Israel, throughout my years in the Medical School.
In 1964, during my surgical residency training in New York, Tosia and
Bronek came to the New York World Fair. We had an emotional
meeting, our first one since the
1930s. Gina's daughter Maxine has been to Israel several
times with her husband Morrie and her children, Lisa
and Mark, and we maintain steady contact.
* * *
Since the end of the war, Stella and Gabriel had wanted to leave
Poland, preferably for America. Several of my mother's cousins
had left Poland after World War I and now lived in the United States;
Gabriel had a childhood friend who lived
in Canada. They all were willing to help.
Stella and Gabriel obtained the necessary
affidavits for both countries and
made arrangements for emigration. We were free to
go. But I did not like the idea of going to live in America.
Stella did her best to try to convince me, but I stubbornly
persisted in refusing. They could have gone without me, as often
happens in families, with parents and children living in
different parts of the world. But Stella, my mother's
sister, felt fully responsible for me: according to her
understanding, conscience, and love, we could
not part. She would not abandon me in Poland.
If I refused to go with them, they would stay with me. With
time the affidavits expired. Thus Stella, Gabriel,
Marek and Adam became the victims of my
stubbornness and stupidity.
The establishment of the State of Israel in May, 1948 created an
entirely new situation. Jewish immigration to Israel became free and
unlimited. With my full cooperation, we applied to
the government for permits to leave Poland. Unfortunately,
by then the Polish communist government restricted
the emigration of Jews. While we waited for permits to leave
Poland, I prepared for my matriculation examinations which
were to be held in the spring of 1949. At the same time I was worried
that should the permits arrive, I might have to leave Poland before the
examinations. This would immensely complicate and delay my future
studies. Presumably, I would have to start preparing anew for
matriculation exams, all in Hebrew, a language totally
unknown to me. I needn't have worried. Unexpected help came from the
Polish Government: our request for permits was
rejected. It was two long years before the emigration visas
were finally granted. By then it was long after my matriculation
The examinations, both written and oral, went smoothly. I graduated at
the top of my class, and delivered the valedictory speech at the
graduation ceremony. I was accepted at the Wroclaw University
Medical School, where I started my studies in October, 1949.
For the highly competitive admission to the Medical School under the
communist regime, one had not only to excel in studies, but, more
important, to have the "proper" social background. This I
had prepared well ahead of time. While in the Lyceum in Walbrzych, I
had declared that before the war my father had worked
as a simple laborer in a city-owned leather factory. When the decision
was made regarding my acceptance to the Medical School,
this point was carefully considered.
From the very beginning I liked the studies. Every subject was
interesting. I liked chemistry, and with my background from the
Lyceum, the chemistry course was
very easy. I particularly liked the courses in
anatomy and histology. The lectures in anatomy by Prof.
Marciniak were intelligent and full of humor, and listening to
them was a pleasure. In contrast to many others, I
also liked anatomic dissection and microscopic exercises in
histology. Lectures in biology by Dr. Paschma were heavily
indoctrinated by communist dogma. Capitalist fabrications such as
chromosomes and genes were strictly forbidden,
because they supposedly encourage exploitation
of the working class by capitalist parasites. But this did
not make the biology course any less interesting.
I did not have many friends, and usually studied alone. Sometimes, I
explained material considered difficult to one or another student or
group. However, I did cooperate closely with Marek
Rucinski. His background was humanist, and he
therefore had some difficulty with physics and chemistry. I tutored him
in chemistry, tested him, and finally decided for him when he was ready
for examination. He did very well. He reminded me of this
cooperation when we met 41 years later.
Once in the Medical School, I became careless with my tongue, and
frequently exchanged forbidden political jokes with Marek. All too
often we were talking openly, with many unintended listeners as our
audience. Stalinist terror was at its peak, and gradually I became
known as an opponent of the communist "new reality", an "enemy of
I became a sore in the eye of the communist party cell in the Medical
School, an undesirable element who should be gotten rid of.
