A Two Stop Journey to Hell
We acknowledge with gratitude
the financial support of the Polish Socio-Cultural Foundation
Copyright: Sven Sonnenberg
Cover etching "Hands"
by Beata Wehr
Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation
Oto pierwszy opublikowany tom
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
Pragniemy przede wszystkim podziękować
autorowi, Svenowi Sonnenbergowi, za zgodę na opublikowanie
jego wspomnień okupacyjnych oraz za ścisłą i przyjazną
współpracę w procesie publikacji.
Żyje jeszcze wiele rozsianych
po całym świecie osób, które przeżyły w Polsce nieludzki
okres okupacji niemieckiej podczas drugiej wojny światowej.
Historia każdej z nich składa sie z szeregu niespodziewanych
wydarzeń, tragicznych lub zbawiennych spotkań, trudnych
do powzięcia decyzji i cudownych ocaleń. Ludzie ci nie
są już młodzi i jeśli do tej pory nie opublikowali swoich
wspomnień z tamtego okresu, istnieje możliwość, że nigdy
już tego nie zrobią. A przecież świadectwa te są niezwykle
ważne z punktu widzenia historycznego, psychologicznego,
czy po prostu ludzkiego. Chcemy i powinniśmy wiedzieć
jakie to były czasy i jakimi okazywali się ludzie w
dramatycznych lub wręcz tragicznych okolicznościach
totalnego zagrożenia. Czego możemy się spodziewać w
skrajnych sytuacjach po obcych, po naszych bliskich,
po nas samych. Im więcej zgromadzimy świadectw tamtych
czasów, tym nasza wiedza o świecie będzie bogatsza,
nasze zrozumienie zjawisk - głębsze. Nie należy dopuścić
do tego, aby te świadectwa znikły wraz ze świadkami.
Są one ponadto pomnikiem wystawionym tym, którym nie
udało się przeżyć tych tragicznych czasów. Ważnym jest,
aby pamięć o nich nie zaginęła.
Nasza organizacja (Polish-Jewish
Heritage Foundation) stawia sobie za cel wynajdywanie
napisanych już wspomnień, aby je opublikować i przekazać
do odpowiednich bibliotek. Pragniemy również skłonić
tych, którzy noszą się z zamiarem napisania, aby nie
zwlekali z przekazaniem potomności swojego świadectwa.
Publikujemy te wspomnienia w języku, w którym zostały
napisane, z pełnym zaufaniem co do ich autentyczności.
You are holding the first publication in our series,
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
We would like to express our thanks
here to the author, Sven Sonnenberg, for agreeing to
publish his wartime recollections and for his close
and friendly cooperation during the process.
A number of people who survived
the German Occupation of Poland during W.W.II are still
alive and scattered around the world. The personal history
of every one of those individuals is woven into a series
of momentous events: tragic or fortunate encounters,
fateful life decisions, and miraculous deliverances.
The people in question are not young anymore and since
they have not published their memoirs by now, it is
doubtful that they will ever do so. There is, however,
no question that these testimonies are enormously important
historical records. They tell us much about those perilous
times; about how people behaved in dramatic, dangerous,
and often tragic circumstances. They tell us what we
might expect from strangers, from those close to us,
and from ourselves. The more testimonies we have from
those times, the broader will be our knowledge of the
world around us and the more profound our understanding
of it. We must not allow the facts to fade away into
oblivion as the witnesses pass on. We must ensure, too,
that those who did not survive are never forgotten.
The aim of the Polish-Jewish
Heritage Foundation is to seek out and publish the testimonies
of survivors in order to distribute them into libraries.
We will encourage those who are inclined to write but
have not gotten around to doing so not to delay recording
their experiences for the benefit of future generations.
We will publish all testimonies in the language in which
they were written with all confidence to their authenticity.
Voila le premier volume de notre collection
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
Nous voulons tout d'abord remercier
l'auteur, Monsieur Sven Sonnenberg, d'avoir accepté
la publication de ses mémoires de temps de guerre ainsi
que pour sa collaboration étroite et amicale au cours
de la publication.
Éparpillé tout autour du monde,
vivent encore des gens qui ont survécu en Pologne les
temps inhumains de l'occupation allemande pendant la
deuxieme guerre mondiale. L'histoire de chacun d'eux
est composée d'un grand nombre d'événements inattendus,
de rencontres tragiques ou salutaires, de décisions
difficiles a prendre, de sauvetages miraculeux. Ces
gens ne sont plus jeunes et s'ils n'ont pas encore écrit
et publié leur mémoires, il est probable qu'ils ne le
fassent jamais. Et pourtant, ces témoignages sont extremement
importants du point de vu historique, psychologique
et, tout simplement humain. Nous voulons et nous devons
savoir comment les gens se comportaient dans des circonstances
dangereuses, dramatiques, souvent tragiques. A quoi
nous pouvons nous attendre de la part des étrangers,
des nos proches, des nous memes.
Plus il y aura de témoignages des cette époque, plus
notre connaissance du monde sera riche, notre compréhension
des événements - profonde. Il ne faut pas permettre
que ces témoignages disparaissent avec les témoins.
Nous devrons aussi nous assurer que ceux qui n'ont pas
réussi a survivre ne soient pas oubliés.
La Fondation de l'héritage polono-juif se propose de
retracer des mémoires du temps de guerre, que les gens
ont écrits sans les publier, de les publier et les distribuer
dans les bibliotheques. Nous voulons aussi encourager
ceux qui n'ont pas osé mettre sur papier leurs témoignages
de le faire au profit de la postérité.
Nous publions ces mémoires dans la langue dans laquelle
ils ont été écrits avec toute confiance en leur authenticité.
I was born Sven Sonnenberg in 1931 in Grudziadz, Poland.
My family home and business were
located in Jablonowo, about 25 kilometers east of Grudziadz.
This was less than twenty kilometers from the border
of East Prussia from where the Germans mounted their
invasion on that part of Poland in September 1939. In
1939 my family consisted of my father Martin, my mother
Louise, my sister Sylvia and myself, age 7 at that time,
the narrator of this account. On the same premises lived
my grandmother, Laura, and three uncles, Alfred, Magnus
The family owned and operated
a wholesale warehouse situated in the center of Jablonowo
on a large piece of land. The property consisted of
two multistory houses and several utility buildings.
This prosperous warehouse was a distribution center
for the vicinity. Expansion was contemplated before
the war's outbreak.
My family was a close-knit unit
all working in the business at their assigned duties.
My father was the accountant and salesman. My parents
were very dedicated to each other, the feeling of mutual
love between them permeated every single day as far
back as I can remember. They never argued. This feeling
of being blessed, of having each other made any issue
that could have come between them small and insignificant.
Although my mother was a strict disciplinarian her love
and care for us children was obvious and ever present.
Her devotion to us made any punishment that she meted
out for my misbehavior bearable and of lasting educational
value. This is how I remember them. Unfortunately only
very few photographs survived the holocaust years.
My first-grade year in school
ended badly. I went into the recess of summer 1939 with
turmoil in my seven-year-old head. Right from the start
the beautifully embroidered Tyrolese shorts my mother
so insistently outfitted me with was trouble. The whole
first grade and beyond had a field day. My first love,
Sophie, a little playful blond, sneered at me mercilessly,
but the end of my first - grade year was more serious
and ominous. One day the teacher asked the children:
"Now, each of you, tell
me what you have on the wall over your bed?"
The variety of things was not
great, mostly crucifixes and the Virgin Mary.
"Sven, what do you have?"
I had the framed portrait of
Marshal Smigly-Rydz (the supreme commander of the Polish
" Look children, a little
Jew, and what a patriot!"
That has stayed with me to this
day, and will forever. I understood right there that
I was different and no matter what merit I might show
I was basically flawed and there is no escape from that.
From that point on I tried to excel in whatever I was
doing to diminish that flaw in the eyes of whoever I
was with. Until one day I did not give a damn any more
and I experienced a reversal. I saw the entire gentile
world with a healthy dose of skepticism and no longer
did things because I was viewed as a Jew.
In August during the school recess
exciting things were happening. The Polish army conducted
maneuvers and mock battles in the surrounding countryside.
A contingent of soldiers camped in our large yard, which
was large, and slept in our utility buildings. To the
utter dismay of my mother I became uncontrollable. I
would not eat her spinach, because I ate with the soldiers
from their tins while sitting with them in a circle.
The dark coarsely ground bread was such a delight after
the white fluffy rolls. The soldiers let me do little
chores around their equipment. Great times!
At home the conversation was
more and more about a possible war. My mother implored
my father to leave Poland, to go to Switzerland, or
anywhere out of the line of a possible German advance.
Switzerland was most often discussed, because I think,
they had some ties there. I knew they had business associates
and friends. I myself was not too concerned; the mighty
Polish army would protect us. Certainly the parades
through Main Street were impressive. The radio and the
speeches were also very reassuring. "We will not
let them have one button" (from their uniforms,
apparently). "If they attack us we will be in Berlin
in two weeks." And so, a busy summer passed, the
soldiers were leaving and I was sad again.
I remember vividly the early
morning of September 1, 1939. We children had just crawled
into our parents' bed, which was allowed on that day,
and the weather was shaping up - it would be bright.
That was clearly visible through the window opposite
the parental bed. Suddenly we heard rumblings as if
a thunderstorm was approaching. My father said not to
worry - I was with them. I always was terrified by thunder
and lightning. The rumbling got louder and suddenly
a big explosion could be heard in our yard and two fair
- size holes appeared in the window. A shrapnel fragment
embedded itself in a piece of furniture. That is how
W.W. II began for us.
My parents grabbed us and we
ran into the basement. The basement was somewhat prepared,
with sandbags in its windows, water containers and some
towels to put over our mouths as a protection against
a possible gas attack. Looking back now, it was all
naive to the point of stupidity. I think it matched
Poland's preparedness for war. Once the shelling stopped
our family decided to pack a few things, on our horse-drawn
freight wagons and run deeper into Poland. We were living
about 20 kilometers from Germany's East Prussia. So
we ran, for three days. The smell of fresh hay in the
barns where we slept in the countryside comes back now
every time I mow the grass.
After we had meandered around
for three days, we realized that the Germans were everywhere.
The only logical thing to do was to head back home.
At home the new instant owners of what for generations
had been ours met us. These were the business tenants
who rented store space in one of our houses. They declared
themselves to be of German ancestry and became what
was called Volksdeutche, which means ethnic Germans.
Not Reichsdeutche - that was a better German. Still,
a Volksdeutche was vastly superior to anyone other than
a Reichsdeutche. These "ethnics" wore distinguishing
armbands and were holier than thou. We were "put
up" in one room in what was once our house. All
our belongings and business assets were under the control
of this ethnic family until further disposition by the
new German military administration. In two weeks we
learned that the territory would be made "Juden
Frei" - free of Jews and we were packed into a
special train with one suitcase per person on our journey,
nobody knew where.
This was an ordinary train ride,
you might say. The compartments were full since all
the Jewish families were crammed into a special car
attached to a normally scheduled train. This car was
shunted around a lot at several junction stations to
be attached to other trains heading toward a destination
only the Germans knew. I think there was only one car
initially, because there were only a few Jewish families
in Jablonowo, judging from the attendance at the synagogue
where father took me on Saturdays. We finally arrived
at a station named Dzialdowo. To say that we stepped
out would not be correct. When the train stopped we
saw soldiers alongside it holding sticks and waiting
for the train to make a full stop. They then opened
the doors and shouted " Raus, schnell, raus, raus
Judishe schweine!" (Out, Jewish pigs). They handled
their sticks so as to hit selected people and made everybody
hurry to form what turned out to be a long column, four
in a row. When that column was ready, the march began.
Apparently many rail cars like ours were assembled into
a purely Jewish train. We marched through what appeared
to be a small dingy town and arrived at what looked
like military barracks. The column stopped at an entrance,
which turned into a fairly broad alley with a tall chain
- link fence on both sides. Alongside each fence there
were soldiers stationed every few yards, each with a
horsewhip in his hand. Then their fun began. The commanding
"Run to the barracks, on
We started running, my parents
on each side trying to shield my sister and me from
the whip blows, which fell on us as frequently as the
soldiers managed to bring their whips around. The commotion
was huge. The sound of whips, the screams of people
and the shouting of the Germans:
At first, I was so terrified
that I could not think of anything - the fear drowned
all other emotions. The alley was between fifty and
a hundred yards long. No lashes reached me as we proceeded
because my father on my right side blocked them. I started
to be concerned about Grandma who was one row behind
us, and she was 80 years old then. I turned to see that
my uncles were half carrying her, dragging her feet
on the ground, terror on her face, but again the lashes
fell on my three uncles, who managed to shield her perfectly.
Finally we reached a building and ran in. It was getting
dark; we could barely make out the interior. It was
a large interior, certainly not a barracks, rather as
if it had been a huge storehouse or maybe an empty stable
for horses. On both sides along the walls were areas
with a layer of straw on the ground framed by planks
so as to form passageways in the middle along the vast
interior. The space was filling up rapidly, families
were grouping on the straw areas lying down, making
the best arrangement with those of their meager belongings
not lost during the running of the gauntlet.
I can't remember how long we
were kept there, camping on the straw the whole time.
This is where family clusters "organized "
their everyday lives, including all functions except
going to the open latrine behind the building. Only
two vivid memories remain from this long, terrifying
sequence of events. The next day a small group of Germans
(at that time I was unable to distinguish uniforms or
services, they all were military of some sort) came
in, with one of them obviously being the boss, for what
looked like an inspection. He stopped at a place where
he could be heard by most and loudly announced:
"These quarters were carefully
prepared for your comfort. I want them kept clean. The
passageways must be swept and free of even one stalk
of straw. I do not want my soldiers to stumble and get
hurt. Therefore severe punishment will follow any noncompliance."
We saw the punishment the next
day. One bastard, having found a straw, selected a young
man from the group near where he found it and whipped
Close to our family group camped
another large family. There was a baby who started crying
at some point, and would not stop; we could not sleep
because of that. The baby carried on most of the next
day. Towards evening the mother spoke out loudly,
" My baby is sick, something
is wrong, please pass this down the line, is there a
doctor somewhere. The baby has not peed for two days."
Sure enough there was a doctor;
I was very curious and tried not to miss any detail.
The doctor said that the little guy needed an operation
on his penis because of a blockage. The doctor obviously
did not have what was necessary for that, but he performed
the operation anyway with a pocketknife and improvised
with whatever the neighboring clusters of people were
able to find for him. The little guy peed very soon
and we could sleep again. Happiness reigned among our
Somehow my parents protected
me from all the nasty goings on until our departure
which was, again, terrifying. I remember getting on
the train under the blows of sticks wielded by the Germans.
They obviously enjoyed herding us from place to place.
From the safety of the compartment I saw a scene to
be repeated many times in the future: The train platform
from where people were driven into the wagons, German
soldiers milling around, some closing the doors, and
everywhere debris left on the ground, some purses, hats,
pieces of garments and a body here or there. And so
we set out to a destination unknown.
They unloaded us in Plock, a
historic Polish city. A Ghetto was installed in its
midtown area along the Wide Avenue (Ulica Szeroka) ringed
by monuments of this city's splendid past. Cathedrals
and churches and other places of historical significance
sat all along the high banks of the Vistula River. With
the onset of the extremely cold winter of 1940, life
became harsh right away. The biggest problem was hunger.
My father went out day after day trying to find some
food for us. He sold little by little the few jewelry
pieces my parents still had. Amazingly there were buyers.
The problem was, where to get food for the money. The
ghetto was a holding area for thousands of people without
any normal economical activity. There were no jobs,
no flow of supplies, and no stores. This semblance of
an isolated mini-society was in a state of suspension
and lingered from day to day, waiting for various ominous
developments. The only civic organization existing and
allowed to function was the "Gmina Zydowska"
- the Jewish Council that passed German orders to the
populace and attempted to distribute what meager supplies
reached the ghetto from outside. It also organized the
work contingents requested by the Germans and tried
to implement all kinds of foul ordinances.
One day, in utter exasperation, my parents asked me
to go outside the ghetto and buy some food. They agonized
about it because it was very dangerous. Eventually they
decided that I did not look all that Jewish and had
a chance to pass as a Polish boy. Any Jew, if caught
outside the ghetto with or without the Star of David
armband could be shot. So, I went out of the ghetto.
The store was only a block away, I got into the line
and soon arrived at the counter.
" Two loaves of bread please
and a quarter kilo of butter."
"Sure, but are you not a
little Jew, by any chance?"
" Well then, cross yourself."
To do that meant to take two
fingers of the right hand and touch the forehead, left
and right shoulders and belly in the right sequence.
I did not know how to do that! This was a moment of
terror I have never forgotten. I did not know what to
do. Run? - Not possible. The store was too crowded.
So, I stood there befuddled for a while.
" What is the hold up?"
- shouts from behind.
" I think a little Jew has
wiggled his way into the line here."
"Somebody get a policeman,
I will hold him."
I was numb with terror. Suddenly
an older woman pushed her way from behind until she
was close to the counter and me. She spoke to the clerk.
"What is going on here? What
do you want from this little boy? Don't you see that
he has been scared stiff by you and the crowd here?"
" What do you need, boy?"
.I wanted bread and a
piece of butter."
"To me he speaks perfect
Polish. Give him the bread and don't waste our time.
I don't want to have to complain to my son about the
inefficiency in this store."
" Yes, Ma'am
I would never know who that lady
was. With my "purchase", I tried not to run
home, but to walk casually on my shaky legs, my face
paper white from the slowly subsiding numbing terror.
The pervasive every day hunger
- that is what I remember most from the Plock ghetto.
My father coming home in the evening with everything
he had managed to get that day. He would set it out
on the table and wait hunched over with sunken eyes,
wait for mother to figure out what to do with it. That
usually was our only meal for the day. We would go to
bed with the pangs of hunger only slightly dulled. There
was another worry my parents had that seems silly in
retrospect. It was my education. They found a teacher,
to prevent me from losing time. I wonder now if this
was denial on their part or did they genuinely not comprehend
what was happening?
I received one lasting lesson
and that was not from my teacher. One day late in the
afternoon there was a commotion in our enclosed little
yard, a yard surrounded by high walls on all sides with
one entrance from the street. I was playing with some
kids when the gate opened and a young man of about 18
was thrown face down on the cobblestones. In the door
were two German soldiers.
"Find yourself a place here,
" I am not a Jew, I was born
a German, I am from Hanover. My name is Adler, please,
I do not belong with these stinking Jews."
"You stink enough, and don't
make more trouble, settle in."
Adler got up and tried to move
towards the gate. When he did so, one of the soldiers
took the rifle slung over his shoulders and struck him
in the stomach with the butt. He doubled over. The gate
slammed shut and we got a new inhabitant in our little
world. From that moment on I saw Adler coming and going,
always with his head high and contempt on his face for
whoever was around. Only once did I hear him speak.
Passing through the yard someone shouted to him.
" Hello man, where are you
" You will address me Mister
Adler and I have nothing to say to you, except that
I am from Hanover and I do not belong here. I was born
a German and I will die as a German."
People gossiped a little, but
not much. It was said that he was from a mixed marriage.
The Germans had strict rules of heritage by which they
determined if one was Jewish or not. That incident taught
me a lesson never ever to forget. Never try to claim
that you are anything but a Jew. I would learn this
later to an even greater degree when I found myself
among the Poles. They were usually such pure Poles!
Although born in Poland I was very impure. I have gotten
a hint of that already in my first school year before
Mister Adler had barely settled
in when the Plock ghetto ended. One day there was an
announcement by a German soldier with a loudspeaker
from the middle of the yard.
" All Jews must pack and
be ready for tomorrow's assembly in the street at daybreak.
Only hand-carried luggage is allowed."
That message was repeated three
or four times as the soldier turned to face all four
sides of the yard. After the soldier left we had all
afternoon and night to "pack". The streets
were suddenly alive with people rushing in all directions
in bewilderment, trying to find more information or
trying to place some prized possession with someone
with a lesser burden. One woman, on our floor, an always
elegantly dressed neighbor, brought over a pair of beautiful
cherry colored leather boots. The only trouble was,
they were ladies boots on medium heels and not fitting
my mother. She said to my mother: "Let your son
put these on and you pack his small shoes. If we get
separated and I cannot retrieve them, they are yours.
I can't bring myself to leave them behind. They are
brand-new and a present. Out of terrifying hours of
that time I still remember the lady's face and my distress
at being forced to put on those boots.
In the morning we were ready
with our hand luggage and dressed in multiple layers
of clothing. Everything we could possibly manage to,
we put on. My parents were sitting on their beds, my
mother holding my sister in her lap. I was sitting by
the side of my father, all of us in total silence, our
anxiety mounting by the minute. Finally we heard the
troops entering the yard. The noise was unmistakable.
We jumped, ready for whatever might be coming.
" Raus, schnell, raus!"
(Out, quickly, out)
As we entered the yard I saw
Mister Adler fly out the opposite stairway entrance,
shouting. " I am a German, I am a German."
One of the soldiers dispatching people at the door reached
over and gave him a good whack over his shoulders. Then
he was swept away by the stream of people and I never
saw him again.
We assembled on the street in
rows by families so that the whole long street (it was
called the Wide Avenue and had a median of grass and
two cobblestone lanes on each side) was filled with
people as far as one could see, everyone with a heap
of clothes on and small suitcases in their hands. On
the side lanes, German soldiers of all kinds of service
units were busying themselves with maintaining order
in the column. We were standing there waiting for who
knows what. Towards the late afternoon older people
and the sick started fainting here and there. We heard
calls for water, but no water or food was delivered.
The soldiers, oblivious to the cries, kept patrolling
alongside the column. Later the word was passed that
the Germans will forgo the transfer of the ghetto to
a new location for a price. People should give up their
valuables, and if they did the whole thing would be
called off. The representatives of the ghetto Council
went along the column to collect whatever the people
threw into their baskets. When this was finished, I
saw a group of soldiers appear from a side street. They
all carried sticks. On command they fell upon the column,
hitting left and right, and shouted.
" Nach hause, nach hause!"
(Go home, go home)
Evidently there were a number
of groups of Germans whose job this was, to run people
off the street fast. In panic, our family ran to the
nearest door. We went into a building, and from the
safety of a room that appeared to be an empty one-time
store, I looked out onto the street, and saw the by
now all too familiar landscape. The area was strewn
with all kinds of possessions, garments in pieces, packages,
and here and there a body lying motionless. Two or three
silhouettes sitting up and rocking slowly back and forth
under the darkening sky, the Germans walking over the
area, casually poking with their sticks at this or that
item on the ground.
The next day was quiet. Nothing
happened, and we camped in that storeroom as best as
we could. The next day, at dawn, the whole assembly
in the street was repeated. No one was surprised at
the ruse the Germans had played on us with the valuables'
collection. In mid-morning trucks came, stopping at
intervals along one side of the column. The Germans
then separated out sections of the column and directed
that section towards a truck. Usually a chair or stool
was placed at the back of the truck so that people had
to climb up that unstable support. Leading to each truck
was the familiar deployment of two rows of German soldiers
with sticks. Then, there was more "fun". In
front of us was a family with an obese man who could
not get onto the truck. We waited as he kept falling
off that chair under the blows of sticks. Finally the
Germans ordered him to stop trying and step aside. The
two rows of soldiers closed around the fat man, and
the beating really began. The heavy man fell to the
ground and tried to protect his face and head with his
arms. The Germans kept hitting him as if competing to
see who could deliver more blows. After a short while
they stepped away to resume the driving of people onto
the truck. On the ground, I saw what looked like a big
bundle of rags, motionless, a big balding head stuck
to it with a bloody, messed-up face turned towards me
as we ran to that chair behind the truck and that now
frightening piece of furniture. My father shielded me
from the blows of the sticks.
After the truck was packed tight
it moved out. I do not remember a guard in the back
with us. During this few hours drive we passed small
villages where people had lined up at the roadside and
threw food into the truck. Apparently these were ghettos,
which were still in existence along our route. Eventually
we ended up in Konskie, a dingy little place. From our
stopping point we marched through the middle of town
and there was total indifference on the faces of the
Polish townspeople, as if our march was the commonest
everyday occurrence. We passed through town uneventfully
and settled into the march to our destination about
twelve miles away. That is how we arrived in Drzewica,
the last ghetto before the Jews were taken to the extermination
camps, one of which was Treblinka.
