angel at the fence

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					Angel at the Fence
by Herman Rosenblat

Dedication To the memory of my loving mother and father, Rose and Jacob Rosenblat, of my wonderful brothers Isydor, Abraham, and Sam Rosenblat, and of my dear sister, Eva Rosenblat Yahonovitz.


Prologue “This is the single greatest love story ever,” Oprah Winfrey told her audience. Seated next to one another on the sofa onstage, our hands entwined, my wife and I beamed with pride. It was our second appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The first had been eleven years earlier, and like so much in my life, it had seemed, at any rate, to happen just by chance— one small, apparently meaningless action leading, yet again, to momentous consequences. I had been having a cup of coffee at the coffee shop near my place of business in Brooklyn, New York. As was typical, I was reading the New York Post, the tabloid daily that is always filled with quizzes and reader contests. On this particular day, there was a contest for the best love story sent in by a reader. Tell us your story, the paper urged, and win a romantic evening for two, all-expenses paid: a candlelit dinner overlooking Central Park, tickets to the hottest show on Broadway, and a limousine and driver to take you there and bring you home. On a whim, I wrote a couple of paragraphs and mailed them in. What the hell? I thought to myself. They’ll get a million entries. They probably did, too, but mine won! Reporters and photographers streamed to our house in Queens. The photographers snapped photos of us seated, standing, indoors, outdoors, in the limo, at the restaurant, going into the theater. It was 24 hours of frenzied hoopla, and then it was over. Or so I thought. But a day or so later, the phone rang, and a very gracious woman, who said she was a producer for the Oprah Winfrey Show, announced that the staff would like my wife and me to appear on the show. Of course, I was flattered. But for us, as I told the producer, television was


something we watched, not something we would ever think to appear on, so I thanked the nice woman and said no. The next day, the phone rang again. This time, it was a man on the other end of the phone—equally gracious although apparently a more important producer—who again urged us to come on the show. Again I thanked the producer for his interest, explaining a second time that it really wasn’t something my wife and I would be comfortable doing. The third phone call was different. “This is Oprah Winfrey,” said the voice. “I so much want you both to come on my show. Please don’t refuse me.” And I learned what most of America—and indeed of the world—already knew: that you really cannot refuse Oprah Winfrey. So we were flown to Chicago for three days of pampering so that we could appear on the show and hear Oprah tell our story. Eleven years later, we were back—this time, because we were getting ready to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. As she had eleven years earlier, Oprah narrated our story over a video of black-and-white images. Also as she had eleven years earlier, she asked me if there was something I wanted to say to my wife. There was. I managed to get down on my knees—not so easy at the age of 78—and to place a new wedding ring on her finger. “As this ring has no end,” I said in a voice wobbly with emotion, “so our love has no end.” The audience applauded as I again sat down and again clasped my wife’s hand. We both felt the warmth of their affection. I imagined that my parents in heaven were looking down on us, joining in the applause, smiling with pride that their son should be celebrated as a symbol of the power of love. 3

“You are a beautiful metaphor of what love can be,” Oprah said to us. “What can you say about your story? Do you call it destiny? Do you call it fate? What do you call it?” What do I call it? That I should be here at all, much less at the side of the woman I love after nearly 50 years of marriage: what do I call this? Given where I started, I call it nothing less than a miracle.


Chapter 1 I am a lucky man. There are people who know my story who will think it strange that I should say that, but it is true. For all my life, there has been someone watching over me, protecting me, looking out for my best interests. That someone is my mother. She has always been with me. She still is. And because of that, I have escaped death, survived the Holocaust, known the freedom of America, had children and grandchildren, lived for more than 50 years with the woman I love. It was my mother who ensured that I would survive, who showed me how to keep on living, who promised that an angel would save me and bring light into my life. And it is my mother who instructed me to tell my story. For a long time, I simply couldn’t. I saw the Holocaust as a bad dream; I had awakened from it, and I did not want to relive it. Friends, acquaintances, even my children would ask me questions, and I wouldn’t answer. “You can read the facts in books,” I would say; “I have nothing to add.” But in 1992, on the day before Thanksgiving, all of that changed. It was the eighteenth of November—a cool, gray morning that was typical for the season. By 7:00 a.m., my son Kenneth and I were already at work inside Rosenblat Electrical Co., Inc., the business I had founded and still ran. We had a lot to do to prepare our payroll and the endof-the-year bonuses for our workers and to finish up the day’s work before the office Thanksgiving party scheduled for that afternoon. The back doorbell rang. I looked at the clock on the wall. 7:20. Too early for any of our workers. “I’ll get it,” my son said. A moment later I heard a struggle in the hallway behind me, then—crack!—a gunshot. I couldn’t think or feel or act in any deliberate way. I just whipped 5

around in time to see my son fall to the ground. “Give me all your money!” the gunman screamed. He lunged for the stacks of money on my desk, and instinctively, I reached for them at the same moment. Crack! Crack! I heard more shots, felt a burning sensation, looked down and realized I was bleeding from my stomach. I dragged myself to the telephone, punched 911, then hauled myself over to where my son was lying on the floor. “How are you?” “I can’t feel my legs…” he whispered. I stopped being conscious of anything. When I next surfaced to awareness, I was being wheeled into the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital. “How is my son?” I kept asking. “Can he move his legs?” No one answered me. Dear God, I whispered to myself, after all that I have survived, am I to end like this? A moment later, I was in an operating room. Above me, three doctors wearing surgical masks swam into view. The image transported me instantly back to Buchenwald, where masked doctors had examined us upon arrival, probing for gold or other valuables. Now one of the doctors placed an anesthesia mask over my face, and I went under. My mother came to me, as she often did—and still does—in my dreams. “You must tell your story,” my mother told me. “I know it’s hard, but you must tell it so that your grandchildren will know about their grandfather’s life.” “Yes, Mamusia,” I said in the dream. “All right.” When I woke up in the recovery room, my wife was at my bedside, holding my hand. Our son was alive; vascular damage had paralyzed his legs from the waist down, and he would be permanently in a wheelchair, but he was alive. Our family remained intact. It was time for me to do as my mother asked and speak about my life. And although the mind shudders to remember, I will begin… 6

I was born September 24, 1929 in a small village in Poland called Pruszcz, near Gdansk, not far from the shore of the Baltic Sea. The time and the place dictated that in my entire childhood, I would never know the peace and security children are supposed to have, nor would I ever experience the unalloyed joy that goes along with such peace and security. Instead, from the moment of my birth, my life was fraught with terror. Hatred planted the terror: hatred of Jews that made my mother tremble, that limited my siblings’ lives, that threatened my father’s livelihood and our family’s safety. The world into which I was born, the youngest child of a Jewish family in Poland in 1929, was an environment of constant menace, endless fear, trouble, and pain. But I was also born into a family that loved me—and one another—very much. Today, the village of Prusczc is part of Gdansk’s industrial sprawl, but back then, it was a tiny settlement consisting of a single road and a few houses that faced the railroad track. A train came through the village twice a day—lumbering in one direction in the morning and in the opposite direction in the afternoon. There was no station, but if you wanted to ride the train, you could stand beside the track and flag it down, and that is just what people did. It is what my father did, for he spent most of every week working at his main business, a tailor shop in Bydgoszcz, a good-sized city some 85 miles to the southwest, commuting home to Pruszcz just twice a week. In Pruszcz our family had a second business, a general store on that single main road, where farmers from the surrounding area would come to buy clothing and other household goods, or to patronize one of the few other shops in the village—a coffee shop, a bar, an equipment store.


Except for my father’s twice-weekly visits, it was my mother who tended the store, helped by my brother Abraham, who was sixteen the year I was born. Managing two businesses was difficult for both parents—all the traveling back and forth for my father, the days of separation from one another, the burden on my mother to manage a family and a store— but as long as both businesses thrived, the struggle was worth it to them. Adding to the struggle was that about once a week, the store in Pruszcz would be vandalized. Our neighbors from the outlying farms would break the windows, loot whatever they could get their hands on, and write “Jew get out of Poland” on the walls. My brother Abraham grew adept at fighting them off, but the vandalism continued. My mother routinely called the police to report the incident. Just as routinely, the local authorities feigned interest and assured my mother that they would look for the intruders, but nothing ever came of it, and of course, for Jews, there was no recourse. All the family could do was fight off the thugs and write off the loss. “They will soon tire of this,” my father always said of the vandals. But they never did. I was born in a small attic apartment above the store. I am told the day was cool, even chilly. Abraham was tending to a customer when my mother called out to him from upstairs. “I am going to have the baby now!” she cried. “Fetch a doctor!” He closed the store and went to look for one, although it was doubtful any Polish doctor would attend a Jewish woman in labor. None did, of course, and when Abraham finally returned to the store, I had already been delivered—aided by Zosia, the woman my mother had hired to do the housework and help in the store. I was the baby of the family, with three older brothers and one sister. Isydor was the oldest at eighteen; like my father, he worked in Bydgoszcz, assisting a dentist there as part of his own training for a dentist’s license. Abraham stayed in Pruszcz to work in the store. My sister 8

Eva, thirteen when I was born, and my brother Samuel, eight, whom we called “Samek” in Polish, traveled each day from Pruszcz to Bydgoszcz to attend school. A week after I was born, my mother went back to tending the store, leaving me in my crib, with Zosia more or less in charge. That morning, Zosia decided to cook pigeons, so she prepared them, then set them on the wood-burning stove. It was busy in the store that day, and when my mother called for Zosia to come down to attend to customers, she simply forgot about the cooking pigeons. By now, they were burning, and the room was filling with smoke. I started to cough and cry. My infant lungs quickly filled with smoke, and I soon became unconscious. It was Samek who alerted my mother to the trouble. When he came home from school and went upstairs as always to see me, he could neither see me through the smoke nor did he hear me. “Where’s Herman?” he asked my mother. “He’s not in his crib, and there’s smoke everywhere.” My mother’s screams brought Abraham who ran upstairs, gathered me in his arms, and got me out. My mother quickly bundled me up and built a fire to keep me warm. Samek telephoned my father, urging him to come quickly—and to bring doctor, a Jewish one, if possible. In the meantime, my sister Eva came home from school, saw the commotion, and with Abraham’s help, started to massage my limbs to revive me. Somehow, my father did find a doctor. It took them four hours to travel from Bydgoszcz to Pruszcz by horse and wagon. The doctor examined me and announced that I had been saved just in time; a few more minutes, and I would have choked. “He will get better,” the doctor reassured my parents. “Just keep him warm, and give him a lot of milk.” My mother put Abraham in charge of the store, assigned Zosia to help him, and tended to me around the clock. My father came every second day to see how I was doing, and he telephoned every day. On the third day of my recovery, the store was vandalized again; as 9

always, Abraham fought off the looters, who nevertheless got away with some merchandise before they ran off. By the time I was a year old, my mother could no longer take the strain of the weekly vandalism, the bullying, the anti-Semitism. We left Pruszcz for good and moved into an eightroom apartment in Bydgoszcz—a place large enough that we all could stay together. It is here that my memories begin. A funny thing, memory. The decade of the 1930s, as the world now knows well, was, for the Jews of Poland, the painful prelude to an inconceivable catastrophe. Brutally, increment by increment, Jewish lives were diminished, circumscribed into an ever smaller circle. What we did not know at the time—and could not have believed—was that the circle was really a noose tightening around our necks, and that the end of the process was extermination. Yet for me, those early years in Bydgoszcz represented the closest thing to normal family life I would ever know until I had a family of my own. My father ran his tailor shop from the apartment , and Isydor, who had now been graduated from dental school, opened a dental laboratory there as well. Abraham went to work for a grain shipper. Eva finished high school and also got a job with the grain company, working as a secretary. Samuel, still of school age, continued his studies, fully expecting to join the work force soon and help our family as each sibling before him had done. My mother tended to us all. She ran the house and ensured that our family life complied with Jewish law and tradition . Every day, she collected firewood for the stove and prepared all our meals. Since both Isydor’s dental patients and my father’s tailoring customers often paid with geese and ducks, she also had the responsibility of taking care of the animals.


Bydgoszcz itself was a big city, with a population of some 300,000 people—40 percent of them Polish, 40 percent German, and a few hundred Jewish families like ours. The substantial German population comprised ethnic Germans, as they were called—Volksdeutsche—who found themselves living in territory reconstituted as Polish by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. They spoke German, retained German customs, and maintained strong ties to the German nation, which of course was not very far away. Their presence—and ours as Jews— lent a somewhat cosmopolitan air to Bydgoszcz, and it was a busy town, with factories, shops, concert halls, theaters, even an opera house, all served by a network of tramlines that operated throughout the city, taking people to and fro. As a young child, however, my life was limited to our apartment building and its back yard, and I was rarely far from my mother’s sight. Of course, she had never quite gotten over my near-death as an infant. But it was more than that. She was a natural worrier, my mother. She worried about everything—from whether the apartment was sufficiently clean to whether her children were dressed warmly enough, from tending to a scrape on my knee to making sure my father’s tea was just the way he liked it. But mostly, she worried about the persistent and, in her eyes, growing anti-Semitism throughout Poland. It’s why I played exclusively with the Jewish kids in our building. “Be careful with whom you play, Herman,” my mother told me time and again, “and never go beyond the backyard.” Yet I yearned to go farther. My sister, Eva, seemed to sense it. She was my special friend and protector, the sibling to whom I could tell everything—although she knew even without my telling her how much I wanted to spread my wings. Whenever I complained that I was tired of playing with the same


children in the same place over and over again, Eva reassured me. “When you grow up,” she promised, “you will be able to go everywhere you want.” But being grown up seemed a long way off. And in the meantime, there were dangers lurking beyond the backyard. Periodically in Bydgoszcz, there were organized demonstrations against the Jews. Picket lines formed in front of Jewish stores, the picketers carrying signs proclaiming “Don’t buy from a Jew!” or “Jew, leave Poland!” But these were not benign political rallies; they were physically violent persecutions. On those days, we stayed at home for fear of being beaten if we went out in the street. Yet once the demonstrations had ended and the violence was spent, everything seemed to return to normal. It was as if a storm had passed through our lives, causing enormous damage but finally running out of energy. When it was over, life resumed. We were able to leave the safety of home and step into the world again. For despite my mother’s worried admonition, I had begun to venture beyond my building’s backyard. I would find that the wider world was filled with exciting things to see and do, but that there was often a price to pay for the seeing and doing.



Chapter 2 When I turned five, my father sent me to Hebrew school, as we called it, to learn my religion. There was no Jewish day school in Bydgoszcz, so the classes were held on Sunday. I had to pass a church on the way to Hebrew school, and I was often hassled by Polish boys coming out of mass. It was my first direct experience of the menace the rest of my family lived with every day—and it astounded me. “Why do they bully me?” I asked my father. “Don’t take any notice of them, Herman,” my father airily replied. “After a while they’ll get tired of this nonsense, and they’ll stop.” My father, so different from my mother, never worried. He was a true optimist, for whom the glass was always half full, and he went through life with a sunny disposition and an inherent belief in the basic decency of all people. He was certain that once people saw the error of their ways, they would stop their “nonsense,” as he called it, and we would all live in peace. To him, the abusive boys who tormented me on my way to and from Hebrew school were just rowdy kids who didn’t know any better. He would have found it hard to believe they would grow up to be full-time oppressors. In fact, my father lived his beliefs. He had a number of friends among the Polish and German segments of Bydgoszcz. One in particular, a German man, was the head of a local music school. He and my father worked out a deal: in exchange for the German schoolmaster teaching us to play a musical instrument, my father provided tailoring and my brother Isydor provided dental care for the schoolmaster’s family. My brothers and sister could have made up a quartet: Isydor learned the cello, Abraham the clarinet, Eva the piano, and Samek, the violin. And in 14

1934, when I was five, Isydor went to Warsaw for a week and brought me a present upon his return: a violin. Soon after that, I began my music lessons, but although Samek excelled at the violin—in fact, he gave his first recital at the age of twelve—I much preferred playing in the backyard with my friends to practicing, and I never was quite good enough to turn our family into a quintet. Still, through the German schoolmaster, music became a link to the outside world. Like my father, my brothers also had Polish friends. And my mother hired a Polish woman to help her with the household chores. The housekeeper would often take me to the river for walks— actually, to see a boatman there. While she and the boatman courted, I was able to play with the Polish boys in the park along the river; they didn’t ask and never knew I was a Jew. And even though the housekeeper married the boatman and the river walks stopped, such ties seemed to lessen the divide between us as Jews and the Poles among whom we lived. But the divide was there, and it was primarily among our fellow Jews that we could be at ease. I joined a Jewish youth organization, Hashomer Hatzair, a group that combined Zionist activism with scouting and outdoor activities. There, I could meet other Jewish children and participate in Jewish life. Isydor also joined a Jewish organization, one that celebrated Jewish culture and sponsored the showing of Jewish movies and plays, for Isydor adored the theater. Then one day, my father and mother took me to the theater—a Polish play, with music. It was the first time the three of us—just the three of us—had ever done anything together, and it was exciting for that reason as well as for the anticipation of a live performance. Jews were not allowed to sit in the orchestra section of theaters but were restricted to seats high up in the balcony, so I could not see very well, nor could I really hear what the actors were saying. And while I thought the music was beautiful, I didn’t understand at all what the play was about. But I 15

loved it! I never wanted it to end. To this day, in fact, I look back on that event, my introduction to the theater, as one of the happiest moments in my life as a boy. As if that weren’t enough splendor, a few weeks later we went to the opera. We got dressed in our best clothes. My mother was radiant in an elegant long dress, fur coat, and fur hat, and my father looked very handsome and distinguished in his black wool suit, topcoat, and fedora. I was so proud of my parents that night as we strolled into the opera house. On the bill was La Traviata by Verdi, and everything about it took my breath away. That very night, I became an opera buff for life. I seemed to float out of the opera house, the tragic final scene still in my head, Verdi’s exquisite music ringing in my ears. I sensed, although I could not articulate it, that what I had just experienced represented civilization at its height. And as I grasped the hands of my parents on either side of me, I could not have felt happier or more uplifted. Then, just as we moved with the crowd to the theater’s front door, my father spotted a demonstration on the street outside. A crowd of people had gathered. “Don’t let the Jews in!” they shouted repeatedly. “Out with the Jews!” This was civilization at its lowest, and I was afraid. My father ushered us back through the crowd and quickly out the back door of the theater towards home. “Why were they shouting for us to leave?” I asked my father as we walked, as fast as we could, away from the theater and the crowd. “You are too young to understand,” came his answer. “Why am I too young to understand?” I don’t remember the words he used as he tried to explain it to me, but in truth, I didn’t understand. We finished the walk in silence. 16

