A Two Stop Journey to Hell
We acknowledge with gratitude the financial support of the
Polish Socio-Cultural Foundation
Copyright: Sven Sonnenberg
Cover etching "Hands" by Beata Wehr
Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada
Oto pierwszy opublikowany tom naszej
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
" 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
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
"Sure, but are you not a little Jew, by any chance?"
" Well then, cross yourself."
To do that meant to take two fingers of the right hand and
touch the forehead, left and right shoulders and belly in
the right sequence. I did not know how to do that! This was
a moment of terror I have never forgotten. I did not know
what to do. Run? - Not possible. The store was too crowded.
So, I stood there befuddled for a while.
" What is the hold up?" - shouts from behind.
" I think a little Jew has wiggled his way into the
"Somebody get a policeman, I will hold him."
I was numb with terror. Suddenly an older woman pushed her
way from behind until she was close to the counter and me.
She spoke to the clerk.
"What is going on here? What do you want from this little
boy? Don't you see that he has been scared stiff by you and
the crowd here?"
" What do you need, boy?"
.I wanted bread and a piece of butter."
"To me he speaks perfect Polish. Give him the bread
and don't waste our time. I don't want to have to complain
to my son about the inefficiency in this store."
" Yes, Ma'am
I would never know who that lady was. With my "purchase",
I tried not to run home, but to walk casually on my shaky
legs, my face paper white from the slowly subsiding numbing
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
"You stink enough, and don't make more trouble, settle
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
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
"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
" 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"We need a rope or something to tie the dress above
her head. One of you, go get it."
One of the other men:
I saw her before, I am sure she is a mental,
she will not know what happened."
The girl was moving around aimlessly. The men came toward
the shack and corralled the girl there. One of the men pulled
her dress up over her head; the other quickly tied it up with
the rope. They pulled her panties down. The girl was moaning
and thrashing around trying to free herself and it was now
that for the first time I saw a naked girl. She was beautifully
shaped. Her dress pulled up high over her breasts, conical
shaped breasts, firm and tipped up. The men forced her down
in a corner. At that moment there was a shout from 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,
Suddenly the area was flooded with Wermacht troops from
all kinds of units preparing to make a stand. We huddled in
the deepest crevices of that building we had found, not daring
to breathe loudly. One morning we saw two German soldiers
searching, and eventually they came upon us. A tall sergeant
yanked me out of a corner. "People here tell us that
you are Jews. Are you?" Ugh ..... Ehhh .....
"You, boy, come with us to the major."
The major asked a few questions but his main interest was
to see if I spoke fluent German, which I did.
"You will be assigned to the sergeant, boy. We will
give you some provisions now, and you report tomorrow at dawn
to him. We have trenches to dig, and you will translate instructions
to the locals who are already organized in work groups."
Some more bastards tried again. One day, while going busily
about the trenches I saw a vehicle stop in the distance. Out
came four or five black-clad Totenkopf SS (the skull insignia
was their mark, placed on their caps). One of the trench diggers
stopped and went over to the SS men and I saw him pointing
in our direction. I could feel the blood draining out of my
face. All one had to do was to point a finger and say "JUDE"
to these guys. The sergeant, as if alerted by something, looked
at my face.
"What is the matter?"
I barely came out with a whisper,
He took one look and barked:
"Get behind me."
We inched toward the nearest structure. "Crawl into
a hole and stay there until I come for you." I heard
his boots crunching away in the direction of the SS men.
The end of the German presence came swiftly. One day, in
the morning, we heard all hell break loose. Heavy guns were
thundering and small arms-fire crackling. We ran into the
cellar and stayed there until all was quiet. After we left
the cellar I went for exploring with the throng of people
that came out of their hiding places also. The first dead
German soldier I saw was lying face down in the middle of
the street, his boots, belt and coat was gone. We moved beyond
the river where the fiercest fighting had taken place. Bodies
lay everywhere, on top of the trenches as if killed in the
process of trying to get out and run. Most of them stripped
naked. The ones still partially in uniform were stripped before
my eyes. Looters with armfuls of all kinds of German clothing
were running toward home in fear that someone would stop them.
I saw an elderly man pick up a handkerchief and put it on
the exposed genitals of a soldier who lay on his back- an
exception. Some wounds were terrible. One German had his skull
partially blown off; little blood, just the exposed brain.