Drzewica was the place we stayed
for a while. My father cared for his own family, whereas
my three uncles and Grandma formed the other part of
the family. We got a single room, my uncles a corner
of a now empty synagogue. About two thousand people
were crammed into a small area in this tiny village
with no fences or guards. The perimeter of the ghetto
was not even marked except later when typhoid fever
kept breaking out. At the first Jewish house on each
street a poster would be placed:
"DANGER TYPHOID FEVER BEYOND
The ghetto formed a mini society,
with " rich" people, "middle class"
people and the destitute. The rich were somehow trading
their possessions for food, and that trade moved across
the magic invisible ghetto boundary line. The middle
class people - artisans and service people - were somehow
surviving. The poor and most newcomers to the place
like us were starving. This group grew larger by the
day. Soon, there was a routine horse-drawn wagon full
of the bodies of those who had died from starvation
departing every day from the village to the cemetery
on the outskirts.
A distinct group was the Chassids.
They ran a cheder (a religious school) and prayed incessantly.
They tried to maintain a corner of the synagogue and
constantly moved books in brown leather covers from
one place to another they thought more secure. Their
behavior antagonized the rest of the community, and
we became especially angry with them during the outbreak
of typhoid fever. They would not let a doctor near them,
and most dangerously, would not follow the basic rules
of hygiene and quarantine.
" If God wants me to die, I will, no matter what
They opposed any action directed
to contain the disease. They were also magnets for the
German raiders, who came to town periodically. They
would seek out a few Chassids and line them up and amuse
themselves by testing the sharpness of their bayonets
on the beards of those poor devotees of God. When finished,
the Germans would argue among themselves whose was the
Drzewica was slowly starving.
Amazingly, people were still preoccupied with trifles
and holy rituals were adhered to as much as possible.
I remember an older man sitting on the stone steps at
the adjacent entrance to our house. He was cutting his
fingernails and very methodically collected the shavings
on a white cloth. Asked why, he said:
" Don't you know that there
is a commandment that requires hair and any other bodily
clippings to be properly disposed of?"
After that, I always wondered
what I should properly do with my nail clippings.
Apart from the everyday mundane
death scenes there were some more dramatic ones. There
was a man who lived in an abandoned railway freight
car not far from our one-room dwelling. I saw him going
about alone; evidently he had no family. His loneliness
and the fact that he had a rail car all to himself piqued
my interest. One day I saw him sitting with his feet
dangling out having a feast from goodies neatly placed
on the floor of the car at the entrance. He ostentatiously
drank and ate for everybody to see. Two days later I
saw the death wagon come by and men carrying the body
of the loner out to dump him on top of the already high
heap of bodies. I was told that he had traded everything
he had for food, ate it all and hung himself.
I have witnessed the slow starvation
of my grandmother and uncles. Uncle Ari died of typhoid
fever and was carried out with the daily death wagon
ride. Uncle Alfred and Magnus starved to death and were
one day also taken out to the outskirts cemetery. I
was seeing them first getting thin, skeleton like, and
then they would become bloated and grotesquely swollen.
That is the last image of both of them I have retained.
I do not know exactly how Grandma died. One day I was
told that she was not with us anymore.
The time came when rumors started that something big
was going to happen, though nobody knew what. It was
said among other things that the entire ghetto was to
be sent somewhere. My life in the ghetto up to this
point had been a strange mixture of feeling secure in
the family and jolts of terror from the entire goings-on
around me. Whenever there was something terrible happening
in the streets I always was able to run to the relative
safety of my family. Mom and Dad so far had managed
to keep the most horrible things that were happening
to others away from me. I felt somewhat alienated from
other children because of my mixed parentage - my mother
was German. No strong rejection, but the kids would
call me a "JEKE". Since they saw me sometimes
sitting on the steps in front of the house and sipping
a cup of fake coffee, it became JEKE MIT A TOP KAVE.
So, I was a jeke and that also stuck with me ever after.
It reminds me of the famous orphan character from Sholem
"Mir is git, ich bin a jusem."
(I am an orphan, I have it good)
I can say, "Mir is git,
ich bin a jeke."
I do not belong anywhere. Drifting alone through space,
a stranger in any groups of people no matter what its
make up. The feeling of not belonging anywhere deepened
after my mother died a few years later.
Moritz of Opoczno
Opoczno was a drab little town
in the middle of rural Poland about fifteen kilometers
from Drzewica. In 1942 it was the seat of a German garrison
for the district, with a few buildings fit for the occupying
military and civilian organizations. The surrounding
little towns and villages had no German forces stationed
there and were controlled from Opoczno by frequent forays.
In between, the Germans entrusted the administration
to the black-clad police recruited from Polish collaborators.
Drzewica, as mentioned before, had no Germans stationed
there, even during the existence of a Jewish ghetto
in the years 1940 to 1942. There was no barbed wire
outlining this ghetto's boundaries. It was known which
was the last Jewish house on the central and side streets,
and a Jew was not supposed to cross that unmarked line.
If he did the consequences were dire. Inside the ghetto
starvation was the order of the day, with no goods or
human traffic crossing the "magic line."
I once witnessed the following
scene: My family's dwelling in the ghetto was the last
one on the "main" street before the line,
and looking out the window I saw a girl about 15 coming
from the "Aryan side" towards the Ghetto line.
She had a large bowl in front of her, which she held
with both arms outstretched since it was large like
one used for kneading bread dough. She hurried to get
across the line, and almost made it. A group of four
young Polish men caught up with her, grabbed the bowl
and overturned it. Out came a heap of potato peels.
One of the men grabbed the girl by her long hair, and
kneeing her in the back, pushed her over the line. The
others laughed and made rude remarks, shouting: "That
should teach you not to leave your Jewish place again!"
Undoubtedly there were Poles who had given the girl
the potato peels (cooked, they were a delicacy in those
days). However, there were always those who willingly
and voluntarily maintained a watch over the Jews to
keep them where the Germans intended. Those locals who
smuggled food into the ghetto ran the risk of denunciation
by their own, and death. Many took that risk, and some,
only some, are memorialized at Yad Vashem in the Avenue
of the Righteous. By and large the ghetto was isolated
with about 2000 sick and starving inhabitants crammed
into a small area. Sporadic outbreaks of typhoid fever
added to the terrible toll from starvation, and the
isolation was made even more complete by the German
The head of the commando unit
stationed in Opoczno was named Moritz. He raided the
district villages with German precision and regularity.
Often, because of that German predictability our ghetto
was forewarned of his arrival. To know often made a
life or death difference, since there was a nasty ordinance
in place that the streets should be clear when he arrived.
One day, a sunny summer day, he came unexpectedly. His
three military vehicles, each holding a few of his cohort,
stopped in the middle of the town square. I was looking
out the window and saw the people running to get off
the street into the nearest buildings and away from
town center, where the Germans were jumping out of their
cars. The Germans hurried, with their guns leveled at
whoever was still not out of their line of vision. The
shooting that began immediately left a few bodies on
the ground. I was mesmerized by one man who ran towards
a fence in a zigzag pattern, one German shooting at
him, loading his gun repeatedly, missing every time.
Then, when the man got to the top of the fence and balanced
there for a moment, the German aimed carefully. I did
not hear the shot I expected. The man got over the fence
while the German swore loudly, and started to pull at
his gun breach. Unable to open it, he took his bayonet
and with its handle tried to knock the gun open. He
held the gun upright against the ground with his left
hand, bent over, and swung at the breach with the bayonet,
swearing all the time "Donnervetter, eine ferfluchte
scheise." Before long all the shooting stopped,
and from a corner of the half open window I saw what
must have been Moritz standing in the middle of the
circle of his helmeted troops. He was slender, not tall
but carrying himself very upright. He did not have a
rifle or machine gun but a pistol holster and brown
gloves. He swung energetically around as if surveying
the scene and then barked some order that I did not
hear. The helmets started moving out in a widening circle.
At that point fear started seeping
into me, I slid to the floor corner of the room so as
to be totally out of sight. I did not know what to do
next, so I sat there motionless. My mother, after going
to the door and locking it, took my baby sister and
sat down under the window in the opposite corner with
her in her lap. She signaled for silence with a finger
at her lips. Soon we heard a commotion in the adjacent
room. There was a locked door opposite the entrance
of our single room which led to another dwelling that
we knew was some kind of an administrative office with
a telephone. I heard voices; among them was the loud
commanding bark of what had to be Moritz.
Then there was silence. Shortly
after, another set of noises became apparent under the
window, sounds of footsteps as if a number of people
had gathered. Then the wailing and crying started. This
was interrupted by a loud guttural shout "Ruhe"
(Silence). After a moment a male voice: "Herr,
bitte, the ropes are so tight, it hurts terribly."
I heard crunching footsteps of a soldier's nailed boots.
"Na, ja, das ist doch zu stramm." (Right,
it is too tight). Some muffled sounds and after that,
the man's voice: "Danke herr, danke." (Thank
you, sir, thank you).
The wailing started again, but
very subdued. I could not make out the words mixed with
the faint moaning. Shortly after that there was the
clatter typical of soldiers when they assemble. All
the equipment they carried made a distinct noise of
canteens dangling, boots grinding against the ground,
et cetera. The sound of guns being loaded was unmistakable.
The wailing became louder. Then, we heard "Feuer"
and shots rang out. After a short while the commotion
in the adjacent room started again. Moritz was at the
telephone calling Opoczno, and his voice this time was
sweet and gentle. He gave an account of the day's work.
"Liebling es war doch ein richtiges vergnugen."
(Darling, it was really great fun).
After this he must have started
eating his lunch, because whenever he spoke it was as
if with a full mouth.
We did not dare move until we
heard the departing German cars. I stood up and looked
out the window, trembling. Horse-drawn carts came close
to the wall and assembled in a line. Men carried the
bodies and piled them up in the wagons. After this was
done and the carts departed, two men with rakes came
and raked dirt beside the wall below the window. Only
when everybody had left did I venture out to look. The
soil under the window was freshly raked, but I could
clearly see darker spots and here and there was what
looked like a shiny ligament or a piece of flesh torn
away by a bullet. That sight has never left me and is
as fresh in my vision as if it had happened yesterday.
As mentioned before the ghetto
was unguarded. One autumn day we woke to noises in the
street, a big commotion and an announcement that we
all were being sent to a larger ghetto. Consolidation.
This time the ghetto was surrounded by a motley group
of Germans and black-uniformed police with some other
troops said to be Ukrainians. We were trapped. We were
told to pack, one suitcase per person, and be ready
for transport in the morning. This time, in the evening,
my parents held a soul-searching and dramatic meeting
to decide whether to go along. It had finally dawned
on them that something was very fishy and they should
not. I remember some of the conversation.
Mother: "If we must die,
I want us to be together."
Father: " You cannot make
such a decision for the children. We must save them.
I will come out and join you when I can. We could raise
suspicion now, if I disappear too. They might start
looking for all of us. We cannot risk that."
They decided that my mother with
both of us children would sneak out and Father would
join us the following night, since he had learned of
two groups being formed for transport. For this to succeed
he had to find a "black" policemen and bribe
him to let us through. So, in the morning before dawn
we sneaked past an "unseeing" black-uniformed
policeman, and then hid in the forest for two or three
days. Finally we ventured out of the forest. With my
mother holding us both by our hands, we walked towards
the village. There came a peasant with his horse and
carriage. "What are you doing here, Jews? All the
rest have gone to the gas. You can dig yourself a grave
here. Do you want a shovel"? He drove off laughing.
As we got closer to the village we saw a cloud of feathers.
That was the result of looting by the hordes of locals
- ripping the feather bedding is a necessary step in
the search for valuables. We waited outside for one
night, and the next day we entered the desolate area
that had been the ghetto. Devastation was everywhere
- a hurricane would create a scene like this. Belongings
and broken furniture lay in the streets, and many windows
were smashed. My mother selected a half-caved in house
- hopefully no one would claim this one for a while.
We went in to hide there, from the elements, since the
autumn weather was worsening. It was now November 1942.
Until the fall of 1942 we had
been confined to the smaller of the two squares in the
village of Drzewica. The larger square was adjacent
beyond a row of houses. These houses divided Drzewica
and made a barrier through the middle of the village.
Opposite those houses there was a large church complex.
The ghetto territory was enclosed around the smaller
square. To one side right by the dividing row of houses
that allowed a narrow passage between the two squares
was the synagogue. Drzewica served as center for the
surrounding countryside. The "Odpusty" (church
fairs) were held on the church grounds and I would guess
that the synagogue also served the needs of some nearby
Jewish families from the smaller settlements before
The house that Mother selected
for our dwelling was tucked in the corner of the square
with its back to the larger square and facing the synagogue.
This house partially caved in looked like a heap of
rubble from the outside. Beyond the debris inside we
found a room intact with a window looking out towards
the now empty and looted synagogue. The view was partially
obstructed by beams and other parts of the house. It
looked as if one corner had collapsed and wrapped itself
around the front of what remained standing.
We settled into this room. From
the possessions strewn around the ruins we were able
to arrange relatively comfortable living quarters. For
a stranger looking at the heap of rubble with the small
portion still standing but partially obstructed by debris
it would seem improbable that someone could live there.
Of course, our settling there was largely by chance,
but once there we felt that its appearance was perhaps
what was needed for a reasonable "hiding"
place. The problem now was how to sustain ourselves.
The greatest danger came from the locals. Would they
leave us alone or would they denounce us to the Germans
and especially to the gendarmes or the SS outfits that
passed sporadically through the village to make forays
into suspected partisan strongholds? Drzewica now, as
before the liquidation of the ghetto, was free of any
German military presence. The Nowe Miasto gandarmerie
outpost was twenty kilometers away, and Moritz with
his outfit was in Opoczno, about fifteen kilometers
away. Drzewica was free of Germans except for "actions"
that were carried out after being precipitated by a
variety of factors.
These actions or forays struck
terror in us. Most of the time we had some warning because
the Germans came in by two access roads to the village.
Both led into the big square. There the Germans would
make their base and the commotion of this gave us time
to hurry into the adjacent woods before they fanned
out into the village. We would spend the day or whatever
time was necessary waiting until they left. We could
tell by approaching the edge of woods close to the village.
The actions mounted by the Germans usually lasted a
few hours until their goals had been achieved, whatever
they were. The danger to us was that some of the locals
might point our ruin out and that would doom us.
The next worry was food. Hunger
was our ever-present torture. I went out to forage into
the fields for leftovers from the harvest. I dug out
and collected everything that I could find, frozen or
not. Carrots and potatoes were sometimes buried deep
enough to be edible. One day I hit a bonanza. I found
an abandoned flourmill, and the flour and grain I collected
from crevices sustained us for a short while. Times
became better when the crops began to ripen. I went
out and collected (stole) much of what was needed to
keep us from outright starvation. Our everyday hope
was that father would come back, as was planned. That
hope sustained mother, she was so sure that we would
see him any day. That was not to be, but mother never
lost hope although chances that we would see him again
at all diminished with every passing month, the three
of us marking days in fear and desperation, hoping for
some change for the better. By this time we were approaching
the winter of 1943, almost a year from the time of our
escape from the ghetto.
What saved us was an event that occurred before the
winter set in, quite some time after the ghetto liquidation.
On the other side of the river a huge commotion started
one day. Construction equipment arrived, and a lot of
black uniformed Todd organization units. This organization
named after General Todd had the mission of supporting
troops by constructing roads, fortifications and whatever
was necessary. This was their mission and concern, not
chasing Jews or any other military/political pursuit.
With typical German single-minded dedication to their
narrow mission they went about their task to build barracks
for young Polish conscripts in a work organization called
"Junaki" - Young Men's Labor Brigade. These
young Polish men did all kinds of auxiliary work for
the German war machine. They were rounded up in actions
called "lapanka" (roundup) and given a choice,
to be sent to Germany for slave labor or to "volunteer"
for the Junaki organization and stay closer to home,
doing work for the Germans out of their "free will."
I think the Germans considered that arrangement more
When that camp started functioning
and we continued to be pressed for food (my digger-gatherer
activity barely allowed us to stay ahead of starvation),
my mother said one day,
"Children, I have to go there
and see if I can get some work. Maybe they need some
" But Mother
"Sven, I have no choice,
we will starve otherwise. These are Todd people maybe
I will find some human soul there. I will tell them
some story about how we are temporarily here waiting
for our paperwork that is being processed to restore
my rights as a pure German (a Reichsdeutche)."
So, my mother got a job as kitchen help in the Junaki
This had an immediate and huge benefit; it gave us food
and it also confused the locals utterly as to our status.
Now they saw my mother go to work every day in the German
compound. I was a little bit more relaxed and did not
scurry around like a hunted animal anymore. I ventured
to go and watch the kids play a game called "palant"-
something akin to baseball. I stood there on the side,
a picture of shyness and poised to run at any signs
of hostility. One boy much older than me, a lot of them
were sixteen or older, moved in my direction and said,
"Hey, little Jew, catch
He threw the makeshift baseball
in my direction, and I caught it nonchalantly with my
left hand. His face went from a derisive smile to very
"Do you want to try a game
with us? I will put you on my team."
No doubt that I would try a game!
I became a prized player. The team captains would draw
lots to decide which team I would be on. I was proficient
catching with my left-hand and that was a premium. I
gained confidence and felt safe as long as I was in
the company of these familiar boys. Being now more open
on the "Aryan" side I had a chance for a bit
of insight into the life of Polish society during the
years of the German occupation. The days now passed
in an effort to avoid dangerous situations and most
importantly dangerous people.
The village and the surrounding
countryside were teeming with partisan activity. There
were many factions constantly feuding with each other.
On the average there were two funerals a day in Drzewica
as a result of assassinations carried out by rival units
against each other. All I knew was to keep from crossing
the path of any of those units. I was unable to distinguish
between the Communists (AL), the Home army (AK) and
the Nationalists (NSZ). At times some of them would
behave so brazenly as to parade in prewar Polish military
uniforms through the village. While none of them ever
bothered us, danger nonetheless loomed everywhere.
There was a large farm/estate run for the Germans by
Polish tenants. This is where I went when crops were
ripening to dig out some new potatoes and look for anything
else that was edible. One day a farmer who had no interest
in protecting German property (or so it seemed) caught
me. His fields were not even adjacent, but here he had
caught a Jew obviously stealing German property, and
my uncertain status not withstanding, this should do
me in. He tied me to his cart with a rope and started
dragging me to the nearest German authority. Where would
he find one close enough so that I would still be alive
after being dragged like this? I did not know. The farmer
was driving his horse and I ran behind the cart in terror,
stumbling and wiggling trying to free myself. Eventually
I was able to scrape the rope against the rough wood
of the farm cart and break it. I ran into the nearby
bushes and escaped. The bastard gave up looking for
me after a while - the head start I had before he could
stop the horse and get off the cart made the difference.
There was a brief period of heightened
fear, and it was not directly from the Germans; in 1944
the Warsaw uprising took place. We watched the glowing
sky over Warsaw in the distance, and after a while refugees
from Warsaw started arriving in Drzewica. A number of
people escaped the burning capital city that was being
systematically dynamited house by house by German troops.
People scattered in all directions and a number ended
up in Drzewica. Some turned out to be nasty. City slickers
- they tried to show off. Inevitably some got interested
in my family trying to show how tough one ought to be
with Jews. They started harassing me at every turn.
What saved us and particularly me from harm were the
tough local farm boys whose respect I had gained through
games. Besides, they had their own animosity towards
the so annoyingly arrogant city slickers. The importance
of judging people by subtle or not so subtle clues was
hammered into me by another memorable incident.
One day I went to meet Mom at
the Junaki compound. Usually I waited near the main
gate, out of sight though, at an abandoned shack. The
windows of the shack were missing, and the part of the
wall away from the compound was missing too. I would
join Mom when she came out after she finished her shift.
On that day I saw a girl about eighteen years old dressed
in a lightweight black dress. The dress was short, showing
her legs and it was snug around her breast, which being
nicely outlined appeared very firm. Her face was handsome,
but bore a strange expression of bewilderment and absence
of mind. Her movements towards the gate were erratic,
as if she was not sure of her purpose. She had a bag
slung over her shoulder; the kind beggars sometimes
have to hold things. One of the Junaks was standing
at the gate, and the girl asked if she could get some
leftover food. The man said:
"Wait here, I will check."
He walked back into the compound
and I saw him collecting some of the other young men
and four Junaks came out of the gate. Seeing this the
girl started drifting towards the shack and I was able
to pick up the conversation among them. The leader:
"We need a rope or something
to tie the dress above her head. One of you, go get
One of the other men:
I saw her before,
I am sure she is a mental, she will not know what happened."
The girl was moving around aimlessly.
The men came toward the shack and corralled the girl
there. One of the men pulled her dress up over her head;
the other quickly tied it up with the rope. They pulled
her panties down. The girl was moaning and thrashing
around trying to free herself and it was now that for
the first time I saw a naked girl. She was beautifully
shaped. Her dress pulled up high over her breasts, conical
shaped breasts, firm and tipped up. The men forced her
down in a corner. At that moment there was a shout from
"Hey guys what are you doing
there outside the compound?"
"Nothing Sarge, just having
"Back inside, on the double."
Obviously he could not see the
girl inside the shack. The four men moved in a hurry
towards the gate and the sergeant. Shaking, I went over
and untied the rope; I saw her face close - it was sheer
terror. She was moaning and sobbing softly. I picked
up her bag, she slung it over her shoulder and still
sobbing she moved away without a word. I sat down with
my face covered, devastated. Amongst all the horrors
of that war this one episode has etched itself into
my memory, so that, whenever I think back to the war
that scene floats up every time. I resolved then and
there to redouble my caution around humans, be they
German or not.
Nonetheless my curiosity about
all kinds of trades brought me into contact with a local
Polish cabinetmaker Ramus living with his family and
working in his shop near our hiding place - the abandoned
ruin. I would spend a lot of time in his shop helping
with whatever he allowed me to do. He also gave us shelter
if there was an unexpected raid, especially in winter
when it would be difficult to hide in the forest. He
did so matter-of-factly with a calm demeanor as if it
was the most routine thing. He risked the destruction
of his family if not worse by doing this and he knew
Soon the Russians were approaching and the situation
changed dramatically. We heard the rumble of artillery
in the distance. There was anticipation, anxiety about
impending events. The German occupation was drawing
to an end. In addition there was the assassination attempt
on Hitler, which temporarily threw the Germans into
some confusion. I remember front line soldiers marching
westward through the village, bedraggled, foraging for
food and ingratiatingly saying,
Suddenly the area was flooded
with Wermacht troops from all kinds of units preparing
to make a stand. We huddled in the deepest crevices
of that building we had found, not daring to breathe
loudly. One morning we saw two German soldiers searching,
and eventually they came upon us. A tall sergeant yanked
me out of a corner. "People here tell us that you
are Jews. Are you?" Ugh ..... Ehhh .....
"You, boy, come with us
to the major."
The major asked a few questions
but his main interest was to see if I spoke fluent German,
which I did.
"You will be assigned to
the sergeant, boy. We will give you some provisions
now, and you report tomorrow at dawn to him. We have
trenches to dig, and you will translate instructions
to the locals who are already organized in work groups."
Some more bastards tried again.
One day, while going busily about the trenches I saw
a vehicle stop in the distance. Out came four or five
black-clad Totenkopf SS (the skull insignia was their
mark, placed on their caps). One of the trench diggers
stopped and went over to the SS men and I saw him pointing
in our direction. I could feel the blood draining out
of my face. All one had to do was to point a finger
and say "JUDE" to these guys. The sergeant,
as if alerted by something, looked at my face.
"What is the matter?"
I barely came out with a whisper,
He took one look and barked:
"Get behind me."
We inched toward the nearest
structure. "Crawl into a hole and stay there until
I come for you." I heard his boots crunching away
in the direction of the SS men.
The end of the German presence
came swiftly. One day, in the morning, we heard all
hell break loose. Heavy guns were thundering and small
arms-fire crackling. We ran into the cellar and stayed
there until all was quiet. After we left the cellar
I went for exploring with the throng of people that
came out of their hiding places also. The first dead
German soldier I saw was lying face down in the middle
of the street, his boots, belt and coat was gone. We
moved beyond the river where the fiercest fighting had
taken place. Bodies lay everywhere, on top of the trenches
as if killed in the process of trying to get out and
run. Most of them stripped naked. The ones still partially
in uniform were stripped before my eyes. Looters with
armfuls of all kinds of German clothing were running
toward home in fear that someone would stop them. I
saw an elderly man pick up a handkerchief and put it
on the exposed genitals of a soldier who lay on his
back- an exception. Some wounds were terrible. One German
had his skull partially blown off; little blood, just
the exposed brain.
The throng of people was moving
like a swarm of bees from one place of excitement to
another. The Russian soldiers moved in-groups, rounding
up hiding Germans. I went back to the Town Square and
saw a lone German soldier wandering around in a daze.
He kept muttering:
"Mein lieber Got, meine Frau, meine kinder"
(Dear God, my wife, my children)
He repeated the phrase over and
over. One of the Russian commanding officers pointed
to a group of other Germans and told him to go there.