Marek warned me repeatedly to hold my tongue. He tried to
reason with me, explaining that I did not achieve anything by it, only
got myself into trouble. All to no avail.
Eventually, the problem came to a head near the end of the school
year, in the spring of 1950.
Because the communists in the Medical School could not accuse me of any
specific offenses, they used my excellence in studies and
directed it against me. Throughout the
year I had taken all the examinations at
the earliest possible time, and invariably had
passed them with the highest marks. Therefore, I was accused of
lacking solidarity and friendliness, and
not providing my classmates with much needed help in
studies. While there was no formal requirement to
teach others, and there is apparently nothing wrong
with passing examinations, my behavior was quoted as being
“egoist, befitting unfair capitalist
competitiveness”, rather than “friendly socialist
cooperation and mutual help”. My help to Marek
Rucinski and (to a lesser extent) to several others,
was totally disregarded.
The communist cell in our class called a formal meeting of all
students, and on a memorable afternoon formally
accused me of promoting unfair competitiveness,
contrary to the spirit of socialism and
communism. The meeting took place in the lecture hall of
the Institute of Anatomy (“Collegium Anatomicum”)
with every student in attendance. Anyone who did not
attend, would expose himself as another “enemy of the
people”, and a supporter of the reactionary
“black sheep”. Many communist activists
spoke, demanding my expulsion from the Medical
School. Some spoke in an aggressive tone, others
expressed regret about the "unfortunate necessity" of saving
others from my bad influence. The words of Anna Fastowa still ring in
my ears: “My heart aches and I shed tears
over the necessity to remove 'comrade'
Weissberg from our environment, but there is no choice...”.
Marek Rucinski rose, and against the general spirit of the
meeting spoke in my defense. He
mentioned his humanist background and lack of understanding
of chemistry, and told how I had systematically tutored him in
chemistry, week after week, until he was
ready for his examination. He also mentioned
several other classmates who had benefitted from my help. His speech
was harshly interrupted by the organizers of
the assembly, who accused him of
favoritism. “Cronyism with Weissberg is more
important to you than purity of good socialist
spirit in our Medical School!” shouted Ilicz
Urbanski. Marek had to keep quiet. Had he
persisted, he would have given the communists an excuse to seek
his expulsion from the Medical School, and, at the
height of Stalinist oppression,
The request to expel me from the Medical School was voted upon openly,
by show of hands, while the communists observed and took
note of those who dared to vote against. No one dared.
Several, Marek among them, abstained. I was expelled by an overwhelming
* * *
At about the same time we received the long-awaited permits to leave
Poland for Israel. We had waited for them since the spring
of 1948, and had received three refusals during those two years. For
me, the permits came as salvation, just in time to part from the
Medical School and leave Poland.
To be sure, the permits came with some strings attached. First, anyone
leaving Poland for Israel had to renounce Polish citizenship and
commit himself never to return to Poland. This condition
was easy to accept, because we intended
never to return to Poland. But this also
meant that we would have to travel without
passports. In order to make this technically
possible, special identity certificates
were issued, each certificate valid for a
single one-way trip to Israel, with the transit visas
for countries of passage stamped in.
Second, the certificates had to be obtained within 10 days, and then
they were valid for only 2 months. Anyone who did not manage to
get organized and leave within those 2 months,
would have to stay in Poland. Our deadline for leaving was July 5. On
that day at the latest, we had to cross the border on a
train going to Venice, where we would eventually board an Israeli ship.
This caused a rush of hectic activity. We had to obtain the
identity certificates in the appropriate government
office in Warsaw, have them stamped in the
Israeli Consular Office, and obtain transit visas for
Czechoslovakia, Austria and Italy. We had to pack our
belongings and purchase travel tickets (Fig. 38).
Fig. 38: My travel Identity Certificate in lieu of passport
I had retained my Study Record Book ("Index") of the Wroclaw
University, but still needed the signature of Prof.