Anti-Semitism, never far beneath the surface in Poland, was bubbling up everywhere in those years. My mother’s worries about our safety had become a constant fear, and she begged my father to take us out of Poland. Her pleading became incessant, and one day, my father actually went to the Brazilian embassy and applied for emigration visas for us. But the truth is he was more afraid of uprooting his family, of having to earn a living in a strange land and in a strange language, of leaving behind our many relatives in Poland than he was of the persecution. In his optimism, he was sure the anti-Semitism couldn’t go on forever, and he backed away from the idea of emigration. The persecution continued. It was all around us. But we stayed where we were. The persecution was all around us, but inside, within the walls of our apartment, there was safety, and warmth, and love. It all comes together in my memory in our celebration of the Sabbath—our Shabbos. The ritual was inevitable and unconditional. Nothing broke the certainty of its observance. Nothing shook it. Whatever the storms raging outside, peace reigned within when Friday evening rolled around. My mother set the table with the special cloth and dishes. At sunset, she lit the candles, covered her eyes, and welcomed the Sabbath with prayer. Then my father chanted a blessing as he cut the challah, the braided Sabbath bread. Sabbath supper was always the highlight of the week’s meals, and afterwards, we all went to the synagogue to pray—women in the balcony, men on the main floor, as was the tradition. After the service, we returned home, and my father had a glass of tea with a piece of sponge cake—his special Shabbos treat. On Saturday, my father and brothers returned to the synagogue after breakfast. At five, I was still too young for the long day of prayer, so I stayed home with my mother and sister. I 17

recall that as the nicest time of the week—a time of special closeness, as we waited for the men of the family to come home. In the way my family honored the Sabbath, I could feel the caring for one another that was our whole happiness. In later years, when I needed to believe that there was caring in the world, my mind would focus on Shabbos in our apartment in Bydgoszcz. Even today, when I remember my family, it is at Shabbos supper that I see us—all gathered around the table, my father cutting the challah and giving us each a slice, my mother’s eyes shining in the candlelight, my brothers and sisters and I close and warm together. That summer when I was five, my father rented a house in the country in Pradocin. The house was near a lake, and the idea was for us to be in the fresh air and to have a calm respite from all the anti-Jewish rallies and persecution. My mother and I spent the whole summer there, while my father and brothers and Eva arrived Friday afternoon, in time for us all to celebrate the Sabbath together. I loved being in Pradocin. The hatred was less pronounced there, as if the local Poles were too busy working hard in the fields or tending to the animals to notice us, much less harass us. As a result, that summer was the first time in my life I felt truly free. I was able to go wherever I wanted—to the neighbor’s house to feed the chickens, or down the road to play with other children. Everything was in bloom. The trees were thickly leaved out, and the flowers provided a range of color. It was a beautiful time. But then, as the summer of 1934 was drawing to a close, there came a day when the owner of the general store in the village, the only place within miles with a telephone, came to our house to tell my father there was a phone call for him. My father quickly went with the


storeowner, and when he returned broke the news that Isydor had been hurt in “some trouble in town.” My mother shrieked, then burst into tears. Her fears were coming true. She and my father hurriedly left for Bydgoszcz, telling me to be brave and to wait for their return in a few hours, and assuring me that the neighbor would look in on me. I was alone in the house, which suddenly seemed to me large and cavernous. Evening came, and night fell, and no one looked in on me. I felt sad and lonely, and I soon grew frightened. I went to bed and cried myself to sleep. During the night, I woke up a few times and went to look for my parents, but they were not there. In the morning, they had still not come back, and my worry grew. Something terrible must have happened, I thought. I imagined that my parents too had been attacked and were in the hospital. I became convinced that my brother Isydor was dead. Midday, and I was still alone. I thought about going to the village store to use the telephone, but I was afraid of being harassed, even beaten. Finally, in the late afternoon, I could stand it no longer. In addition to my fear and worry, I was very hungry, as there was no more food in the house. I walked the four miles into the village. At the store, the storekeeper told me that my father had called several times, but that he had been too busy to travel to our house to let me know. I asked if he would call my parents for me, assuring him that they would pay him when they returned. He dialed the number and handed me the receiver. My mother answered. I began to cry the moment I heard her voice. “We are okay,” she assured me. “Isydor is okay.” She told me the story.


He was in a coffeehouse with a girl when a group of Polish men entered and started to talk pointedly about how “all the Jews should go to Palestine.” One of them approached my brother. “Are you a Jew?” he asked Isydor. “Yes, I am Jewish,” my brother answered confidently. “Then why don’t you leave Poland?” the man asked. “Because I was born in Poland. This is my home.” With no further discussion, the man hit my brother. Isydor rose to defend himself, and that’s when the free-for-all started, as the whole gang of them joined in to beat him up. They fractured his skull and bruised him badly. “We took him home,” my mother explained, and she assured me that he would be fine. She promised that Abraham would come and stay with me, and she asked the storeowner to give me something to eat. He gave me some cookies and candies, and back to the house I went. That evening, Abraham arrived. “Why do they hate us so?” I asked him. As my father had, Abraham tried to explain, but I could not understand the depth of the hatred, nor grasp why it expressed itself in physical violence. My parents arrived the next morning. When I saw my mother, I threw myself into her arms, holding on for dear life. We packed up all our belongings and left for home in Bydgoszcz. When we arrived, there were demonstrations everywhere. The townspeople were picketing every Jewish store, and shop owners, afraid of the violence, were forced to close. I stayed close to home, frightened to go out on the street by myself. Only on the weekend did I venture out, going with Samek to our Hashomer Hatzair meeting. This too seemed a


sanctuary, until several Jewish boys who had been beaten up by some Poles came in looking for refuge—the hatred of the outside world intruding on us yet again. One of the things Hashomer Hatzair was pledged to do was to help young boys and girls make aliyah—that is, leave their homes to settle in what was then Palestine, in the land of Israel. I wanted to leave, but I was too young to go. I had to continue to live in this frightening world.


Chapter 3 In 1935, across the border in Germany, Hitler promulgated the Nuremberg racial laws that effectively excluded Jews from mainstream German life, stripping them of all rights and making prejudice—extreme prejudice—an integral part of Germany’s legal system. The effect was immediate and profound. Around Europe, Jews held their breath and wondered in fear what lay ahead, while in places like Poland, where anti-Semitism had long had a foothold, the major parties sought similar legislation, and on the streets, new levels of violence were unleashed. This was particularly noticeable in many of the smaller towns, where it was difficult for Jews to avoid run-ins with the Poles. In larger towns like Bydgoszcz, the tensions weren’t as evident; commerce prompted occasional courtesy. When we couldn’t buy what we needed from Jewish stores, we patronized the shops of Gentiles. Some sold to us; others refused. It was a tenuous way of living; you never knew from one moment to the next whether, when, where, or how some form of persecution might erupt. As a six-year-old, nearly seven, I was unaware of the political events taking place across the border in Germany or in the Polish capital, events that would have so momentous an impact on the fate of my family. And while I had a sense of the outside world’s difficulties and dangers, I was still far too young to connect them with my own existence. I was about to be rudely awakened. In the fall of 1936, at the age of seven, I started first grade, and an experience that for most children is an exciting rite of passage quickly proved to be a nightmare. The school, which ranged from first grade to high school, was housed in a large three-story building with many classrooms. A spacious schoolyard surrounded the building. But there were only six Jewish 22

children in the entire school, and the breaks between classes, when the students gathered to play in the schoolyard, became occasions for anti-Semitic taunting from our Polish classmates. What for others was a playful, energy-spilling break was for us a frightening interlude as we huddled together for comfort and protection. A Catholic catechism class was a required part of every school day. When the class started, we Jews had to leave the classroom and stand outside until it was over. On day three of my education, the catechism class ended when the priest came to the window of a second-story classroom, pointed down at the six of us huddled in the schoolyard, and proclaimed to his students in a loud voice: “There are the Christ killers! They killed Jesus!” The priest’s words set off an avalanche of boys who came screaming down the steps of the school and out to the schoolyard—fists and teeth clenched, hatred in their eyes. They fell on me, knocked me to the ground, and began beating me as they screamed epithets. “Christ killer! Filthy Jew!” After a time, the priest yelled for them to stop, then ordered all of us back to class. Bloodied and bruised, I asked my teacher if I could go to the infirmary. The teacher looked at me. “Why do you want to go there?” he asked. “To stop the bleeding.” The teacher looked down. “I don’t see any bleeding,” he said. “When you go home after school, your mother can take care of you.” But it was my father who greeted me when I arrived home, black and blue all over, with a black eye and a mouth and nose still crusted with blood. “What happened to you?” he asked. “I got beaten up by the kids at school because the priest said that the Jews killed Christ!” My father processed this information but said nothing. “Who is this Christ?” I went on. “I never saw him. I never killed anybody.” 23

“I know,” my father said. “It will be all right—maybe by the time you go back to school tomorrow.” But it wasn’t all right “tomorrow,” nor the day after, nor the day after that. Every day was more of the same. I went to school, and I was beaten up, and I came home crying—day after day. “They don’t know what they’re doing,” my father explained; “they’ll get tired of it soon, and then everything will be all right.” Then one day a boy came up to me in the schoolyard and asserted that not all Polish boys wanted to beat up Jews. “It’s just a small gang,” he insisted. And if I wanted to be protected from that small gang, he could provide such protection—for a price. When I got home from school that afternoon, I told my sister Eva about the proposition. She had always been my confidante and protector. Sure enough, she promised to give me ten groszy every day to give to the boy. I still got beaten up, but less frequently—and not as badly. Learning was a different matter. Routinely, my homework was stolen from me. Sometimes, I caught the person in the act and told my teacher—who invariably blamed me for trying to take the homework away from the thief. When we had examinations, small harassments ensured that I would do badly. The student in front of me would spill ink over my papers, or the kid next to me would fall against my arm while I was writing, so that I would draw a line across the exam paper—automatic disqualification. The teacher only laughed at these incidents. “Now you won’t pass,” he would tell me with a satisfied smile. When my father complained to the headmaster—these attempts to sabotage my academic performance had finally prompted him into action—he received a similar response. “Your son did not do the homework or pass the examination,” the headmaster insisted, but he too seemed to enjoy our Jewish discomfort. Finally my father persuaded the headmaster to give me one more 24

examination—which I would take alone—and in this way, I passed and was promoted to second grade. Summer vacation is a liberation for all schoolchildren, but for me in the summer of 1937, it was a particular blessing. “No more lessons, no more books,” children in America chant. For me, summer meant no more harassment, no more beatings, no more taunting, no more injustice, no more hatred. I tried to understand this hatred. Again and again, I asked my father to explain it. But he simply told me to be always tolerant, to respect others, to be kind to everyone. To him, the behavior I was experiencing in school was a lesson teaching me what I must not do, what I should not feel, the way I should never behave. It was a hard lesson. I was about to learn another—the bittersweet experience of loss. In 1938, my sister Eva was invited to visit my uncle, my mother’s brother, and his wife in France. Eva and I had a special sibling relationship; yes, I looked up to her as I did to my older brothers, but she was also my special pal, and I didn’t know what I would do without her—even for the few weeks she was expected to be away. The truth is I had a sense of foreboding about her departure; I sensed that it meant a profound change in our family life, and I felt a nagging fear that I would never see Eva again. “Don’t be silly,” she said as she hugged me goodbye and wiped my tears the day she left. “I will see you in a couple of weeks.” “Promise? Promise you will come back?” “Of course,” she said. “Yes, surely, I will come back.” The whole family went to the train to see Eva off. I brought a pillow for her so that she would be comfortable on the long train ride. Still, I couldn’t stop my tears as the train pulled out


of the station. It seemed to take my heart with it. As the days went by without Eva’s company, I often cried myself to sleep. After several weeks, we received a letter from Eva saying that she was having a wonderful time and would be staying on for another couple of weeks. My heart stopped. I felt my premonition coming true and expressed my fears to my mother. “Be glad that your sister is enjoying herself,” my mother said to console me. But I couldn’t be consoled. The house seemed empty without Eva. I had nobody to turn to. No one else in the family could take my sister’s place. The summer passed. Autumn came, and I had to return to school. Among my many fears, I worried about where I would find the ten groszy a day to buy protection against the Polish gang. The day before school started, Isydor calmed my fears. “I know Eva gave you money,” he confided, “and she told me to do the same.” In that moment, I felt my sister’s presence, even from far away. It was the first time I understood that someone could be with you even across a great distance. Armed with Isydor’s ten groszy, I returned to school in the autumn of 1938. But this time, it was different. Since I had learned so little during first grade, my father hired a tutor to teach me at home for second grade. I spent two to three hours a day at my studies at home, and I also continued to practice the violin—and to do it poorly. The hours I did spend in the three-story school building, dodging taunts and paying protection money for my safety, were a time of suspended dread. Still, by comparison with the first grade, second grade was an improvement. What I could not know was that it was to be my last formal schooling for a long time. When next I entered a classroom, I would have received a very different kind of education: I would have learned the worst that human beings can do—and the most that human beings can 26

bear. But among the many losses in my life must be counted the loss of any early foundation of schooling. That year, as I cowered in school, worked with my tutor, and tried to play the violin, I began to become aware of a growing level of anxiety in my parents and older brothers. In March, 1938, the Polish government announced that Polish citizens living abroad would lose their passports if they didn’t maintain contact with their home country. It meant that Polish Jews living in Germany would either have to come home to Poland or be “stateless” in Germany, where Jews had no rights. As a result, many Polish Jews who had been living in Germany came across the border to Bydgoszcz seeking refuge. The Jews of our town welcomed these refugees. Indeed, every Jewish family in Bydgoszcz took in one of these families from Germany, who brought terrible stories of what was happening there. It was the first we heard about the Nazis rounding up Jews and killing them, and if I wasn’t entirely clear about what was going on, I was certain that there was more unease and apprehension in our lives. In the beginning of 1939, we received a letter from my sister. My father read it aloud to us as we all sat around the dining table. Eva wrote excitedly that she had fallen in love with a man introduced to her by our uncle, and that they were going to be married. My parents and brothers were thrilled at the news. I was not; to me, it meant that Eva would live far away from me forever. The profound change I had feared had come to pass, and I worried that my other fear—that I would never see Eva again—would also come true. On the day of Eva’s wedding in France, my parents hosted a gathering for our friends and relatives—a kind of shadow wedding reception—and we all raised a toast to Eva’s health and happiness. Several weeks later she and her husband came to Bydgoszcz for a visit. It was in many ways a wonderful visit, but it was also strange. She was and she wasn’t still Eva, and while 27

I was fond of my new brother-in-law, he represented a shift in the family balance; things were different now. And once again, when I had to say good-bye to my sister, my fears of losing her for good resurfaced. My father said she would come again in the summer, but summer came and went, and there was no sign of Eva. The reason, although I did not know it at the time, was the worsening political situation in Europe and the growing enmity between Poland and Germany. Europe was on the brink of war, and Poland was under immediate threat. In August, 1939, the two oldest of my brothers, Isydor and Abraham, were drafted into the Polish army. My father assured my mother that the war would be brief. “The Polish army will quickly defeat the Germans,” he declared, trying hard to console my mother. Even when Isydor and Abraham were sent to the front, my father, ever the optimist, insisted it would “all be over soon.” For my mother, who cried every day for her boys at the front, the only comfort was that my brother Samek at age seventeen was too young for the army and that my sister was safe in France. Sensing the coming storm, I too finally came to understand that it was indeed a blessing that Eva had gone away.