The throng of people was moving like a swarm of bees from
one place of excitement to another. The Russian soldiers moved
in-groups, rounding up hiding Germans. I went back to the
Town Square and saw a lone German soldier wandering around
in a daze. He kept muttering:
"Mein lieber Got, meine Frau, meine kinder" (Dear
God, my wife, my children)
He repeated the phrase over and over. One of the Russian
commanding officers pointed to a group of other Germans and
told him to go there. In a little while two Russian soldiers
marched the group towards the other side of the river. The
spectators followed. The Germans were lined up at the edge
of a trench and the executions started. One of the Germans,
apparently only painfully wounded, fell to his knees and made
a movement with his right hand as if asking for more shots,
to be finished. The Russians turned around and left. The people
fell upon the dead to strip them naked. Some were left in
their long johns.
Mother decided to wait in Drzewica long enough for father
to return and find us. The next day Russian soldiers came
to the ruin where we lived and took me to their officer. My
mother did not speak 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
The second group was that of the prewar communists in Poland
and the far-left. They were fairly numerous before the war
but they were a minority never able to play a significant
role in Polish national life. They were now salivating at
the trough, a trough initially guarded by Soviet troops and,
were they ever eager! The third group were the opportunists
and the lumpenproletariat (a universally accepted German term
for the dregs of society from which Hitler and Stalin recruited
their henchmen). So if one kept one's head down and was extremely
careful one would survive if lucky enough not to inadvertently
get caught in some troublesome situation, and such situations
were plentiful at the time.
Where did the author of this memoir fit in that social kaleidoscope?
To find out, you need to turn the pages of this narrative;
I hope it will be an educational experience.
Around June-July 1945
The war was over and the everyday routine of tension and
having to be alert every moment, night or day, vanished. The
fear of not surviving to the next day was suddenly supplanted
by the question, "what now". Mother decided to stay
in Drzewica for a while with the hope that father would find
us. Almost every day or so a surviving human wreck from the
original ghetto arrived in the village, hoping to find some
relatives. They stayed a few days and, after futile inquiries,
moved on. We asked everyone about our father, but we only
found two guys who said that they had seen our father trying
to escape from the transport and that he had been shot by
a German guard. Their tale was a bit fuzzy and our mother
did not believe that it could be true anyway. So we kept waiting
until no more people showed up. In total we counted about
twenty from a population of over two thousand in the original
ghetto. A few, no more than five, survived locally, hidden
by Poles in the surrounding villages. This then, perhaps,
is a good statistical indication of how many survived overall
in Poland, because the first instinct was to come back to
the village and try to find some trace of one's family or
friends. It means a survival rate far below 1%.
One day we found ourselves again all alone, the sole remnants
of the ghetto and no sign of father. It was time to move on.
With our few bundles of belongings, which were tattered clothing
mostly, and some food we hitched a ride to the industrial
city of Lodz. We were told that there was a Jewish help organization
there. When we found the place we could easily guess that
some important activity was going on in that building. There
was a multitude of people coming and going and some just standing
near a large gate leading into the yard. The walls on both
sides of the vaulted gate entrance were plastered with messages
photographs and pleas for information about family members.
We looked at these for a while, but the chances that our father
had posted something there were nil. We registered and were
given some money and a place to stay in a loft on the top
floor of a tall building. We shared these quarters with another
family. The feelings I remember were those of curiosity and
strangeness. The street noises of the big city and the confinement
created by the tall buildings filled me with unease. The smell
of cooked food coming through the open window was all-pervasive.
Although the life threatening dangers were gone, I still felt
restricted. There were no forest to run to, no fields of tall
growth to dive into if need be. The terrain was unfamiliar,
with so much to learn about the new environment, anxiety ran
high, but I was not in fear for my life anymore.
After a few days we were taken to a suburb of Lodz, a place
called Helenowek. This was a well known prewar orphanage compound.
It had gained notoriety because of a flamboyant Jewish Commitee
member, a Mr. Rumkowski, who took a special interest in its
running. He solicited funds for maintaining it from wealthy
members of the prewar Jewish community in Lodz. Using imaginative
stratagems, he got enough money to furnish the compound nicely.