In a little while two Russian soldiers marched the group
towards the other side of the river. The spectators
followed. The Germans were lined up at the edge of a
trench and the executions started. One of the Germans,
apparently only painfully wounded, fell to his knees
and made a movement with his right hand as if asking
for more shots, to be finished. The Russians turned
around and left. The people fell upon the dead to strip
them naked. Some were left in their long johns.
Mother decided to wait in Drzewica
long enough for father to return and find us. The next
day Russian soldiers came to the ruin where we lived
and took me to their officer. My mother did not speak
" Who are you people?"
"We are Jews who escaped
from the ghetto and have been hiding here in this ruin
"You were pointed out to
us by the locals here as having aided the Germans."
"When the Germans came to
town we were pointed out to them as fugitive Jews and
our hiding place disclosed. The Germans forced me to
interpret for them. We were trying to survive."
That was the end of that. I established
good relations with some of the Russian soldiers and
was around them as much as I could be, fascinated with
After the war we waited for my father in that cursed
place, Drzewica. Out of 2000 people only 25 showed up
to look for their relatives. Many more had taken the
initiative to run and hide but like my father, they
never came back. Two weeks passed and father did not
show up, so mother decided to go to Lodz, a bigger city.
The Jewish Council placed my sister and me in an orphanage
in Helenowek, a suburb of Lodz, and gave mother a job
in the kitchen as a cook. One day we traveled to our
home in Jablonowo, where we found both our houses a
heap of burned out bricks. All the rest of our business
establishment was gone. Not an item from that extensive
property was left, and the value left to us was a few
acres of wasteland. The war was over. All that was left
of our family was the three of us, mother, my sister
and me, with the shabby rags on our backs our only possessions.
Mother kept hoping that father was alive and would find
us. She kept that hope to the end of her life. She died
From here on I embarked on new a journey through another
bewildering period of the Stalinist regime in Poland.
My drifting alone through space continued, a stranger
in any groups of people no matter what its make up.
The feeling of not belonging anywhere deepened as I
moved along the new journey path.
After reading this remembrance, some people have asked
me how the experience has changed me? And further, what
were my emotions during these years of calamity? The
first question is a very valid one and I will address
it in detail below. The answer to the second question
lies within the text and any reasonably sensitive and
imaginative person can figure this one out. I will,
however, describe one other episode from those hellish
years that has been evoked by this question.
The Personal Changes
I have often tried to imagine
what and whom I would be if I did not experience all
of these horrors and sustain the losses. I can see what
I would have become by simply observing people who have
been blessed with a normal sheltered life, affluence
at home, a carefree youth, no war, no army service,
college and then a smooth transition to a job, marriage
after that, et cetera et cetera, so smug and confident,
believing oneself to be virtually invincible. It is
tempting to wish for that innocence, and yet I would
no longer have within me the knowledge of human nature,
the understanding of the level of evil to which a human
can descend and the height of sacrifice and goodness
of which man is capable. I have seen and experienced
and learned the mechanics of human behavior in a laboratory
that is impossible to duplicate in normal life. In short,
I feel as if I have a kind of wisdom that is so much
a part of me, it defines me and makes it impossible
for me to imagine anything so remote as a life without
horror. What is the price of that wisdom in the make
up of my character? Did I acquire a hatred for Germans,
Poles, and Russians? Did I become permanently depressed
or otherwise strange? The answer is complicated. I did
not fall into a permanent state of bitterness or hate,
although I'd be less than truthful if I did not admit
to having those moments of hatred, especially against
the Germans and powerless fury with an intensity that
is much too well earned. More often I am reminded of
"The Godfather's" Don Corleone, who verbalized
a principle which I had practiced by instinct all along:
"Never hate your enemies, it will cloud your judgment."
This understanding came to me with great ease. To avoid
the bastards one meets in life and to fight them down,
if necessary, is just business. That spared me an all-consuming
desire for revenge or the constant torment of remembering
how profoundly I had been wronged. Indeed, I sometimes
felt guilty that I did not join the magnificent Simon
Wiesenthal in his pursuit of the Nazi perpetrators,
but instead went on to build a "normal" life.
The justifying rationalization is clearly that I was
a mere youngster after the war, and unfit to do any
such thing at the time. In a sense I have been walking
through life as if in an altered state of being, wherein
I am able to see a level of complexity that few around
me can perceive or even imagine. I would argue that
it has indeed made me "strange", and perhaps
more so over the years. I am generally in a state of
anxiety, always expecting or at least prepared for doom,
with a predominantly pessimistic outlook. I am trusting,
and friendly, but with a healthy dose of suspicion and
caution. President Reagan had the right idea, but butchered
the pronunciation of the famous Russian saying: "Dovieraj
no provieraj" (Trust, but verify). I seem to have
been born with, or somehow developed, the perceptive
ability to determine an individual's trustworthiness,
and this ability has spared me many disappointments.
My experiences have also made me brooding, and introverted
yet very proactive in life situations. A well-known
statesman once said, "When I close my eyes I see
the map of the earth and the tumult of battle, the cries
of suffering and death rising above it." I do not
have to close my eyes; this image is with me all the
time. It does not leave me, even in moments of exhilaration
and joy, which are always muted and tinged with a dark
underpinning. Indeed I have become essentially a sad
person and that sadness became a scar that was impossible
to conceal and made me appear strange to other people.
Having said all that, one might wonder would I exchange
this emotional burden for the innocence of an unscathed
life? Perhaps the fact that I cannot imagine such a
life speaks volumes in itself. If I met my more fortunate
clone or some parallel universe version of myself, I
would no doubt consider him immature, naive to a fault
and view him with a tinge of contempt and affection,
like an old soldier views a greenhorn recruit. I would
wish to warn him, "Wake up, man, to the real world
that surrounds you. Wake up to the beauty and the evil
that are only a fraction of an inch away from one another."
I cannot emphasize more strongly that the price of my
sad wisdom is both horrible and unacceptable, and yet
it is not possible to wish it away. Under no circumstances,
would I knowingly set someone on a life course like
mine to gain the sad wisdom I acquired. It truly would
be akin to condemning a human being to hell, and hence
the title of this narrative. The fantasy I often thought
of would be to have some of the experiences I had, but
with a happy ending. Nobody gets killed, the family
reunites, the previous conditions of life restored.
That would be an ideal lasting education, albeit still
unspeakably harsh, to appreciate life and its complexities.
Yet sadly that is not possible and I am left to grieve
for my lost family and my parents mostly, who were such
magnificent human beings and yet God allowed them to
perish in suffering. Who could be idiotic enough to
believe: "What does not kill us, makes us stronger?"
Such fools "know not what they say."
Finding the words to convey an
emotional experience seems almost impossible. Reading
the greatest literary work describing emotional states
still leaves even the sensitive and imaginative person
without a true feeling of what the subject experienced.
It was my intention in writing this to communicate events
more than attempting a futile analysis and conveyance
of my emotional turbulence. There is, however, one emotionally
charged experience that floated to the forefront of
my memory, as a result of this discussion.
We were playing the cherished
"palant" game in Drzewica during the somewhat
"looser" times of our hiding on the "Aryan"
side, when a boy came running and shouting, "The
Germans, the Germans, they are fanning out and surrounding
the village!" Panic set in immediately. Some of
the boys were teenagers and were always afraid of being
caught up in one of the "lapanka" (roundup)
and sent for slave labor to the Reich. I, of course,
was in danger for my very life. We abandoned all implements
and in a herd, without a moment's hesitation, started
running towards the forest. Without much thinking I
followed the leader and the throng. We scattered a bit
and ran at the top of our speed towards the trees about
a hundred yards or so away. Suddenly we heard the ominously
characteristic crackling of submachine fire. Looking
back we saw a line of German soldiers advancing towards
us. They were not catching up because they stopped to
aim and fire, so their advance was not as fast and bit
by bit we were leaving them behind. Nevertheless, the
bullets were whistling around us, but I did not see
anybody hit. That was one rare instant when I turned
to God, and I remember putting my hands together for
a brief moment in prayer, begging to be spared. That
never happened again, not for myself anyway. I prayed
for others, but to no avail. My chest was heaving and
my head flashing fragmentary horrible scenes of being
doomed. In all this there was an instinctive retainment
of reason that often makes the difference between death
and life. Once I heard the machine gun fire I started
weaving to thwart the aiming. Utterly exhausted and
out of breath we reached the tree line. Once inside
the forest we just looked back for a brief moment to
see that the Germans were giving up the chase. The shooting
stopped once the last of us reached the trees. The terror
slowly subsided, but we all proceeded deeper into the
forest as fast as we could, regaining our composure.
The moment I felt safe, the worry and the feeling of
helplessness about my mother and sister set in, and
the overwhelming guilt of leaving them behind became
unbearable. I tried to rationalize and console myself,
reasoning that I would not have been of any help and
also it was all so sudden, that it was an instinctive
reaction. Nevertheless the hollowness in my stomach
and fear for their safety would not leave me until I
returned and found them shaken, but alive. It was just
a flash raid again and they stayed in the ruin until
the Germans left.
I wandered with some of the boys
deep into the forest and came upon a small settlement
where people spoke a strange dialect and never saw a
German. They heard that there was a war somewhere, but
did not know what that was all about. We lingered there
for a day before heading back to our village. That experience,
seeing those people as if from another world, utterly
amazed me and I cannot forget their strangely different
faces and the way they moved around their primitive
huts doing their daily chores. Reading "The Painted
Bird" by Kosinski years later and seeing the reaction
of people to it: "Fantasy, could not be true."
I answer their skepticism: "Do not tell me, I was
there!" It is now with thorough understanding that
I view films like "Deliverance". I often wonder
what people feel and think when they see war stories
like "Schindler's List" or other true depictions
from the Holocaust or other wars. I could not watch
"Schindler's List" when I saw an excerpt and
the little boy in the transport. I was saying, "That
was me there". I lived through it once, and I am
not going to live through it again. It is at moments
like that when my fury of helplessness and hatred flares
up. Indeed, I must admit that what propels me in life
is a well of spitefulness; I feel it in my chest. I
want to thumb my nose at the human or heavenly (if there
are any) generated forces that are trying to stomp me
down and strike blows as if to see if they can knock
me down for good. Even in retirement, after a lifetime
of combat, these forces are not giving me a rest. Instead
they struck one of the cruelest blows by taking my only
joy in life: my beloved wife. We always expect the good
outcome of human stories - the "Hollywood ending",
where the lovers walk on the seashore, hand in hand,
as the credits roll. It gives us a smidgen of hope that
things can be right and maybe we, too, will have our
share of happiness in the final reels of our own lives.
The best I can offer in terms of hope is that I have
survived to write this and I have won some battles.
I am preparing myself for the ones yet to come, maybe
I will win some as I managed to do in the past.
My ghetto experiences come out
of the recesses of my memory at the slightest stimulation.
Even a seemingly remote association is enough. Reading
Bruno Bettelheim's essay "Freedom from Ghetto Thinking"
easily brought it out and made me go back in time in
an attempt to examine the state of my mind, and that
of my parents and fellow ghetto dwellers. The central
point of Mr. Bettelheim's thesis is that Jews in the
ghettos, by a long tradition maintained in the Diaspora,
acquired an attitude of total submission and meekness,
making the job of their extermination astonishingly
easy for the Germans. What was my state of mind at that
time, at age 11? I had no broad historic knowledge of
the Nazi movement or its stated goals, of course. Fear,
hunger and preoccupation with the day's survival are
the only things I remember. Mr. Bettelheim considers
it a given that even minimally educated Jews must have
known the truth about the Nazis. My parents certainly
were very well educated. Had they seriously considered
or talked about the ultimate consequences of what the
Germans were doing? Not that I remember. There was disbelief
about the possibility of mass extermination even when
someone hinted at it. "This is the twentieth century,
things like this are unthinkable", was the usual
consensus. What about events like the one described?
These were thought to be the excesses of a few devilish
types like Moritz. If only the higher German authorities
might learn about it! To add confusion to Mr. Bettelheim's
argument that the eastern ghettos were bereft of those
who had had the initiative to leave the ghettos for
the "past three generations", I must point
out: The ghettos established by the Germans collected
all those who were outside in the gentile world like
my parents. So, there were plenty of bright, modern,
educated people in each of the ghettos, people who had
freed themselves from the ghetto culture. What perhaps
might be a plausible explanation is that these people
hadn't had the time, willingness or opportunity to bond
with the "masses", and become their leaders
and turn them from "ghetto thinking".
The so-called masses of Jewish
shopkeepers, shoe repairmen and tailors had no inkling
of the world outside their narrow confines, much less
about Hitler's writings and the global political goals
of the Germans. The elite was naive, trusting and "innocent".
Sometimes people develop an instinct without too much
theorizing or verbalizing they "feel" that
something is out of kilter, and then act. Even for this
to happen there needs to be leadership. Advocates of
a certain course of action have to come forward. In
Poland the instinct and the leadership were lacking.
I grant this to Mr. Bettelheim. Suppose they were present,
this instinct and leadership, what then, given the hostile
surroundings where even the Poles were murdering each
other across the political spectrum without any German
encouragement? When I "lived" outside the
ghetto later, I saw at least two funerals a day resulting
from fights between different Polish partisan factions.
Should a Jewish leadership (if there had been one) have
attempted to organize armed resistance with that kind
of outside conditions plus the aversion of the ghetto
Jew to even looking at a gun? Theoretically it was possible.
It has happened in a few places - with suicidal results.
Should this have been the norm rather than the exception?
Yes! I would however refrain from pinning blame on those
poor, lost, bewildered, disoriented and leaderless souls
who, dazed, went to the slaughter.
The ghetto people felt trapped
on all sides. The murderous Germans! The hostility outside!
For many who ventured to leave the ghetto it meant instant
death if caught and delivered to the Germans. Mr. Bettelheim
cites the fact that once the Jews took up resistance
there was help from the outside, like in the Warsaw
uprising. That was far from even a hope in Drzewica.
So, Mr. Bettelheim, I would not be so ready to attach
blame to the poor masses of downtrodden ghetto dwellers.
Besides, to organize resistance one needs not only leaders,
but also some rudimentary vestiges of the defiant and
combative attitudes that were totally lacking in those
unhappy souls beaten down for generations. So the notion
that something could have been done is purely theoretical
and unrealistic given the circumstances of that period.
Do I wish we had fought, run, hid, done anything but
go on the transports? Definitely! What permeates me
is not shame, but regret that we did not fight.
To suggest, as Mr. Bettelheim
does, that escape trough the Pripec marches was possible
is a sheer fantasy. To ask a shopkeeper with a flock
of small kids to pack up his family and head over the
marshes into the Soviet Empire is completely unrealistic.
Under Stalin the traditional murderous Russian anti-Semitism
was simmering and Jewish leadership and culture was
being destroyed. That much knowledge seeped through
to the ghettos. The people who went to the Soviet Union
were mostly communist political activists acutely aware
that they would be shot by their competitors, the Nazis,
Jew or not. Their Soviet political comrades shot many
on arrival anyway.
I accept Mr. Bettelheim's concept of ghetto thinking.
For it is within me to a large degree. I have to watch
myself and be careful not to fall too easily into that
mold, even now. My first instinct is always appeasement,
even if it is obviously of very temporary effect. I
act on my second impulse and fight only if I am cornered
without an escape route. Not fighting, even in extreme
circumstance, was the survival method for the Jews in
the Diaspora for ages. This has conditioned them to
ghetto thinking. However, the circumstances during W.W.II
in the German occupied territories included the additional
element of total entrapment would have been difficult
for any national group even with the best attributes
of resistance and fighting. So, let's leave the total
undiminished blame on the murderous Germans and the
schmaltzowniks (those Poles who hunted down Jews for
profit)! It is also difficult to accept Mr. Bettelheim's
"German Jews (and those of Poland, too) permitted
themselves to remain innocent, avoided eating from the
tree of knowledge and remained ignorant of the nature
of the enemy."
To lump the Jewish communities
with those of Germany is not right. The Jews of other
European countries had a right to expect protection,
as had their gentile population. I clearly remember
the Polish propaganda slogan just before the war's outbreak.
"We will not let them have one button" (from
their uniforms, apparently). Poland was smashed in 6
weeks, hardly much longer than the Warsaw Ghetto uprising
lasted. When almost every neighbor of Germany crumbled
in short order there was shock and disbelief. How about
those governments and elites, including the Polish,
were they stupid and incompetent? Were they "innocent";
if not, what were they? To expect from the Jews a superior
foresight as to the outcome of the German onslaught
is a bit much. I think one cannot escape the thought
that things were much more complex than just the psychological
make up of the ghetto Jew.
So, we survived. I have to give
this to Mr. Bettelheim, passivity was a sure death sentence.
Many also perished by being betrayed, as I was, outside
the ghetto. After the war we waited for my father in
that cursed place, Drzewica. Out of 2000 people only
25 showed up to look for their relatives. Many more
had taken the initiative to run and hide, but like my
father they never came back. From here on I embarked
on new journey through another bewildering period of
the Stalinist regime in Poland. My drifting alone through
space continued. I am a stranger in any group of people
no matter what its make up. The feeling of not belonging
anywhere deepened as I moved along the new journey path.
I thank all the people who have
augmented my memory and supplied me with photographs,
the sort of photographs I never kept, becoming discouraged
after seeing houses smashed open during the war and
the family photographs carried by the wind in dense
clouds along the debris strewn-streets.
I thank Bronek Cyngiser for memories
and the photographs, which he so blessedly kept.
I thank Sylwia Sonnenberg my sister
for being with me and keeping the household while I
was laboring on these memoirs.
I thank Akiwa Brand for allowing
me to use his letters for the insertion of sad and moving
I thank all those who contributed
by being in my life, which has been so sadly exciting.
I will use the term Mentor throughout
the text to describe the function of those of the orphanage
personnel whose responsibility it was to care for the
group of children assigned to them day and night. They
lived on the premises, as did all of the personnel.
Introduction to Part II
The following narrative is an account of a twenty-three-year
journey through Polish Communism. It was a very "mild"
experience compared to the horror millions have gone
through. There are a few reasons for such a "mild"
passage, and perhaps of greatest importance is the fact
that it took place in post-WWII Poland. The other reasons
will, hopefully, be obvious as one goes through the
pages. For the reader to fully realize the enormity
of the crimes against humanity committed by communism
I must make reference to the hair- raising account given
THE BLACK BOOK OF COMMUNISM,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, the facts of these
crimes committed are receding in the collective memory,
thus preparing the world for a repetition or for another
bloody experiment concocted by "well-wishers."
Poland's experience under the
Soviet boot was a somewhat unique compared to the rest
of the Soviet block. Not without reason was it called
the best barrack in the Soviet Concentration Camp: "We
will do the concentration and the people will do the
camping." First, Poland was historically fiercely
anti-communist and anti Soviet. The Poles, fought the
Soviets after WWI in brutal battles, the national memory
of that has not faded at all and the Polish nation is
known for mass emotional outbursts; it has happened
a few times in their history. Secondly, Poland belonged
to the west, culturally, and the Byzantine machinations
and docile submissiveness seen in the Russian empire
were absent in Poland. Therefore communism had to take
a cunning and cautious approach to subdue that nation.
Mild non-conformity was tolerated well into the postwar
years (one had to be careful though, as shown later).
The peasantry remained a land-owning class, which was
unthinkable in the Soviet Union. The process of shackling
the nation and eliminating academic freedoms and private
ownership took some time. The other element of enormous
importance was the Catholic Church. It had a stranglehold
on prewar social life in Poland and became a difficult
opponent. The Poles, in defiance, rallied to the church,
creating a mass opposition, ostensibly non-political,
and completely religious but nevertheless an opposition.
How then did the average person
behave and go about everyday life? I can compare this
to a typical scene of a police arrest, where the subject
resists the cuffs, but not too strongly, so as not to
be accused of resisting the policemen. A half-hearted
and expedient conformity had set in. People had to eat
and care for their families and somehow progress in
life. The bold ones, who actively opposed communization,
were jailed, murdered, or sent to exile in the Soviet
Union, preferably surreptitiously, out of the public
eye. People suddenly disappeared without a trace. That
happened to my wife's father. After unwisely making
an anti-Soviet comment at work he was taken out of his
workplace and disappeared. One day the family found
him at their doorstep paralyzed from a stroke. When
he had that stroke in jail, the jailers took him out
and dumped him on the pavement. A merciful passersby
finally put him on a train home. From the station he
then dragged and rolled himself to the fence gate of
his home. He was unable to walk.
Who then were the people doing
all that dirty work? Plenty of those were available.
The first to mention were the ideologues brought in
on the heels of the Soviet armies. Unfortunately some
were Jews and a few attained highly visible and powerful
positions. These people were of a special brand. They
hypocritically denied their Jewishness-they were internationalists.
According to the theory, nationhood should eventually
disappear. On an individual basis these people were
fairly "decent." What made them monsters was
the notion that "The goal justifies the means."
Their actions tainted the Jewish shopkeeper, the artisan,
the engineer and the doctor and gave fodder to anti-Semitism.
The irony was that they did not consider themselves
Jews, and a further irony of historical proportions
was the fact that they were later discarded by their
beloved communism for reasons of political expediency
and declared enemies, because they were Jews-discarded
like used-up implements.
A good illustration of the character
and morality of the communist elite in Poland would
have been one of our supposedly very friendly acquaintances,
Mrs. Gefon. She was from the above described milieu
and a lifelong communist, and a very decent lady. Yet
when our five-year-old Jack was very sick and we asked
her to obtain a specific medication for him through
her relatives in France, she inquired of her comrades
if we were sufficiently loyal for her to do it. We never
got the medicine.
The second group was that of
the prewar communists in Poland and the far-left. They
were fairly numerous before the war but they were a
minority never able to play a significant role in Polish
national life. They were now salivating at the trough,
a trough initially guarded by Soviet troops and, were
they ever eager! The third group were the opportunists
and the lumpenproletariat (a universally accepted German
term for the dregs of society from which Hitler and
Stalin recruited their henchmen). So if one kept one's
head down and was extremely careful one would survive
if lucky enough not to inadvertently get caught in some
troublesome situation, and such situations were plentiful
at the time.
Where did the author of this
memoir fit in that social kaleidoscope? To find out,
you need to turn the pages of this narrative; I hope
it will be an educational experience.
Around June-July 1945
The war was over and the everyday
routine of tension and having to be alert every moment,
night or day, vanished. The fear of not surviving to
the next day was suddenly supplanted by the question,
"what now". Mother decided to stay in Drzewica
for a while with the hope that father would find us.
Almost every day or so a surviving human wreck from
the original ghetto arrived in the village, hoping to
find some relatives. They stayed a few days and, after
futile inquiries, moved on. We asked everyone about
our father, but we only found two guys who said that
they had seen our father trying to escape from the transport
and that he had been shot by a German guard. Their tale
was a bit fuzzy and our mother did not believe that
it could be true anyway. So we kept waiting until no
more people showed up. In total we counted about twenty
from a population of over two thousand in the original
ghetto. A few, no more than five, survived locally,
hidden by Poles in the surrounding villages. This then,
perhaps, is a good statistical indication of how many
survived overall in Poland, because the first instinct
was to come back to the village and try to find some
trace of one's family or friends. It means a survival
rate far below 1%.
One day we found ourselves again
all alone, the sole remnants of the ghetto and no sign
of father. It was time to move on. With our few bundles
of belongings, which were tattered clothing mostly,
and some food we hitched a ride to the industrial city
of Lodz. We were told that there was a Jewish help organization
there. When we found the place we could easily guess
that some important activity was going on in that building.
There was a multitude of people coming and going and
some just standing near a large gate leading into the
yard. The walls on both sides of the vaulted gate entrance
were plastered with messages photographs and pleas for
information about family members. We looked at these
for a while, but the chances that our father had posted
something there were nil. We registered and were given
some money and a place to stay in a loft on the top
floor of a tall building. We shared these quarters with
another family. The feelings I remember were those of
curiosity and strangeness. The street noises of the
big city and the confinement created by the tall buildings
filled me with unease. The smell of cooked food coming
through the open window was all-pervasive. Although
the life threatening dangers were gone, I still felt
restricted. There were no forest to run to, no fields
of tall growth to dive into if need be. The terrain
was unfamiliar, with so much to learn about the new
environment, anxiety ran high, but I was not in fear
for my life anymore.
After a few days we were taken
to a suburb of Lodz, a place called Helenowek. This
was a well known prewar orphanage compound. It had gained
notoriety because of a flamboyant Jewish Commitee member,
a Mr. Rumkowski, who took a special interest in its
running. He solicited funds for maintaining it from
wealthy members of the prewar Jewish community in Lodz.