Marciniak, confirming my attendance at the anatomy
course and my passing the required examinations. Quietly,
trying not to be seen by anybody, without an appointment, I
entered Prof. Marciniak's office. I told him
that I was leaving for Israel, and asked
for his signature. The Professor understood
my situation and signed.
Third, there was a very restricted list of personal effects which we
were permitted to take with us to Israel. This included the suit or
dress we were wearing, the shoes we had on, and six
extra shirts, underwear, and socks. We were allowed one plate,
spoon, fork and knife, one pillow, one blanket, a few sheets
and one tablecloth. We could each take up to 10
books, provided they were not hard-cover and not published
before the war(!). Food in amount sufficient for the trip
was included in the list. For expenses during the
trip, which was expected to last about 10 days, every
person was permitted to take only US$ 10. This foreign currency had to
be purchased at a sky-high exchange rate in a government bank.
Everything else had to be left behind. Anyone caught trying to smuggle
out an additional pair of shoes, or a few more dollars, would be
punished. The punishment would include the cancellation of the travel
I had many books and did not want to leave them behind. Because I could
not take them with me, I mailed them as parcels to Jurek Rothenberg in
Haifa, my classmate from the Limanowski Lyceum in Walbrzych, who
had left Poland for Israel a couple of months ahead of me. Some of the
books reached their destination, but many were lost in the mail.
A special train for emigrants heading for Israel was scheduled for
June 26. The word “refugee” was
forbidden, because by definition, refugees
are people who escape oppression or
persecution, while we were voluntarily leaving
the communist “paradise”, going to a
capitalist uncertainty. We arrived in Warsaw a day
ahead of time, all packed and ready to go. One
suitcase was filled with dry salami,
another one contained several jars of Stella's latest
culinary achievement: margarine melted with cocoa
and sugar - a kind of home-made chocolate spread; all
this to help us survive the first several weeks in Israel.
On June 26, hours before schedule, we were at the railway
station, waiting for the train. Several
of my friends from Zatrzebie who did not intend to leave Poland
at this time, came to bid me farewell.
Among them were Ida Kelberg, Marek
Sznajderman, Jozef Siegman, Stefan Kon and several
others. A friendly argument developed. To me it was obvious that
the gates of Poland were closing forever. Those who stayed in
Poland, would never have another opportunity to leave. To
them it was equally obvious that I would never be able to
continue my studies. In Poland all studies were free. In
the capitalist world, medical studies were very
expensive, and I had no resources.
My argument that I could work and study simultaneously sounded
like pure fantasy.
Six p.m. We boarded the train. The doors were locked. We all knew that
in spite of having valid visas for the three countries of
transit, we would not be permitted to leave the train until
we reach Venice. The final call came through the loudspeakers in
a deep male voice: “Train from
Warsaw to Venice with emigrants to
Israel is leaving from track 2, platform 3.
Please move away from the track”. The train moved.
Those who stayed behind, waved; so did we.
It was late night by the time we reached the border town of
Zebrzydowice. The checks performed at the border regarding
our identity documents, visas, bags and suitcases were
tedious and lasted several hours. The
customs officials wanted to be absolutely
certain that no one had managed to
smuggle foreign currency, gold or other valuables out of Poland.
Strangely, our suitcase with the salami was not opened. If it had
been, they might have confiscated it.
In the morning we continued on our way. As soon as we had passed the
Czechoslovakian border, the people on the train were overwhelmingly
relieved. Until then, there had been doubt in
everybody's mind. There was always the possibility of some
minor bureaucratic problem. Permits could be cancelled at
the last moment. Now all this was behind us.
We were still on a Polish train manned by Polish
government personnel and on the soil of another communist country. And
yet, at the moment we crossed the border, I felt a
huge, incredibly heavy burden drop off my
heart. Suddenly, everything became light and easy. Anna Fastowa
and the others from the communist cell in the
Medical School were now in a different country,
and would never threaten me again. "Never again", "never to
return", those were my thoughts. In a locked train which I could not
leave, speeding toward the Austrian border, I felt completely free.