There were three houses that survived the war intact as well
as all the adjacent utility buildings and a fairly large greenhouse
with a nearby orchard. The third house, the smallest, burned
down later and only the concrete foundation remained; it was
never rebuilt. In addition to the principal buildings, which
housed the children and personnel quarters, there were all
the elements of a farm, with horses, cows and pigs, a rather
large greenhouse and a number of smaller auxiliary buildings.
As legend has it, Rumkowski, when he brought in prospective
donors to present his accomplishments, would pick out the
ugly kids and hide them away. After the war in 1945 the Jewish
Committee ran all this. The funds came from America through
the Joint (a Jewish help organization) and some came from
the Polish state. My mother was given a job in the kitchen
and a room for herself. We, the children, were incorporated
into the orphanage community and assigned to our respective
I have a lasting impression of the first dinner in a rather
small room. Close to thirty children were seated along two
tables. I was led in and given a place at the end of one of
the tables. I wore my best outfit, one which mother had laboriously
sewn together with great pride. It was a nice beige jacket
with matching shorts. I sat down in a deafening noise of kids
screaming their lungs out. The commotion and noise abated
a little when the food was brought in and everyone out of
curiosity was trying to get high above the table to see what
it was. Amidst riotous commotion the food was dished out onto
the plates. Once this was done the kids started eating. The
ensuing quiet did not last long; one kid took a spoonful of
mashed potatoes and slapped it into the face of the kid sitting
opposite. That started a general shooting melee. My precious
beige outfit was hit several times with red beet mush. It
came out of that dinner a total ruin. There was a plump, red
haired, very freckled girl sitting at the head of the table.
At her back was a cast-iron heater below the window with protruding
sharp ridges. In the commotion she stood up aiming with her
spoon at somebody. In the meantime another kid moved her chair,
and she sat down and hit her head on one of those ridges.
Her scalp was split, blood started pouring and the dinner
ended with the kids quietly sneaking out of the room. That
very night my first real shoes in almost three years-I was
given them while still in Lodz-were stolen from under my bed.
That was our beginning in Helenowek, about which a number
of people have written in later years.
The mayhem did not last long. A new principal or director,
Mrs. Maria Fajngold, was brought in. She faced every situation
with calm, unlike the other mentors who became hysterical
with frustration. She would pick the worst offender and without
raising her voice would say,
"Robert, if you go on like this, you will be too tired
to go to the movies this Saturday. You will have to rest,
at home, and the other kids will go without you."
That usually took care of Robert. She instituted the so-called
"children's self rule." This is an old concept in
educational systems, but few educators have the patience,
seriousness and talent to make it work. Looking back it seems
that her personality carried the day. She was a tall woman,
robustly built, but not heavy, handsome with pitch-black hair
and warm brown eyes. She never raised her voice or used a
physical discipline, although she could easily overpower even
a fairly large youngster. She always found a calm way to resolve
a troubling situation. The children's council was democratically
elected and all important matters such as discipline, projects
and other matters were debated and decided with gentle guidance
and not much interference from Mrs. Maria. She put a vision
before us in a few simple words,
"Children, we need to make up for lost time and work
hard to prepare ourselves for life. Those of you who were
less damaged by this horrible war have an obligation to help
others not as able to get on with school homework and everyday
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
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
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 political and social conditions in Poland favored indoctrination
or brainwashing, if one prefers that term. There were, however,
The Favorable Conditions
We, the children, were all in shock after our war years'
experience, totally confused as to what to think of the world
around us. How could all that have happened? - I myself sought
some explanation or at least some assurance that all this
was a horrible aberration in human history, never to be repeated.