Using imaginative stratagems, he got enough money to
furnish the compound nicely. There were three houses
that survived the war intact as well as all the adjacent
utility buildings and a fairly large greenhouse with
a nearby orchard. The third house, the smallest, burned
down later and only the concrete foundation remained;
it was never rebuilt. In addition to the principal buildings,
which housed the children and personnel quarters, there
were all the elements of a farm, with horses, cows and
pigs, a rather large greenhouse and a number of smaller
auxiliary buildings. As legend has it, Rumkowski, when
he brought in prospective donors to present his accomplishments,
would pick out the ugly kids and hide them away. After
the war in 1945 the Jewish Committee ran all this. The
funds came from America through the Joint (a Jewish
help organization) and some came from the Polish state.
My mother was given a job in the kitchen and a room
for herself. We, the children, were incorporated into
the orphanage community and assigned to our respective
I have a lasting impression of
the first dinner in a rather small room. Close to thirty
children were seated along two tables. I was led in
and given a place at the end of one of the tables. I
wore my best outfit, one which mother had laboriously
sewn together with great pride. It was a nice beige
jacket with matching shorts. I sat down in a deafening
noise of kids screaming their lungs out. The commotion
and noise abated a little when the food was brought
in and everyone out of curiosity was trying to get high
above the table to see what it was. Amidst riotous commotion
the food was dished out onto the plates. Once this was
done the kids started eating. The ensuing quiet did
not last long; one kid took a spoonful of mashed potatoes
and slapped it into the face of the kid sitting opposite.
That started a general shooting melee. My precious beige
outfit was hit several times with red beet mush. It
came out of that dinner a total ruin. There was a plump,
red haired, very freckled girl sitting at the head of
the table. At her back was a cast-iron heater below
the window with protruding sharp ridges. In the commotion
she stood up aiming with her spoon at somebody. In the
meantime another kid moved her chair, and she sat down
and hit her head on one of those ridges. Her scalp was
split, blood started pouring and the dinner ended with
the kids quietly sneaking out of the room. That very
night my first real shoes in almost three years-I was
given them while still in Lodz-were stolen from under
my bed. That was our beginning in Helenowek, about which
a number of people have written in later years.
The mayhem did not last long.
A new principal or director, Mrs. Maria Fajngold, was
brought in. She faced every situation with calm, unlike
the other mentors who became hysterical with frustration.
She would pick the worst offender and without raising
her voice would say,
"Robert, if you go on like
this, you will be too tired to go to the movies this
Saturday. You will have to rest, at home, and the other
kids will go without you."
That usually took care of Robert.
She instituted the so-called "children's self rule."
This is an old concept in educational systems, but few
educators have the patience, seriousness and talent
to make it work. Looking back it seems that her personality
carried the day. She was a tall woman, robustly built,
but not heavy, handsome with pitch-black hair and warm
brown eyes. She never raised her voice or used a physical
discipline, although she could easily overpower even
a fairly large youngster. She always found a calm way
to resolve a troubling situation. The children's council
was democratically elected and all important matters
such as discipline, projects and other matters were
debated and decided with gentle guidance and not much
interference from Mrs. Maria. She put a vision before
us in a few simple words,
"Children, we need to make
up for lost time and work hard to prepare ourselves
for life. Those of you who were less damaged by this
horrible war have an obligation to help others not as
able to get on with school homework and everyday activities."
Her quiet, never dour, matter-of-fact
bearing, resonated with kids who generally were from
middleclass homes. Some remembered the culture of learning
and striving from their long vanished homes; essentially
we were good material. She always listened attentively
to any kid and was never dismissive. We could see that
she took the matter of our concerns with genuine seriousness.
In short we were all hers. There is no question that
Mrs. Falkowska (formerly Mrs. Fajngold, as will be explained)
by the force of her personality, created a unique milieu,
which is rare in the annals of pedagogy. She created
a place where discipline was imposed by the children
themselves and motivation for learning and excelling
in artistic, housekeeping and sports activities was
high. She attracted a lot of attention and help from
the outside world and created an attractive and highly
stimulating environment for the children. The care was
superb, the discipline and standards to strive for were
demanding. Corporal punishment was simply unthinkable,
and one has to remember that these were the old days
when it was the means of first resort. It was not needed;
there was peer pressure for proper behavior and any
misdeeds were dealt with without smacking. Often the
offending kid would rather have gotten smacked on the
head than stand in shame before his group or be deprived
of going to a movie. In the first years she also brought
in a lot of Jewish culture, but that faded out for a
number of reasons not the least being the pressure from
the Party to assimilate into Polishness. Most of us,
her children, kept a very close relationship with her,
way into our adult lives, even in retirement and from
abroad. Mrs. Falkowska died in 1998 at the age of 92.
Her mental acuity was amazing and she was physically
active, living alone and caring for herself. One day
a friend who was supposed to visit could not get a response
at her door. She summoned Jacob (mentioned later), who
had the key, and they found her dead by the bathtub.
From time to time trouble erupted with new arrivals.
These were kids, survivors of the Holocaust, collected
and brought in by special teams roaming the country
and looking into all conceivable places. Shreds of information
obtained from a great variety of sources led them to
farms, monasteries, and hiding places in forests. I
vividly remember three arrivals. One was a kid from
a disbanded partisan unit. His name was Stolin. Of course
for us he became Stalin. We had quite some fun with
"Hey Stalin, who gave you
that black eye?"
This was tolerated until the
arrival of a new Mentor, Ms. Maria Milstein. The Marias
proliferated fast because the communist Party and the
state urged all Jews to polonize their names. This was
a stupid and hypocritical action promoted by the then
first secretary Gomulka. Some people naively went along
in an attempt to avoid the antisemitism. The more Christian-sounding
the name the better. According to the teachings of the
great social scientist comrade Stalin, nationhood was
defined in one of his "scientific" writings
and one of the conditions for a group of people to be
a nation was territorial separateness (oh... what wisdom!).
Of course under these rules Jews did not qualify at
all and they should disappear and melt into the Polish
Nevertheless, the Party and state
kept files on who was a Jew by heritage, and that went
generations back. They boasted in 1968, during the times
of trouble, that they did this much more thoroughly
than Nazi Germany had ever dreamed of. When the time
came they used it ruthlessly against us, Polish name
or not. But this was just at the beginning and our principal
changed her name to Falkowska. With that her conversion
to sublime Polishness was complete. Maria Falkowska,
the former Maria Fajngold, was not a Party member, but
the newly installed Mentor Maria Milstein was. And that
was the end of us running around and having fun with
our own little Stalin. The ideological noose started
tightening around us.
Ms. Milstein was a lifelong communist.
She was a tall, rather skinny spinster who wore round
glasses a la Trotsky. Her black hair was tied back in
a short tail with a band behind her oddly shaped head.
She walked with a slight stoop and with a serious and
purposeful expression on her face. She never smiled;
we could not make her smile under any circumstances.
Slowly, bit-by-bit, we learned some of her life story.
As was often the case with the communist activists,
she came from a well-to-do Jewish family, rebelled and
joined the communist movement very young. She devoted
her life completely to that movement, suffering deprivation
and jail for her beloved ideals. In 1939, before the
German onslaught she ran to her beloved Soviet Union,
where else. She was lucky not to be shot on the spot
like many of her comrades-they being tainted comrades-on
crossing the border into the empire and she survived
the war there, deep inside the country. In short she
was an ardent devotee, more ardent than most can become.
In other aspects she was reasonable and very caring
about the children under her supervision. We quite easily
adapted to her and even with our childish intolerance
to uncommon appearance, we started to rely on her everyday
wisdom and her help with school. Milstein however, had
a specific life mission. Her life was absolutely devoted
to spreading and solidifying communism, nothing else
mattered. Here she had a perfect opportunity to turn
kids into fighters for her clearly religious-like cause
and send them out into the world to build communism.
She took to the mission with zeal.
Leaving Ms. Milstein for a moment,
we need to go back to the two other arrivals at the
One day three Russian officers
arrived and went to see our principal. The news spread
fast through our community. The curious thing was that
one of the three seemed so young. That was Misha, the
"son" of the battalion. An orphaned Jewish
kid found by the westward marching Red Army in a burned-out
village where all the Jewish inhabitants had been killed.
The Russians took him into their unit, made proper military
outfits for him and called him their "battalion's
son." The other two, a captain and a lieutenant
asked the director to take Misha into the orphanage.
Their campaign was over and he had to start a normal
life and school, and so we got him, a spoiled rotten
know-it-all youngster, a war hero with medals. That
was a tough nut to crack for Mrs. Maria Falkowska and
also for us, the Children's Council.
Misha never became what one would
call a normal kid even by the somewhat loose understanding
of normal. Most of us were severely traumatized and
damaged but Misha was beyond the pale. He would suddenly
put his hands against his temples, sit there for a while
and then become restless and franticly active, sometimes
challenging others. We understood that horrible memories
must have been welling up in him. He never told us what
those were. None of us did talk much about our war experiences.
When asked, we would answer in monosyllables. Misha
disappeared one day without a trace and without finishing
high school. I never heard of him again, unlike the
other kids who have kept track of each other to this
The third memorable arrival was
that of the brothers Cyngiser, Baruch (Bronek) and his
older brother Janek (Ichack). We were told that it was
difficult to bring them in since they kept escaping
en route to the orphanage. They were found in a village
having survived the war in dugouts in the forest, evading
Germans and Poles, who would hunt Jews for the reward.
Their ordeal is described in a collection of stories
under the title "Dark Year... Dark Years."
They were both small in stature but strong and very
active in exploring the lay of the land. They were mostly
unresponsive when approached, displaying mistrust. One
had the impression of wildness about them, especially
about Bronek. Kipling's story of the wolf boy comes
to mind. Slowly, very slowly they did integrate and
stopped saying that they did not want to be Jews. Bronek
became successful in school and in life, and was my
best friend. Our friendship strengthened as we aged.
Janek, on the other hand, could not fully adapt. He
led a low-grade, difficult life and died young.
There are so many to remember and I wish I had the talent
to bring them to live, which regrettably is not possible
and not only because of lack of talent. There was however
another arrival who became part of Bronek's life and
mine to some extent, and that was Akiwa Brand. The first
remarkable thing about Akiwa was that a part of his
skull was missing. A silver plate had been implanted
and when one looked closely, one could see the skin
pulsating on the side of his head where the metal met
the bone. He was known for his restlessness and the
intensity with wich he did everything. He was a very
good student. After the orphanage Akiwa had a difficult
life, although he worked at a profession and later,
after leaving Poland, became a chief engineer in the
merchant marine. The best thing for me to do here is
to give the narrative over to Akiwa, who wrote to me
on occasion. I will pick out fragments from his sometimes-long
letters. The bond that had developed among many of these
children endured over continents and over half a century
and is even stronger today. We were a big family. Here
is Akiwa speaking:
The curse of my life is that
I was born a Jew.
In 1944 the Russian army on the
Belarus Front liberated Wilno and I started grazing
a herd of cows and sheeps. I roamed the surrounding
fields and hills until 1946. Other children were going
to school, but I was a cowherd.
Two facts from between 1944 to1946
are significant. When I fell from a horse and busted
my skull, no hospital would help me. According to the
prevailing habit during this war, the very seriously
and the slightely injured got no attention. Mr. Zborowiecki
did not allow them to finish me off and drove me in
his horse drawn wagon from hospital to hospital. Zborowiecki
was an engineer educated in Petersburg and spoke perfect
Russian. He would not give up and finally past midnight
he found a place, a Russian Military Hospital, where
they did the operation.
The other things I remember were
hunger and lice, they bothered me terribly. I lay in
a large room where the Russian soldiers were dying far
from home. In the morning I would notice the empty beds.
I was the only boy in that ward and they called me in
Pacan, pronounced "patzan", a teenager in
Russian. I got used to the name, responded to it, which
usually got a me piece of bread from a dying soldier.
From Wilno I got to a place called
Laski. There I grazed cows again. I slept in a tiny
corner of my fathers' supposed friend's place where
I recognized the rug that hung over my bed before the
On September 1, 1946 Zborowiecki
brought me to the Jewish Committee. They placed me in
Helenowek where I went to school for the first time.
From that time I remember a particularly nasty kid by
the name of Henry Grynberg (he became a writer of some
renown). I heard later that he became the chairman of
the school Youth Organization (ZMP) and acted in a play
The year 1947 was remarkable because
of the brothers Cyngiser. When Bronek said that he did
not want to be a Jew, I agreed. It was a feeling shared
by many of us**.
In Helenowek I took part in many
activities, building a storage cellar, working in a
joiner's shop and on Sundays I was responsible for the
children who took up the duties of the adult personnel
for the day. On Saturdays, I labored for many hours
to compile a fair and just list of duties for the children
Helenowek imbued us with high
ethical standards that do not exist anymore in this
world. I do not think that was good. Having travelled
around the world I found humanity at its lowest ethical
levels in history. The honesty instilled in us at Helenowek
did not help.
In Helenowek I was not hungry,
but I longed for the place where my home was, it was
called Ponaryszki, I missed the forests and meadows
and the river. I was happy there.
Akiwa is not untypical representative
of the traumatized kids who later became doctors, engineers
and craftsmen. I saw him off when he was leaving Poland
for Israel in 1957. He came to Warsaw from a coal mine
in Silesia where he worked as a technician. He was run
down and again had the appearance of a hunted animal.
He had a sharp knife in his pocket for self-defense.
Akiwa had been restless throughtout his life. His spirit
seems not to have had a moment of tranquility. He now
lives in Israel financially secure, but in ever-present
mental turmoil. The past haunting him like it does every
one of us.
These were the types of cases Mrs. Falkowska had to
Slowly, the community of children
stabilized, and if there were new-comers their stories
were not as dramatic anymore since the worst horrors
had come to an end. New children placed in the orphanage
had relatives bringing them in.
Milstein had perfect material
to mold. Bewildered kids, under her control for 24 hours
and indoctrinated in school, not unlike the Janissaries*
trained by the Moslems. The first order of business
for her was to see if she could organize a Party cell
among the orphanage's adult personnel. This was always
the first duty and priority of a comrade. That was somewhat
difficult because no one was inclined to join and the
subjects were not that suitable. All the people concerned
were Holocaust survivors, and exhausted. Politics were
the furthest thing from their minds. The exception was
Mr. Bryl, a guard. The remarkable thing about Mr. Bryl
was that he was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who
got his jaw broken by a rifle butt blow to his face
from a fascist soldier. He sometimes walked around with
his gun strapped to his side. We kept extracting from
Mr. Bryl glorious stories from the war where he put
his jaw on the line in the shining cause of happiness
for mankind. Comrade Milstein was skeptical about Bryl
and not happy about our adulation for him. Why? He hadn't
made up his life story, it was all in his dossier and
Milstein did not deny it when we asked. Mr. Bryl kept
his distance from Milstein too. I could guess why, much,
much later, when I learned a little about communist
actions in that bloody Spanish fiasco for the reds.
They were as busy murdering each other as fighting the
so-called fascists(1). Mr. Bryl ended up in Israel,
became a farmer and lived out his life there. Finally
having achieved a degree of spiritual tranquility, he
died in 1996. For a while then, Milstein was alone,
and, as the rules required, she had to be a member of
a cell elsewhere and report there, so we had an unofficial
commissar amongst us. We, our principal and everyone
else as well, had to be carefull, because one word from
Milstein could mean trouble for anyone. Being a naave
kid at the time it is difficult for me to say now, what
went on behind the scenes. I can only say that the personnel
were stable, no one disappeared in the middle of the
night or was hauled away by the KGB (the Polish equivalent
was the UB-the Bureau for Internal Security). She was
given a free hand in indoctrination but the other Mentors
pursued their own way of teaching and dealing with the
The political and social conditions
in Poland favored indoctrination or brainwashing, if
one prefers that term. There were, however, some spoilers.
The Favorable Conditions
We, the children, were all in
shock after our war years' experience, totally confused
as to what to think of the world around us. How could
all that have happened? - I myself sought some explanation
or at least some assurance that all this was a horrible
aberration in human history, never to be repeated. The
explanation given by Milstein was simple. "It is
all the fault of Capitalism, it is rotting and in its
end stage it produces fascism. What we have experienced,
is the last paroxysm of that rotten system. The new
shining path for mankind, communism, will not allow
such a calamity to ever occur again." Of course
at that time I was far from ready to point out that
communism had already committed atrocities comparable
to or exceeding those of fascism. That realization would
come to me in the future. At that time the only thing
we knew was that the Red Army had defeated the forces
of darkness and had saved our lives. There was a Russian
army unit stationed nearby, as was the case throughout
Poland at the time. One of their tasks was to guard
the orphanage from possible attack by Polish "reactionary
and antisemitic rioters or the armed anticommunist underground."
The threat was real and we were very concerned and frightened.
It was the time of Kielce, a town where a few barely
alive Jewish Holocaust survivors were nursing themselves
back to life. A Polish mob, incited by officials, as
was eventually discovered, after the fall of communism
(2). killed 47 weak and defenseless Jews in a pogrom
on July 14, 1946. We were frightened and armed ourselves
illegally. The orphanage personnel turned a blind eye
to it. Most of our weapons came from those Russian troops.
We got them by begging and trading small items, but
mostly by pestering the officers until they gave us
their surplus stuff. Eventually we acquired impressive
firepower, including submachine guns. Once again, for
us the Russians were the good guys, and we dismissed
their misbehavior in the neighborhood. It was known
that some of the soldiers were stealing from the farmers
or committing other misdeeds. These incidents troubled
us, and we ran to comrade Milstein for explanations,
which she always had. We forgot about the occurrences
that did not neatly fitt into Milstein's glorification
of the Soviet Union soon after these troops moved out.
We wondered later how it was possible for those who
experienced Soviet life (Milstein survived the war in
the Soviet Union) not to become disillusioned and to
continue to peddle that ideology, which should be considered
by any standards as willful and criminal misrepresentation
of reality. She was not alone, there was a slew of such
believers who came with the Red Army and were the instruments
of Stalin's scheme to communize Polish society, which
was historically anti-Soviet. A lot of those were idealistic
Jews, who held the misguided belief that they would
build a better brand of communism, their own. This is
still the mantra of the contemporary left, here in the
US and in Europe, in academia and elsewhere-"We
will do it better". Those stupid, well-meaning
bastards, they don't know what they are talking about.
For us, at that time, the overriding concerns were elsewhere.
We were in danger and under anti-Semitic harassment
at school; we also had to learn furiously to make up
the lost years. Milstein characterized Anti-Semitism
and the Kielce massacre as the last vestiges of a rotten
system, one that the communists were struggling to eradicate
from the face of the earth. There is no question that
she naively and with her whole heart believed in what
she was teaching or rather preaching. She later paid
with her life for that exorbitantly fervent belief.
Initially most of the kids from the orphanage went to
school in the nearby suburb of Radogoszcz. In the early
days when communism had not yet been consolidated and
had not managed to put every facet of public or private
life under its control, the schools continued their
traditional prewar way of teaching. We had the old textbooks
and the prewar teachers, who basically were anticommunists;
we therefore had to deal with a lot of contradictions
between school and comrade Milstein. We also had Ms.
Lucy Gold directly responsible for our "middle-aged"
group. She was a prewar Mentor and a survivor of Auschwitz,
had no idea what communism was all about and did not
care. In the evenings when we were all in bed she read
to us romantic stories from the American Civil War.
She liked America and obviously we had a mass of questions;
the answers were in sharp contrast with comrade Milstein's
teachings. All this and the school-sown seeds soon went
dormant for a good while after communism silenced any
politically incorrect ideas or expressions. Nevertheless
this early exposure to knowledge later forbidden in
school and life sank in deep and burst to the surface
in some of us at the time we entered university and
professional life. Interestingly, not all of us had
experienced these awakenings from the deep ingrained
deception. And, more interestingly, that awakaning often,
but not always, coincided with middle and upper class
social backgrounds, especially the bourgeoisie from
which I came. The kids in school who had a strong family
tradition of anti-sovietism were much less vulnerable
to indoctrination, they went into a deep hiding mode
where they perfunctorily went along with the trappings
of socialism just to wait it out. A good illustration
of that was what happened after Stalin's death in 1953.
The feeling of loss was very profound for some part
of the population, it was a feeling akin to facing a
catastrophe-what will humanity do now, without the guidance
of that wise father of nations; those who were in the
waiting mode rejoiced or had a lot of fun with the somber
official mourning. My future wife Elizabeth remembered
wetting her panties one time from jokes and laughter
as she and her teen-age friends engaged in brazen mocking
at one of many official events of mourning and wailing,
where attendance was compulsory.
This elementary school epitomized
Polish society's attitude towards the pitiful remnants
of the Jewish Holocaust survivors and, worse, to the
children. It dramatically lessened the influence it
could have had in immunizing us against the indoctrination
of likes of comrade Milstein and especially those that
came later, when the indoctrination pressure became
intense in the special schools we were sent to. There
were two aspects to that antisemitic harassment. The
Polish kids were constantly casting slurs and the boys
would pick fights with us. The teachers reinforced that
atmosphere. Religion was an important part of the school's
curriculum and some of the teachers would use it as
a tool to humiliate us. Lectures always began with a
Catholic prayer at the beginning of the school day and
the instruction to us was:
"All Jews should stand at
attention when Christian children pray."
We, the Jewish kids, had to leave
the classroom and wait out the hours of religious instruction
in the hallways. We knew that the kids were whipped
into pity for Christ's lot, which was blamed on the
Jews. The Polish kids tore into us every so often after
these priest instructors left the school premises. I
can remember their pious faces with the sinister smile
of holy mischief well done. That school became a torturous
path of learning.
One day the history teacher said:
"Sven, I would like you
to stay a while after school, I need to talk to you."
I waited to be told the following,
and I remember it verbatim more than fifty years later.
"Sven, I want you to know
that you are excellent in history, but I can not give
you an "A," because I would be accused by
other teachers of unduly favoring Jews. I wanted you
to know, so as not to discourage you from studying.
That is all."
This incredible intolerance of
us in the face of what had happened was and is amazing.
The Poles were aware of the brutal annihilation of the
Jewish population, they were witnesses to it and they
themselves were subject to much of that German brutality,
yet they did not have the humanity to at least leave
us alone. That pushed us further into the realm of comrade
Milstein's world, at least to think that maybe her vision
as it pertained to the Jewish question might have some
validity. Little did we know, at that time, about the
communist movement's history of perverse and complex
anti-Semitism and especially Stalin's actions and attitudes.
So we slogged through our days in Poland and witnessed
a steady tightening of control over public life. We
were later sent to special schools that were free of
religious instruction. These schools were called TPD
(The Friends Of Children Society) and were state run
like the others but were under the Communist Party ideological
control. They were designed as models that would make
inroads into the whole system to eliminate all religion
and to remake all schools in their mold. This was eventually
In the meantime life in the orphanage
ran smoothly, sheltered from the outside world once
we got home from school, which was virtually our only
outside contact. Essentially life was good-we learned,
worked and played and had a sense of purpose and progress.
The ideological pressure came from comrade Milstein;
the other personnel could not have cared less about
any specific ideology and went on with what is considered
normal life. Milstein's emphasis was on rooting out
religion first. Religion is an obvious competitor for
the control of minds and souls. Communism adopted the
first commandment and applied it to itself. "I
am the Lord thy God... Thou shalt have no other gods
before me." She succeeded splendidly. It was easy;
the fundamental question to ask was "How could
God allow such a calamity to take place if he existed
or was ever in control?" We all came from religious
homes, my parents were religious and my father took
me to the synagogue every Saturday; they never lost
faith even in the face of the greatest adversity. Comrade
Milstein however washed our faith away so thoroughly
that it never returned. An interesting occurrence took
place in the orphanage some time later after the war.
New Jewish kids became scarce, and the available spaces
were allocated to Polish kids. At one time we got a
load of them, from a Catholic convent, in line with
curtailing religious upbringing. Catholic nuns in institutions
attached to the convent had raised these teenage kids.
Without exception they could not have been more cynical
about religion. That was a surprise to us, and of course
it was water for comrade Milstein's mill. I knew exactly
what the source of that cynicism was from Cynthia, one
of the girls, whom I describe in my memoirs under the
title "Very Intimately Personal".
The trauma of the war years slowly
subsided and the indoctrination effort was more subtle,
not too burdensome, and moreover we concerned ourselves
with teenager's stuff. Whatever time was left after
school and home chores, was devoted to sports, reading,
and pranks on girls. A good part of the time was devoted
to inducing the personnel to tell us stories from their
lives. There were a number of these people, kitchen
staff, guards, and workers on the premises of our rather
large establishment, not forgetting our school truck
driver. The most colorful guys were the guards recruited
among demobilized, Soviet and Polish armies.
