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A Two Stop Journey to Hell

Sven Sonnenberg



Acknowledgments


We acknowledge with gratitude the financial support of the Polish Socio-Cultural Foundation



Copyright: Sven Sonnenberg


Cover etching "Hands" by Beata Wehr


ISBN 0-9688429-0-9


Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada
Montreal 2001


WSTEP

Oto pierwszy opublikowany tom naszej kolekcji
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not forget


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.


Introduction



You are holding the first publication in our series,
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not forget


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.

Introduction



Voila le premier volume de notre collection
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not forget


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.


PART I

UNDER FASCISM



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 and Ari.


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.


Prelude



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 Forces).


" 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.



The Journey



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 officer shouted:


"Run to the barracks, on the double!"


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:


"Schneller, schneller!" (Faster, Faster)


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 him unconscious.


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 neighbors.


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?"


"No,"


" 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….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, Jew."


" 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 from?"


" 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 the war.


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 THIS POINT."


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 is done."


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 better shave.


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 Aleichem.


"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 scare propaganda.


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.




Drzewica



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 war.


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 efficient.


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 kitchen help."


" 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 work camp.
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 that ball."


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 serious.


"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 it."


One of the other men:


" Yeah… 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 the gate,


"Hey guys what are you doing there outside the compound?"


"Nothing Sarge, just having a smoke."


"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 it.

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,


"Hitler kaput."


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,


"SS."


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 Polish.


" Who are you people?"


"We are Jews who escaped from the ghetto and have been hiding here in this ruin since then."


"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 their equipment.

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 in 1949.
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.


Epilogue



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."


The Emotions


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 assertion that:

"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.


Sven Sonnenberg
Winter 1997


Part II

Under Communism



Acknowledgments


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 memories.


I thank all those who contributed by being in my life, which has been so sadly exciting.



Note


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 in


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.


Under Communism


The Beginning

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 age groups.


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 this:


"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 nation.


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 orphanage.


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 day.


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 war.


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 by Kruczkowski*.


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 for Sunday.


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 deal with.


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 kids.


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.


The Spoilers



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 nationwide.


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 Milstein.

Mr. Godlewski


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 time!


Mr. Lifschitz would smile gently and say nothing. Otherwise they were a very loving couple.


Mr. Korn



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 her."


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 from Poland.


"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.\



Jerry Fraszczyk



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



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 sometimes say:
"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 in Lodz.


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.

The Chairman:


"Any other issues today?"


Ziental:


"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."


The Chairman:


"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 issues left?"


Zielinska:


"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."


The Chairman:


"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 some kind.


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 way."


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 them presiding.


"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 nice fellow.


"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 go, sorry."


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 institution.


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 to mind.


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!"


Peter:


"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 to anything."


"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 very envious.


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.


The Ride



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 began.


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 large building.


"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?"


"Yes."


" Then you probably were a member of the Hitlerjugend."


"Yes."


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 open arms!


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 work!"


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 indeed.


Nicos Karalis



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 said,


"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.


Jacob:


"I finally met your much-talked about Nicos, he is a painful idiot."


"Why?"


"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?"


"What?"


"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 pride."


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 was.


Nicos:


"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 Natkaniec



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 pilot.


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 Ptak



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 place."


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 table.


"May I sit down?"


"Certainly!"


"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. (sic)"



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 myself, please."


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 the best."


"Sir, who was better than I, in my class?"


"Mr. Lopucha for example, straight As."


"That is true, was there anyone else?"


" 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 loud,


"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 done."


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 shouting.


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 said,


"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 Milstein.

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 at Duke.


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 clerk says,


"Madam, this store has no bread."


"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."


"Where to?"


" 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, comrades."


I turned around and went straight to Harazny,


"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."


Another time:


"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 forget her."


On learning that I was going to Israel,


"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?


"Yes Sir."


"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 hard currency."

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 hang-up.


"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 and said,


"I could not have waited another day to come back, how could I have ever lived there?"


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 render it.


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 one.


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?"


I answered,


"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.




(1) References:


No. 1 A/ Modern Times by Paul Johnson, The High Noon Agression Chapter.
Harper & Row Publishers, 1985
B/ http://www.hitlerstoppedbyfranco.com/jews/


No. 2 INTERMARIUM Volume 1, Number 3. The Jewish Pogrom in Kilece, July 1946 - New Evidence. Bozena Szaynok.
www.columbia.edu/cu/sipa/REGIONAL/ECE/kielce.ktml


No. 3 The Illustrated History of The Jewish People, Jane S. Gerber. Oded Irshai et al. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.