The explanation given by Milstein was simple. "It is
all the fault of Capitalism, it is rotting and in its end
stage it produces fascism. What we have experienced, is the
last paroxysm of that rotten system. The new shining path
for mankind, communism, will not allow such a calamity to
ever occur again." Of course at that time I was far from
ready to point out that communism had already committed atrocities
comparable to or exceeding those of fascism. That realization
would come to me in the future. At that time the only thing
we knew was that the Red Army had defeated the forces of darkness
and had saved our lives. There was a Russian army unit stationed
nearby, as was the case throughout Poland at the time. One
of their tasks was to guard the orphanage from possible attack
by Polish "reactionary and antisemitic rioters or the
armed anticommunist underground." The threat was real
and we were very concerned and frightened. It was the time
of Kielce, a town where a few barely alive Jewish Holocaust
survivors were nursing themselves back to life. A Polish mob,
incited by officials, as was eventually discovered, after
the fall of communism (2). killed 47 weak and defenseless
Jews in a pogrom on July 14, 1946. We were frightened and
armed ourselves illegally. The orphanage personnel turned
a blind eye to it. Most of our weapons came from those Russian
troops. We got them by begging and trading small items, but
mostly by pestering the officers until they gave us their
surplus stuff. Eventually we acquired impressive firepower,
including submachine guns. Once again, for us the Russians
were the good guys, and we dismissed their misbehavior in
the neighborhood. It was known that some of the soldiers were
stealing from the farmers or committing other misdeeds. These
incidents troubled us, and we ran to comrade Milstein for
explanations, which she always had. We forgot about the occurrences
that did not neatly fitt into Milstein's glorification of
the Soviet Union soon after these troops moved out. We wondered
later how it was possible for those who experienced Soviet
life (Milstein survived the war in the Soviet Union) not to
become disillusioned and to continue to peddle that ideology,
which should be considered by any standards as willful and
criminal misrepresentation of reality. She was not alone,
there was a slew of such believers who came with the Red Army
and were the instruments of Stalin's scheme to communize Polish
society, which was historically anti-Soviet. A lot of those
were idealistic Jews, who held the misguided belief that they
would build a better brand of communism, their own. This is
still the mantra of the contemporary left, here in the US
and in Europe, in academia and elsewhere-"We will do
it better". Those stupid, well-meaning bastards, they
don't know what they are talking about. For us, at that time,
the overriding concerns were elsewhere. We were in danger
and under anti-Semitic harassment at school; we also had to
learn furiously to make up the lost years. Milstein characterized
Anti-Semitism and the Kielce massacre as the last vestiges
of a rotten system, one that the communists were struggling
to eradicate from the face of the earth. There is no question
that she naively and with her whole heart believed in what
she was teaching or rather preaching. She later paid with
her life for that exorbitantly fervent belief.
Initially most of the kids from the orphanage went to school
in the nearby suburb of Radogoszcz. In the early days when
communism had not yet been consolidated and had not managed
to put every facet of public or private life under its control,
the schools continued their traditional prewar way of teaching.
We had the old textbooks and the prewar teachers, who basically
were anticommunists; we therefore had to deal with a lot of
contradictions between school and comrade Milstein. We also
had Ms. Lucy Gold directly responsible for our "middle-aged"
group. She was a prewar Mentor and a survivor of Auschwitz,
had no idea what communism was all about and did not care.
In the evenings when we were all in bed she read to us romantic
stories from the American Civil War. She liked America and
obviously we had a mass of questions; the answers were in
sharp contrast with comrade Milstein's teachings. All this
and the school-sown seeds soon went dormant for a good while
after communism silenced any politically incorrect ideas or
expressions. Nevertheless this early exposure to knowledge
later forbidden in school and life sank in deep and burst
to the surface in some of us at the time we entered university
and professional life. Interestingly, not all of us had experienced
these awakenings from the deep ingrained deception. And, more
interestingly, that awakaning often, but not always, coincided
with middle and upper class social backgrounds, especially
the bourgeoisie from which I came. The kids in school who
had a strong family tradition of anti-sovietism were much
less vulnerable to indoctrination, they went into a deep hiding
mode where they perfunctorily went along with the trappings
of socialism just to wait it out. A good illustration of that
was what happened after Stalin's death in 1953. The feeling
of loss was very profound for some part of the population,
it was a feeling akin to facing a catastrophe-what will humanity
do now, without the guidance of that wise father of nations;
those who were in the waiting mode rejoiced or had a lot of
fun with the somber official mourning. My future wife Elizabeth
remembered wetting her panties one time from jokes and laughter
as she and her teen-age friends engaged in brazen mocking
at one of many official events of mourning and wailing, where
attendance was compulsory.