I will dwell here for a moment
on some of the personalities who etched themselves into
our memories. Of course as adolescents, having grown
up mostly without a normal family setting and feeling
our hormones become active, we became very interested
in the lives of the adults around us, and always provoked
some discussion on taboo subjects which we could not
discuss with our Mentors. The adults were all very caring
and helpful. Here are some memory bits about those people
who attempted to live their lives without interference
from the comrades and who kept a good distance from
Godlewski came to us from a mental
institution. He marched into Poland with the Polish
army and went to his home village to find his family.
On arriving he learned that his entire family had been
hidden and sheltered from being taken to an extermination
camp by a local Polish farmer. As was often the case
some scum betrayed the set-up to the Germans and Godlewski's
family perished together with the Polish farmer's. Godlewski
took his submachine gun and killed the entire family
of the informer. He went into such an uncontrollable
mental state that he was declared insane, discharged
from the army and placed in one of the infamous mental
institutions near Warsaw, called Tworki. Upon release
he was placed with us as a guard. I vividly remember
him from an incident in the forest where we went to
try out my submachine gun assembled from parts obtained
from a Russian officer. I was concerned about getting
into trouble for that, and worried that somebody might
hear the shooting, spot us and inform the authorities.
Mr. Godlewski's answer was:
" Do not worry one little
bit, I have my papers from the insane asylum, they can
do nothing to us."
Godlewskis's tales of his wartime
exploits were inexhaustible. We liked to listen to how
he always came out on top of any situation with the
Germans. At times his behavior was a bit strange, but
we liked Mr. Godlewski.
The Lifschitz Family
Marisa was short and had some kind of physical impairment.
She walked with a limp, slightly bent over. She was
the Mentor of the very young kids, so we were not often
in contact with her. She seemed to be a nice person.
Her husband Moses was a guard and they lived in one
of the utility buildings. Squabbles broke out between
them and they usually became public. One I could not
forget, because it seemed so exciting and bizarre at
the time. I heard Marisa shouting loudly at Mr. Lifschitz.
I went closer and asked her what was the matter, why
was she so angry, Mr. Lifschitz seemed to be such a
nice guy. Her response in a raised voice was:
" I told him so many times,
when he ejaculates, he should do it into a bucket. So
much stuff is coming out that I have to wash the linen
every time, and how many times a week can I do this
in my condition?! He could fill a bucket full in no
Mr. Lifschitz would smile gently
and say nothing. Otherwise they were a very loving couple.
I only remember Mr. Korn because of his extremely fat
wife (she was our seamstress) and a short incident on
the stairs of the main house. We always pitied him and
wondered how he did it with Bella. We challenged each
other to finally ask him about that, but none of the
youngsters had the courage or audacity to do it. One
time I talked to Mr. Korn standing on the stairs of
the main house. I was contemplating delicately settling
the matter for my friends without offending the so very
nice Mr. Korn. Suddenly a girl, the daughter of one
of the greenhouse workers, strolled by. She was about
seventeen and very shapely, a poster girl for Nazi propaganda
art for Arian beauty, blond, tall and lovely. Mr. Korn
fixed his gaze on her exquisitely formed behind and,
licking his lips, said:
" You know, that girl is
ripe for plucking, somebody should consider going after
The expression on his face was
one of sadness and resignation.
Ms. Martha and Mr. Mitelstadt
Ms. Martha was a German woman who did not flee westward
with the retreating German army. There were a number
of them working the greenhouse. They were essentially
free, but under restriction not to travel and loosely
watched. Ms. Martha was the chief in the kitchen, and
the kitchen was a place of high interest to all of us.
Not that we were starving, but we had structured meals
and allocations. The economic situation in Poland after
the war was not very good. With our high physical activity
we were always on the look-out for a snack. This is
where Ms. Martha came in; she always set aside some
basics to give us when we came by to say hello. She
was a beautiful woman in her thirties and the epitome
of kindness and caring; we liked her very much. Soon
we noticed Mr. Mitelstadt, a gray-haired, tall, stooped
man, who was one of the handy-man, a Mr. fix-it who
hang around Martha quite a bit. Eventually they got
married and later emigrated to Germany under the German
repatriation action. What an ironic twist of events,
a Jew, a holocaust survivor, marrying a German. That
perhaps was understandable in the case of Ms. Martha,
we all loved her, but moving to Germany?! I guess any
means of escape from communism was acceptable. Some
people had an instinctive foreboding of things to come.
On our first visit to New York after coming to the U.S.
we met the owner of the motel where we stayed; he was
"I escaped in 1945, right
after the war ended."
" You did the right thing
obviously, what exactly prompted you to be so smart?"
"My uncle in America was
sending packages with coffee. I used to sell the coffee
(a sought-after commodity) and bought necessities. One
day I was summoned to the KGB (UB) and interrogated
about who was sending the packages, why so much coffee
and what was I doing with it?"
"Yeah, it figures."
"Right after that I decided
to run. I had no idea about anything political, but
I figured that if they could interrogate me about a
pound of coffee, I had better put the greatest distance
possible between these guys and my persona."
Contrary to our approache to
Ms. Martha we avoided any contact with the other Germans
working in the greenhouse. We saw them going about their
jobs in sullen moods, like automatons. We often wondered,
if they fully realized what their nation had done. What
did they think and feel. Were they regretful, did they
suffer pangs of conscience? They could see with their
own eyes the crippled, barely alive remnants of their
nation's handiwork. Well, I got an answer to that. I
was returning with mother from town. There was a long
walk from the suburban tram station to our compound.
The last stretch leading to the premises was a beautiful
tree-lined alley. A few yards behind us was a group
of those greenhouse Germans going to work. At some point,
when we were not far from the house, they started mocking
my mother, making sarcastic remarks about her being
German and marrying and siding with the Jews. I have
many regrets about my behavior in the past; mostly for
timidity, and this incident makes me furious at myself
even today, fifty-five years later. I should have grabbed
a few stones and stoned those bastards; I was very proficient
in stone throwing. My Mother did not respond, we walked
in silence, and she never commented on it, dismissing
it like she did a lot of the evil she suffered from
people. It gives me great sorrow to think that only
now do I understand the suffering our mother went through
merely for one decision in her life, marrying my father,
a Jew. Regrets of past omissions are very common, in
my case so much more painful because of the immensity
of what she went through for us. It must be noted and
it gives credit to the Jewish communities along our
life journey, whether in the ghettos or in the time
after the war in the orphanage where she worked in the
kitchen, that she was fully accepted without any problems.
When she got ill she had the best treatment available
at the time and was placed in an ups-scale sanatorium.
There was no limit to her sacrifice for us, her children.
After the war there was a drive for overseas adoptions
out of the orphanage, and a couple from Australia wanted
to adopt my sister and me. Our mother wanted to go along
with that, for our sake. I was somewhat proud, when
recalling this incident in later years; I flatly refused
and did not even want to discuss it, although there
was all kinds of good reasons for it beeing put forward
by the people around us and by our mother herself. When
that issue was over I could see that my behavior gave
my mother some comfort.\
Our driver was another memorable character. He drove
us to school in the morning and collected some of us
in the afternoon; some came home by themselves from
closer schools. A modern school bus it was not; we were
packed like sardines in the cargo hold of a large Bedford
truck obtained from the American military lend-lease
supplies. Through the years there was not a single mishap,
a lot of fun though, teasing girls.
Fraszczyk was a tall skinny guy
with a fair and densely freckled complexion. He had
a large bony face with a mane of red hair on top of
it. He came to us from the army, where he had been a
Soviet tank crewman. We pestered him for tales of his
wartime exploits and especially his successes with women.
His tales about that were so graphic that they became
a splendid substitute for pornographic material, which
of course was unthinkable for us to obtain or even to
look at. We also admired him for his mechanical skills
in keeping the old Bedford running. I was always around
him whenever he was fixing something. We also admired
his colorful dress and especially the nice half boots
he said he stripped from a dead German officer. One
day I saw a silhouette in the distance moving towards
the compound that looked somewhat familiar. Coming closer
I recognized Mr. Fraszczyk with a large bundle under
his arm, but barefoot.
" Mr. Fraszczyk, what happened
to your boots?"
"I sold them and bought a
bunch of books, on sale I am going to college."
I met Fraszczyk later on in college.
He was ahead of me by a year or two and in constant
trouble for his manner of dressing. It was dangerous
to wear striped socks that resembled the kind that were
fashionable in the West. Fraszczyk finished college
with some difficulty, worked a little bit as an engineer
and emigrated to Israel in the second post-war wave
of Jews leaving Poland, in 1957. This was the second
opportunity to leave communism after the initial opportunity
in 1945 ended in total closure, it came, as result of
internal upheaval in the Soviet block and in Poland
in particular (more on this later). I heard later that
he committed suicide in Israel. This is how colorful
lives slide into oblivion, and there is no one willing
and talented enough to pass on the life story of a Fraszczyk
to future generations.
Nurse Kaplan was in charge of our health. She was physically
a robust woman, pleasant, not very attractive but not
ugly either. She was a mixture of terror and amiability.
Terror when she performed her duties. It was very difficult
to keep our large community of kids out of health related
dangers. Any infection would spread like wildfire among
kids living and sleeping in close quarters. Her goal
was to keep the isolation ward empty and she accomplished
that with ruthless efficiency. Terrors included her
periodic head inspections and keeping haircuts very
short at all times. Then there were the humiliating
genital inspections in the shower room where we had
to stand in line and nurse Kaplan, still a young woman,
would go from boy to boy (I was fourteen) and thoroughly
inspect everybody's penis and vicinity (We called it
schwanz (tail) parade). This was often the site of parasitic
infections brought back from school. An infected kid
would be ashamed to disclose it, and before long it
would spread despite the strictly enforced draconian
hygiene of nurse Kaplan. In spite of that we liked nurse
Kaplan, for when she was not on her designated mission
and on duty she would tell us stories and dirty jokes.
She also helped us with our Russian language homework.
Her approach to everyday life issues was straightforward,
she did not beat around the bush. Crude and simple;
we liked that very much as a refreshing change from
the lofty approaches in school and from the officially
approved manner of behavior. On her days off she went
to the city on Saturdays to see her boyfriend. She would
"I am going for some love games with my boyfriend
in town. Behave while am out, see you on Monday."
We tried to get a little revenge
for the Schwanz (tail) parades in the shower room by
scratching off a bit of the paint on the outside shower
room window. We waited to catch a glimps of her taking
a shower. We managed eventually to get an opportunity;
I was at the hole having a good look into the shower
room when suddenly she looked up as if spotting something
and guessed what was going on. She bent over to show
her rather robust behind to the window. That was the
end of our peeping on nurse Kaplan.
Nurse Kaplan eventually went to Israel and died there
an old, lonely and abandoned woman. She died in a shabby
nursing home, booted out of her home by the children
of her last, late husband. Some of the orphanage children
who ended up in Israel occasionally kept in touch with
her, but what proved difficult in later years because
she stopped recognizing people. There were numerous
other people who entered our lives, but they were not
as colorful and our memories of them are less vivid.
They were all exceptionally decent. Some went so far
as to help some of the kids who went to college by sending
money from their meager salaries. A good example of
this generosity was Mr. Holland, the accountant.
One other factor has added to
this caldron of nationalities, politics and the goings-on
in our everyday lives. This was the Zionist movement,
whose advocates came to lobby us children to emigrate
to Palestine. Since communism was not yet in total control
they could do it. Their rationale was irrefutable; we
were not wanted here anyway, how could we live in a
cemetery where our people's remains were scattered so
that we did not even know where their graves were? We
need to build Jewish nationhood to finally end this
eternal string of calamities befalling us with regularity
through the ages. We were torn apart, ping-pong balls
between comrade Milstein and the Zionist agitators.
Milstein promised the eradication of anti-Semitism,
a shining future of brotherhood and social justice.
The agonizing about this was excruciating. A lot of
children decided to go with the Zionists. Those who
were too tired or did not dare to plunge into the unknown
after all they had suffered, stayed. Eventually after
years most ended up in Israel anyway, but that was yet
to come. My mother tried to take advantage of the possibility
to leave Poland and took us out of the orphanage into
a kibbutz that had formed in the city in preparation
for leaving for Palestine. Her strategy was to first
get us out of Poland; she had had enough of Poland.
Besides, that was about the only way to escape from
communism during those early years, and she instinctively
hated communism, although without much understanding.
Our Zionist careers ended quickly. My mother got ill
and ended up in a sanatorium and we children were back
in the orphanage under the mentorship of comrade Milstein,
our journey back into commie-land began in earnest.
Mother died in 1949 of tuberculosis and heart failure
in the hospital. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery
I was not the best material for
comrade Milstein to work with. Shy in first encounters
with people, an introvert and rather distrustful, I
was adamantly against joining any youth organization.
The Party drove hard to put youth into established,
controllable organizations whose trappings were supposed
to attract. The Hitlerjugend is a prime example, so
are the Soviet Pioneers. In Polish society there was
the strong, long-standing tradition of a Boy Scout movement.
It was non-political, and if anything its teachings
were at odds with communist ideology. The Party tried
frantically to get that under control. They tried to
form competing organizations under their control for
each age group. Eventually they only succeeded in forming
one for the older youth, the ZMP (Alliance of Polish
Youth) and laboriously managed to get control over the
Boy Scouts. The orphanage formed the Young Pioneers
a counterweight to the Scouts; it was not enough to
have the kids under constant control after all. In the
familiar surroundings of the orphanage I was not as
shy among my peers, and soon showed some leadership
capabilities, wich lead to my being appointed to organizational
functions concerned with our daily lives and the children's
council. However I would not join a structure with fanfare
to facilitate political teachings. Because of my status
the pressure on me mounted, but I would not yield. This
was not because of any political awareness, but I felt
that all those drills and marches, uniforms and saluting
were ridiculous and not worthy of my serious consideration.
Sitting second from the right is Akiwa Brand, fifth
is Jerry Frydman. Standing before the last on the left
is Jerry Dulman, and the last one sitting is Daniel
Witelski, in the USA since 1968; his life story would
be great material for a literary giant like John Steinbeck.
Daniel is living a torturous, bizarre and horrifying
life, so much so that one wonders if there is anyone
watching from above. The only decent times Daniel has
had, it seems, were the orphanage and school years.
He was an A student, but that did not help him any when
he entered adulthood. We have lost track of a few of
those in the picture, but we know where most of them
are and what they are doing.
The pioneers within the orphanage
did not last long. There simply was no time left for
this obvious silliness after homework an chores, the
important stuff had been done. Nevertheless "they"
tried to put this other layer of control over the already
existing ones, even though every minute of our time
throughout the day had been filled and organized without
these "pioneers". After school we ate a meal
a short recess followed and then homework was done,
and checked by the Tutor, and only after that, was there
time for games, reading or activites such as woodworking
or whatever else the kids liked to do. This time was
precious, but sometimes it was interrupted because small
domestic chores had to be done. On days when school
was out we had to do larger domestic tasks. Somebody
tried to cut short the time we had to ourselves for
what everybody regarded as silliness. But it did not
work. The kids just did not go along. In the photo one
can see obvious skepticism and boredom on some of the
faces, even though that photograph was probably staged.
I do not remember whose idea it was, but it goes to
the credit of Mrs. Falkowska that she could see the
futility of it and let it die rather quickly. She certainly
had to give it a try since the idea came from Milstein.
The reader might wonder why girls
have not been mentioned so far. There was about an equal
number of girls in the orphanage of all ages up to just
before college age, which was about eighteen. Nowadays
such a situation would be fraught with all kinds of
trouble and difficulties for the teachers and perhaps
considered "explosive". That yet was not the
case at all; we were treated equally with a de-emphasis
of gender differences in learning duties and games.
There was no obstacle for a girl if she wanted to join
a volleyball team. We had a song and song dance group
under the direction of a renowned choreographer and
the girls gravitated there along with some boys. Of
course we had romances here and there, all platonic
and well-tolerated, no pregnancies. Sex was taboo, reserved
for later and for marriage. Inter-gender relationships
could not have been smoother. Though, practical jokes
were quite frequent. The biggest pranksters were Jacob
and his buddy Richard. To give just a sample of their
ingenuity, I need to recall the following incident.
They sneaked unseen into the older girls' bedroom and
poured some water under haughty Julia's bed. Then they
ran around collecting spectators to see how Julia had
wet her bed at night. They collected a huge crowd; everybody
wanted to see Julia's mishap with their own eyes. Jacob
and Richard then had to apologize publicly to Julia
at a specially called meeting, their happiness about
the whole affair quite obviously showing on their faces
while they apologized as directed.
Since all our Tutors were women, the girls were able
to get the basics and emotional support during their
transition to womanhood. The boys as mentioned, got
some of that from the adult male personnel, not always
in the proper form. Nurse Kaplan, was very helpful to
boththe girls and the boys. Some married after leaving
the orphanage; I was one of the few who did. Many of
us men keep in touch with "the girls" to this
day; they are all scattered around the world, from St.
Louis where Felicia Wertz lives to Denmark where Erna,
one of our more vivacious "sisters" lives.
Unfortunately I have no photographs. This co-ed environment
requires a separate story. I have not attempted to tell
it here to avoid straying from my basic theme of describing
the political and social environment in which I lived
in Poland under communism.
I did well in school; the only disastrous areas were
composition, grammar and spelling, quite enough to keep
me from passing the all important maturity test, which
was a passage to college. I did very well in most of
the other subjects, especially math and physics. Because
of those marks the teachers' body showed some leniency.
A now funny and memorable incident occurred at the time
our group was nearing the end of high school and it
was time to decide what guidance should be given to
individual kids about their direction in life. Our director
Mrs. Falkowska had a young psychiatrist friend and she
thought it an excellent idea to test the kids for various
aptitudes. She was a young lady with a slender, shapely
figure, shining thick chestnut hair arranged in a chignon
with lighter streaks on her left side, almost blond;
a lady out of my adolescent dreams. The psychiatrist,
Ms. Maleviak gave me all her tests. After it was over
Mrs. Falkowska called me in and said,
"Sven, you did very poorly
on the test. Ms. Malewiak said that you appear to be
of very slow learner and she thinks your intelligence
level is only fit for you to become a carpenter at best.
Did you do this on purpose?"
"Absolutely not, director,
I tried to do my best. I must say that she is a very
beautiful woman and her hair is just the way I always
dreamed it whould be, if I ever got a girlfriend."
I badly wanted to become an aircraft design engineer,
which was considered one of the toughest branches of
the engineering school, with very limited admittance
and high entry barriers! I carried that assessment of
my abilities into college and into my professional life,
never able to forget that incident. Ms. Maleviak's predictive
powers did not match her beauty in another case as well.
There was this tall boy who had lost his arm during
the war, Jerry Frydman. The remarkable thing about him
was that he would not accept any special favors because
of his condition. In the morning, when we had limited
time to make our beds, dress and lace up our shoes-just
like boot camp-he achieved such perfection with his
one arm that he was always ready before most of the
other kids. Ms. Maleviak rated him to be fit only to
become a brush maker. Jerry ended up being a successful
professor of mathematics in Lodz and later in Israel.
In retrospect, I see that I was
blessed with a firm and unswerving desire to get an
education in engineering. The only other strong passion
permeating me was girls, which proved to be an incapacitating
factor. Fortunately I was not like some of the other
kids, who were clueless about what they wanted to do
and ended up being lifelong Communist Party functionaries,
courtesy of comrade Milstein's indoctrination. Some
others went into the humanities, and that required active
participation in political activities, a display of
loyalty to Party goals and some zeal. A number went
to medical schools and this will bring me to the communist
brand of affirmative action, but first a few words about
the TPD schools. I shied away from involvement in any
political action as much as I could, mainly because
of my other interests and mistrust of anything political.
Nevertheless I was curious about attaining some sort
of world view, some sort of guiding life philosophy.
Generally, apart from comrade Milstein's pushing of
the Marxist interpretation of the world we also had
the "old fashioned" Ten Commandments with
some modifications. The biggest modification was the
tenet that Party pronouncements took precedent over
anything else, and these might change from day to day,
no matter what was moral yesterday. We were told that
the principles of some of the Ten Commandments were
self-evident social principles and that God was superfluous.
At that stage, I was listening, reading and searching
without being firmly convinced of any Marxist theory,
but it slowly started rubbing in at the edges. The example
given to us to emulate was that of a Soviet boy, Pavlik
Morozov*, "a hero" who overheard his parents
making anti-Soviet remarks and denounced them to the
authorities. They were arrested and sent to the gulag,
and Pavlik continued his loyal and happy life without
them in a state orphanage (we were not told that he
did not live long or what precisely happened to him).
That seemed to us to be a crazy set of motivations or
events; we still remembered our parents and the bond
between us. We were, after all, defiant Holocaust survivors
and this and similar crap never soiled my conscience
or that of any of the kids in the orphanage. We survived
by chance, but often more so because we were instinctively
able to correctly and to our benefit evaluate information
coming our way.
TPD No. 1
The TPD schools were established to make inroads into
the educational system in order to rid it of religious
instruction. Since the Polish nation was Catholic and
the church had its traditional firm grip on spiritual
and social life in Poland, it was not advisable to change
that situation by decree. The Party decided to take
it slowly but relentlessly and to curtail the power
of the church on many fronts. Anti-religious agitation
and propaganda became furious and chicanery against
the church was practiced wherever possible. We were
relieved when we landed in the TPDs, because finally
we no longer had to deal with expression' of anti-Semitism;
it was absolutely forbidden, and we breathed freely.
No more humiliating remarks from teachers, no more fights
and slurs. The school population was composed of children
of Party members or of children from suitably progressive
social backgrounds, with a good sprinkling of children
of Jewish origin. All Jewish parents were eager to get
their children into these schools for the above mentioned
reasons. In my age group there were a number of Jewish
children who were from non-communist, Zionist, backgrounds.
These were quickly declared enemies of the people and
though tolerated, became "second class citizens"
and had to step gingerly, with their heads down, not
giving anyone an excuse to expel them or take political
action against them. Most of them were marking time
in Poland, waiting for an opportunity to escape. It
was easy enough for the adult political "organizers",
who were present in every such school, to create a charged
political atmosphere and set one group of kids against
the other. Even though this school had much higher standards
and better teachers, it nevertheless became a preview
of later conditions under communism, where honesty,
integrity, uprightness and loyalty became empty terms.
There was, in our class, a nice
plump Jewish girl by the name of Zielinska (a polonized
name from the Jewish Greenberg; she turned out not to
be so green). She "fell in love" with a fellow
named Ziental. Ziental was of working class background,
a factory worker's son, very low on the prewar social
scale, which could not be more perfect. Zielinska however
was a petty bourgeoise; her parents owned a very small
shop of some kind-that was still allowed. It was very
fashionable to attach oneself to pure working class
circles, at least to mingle with them. These class distinctions
were very important. A worker or peasant background
(the poorer the better) were tickets to all kinds of
promotions and advantages. Every day Zielinska brought
Ziental very nice lunch sandwiches, which he accepted
for a while. Then after some time Ziental had a change
of heart and asked Zielinska not to bring him sandwiches
any more, but the girl would not stop and insisted that
he accept them- true love and concern for an "undernourished"
worker's son. Later came the weekly meetings of our
youth organization, ZMP (Alliance of Polish Youth),
an extension of the Communist Party. At that time I
was one of the rare holdouts, and not yet a member,
but I dutifully attended the weekly meetings since they
purportedly dealt with general classroom concerns.
"Any other issues today?"
"Comrade chairman, I have
a problem. Zielinska is pursuing me and stubbornly bringing
me lunches, which I refuse. I do not want any favors
from somebody who has bourgeois views and with whom
I do not agree ideologically. I am hereby asking her,
in the presence of all my colleagues, to desist, and
if she does not I am asking our organization to take
steps against her."
"I hereby ask colleague Zielinska
to stop bringing lunches for Ziental. This will be noted
in the proceedings of this meeting."
Next meeting, again, "Any
"Comrade chairman, I would
like our organization to check information I have obtained,
regarding colleague Ziental's father who was a member
of the reactionary Union of Support for the fascist
government in prewar Poland and therefore is not fit
to be in our organization."
"It is so noted, we will
check the information."
The information was confirmed and Ziental lost his mantle
of origin purity and any possibility of favored treatment,
for college admission, for example.
We were hardly children anymore; around sixteen, give
or take a year or two. This sequence of events etched
itself into my memory for its shocking implications.
It basically ment that a private matter had been politicized
and a government organization used to solve the issue.
What shocked the most was the eagerness with wich the
members meddled in private lives, their ruthlessness
and unprincipled behavior in using any foul means to
achieve a objective. I did not verbalize all this at
the time, but felt, that "There was something rotten
in the kingdom of Denmark."