Chapter 4 “The Germans will never invade Warsaw,” my uncle said. “We’ll be safe there.” We were in Wolborz, a small village that was home to my father’s sister, Hannah, her husband, my Uncle Avram, and their sons, my cousins Barak and Lutek. My father may have been an optimist, but he was also a realist, and in August of 1939, with the talk of war filling the air and with my brothers heading west to the front, he determined to move his family away from the impending battle. Before he had time to act on his decision came the fateful day of September 1, 1939: the Germans invaded Poland, and the struggle that would become World War II began. My father was right that the war would be quick, but it was the Germans who advanced with lightning speed, not our outnumbered and under-equipped Polish forces. Within days, in fact, the forward line of German troops arrived in Bydgoszcz, there to be warmly welcomed by the ethnic Germans as well as by many Poles. Among their first actions, the Germans began searching the residential buildings for Jews, hauling them from their homes, and in some cases, summarily shooting them in the streets. In this terrifying turmoil, my father hurriedly hired a horse-drawn wagon and a driver, and to the sound of gunshots and not-too-distant bombing, the four of us— my mother, father, Samek, and I—escaped through side streets and small alleyways till Bydgoszcz was behind us. Wolborz, our hoped-for destination, was some 185 miles southeast of Bydgoszcz, farther away from both the German border and the Baltic coast. In fact, it was at almost the exact center of Poland, too deep in the interior, my father believed, for the Germans to get to. For us, it was a


long journey. For a horse, 30 miles a day is a lot, even when your forward motion is being dogged by an advancing army. I was just shy of my tenth birthday, far too young to understand the gravity of the situation, and while I sensed my father’s urgency and my mother’s terror, for me, the start of the journey felt like a grand adventure. We were traveling through countryside I had not seen before, I didn’t have to go to school or study my lessons, and at night, we stopped at inns to have supper and sleep. I had never been in an inn; I hadn’t ever eaten supper anywhere but in my own home. It was exciting. The weather was cool, and, as was usual in September, it was rainy. We spent most of the trip huddled under blankets to keep warm and dry. Every few hours, the driver would halt the wagon. We would climb out to stretch our cramped muscles, while he gave the horse water and some feed. Then we would start up again. But the shooting seemed to be getting closer, and I could sense my parents’ growing concern. My mother prayed almost constantly for her sons at the front, and I too began to worry that I would never see my brothers again. I wondered why we were running away, and I felt the first stirrings of fear that I would die—that we would all die on this journey, and that no one would know who we were. Even my father looked worried. Still, he never lost his optimism. “This war will be over quickly,” he assured my mother, “and both we and our sons will soon be home.” That night, when we stopped at an inn for supper, the proprietor asked where we were going. “To Wolborz,” my father answered. “Why?” asked the innkeeper. “To visit my sister there.” “Are you Jewish?” 30

“No,” said my father. The innkeeper hesitated, then showed us to our room. But as he walked away, we heard him mutter under his breath: “I know they are Jewish.” Had my father admitted as much, chances are we would not have been allowed to spend the night. When we woke up the next morning, Samek was gone. A note left behind on the bed announced he was going back to Bydgoszcz. My mother’s sobbing was frightening to me. “Why did he go back?” she wailed. But my father said simply that we could not do anything about it and that we must press on to Wolborz. In the wagon, she covered me with an extra blanket and pressed me to her. “You won’t leave me, Herman,” she whispered. “Thank God you are too young to leave me.” “I will never leave you!” I cried, pushing myself deeper into her embrace. My father too attempted to reassure her. “This will all be over soon,” he repeated again and again. To lift her spirits, I began to sing. That, finally, made her smile. In my memory, our journey to Wolborz took five harrowing days, and when we arrived, cold and tired, my aunt and her family, whom I had never met, were waiting for us. It was instantly clear that they were extremely religious Jews. My Aunt Hannah wore a sheitel, a wig, in strict conformance to orthodox Jewish law which requires that a married woman must never uncover her hair. My Uncle Avram had a long beard, payot or sidelocks, and a kippa or small skullcap constantly on his head. He also wore a look of grave concern, and though he was only fifty-three at the time, he looked like an old man to me. My cousins too wore the marks of observant Jews. Barak, who was eighteen, was tall and slim and worked as a sheet metal worker. Lutek, sixteen, like my brother Isydor, was studying dentistry and worked as a dental technician.


Wolborz was a small village with one main road and several small side streets—no sidewalks. In the center of town was a market square with the town water pump. The surrounding area was agricultural, and the farmers were almost exclusively Polish, while the Jews, who numbered around 400, lived in the village and owned many of its stores. As was typical in rural areas, the Jews of Wolborz were much more religious than Jews in the big cities. In fact, the rabbi of Wolborz, Rabbi Haim Baruch Dembinski, was known as a tsadik, a righteous man, and was considered an important Jewish leader. So here we were, but the safety we had sought in Wolborz eluded us. The Germans were not far behind, and it was clear that all of us—we three, plus my aunt and uncle and cousins— would have to move on, yet farther east. “Warsaw,” said my uncle. “The Germans will never invade Warsaw.” But we could not leave at once, for our arrival had happened on a Friday, and religious Jews like my uncle would never travel on Saturday, the Sabbath. So we unloaded our meager possessions from the wagon and passed the day within the two-room house of my aunt and uncle. The next morning, Sunday, my uncle hired a carriage and horse with driver to take us to Warsaw. To get there, we would have to go north again as well as east—a journey of some seventy-five miles as the crow flies. Yet as we set out, I once again felt the excitement of a new adventure. Warsaw loomed for me as a place of dreams—a huge capital city where I was sure no one would call me a dirty Jew. The journey took days. We could not follow the straight line a crow flies. Rather, to avoid the bombs and battles, we had to navigate away from main roads. Moreover, this time, in addition to the peril of the German advance, we faced another danger: my aunt and uncle and 32

cousins were so obviously Jewish—virtually uniformed as Jews—that innkeepers along the route refused to serve us. “You may sleep in the barn with the other animals,” one of the more generous innkeepers told us; “your driver can have a room.” We took our blankets out of the carriage and slept on the hay. At mealtimes, we took to stopping a little distance from the restaurant or inn so that the proprietor wouldn’t see my relatives. Then we would stash some food from our own meal in our clothing and bring it out to Uncle Avram, Aunt Hannah, and the boys. And the war was gaining on us. On the third day, in the middle of the day, bombs began to fall very close to us—so close at one point that we all fled the wagon and ran into the woods. Not a moment too soon, for a moment later, a bomb made a direct hit on the wagon, killing our horse instantly. Minutes after that, my mother screamed in agony. We turned to see that shrapnel had struck her in the ankle, burning the skin with its heat. We could do nothing till the bombardment ceased some fifteen minutes later. The driver headed for the nearby village to find another wagon and horse while we waited in the woods. My father tended to my mother’s wound as best he could, but she could neither stand nor walk. When the driver finally returned with a horse and wagon, he removed the seats so my mother could lie down, and she was lifted into the wagon. We had no blankets, however; in fact, we had nothing. We hunkered down in the wagon and huddled together. My father had decreed there should be no more stops; we must continue hell-bent for Warsaw, traveling flat out night and day. He looked worried, tired. Like my mother, he seemed to have aged during the course of this journey. I thought at first that it was because of me, because I complained so often of being tired and cold and hungry. But I soon realized that fear was aging them—fear for their sons at the 33

front and for Samek, lost in Bydgoszcz, fear for what we might find in Warsaw, fear for our future. It made me realize that I must help them; I must become more independent and not be a burden to them. I must grow up. It was happening anyway. What I saw on the way to Warsaw was maturing me quickly. Dead bodies and injured refugees moaning in agony lined the road— victims of the bombs dropped by the 1900 German aircraft that flew daily sorties over Poland. Exhausted Polish soldiers headed east on foot, retreating from the front. My father worried they might requisition our horse and wagon, so we retreated to even smaller roads—a more circuitous route. There is a saying: “When does a Jew sing?” Answer? “ When he is hungry—so that he will forget about his hunger.” As we wended our way slowly across the Polish countryside, I began to sing. I sang to forget our troubles. I sang to make myself believe that we were only going for a ride in the countryside, that everything would be okay. Yet my singing made my mother smile, and her smile almost convinced me it was true—that everything would be okay. Thus did we make our way at last to Warsaw. The city was in turmoil. There were soldiers everywhere—in buildings, on the rooftops, at every intersection. The streets were filled with people running, people dragging their children, people hauling their belongings, people in panic. It frightened me so that I began to feel ill. Was this stampede of terror our place of safety? What we did not know, of course, was that the end of the war was by now a foregone conclusion. My father had been right: it was a lightning-fast war. What he got wrong was the identity of the victor. In fact, the Polish army, fewer than a million men strong with not even 500 34

planes and very few armored vehicles, didn’t stand a chance. By the time we arrived in Warsaw, German units were only miles away, the Polish army was split and had been encircled, and the Polish air force had been destroyed. There was to be no safety for us after all. We slept in the wagon that night. That is, we tried to sleep. The night sky was a brightred ball of fire lit by the flames from burning houses. From their rooftop posts, Polish soldiers shot at the German airplanes above. All around our wagon, people lay in the street . Many were dead; most were injured, with nobody tending to them. That was a long night for us. The next day my father and uncle went to look for shelter. They were gone a long time but found space for us in a basement that would shelter us from the bombing, which was becoming increasingly heavy, as well as from the ever more chilly nights. There were some twenty people already in the basement, and we settled down on the floor. My mother’s leg had begun to heal, and she was able to walk, albeit with a limp. While she regained her strength, my father took on the task of finding us food. It was not easy. There was little food available in the city— and less available to Jews. Yet most days he managed to find us something. One day, he took me with him. We found a bakery, where my father assured the baker he was Polish. “Really?” said the baker. “Where have you come from?” “Bydgoszcz,” my father answered. The baker sold him a loaf of bread. As we made our way back to the basement, we saw a terrifying sight: German soldiers marching and German tanks roaring down the middle of the street. This was truly the end, then; a little more than three weeks after the German invasion, on September 27, Warsaw had surrendered. It was over.


As my father and I watched the Germans taking possession of what they had won by force, we saw some Poles applauding and cheering, even dancing in the streets; several Polish women actually rushed forward to kiss the German soldiers. I couldn’t understand how Poles could cheer the very soldiers who had destroyed our country, and I asked my father about it. “You see, my son, some people are just glad that the war is over.” Then he added: “And some people simply don’t know what they’re doing.” Just then we saw a crowd of people gathered around a German tank. We heard some commotion but could not make out the gist of it. Suddenly, the soldiers on the tank aimed their machine gun at the crowd and started shooting. Screaming split the air, as several people fell dead; the others ran for cover. My father pushed me into a doorway and held me there until the tank drove away. Once it did, the people quickly returned and began looting stores—especially food stores. “We must leave Warsaw,” my father announced when we had returned to the basement, where my mother had been sick with worry. “We must go back to Wolborz.” But it took a week to find someone willing to drive us. By now, we were well into October. It was determined that we would depart at night. Meanwhile, my father stockpiled food as best he could, actually managing to obtain some butter and cheese to go with the bread he was able to buy. This was an astonishing achievement in a city where the shelves of food stores were empty, and where people risked death to steal anything they could find. He was a resourceful man, my father, and although he had aged noticeably in the last months, his optimism persisted, and he was always encouraging. On the night we were to leave, it began to snow, making the road slippery, but we were glad to leave. Warsaw was a bombed-out shell that still burned in many areas, and our driver 36

took pains to stay out of the way of the German soldiers and the cheering Poles. It took us nearly five hours to get out of Warsaw, and by that time it was dawn. The covering of snow obscured the scars of Warsaw’s destruction, and as the sun glinted off the ice, the city looked eerily beautiful. We came to the edge of the city, and suddenly, it was peaceful. In the distance, we could see the main highway, crowded with soldiers, tanks, motorbikes, and civilians by the thousands, walking towards or away from Warsaw. Our driver wisely avoided this or other main roads, and once again, we began a winding journey—this time from Warsaw back to Wolborz. I had just turned ten. I would have given anything to jump out of the wagon, play in the snow, build a snowman. But I knew such things were impossible for me. I had seen enough in the last days to make me feel certain that a bomb would fall on us and we all would be killed. I was resigned to it. I saw no way out. As we crawled our way back to Wolborz across the Polish countryside, passing houses with lights on and smoke coming out of the chimney, I felt how dirty and hungry and cold my life now was, and I envied the people inside the houses, for they were warm and safe. My only consolation was to cling to my mother. I stayed very close to her, telling her often that I loved her. She responded in kind—as she does to this day. That trip brought a harsh trial to my aunt and uncle. While my own parents had managed to eat non-kosher food, lest they give away the fact that they were Jewish, my Uncle Avram could not bring himself to do so, saying he would rather die than violate God’s law. When possible, my father brought bread to him out in the wagon, but he would eat nothing else for fear of letting treyf—ritually impure food—pass his lips.


Until one night, some days into the journey, when my father had smuggled my aunt and uncle into our room at the inn. They had eaten nothing but small morsels of bread for days, and my father begged them to eat the chicken and drink the water he had brought them. “If you don’t eat, you will starve,” my father said, for there was no way to obtain kosher food from Polish innkeepers. “Then we will just drink water,” Uncle Avram said. “How are you going to drink water when the cup is treyf?” My uncle hesitated, fighting within himself until the tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he prayed to God to forgive him and his family. “Please,” he said to my father, “bring us the food.” But there were moments of light on the trip as well. We asked one night to stay at a farmhouse. But the farmer, seeing my uncle, said no Jews would sleep under his roof! “Why do you drive for Jews?” he asked our driver. “They pay me well,” the driver replied. The farmer snorted. “You Jews can sleep in the barn; the driver can sleep in the house.” But as we bedded down on the hay, the farmer’s wife brought us supper. “Do not tell my husband that I am feeding you,” she whispered. We traveled long hours. Night fell, and there was a full moon in the sky. I remember feeling that there must have been a million stars in the sky. I made believe that they were guiding our way, and thus comforted, covered against the cold by my mother, seated beside my father whose body protected me from the wind, I slept. It was on that journey from Warsaw to Wolborz that I first began to dream of Bydgoszcz and to see it as our family home. I dreamt that we were seated at the table, all my brothers and my sister and I around it, while my father made the prayer over the bread and my mother served 38

chicken soup. We were all eating, talking, and laughing, just as we used to do. At the end of this supper, my father began the prayer to thank God for the meal when I suddenly woke up. My mother was shaking me, smiling, telling me that I had been talking in my sleep. I told her the dream, and she kissed me and told me to go back—back to sleep and back to the happy dream. I did. This time, I dreamed we were sitting in the living room in Bydgoszcz. My brothers were playing music with my sister, and my father and mother sat listening, enjoying the music, reaping joy that their children were playing just for them. When I woke up, I could not get my brothers and sister out of my mind. Where were they? Were they even alive? I felt fear at the core of my being, and that night, the quality of my dreams changed. I dreamed that Isydor and Abraham had died while serving in the Polish army. A bomb had fallen on Abraham, and Isydor had been shot. And then I dreamed that the Germans had caught and tortured my brother Samek, accusing him of being a spy. In my dream, I heard him denying it. I tried to help him, but something, or somebody, held me back. I couldn’t get close to him, couldn’t let him know that I was there to help. I woke up in a sweat, not knowing where I was. It was the farmer’s barn, and it was morning. Time to go. I climbed back into the wagon. We sometimes saw Polish soldiers on the roads. Disheveled and defeated, they often asked us for food, which we did not have. But we had also begun to see German soldiers—more and more of them. That morning, we saw a German tank in the distance. Our driver stopped, and my aunt and uncle ran into the woods. When the tank approached and the soldiers asked where we were going, we pretended that we did not understand German. I could hear my mother let out her breath in relief as the tank went on its way, and after a time, we picked up my uncle and aunt and drove on. 39

As we came closer to Wolborz, we had to turn onto the main road, and here the German soldiers grew ever more numerous. Brown-shirted soldiers questioned us, and our driver answered in Polish that we did not understand. And then in the afternoon, we saw cars filled with the dreaded black shirts. Everybody knew they were SS—fanatical, violent anti-Semites. A touring car packed with SS pulled us over. They looked at my uncle and aunt and told us to get out of the wagon. They examined it, and when they found nothing of value, began to beat my uncle. “Tell us where you are hiding your gold and diamonds!” one of them shrieked. My uncle was on the ground. “We have no gold or diamonds,” he said in a pitiful, hoarse voice. That seemed to be the incentive for the SS soldiers to beat my father with a rifle butt. I ran over to try to protect him as my mother wailed. My uncle managed to stand up, and I shouted in German :“Don’t hit him, don’t hit him! He doesn’t have any gold or diamonds. We are only trying to go back to Wolborz!” The soldiers stopped their beating. One of them pulled out a pair of scissors and cut off half my uncle’s beard. “Now you are half a Jew,” he said. The soldiers laughed uproariously. “Let the Jews go,” one of the SS men finally said. “They’re going to die anyway.” For the grown-ups—my bruised and battered father and uncle, my terrified mother and aunt—it was perhaps the first time that they heard spoken aloud the fear they felt in their bones: that an approaching maelstrom would swallow us all. Under this threat, we came home to Wolborz. A miracle greeted us there: all three of my brothers, alive and well and waiting for us at my aunt’s house.