This elementary school epitomized Polish society's attitude
towards the pitiful remnants of the Jewish Holocaust survivors
and, worse, to the children. It dramatically lessened the
influence it could have had in immunizing us against the indoctrination
of likes of comrade Milstein and especially those that came
later, when the indoctrination pressure became intense in
the special schools we were sent to. There were two aspects
to that antisemitic harassment. The Polish kids were constantly
casting slurs and the boys would pick fights with us. The
teachers reinforced that atmosphere. Religion was an important
part of the school's curriculum and some of the teachers would
use it as a tool to humiliate us. Lectures always began with
a Catholic prayer at the beginning of the school day and the
instruction to us was:
"All Jews should stand at attention when Christian
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.
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
Mr. Lifschitz would smile gently and say nothing. Otherwise
they were a very loving couple.
I only remember Mr. Korn because of his extremely fat wife
(she was our seamstress) and a short incident on the stairs
of the main house. We always pitied him and wondered how he
did it with Bella. We challenged each other to finally ask
him about that, but none of the youngsters had the courage
or audacity to do it. One time I talked to Mr. Korn standing
on the stairs of the main house. I was contemplating delicately
settling the matter for my friends without offending the so
very nice Mr. Korn. Suddenly a girl, the daughter of one of
the greenhouse workers, strolled by. She was about seventeen
and very shapely, a poster girl for Nazi propaganda art for
Arian beauty, blond, tall and lovely. Mr. Korn fixed his gaze
on her exquisitely formed behind and, licking his lips, said:
" You know, that girl is ripe for plucking, somebody
should consider going after 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.\
Our driver was another memorable character. He drove us to
school in the morning and collected some of us in the afternoon;
some came home by themselves from closer schools. A modern
school bus it was not; we were packed like sardines in the
cargo hold of a large Bedford truck obtained from the American
military lend-lease supplies. Through the years there was
not a single mishap, a lot of fun though, teasing girls.
Fraszczyk was a tall skinny guy with a fair and densely
freckled complexion. He had a large bony face with a mane
of red hair on top of it. He came to us from the army, where
he had been a Soviet tank crewman. We pestered him for tales
of his wartime exploits and especially his successes with
women. His tales about that were so graphic that they became
a splendid substitute for pornographic material, which of
course was unthinkable for us to obtain or even to look at.
We also admired him for his mechanical skills in keeping the
old Bedford running. I was always around him whenever he was
fixing something. We also admired his colorful dress and especially
the nice half boots he said he stripped from a dead German
officer. One day I saw a silhouette in the distance moving
towards the compound that looked somewhat familiar. Coming
closer I recognized Mr. Fraszczyk with a large bundle under
his arm, but barefoot.
" Mr. Fraszczyk, what happened to your boots?"
"I sold them and bought a bunch of books, on sale I
am going to college."
I met Fraszczyk later on in college. He was ahead of me
by a year or two and in constant trouble for his manner of
dressing. It was dangerous to wear striped socks that resembled
the kind that were fashionable in the West. Fraszczyk finished
college with some difficulty, worked a little bit as an engineer
and emigrated to Israel in the second post-war wave of Jews
leaving Poland, in 1957. This was the second opportunity to
leave communism after the initial opportunity in 1945 ended
in total closure, it came, as result of internal upheaval
in the Soviet block and in Poland in particular (more on this
later). I heard later that he committed suicide in Israel.
This is how colorful lives slide into oblivion, and there
is no one willing and talented enough to pass on the life
story of a Fraszczyk to future generations.
Nurse Kaplan was in charge of our health. She was physically
a robust woman, pleasant, not very attractive but not ugly
either. She was a mixture of terror and amiability. Terror
when she performed her duties. It was very difficult to keep
our large community of kids out of health related dangers.
Any infection would spread like wildfire among kids living
and sleeping in close quarters. Her goal was to keep the isolation
ward empty and she accomplished that with ruthless efficiency.
Terrors included her periodic head inspections and keeping
haircuts very short at all times. Then there were the humiliating
genital inspections in the shower room where we had to stand
in line and nurse Kaplan, still a young woman, would go from
boy to boy (I was fourteen) and thoroughly inspect everybody's
penis and vicinity (We called it schwanz (tail) parade). This
was often the site of parasitic infections brought back from
school. An infected kid would be ashamed to disclose it, and
before long it would spread despite the strictly enforced
draconian hygiene of nurse Kaplan. In spite of that we liked
nurse Kaplan, for when she was not on her designated mission
and on duty she would tell us stories and dirty jokes. She
also helped us with our Russian language homework. Her approach
to everyday life issues was straightforward, she did not beat
around the bush. Crude and simple; we liked that very much
as a refreshing change from the lofty approaches in school
and from the officially approved manner of behavior. On her
days off she went to the city on Saturdays to see her boyfriend.