Of course, we the orphanage children,
were pretty much isolated from the goings on of society
at large. We were not aware of the arrests, the disappearances,
the intimidation of workers, the ruthless campains against
the remnants of the private sector; the small shopkeepers,
artisans and vegetable growers around the city. As I
have stated, Zielinska's family ran a small shop of
By now we were close to finishing
high school and anxiety arose about getting into college.
One of my good friends, Ed Butermilk who had the purest
of social origins, excelled in sports and was universally
liked, got elected General Chairman of our school Youth
Organization. He took me aside one day and said,
"Sven, my friend, you are
among the very few who have not joined. The organization
does not care about most of the trashy leftovers; they
are outcasts. But I cannot understand why you are holding
out, it is sheer stupidity, you will not get into college
That did it; I joined, about
a year before finishing high school. I tried to show
a little bit of politically positive activity to become
a member in good standing. Ed in the meantime became
hugely popular. This went on for a short while until
a very important meeting was announced. Three regional
Party Committee members came to the meeting, one of
"Comrades! We, your elder
brothers in the Party, have become concerned about the
very dangerous situation in your school. The Napoleonic
tendencies of your chairman Ed Buttermilk have corrupted
the upper management of your organization. He ignores
the instructions coming from us, does not conduct the
proper political activities and rules like a dictator.
The full list of specific charges will be read now by
comrade such and such."
This was done, and after a short discussion a vote was
taken to remove Ed from his office; the voting was by
raising hands. The conference room was packed.
"Who is in favor of the
motion to remove Ed Buttermilk from office?"
It seemed that everybody was.
"Who is against?"
Mine was the only hand raised.
The shock and subsequent fear for my college chances
were great, but I never did regret that vote, ever.
It was announced that the Government
had a program to send a number of college candidates
to the Soviet Union to be educated in the best and most
progressive universities in the world. Applications
would be taken within the school; I applied. An added
benefit was a scholarship, triple the one that could
be expected domestically, and I was destitute, not a
penny to my soul. After a while I was called into the
principal's office, to see director Czerwinski, a very
"Sven, I have a sad mission
to perform. I must to tell you that you were rejected
for going to the Soviet Union to study. The Party and
the Youth Organization consider you politically unreliable.
I think you made some mistakes along the way, and in
your papers you answered that your social background
is petty bourgeois, that finished you off. You are an
excellent student and if it was up to me, you would
My anxiety about being able to
get into college really grew after that. Years later
I laughed at my devastation at the time and was very
happy I had been denied that privilege. Much later I
became the boss of some of these Moscow University graduates.
They were frequently trained in narrow specialties with
huge gaps in theoretical and general knowledge. I think
utilitarian compartmentalization was the reason. After
a short "apprenticeship" in the technical
area for which they were supposedly trained, they were
transferred and given administrative positions in order
to climb a bureaucratic ladder.
My continuing inability to master
Polish writing, grammar and spelling gave use to future
developments. The teacher, when looking at my compositions,
would sit in silence, in utter exasperation, not knowing
how to react. She could not understand how a seemingly
intelligent boy was unable to squeeze out half a page
of decent writing; sometimes the stuff I submitted was
beyond the range of assessment. Nothing could be said;
there was no quality in it at all, just a heap of mistakes
and nonsense. Not that I spoke a foreign language. Polish
should have been considered my native tongue. The situation
became so critical that Mrs. Falkowska had the idea
of accepting Ed Buttermilk into the orphanage. He lived
away from his hamlet in a boarding house and jumped
at the chance to live with us for free in exchange for
preparing me for the maturity exam, a big deal in Europe;
without passing it there was no college career. The
final month before these exams passed in furious preparation
under the relentless and grueling tutoring by Ed. I
thought I was under double jeopardy because of my political
unreliability and that cursed Polish language.
The fatefull day finally arrived
and I went to the exams as if mounting a scaffold. Little
did I know that the situation was not that simple. I
was mostly an A student in all other subjects. The Polish
teacher therefore had a stake in not creating the impression
that a strong average B+ student was unable to acquire
rudimentary skills in the Polish language under her
instruction. She hovered around my exam station most
of the time giving me a little helping hand, not too
much, not doing anything illegal, just providing a little
oversight. I knew then that I had a chance. When I came
before the table, where the exam board sat to hand out
the diplomas, the chairman said:
"Sven, we had a tough time
with you, but the vote was to pass you, only because
of your other grades, and we hope you will be forced
to learn Polish in college and in life. Good luck."
On to College
I applied to the Polytechnic in the ancient city of
Wroclaw (known before the war by its German name, Breslau)
where they had an Aeronautical Department. The competition
was fierce, ten candidates for each opening. It was
during the application process that the communist version
of affirmative action entered into play. After the written
exams there was an interview, which was usually decisive,
regardless of the results of the written exams, and
in spite of their being officially declared as all-important.
Moments like these one never forgets.
"Mr. Sonnenberg, tell us
a little about yourself. About your family background,
where you come from, and why do you want to be an aeronautical
engineer? There are so many other occupations which
will let you serve the Socialist Fatherland."
The first and last questions
were open traps. The middle one was my salvation. I
fudged a little bit on the first one giving my father
as being a traveling salesman hoping that they did not
have my Soviet application. The second was a savior
because of the orphanage; six years of indoctrination,
no family influence anymore, the chance that I could
turn into a loyal guy after all. With the third question
I did not do too well, but passed. Instead of proudly
announcing that I had technical aptitudes and wanted
to work in aeronautics for the good of Socialism, I
was close enough by saying that I wanted to contribute
to the Polish aircraft industry.
I was admitted! The orphanage
tried to outfit me as best they could for my journey
into life. I got some new clothes, the distinguishing
feature of which was a cap with a very large brim that
my friends from college remember and make fun of at
every reunion. I also got a very small suitcase in which
three items rattled around, a loaf of bread, a round
cheese and my compass set. Among the freshmen, all coming
from proper homes, I must have looked like a strange
bird indeed in my poorly fitting clothes, each piece
from different outfit. Our aeronautical studies began
in front of the old and impressive University building.
The freshmen class was collected there in a large group.
An announcement was made that there was a need to sell
books to the city population. The instructions were
to form troikas spontaneously, to pick up the allocated
books, and go and sell them. I stood there looking around,
not knowing what to do. One student came over to me
and asked if I wanted to form a team with him. That
is how I met Joe with whom I created a lifelong bond.
I was cringing at the prospect of going from door to
door in the designated district, peddling communist
propaganda books. I can clearly recall the discomfort
of knocking on doors and trying to push Lenin's trash
on people. The initiation over, I felt pride and happiness
mixed with awe walking the halls of that renowned old
The seeds of tragedy had been
sown for many right at that exam interview, at the affirmative
action gate. After the first semester tests the class
stratified. A distinctive group of underachievers emerged.
These were mostly peasants or the vaunted proletariat
kids who got in because of the points given for proper
social background. The faculty was composed of old fiercely
demanding prewar professors and they totally dismissed
the progressive idea of promoting the proletariat offspring
and giving them favorable treatment. The professors
were "brutal" and no one could do anything
about it. They actually did not like and were silently
opposed to any manipulation and demanded performance.
This was of course at odds with the Party's political
goals. In response, the all-important ZMP youth organization
came up with the idea to pair the performers with those
less able to cope.
"Colleague Sven, your assignment
in the group will be to help and be responsible for
colleague Pytlasz. You will see to it that he gets passing
grades, moves along towards finishing college and applies
himself. We will arrange a separate room for both of
you, and you will report on colleague Pytlasz's progress
at our meetings."
So, I got a comfortable room
on the upper floor of a convent building, but the price
for that was a Sisyphean effort to pull colleague Pytlasz
along. He was a diligent and good fellow. He kneeled
every morning and evening at his bed and said his prayers,
sometimes aloud, asking God to give him strength and
ability. That, God had not grant him. He flunked out
after two years of mental torment. But that was when
I was no longer in charge; nevertheless I pitied those
guys because some of them desperately wanted to achieve;
somehow the mental capacity was not there. Only a limited
number of them finished college, and all strictly on
merit, some were real achievers not needing affirmative
action in the first place.
This is not to say that peasant
or proletarian backgrounds were mental impediments to
higher education, it simply testifies that government
meddling in natural processes is counterproductive or
disastrous. The Party's efforts were not so much a desire
to compensate for past wrongs when only the well-to-do
could afford college, but rather a need to create its
own loyal intellectual elite, faithful to the Party.
That backfired badly. Over the years the educated sons
of workers noticed that their own further progress was
severely curtailed, they could not earn to their capacity,
their children had difficulty getting into college because
now they no longer were pure proletarians. What these
children had to do was go to work at the lowest menial
jobs for two to three years, as bricklayers or such,
in order to attain the right status and then qualify.
What is more, the new elite started clustering in the
better neighborhoods and took special interest in improving
the schools for their kids. Suddenly the Party was faced
with exactly the situation it had tried to eliminate.
An elite more interested in self-improvement, hostile
to the Party's meddling in private life and yearning
for freedom from the shackles imposed by the political
system. What ingratitude!!! Judge Clarence Thomas comes
My college years were tumultuous
and memorable. I got a stipend and a dormitory room;
this was just enough for me not to starve. I qualified
for all this because of my complete and utter state
of poverty and lack of a family to give me any sort
of support. The only thing I had to do was maintain
my grades in the B+ range, which I did with great zeal
and not only to keep my stipend. If I failed to do that,
there was no mercy. Before I landed in the general college
dormitory I lived in a Jewish boarding house called
"Bursa;" it was run by some Jewish organization
jointly with the state. This was where destitute kids
without any family and too old for an orphanage ended
up after high school, when they attended college or
got jobs, or were in trade schools. For three months
I was there and, very unhappy. The activists, and there
was a plethora of them, of different shades of red or
with unclear political agendas, constantly organizing
sociopolitical meetings. I felt lost in that highly
charged intellectual environment-a bunch of Jewish besserwissers
(know-it-alls) pulling me every which way. I was non-religious,
politically nondescript and all I wanted was to study
aeronautics, not much else mattered. I soon became a
loner, a sort of outcast. I finally applied for the
general dormitory, which was almost exclusively filled
with pure Polish guys. I immediately found a group I
was comfortable with, and after the semester ended and
new dormitory arrangements were being made, Joe, the
guy I met during the book sale, proposed sharing a room.
There were four of us, and we formed a very close group
that stayed together all six years. Joe Lewalski a medium-height
guy of non-descript hair color somewhat resembling James
Dean, Adam Borowski, also of medium height, but extremely
skinny, so skinny that when a draft pushed a door open
and no one entered the room, it was said that it must
have been Adam. Adam was a chain smoker. Peter (Przemyslaw)
Krol was the tallest of all with a baby face and blond
hair, blue eyes and what seemed to be too much of a
liking for alcohol. I looked like a Jew. Short, dark
with a protruding nose, slightly deformed head and,
surprise, surprise, green eyes. Of vital importance
and of consuming concern to each of us, was our individual
standing with girls. We tried to explore that, so that
we could support each other in that area as best we
could. Peter provoked strong reactions in women; he
was liked or rejected, and when disliked, it was strong
dislike at first sight. Peter usually brought in the
ugliest girl he could find. We said, "Peter what
is it with you, that girl stinks!"
"That is my choice, you guys,
understand? I have to show those haughty bitches [in
the female dormitory] that in my eyes they do not amount
"O.K. Peter, O.K."
Joe, in spite of a certain handsomeness,
did not have very good luck with girls. Every relationship
he began was sort of forced and unsatisfactory. He was
the wittiest of us all, with a great sense of humor-jolly
good company. Adam, by my guess, should have been unattractive
to girls. They were not falling over themselves for
him, but there were certain types of women who would
latch onto Adam and would not let go. That was the case
with Madame Lis, a very cute redhead who pursued him
relentlessly. We had to help Adam escape when she showed
up, since he was not interested. Adam was mostly indifferent
to all that hoopla with the girls. He listened to our
frustrations and smiled gently as if saying, "Fools,
what is all this fuss about?" Adam later married
Wanda, and we pitied him. As for me, I was pathologically
shy around girls, and my dating scene, well... there
wasn't any. I did not think that there was a girl in
the world who would want me. That changed when I started
dating Cynthia, and I fell madly in love and did not
care much about other girls. My three friends took great
care in helping me along, doing everything they could
to promote that relationship. They were most considerate.
We married after I graduated. That marriage ended after
five unhappy years. I was about to say, five years too
many, but without that ordeal I would surely not have
met Elizabeth, a unique and very attractive woman. She
was unique not only because she endured me for thirty
six-years and probably would have continued had she
not been cut down by cancer, but because of unusual
combination of qualities she possessed. Qualities, I
would most certainly never find again. Of course I have
written a seperate essay about her.
Joe had an artistic talent, he could capture scenes
on paper, and I still have some of his drawings from
that time. In our class there was a woman, a bit older
than any of us. She was not pretty at all, but had amazing
sex appeal. The pull she exerted was strong, we were
at a loss to explain it, and some of us were quite crazy
about her; her name was Stacey Domin. One day Joe said,
"Hey guys, I need to dampen
your enthusiasm a little bit."
He showed us an impressively executed
drawing of an old, wrinkled and naked woman with a crucifix
necklace between her long hanging breasts.
"That is how she will look
not too long from now."
Eventually Ludwig got her, for
a while at least, and we were happy for Ludwig, but
The bond that had developed between
us was as strong as the best family ties could be. Now,
what about anti-Semitism? During that time and until
1952-53 it was strictly forbidden, and I felt it only
in a very subtle way from guys showing an unfriendly
attitude and avoiding my company. That did not bother
me in the least because I had my group, which was dubbed
the "kolkhoz" by others for the way we shared
between us the meager resources we had. If there was
a date, the dating guy would take the one suit we had,
and the best shoes, and the others would wait it out
in bed. My kolkhoz guys were totally devoid of any traces
of anti-Semitism, and our relationships developed into
lifelong bonds, especially between Joe and me. Feeling
the comfort of mutual support, we settled in for the
bumpy ride that was college life.
We had to deal with two fully loaded aspects of academic
life during those times. One obviously was learning.
The professorship was the old prewar cadre and mostly
apolitical or hostile to communism, as there were no
others available as yet. Besides, these professors wanted
to maintain the impression of how tough the aeronautical
department was-a little bit of self-promotion. We were
the marines of the college army and others viewed us
with respect mixed with pity for our cruel fate. We
were viewed as an elite suffering awful academic hardship
for the privilege. The professors maintained the prewar
atmosphere of Wilno University, where they all had taught
but which no longer belonged to Poland having been incorporated
into the Soviet Union. They addressed us as Mister in
defiance of the official push to use Colleague or Comrade.
They showed old fashioned courtesy to students, mixed
with steely demands and a reverence for the students
who excelled, viewing them as the hope for the continuation
of their own work. That lasted a full two years, years
we later remembered with nostalgia. Then in 1953 the
government decided that they had too many prospective
aeronautical engineers on their hands. The decision
was announced that the department was going to be dissolved
and about fifty percent of us would transfer to Warsaw,
the capital city. The selection process began once again,
amidst high anxiety, because most of us were crazy about
aeronautics. So, social backgrounds started to play
a role again. In addition to our academic standing,
our personal files traveled with us and they were getting
bigger by the day, filled with all kinds of tidbits,
valid information intermixed with malicious stuff often
intended to do harm. There was a student who was an
undeniable genius; his name was Podhorski-Okolow-a double
name denoting an aristocratic heritage (which he tried
in vain to hide by using only the last part). I envied
his mathematical prowess and he was close to my group
and me. In spite of his show of political correctness
he was not chosen. The hourglass of our bitterness against
the system started flowing toward the bottom. We wondered
though, how he did get in, in the first place; someone
must have been blinded by his A+ grades from top to
bottom. The kolkhoz bunch all ended up in Warsaw. All
of us had fuzzy (but not prohibitive) social backgrounds.
What helped me again were my many years without adverse
societal connections (confined to an orphanage and select
politically controlled schools). We all were in good
academic standing, and we were all politically correct,
sort of. That is how our four-year odyssey in Warsaw
Along side of the academic stuff,
we had to deal with the political activity of the ZMP-the
youth organization. Membership was a hundred percent.
Only some older students were in the Party, very few.
These were postwar times, so a few older guys, in their
thirties, were in our college as well as a few who had
survived the war in the Soviet Union. These Soviet groomees
were especially fierce and devoted. Every two weeks
we had meetings to review past events in school, and
to discuss and deal with deviations from the Party line
in personal behavior and speech. One designated member
of the group would prepare a short political presentation
on the latest outrage Imperialist America had committed
or on some select interpretation of Lenin's or Stalin's
works. We also where a large number of easy to mobilize
bodies, when needed. All the Party authorities had to
do was go to the dormitory in the evening and sequester
everybody, organize groups and send them out on assignments.
One or two memorable events come to mind.
The Polish parliament, which
at that time was already a rubber stamp for Party directives,
decided to nationalize the last vestiges of private
enterprise, the small retail stores including the pharmacies.
They passed the measure in a secret session late in
the day, and an inventory* was to take place that night
nationwide. The organizers of that inventory came to
the dormitory with police teams. We were again divided
into troikas, a policeman was assigned to each and off
we went to take inventory. It was a cold late afternoon
in winter; we took a streetcar (they were running until
midnight) to the designated store and started the inventory.
A few hours into it we got tired and hungry and the
policeman offered to get us some food. He brought sandwiches;
we did not ask from where and gobbled them down. By
four o'clock in the morning we had completed enough
of the inventory to insure that the owner, now temporarily
made an employee of the state, could be held accountable
if some major item got moved out of the store. These
stores had been family businesses for generations and
overnight the owners received nothing, but a pitiful
salary. To add insult to injury, they were now responsible
for the upkeep and accountable for the property and
its contents. At four o'clock in the morning we started
trudging through deep snow back to the dormitory, which
was a few miles away. No streetcars running yet. We
soon discovered that the sandwiches we had eaten were
spoiled; they began their work and it was thorough.
Every few yards or so we had to squat in the snow, the
freezing wind howling against our bare behinds. We left
a dense trail on the sidewalks and everywhere else in
what should have been taken as an expression of our
opinion about that nationalization. We quickly got over
that terribly unpleasant incident and went back to our
other worries and joys; nevertheless another small heap
of little grains of bitterness accumulated in the hourglass.
During summer vacations we were
sometimes compelled to go and help with the harvest.
The Polish countryside was fragmented into very inefficient
and predominantly backward, family farms. The Polish
peasant had a fascination with land ownership and the
land was divided for generation among sons over and
over until the resulting tiny farms were not sustainable.
The Party on the other hand had a fascination with collectivization,
Soviet style. The Soviet collectivization under Stalin
was unspeakably brutal, and the peasants that were promised
the land confiscated from the landed gentry got it initially
and then were robbed of it by forced collectivization,
that is, they became state workers on land previously
owned by them, that land then being made into huge enterprises
called kolkhozes. The idea behind this was not so much
to improve the efficiency of agriculture but to eradicate
all private ownership and gain total control of the
peasantry, who, if they remained private owners, would
constitute a class difficult to deal with, unpredictable.
The Polish Communist Party longed for collectivization,
but decided that this would only be a bloody and messy
operation in the face of the peasantry's fierce attachment
to the land. What they did, however was to establish
large estate farms run by the state from land confiscated
from displaced German landowners or carved from huge
Polish aristocratic estates. These were called PGR (State
Agricultural Farms). These farms were supposed to be
models to show the peasantry how well things could be
run, and maybe with time, slowly achieve a milder road
to the elimination of private property without using
Stalin's methods. It turned out that these farms were
an unmitigated disaster. Crops were not harvested, equipment
rusted, theft was rampant. So was mismanagement. We
were sent to these farms to harvest crops, while the
workers who were supposed to do it cheered us on with
sarcasm and contempt.
So, we arrived at Von Bodeck's,
a former German estate in what once was East Prussia,
now given to Poland as compensation for the Soviets'
seizure of a good chunk of southeastern Poland. It was
already getting dark when we arrived by horse-drawn
wagon, ten of us. In the dusk we could clearly see the
Von Bodeck name in big letters in stone on top of the
arched entrance gate. By the time we found the manager
it was already dark; we had obviously woken him up.
Disheveled, he took a kerosene lamp and led us to a
"This is where you will stay."
We looked around; not much could
be seen in the light of the kerosene lamp.
"Any place to sleep here?
We have been up and traveling all day."
"You can sleep in the ballroom,
it is sufficiently large for all of you. You can go
to the barn and get some straw, I will show you where.
By the way, you will start work at six. You have to
be ready at five thirty to be taken to the fields."
And so it was, we got the straw
and next day we arranged it across half of the ballroom.
In the daylight we could appreciate the Von Bodeck mansion.
It could have been the set of Dynasty, with a central
stairway ascending from the large hall. The whole building
was completely empty and swept clean. The windows were
intact but none of the facilities were working, no water,
no functioning toilet. There was no toilet anywhere,
period. We had to go out in the night into the magnificent
park surrounding the mansion. What a mess, at least
by the end of our two-month stay. My job in the field
was cutting the wheat. This was done according to an
age-old tradition of a team with scythes cutting down
swathes of wheat with a rhythmic motion of the hand-held
implement. This called for a repetitive movement of
the waist for at least eight hours a day with half hour
break for lunch. After a day of such labor the city
slickers fell dead on the floor not able to raise an
arm. This is not to say that Von Bodeck lacked machinery,
but every single machine was broken and unusable.
Once, in the middle of the night
when we were dreaming of those rhythmic motions, dead
tired, the manager came running in and, tearing at each
of us, woke us up, shouting,
"Get up, get up, two colts
fell into the sewage pit, they are drowning! I will
be fired if they perish, I need help."
We dragged ourselves out to the
sewage pit, which was filled with the runoff from the
pig sty and whatever other waste was around. In dim
kerosene lamplight we could see two colts trashing around
in the pool of that choking, stinking brew. The hell
with the manager-but we could not let those two frightened
animals perish! We set to work. With slings and bars
we tried to heave them out, but the more strategies
we tried the more panicky the animals became. The situation
grew critical. The only way we could save them, it seemed,
was to lower some of us into the brew and somehow pass
a sling under the animals bellies and haul them out.
We got them out by some miracle. We did not go to work
that day; it was devoted to washing, using the cold
well water. We stank for the remaining two weeks although
we washed and washed and washed.
We all came back sick. Jerry
was really sick and stayed in bed. We made a collection
and bought a few bottles of expensive Benedictine. We
were sure that that choice alcoholic beverage, purportedly
invented by medieval monks for keeping them in health,
was the ultimate cure for any illness, but Jerry grew
weaker by the day. On the forth day we decided to take
him to the hospital, with two of us supporting him under
his arms to get him to the taxi. It was pneumonia and
he barely came out of it. That experience certainly
made us dismiss the pervasive propaganda about the achievements
of the PGR enterprises. Slowly and irrevocably the more
thoughtful of us ceased to believe anything anymore.
This led the more curious and concerned to search out
information from sources other than the government media.
Radio Free Europe becameone of these sources, but that
is another story.
Before we left Wroclaw I witnessed a scene that etched
itself into my memory. I was doing some chores in the
(ZMP) office in the University building. Adjacent to
the room I was in was the office of the chairman. A
student came in and left the door ajar. I heard him
asking for an application to join the Youth Organization.
The chairman started asking him some preliminary questions
about his family, what his father did, et cetera:
"Where are you from?"
"Katovice." (A heavily
ethnic German part of Poland)
"Were you there when the
Germans held the area?"
" Then you probably were
a member of the Hitlerjugend."
A few other questions followed.
The guy was admitted and later I saw him moving up in
the organization. At the time I was stunned; it seemed
so strange that I, with my bourgeois background, had
so much trouble, always under suspicion and tolerated
only because of my orphanage past, and here is this
guy with Hitlerjugend training and no problems! The
significance of that incident I understood years later.
You always accept a good man from the competition with
Our kolkhoz group intact arrived
in Warsaw together with the others who had been selected
in Wroclaw, that year of 1953. We grew even closer now,
sharing our intimate thoughts (considered a fatal flaw
during those times), but we had an absolute and idealistic
confidence in each other. There were still the four
of us, Adam, Joe (Zdzislaw), Peter (Przemyslaw) and
I. There was no one like us in the university, and the
legend continued. We were consummately supportive of
each other and that was evident and visible to all.
Each excelled in an academic discipline, Adam became
the darling of the structures professor and Joe excelled
in very difficult spatial geometry and so on, I was
the darling of the electrical department head. We therefore
had protectors. The worst off of the group was Peter-a
"know-it-all" smart alec. We had to keep a
close watch on his academic performance, and that was
my elected job-prefect of the kolkhoz police, they called
me. When term projects were due the three of us labored
late into the night to finish it for Peter, while he
himself was supplying beer and rolls and fussing over
the details, "No, no, no, this is not going to
I had a couple of protectors,
but one powerful enemy. This was Professor Niemand,
a Jew and a former divisional commissar of the Red Army.