Chapter 5 My two oldest brothers, Isydor and Abraham, had been prisoners of war in Germany. Polish prisoners of war. Keeping their Jewishness a secret, they were repatriated to Poland following the lightning-fast war. Samek had had a different kind of “adventure,” but it had taught him a frightening lesson. He had gotten the idea to return to Bydgoszcz to get our furniture; he had even managed to obtain a truck to haul the furniture away. But when he arrived at the apartment, it was occupied. My father’s friend, the German schoolmaster, the man who had taught us all music, who had been the honored guest at our Sabbath dinners and Passover seders, was there—and he was armed. He had simply appropriated our belongings as his own, and he was ready to protect them with a gun should we ever return. Samek traded the truck for a bicycle and pedaled to Wolborz as fast as he could. But if a onetime friend was now an enemy, that wasn’t the only adjustment we had to make. For although my mother was beside herself with joy to have all her sons together again— safe in Wolborz—it soon became clear that we were trapped there. We were no longer free to go where we wanted to go nor to do what we wanted to do. The Germans were everywhere in Poland, and neither they nor the Poles themselves wanted us there. Wolborz was now our home, and it was a ghetto. Some people think of the Holocaust as a collision—sudden, shocking, with an impact so great it swept all before it. But it didn’t really happen that way. It didn’t arrive in an instant. Instead, it came as a series of ever smaller circles, necks, binding our lives step by incremental step. For us, it began that fall in Wolborz. 41

Two SS men—we dubbed them Vick and Vlock—arrived at the end of October, setting up headquarters in the police station and announcing that they wanted “to live in harmony with the Jewish community.” To that end, the SS men told the rabbi, “we need your cooperation.” It was the great question that would continually face the Jews of Europe: whether and how much to cooperate. At that stage, no one was quite sure what cooperation meant, but we had a pretty good idea what not cooperating would mean. Vick and Vlock made it clear with their first order—that every Jew must wear a blue Star of David, eight centimeters in diameter , on a white armband ten centimeters wide. The armband must be worn on the right arm, and all the Jews were to comply with this order within one week. Those who did not would be shot. That was the simple arithmetic of cooperation versus noncooperation. My uncle was a tailor, and he volunteered to make the armbands for everyone, and within the week, it was done. The armband identified us as Jews, but it also seemed to offer protection against getting shot. Little did we know it was the first circle, the first squeezing of the rope around our necks. More would follow. One day, a Polish farmer came to see my uncle and asked him to come to his farm to help with some needlework. To leave the village, however, my uncle had to ask permission from the police, and the police had to check with Vick and Vlock. Permission was granted, and my uncle took me with him—a trip of some two or three miles outside the village. For me, this visit to the farm was a treat—one of the last I would have in my childhood. I was like a kid on a holiday, like any child from the city given a taste of open spaces. The farmer was a nice man who took me in hand and showed me all around the farm. I even took off my armband as I tagged along with him to feed the cows, pigs, and chickens. I was happy at that 42

farm. I felt free, without a care in the world. I didn’t have to go to school. I didn’t have to face the Polish boys and their beatings. My family was together even if the SS was in our lives. Who cared if we had to wear armbands? Everybody knew we were Jewish anyhow. My uncle and I stayed on the farm for three days. I loved every minute of it. Even back in the village, life in that winter of 1939-1940 didn’t seem so bad at first— especially to me, a boy of ten who did not grasp what was happening. The grown-ups themselves didn’t fully grasp what was happening—how could they?—but for a child, the wider political realities were a foreign country. Certainly I sensed a rising tide of concern among the adults in my life, and certainly I was aware that we lived in reduced circumstances. But children who are loved have a unique resilience, and that winter, I was still able to focus on the normalcy of life. Isydor had found a two-room house a block from my aunt’s where we could rent living space. Our landlord was a farmer who lived in one room, while my father, mother, three brothers, and I shared the other. And to a very great extent, in those first months of the occupation, village life went on as it had for centuries. Polish farmers from the surrounding countryside came into Wolborz to buy from Jewish merchants, thus creating the core economy of the village. And Jewish life within Wolborz continued to follow the rhythm of Jewish rituals. That rhythm moved on a weekly basis, rising through the weekdays to the celebration of the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. For women especially, Friday was a busy day, and as a young boy still under the watchful eye of my mother, I shared in all that activity. Like all the women of the village—like Jewish women everywhere—my mother would prepare as festive a Friday night meal as she could manage. She would also start the cholent, the stew the women would bring to the baker Friday afternoon so it would simmer and stay warm throughout the Sabbath, when Jews are not permitted to create fire—that is, to cook. Saturday 43

afternoon, the cholent would be collected from the baker ready to eat—without having violated the prohibition against cooking. With all these preparations complete, the women would go to the mikva, the ritual bath, then come home to be with their families to welcome the Sabbath at sundown. I too attended the mikva on Fridays—it was also the place where we all bathed for cleanliness, since there were no bathing facilities in our homes—then went to synagogue, and again attended services Saturday. Unlike the boys of Wolborz, I knew no Hebrew; my Sunday school experience in Bydgoszcz had been truncated, and I knew little of the Torah and Talmud. But the rabbi took me under his wing and began to teach me Hebrew and the ritual of prayer, so on Friday night and Saturday in the synagogue, I “practiced” what I was learning. Saturday, after synagogue services, families walked along the stream, visited, tried to celebrate life. Sunday was wash day for the women and back to work for the men. For me, although there was no school, there was learning nevertheless. For two hours every day, my brother Abraham taught me how to read and write, although I was much more interested in playing outside. There was a stream through the village, and I loved to escape there from our cramped room. I’d play there with my landlord’s daughter, a girl about my age, and with other Jewish boys and girls, and sometimes, my mother and father and I would stroll along the water’s edge. Life seemed normal enough. But of course, this normalcy was not to last. The SS ordered that the Jews of Wolborz must form a committee, a Judenrat, to take responsibility for governing all of Jewish life in the community. Within one week, the rabbi was told, the Judenrat must be formed and a leader chosen and presented to the SS. The elders met in 44

the synagogue and chose my oldest brother, Isydor, to be the Judenrat president. The rabbi came to our house to ask Isydor if he would accept the position. I was excited at the prospect of my brother becoming the community’s president. I took it as an honor for the family, and I anticipated a bit of reflected glory. The family discussed the pros and cons at length. The heart of the matter was that the head of the Judenrat—and his family—would be in direct contact with the Nazis. This could have its benefits, but it could have grave dangers as well. After a long discussion, Isydor decided to take the position, and he was duly presented to the SS. “You must have a staff within two days,” the SS told Isydor, “to fill all the jobs needed to run the entire ghetto.” But no one wanted the jobs, so Isydor appointed my brother Abraham to be the vice-president and secretary, then named my uncle and some of the elders as advisors. Now Vick and Vlock would act through the Judenrat—and through Isydor. They would give him orders, and he would have to find a way to carry them out. The first order , which came some ten days later, was a prohibition against any Jew entering any Polish government office— such as the police station or the post office—or using any Polish doctor or hospital. “How are we going to treat our sick people?” my brother asked. “If they get sick,” the SS men told Isydor, “they will have to die. That is your problem.” My brother returned home to our one room wearing a look of despair and dejection I had never before seen on him. But he had managed to negotiate one exception to the prohibition against Jews entering government offices—namely, the appointment of a “mailman,” someone to serve as collector of all the mail designated for the Jews. “Can I be the mailman?” I asked Isydor excitedly. 45

“It’s a big responsibility,” he told me. “Every day you must go to the post office and deliver the mail to each person. Do you think you can do it?” “Yes, I can do it!” I insisted, and I got the job. The next day, I went to the post office, announced that I was the new Jewish mailman, and asked if there were any letters for us. The postal clerk was incredulous. “Does your mother let you cross the street by yourself?” he asked derisively. But when the chief of police confirmed that I was the brother of the “Jewish president,” I was officially cast as the Jewish mailman, assigned to pick up the mail every day between two and three o’clock. That first day’s collection consisted of two letters, which I happily delivered, feeling very grown-up and quite pleased with my new-found responsibility. And still the constraints on our life were proving to be tolerable. The SS made the rules, the Polish police enforced them, and we obeyed. Meanwhile, Polish farmers still came to the village to sell us food—or to barter it in exchange for work. To leave the village to do such work, a Jew needed to apply to Isydor, who would then have to get written permission from the Polish police stating the date and time for leaving and the time and date for returning to the village. If someone was ill, the first stop again was Isydor; as a dentist, he knew a little about medications and could often prescribe the right therapy. If the matter was serious, we sent for a Jewish doctor from Tomaszow or Piotrkow, nearby towns that also had ghettos. If we couldn’t get a Jewish doctor, we would try to get a Polish doctor from the village, but in such cases, we had to make certain the SS and the Polish police suspected nothing. To be sure, not everyone found conditions tolerable. One day, two men arrived from Tomaszow to ask that the Jews of Wolborz join with the Tomaszow Jews to escape from Nazi rule. The rabbi and elders conferred, decided that too many of us would be killed in an escape 46

attempt, and rejected the plan. When I think about this now, I wonder where the Jews of Wolborz and Tomaszow would have escaped to; the Germans were everywhere in Poland, and soon enough, of course, there would be no escape anywhere in Europe. But perhaps some of the Jews of Tomaszow did try to escape, for shortly after the men had shown up in Wolborz, a man said to be from Tomaszow arrived in Wolborz without the proper identity papers. Vick and Vlock ordered him shot. It was our first direct experience of summary SS justice, and it was an object-lesson about escape. About four months after the ghetto was established, my brother Samek disappeared. My cousin Lutek told us he had joined the underground Polish partisan’s army, the Armia Krajowa. My mother was beside herself. “Why did he do it?” she asked, again and again. My father tried to comfort her, assuring her that Samek would come home as soon as he was hungry. But my mother was ageing fast under the weight of the occupation, and Samek’s disappearance seemed a particularly grave hardship. Our hardships were about to become even more grave. The SS summoned Isydor and demanded a census—the names and addresses of all the Jews living in Wolborz. “What for?” asked Isydor. “That is none of your concern,” he was told. “We tell you, and you do it. We want that list in two days. It must be accurate; we’ll check it against the police list to make sure. If you don’t get it to us in two days, you will be shot.” Isydor called a meeting of the Judenrat in the synagogue. I was there. There was a great deal of talk and much disagreement. As always, the question was whether to cooperate—and how much. And as always, the consensus was that if we didn’t comply, the consequences would be awful. So the decision was made to cooperate with the SS. My brother took the names and 47

addresses of all the Jews in the village, including Samek’s because my father was sure he would be back, and gave the list to the police to hand over to the SS. Samek did return, just as my father had said. He was dirty, disheveled, and hungry, but the moment she saw him, my mother sobbed with relief. The Armia Krajowa of Polish freedom fighters did not want him, he said; they would not let him join them. The reason? He was Jewish. “It seems that everybody hates the Jews,” Samek said wistfully. Said my father: “You have caused all of us a lot of heartache. You will not go any place by yourself anymore.” The next day, Isydor was again summoned to SS headquarters. This time, Vick and Vlock announced that Jews would no longer be able to go outside the village to work for the farmers and that all other “privileges” for Jews were to be eliminated. The order stirred a commotion. “How are we going to make a living?” people wondered. It took the rabbi to quell the commotion. “We have no choice,” he said simply. And that was the truth of it. Somehow, we adapted. Since Jews could no longer go to the Polish farms to work, the Poles came to the village to buy from the Jews, although there wasn’t much to sell. But Jewish tailors, cabinet-makers, and sheet metal workers could still earn a bit, although it was the buyers who set the price. We managed. We lived. The year rolled on. It was September, 1941—a little more than two years since the Germans invaded Poland—and it was the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. In the synagogue, we had just chanted the Kol Nidre prayer when the Polish police burst in, evicted us all, and announced that the synagogue was to be converted into a horse stable. “Leave everything as is,” the police instructed, as they posted guards in front of the synagogue.


But that night, somehow, the synagogue was broken into, and the Torah scrolls, clothed in their silver ornaments, were removed. The next day, the police came to the rabbi’s house, where we were observing Yom Kippur, seized the rabbi, and dragged him away, ordering the rest of us to our homes. Isydor followed, demanding that the rabbi be released. “When the Torah scrolls are returned, we will release the rabbi,” he was told. The next day, the police ordered Isydor to establish a Jewish police force to keep order in the ghetto and a sanitation police force to keep the ghetto clean. All police must wear a uniform at all times, the SS ordered. Isydor appointed Mr. Jablonowski the head of the police and Mr. Keszenboum, the owner of the candy store in the village, to be the captain of the sanitation police. Both were big, strong men who were as physically tough as they looked. They went with Isydor day after day as he pressed the police to release the rabbi. After a while, the police wouldn’t even let him in, and they warned Isydor that “something bad” might happen to the rabbi if he kept coming. “Tell us where the Torah scrolls are,” the commandant of police told Isydor, “and you can have your rabbi.” But Isydor didn’t know where the Torahs were. “Too bad,” said the commandant. “If you don’t find out and let us know, something terrible will happen.” I knew where the Torahs were hidden. They were in the bakery behind the big oven. During the winter, I had discovered that I could get warm by sneaking into the bakery and climbing up on top of the oven; the spot became a favorite hiding place. The day after the rabbi was arrested—the day after Yom Kippur, 1941—I had gone to my hiding place in the bakery and had seen the Torah scrolls stuffed behind the oven. 49

Terrified of this knowledge, I told my father where the Torahs were. Father then told Isydor. The next day Isydor again asked to see the rabbi, and this time, he was granted permission. Both men understood the bargain on the table: the Torahs for the life of the rabbi, and Isydor knew he must make it clear to the rabbi that he could be saved. “If the SS could recover the Torah scrolls,” he told the rabbi, “we might be able to save your life.” He paused. “I know where the scrolls are hidden.” The rabbi did not hesitate. “No,” he said. “You must not tell them. I am an old man. I will not live through the war. But the Torahs are holy, and they must be preserved for the next generation—and for God.” Two days later, the rabbi’s corpse was found floating in the stream. The SS had used him for target practice, then dumped his body in the freezing water. Isydor went immediately to the SS for permission to bury the rabbi quickly, according to Jewish law, because our cemetery was on the outskirts of the village, and our traveling there was forbidden. Meanwhile, everyone gathered at the rabbi’s house. The members of the burial society who cleaned the body said he had terrible bruises on his face and body—evidence of severe beatings during “interrogation.” For the funeral the next day, Polish police escorted us to the cemetery. Every Jewish man, woman, and child was at that funeral—the entire population of the Wolborz ghetto. One could hear our cries for miles as we buried our beloved rabbi. After the funeral we all came home, and for a long time, nobody spoke a word. I never learned what became of the Torah scrolls of Wolborz, but I know that a good and just man, Rabbi Dembinski, gave his life, not for the scrolls themselves, but for what was in them—the Law, the core of Judaism.


Winter arrived early that year. The snow was very high. The police used sleds for transportation and outside the ghetto, Polish boys ice-skated on the stream. Such pleasures were denied to me, of course. Every day, one of my brothers went down to the lumberyard inside the ghetto limits to fetch sawdust for the oven. First, we stomped on it to make it solid. Then we lit the sawdust brick inside a can outside the house before putting it in the oven. It took a while, but eventually the sawdust brick got red-hot, and the room grew warm. Our lives were increasingly circumscribed by rules and regulations handed down daily by the SS through the chief of the ghetto police, Mr. Jablonowski—things we could not do, other things we had to do. Since the synagogue was now a stable and since religious observance was expressly forbidden, Sabbath services were held in secret, in a different house each week. My father thought it was too dangerous for our family to attend these services, and he was right: one day in February, the Polish police raided the house where services were being held. Everybody was arrested. Isydor parleyed with the police, and he was able to get them released. At the end of February, we saw our first selection. Orders came from the SS that all Jewish men and boys must assemble at the marketplace; it was up to the Jewish police to ensure that everyone showed up. When we were all assembled, the SS and the Polish police took over, lined us up, and selected men from among us who would go to work for them. I was one of those selected, while older men, like my father, were sent home. I would see this pattern again and again in the months and years to come: those sufficiently able-bodied to work on one side, those not considered useful on the other. Those of us selected to work were brought outside the ghetto perimeter, guarded by the Jewish police. The men were given picks and shovels and were told to start digging. Their task 51

was to widen the stream through the village. Boys my age were to bring water for the men to drink as they worked. It was a brutally cold winter, and the earth was frozen solid. The work was exhausting, and by the end of every day, we were all hungry and tired. What’s more, there was no real need to widen the river. Rather, as the SS told my brother, this was make-work to keep the men busy and tired so they could not stir up trouble. What kind of trouble could we stir? We were prisoners in a ghetto, and our keepers had the guns. Isydor had always taken care to maintain good relations with the Polish police, so when, in the third week of March, the captain of the Polish police came to see him and brought a warning, he took it seriously. “As God is my witness, Isydor,” said the captain, “you must hide. The SS are coming to kill you.” Isydor bolted across the stream into the woods. Two hours later, the SS arrived. “Where is he?” they shouted. My father answered that he didn’t know, and the SS responded by beating my brother Abraham. “Where is he?” they shouted again. I was terrified. What would happen to my brother? What was going to happen to us? All that day the SS hunted for Isydor but could not find him. They ordered the Polish police to search—to no avail, although we suspected that the Polish police didn’t look very hard. By late afternoon, the SS men were frustrated and angry. They wanted—they needed—a victim. They took the captain of the Jewish police, Mr. Jablonowski, dragging him to the market place where they shot him in plain view. Then they laughed—and left his body there. One hour later, two men went to the marketplace and carried his body home. Another funeral. Again, we needed police permission to go to the cemetery. Again, every Jew in the ghetto attended; I remember Mrs. Jablonowski weeping inconsolably. After the funeral I asked my father, “Why did they have to shoot him?” 52

“You must understand the times we live in,” said my father. “The Germans want to destroy all the Jews in the world.” “But why?” I asked. “Aren’t we the same as everybody else? Don’t we pray to the same God, or do they have a different God?” “No, my son. There is only one God, but other religions blame the Jews for killing the Son of God.” “But why are they trying to kill us all?” “Because Hitler must have a scapegoat so he can tell the German people what wonderful things he is doing for Germany by invading foreign countries. And then Germany can become the biggest power in the world.” But I didn’t understand . I didn’t understand about wanting to be the biggest power in the world. I didn’t understand how Hitler could show the German people his greatness by killing our rabbi or Mr. Jablonowski. All I understood was that two fine people from our small village had been murdered. A week later, Vick and Vlock left Wolborz; their tour of duty was over, and they were replaced by two other SS men. Since these two knew nothing about the dragnet out for my brother, it meant that Isydor could come out of hiding and come home. In fact, the two new SS men summoned him, as head of the Judenrat, to hear the changes they were making in the old rules and regulations. Spring arrived. The snow disappeared, the sun came out, and everything was in bloom. We were still working to widen the stream, but conditions were much more comfortable. It was good in a way that we younger boys had the work; it kept us occupied. Along with my regular


job as mailman—there was little mail for Jews, so I didn’t have much to do—the routine of work provided the sense of a normal life, or at least, of as normal a life as possible. But in the middle of May in that year of 1942, disaster struck. My father became ill, suffering severe headaches, coughing fits, and, after a few days, a high fever. Isydor counseled waiting 48 hours to see if the fever broke. It didn’t. Uncle Avram was able to persuade a Polish doctor to examine my father. The doctor came in the middle of the night so he wouldn’t be seen; had he been found out, he likely would have been shot. The doctor diagnosed typhus. He gave my father medication and advised us all to stay away from others lest we be carriers of the disease—impossible, of course, since we had to go to work. “Will he get better?” I asked Isydor. My brother did not answer me. The fever continued, and my father developed a pinkish rash all over his body. My mother was by his bedside night and day, and my brothers also attended to him. I felt useless, in the way. Typhus is carried by lice, and the ghetto was rife with lice. We were all infested, all the time. Despite the efforts of our sanitation police, sanitary conditions were bad. Our water came from the communal pump in the middle of the marketplace, and there was no indoor plumbing, just an outhouse. Still, my father was the only one among us who contracted typhus. His condition continued to worsen. The fever soared. His coughing became more intense. Although my brother hung a curtain around my father’s bed, I would sneak in to see him; his appearance frightened me, and I hated to see his suffering. “How are you?” I asked him. His answer was indirect. “My son, God wants me with him, and I must go.” “But I don’t want you to go,” I cried.