She would 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
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
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
"Any other issues today?"
"Comrade chairman, I have a problem. Zielinska is pursuing
me and stubbornly bringing me lunches, which I refuse. I do
not want any favors from somebody who has bourgeois views
and with whom I do not agree ideologically. I am hereby asking
her, in the presence of all my colleagues, to desist, and
if she does not I am asking our organization to take steps
"I hereby ask colleague Zielinska to stop bringing lunches
for Ziental. This will be noted in the proceedings of this
Next meeting, again, "Any issues left?"
"Comrade chairman, I would like our organization to
check information I have obtained, regarding colleague Ziental's
father who was a member of the reactionary Union of Support
for the fascist government in prewar Poland and therefore
is not fit to be in our organization."
"It is so noted, we will check the information."
The information was confirmed and Ziental lost his mantle
of origin purity and any possibility of favored treatment,
for college admission, for example.
We were hardly children anymore; around sixteen, give or take
a year or two. This sequence of events etched itself into
my memory for its shocking implications. It basically ment
that a private matter had been politicized and a government
organization used to solve the issue. What shocked the most
was the eagerness with wich the members meddled in private
lives, their ruthlessness and unprincipled behavior in using
any foul means to achieve a objective. I did not verbalize
all this at the time, but felt, that "There was something
rotten in the kingdom of Denmark."
Of course, we the orphanage children, were pretty much isolated
from the goings on of society at large. We were not aware
of the arrests, the disappearances, the intimidation of workers,
the ruthless campains against the remnants of the private
sector; the small shopkeepers, artisans and vegetable growers
around the city. As I have stated, Zielinska's family ran
a small shop of 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
"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
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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,
"Where are you from?"
"Katovice." (A heavily ethnic German part of Poland)
"Were you there when the Germans held the area?"
" Then you probably were a member of the Hitlerjugend."
A few other questions followed. The guy was admitted and
later I saw him moving up in the organization. At the time
I was stunned; it seemed so strange that I, with my bourgeois
background, had so much trouble, always under suspicion and
tolerated only because of my orphanage past, and here is this
guy with Hitlerjugend training and no problems! The significance
of that incident I understood years later. You always accept
a good man from the competition with 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
"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 was a Greek Royal Air Force captain with a profile taken
from the ancient art on Grecian urns seen in museums. He had
black eyes and pitch-black hair. He was rather short and on
the heavy side. His guitar made up for this physical shortcomings.
The ladies melted to the sound of his nostalgic songs. During
the war he flew Lancaster bombers in the British Royal Air
Force. He joined the Greek Communist Party after WWII and
fought in Marcos' communist uprising in Greece. After that
was squashed he escaped to communist Poland with a host of
others like him. Nicos decided on an aeronautical education
in line with his previous occupation and began to study with
us. The Greek government put a death sentence on him if captured
or came back to Greece. The partisan commander upon dissolving
his unit in Poland asked the women, also in the unit, to line
up opposite his men and ordered, "Forward march."
When the two lines came together facing each other the commander
"The comrades facing each other are now pronounced man
and wife, good luck to each of you."
That is how Nicos married to Kula, being a disciplined Party
member. The marriage turned into an unmitigated disaster,
but this was a little bit later. In the meantime we befriended
Nicos, who was a gifted guitar player and a fantastic storyteller.
He was very serious about his political convictions, but they
were not his life's passion. He was a sex maniac, and I have
never met anyone that passionate about sex since Nicos. He
was much older, had vast experience in that area and thought
his duty was to educate us, greenhorns. The extent of his
obsession can be illustrated by the following incident: I
was walking with Nicos to a lecture; we passed a ladies' bathhouse.
In those days people still went to public bathhouses to take
a shower. Nothing devious about that, many did not have bathrooms
in their houses. Nicos turned to me and said,
"I would love to be a wall in that shower room so I
could hear all the shh...shh... in the toilet nearby, it is
music to my ears."
We loved Nicos, his cooking was great, his stories most
exciting and his guitar a delight. One day I met my friend
Jacob in the street, and we stopped for a chat.