It could not have been worse. The guy hated me. Unfortunately
for me, I got the hiccups in the middle of his lecture.
He thought this was done on purpose to mock him.
"Comrade Sonnenberg (not
mister-he was after all a commissar), I demand that
you stop or leave the room."
"Professor, I can not help
it, I am sorry, but I cannot leave the room, the lecture
is too valuable to me."
This provoked an angry comment,
which I do not remember, but I did not leave the room.
Again, like in high school, he was unable to harm me
too badly, because I knew his subject too well and he
could not justify any action against me before the other
professor who held me in high esteem.
We were academically strong,
but that was only the half of it. Into play came political
standing. And here a strange thing happened. We performed
all the required duties demanded from loyal students
of the regime with some intelligence and skill, but
with a twist. We were unorthodox, we openly read marginally
acceptable literature like Rabelais, but not the outright
forbidden stuff, we initiated controversial discussions,
and maintained not very kosher associations with people
considered politically unreliable or hostile. When called
on the carpet for this, the simple and disarming answer
was, " we are working on-so-and-so to bring him
to our side." The forbidden stuff, like Orwell,
we read in absolute secrecy with the doorkey turned
and left in. We craved to listen to Radio Free Europe,
but that was difficult and very dangerous; expulsion
and a note in the perpetrator's personal file that would
travel with him forever would follow if caught. We were
watched, tolerated with exasperation and getting away
with a lot. That created a situation where the intellectually
curious and somewhat politically volatile gravitated
to us. That way we had a comet tail of the friends of
the Kolkhoz behind us, some were very colorful individuals
Nicos was a Greek Royal Air Force captain with a profile
taken from the ancient art on Grecian urns seen in museums.
He had black eyes and pitch-black hair. He was rather
short and on the heavy side. His guitar made up for
this physical shortcomings. The ladies melted to the
sound of his nostalgic songs. During the war he flew
Lancaster bombers in the British Royal Air Force. He
joined the Greek Communist Party after WWII and fought
in Marcos' communist uprising in Greece. After that
was squashed he escaped to communist Poland with a host
of others like him. Nicos decided on an aeronautical
education in line with his previous occupation and began
to study with us. The Greek government put a death sentence
on him if captured or came back to Greece. The partisan
commander upon dissolving his unit in Poland asked the
women, also in the unit, to line up opposite his men
and ordered, "Forward march." When the two
lines came together facing each other the commander
"The comrades facing each
other are now pronounced man and wife, good luck to
each of you."
That is how Nicos married to
Kula, being a disciplined Party member. The marriage
turned into an unmitigated disaster, but this was a
little bit later. In the meantime we befriended Nicos,
who was a gifted guitar player and a fantastic storyteller.
He was very serious about his political convictions,
but they were not his life's passion. He was a sex maniac,
and I have never met anyone that passionate about sex
since Nicos. He was much older, had vast experience
in that area and thought his duty was to educate us,
greenhorns. The extent of his obsession can be illustrated
by the following incident: I was walking with Nicos
to a lecture; we passed a ladies' bathhouse. In those
days people still went to public bathhouses to take
a shower. Nothing devious about that, many did not have
bathrooms in their houses. Nicos turned to me and said,
"I would love to be a wall
in that shower room so I could hear all the shh...shh...
in the toilet nearby, it is music to my ears."
We loved Nicos, his cooking was
great, his stories most exciting and his guitar a delight.
One day I met my friend Jacob in the street, and we
stopped for a chat.
"I finally met your much-talked
about Nicos, he is a painful idiot."
"I invited him for lunch,
and we waited God knows how long to be served. Finally
the waiter came and was rude. And you know what Nicos
started lecturing me about?"
"He said that this was a
very clear evidence of the superiority of the Socialist
system over Capitalism. In Capitalism the waiter would
bow and be abjectly subservient, here he retains his
We had a talk about this with
Nicos and asked him not to bring shame to us again by
such stupidity, which by association could ruin our
reputation. Shortly after that Nicos started avoiding
us. Three of us cornered him and asked what the matter
"My friends, a disaster has
befallen me, I was thrown out of the Party and I am
a leper now. It is dangerous for you to associate with
me and show any signs of friendship, so stay away."
First, we fell to the floor with
laughter upon seeing his somber and dejected demeanor.
When we pulled ourselves together, we warmly congratulated
him and went to drown his sorrow in cheap alcohol. We
never delved into the reasons; it had to happen sooner
or later. Nicos' conduct in life and the Party were
totally at odds. Somehow he had made a terrible turn
in his life and joined that criminal cabal when he did
not have to and had no reason to in the world. Maybe
he had an idiotic nodule in his brain somewhere after
all. He recovered nicely from that expulsion with jolly
help from us. Nicos had a son by Kula named Fedon and
after Nicos and Kula divorced she moved to a commune
established by those noble fighters for the happiness
of mankind, remnants of the communist rebellion in Greece.
Nicos visited his son and started courting Katina, a
teacher in the commune. On one of the visits he was
summoned to the local Party executive.
"Comrade Nicos, we have a
delicate matter to discuss with you. We can see that
you are getting serious about comrade Katina. We have
grown concerned, because we think she is not suitable
for you, a respected comrade. You see, to put it delicately,
she sees a lot of men."
"Comrades, I must tell you
that I would never, ever consider an inexperienced woman
for a wife." (Getting a little bold having been
around us for a while, eh).
That settled the matter and Nicos
married Katina. It became an outstanding marriage. We
liked Katina a lot and enjoyed being invited into their
flat for social events. On one of the visits to see
Fedon Kula put him up in a tree and erected a manure
ring around it to symbolically deny Nicos access to
his beloved son. Nicos became so upset that he died
of a heart attack shortly after, at age 49 and never
saw his beloved Greece again.
Ludwig was a fellow of medium height with a freckled
complexion and reddish blond hair. He had a smiling,
broad face, and his distinguishing feature was the large
gap between his two front teeth. Very mild-mannered
and easygoing he used to come by, drink a bit and mostly
listen in silence to our ravings about things as we
took the world apart. It happened that the Youth Organization
(the ZMP, to which we all belonged) announced a campaign
to improve our grades, a noble cause. At one of the
meetings I got up to say something. I arduously avoided
any public speaking since my shyness was pathological.
This time, though, I got up and said,
"Colleagues, I think we need
to fundamentally change our attitudes. We should not
just study for the sake of passing grades, we need to
hunger for knowledge and aim for the highest grades
and ease up a little bit on chasing girls. I know some
of us are doing barely enough to get a passing C. This
was expressed to me by colleague Natkaniec."
Ludwig became a whipping boy.
Not a meeting passed without his name being mentioned
and dragged through mud. He became public enemy No.
1. I was shocked and frightened about having harmed
his graduation chances. I literally went on my knees
to ask forgiveness from Ludwig for my stupidity. I could
clearly feel the pain of that anguished English colonel
in the story "The Bridge over the River Kwai."
I also said to myself "My God, what have I done."
Slowly the furor subsided and Ludwig went on with his
studies and graduated. It is now half a century since
these events took place, and I am still bitterly ashamed
by my action. Ludwig forgave me and became a devoted
friend. I worked with him very closely for years when
he became a company test pilot, enormously successful
and universally liked. During the times of trouble,
in 1968 when I was under the political whip, he went
out of his way to protect me, with considerable danger
to himself. Ludwig died at the age of 65 in retirement;
the air force flew in formation over his funeral procession
to show respect and admiration for their beloved fellow
That incident, more than any
other, opened my eyes to the evil nature of the communist
movement (and for that matter to any "isms"
especially contemporary runaway liberalism). The mark
of their "morality" was betrayal, hypocritical
adherence to the Party line of the day and unquestioned
obedience to it. The infamous public self-criticism
sessions were the abject and cringingly humiliating
expressions of that. It is known that Party members
would condemn themselves to harsh punishment or even
death by confessing to nonexistent "crimes"
against the state or movement without torture or the
least pressure, simply on the notion that the Party
needed it now for its lofty noble ends. The Orwellian
vision became reality, parents had to talk in secret
from their kids, and every utterance in all circumstances
had to be weighed for its political consequences (check
the US universities now) and remember Pavlik Morozov.
After the Ludwig incident we became doubly cautious
in our speech. My kolkhoz fellows tried to soothe me
as best they could when they saw my inconsolable grief.
Roman was a tall fellow one or two years older than
I, that means about three years older than the average
student. He was dashingly handsome with a protruding
chin denoting energy and courage. Bright blue eyes beaming
wit added an irresistible finish to his appearance aiding
in the seduction of ladies. Roman came to Poland from
France, the son of emigrants impoverished and out of
work in prewar depressed Poland, who had left Poland
for work in the French coal mines. In France Roman was
an unruly youngster and his reasons for coming to the
Soviet block were somewhat obscure. He was received
in Poland well, a propaganda piece by his mere presence-the
sons and daughters of the proletariat returning to the
fold of the socialist fatherland. Roman gave lip service
to the whole whirlwind of the Party and ZMP with their
constant demands for some sort of political expression,
meetings, imperialist condemnation rallies and so forth.
He put a sarcastic smile on his face for these activities.
He was street smart and experienced, and concentrated
on enjoying life, keeping busy seducing ladies and playing
cards. He was one of those gifted guys who could, with
a minimum effort it seemed, absorb the necessary knowledge
to get passing grades. Sometimes though he got into
trouble, and this is where we would intervene.
"Roman, you lazy bum, get
up from that bed, ther's a lecture today you cannot
afford to miss!"
"You fellows should be more
understanding. I am trying hard to combat my laziness
and I sit up ready to move, but then my internal struggle
comes to a pitch and I fall back exhausted."
Roman viewed us, the Kolkhoz
guys, as a bunch of interesting jackasses not yet well
versed in the intricacies of life. Sure, we all had
a life goal, we wanted to become outstanding engineers,
but that for Roman was not an end in itself. He liked
to immerse himself from time to time in the charged
atmosphere of our free-wheeling discussions, where one
could safely say things that were very dangerous elsewhere.
He also didn't mind benefiting from little favors like
a loan for a card game and some food if we had it. We
shook our heads over Roman. The ease and smoothness
he displayed moving through life, his carefree appearance,
dazzled us. We worried, worked long hours, and were
concerned about issues. Not Roman, the little all-knowing
smirk never left his face. Roman escaped from Poland
early, at the first opportunity after graduation. He
went back to France and became wealthy. Now, half a
century later, we have renewed contact. He lives half
the year in Florida in a beautiful house, an estate
rather, and is a happy-go-lucky fellow like he was in
the old days; for me he is like a little ray of sun
coming through occasionally in my lonely retirement.
Whenever we, the other guys, get together we never fail
to remember him from the old days-ahh... Roman. The
benefit to us, among others things from knowing Roman
during the student days, was that he added a good measure
of skepticism and sarcasm to our slowly developing hatred
of the communist system and displayed before us a lifestyle
we could not attain.
It so happened that when I was
writing these lines a call came in from Roman-now in
Florida. His voice was full of panic,
"What is the matter with
these American women? The other day I spoke to a lady
in the shopping center just to make some conversation,
I need to improve my English. She treated me as if I
was going to rape her right there and then. It is my
impression that their minds got terribly screwed up,
it is so unlike France where women still know their
My reply was:
"Roman, you have to know
that the present American culture forged by the feminist
movement and media considers all males as potential
rapists and abject abusers. So, don't touch an American
female if you do not want to rot in an American jail."
I have to add that Roman is endowed
with pheromones. These hormones have a powerful and
irresistible pull on females. He never in his life had
the slightest trouble with women-they flocked to him
without exception as is true for every man who has those
glands. Roman's pheromones are mighty. He sat one evening
in an entertainment bar (not in America). He was alone
at the table. When the gorgeous singer finished her
number, she came down from the stage to mingle with
the guests. She circled around and stopped at Roman's
"May I sit down?"
"I need a lover for tonight,
would you be available?"
"But of course."
This is how their liaison began.
As time went on it became somewhat bizarre and I will
stop here because Roman may come across this writing
and he may resent me telling the rest of the story.
We had a number of other associates
though less colorful; they are still in our memories,
but the details have faded. The whole environment we
had created by our personalities was devoid of any racial
overtones. Greek, Jew or Frenchman, it did not matter
in the least and never came up. The student body was
fairly homogenous, mostly pure Poles with these few
exceptions. It was the mark of our group that these
tiny minorities gravitated to us to find a comfortable
environment. The Nicos' did not find friends among those
whom we suspected of harboring hidden animosities toward
Jews or others considered not to be pure Poles. Unfortunately
it was again the majority who displayed indifference
and lofty separateness. I could not have cared less.
I had my friends and the comet tail behind the Kolkhoz
and that was just fine. Overt anti-Semitism was absolutely
forbidden and did not appear. We had little contact
with the "outside" world, being confined to
our dormitories and academia, and that also helped us
to forget about that ugly national trait. We also did
not know much of what was happening in society at large,
the arrests, disappearances, and not-very- public persecutions.
Official anti-Semitic rumblings
started in Poland in 1951-52, and came out of the Soviet
Union, just before Stalin's death. Until then we were
not aware that the Soviet Party had started anti-Jewish
actions as early as 1948. It took some time to get the
campaign going, full speed. In the meantime they murdered
a few prominent Jewish artists there and arrested others.
Poland had not yet joined the action. It really went
into high gear in the whole Soviet block with the announcement
that a group of doctors who had treated the highest
echelons of the Soviet government, Stalin included,
had been poisoning them for a long time. These doctors
were mostly Jews, so it was an organized Jewish-Zionist
anti-communist plot, and they all confessed that that
was so. For a while the tense atmosphere around the
Jews grew. "They are the silent sneaky enemies
of communism, burrowing deep and cleverly undermining
the most vital centers of our society." The atmosphere
changed overnight. It was O.K. to hate the Jews again
and fear for our safety grew. After Stalin's death it
took some time before it was announced that the doctors
were innocent and no plot had existed. I remember Mrs.
Falkowska's reaction; she was now in Warsaw and lectured
in one of the Party-affiliated schools.
"Thank God it turned out
that way. Otherwise we would all have been in trouble.
In spite of the end of the "doctors affair,"
official anti-Semitism had now taken hold under the
guise of anti-Zionism. I felt the general situation
changing in society, but for a while it did not affect
me so much personally, that is, there was no change
in my immediate environment. Besides Mrs. Falkowska
there was also Ms. Milstein, who thought Marxism-Leninism
at the Polytechnic, a compulsory subject that had to
be passed every year. Both Mrs. Falkowska and Ms. Milstein
continued to take an interest in our welfare from the
days of the orphanage. Dinners every week in Ms. Milstein's
one-room flat became routine events for me. I was not
very comfortable with that care, but not too disturbed
either. This was a contact with the old communist guard
who supposedly knew what was brewing, and the dinners
were nothing to be dismissive about for a starving student.
The tensions though between Mrs. Milstein and me grew
steadily, mainly from her side. She became increasingly
angry with my probing questions, doubts and cynicism
about communism. She nevertheless maintained the dinner
schedule faithfully. And then came the Twenties Party
congress in February 1956 where Khrushev denounced Stalin
and ridiculed him for his conduct during the war, saying
that he planned military campaigns on a rotating globe
in his cabinet. This was read at a supposedly confidential
meeting, at which Ms. Milstein was present. The room
was greatly amused and burst into sarcastic laughter
at some points during the solemn reading. Ms. Milstein
stood up and shouted,
"Why are you laughing? Have
you no shame? Such a tragedy! Such a tragedy!"
Her world collapsed. I felt a
little sadness for her, but everything in my world had
already collapsed long ago. For me it was incredible,
that such a system, with a tyrant on top, could now
be denounced so easily by the very same people who supported
it for such a long time. How could it be that youngsters
like me, fiercely indoctrinated would in a relatively
short time see the rottenness of that movement while
the Milsteins could not, in almost a life time, even
with their closest friends disappearing, murdered and
tortured. How could that be? But then I must remind
myself that for every evil committed there is a rationalization.
Woeful human nature! As far as the revelations of crimes
and atrocities, I knew a little about them already,
as to the rest, I figured it out. In October 1956, after
Khrushchev's revelation, another crucial event in the
communist education of the young (and not so young)
generation took place. That was the suppression by Soviet
tanks of the Hungarian anti-communist uprising. Here
I will turn the narrative over to Joe, who reminded
me of just that event. He relates:
It was October 1956 when I found
myself in a Warsaw streetcar with colleagues going from
the University to the dormitory. It was just after the
anti-communist uprising in Budapest, with us was a student
who had recently returned from Budapest. We clustered
around him, listening to the stories he brought back
from there. The guy started to shake as he began to
describe a lull in the fighting during hundreds of hungry
people formed a long line in front of a bakery in his
neighbohood. They had heard that the baker had somehow
managed miraculously, to bake some bread. Suddenly a
Soviet tank came around the corner at high speed and
ran over the whole line, steering so that he got fifty
or so people. I will never forget the reaction of one
of our colleagues named Oleksiak. He was a quiet guy,
very talented and most gentle. One could imagine him
as a monk working diligently in some monastery totally
absorbed designing the fancy letters for Guttenberg's
Bible. When the narrator finished there was a dead silence
for a while and then Oleksiak said, "Now, that
was really a piggish thing to do." That understatement
made us all burst into laughter, but when it died down
we parted, to carry this story deep within us to this
day. It made the rounds of the university and perhaps
more than any other atrocity, sank in because of Oleksiak
and his remark. I thought then, "If this is the
way you bastards are trying to bring happiness to mankind,
screw yourselves, I am as far from you as I can be."
It is scary to think that I could have wound up being
an armchair leftist as described below.
There had been a rash of suicides
among the old communist cadre, and one day the police
called me out from work, asking if I had the key to
comrade Milstein's apartment. I went with the police
to the flat to find Ms. Milstein dead on the floor in
the bathroom with the gas turned on. The smell in the
staircase had alerted the neighbors and they called
the Police. It was ruled a suicide, although the speculation
was that there might have been foul play by someone
involved in her prewar communist activities.
The whole anti-Jewish official
attitude took a turn for the worse after the Suez Canal
war, when Israel in alliance with France and England
fought the Arabs. This was the year 1957, and I was
graduating from College. I had a final run-in with the
commissar, comrade Niemand, or Professor as he was officially
addressed. He was the dean of the department then and
sat on the final exam panel. My graduation project was
accepted with a good grade and the panel was the final
hurdle before I could get my masters degree. It was
comrade Niemand's turn to question me. He gave me a
nasty, tricky puzzle to solve. I wriggled and tried,
but could not come up with the proper answer. This went
on for a while; the other professors were rolling their
eyes. I thought I was finished. Then the deputy dean,
a highly respected and accomplished scientist, turned
to Niemand and said,
"Professor, I wonder, when
will you let up, and when you do I would like to have
the chance to finish the examination of Mr. Sonnenberg
I passed in spite of the commissar,
who obviously tried to destroy me out of sheer maliciousness.
The others stood up to him. I was now ready to enter
real life. The regime exerted the right to order any
graduate to accept a position in any place chosen by
the state, and that was called "An order to work."
This was significant, for it emphasized that every citizen
was the property of the state, to be used as the Party
saw fit, especially in my case where I had been on scholarship
throughout my studies. Other students who did not have
scholarships, but did not pay tuition-education was
free once you were admitted- were also treated the same.
There was no other way, free education, but loss of
freedom. They tried to send me to the boondocks, and
here Mrs. Falkowska came to my rescue. She arranged
a meeting with her friend the Minister of Industry,
and an interview was arranged at the Aviation Institute
in Warsaw. This was the place of my dreams. The interviewer
was Prof. Fishdon, my enemy No. 2 in college and the
only one I had beside the commissar; otherwise I was
in superb standing with all the others. Prof. Fishdon
was the science director of the Institute.
"Mr. Sonnenberg, an order
came from above to give you a job at the Institute.
This is against my better judgment. This is a highly
prestigious scientific institution and we accept only
"Sir, who was better than
I, in my class?"
"Mr. Lopucha for example,
"That is true, was there
" We will not have a bidding
game here. I have an opening in the prototype department
under Dr. Soltyk."
"But Sir, this is not the
specialty I was trained in."
"That is the only thing I
can offer you, take it or leave it. I have fulfilled
the request from above."
In that way I landed in Tadeus Soltyk's operation. He
was a prominent and powerful figure in Polish aeronautics,
a tall fierce-looking man with an aristocratic bearing
and piercing blue eyes, very aloof. He was a descendant
of the notorious class of Polish nobles-not an aristocrat
though. He was an anticommunist and an antisemite of
old, views he expressed in jokes and stories to his
inner circle of adjutants. I learned that later when
I became one of them. Initially, I could only guess
from his bearing, I had an eye for that. He reconciled
his anticommunism and his service to the regime by invoking
his patriotism, which was a mental game many played:
"Colleague So (that is how
he began to address me), our patriotic duty is to work
for the Fatherland, it happens to be socialist now and
we have to give it our best."
He got away with all this unchallenged,
because he had a certain degree of fame and some international
connections, and since most of the prewar technical
elite had been wiped out there were very few competent
people left to do the work. Besides, Poland had more
of a western tradition as opposed to the Byzantine Russian
culture, and it was difficult to turn things around
on a dime. Therefore for some time non-conformism was
tolerated in Poland much more than anywhere else in
the Soviet block. In any case Poland was called the
best barrack in the Soviet concentration camp.
My workstation was put close to Professor Soltyk's office
window, with my back to it. Often I would feel uneasy
and look behind me and there he was, standing and staring
at my drawing board. At that time he never addressed
me directly; if he did not like something I was doing,
he would let it be known through my supervisor. The
guy I took day-to-day instructions from was a technician,
Bruno Biernacki. This was a humiliating situation for
a master's degree fellow, right at the bottom, way below
the supervisor of the section; but then every newly
arrived college graduate went through the same. After
slaving like this for Bruno for a while I was called
into Soltyk's office. This was always nerve-wracking,
because one never knew what crime one had committed:
"Take a seat Colleague So.
You are hereby appointed Section Chief, and all paperwork
will be adjusted accordingly. I do not think it is necessary
to explain your responsibilities, you should know them
by now. This is effective as of tomorrow morning, I
wish you success, that is all."
"Thank You, Sir."
This is how I entered the Professor's
inner circle, and slowly got to know the man. From him
I received leadership training of the highest class
and quality. Training that served me well for a lifetime
in many different situations, especially in America.
In dicey situations I would always ask myself "How
would Soltyk handle this one?" Not long into my
tenure as chief an opening became available in my specialty,
and after being wooed a little I applied. Soltyk called
me in and said,
"Colleague So, I am asking
you not to leave. I am not promising anything to you,
only a piece of glory, which is sure to come."
I stayed, and my real bond with
Soltyk began. The "piece of glory" came much
later but it came. I ignored his antisemitic stories
and jokes. Often one of the lieutenants, and it was
usually Winiarski who would say,
"Doctor, you should be ashamed
of yourself saying things like that."
His face would become red then
and he would fall silent. But when the next opportunity
came along he could not help himself. He was a demanding
boss, consummately fair, a model leader. He would grudgingly
praise and reward good and imaginative work; praise
from him was more valued than from anybody else. He
was fiercely protective of all of his people regarding
the outside world, though he could be abusive to someone
he did not respect. But that was all internal and such
persons did not last long in his operation anyway. I
remember one of his many outbursts. After the routine
morning inspection he stopped at the department he was
particularly displeased with that day and shouted out
"I can see that if I took
a troop of monkeys and gave them your task they would
do a much better job."
Because of his power he was able
to shelter us from the stupid disciplinary actions in
the factory that had political overtones, and I got
the benefit of that once or twice. He generated a mixture
of respect and fear; the people working for him were
considered by others to be in hell. The hell-dwellers,
however, felt a strong bond and loyalty to this man.
I became the boss of a section with challenging, enormously
interesting and diverse tasks. The people in that particular
group were highly individualistic and unruly. If there
was an irreconcilable problem with a valuable but difficult
employee elsewhere, he was transferred to me. Bruno
became the spokesman for that bunch.
"Chief, I need to talk to
you, can we go someplace quiet."
They were sometimes irreverent
toward the other bosses and played practical jokes on
employees outside our group. Another boss would drag
me into Soltyks' office to hear complaints about the
behavior of my people. The big man listened, and the
most he ever said was,
"I hear you, I will take
this under consideration. Now go back to your duties."
He never did anything about it;
he simply ignored it. The excellent performance of my
team was more important to him, and he did not want
to upset the balance that he knew existed in my department.