“Son, if God wants you, there is nothing one can do but obey Him.” I did not understand what he meant when he said that, but it scared me. He went on, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Promise me this, Herman: if you ever get out of this war, don’t carry a grudge in your heart against anybody There’s no point in hating anyone. Sometimes, people just don’t know what they’re doing.” Again, the words frightened me—not for their content, but because they sounded so final. It was only years later that I came to understand and embrace the promise my father asked for; at the time, I just wanted him to live. At work on the stream bank, my mind was home with my father. I prayed to God that he would get better. I daydreamed about it, reminisced about when we were all together back in Bydgoszcz, fantasized that one day we would all be free. “This is only a bad dream,” I told myself. “When I wake up, it will be all over. When I get home today, he’ll be better.” But he wasn’t better. The day came when I sneaked past the curtain to see him, and he did not recognize me. “I am your son; I am Herman,” I cried. He looked at me without recognition, and I knew then that he would not be getting better. My uncle Avram was in the room; I looked at him, hoping for reassurance, but he offered none. I wept. My father had been sick for two weeks when I came home one day and found my mother standing very still and quiet next to his bed. “Your father died in my arms,” she said. I stood beside my father’s body; I did not want to leave him. I tried to imagine what we would do now without him, this man who had kept our whole family together. How would we manage without his strength, his optimism? What would become of us? The next morning, the acting rabbi and the members of the burial society came, and I watched through the window, my eyes burning and tears streaming down my cheeks, as I saw my father’s unmoving body being washed for burial. Prayers were said, and his body was 55

wrapped in his tallis. A wagon was brought, and with the help of several men, my father’s body was lifted up and placed in the wagon. We followed behind it on foot to the cemetery. I held onto my mother on one side, while Samek supported her on the other. At the graveside, as they began to lower his body, I cried bitterly. I did not think I could bear my pain. My brother Abraham was holding me, but as the mourners began to cover my father’s body with soil, I slipped from his grasp and jumped into the grave. “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me!” I begged. “I want to be with you!” It took all three of my brothers to pull me up and walk me away from the grave. I was in shock. I did not speak all the way home. That night I dreamed that my father spoke to me. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I am with you all the time. Even if you don’t see me, I am with you and the whole family.” I woke up in a sweat. Everyone else was asleep—except my mother. She came over to me, put her arms around me, hugged me to her. “You will never leave me, will you?” I asked. “Never,” she answered. “Now go to sleep.” We sat shiva for seven days. We huddled on low benches. Neighbors brought us cooked food, and every morning and evening, prayers were said. I cried myself to sleep every night, but I let nobody see or hear me. The rabbi tried to comfort me. “God wanted your father with Him in heaven,” he told me. “God did not want him to suffer any more.” On the eighth day, the period of shiva was over. I went outside. It was mid-June, and everything was in bloom. The air was warm, the sun shone brightly, and I could hear the joyful sound of birds singing. Nothing had changed, and everything had changed. My father was no longer with us. We would be slaves of the Germans, and the Polish police would be allowed to do whatever they wanted to us. This is what would happen; there would be no way out. 56


Chapter 6 Life returned to normal—that is, to what passed for normal in the ghetto. I continued to assist the men widening the stream—and sometimes to stroll along the bank looking for solitude. Isydor continued to govern the ghetto, appointing a new Jewish police captain. I worried about my mother, who still grieved deeply over the loss of my father. So did I. July arrived, and with it came heat, humidity, and new rules and regulations from the SS that limited our lives even further. We were not allowed to assemble on the street or in large groups in a house—not even to pray. Mail service stopped. Certain streets were declared offlimits to Jews—on pain of being shot. One day as I walked along my favorite place on the stream bank, a Polish policeman spotted me. “Stop, Jew!” he shouted. “Don’t you know you are not allowed to walk here?” He looked at me closely. “Aren’t you Isydor’s brother?” he asked. I nodded. “Go home quickly,” he said. “Make sure no one sees you. Don’t come back here!” Once again, Isydor’s good relations with the Poles had helped. But apart from the police, we had little contact now with Poles. The farmers from the surrounding countryside were no longer allowed to do business with us—their food for our goods and services. Our stores ran out of merchandise. We were able to grow some vegetables in the back yard, and we also had some chickens there to provide eggs and poultry. And every once in a while, a kindly Polish neighbor would bring us a piece of beef. Our landlord was such a man. I remember how he would take me with him to the stable to feed the cows and the pigs. He spoke to me of my father, telling me that God took my father to be with Him because He loved him—and wanted him to be safe from the Germans. I tried to 58

understand, but it made little sense to me. Did this mean that God did not love the rest of us, whom he had left to be enslaved or, as some believed, killed by the Germans? Everybody in the ghetto had an opinion about what was going to happen and what to do about it. The old joke is right: where there are ten Jews, there are twenty different opinions. The disagreements raged, but of course no one knew for sure what tomorrow would bring. Then in the middle of August, we found out. Isydor was summoned to the SS office and ordered to assemble the entire Jewish population, with all their belongings, in the marketplace in two days. No reason was given. We stood in the marketplace from eight o’clock in the morning until one o’clock in the afternoon—my mother, my three brothers, Aunt Hannah, Uncle Avram, my cousins Barak and Lutek, and I. My mother , now bearing by herself the burden of responsibility for all of us, was pale with fear. A row of wagons with Polish drivers stood waiting. The Polish police began to count us, matching our names against the census. If someone was missing, the Polish police went to their house and dragged them out by force with only the clothes on their backs—no belongings. Once we were all gathered, we were ordered into the wagons—twenty people per wagon. “This ghetto is being closed!” one of the officers announced. “You are all moving to the Piotrkow ghetto.” We were in the second wagon from the front. SS soldiers on motorcycles and in trucks surrounded our transport so there could be no question of escape. As we began to move out, we all looked back towards our village. I know my family felt as I did, that we were leaving my father behind. Soon enough, Wolborz and the cemetery where we had buried my father was gone from view. The wagons moved slowly through fields where cows, sheep, and horses grazed against a 59

background of farmhouses set far apart. The sight was beautiful—would have been beautiful had we known for sure where we were going and the fate that awaited us there. I was seated next to my mother in the wagon and could feel the tension in her body. I wanted to comfort her, as my father would have had he been there. “Don’t worry,” I whispered to her. “Everything will be okay. All of your sons are here, your daughter is safe in France, and Tatus is here in spirit.” She looked at me, then pulled me towards her, and kissed me. “You are a good son, Herman,” she said. “With you beside me, I will be okay.” Suddenly the wagons stopped. I noticed that we had left the farmhouses behind; here were only fields. My first thought was that they were going to shoot us all, here where nobody would see. We waited. After about fifteen minutes, a full complement of replacement guards arrived on motorcycles. They all wore metal shields around their necks incised with the letters SA—SA for Sturmabteilung, the brown-shirted Storm Troopers who were to prove so brutal throughout the Holocaust. Their first act was to order us all out of the wagons. They then began to search through our belongings. “What are they looking for?” I asked Isydor. “Anything that is valuable.” “Like what?” “Gold or diamonds.” They searched for about an hour, but they found nothing. “Where did you hide the gold and the diamonds?” the SA commander shouted at us. He did not get an answer. “Back in the wagons!” he commanded. Then he unfurled a whip and began lashing us indiscriminately. I jumped up into the wagon out of the way of the whip as my 60

brothers helped my mother up. I could see the pain on her face; not physical pain—she had escaped the whip—but mental anguish at the man’s sadistic brutality. I don’t know why, but I began to pray. “God, help us get through this,” I prayed. “Make my mother well again. Wipe the Germans off the face of the earth.” I suppose I prayed because there was nothing else I could do; I had no power to change anything, no real way to remove the look of pain from my mother’s face. It was about six o’clock in the evening when the Germans again ordered a halt. Again, we did not know why; we simply sat there, waiting. My brother Samek, always the most restless of us all, whispered to Isydor that the time was right to run. “No!” said Isydor. “The five of us could not make it. And if only one or two got away, that would endanger the others—Mamusia and Herman especially. Besides,” he added, “where would we go If the Germans didn’t get us, the Poles would.” At that moment, we saw three men walking toward the transport. This must have been the reason we stopped. As they approached, one of the three pointed to the other two. “Juden,” he said to the SA commander. The commandant said something back in German, then handed the guy a bottle of vodka and ordered his troops to point their guns at the two Jewish men. We were in the middle of the road. On one side were beautiful rolling fields. On the other side were woods with trees so tall they seemed to me to nearly reach the sky. The SA commander ordered two of his troops to escort the two Jews in to the woods. “Wait!” Isydor jumped out of the wagon and appealed to the commander. “I am the president of the Wolborz ghetto,” he said, “and I want those two men included in our transport.” But it was too late. We heard two shots, one apiece. “If you want to join them, we will oblige,”


the commander said to Isydor. The two SA troops emerged from the woods alone, and the commander gave the order for the wagons to get underway. A shocked silence reigned over our transport. Were we all going to our execution? It was around seven in the evening. The sun had started to go down. It appeared as a red ball against the blue sky and the green fields. The sky grew darker and darker, but there was a beautiful, full moon. The wagons stopped. A truck pulled up, and some SS troops got out. We were ordered out of the wagon. The SS troops set up a machine gun and pointed it at us. “This is the end,” I said to my mother. “We are going to join Tatus.” Then the soldiers pulled a table and some loaves of bread out of the truck and ordered us to line up. One of the soldiers told my brother Abraham to start slicing. Everybody got one slice of bread. Then the SS left with their truck, and our convoy started to roll again. They are not going to kill us after all, I thought as I gazed at the moon. All was suddenly peaceful and quiet; the only noise was the rolling of the wagon wheels. I was very tired and fell asleep. I dreamed that I was with my father and mother walking down the street in Bydgoszcz . We were happy. I dreamed that my mother had given me a kiss. I woke up, and found that she really had kissed me. Half an hour later, we pulled in to Piotrkow. The distance from Wolborz to Piotrkow is some 15 miles. The journey had taken hours, and still no one knew what might happen at journey’s end. On arrival, we were ordered into a large building with a huge stained-glass window in the center of the facade. I believe this was the Great Synagogue of Piotrkow, a building that still exists.


Inside, it was overflowing with people—Jews herded here from a number of villages: Srock, Tuszyn, Wolborz, Przyglow, Sulejow, Rozprza, and Kamiensk. All had brought what was left of their belongings, and some had even brought chickens with them. Behind us, the wagons pulled away. Within, the new arrivals had to hold their belongings over their heads because there was no room on the floor. Squashed like a sardine in a sea of taller grown-ups, I could barely breathe. Abraham hauled me up onto his shoulder so I could get some air into my lungs. From this vantage point, I could see the ark where the Torahs were housed; it was empty. Yet many people were praying—the men strapped in their phylacteries or wrapped in their talisim—while others wept, and still others stood as if stupefied. All turned their eyes toward the ceiling as if asking God for help. “They are going to kill us!” someone shouted. And we all believed it. Abraham managed to push his way to a corner where I was able to sit down. My mother sat beside me, comforting me. She stroked my head, then took my hands in hers, and looked directly at me. “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” I leaned against her and slept. I dreamed that the Germans were beating my mother and father. I was there too, and I came to their rescue. But the Germans pushed my father away, and one of them took out a pistol and shot him. The horror of that moment woke me, but I assured my mother I was fine. Hours passed. My mother gave me a piece of bread to eat, but she offered nothing to drink, as we had no water. We began to believe that we would never be released, that we were going to die right where we were. “If they are going to kill us,” I said to my mother, “at least we’ll all be together.” She looked at me, but she did not say a word. Morning came, but it brought no change. Then at around noon, the SS opened the doors and called for the people from the village of Tuszyn to come out. They left, and the doors were 63

slammed behind them. Two hours later, the doors were opened again, and the people of Sulejow were told to come out. Around five o’clock, they again opened the doors, and this time, it was our turn, as they called for the people from Wolborz to come out. We emerged with our belongings, and stood while they counted us, wondering what we were being counted for. When they had their count, they marched us about five hundred feet to the entrance of the ghetto, then through a barbed wire and inside. The members of the Judenrat of the Piotrkow ghetto and the chief of the Jewish police were there to meet us. Isydor stepped forward and identified himself as head of the Judenrat in Wolborz. “Welcome to the Piotrkow ghetto,” he was told. A member of the Jewish police was instructed to take us to our quarters—my mother and brothers and me, plus my Aunt Hannah and Uncle Avram, and my cousins Barak and Lutek. We gathered our belongings and went with him. On the way, Isydor asked him what was going to happen. The Jewish policeman said nothing. We walked through one street and into a building, then through a hole in the wall into another building. We climbed a stairway to the second floor. The policeman opened the door, and we walked inside. The “apartment” consisted of a single room about fifteen by twenty feet in size. The room was dark, with only one small window. It held two beds, one dresser standing in a corner, two chairs, a table, and a stove. In order to provide enough sleeping space, the table would need to be moved each night. “How do we heat this place?” Isydor asked the policeman . “Don’t worry about it,” he said as he left. “You won’t be here long enough.” For a moment, we all stood there and looked around. Then my mother spoke. “Let’s be happy we are here and alive and together,” she said, “and let’s clean up this place up.” But 64

despite her best efforts with a borrowed broom, the place was infested with fleas and lice, and cockroaches paraded as if we were intruding upon them. It was decided that my mother, Isydor, and I would take one bed. My uncle and aunt would take the other, while Abraham, Sam, and my cousins would sleep on the floor. We had several blankets for covers. My brother Samek, a born organizer, went out and brought back two pillows. Weary from the journey and the fear that had stalked us, we all went to bed. When I awoke in the morning, everyone else was already up. Isydor had already been to the ghetto gates where he had swapped some of our belongings for food, so my mother was able to make me breakfast. She began to clean the room again, and I decided to go outside and see what was going on. Across from our building was a row of old and dilapidated houses. I proceeded to the corner, where I saw a barbed wire fence dividing one street from another. It was instantly clear to me that there were two separate ghettos—the larger ghetto that had been established earlier for the Jews of Piotrkow and the new, smaller ghetto for all us Jews from the surrounding villages. I followed the fence where it turned at a right angle. Jerozolimska Street, the sign said. I was curious about this new place, which seemed so different from Wolborz. I noticed also that there were holes cut into the walls of buildings so that you could walk from building to building without going out on the street. I walked through one of these passageways as far as I could go till I came to a barbed wire gate, guarded by two Jewish policemen. I didn’t know what they were guarding, but I retreated back to our room. Thus passed my first day in the Piotrkow ghetto. As I was lying in bed that night, I heard my mother and brothers discussing our future. “What is going to happen to our family and where are we going from here?” they all wondered. 65

My brother Sam suggested that we should try to get Aryan papers and escape. Abraham agreed but Isydor, whom everybody looked to as our family’s leader, asked, “Where is it that you are intending for us to go? We don’t know the city, and where do you think we can get those Aryan papers?” We all knew the consequences of being stopped by officials without the proper papers. “As we have just come to this ghetto, let’s see what will happen,” Isydor continued. With that final word on our plan, I fell asleep. The next day, I went outside again to explore the ghetto. This time I met some other boys. “Where are you from?” I asked them. “Tuszyn,” they said. “We came to Piotrkow three days ago.” Together we went to explore the ghetto, staying away from the larger ghetto where we were not permitted to enter. We played for hours, as young boys will. We played until some Jewish policemen stopped us from playing and chased us home. Home, that is, to our one room. In the middle of September, when we had been in the Piotrkow ghetto about a week, Isydor came home and said that everybody should gather around, as he had something important to tell us. One of the ghetto leaders had approached him and had told him that everybody in the Radomsko ghetto had been transported to Treblinka. The very word made us shudder, for we had begun to hear rumors that this place was a death camp—a factory for killing. Isydor thought we must all try to find work in one of the two factories in Piotrkow, because these were important to the German war efforts. “The work might save our lives,” Isydor continued. “The leader also said that since I had been the head of the Wolborz ghetto, he would see what he could do for us.” Scared as I was, I was also excited at the prospect of working and even happier that we might be safe.