"I finally met your much-talked about Nicos, he is
a painful idiot."
"I invited him for lunch, and we waited God knows how
long to be served. Finally the waiter came and was rude. And
you know what Nicos started lecturing me about?"
"He said that this was a very clear evidence of the
superiority of the Socialist system over Capitalism. In Capitalism
the waiter would bow and be abjectly subservient, here he
retains his 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
"My friends, a disaster has befallen me, I was thrown
out of the Party and I am a leper now. It is dangerous for
you to associate with me and show any signs of friendship,
so stay away."
First, we fell to the floor with laughter upon seeing his
somber and dejected demeanor. When we pulled ourselves together,
we warmly congratulated him and went to drown his sorrow in
cheap alcohol. We never delved into the reasons; it had to
happen sooner or later. Nicos' conduct in life and the Party
were totally at odds. Somehow he had made a terrible turn
in his life and joined that criminal cabal when he did not
have to and had no reason to in the world. Maybe he had an
idiotic nodule in his brain somewhere after all. He recovered
nicely from that expulsion with jolly help from us. Nicos
had a son by Kula named Fedon and after Nicos and Kula divorced
she moved to a commune established by those noble fighters
for the happiness of mankind, remnants of the communist rebellion
in Greece. Nicos visited his son and started courting Katina,
a teacher in the commune. On one of the visits he was summoned
to the local Party executive.
"Comrade Nicos, we have a delicate matter to discuss
with you. We can see that you are getting serious about comrade
Katina. We have grown concerned, because we think she is not
suitable for you, a respected comrade. You see, to put it
delicately, she sees a lot of men."
"Comrades, I must tell you that I would never, ever
consider an inexperienced woman for a wife." (Getting
a little bold having been around us for a while, eh).
That settled the matter and Nicos married Katina. It became
an outstanding marriage. We liked Katina a lot and enjoyed
being invited into their flat for social events. On one of
the visits to see Fedon Kula put him up in a tree and erected
a manure ring around it to symbolically deny Nicos access
to his beloved son. Nicos became so upset that he died of
a heart attack shortly after, at age 49 and never saw his
beloved Greece again.
Ludwig was a fellow of medium height with a freckled complexion
and reddish blond hair. He had a smiling, broad face, and
his distinguishing feature was the large gap between his two
front teeth. Very mild-mannered and easygoing he used to come
by, drink a bit and mostly listen in silence to our ravings
about things as we took the world apart. It happened that
the Youth Organization (the ZMP, to which we all belonged)
announced a campaign to improve our grades, a noble cause.
At one of the meetings I got up to say something. I arduously
avoided any public speaking since my shyness was pathological.
This time, though, I got up and said,
"Colleagues, I think we need to fundamentally change
our attitudes. We should not just study for the sake of passing
grades, we need to hunger for knowledge and aim for the highest
grades and ease up a little bit on chasing girls. I know some
of us are doing barely enough to get a passing C. This was
expressed to me by colleague Natkaniec."
Ludwig became a whipping boy. Not a meeting passed without
his name being mentioned and dragged through mud. He became
public enemy No. 1. I was shocked and frightened about having
harmed his graduation chances. I literally went on my knees
to ask forgiveness from Ludwig for my stupidity. I could clearly
feel the pain of that anguished English colonel in the story
"The Bridge over the River Kwai." I also said to
myself "My God, what have I done." Slowly the furor
subsided and Ludwig went on with his studies and graduated.
It is now half a century since these events took place, and
I am still bitterly ashamed by my action. Ludwig forgave me
and became a devoted friend. I worked with him very closely
for years when he became a company test pilot, enormously
successful and universally liked. During the times of trouble,
in 1968 when I was under the political whip, he went out of
his way to protect me, with considerable danger to himself.
Ludwig died at the age of 65 in retirement; the air force
flew in formation over his funeral procession to show respect
and admiration for their beloved fellow 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 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
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?"
"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
"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
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
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
"Chief, I need to talk to you, can we go someplace
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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."
"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
" 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
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
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
"Mr. Sonnenberg, I must tell you that I am no communist.
Although I am in the Party, I hate them."