Each of the guys had specific talents but had been viewed
as prima donnas wherever they worked before coming to
my section. I grew increasingly fond of my unruly guys.
They reciprocated with absolute loyalty to me, and when
I had to issue a difficult or controversial order the
answer usually was,
"For you chief, it will be
One of the other bosses was the
big man's brother. His department had occasional design
misshaps, which were serious because human lives were
at stake. When this occurred Soltyk used to crack his
office door open just when people were leaving for home
and shout "Witold, come here." Some of my
guys pretended that they still had some work to do and
lingered around. The next day they would gleefully give
me a detailed report of the brutal dressing down Witold
received; they had heard every word of Soltyk's loud
I remember the years under Soltyk
with great fondness. One might be surprised at that,
but never did I see him discriminate in practice against
anybody on the basis of race or gender. In fact he did
not tolerate any unfairness and his antisemitism appeared
to be something odd and ill-fitting. It was like a genetic
inheritance poking through his skin. When in 1968 I
called to bid him farewell he said,
"I am very saddened by what
has happened and worried for Poland. I understand why
you have to leave. Poland is the big loser, I wish you
the best of luck"
We all graduated, the four of
us, the Kolkhoz, Joe Lewalski, Adam Borowski, Peter
Krol and I. During our college years we had been a close-knit
family. Now a strange thing started happening. A split
started to emerge; Joe and I desperately tried to distance
ourselves from anything political as we developed an
understanding of the criminal nature of the regime.
Our rage grew by the day, we started dreaming about
leaving communism. Peter on the other hand accepted
and took an active part in the so-called "renaissance"
of the communist movement. Our old friendship prevented
us from hating each other, but our ties loosened and
whenever we met we had sharp exchanges. Peter deteriorated
to the point where he boasted that he had trained Arab
guerillas against Israel. We inquired about him from
time to time, but became estranged. To top it off, he
went to Cuba for some work, and when Che Guevara was
killed, we were told, he sobbed uncontrollably. Peter
died at age 54 of a liver ailment. Adam, the least exited
about any politics, married Wanda, a cute little thing
who took total control of him. She eventually managed
to push him in two mutually exclusive directions. One
was the church-for the salvation of his soul; the other
was the Party-for the advancement of his career. She
accomplished both, which was now sort of tolerated as
long as he did not parade his church-going and kept
it quiet. We met once or twice, to find Adam comfortable
in the communist "renaissance" atmosphere.
Joe and I were outraged and bewildered. We could not
understand what had happened, we had been one group
for so long, and Joe and I searched for explanations.
The best we could come up with was that our genetic
heritage had come through and taken hold of our minds
and souls. Joe's father was of the bourgeois class (Joe
was hiding that more successfully than I) and so was
mine. We stopped at that, but then it did not explain
Roman Ptak, who was of pure proletarian heritage. Oh...
well, there are exceptions in everything! Adam died
at the age of 56 from a brain hemorrhage, presumably
from smoking since he was a chain smoker.
Joe escaped from Poland and communism
in 1972, four years after I did. He came to Canada first
and then went to the USA. We are in close contact. He
and his wife Eva live in Nevada and have became successful
under capitalism. When I met Joe at the bus station
in Springfield, Ohio we hugged and stood laughing hysterically;
the people around as wondered if we had gone mad. Joe
"If they grab me now and
put me in chains and drag me to Siberia, I would laugh
in their faces all the way, I have fooled them."
I should backtrack a bit to the
post-1957 years when the second Jewish exodus out of
Poland took place. My friends from the orphanage, Bronek
Cyngiser, Jerry Frydman, Akiwa Brand, Jerry Rosner and
many others had left for Israel, all having had unspeakably
horrible experiences during the war. This exodus was
possible because of the turmoil still reverberating
in the Soviet block after Stalin's death and the Khrushev's
speech. Gomulka the somewhat dissident communist became
the virtual ruler of Poland in 1956 and a period of
relaxation called "Thaw" ensued. Nevertheless
antisemitism under the guise of anti-imperialism and
anti-Zionism became a sanctioned attitude and the long-suppressed
national pastime burst into the open, unstoppable. People
of Jewish heritage were losing their positions and jobs;
the situation became ugly for us wherever we turned.
Gomulka who had a Jewish wife, tried to hold back the
tide a bit, but in spite of his virtual dictatorial
powers he could not. Our deliberations, and those of
our friends were soul-wrenching. Many of us had built
some beginnings of a new life. Bronek was a lieutenant
in the Air Force, Frydman a university professor of
mathematics, and so on. I was in a quandary too. I had
had enough of Poland and communism. Promises had been
made that all the horrible stuff that occurred in the
past was an aberration and things would be right from
now on. But nobody believed that. I wanted out, but
my wife Cynthia was still in college and a Polish girl,
how could I take her to Israel where she could be possibly
subjected to ostracism? I also had qualms of conscience
about leaving right after receiving a free education,
and I was frightened of the unknown; the capitalist
world had been painted so darkly all those years. There
was still a very small residue of propaganda left in
me, or perhaps it was ignorance. I did not leave with
my friends. With a heavy heart and sinking feeling I
said farewell to everyone; it was like losing family
members one by one. They left mostly from the Milstein
flat, which I had inherited. Since they lived in different
cities they stayed with me to complete the final preparations
for the departure and from my place they left for the
railway station. That was an ironic epitaph for comrade
Not everyone left. Some of us, Jacob Guttenbaum, my
sister Sylvia and I, for example had a protective shell
of decent people around us. Sylwia was studying in Moscow.
She somehow, by fudging her application, got in. This
was just in the middle of it (1954-1959). She graduated
from the Moscow Institute for Farm Machinery & Automobiles
with a master's degree. Another kid from the orphanage
who got an education. Within the circles around us,
we could work and live. Not many such places were left.
There was just anguish for us Jews. Soltyk and the people
around him created a protective layer for me, beyond
which I did not dare to venture. My work for Soltyk
resulted in my receiving a National Award for outstanding
technical achievement in 1963 together with those in
his closest circle. Right after receiving it, I embarked
on a campaign to get a decent place to live. We longed
for something more reasonable for the three of us than
that one-room place. Apartments were allocated by the
city authorities; there was no other way for the average
working person to get an apartment. I thought I had
a strong case. An important engineer, the winner of
a national prize, needing working space to further the
development of the Socialist State. I finally reached
a deputy of one of the Ministries, a Jew, one of the
small handful remaining in any capacity.
"Mister Sonnenberg, I have
reviewed your application and I understand your need
and sympathize with you, but I cannot grant your request.
My position is so precarious here, at the Ministry,
that if I give you that apartment, I will be accused
of favoring my fellow Jews. Sorry."
We had come full circle back
to the years before 1939.
One is tempted to describe the
economic living conditions under that system. This though
has been belabored in numerous publications and it would
become a boring repetition. However I do need to make
some brief remarks, for readers who might get too enthusiastic
about the free education I received. Such an education,
by the way, is not uncommon right here under your noses,
under "cruel" Capitalism. A friend's son,
because of his talent and hard work, got a doctorate
from one of the best universities in the USA. The poorest
of immigrants, thanks to his abilities, he managed to
study for free all the way. He now holds a professorship
So, here we were, Elizabeth and
I working, two salaries, mine not a low one according
to the standards of the day. No savings though, every
penny spent on living expenses, paid out in the long
queus for bread and essentials. After work I would rush
to one line for bread and Elizabeth to another. Here
is a story that was told at the time: an old lady comes
into the store and asks for a pound of sausage. The
"Madam, this store has no
"But I didn't ask for bread,
I asked for sausage!"
I'm sorry, this store has no
bread. You will have to go across the street if you
want the store that has no sausage."
All the money left over went
for health. If our three-year-old Jack got sick, and
that was often, we had to seek out doctors in private
practice, for it was simply "life-threatening"
to go near the universal free national health care system.
Same with dentists, and our teeth were in ruin from
war and post-war malnutrition. One of the most annoying
situations was our cramped living quarters, with not
the least prospect for any betterment, a dreary existence
and a drearier future. And that was twenty years after
the war ended! No wonder people would commit dubious
or immoral and degrading deeds to ingratiate themselves
to the political elite in order to become a little bit
more equal than others. It should be noted that the
top Communist leadership, when sick, went to Sweden
for treatment; they knew that their precious lives were
in danger from their very own state run, free health
care system for the masses. The effect of all those
problems were dulled for a while during the euphoric
years with Soltyk and my beloved aeronautics, but those
were coming to an end too, not only because of the political
situation in Poland, but because of the simple neglect
of the industry. The leadership had other worries, the
system was falling apart at the seams and the cracks
leading to the fall of the Berlin wall were widening.
My dream of leaving Poland and its cursed communism
became an obsession. Elizabeth, who had inherited strong
anticommunist feelings from her family (which unfortunately
also had a strong antisemitic tradition) clearly saw
the need too. We started dreaming of nothing else but
how to get out, even though this was an excruciating
issue for Elizabeth, mostly because she was attached
to her mother. Leaving behind everything that was familiar
in order to sail into the unknown without knowing any
foreign language nor having been exposed to anything
but Polish culture, was hard. The decision had been
made though, and we had to continue our hushed lives,
waiting for an opportunity. The opportunity came in
1967-68. In June 1967 the six-day war broke out between
Israel and the Arab states. The Polish nation went into
fits of schizophrenia. On one hand they could have not
been more delighted that "Our Jews had beaten the
shit out of the Soviet Arabs", on the other was
the antisemitism. In every restaurant, at private receptions
there were requests for bands to play Jewish songs and
music. There was an emotional outpouring of support
for Israel, a fit of defiance against the official policy
of condemnation of imperialistic Israel. The Party and
government responded with equal fervor and outright
hysteria (Joe after reading this told me that at the
time he counted 84 times the words Zionist or Zionistic
on the front page of the then official Party daily Trybuna
Ludu). The antisemitic fervor shifted openly to Party
and government institutions. The people who in the evening
toasted Israel and sang Jewish songs in a half drunken
stupor were forced to go to anti-Zionist rallies the
next morning. The darkest elements in Polish society
took over and there were plenty of them, encouraged
by officialdom. The Jews were openly declared traitors
to communism and accused of having divided loyalties
at best. The famous (in Poland) Polish poet of Jewish
heritage Antoni Slonimski (1895-1976) said,
"I understand that one has
to have only one Fatherland, but why Egypt?"
The anti Jewish fervor rose to
a high pitch. People of Jewish heritage or those suspected
of having Jewish background were thrown out of work
left and right. There were cases where people were thrown
out of emergency rooms after having a heart attack when
it was learned that they were Jews. An especially dangerous
time came during one of the Party congresses. The Party
mob called for blood and shouts were heard " Let's
go and finish those bastards off!" We were contemplating
asking Elizabeth's Polish friends to put our family
up for a night or two, just as people did during the
Nazi occupation so they could not be found. Gomulka
tried to defuse the situation by declaring,
"Comrades, let the traitors
of our sacred cause go, we do not want them in our midst.
One must have only one Fatherland [see above-Slonimski]
those who are loyal and want to stay can stay."
Since Gomulkas' word was still law in all of Poland
this had the effect of setting in motion the opening
of the gates. Jews were rushed through the obstacle
course of scores of bureaucratic requirements that had
to be fulfilled if they were to be allowed to leave
Poland-handing over their apartments, getting security
clearance to leave and so on and so forth, dozens of
seals and stamps. The word was out that those with security
clearance had to wait for two years and I had security
clearance while with Soltyk. Scared, I quit my position,
went to the adjacent Aviation Institute and asked if
there were any openings where no security clearance
was required. I was directed to Mr. Harazny, chief of
the Rocket Department. It seemed odd, but Mr. Harazny
assured me that there were no secrets, his department
built and experimented with weather monitoring rocketry
and he would be happy to have me. I started work in
a nice room with flowerpots on the window shelf, all
by myself, and began marking time while getting all
the necessary personal matters in order, in preparation
for quitting Poland. Of course that was kept secret
and only the closest friends and family knew of my intentions.
After a short time I felt that something was not right.
The people in the lunch canteen stared at me and most
avoided contact. Very soon I found out why. I was summoned
to a session of the local Party executive; the luminaries
were all there, sitting along the walls on both sides.
I came in and stood not far from the door with the comrades
on my left and right:
"We asked you to come in
to discuss a serious development." (Suspense)
"What is it?"
"The people of the Institute
are concerned that a Jew is working in a sensitive place
like the Rocket Department. Of course, we think it is
O.K., but we cannot ignore the concern of the people
and their will. We will have to transfer you elsewhere."
" To the general test facility.
Unless we hear something from you here, in the presence
of all the comrades representing the departments, something
reassuring, and then we might correct the situation."
This was an invitation to make
a teary loyalty declaration (more on that later).
"Well, if you think you can
correct it then do it, I have nothing to say to you,
I turned around and went straight
"Sir, I think I have to quit
the Institute, effective immediately. I thank you for
your kindness and for having had the courage to give
me this job."
"Mr. Sonnenberg, I am terribly
ashamed of what has happened. I have tried to do my
best to explain that there is nothing that would prevent
you from working here. Please, remember that not all
the people of the Institute are bad."
"I know that and will remember,
thank you again and farewell."
After that I could not find another
job for the interim; there were no jobs for Jews. Finally
I met Mr. Szymanski, a director of an automotive design
bureau, who took me into his outfit. He used to come
for a chat, and among other things he said,
"Mr. Sonnenberg, I must tell
you that I am no communist. Although I am in the Party,
I hate them."
"I had a Jewish girlfriend,
I wanted to marry her, but my parents would not allow
it. I am now approaching retirement and I still cannot
On learning that I was going to
"I envy you, I wish I could
go with you."
One time there was overtime work,
and nobody could stay but me. Mr. Szymanski said,
"I am sorry, the bastards
forbade me to leave a Jew alone on the premises."
I have remembered Mr. Szymanski
all these years. I wish something could be done so that
he is not lost to memory, for he was an outstanding
and courageous man.
A number of Jews rushed to declare
their loyalty or were called on to do so. One guy went
before a panel of inquisitors and said,
"Comrades, if I refuse to
declare my loyalty you will throw me out, and if I do,
you will still throw me out. Therefore I propose that
you kiss my ass. You can take turns if you like."
I thought that the ones who agreed
to go through this were the most despicable wretched
beings there could be. There were a number of those
to be found though.
Among other things I had to do
was stand before the regional military board to clear
away the paperwork for permission to leave. They made
a spectacle out of it, a full panel of bemedaled colonels
and majors sitting around me in a semicircle and passing
questions from one to the other.
"So, lieutenant (I was a
lieutenant in the air force reserves), you are leaving
us and going to Israel?
"What commission did the
imperialists promise you, captain or maybe major? How
much money is waiting for you?"
"I do not know of any, sir."
" We have educated you, taken
care of you and now you are going to serve our enemies,
is that so?"
"Sir, I have worked all those
favors off. Twelve years, and some of it brought in
I had worked in Indonesia, and they robbed me of half
my dollar salary. I wanted to defect then, but Elizabeth,
the love of my life, was trapped in Poland. Anyway,
my stupid conscience was clear now of even the slightest
"So it looks like it is not
worth educating you people, not at all."
"Yes, sir that is right."
"If it were not for comrade
Gomulka's directive we would show the likes of you your
proper place, dismissed."
That directive from Gomulka was
the best thing he ever did for us, in spite of the terrible
sound of it.
I went to the American embassy
and asked if America would be so generous as to accept
me. I was ushered into the proconsul's office, although
it was a lesser official who greeted me. I showed my
papers, confessed all my past sins and after a few questions
they went out of the room to deliberate. The proconsul
came back after a while and said,
"You will be accepted, get
out of Poland immediately, tomorrow if possible."
And so I joined the third post-war
Jewish exodus from Poland. This is how freedom for us
began, difficult at first, but a condition I have always
subconsciously yearned for, and now I experienced it
for the first time in my life. The beginning was difficult.
My broken English did not help. Elizabeth cried non-stop
from nostalgia for her family and I worried about how
it would all work out in this Capitalist world. But
my chest was bursting with pride that I had had the
strength to break away. The feeling of freedom was as
tangible as if I had come out from a choking, smoke-filled
area into crystal clean fresh air. Elizabeth at some
risk, after some time in the US, went back to Poland
for a two-week visit to see her mother. She came back
"I could not have waited
another day to come back, how could I have ever lived
She was completely cured of any
nostalgia for her homeland, and she flaunted her pride
at becoming a US citizen every time she went back to
see her family and friends.
Not every Jew left Poland at
that time, in 1968. Some of the elderly who had spent
their lives in the Party or were too frightened to start
life anew in a totally unfamiliar society remained in
Poland. Jacob, whom I considered a close friend, stayed.
I tried very hard to convince him to leave with me.
Mainly for selfish reasons; I thought it would be so
much easier if we had each other's support. But Jacob
would not budge. His answer was,
"I am mentally too exhausted
to start from scratch in a foreign land."
Jacob was a survivor of the Warsaw
ghetto uprising and of Buchenwald. The name Auschwitz
is well known but Buchenwald was equally horrible. He
went through hell in both places. He was of diminutive
stature, had typical Jewish facial features and limped
from Polio. While in school, after the war and everywhere
else he had a rough time. Harassment of a Jew in the
street or other public place could occur anytime and
was a sport. Jacob was courageous and in spite of his
small size never did allow anyone to get the better
of him. In social settings he was always the life of
the party, and at work he made friends, which allowed
him to endure. He decided to stay, although he did recognize
the need to leave. Not everybody was so honest with
themselves. I heard rationalizations, which sounded
false and painfully stupid,
"One does not abandon a mother
only because she is bad."
Mother supposedly being Poland.
In 1992, after the fall of communism,
I visited Jacob. In the intervening years Jacob had
kept his position at the Institute, he worked and prospered
modestly protected by his friends. He was universally
liked and a very social and witty person. I went up
to his family room's large window. It looked out onto
the blank wall of the next apartment building and there
I saw a large graffiti across that whole long wall,
"Poland for Poles"
Someone must have gone to much
trouble to paint that slogan across so big a building.
Jacob could see that message every time he opened his
curtains. I said,
"Jacob, what is this?"
"Damn it, I have the same
right to Poland as those bastards."
That one message made all my
worries and struggles in a "foreign" land
worthwhile. Poland was never my land and now it really
felt very foreign to me. It never earned my allegiance,
it was trouble from the moment I became cognizant of
my surroundings. The Polish nation had not protected
itself or me from the German onslaught. The argument
I would hear was that other nations crumbled too. That
is a very poor argument. Poland had known for ages that
Germany was an enemy coveting its territory; it had
repeatedly invaded Poland and tried to annihilate Polish
culture. There are no adequate words to describe the
obsolescence of the military equipment Poland had and
its leadership- all heroism and lack of foresight. The
Poles were well aware of the German danger. There was
a joke that went around: If a German and a Russian confront
a Polish soldier, who does he shoot first? The German,
of course-duty before pleasure. It is true that Poland
was in an untenable situation between two brutal dictatorships,
but this does not erase the neglect of national defense.
This is a harsh judgment, but I am not the first to
Under the German occupation substantial
elements of the Polish nation behaved devastatingly
towards their Jews. The vanquished Dutch and Danes at
least made an effort to protect their Jews and often
with heroism saved as many as they could. Someone may
point to French and their collaboration with the Germans
in many ways including facilitating the German annihilation
of French Jewry. That is no excuse for the Poles. P.J.
O'Rourke had a good take on the French:
"In the meantime I was stuck
in Paris. A lot of people get all moist and runny at
the mention of this place. I don't get it. It's just
a big city no dirtier than most. It does have nice architecture,
because the French chickened out of World War II. But
it is surrounded by the most depressing ring of lower
middle class suburbs this side of Smolensk. In fact
one working-class neighborhood is named Stalingrad,
which goes to show that the French have learned nothing
about politics since they guillotined all the smart
people in 1793." (O'Rourke, Terror of the Euroweenies)
Besides, Polish culture has never
appealed to me. It is full of romanticism and messianism.
Their past is futile heroics and tragedy to the point
of bringing on tears. The nation has never been united
in any endeavor, even in the face of mortal danger;
it had a tenacious and destructive class of nobles,
which for too long brought disaster after disaster upon
the whole nation by their rowdiness and ocasional treachery.
Never did that nation apply itself to fundamental work
in any semblance of unity. The Polish nation has had
outstanding personalities and leaders who could never
get a following at home. The amazing thing is that these
same people were followed in other nations; one has
only to mention Kosciusko in the American war of independence.
The inescapable conclusion is that Poland and its past
mess that I have to stay away from, and that is what
I have mentally tried to do. Why would anyone persist
in clinging to a past that has rejected us, a past punctuated
with brutal events for Jews? For those who cling for
reasons of emotional attachment I have an explanation,
it is the Human Attachment Syndrome discovered by Stalin:
Stalin was sitting with his half drunken Politburo cronies
around the dinner table in the Kremlin. He said, "You
dummies, all of you, you do not know how to treat people.
Bring me a live chicken!" Stalin plucked all the
chicken's feathers and the chicken did not run away,
it clung to Stalin's boot (he loved wearing boots).
"Got the idea?" asked Stalin, looking around
the table with his blood-shot evil eyes. One has to
be fair to the man and we must credit him with at least
one scientific discovery and that not an insignificant
In 1992 during my visit to Poland
(after the fall of communism) we had a mini- reunion.
We went to see Mrs. Falkowska, 86 years old then, in
perfect health and lively, witty, very alert, and still,
in spite of her age, an attractive lady. We did not
immerse ourselves in nostalgia; we talked about contemporary
subjects and reviewed all the orphanage children we
could remember, their whereabouts and what they were
doing. Mrs. Falkowska addressed me with an air of visible
disappointment, perhaps hoping for a proper answer,
"Don't you regret now that
you left Poland?"
"Dear, dear Mrs. Maria, if
I hadn't, I would have thrown my life away, and would
have lost any traces of self-respect."
That was not very sensitive to
those who stayed, but I did not mean to imply a criticism
of their decisions. I understood their reasons, and
those reasons did not diminish my affection for them.
The comment applied strictly to me, and I think they
understood it that way.
It is difficult to take a stance on the Polish question.
On the one hand there are those dark forces predominating
in the Polish nation and its history, on the other there
are the outstanding and courageous individuals and a
good percentage of them. What does one say? My friend
Bronek cannot get Poland out of his system, it is a
longing which persists despite the terrible things the
Poles have done to him, but he can not forget the good
people who saved his life. He does return from Israel
to the old places in Poland, barely recognizable now,
and talks to the children of those who sheltered him,
they themselves being long dead now. He arranged for
some of their names to get into Yad Vashem's alley of
the righteous. All this is in spite of having succeeded
in Israel-after a ferocious struggle to be sure, but
he succeeded. He has two sons, both Sabras, and now
grandchildren. All are educated and are outstanding
people. He has a very close-knit family, a great thing
to witness. Such is the case with most who went to Israel
or elsewhere and are now scattered around the world.
Pola, his wife, is younger and was not in Poland during
the war and cannot understand his emotional state. I
can, but I am free of any longing for Poland and carry
an indifference with me and that comes out more when
reminded. Nevertheless, I wish that nation a better
fate in the future for all the suffering it has gone
through in history. I guard against the possibility
of doing an injustice to those who were truly heroes,
and I try to publicize my gratitude to them for all
they have done for me. I have coined a saying,
"A controversial nation,
but with many magnificent people in it."
The lifelong friendships I have
made among the Poles remain. Besides Joe and the others
already mentioned, from time to time there come to me
out of Poland voices of people I knew. They remember
me and express warm feelings and with nostalgia remind
me of things I have done for them, things I do not remember
myself. I cannot dismiss this; it gives me the double
satisfaction of knowing that there were such good people
around and that I was in their favor.
Would I have left Poland without
the events of 1968 to spur me on? Definitely. These
events gave me the opportunity and the final push; it
was the proverbial last straw for the camel. It was
an utterly necessary decision, although laden with fear
and apprehension. The residue of years of propaganda
about the cruelly competitive conditions under capitalism
persisted. I had doubts that I could make it, and more
importantly the responsibility for Elizabeth and Jack
weighed heavily. The resolve was absolute; if we had
to perish, so be it. No more Poland! To stay would have
meant the complete loss of self-respect and the ability
to look at myself in the mirror.
No. 1 A/ Modern Times by Paul
Johnson, The High Noon Agression Chapter.
Harper & Row Publishers, 1985
No. 2 INTERMARIUM Volume 1, Number
3. The Jewish Pogrom in Kilece, July 1946 - New Evidence.
No. 3 The Illustrated History
of The Jewish People, Jane S. Gerber. Oded Irshai et
al. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.