As we waited for the arrangements to be made, our daily routines continued. I went out every day to play with the boys and girls. My mother stayed inside and tended to our living space. She seemed to be getting very old and tired. I started to worry about her, not that I had not been concerned for her in the past, but this time seemed worse. Perhaps this was because I was getting older and more aware, or perhaps I had begun to understand the grave situation that we were in and saw it plainly on my mother’s face. Each day, the SS, accompanied by the Jewish police, took several people indiscriminately off the street into the woods and shot them. Anytime I saw the SS coming, I hid. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder at the writing on their belt buckles. “Gott mit uns,” it said. God is with us. Why wasn’t God with us? I wondered. Wasn’t he the God of the Jews too? Wasn’t there just one God, as my father had said? I was approaching my thirteenth birthday. Had life been normal, I would have been preparing for my bar mitzvah. That was not to be for me, but questions like these—of God and human behavior—galloped through my mind. My birthday that year of 1942 was on a Thursday. The next night, I went to the home of the rabbi for the Sabbath services. The rabbi was a kindly man, and after the prayers, he drew me aside and asked about my background and circumstances. I told him that I was here with my mother and three brothers, that we had come from Wolborz, and that my father had died of typhus there. “What is going to happen to us, rabbi?” I asked him. He smiled. “Only God and the Germans know the answer to that question,” he said. Then he added: “You are a smart boy. Try hard to make sure nothing happens to you.”


I returned to the rabbi’s apartment on Saturday morning. I wanted to pray to God to be good to my mother, who seemed to me to be growing old before her time. I also begged God to bring the war to an early end so that we would all be free. This of course was not to happen. That Monday morning, my brothers and I prepared to start work. We joined the crowd of people standing in front of the barbed wire gate that was the ghetto entrance and marched out of the ghetto with them. SS troops and Polish policemen and firefighters escorted us as we walked, four abreast, the Rosenblat brothers shoulder to shoulder. One group broke off and went into the glass factory compound of Kara and Hortensia, escorted by the SS. We stayed with the group that went to the Bugaj camp, a woodworking factory on the Bugaj River. Once there, all the others went to their jobs as usual, while we four new workers were left standing, not knowing where to go. Within a few minutes, a Polish police officer approached us. “Who is the dentist?” he asked. Isydor took a step forward. The officer then looked at Abraham and asked what he could do. “Any job I am given,” Abraham answered. When the officer asked Samek, “What about you?,” Samek said he could repair motors on cars. Then the officer looked at me, decided I was too young to work, and told me that from now on, I would have to remain in the ghetto. At that, Isydor stepped forward and said that if his brother Herman were to remain in the ghetto, they would all stay there. “Where one goes, we all go,” Isydor said. The Polish police officer looked again at me very carefully and nodded, then assigned us all to work. Abraham was placed at a brand new station, Samek was ordered to work in the garage, and Isydor’s assignment was to fix the teeth of the Polish police who guarded the factory on the outside and the Polish firemen who supervised the work inside the factory. As for me, I was taken to a paint shop. “Here is another one,” the officer told the man in charge. For his part,


the man in charge turned me over to another Jewish worker. “Here is your helper,” he said. “Teach him what to do.” It wasn’t hard. Our job was to paint stretchers for wounded soldiers. I sprayed on the paint while another man painted DI-FI—standing for Diedrich & Fischer—on the stretcher’s wooden frame. At the end of the day, again accompanied by soldiers and firemen, we marched back home to the ghetto. It very quickly became a routine. Several girls also worked in the paint department; they too lived in the small ghetto, and we became friends who met after work. Another of my coworkers was an artist who taught me how to wield a brush and deal with paints. After work, on our way back to the ghetto from the factory, local Poles would come alongside our column to sell us food. The prices were absurdly inflated, but since we had to eat, we paid whatever we had to, going through what remained of our valuables. My mother did her best to prepare good meals for us with what we were able to obtain. So it went, for days, even weeks. In a very real sense, we began to feel like normal people—people who go to work every day, befriend their coworkers, come home in the evening and share with one another the content of our day. I kept telling my mother how impressed I was by the sheer size of the Bugaj Camp. It seemed to go on and on. It seemed normal to talk of this, as if we were just working people like anybody else. It all made it seem that now we were safe. That sense of safety was brutally shattered on October 13, 1942, a day that I can never forget, a day that lives in my memory like a knife in my heart. The order came in the middle of the night, a shouted order that we were to take all our possessions and report for deportation. I did not know what the word meant, but I knew that no good would come of this order. I appealed


to my brother. “Isydor,” I asked, “what is about the meaning of deportation?” But he did not answer me. We packed our now meager possessions and were marched to the Umschlagplatz, the loading platform at the train station. Thousands of people, tens of thousands of people were there, all standing together, all with their meager belongings. It took a number of hours for all to be gathered. Then the Germans, together with the Jewish police, searched the ghetto to see if anyone was hiding. Through all this, the SS stood in front of us, their guns pointing directly at us. Among the crowd, terror was transmitted in whispers. Treblinka, people said. The rumors that had swept Piotrkow for weeks were too numerous, too exact, too final not to be true—that Treblinka was a death camp, and that everybody who went there died. I was in shock. Now that we had finally found work, and we seemed to be safe, they were going to deport and murder us. When the check of the ghetto was complete, a table was set up, manned by two SS officers, and the selection began. The long line of people worked its way up to the table, where individuals were selected for one of two columns; some were sent to the left, others to the right. When our family’s turn came, Isydor pushed me to go first. “Say you’re sixteen,” he whispered, “not twelve. We’ll follow. Where one goes, we all go.” I approached the table. “Name?” the SS officer demanded. “Herman Rosenblat.” “How old are you?” “Sixteen,” I lied. “Have you been working?” “Yes, at the Diedrich & Fisher lumber works, at Bugaj.” 70

The officer gestured, and a soldier pushed me to the left, into a crowd of men and young girls. Samek was next, and he also came over to the left with me, as did my brothers Abraham and Isydor. There we stood, all together, just as Isydor had said: me, tall for my age and still strong, and my three strapping brothers. Where one goes, we all go. Then it was my mother’s turn. I watched as she approached the table, saw her mouth move as she answered questions, saw the officer point, saw the soldier push her to the other side, away from us—to the right. “Why is Mamusia not coming with us?,” I asked Isydor. I asked it benignly, as if out of a casual curiosity. Until suddenly, I realized what it meant. I understood it meant that my mother was going to be shipped to Treblinka, and that I would never see her again. At the same moment, I understood that this was not possible for me, that this must not happen. “No!” I screamed. I began to cry. “Don’t leave me!” I shouted to my mother. She made no response. It was as if she hadn’t heard me. I shouted to her again. “Mamusia! Don’t leave me!” Again there was no response. My body was wracked with sobs, and suddenly I ran. I ran from the column of slave laborers into which I had been selected to her column of the condemned, throwing my arms around her waist, clinging to her. “I want to go with you,” I sobbed. “I want to go with you.” My mother pushed me away. Isydor grabbed me and pulled me over to the other side. “You must stay with your brothers!” he shouted. But I didn’t listen to him. I wriggled free and again ran to my mother. Again she pushed me away. “Leave me alone,” my mother said in a voice I almost did not recognize. A kind of cry escaped her. She said to me: “You are a nuisance. Go with your brothers!” Pain like a sharp claw clutched my heart. “Don’t you love me anymore?” I asked my mother. 71

“No!” she shouted. “You are just a nuisance to me!” We looked at one another. My mother, whose greatest joy had been her children, and I, her youngest, just looked at one another. Then my brother Isydor had me in his grasp once again and took me over to his side. I heard my mother saying to him, “Take care of Herman.” I stood stunned and helpless with my brothers. The selection continued. It was about noon when our column was ordered to leave the Umschlagplatz. I looked back and saw my mother looking in my direction. The tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I love you,” I called to her, “and I will see you when I get back from work!” I don’t know if she heard me. The noise now was deafening as the Germans barked orders and as broken families, like ours, wept, screamed, called to one another. Some 22,000 Jews were transported that day in four cattle car transports from Piotrkow to Treblinka. All were gassed on arrival. Among them were my Aunt Hannah, my Uncle Avram, and my mother, Rose Rosenblat, who pushed me away from her so I could live.


Chapter 7 In the space of less than six months, I had lost both my parents. Both had been murdered by the Nazis, one slowly by a debilitating disease, one summarily “processed” in a way we would only learn about years later, a way I cannot bear to think about to this day. At the time, all I knew was that I felt lost. At first, I simply did not believe—could not accept!—my mother’s sudden disappearance. Truly, what had happened that day at the selection could not be comprehended. It could not really have happened. As the firemen marched us back to the ghetto, I told myself it had not happened, that we would return “home” as usual and that, as usual, Mamusia would be there. We did not return home. We were assigned a new room, and it was empty. I walked out into the ghetto to search for my mother. Perhaps I hadn’t looked in all the places she was likely to be. Maybe she was actually hiding and waiting for the whole horrible situation to blow over. I waited for her to come out of hiding. Days passed. I did not eat. I was in a kind of daze, as if drugged. I did not play with the other boys and girls. I did not talk to my brothers. All I wanted was to be with my parents; it seemed I would have to die to achieve that, and so dying was what I sought. My brothers tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t listen. Tatus, Mamusia—would my brothers be next? Even as I grieved, I went over and over in my mind the horrible things my mother had said to me as she pushed me from her. Isydor had explained to me that she had been afraid that if I clung to her, I too would go to Treblinka. I understood that, understood that she wanted to save me, understood the sacrifice she had made.


At least, I thought I understood. Now I think that I did not truly comprehend the depth of her love for me until I had children of my own. Still, in those first days after I lost her, I would lie in my bunk at night and whisper to her: “Mamusia, if you can hear me, I know now why you said all those things to me. I love you and I always will.” In the weeks following the deportation, Jews who had been in hiding outside the ghetto started to filter back in. Individuals, families—some with small children and babies—found their way back to the small ghetto and managed somehow to find room. I hoped against hope that my mother would be among them. Maybe she had escaped the deportation! Maybe she had never gotten on the cattle car at all! But she did not come. Every day the Rosenblat brothers went to work in the Diedrich & Fischer factory of the Bugaj camp. I had now been transferred from the paint shop to the machine shop. I was put to work on a crosscut saw that was at least twice as big as I was, but I quickly learned how to operate it. Next to me, another boy about my age was operating a similar saw. His name was Hesiek Mlynarski. His parents had gone to Treblinka on the same transport as my mother, but unlike me, Hesiek had no siblings. He was utterly alone in the world, and I, despite my good fortune in having older brothers, needed a friend. So the Rosenblat brothers more or less adopted him. Still, I could not get over the loss of my mother, and despite having a new friend and brothers who loved me, for a child of thirteen, nothing can really substitute for a parent. My brothers, true to their promise to my mother, attempted to fill the role of parent to their baby brother. They insisted on knowing my whereabouts at all time, included me in all their discussions, and often offered me their portion of food when we had little, going hungry themselves. And although I still felt helpless and alone, the natural resiliency of childhood, even 74

in the midst of our present suffering, might have helped heal my loss—except that what happened next deepened the wound and left a scar that has never healed. Little more than a month after the deportation to Treblinka, the SS began to notice that the population of the small ghetto had grown, swelled by the Jews who had escaped the deportation and had made their way back. The SS began an intensive house-to-house search, ably assisted by Ukrainian soldiers. About a hundred elderly Jews were taken to the nearby Rakow forest and shot—but I, thank God, did not witness that. I did witness what came next. The house-to-house search had uncovered several hundred Jews, including entire families—some with newborn infants. It was evening and we were being returned to the ghetto from work when we saw these people being herded into the synagogue, which was just outside the perimeter of the small ghetto. They spent the night there, without food, water, or light. The next morning, I stood inside the wire perimeter, helpless, rooted to the spot, and saw for the first time in my life, although not the last, what human beings are capable of doing to one another. The SS and the Ukrainians had come to murder the Jews. But murder wasn’t enough. They beat them first—beat men, women, and children. They carried infants out of the synagogue and shattered their heads against the wall as their mothers looked on, then turned and shot the screaming mothers. The Ukrainian guards fired nonstop into the building. They hurled the bodies into containers and placed them on bonfires burning at white heat. I saw a tiny, crying baby—perhaps one week old—placed onto a large dish that looked like a frying pan. They put the dish on the bonfire and fried the baby. I ran. Maybe if I run fast enough, I thought, I could outrun the images in my mind. I raced back to our room. Maybe if I stare at these four peeling, moldy walls, I could see something other than the sadistic brutality I had just witnessed. But I couldn’t. Isydor found me, 75

put his arm around my shoulders. He did not try to comfort me, because how could there be any comfort? Instead, he spoke of survival. “You must be strong if you want to survive,” he said, “and that means, Herman, that you must only look at the good things, not the bad.” “But how can I do this if there are no good things?” I cried. He didn’t answer at once, just held me. Then after a time, Isydor said simply: “You must try.” He walked away from me, leaving me staring out the window, trying to see nothing. After a long wakeful time that night, I finally slept. In the morning, we gathered at the ghetto gate as usual, and as usual, the firemen escorted us to our jobs at the Bugaj factory. I went to work. I worked hard, concentrating with as much focus as I could muster, trying to distract myself from the horrors I had seen, trying not to see again the scenes of beating and murder. But the scenes intruded nevertheless. Once again, I heard the screams of mothers whose last moment of life was to witness their children being smashed against a wall. Once again I saw the SS beating old women, saw the Ukrainian guards firing into the synagogue, with smiles on their faces, as if they did what they did with total indifference or, worse, for entertainment. I bent more deeply over the machine, clenched my teeth, worked harder. My father gone, my mother taken to her death at Treblinka, and now this encounter with a level of human barbarism no words could express: how could I ever come back from this? How could childhood ever be restored? It couldn’t. But life, even a slave’s life in the ghetto, is tenacious. It goes on. At the end of 1942, we were told to gather our belongings for another move—this time, closer to the factory. One way and another, the Nazis were ridding Piotrkow of Jews—either by killing us, or by moving us. 76

With our move to the very site of the Bugaj factory, the big ghetto of Piotrkow was now Judenrein—free of Jews; only the small ghetto held those who were left. For us, the first task was to build the plywood huts in which we would live. The huts were round, and each held twenty people, crammed into ten bunk beds in a space about ten feet in diameter. In the center of the hut was a wood-burning stove to keep us warm. In my hut were my three brothers, myself, my cousins Barak and Lutek, my friend Hesiek Mlynarski, two friends of my brother Isydor, and eleven other men we did not know. My cousin Lutek was our cook. Isydor, who always naturally acted as father to me as well as to Hesiek and my two cousins, was also something of a leader among all twenty men. My brothers Abraham and Samek were in charge of obtaining our food. As for me, I did whatever I was told. By February of 1943, 750 men and women were living in the huts. As winter turned tentatively to spring, more Jews came to Bugaj from the small ghetto. We asked them what had happened to the people there. They told us that some had been sent to a camp, like ours, at the Kara and Hortensia glass factory. Many had gone to other forced labor camps. Still others had been taken into the forest and, with the help of local Poles, shot—often after being forced to dig their own graves. The task was therefore done. The Nazis had finished their work: Piotrkow was empty of Jews. I was stunned to think that a whole town full of innocent men, women, and children had been eliminated. It was beyond my comprehension. Yet I had seen how it had been done; I was part of it. “You must be strong if you want to survive,” my brother had told me. I repeated this to myself as I contemplated Piotrkow—its buildings and streets—empty of all those people. But having seen what I had seen, did I want to survive? “There’s no point in hating anyone,” my 77

father had told me on his deathbed. “Take care of Herman,” my mother had said as she pushed me towards life. They wanted me to survive—and maybe that was how they would live on as well, through me, through all of us. Suddenly, I wanted to live. This war will end, I reasoned; some day, it must end. If I survived, so would the spirit of my parents; so would their hopes for me. If I lived, I would carry them with me in my mind and my heart, and they would live. Survival became all. At the factory, we worked twelve-hour days. The hours went by quickly. Although we received food from the Germans, it was never enough. We found ways to get more. Samek worked in the motor pool and often drove outside the camp, accompanied by one of the Polish firefighters, to test out a car or a truck that had been repaired. He was often able to bring food back with him, while the firefighter looked the other way. We enjoyed such privileges thanks to Isydor —in return for the dental work he still did on the firefighters’ teeth. “Where one goes, we all go,” Isydor had said. My brothers, our cousins, Hesiek, all of us became family and very close, closer than we had ever been. We looked after each other, as if we knew instinctively that our survival as a family depended on each of us staying healthy and strong. Sickness and emotional problems were immediately attended to. We worried together, cried together. Looking back on our situation, it is surprising that we got on so well in such circumstances. I remember no arguments; we each performed our appointed duties without challenge or complaint. The Nazis had taken the generation before us, but if we lived, we would have beaten the Nazis. Survival would be our triumph. That thought helped me survive. Work helped me survive. And one more thing helped me survive: love.