"I had a Jewish girlfriend, I wanted to marry her, but
my parents would not allow it. I am now approaching retirement
and I still cannot 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
"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
I thought that the ones who agreed to go through this were
the most despicable wretched beings there could be. There
were a number of those to be found though.
Among other things I had to do was stand before the regional
military board to clear away the paperwork for permission
to leave. They made a spectacle out of it, a full panel of
bemedaled colonels and majors sitting around me in a semicircle
and passing questions from one to the other.
"So, lieutenant (I was a lieutenant in the air force
reserves), you are leaving us and going to Israel?
"What commission did the imperialists promise you, captain
or maybe major? How much money is waiting for you?"
"I do not know of any, sir."
" We have educated you, taken care of you and now you
are going to serve our enemies, is that so?"
"Sir, I have worked all those favors off. Twelve years,
and some of it brought in 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
In 1992 during my visit to Poland (after the fall of communism)
we had a mini- reunion. We went to see Mrs. Falkowska, 86
years old then, in perfect health and lively, witty, very
alert, and still, in spite of her age, an attractive lady.
We did not immerse ourselves in nostalgia; we talked about
contemporary subjects and reviewed all the orphanage children
we could remember, their whereabouts and what they were doing.
Mrs. Falkowska addressed me with an air of visible disappointment,
perhaps hoping for a proper answer,
"Don't you regret now that you left Poland?"
"Dear, dear Mrs. Maria, if I hadn't, I would have thrown
my life away, and would have lost any traces of self-respect."
That was not very sensitive to those who stayed, but I did
not mean to imply a criticism of their decisions. I understood
their reasons, and those reasons did not diminish my affection
for them. The comment applied strictly to me, and I think
they understood it that way.
It is difficult to take a stance on the Polish question. On
the one hand there are those dark forces predominating in
the Polish nation and its history, on the other there are
the outstanding and courageous individuals and a good percentage
of them. What does one say? My friend Bronek cannot get Poland
out of his system, it is a longing which persists despite
the terrible things the Poles have done to him, but he can
not forget the good people who saved his life. He does return
from Israel to the old places in Poland, barely recognizable
now, and talks to the children of those who sheltered him,
they themselves being long dead now. He arranged for some
of their names to get into Yad Vashem's alley of the righteous.
All this is in spite of having succeeded in Israel-after a
ferocious struggle to be sure, but he succeeded. He has two
sons, both Sabras, and now grandchildren. All are educated
and are outstanding people. He has a very close-knit family,
a great thing to witness. Such is the case with most who went
to Israel or elsewhere and are now scattered around the world.
Pola, his wife, is younger and was not in Poland during the
war and cannot understand his emotional state. I can, but
I am free of any longing for Poland and carry an indifference
with me and that comes out more when reminded. Nevertheless,
I wish that nation a better fate in the future for all the
suffering it has gone through in history. I guard against
the possibility of doing an injustice to those who were truly
heroes, and I try to publicize my gratitude to them for all
they have done for me. I have coined a saying,
"A controversial nation, but with many magnificent people
The lifelong friendships I have made among the Poles remain.
Besides Joe and the others already mentioned, from time to
time there come to me out of Poland voices of people I knew.
They remember me and express warm feelings and with nostalgia
remind me of things I have done for them, things I do not
remember myself. I cannot dismiss this; it gives me the double
satisfaction of knowing that there were such good people around
and that I was in their favor.
Would I have left Poland without the events of 1968 to spur
me on? Definitely. These events gave me the opportunity and
the final push; it was the proverbial last straw for the camel.
It was an utterly necessary decision, although laden with
fear and apprehension. The residue of years of propaganda
about the cruelly competitive conditions under capitalism
persisted. I had doubts that I could make it, and more importantly
the responsibility for Elizabeth and Jack weighed heavily.
The resolve was absolute; if we had to perish, so be it. No
more Poland! To stay would have meant the complete loss of
self-respect and the ability to look at myself in the mirror.
No. 1 A/ Modern Times by Paul Johnson, The High Noon Agression
Harper & Row Publishers, 1985
No. 2 INTERMARIUM Volume 1, Number 3. The Jewish Pogrom in
Kilece, July 1946 - New Evidence. Bozena Szaynok.
No. 3 The Illustrated History of The Jewish People, Jane
S. Gerber. Oded Irshai et al. Harcourt Brace & Company,