I remember several stops on the way: Brno and Breclav in
Czechoslovakia, Wiener Neustadt and Villach in Austria, Tarvisio and
Udine in Italy. The train remained locked
at all times. Passage through the Eastern Alps in Austria and
Northern Italy offered incredibly beautiful views, particularly by
moonlight. Stella and I stood at the window, observing nature's
beauty - perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To both of us it
brought back memories of my parents' descriptions of their trip
to Italy in 1938.
On July 1 we reached an isolated part of Venice harbor. We left the
train, but could not leave the harbor. We stayed there overnight,
waiting for an Israeli ship. I remembered my parents' photographs and
stories about the city-on-water, the gondolas, Palazzo
Ducale, Piazza di San Marco with its thousands of
pigeons, and the other marvels of Venice. Going to see them was
out of question. Meanwhile vendors came, offering a variety of
merchandise: cigarettes, wine, Italian sunglasses, shoes, cheap
jewelry, and more. Since we had beenallowed only $10 per
person, I wonder how anybody could afford to buy anything.
We spent the night outdoors, under the sky, sleeping on the
ground. In the beautiful Italian summer weather, these
Spartan conditions were no hardship. On July 2 we boarded a small
Israeli steamship, Galila, an old craft. Several hundred
people filled it to capacity, and
for the next four days we travelled under extremely
crowded conditions. We slept in the steerage, scores of
people together, with bunks arranged on two levels. Food was
served on the deck three times a day. Showers were available,
with salty sea water. I discovered that salt prevents
soap from forming suds, and had the feeling that the
shower made me wet, but not clean.
Our days were spent on the deck, talking, arguing about politics,
dreaming unrealistic plans for the future, and sunbathing. At that time
I did not realize that too much sunbathing is harmful. I spent most of
the days on the deck without a shirt, and I paid for it with
second degree burns over my shoulders and back.
Near Cyprus the sea became stormy, with water pouring all over the
deck. We all went below, while the ship danced on the
tall waves, turning from side to
side. It was a scary experience. Everybody was
nauseated and many people vomited. To us it seemed to be
a real sea storm, but members of the crew told us that in
the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly near the Greek
islands, this kind of weather was
considered nearly normal.
Upon seeing the shores of Israel people became quite emotional. Some
cried. We reached Haifa harbor on Thursday, July 6th, 1950. Control of
documents was short and expeditious. Everybody became instantly
a citizen of the State of Israel. The ceremony
consisted of receiving an immigrant's card (“teudat
oleh”), and a spray of a generous amount of DDT
behind the shirt collar, to kill off all our non-existent lice. No one
was asked or examined before this “hygienic”
procedure, which in the first years of Israel's existence
was a trademark of preventive medicine.
We were transferred to a nearby transit camp, “Sha'ar
Ha'Aliya” (“The Gate of Immigration”), where we were
supposed to spend a day or two before being assigned to one of the
long-term shelters for new immigrants. Those with family
in Israel or with financial means, could leave the
Sha'ar Ha'Aliya camp immediately and start life in the new
country on their own. The overwhelming majority including us did not
have such means.
Upon arrival in the Sha'ar Ha'Aliya camp, every person was presented
with basic survival equipment. This consisted of an
enamel-coated metal plate, a cup, fork, spoon, and knife, a metal
bed - the famous “Mitat Sochnut” (Jewish Agency bed) - and
a mattress. This equipment was ours to keep. Everybody was
assigned a place in a canvas tent, usually several families together,
so that the tents were filled to capacity.
On the first afternoon I left the tent and went for a walk around the
camp. When I left the tent, it was close to sunset, but the
sun was still shining brightly. I observed the beautiful sunset
over the Mediterranean Sea and returned to the tent. I had been out for
less than an hour, but when I returned, it was already dark. To me, who
had just arrived from the far north, the quick transition from day to
night was most impressive.
My feelings were in a turmoil: I was now in my own country, free from
any political pressure. I had reached the end of a long
struggle and of a long trip. What would I do next? Where would I go?