I had spent about a month on the huge saw when the Polish foreman transferred me back to the paint department. I was relieved; although I was big for my age, the saw had still been unwieldy for me to manage, and I was glad enough to get back to painting stretchers. While I had been away in the woodworking shop, some new people had joined the paint department—among them, two sisters about my age, maybe a little older. The younger one caught my attention the first time I laid eyes on her, and I fell madly in love. It was puppy love of course, the first adolescent stirrings of worshipful adoration—and of course the first stirring of hormones, which even the suffering and deprivation of ghetto life could not douse. The object of my passion was both beautiful and intelligent—or so she seemed to me—with an oval face and high cheekbones, blue eyes, long eyelashes, and black hair that fell below her shoulders. I was mesmerized by her ruby lips and by the roundness of her ample breasts, accentuated even in her shapeless ghetto dress. I could not speak. When I tried, words would not come out properly. “Is something wrong?” she finally asked me. I stammered that nothing was wrong. I was so embarrassed that I ran from her. But finally, I mustered the courage, walked over to where she was working, and said hello. She actually answered me!—and it was bliss. She asked me my name—“Herman,” I was able to mutter— and I asked hers. “Rachel.” We began to talk—small talk, barely the beginning of a conversation—when the Polish foreman saw us and chased me back to my job. “If I catch you talking to her again,” he said, “I’ll send you back to the ghetto.” Even though I knew that the ghetto no longer existed, I did not try to speak to Rachel at work again. Instead, I loved her from a distance—with a tenderness and longing I had never before experienced in my life. I was thirteen—nearly fourteen. If my life had been normal, I would have celebrated my bar mitzvah the previous September and would have been welcomed into the community of adult 79

men in my religion. If my life had been normal, I would have been a schoolboy mooning over girls night and day. My life was not normal, but the excitement, the all-encompassing emotion, the pain and glory of first love were as normal as normal could be, and I have always been grateful that I could experience it—especially in the midst of the horror all around us. If Rachel glanced at me, I felt pains in my stomach. I felt that the whole world had landed on top of me—and it was wonderful. If she smiled at me, I felt ten feet tall. The whole world belonged to me. At midnight, the end of the work day, when they marched us out of the factory, I would speak with her again. But I never heard her response. All I heard were angels. When we got back to the huts, the women went to one area and the men to another, and all I could think about was how I would see her beautiful face again the next day and dream of her at night. Often in my dreams, we kissed. It wasn’t unusual for me to wake in a sweat, so fervent was my passion. My happiness lasted for several weeks—until I was transferred to another department, another job. With my friend Hesiek, I now had to carry plywood from the yard to the factory. I missed looking at Rachel’s pretty face. I missed saying hello to her. For a while, I could not eat or sleep. I understood that this was part of the hell of war: today you see someone, and tomorrow they could be gone. Get too close to someone, get too involved, and you could easily be hurt. I learned the pain of this new kind of loss as well, and comforted myself with the reminder that I had my friend Hesiek and my brothers. It was almost enough. But certainly, the bloom that this love had brought to my life was gone. The days were once again just tedious, just hard. Weeks passed. Rumor had it that Bugaj was not as bad as some of the other camps, but life was all work—with, of course, no rights, no recourse, no control over what happened. We went to work at six in the morning and finished at midnight seven days a 80

week. We still got some food from the Germans, and we were able to buy extra food from the Poles—although at very inflated prices. A loaf of bread could cost as much as ten times the price we had paid in our old bakery. But we had to eat, so we had to pay. One day, the SS came into the camp and said that 100 men and women were to be selected to be sent to a different camp. Isydor went directly to the head of the Piotrkow ghetto Judenrat, Szymon Warszawski, to make sure that the remnant of our family would not be separated by the transfer. A day later, Warszawski told Isydor that the commandant needed a dentist in the camp, and that therefore, all the Rosenblats would be able to stay here together. It was summer, 1943. Piotrkow, we now heard, was completely Judenrein. We were about a thousand Jews in Bugaj, and there were some 700 in the glass factory at Hortensia. Of the 28,000 Jews who had been imprisoned in the Piotrkow ghetto, we were all that was left. We worked. Hesiek and I continued to carry the plywood from the yard to the factory— over and over and over. One warm day, we sat down on our piles of plywood and promptly fell fast asleep. I don’t know how long I slept, but I suddenly opened my eyes to see a Polish fireman standing over us. “You come with me,” he ordered. He took us to both the firehouse and presented us to the fire chief. “So,” the chief barked, “you want to sleep?” I started to respond but was quickly interrupted. “Quiet!” They took Hesiek first, dragging him into another room. I heard his screams; they were so loud I thought he would wake the dead. The screaming seemed to go on forever— although it was only five minutes—then it stopped abruptly. They dragged Hesiek out. His pants were down, and he was only half-conscious.


Then it was my turn. The fire chief came out of the room and motioned to me. I walked in. The room had four dark walls, no windows, and a chair in the center of the room. Two Polish firefighters stood ready, whips in their hands. The chief ordered me to drop my pants. With trembling fingers, I fumbled to undo the buttons of my pants. Too slow. “Faster!” the chief shouted at me. “Faster!” “Straddle the chair!” he ordered. I did as I was told. They whipped me on my back and my behind. I screamed from the pain, while in my head I prayed to God to help me, begged God to make them stop beating me. The more I screamed, the harder they hit, until my skin had broken and the blood began to pour down. “He is bleeding,” one of the firefighters announced. “Keep whipping him,” the chief said coldly. I closed my eyes, and somehow, I did not scream. “He must be unconscious,” the firefighter said, and the whipping ceased. “Isn’t he the dentist’s kid brother?” one of the firefighters asked. “Better leave him alone.” I fell off the chair, and they took me by my two hands and dragged me into the other room. Pretending to be unconscious, I didn’t move, just lay there on the floor. When they left, I dragged myself over to Hesiek. “Are you okay?” I whispered. “I am hurting,” he said. “Lie still, and when they come back they will let us go.”


An hour later, the firefighters came back and ordered us back to work. It wasn’t easy for us to stand. It was even harder to pull our pants up over our flayed bodies. We were both still bleeding as we staggered back to our pile of plywood. That night in the hut, Isydor bandaged our wounds. I could not sleep; I tossed and turned trying to find a comfortable position—without success. I was black and blue, and my whole body was one throbbing ache. The next day, Hesiek and I were both still so bruised that we were unable to lift the plywood. Isydor spent some of his influence and asked the supervisor to give us other work. The supervisor sent us back to the paint department. There, I saw Rachel—I hadn’t seen her for months—and although I was unable to sit down and I was self-conscious about my bruises, just speaking to her made all my pains suddenly disappear. Every night for the next week, Isydor washed my wounds with cold water and rags every two to three hours throughout the night. The pain from my bruises was dreadful, and even after a week of treatment, the wounds had still not healed but continued to bleed. And then one day, Rachel wasn’t in the paint department any more. No one knew where she was or what had happened to her. This seemed another wound, and I returned to our hut that night feeling very sad. I never saw Rachel again, nor did I ever learn what happened to her. The summer faded, and a bitter fall began. The cold set in early that year. My wounds finally healed, my pains went away, and I was myself again. By winter, snow fell almost daily, but the wood stove in our hut kept us from freezing. Once again Isydor’s influence was instrumental in keeping us alive and more or less well, as we were able to get enough wood to run the stove through the night.


By the end of 1943, we began hearing a rumor that the factory at Bugaj would be closed and we would all be transferred to “another” camp. This rumor spread like wildfire. No one spoke of anything else. One cold morning, we were ordered to assemble for an announcement. The captain who had beaten me and Hesiek with his whip stood before us. The rumor had been true. We were to pack our things and prepare to leave the following day. Nobody slept that night. Where would we be going? Rumors were rife—and varied. Some said we would be going to Skarzysko, another forced labor camp, this one a factory for munitions. Others were sure we would be going to Treblinka. But nobody knew for sure, and the fear was palpable. Morning came. We assembled at six in the middle of the camp. A truckload of greenuniformed SS officers arrived to take charge, and all the firefighters escorted us as we began to march, four abreast, out of the Bugaj Camp to the railroad station.


Chapter 8

Everyone knows about the cattle cars. You’ve seen the photographs and films. There are museums—the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York is one—in which an actual boxcar is on display; you can even step inside it. I lived a cattle car journey—more than one—and I will tell you that it is like nothing you can imagine. One of the ways the Nazis exercised their dominance over us was by never telling us what was next, where we were going, what was going to happen to us. By keeping us guessing, they demonstrated that they alone were in charge, that we were nothing, with no control over our lives, no rights, no power at all. Another way they exercised their dominance, of course, was by stripping us of all humanity. On our journey away from Piotrkow, they did both. As the crow flies, our journey would cover some 420 miles. In my memory, it took us two weeks. I do not know the exact route we took, but it is clear we went south to Czestochowa, then north again—to possibly somewhere near Warsaw, and on who knows how many side trips as we eventually headed west across Poland into Germany. Why? Only years later would I be able to piece together a reason. It was the winter of 1943-1944. The presumably invincible German war machine was showing signs of wear and tear. The Allies had landed in Salerno and were making their way, step by bloody step, up the Italian peninsula. Hitler’s Russian campaign had been a disaster, and the Red Army was beginning to push westward. Allied bombs had begun to fall on Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. As I imagine it, somewhere, in some warren of an office 85

where the Final Solution had been designed with Teutonic precision, some bureaucrat or other was mapping out the movement of Jews—some to be killed right away in death camps, others to be used as slave labor for the present, and to die later. That, I assume, is why our journey away from Piotrkow was so long, why so much of it was spent waiting, shunted to a siding while boxcars were coupled and uncoupled, or so that higher-priority trains carrying those destined for instant extermination and highest-priority troop trains could pass quickly. Unless, of course, my journey was not really that long but only seemed so—an eternity of suffering and death. In Piotrkow I had seen the depths of barbarism to which human beings will go. On the cattle car, I began to see the depths of suffering that human beings can tolerate. For my brothers and me, who had already lost our parents, our home, our childhood and youth, unimaginable horror lay ahead. It took us hours of walking to arrive at the train. I grew so weak my brothers had to support me and drag me along; in a very real sense, they carried me. When we got to the railroad station and saw the cattle cars waiting for us—cars like the ones that had taken our mother to her death at Treblinka—all we could think was that we were about to share that fate. First the Nazis separated women from men, and we listened to the heartrending farewells being shouted to wives and daughters, husbands and sons. Then they beat us—prodding us like cattle—to load us onto the cars, jamming about a hundred of us into each car so that there was room only to stand, body to body. This of course was by design. Two SS men with submachine guns were stationed at the door to each of the cars, the guns pointed at those of us within—just to drive the point home that we were not people but mindless animals, and very likely on our way to the slaughterhouse. 86

Then we waited. Unable to move, we were barely able to speak. There wasn’t anything to say in any event. We had all come from the same circumstances. We all knew that nothing good awaited us. Yet in a sense, I felt lucky. I was here with my brothers and my friend Hesiek, while so many of the men crushed in with us had nobody, had just seen their wives or sisters or daughters for the last time—and knew it. At sunset, a service locomotive was coupled to the cars, and the train was pulled onto a freight siding. All that evening, more cars loaded with Jews—from the Kara and Hortensia glassworking factory and from other labor camps as well—were coupled to ours. Sometime in the middle of the night, we finally began to roll. It was a rickety ride—and not a very long one. We were halted, and we sensed several cars being uncoupled from the train. Which cars they were and where they might be going we had no idea. At dawn, we found out that it was the cars containing the women that had been removed; no one could bear to think about where they were headed. Our shortened train resumed its journey, then stopped again. Through the narrow slats of the cattle car, someone noted that we were in the station at Czestochowa. It meant we had gone south from Piotrkow. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had lived in Czestochowa but had died some years before. I was glad to think that she had not lived to be imprisoned in the ghetto, or to be deported to a death camp as she surely would have been, or to see her grandsons standing like caged animals behind the closed doors of the cars. Worse than caged animals. Animals are given room to breathe; we had none. And animals do not know their fate, while we were far too aware of ours. We stood that way for hours, until several high-ranking SS officers appeared on the scene and began issuing orders. More cars were uncoupled and scattered in different directions. I 87

ceased to wonder what would happen with our car. As long as I was with my brothers, one camp was likely to be much like another—and if we were to die, we would die together. Where one goes, we all go, in Isydor’s words. We left Czestochowa, and we traveled throughout the night—north or south, east or west, we had no idea. We had now been upright and packed together for nearly twenty-four hours— without food, without water, with only the sliver of fresh air that could make its way through the narrow slats of the cattle car. The rickety train was slow going, and sleeping standing up was well nigh impossible. We had all soiled ourselves and one another and the car itself, and the stench of human waste was overpowering—almost more than one could bear. Almost. To bear it was to survive. And for me, to survive was to win, to beat the Nazis, and to keep the memory of my parents alive. Although tall for my age, I was still a child, and packed in as I was with adult men, I grew desperate for air and began to strain my head upward as best I could, but it was little use. My brother Abraham helped me. Somehow, he lifted and I pushed myself upward till I managed to reach a one-foot by two-foot barred window near the roof of the car. I gulped in the air, whose sweetness also made it easier to cope with the stench. I stayed there as long as I could. Daylight came, and the train ground slowly to a stop. Suddenly, the door was flung open. “’Raus! Alle ‘raus! Schnell!” the SS men shouted, “Get out! Everybody out! Move!” One by one, we jumped or fell out of the cattle car, our muscles weakened from the ordeal of standing. Some men simply dropped onto the floor of the car. They had died standing, and there had been no room for them to fall.


Up and down the track, the SS selected two people from each car to bury those who had died. The rest of us were ordered to remove the excrement from the cars. This we were required to do with our bare hands, carrying the feces to the nearby field. It was about noon when we finished cleaning the cars and were ordered to re-board. This time, the SS threw into each car three two-pound loaves of bread and a bucket of drinking water. Then they shut the doors and locked us in again. Somehow, we managed to help one another and pass drinking water to each man in the car. My brothers still had some food from the Bugaj camp, and they now hoarded a portion of the bread from these fresh loaves. It was food they guarded with their lives, for we didn’t know—could not know—what tomorrow would bring. We waited. Then, again at sundown, our train started to move again. This time I was standing on the far side of the car near the window. I could not see outside—the window was too high—but I was at least able to get some fresh air. Even with all the bodies, it was very cold. I could see snow falling, and the thought occurred to me that if one were outside and free, the view of snow covering the countryside would have made a pretty picture. The view inside the cattle car was very different. I saw some people praying, some crying, others simply in shock. I leaned against the wall and somehow fell asleep, waking periodically to the sound and smells of the others around me—till another sudden, lurching stop woke me out of a deep sleep. I could see daylight out the tiny window. The daylight grew brighter as the train stood there, hour upon hour. Again I grew desperate for fresh air, and again Abraham lifted me so that I could see out. “Where are we?” he asked. “Nowhere as far as I can tell,” I told him. “I see snow, a house far away, and another railroad track.” I gulped in air for the few minutes Abraham could hold me. 89

“What is going to happen next?” I asked Isydor. Isydor paused before answering, but I knew what his answer would be. “I don’t know,” he said. More hours went by. When he could, Abraham lifted me up for more air. Through the window, I could see the SS men sitting on overturned cartons, eating, talking, and laughing as people do, while we were packed in this cattle car, with no air and with nothing to eat or drink. I began to pray. “Dear God,” I mumbled, “please make the Germans open the doors. Please end our suffering. Take care of my mother and father. You have accomplished so many miracles for us; do a small miracle now. We are your children, God. Why don’t you save us?” Again at sunset, the train chugged into action. Night fell and I could remain standing no longer: I had been upright for thirty-six hours. As best I could, I sat down to stretch my legs between the legs of the other men. I turned my face to the ceiling and imagined myself outside and free. Exhausted and hungry, accustomed to the stench, I fell asleep. Loud noises awakened me. People were screaming at us. I opened my eyes to see that the doors were open. The harsh shouts of SS men ordered us out of the car. “Throw the dead bodies out!” they commanded. “Those who are well must help the sick!” We did all that. We laid the dead on the ground. We helped those unable to climb down by themselves; the SS ordered all the sick to one side. “Stand and watch!” they then commanded us. And we did—while they aimed their submachine guns at the sick men and shot them all. Four men were given shovels to dig a grave and bury the dead. Others of us were ordered to clean the human excrement from the cars, again only with our hands. By the middle of the day, I was filthy to an extent that made me sick to my stomach. But I kept remembering those 90

sick men who had been shot, and I kept wondering how people could shoot at other people so casually, how you could aim a gun at another human and pull the trigger. Back into the cattle car, which now seemed half empty. We had started with perhaps a hundred men; in just two days, our number had been reduced to seventy. I was able to sit in a corner, and as the train began to roll, taking us we knew not where, I began to cry. My brother Abraham saw my tears and tried to comfort me. But there was no comfort. “Will we live to see tomorrow?” I asked him. He couldn’t answer me. An hour later, the train stopped, the doors opened, and the SS threw us two loaves of bread and a bucket of water, then quickly slammed shut the doors. The last time, it had been three loaves of bread; now, as our numbers diminished, it was two—the sole source of food for ravenous men who had not eaten in who knows how long. Days and nights were already beginning to lose all meaning in the cattle car, and now, having been caged like animals, we began to act like animals, each man trying to grab the bread for himself. Somehow, sanity prevailed—some sense of our being human—and it was agreed that my brother Abraham would be in charge of distributing the bread, and that each of us would scoop a handful of water from the bucket ourselves. Night fell. The train moved. Thus was established the pattern of our days aboard the cattle car. We would travel mostly at night, as if the Nazis did not want the world to know the cargo they were carrying. Daytime announced itself through the two tiny windows, which also let in the frequent snow and the cold winds in that brutal winter. Each day, there were fewer of us, and those who lived grew more and more emaciated, so our bodies radiated little heat. I shivered more and more, but my brother Abraham would cover me with his jacket till I was warm enough to fall asleep. 91

Daytime too was when the SS flung open the doors, trained their guns on us, and ordered us out of the cattle car—“’Raus! ‘Raus! Alle raus!” We would remove the dead and help the sick to descend from the train, although they and we knew that we were helping them to their deaths. We would dig the graves for them, often through snow and frozen earth, and always, we were forced to stand in the cold to witness the shooting as the sick men stood or lay on the ground, helpless, brutally murdered for the crime of having been born Jewish. Then we would place the bodies into the grave and cover them with earth. Always, I stood and silently recited the mourner’s kaddish, our prayer for the dead, and cursed the Nazis: “Murderers, savages, you will burn in hell one day!” Sometimes I wondered if perhaps the dead were not better off: their suffering was over; ours, in these wretched and inhumane conditions, went on. As was the established routine, each stop of the train and each new set of bodies meant also that we had to clean the car. I would stand inside the car and hand human excrement to others outside the car. I did not look at what I was doing nor to whom I was handing the waste. All I looked at was the white snow streaked with the red blood of those just killed. One day, after we finished cleaning, I jumped off the car to wash my dirty hands in the snow. An SS officer spotted me. Without saying a word, he hit me on the back with the butt of his rifle. I fell forward into the snow, and he hit me again. “Let him go,” another SS man said to him, “he will be dead soon anyway.” My brothers had to help me up into the cattle car. Isydor packed snow on my bare back to stanch the wound. “Oh God,” I prayed, “where are you? why do you let your children suffer? God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, look what is happening to your children!” I dragged myself to the far corner of the car. That day, the SS left the doors open but patrolled next to the train 92

with rifles on their shoulders. It made me almost glad, for I was able to look out to the broad fields blanketed in white. As I sat quietly, enduring the pain in my back that nobody could ease, I dreamed that I was running, throwing snowballs at other kids. I knew that my bruises—those on my back and those within me—would have to heal by themselves. Typically, just before darkness fell, the ever smaller portion of bread and water would be roughly thrown into the cattle car. Then the doors would slam shut, the darkness would become total, and the train would start to move again. My brothers and I would eat our piece of bread and drink our cup of water. We did not get this bounteous meal every day—not even every other day—and all of us had grown noticeably thinner and weaker. Our stomachs had shrunk, as if our bodies had gotten used to the idea of not eating. Yet when the Germans did give us food, both stomach and mind knew that it was not nearly enough. I remember lying on the floor, begging God that if I was going to die, let it please be with a full stomach. More than once, my brothers shared two pieces of bread and saved the third given to them—always the largest piece—for me. “Why?” I asked, tears in my eyes. “Because you are still growing,” Isydor or Abraham or Samek would tell me. “You need it more.” “I am okay,” I would insist. “I don’t want you to give up your food for me!” But each time, my brothers insisted. I embraced them in gratitude, and I ate each morsel very slowly to make it last as long as possible and because I wanted to savor the gift of such love. Some of the men in our cattle car remained deeply observant throughout the journey; they stood and prayed each evening. But for the most part, night was a quiet time. As there were fewer and fewer of us with each passing day, there was now plenty of room. We reserved one corner of the car as a latrine and garbage dump, and there was still sufficient space for everyone to sit or lie down. 93

One day during a stop, after the sick had been murdered and all the dead had been buried and after we had cleaned the car, we were ordered to walk around in a circle for exercise. I remember that the air was very crisp and clean, and I pulled it into my lungs the way a child in a candy store might grab for sweets. We walked for about an hour, then were ordered back into the car, although the doors remained opened. Outside stood two SS men, warm in their coats and smiling with the pleasure of being warm. We faced each other—thirty emaciated, shivering, filthy, powerless Jews and two well-fed, well-clothed, well cared for Germans with the power to kill any one of the Jews at any moment for no reason at all. Their belt buckles glinted in the sun. The famous slogan embossed on the buckles, Gott mit uns, sparkled. Although it seemed to me that the Nazis must have lost any relationship with God, there they were—free, warm, and happy. And here were we—captive, miserable, and almost faint with starvation. Was it possible that God was with them? Why were we still alive? We couldn’t help but wonder about it. Isydor believed that if the SS had wanted us dead, they would have killed us already. Still, we were growing weaker by the day. What did it mean for those who survived the deprivations and degradations? Were we being saved for some awful purpose that would only become clear when we arrived at our destination? What was our destination, and would we ever arrive—or were we doomed to ride this cattle car till, one by one, we succumbed? There were no clues. But there were rumors. Always, there were rumors. How they flew from car to car of this train I do not know, but fly they did; they relieved the routine, even if they very rarely carried good news. Just once, they did. We had been in the cattle car a week or more when our train as usual was pulled over onto a sidetrack. and the doors were flung open. But before we could be ordered out of the cars, we heard shooting in the distance, and the SS quickly closed the doors. 94

We waited. And then the rumors came. It was said that our train had stopped just outside Warsaw. We had heard months before that there had been a ghetto uprising in Warsaw, and that it had failed. But now rumor had it that there were still Jewish partisans roaming around in the woods, and that the SS had closed the doors so we would not run away and join them. It was ludicrous in a way, as most of us were too weak to run anywhere. But it is also likely that some of us would have tried—had not the doors been slammed on us. Before the sun had set, the train had moved on, and we were headed west, away from Warsaw. What else did we do on this journey? We slept. And for me, more and more, sleep was the gateway to dreams. I dreamed that it was a bright summer day and that all of us—my father and mother, all my brothers, my sister Eva, and I—were in the rented house in the countryside in Pradocin outside Bydgoszcz. The grass was green and the flowers were in full bloom. In the distance, horses and cows were grazing. My father and I were sitting and talking on the porch while my mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner. A Polish farmer came by with his little girl, and my father asked them to sit down and visit with us. My mother brought out a pitcher of lemonade. The farmer’s little daughter and I played hide and seek on the grass in front of the porch. Suddenly, a black cloud appeared in the sky, and it started to rain. It rained so hard and it grew so dark that I could not see my hand in front of my face. I called out to my mother, but she didn’t answer. Again I tried: “Mamusia! Mamusia!” This time I heard her voice, very faintly. “Herman, Herman, where are you?” I ran towards the place the voice was coming from, but as I ran through the rain and darkness, my mother’s voice grew fainter, until I could not hear her any more. I sat down on the wet grass in


the middle of the field and cried, “Mamusia, where are you? I am lost!” I felt that I was soaked through, and then… My brother Samek woke me. I had been crying out in my sleep, he said, yelling for our mother. Samek turned over and went back to sleep, and I realized that I really was wet. The terror of feeling lost—the fear of not being able to find my mother—had made me lose control: I had urinated into my pants. Of course, I had no other clothing, so I just lay back and tried to sleep again. I looked up at the window. It was still dark outside. The train was moving slowly. I could not fall asleep again, so instead, I closed my eyes and relived the happy part of the dream— before the storm and my fear. I missed my parents! Although my brothers were always beside me, and although I knew they would always try to protect me, we were all motherless children— parentless children facing a future in which each of us would have to look out for himself as much as we looked out for one another. Other nights, I dreamed of Rachel. We were walking hand in hand on the banks of the Bugaj. We laughed, the sun was shining bright, and I gazed into her eyes as bright as the stars in a moonless sky. I couldn’t look at her hard enough, couldn’t get enough of her beauty. I spread a blanket on the grass, and we sat down. Rachel had brought a basket of food. We ate chicken, bread, and cheese, and we drank a bottle of champagne. I gathered my courage, took her hand, and pulled her towards me. We kissed, and I heard celestial music. I wanted desperately to make love to her. Rachel took her handkerchief and gently wiped the tears from my face. I kissed her hand. The lurch of the train pulling to a stop didn’t just wake me from a dream; I had been a long way away, and it brought me back with a shock. The dream had been so real. I had never 96

kissed a girl or drunk champagne, yet I tasted both in my dream. Now I looked around and saw the truth of my life—the cattle car, the train, the sunken faces of my brothers. “Dear God,” I said, “why did you wake me from my beautiful dream?” And sometimes, when I couldn’t dream, I lay awake and remembered. I thought about my parents and tried to bring their faces into focus. I wondered about my sister Eva. We knew that Germany had invaded and occupied France. Had Eva survived? Had she been deported to a camp as we had been? I worried and wondered and couldn’t sleep. Yet at such moments, my resolve to live stiffened. I told myself that I must survive the war, and that I mustn’t give in to the pain, the suffering, the gnawing hunger. It is said that all of Judaism is based on the premise that you must always choose life. That is what I was determined to do—choose life, survive, and thereby triumph. Somewhere in the second week of our journey, it became clear that we were moving faster. There were fewer stops, and they were shorter. The day came when we could see out the train that the railroad signs were in German, and we realized we had crossed into Germany. Now the pace of the ride increased again; although we still moved only at night, we seemed to be traveling as if we were in a hurry to reach our destination. As the train rolled on the track, I listened to the clippity-clop of the wheels. The rhythmic sound reminded me of the beautiful music I had heard with my parents at the opera. I closed my eyes and pretended I was there, high up in the theater, with my parents on either side of me, my eyes filled with the lavish spectacle, my ears and my whole body filled with the music, seized by the beauty that human genius can create. The next morning, the train arrived slowly in the station in Weimar. I saw the town name through the little window, our portal onto the world outside. It wasn’t till nightfall that the doors 97

were finally opened, and we were ordered to get out of the cars. It seemed strange that we should be taken out of the train at night—it had never happened before—and I felt certain they were going to shoot us. “Mamusia,” I said silently, “I am coming to you.” The SS ordered us to line up four abreast, arm in arm. We started to march. Soldiers patrolled both sides of our pathetic column, submachine guns hanging from their shoulders. We walked some two miles. Not everyone made it. Some fell to the ground from weakness. If the SS weren’t looking, we’d pick those men up and carry them with us. If the SS saw a man fall, he was immediately shot. We came to a large iron gate. On top of the gate was written “Buchenwald.” Below, another sign read, “Jedem das Seine.” It meant: “To each his own,” or, as we would come to learn, “Everybody gets what he deserves.” The gate opened, and we went inside.


Chapter 9 Buchenwald. Auschwitz. Bergen-Belsen. Majdanek. The very names speak of a defining low point in human history. “Where was God in those places?” someone once asked. And the answer came: “Where was man?” When I walked through the gates of Buchenwald, I was fourteen years old, and I had already known profound loss and terrible suffering. In my life since Buchenwald, I have had my share of sorrows and calamities. But nothing before or since has ever been as bad as what I witnessed in Buchenwald. For there I saw—and was made to be a part of—the most savage inhumanity we humans are capable of. The things I saw in Buchenwald, the screams I heard, the very smells would stay with me for years afterwards. They would return to haunt me in my sleep, or to wake me in the night, or to surprise me at any time in any place completely unexpectedly. I survived Buchenwald, but it is still inside me; it will never entirely go away. In the ghettos of Wolborz and Piotrkow, we had become slaves. On the cattle car, we had been treated like dirt. In Buchenwald, we were nothing at all. We were numbers. We had no identity; nothing about us was recognizable as people anymore. Perhaps that was why in Buchenwald I began to have those dreams, which remain with me to this day, in which my mother appears, vividly, as a watchful, protective presence. It was in Buchenwald, at the very bottom of the abyss of human degradation, that my mother’s love descended on me like a cleansing rain, and that she spoke to me so clearly, promising me that I would live, that she would send an angel to save me and care for me, and that she would watch over me always. And so she has. 99

But when we first arrived at Buchenwald, it seemed that nothing could save us; it seemed that even God had turned His face away. The SS were still aiming their submachine guns at us as we walked through the two large iron gates. On one side of the path was a garden. Beyond were trees. Their snow-covered branches were an exceptionally beautiful sight to my eyes, which had grown weary from all the horror they had witnessed. On the other side of the path, I could see flowers blooming in a glassenclosed hothouse. The lights were on in the hothouse, as if someone were in there, working. I peered inside as we walked by and noticed that water had condensed on the windowpane. I marveled at the wavy, translucent effect this produced, making the flowers of all colors—red, blue, pink, even purple—sparkle like jewels. It was the first time in a long time that I had really looked at the beauty of nature, and it soothed the horror I was anticipating. We came to a second set of iron gates flanked by two wooden towers. A sentry stood guard on each, and from each, spotlights shone down on us. We marched through into the main complex and filed into the assembly place—the Appellplatz—where we were ordered to stop and fall into columns so the guards could count us. It was about six o’clock in the evening, but already it was dark and very cold, and the only light was from the searchlights on the towers. They counted four hundred of us. We had been nearly a thousand when we left Piotrkow. The journey in the cattle car had therefore claimed more than five hundred lives. Now they marched the first twenty people in line into a nearby building, the tower searchlights following them as they walked. The building was stucco, just one story high, with a small front door. Behind it a short distance away, I could see another building with three very high chimneys. I assumed the chimneys were part of the camp’s heating complex. I was wrong, of course. The


chimneys belonged to a crematorium. For those sent to the crematorium, the chimneys were the only exit. It was cold standing there in the Appellplatz. While our guards had warm coats and gloves, we wore only thin garments. There was snow on the ground, and the wind blew up into our faces. After about an hour, another group of twenty was marched into the building, and it began to snow again. The snow came fast, the storm intensifying as the night grew longer and the weather colder. We continued to stand there, lined up in our columns, waiting. Finally it was my turn. Isydor, Hesiek, and I were grouped together and were marched toward the building—with SS machine guns trained on us lest we run for it. We entered a large room with dim lights. I remember the room well. The walls were of ceramic tile from ceiling to floor and were lined with benches all around. On the far side of the room was another door, guarded by two SS men. Two more SS stood in the middle of the room on either side of an examination table. And two men wearing white coats stood beside the table. We were ordered to undress and to put our clothing on an already existing pile of clothes. The question hung in the air: What had happened to the men whose clothes were piled there before us? We undressed. One by one we were ordered to lie down on the table. The men in the white coats then proceeded to examine us to see if we were hiding anything on or in our bodies. Then each of us was led through the door into another room to wait. This room had many doors. It was unheated and very cold. About twenty-five of us stood there completely naked, waiting. Then one of the doors was opened, and we were ordered in. I remember this room vividly too. It was about ten by ten feet. The walls and floor were tiled. I looked up to the ceiling. Six showerheads protruded from it. We had heard about gas 101

chambers disguised as shower rooms, and I believed that is surely what this was. We were, after all, locked in. Our bodies had been probed for valuables. Our clothing had been taken from us. We had nothing left. I sank down into a corner of the room. Some of the other men were weeping. Others were laughing hysterically, shouting that we are all going to die. Some were praying, asking God to take their lives because they could not bear the torture any longer. Some just stood there, waiting. An hour passed, and we were still alive. My brother Isydor came and sat beside me. “Are you all right, Herman?” he asked me. I nodded. “Are we going to die, Isydor?” My brother smiled. “No, no, we are not going to die. If they had wanted us dead, they would have killed us already.” I wanted to believe him, yet I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. I thought it would be just a matter of time, thought that the SS were just waiting until all the rooms behind all those other doors were full so they could release the gas just once and kill us all at the same time. But I said nothing. I suddenly felt exhaustion. If I am going to die, I thought to myself, then let me die in my sleep. And with that, I nodded off. I dreamed. And in my dream my mother came to me and told me that everything would be all right. She held her arms out to me. “Come here,” she called, “let me give you a hug!” My father was there too, and he spoke to me. “You must look after your brothers, Herman,” he told me, “because you are the youngest and the strongest.” Now we were at a large celebration; my whole family was there, including my sister Eva with her husband. The table was set with a meal fit for a king; my mother had outdone herself cooking, and all our favorite dishes were there.


There was a little baby there, too, not even a year old. Eva explained that this was her daughter, my niece. “I still love you, too, Herman,” Eva said to me. Then my father was reciting the blessings over the bread and wine, and everybody began to eat—except me. “Why aren’t you eating?” Eva asked me. “I’m not hungry.” “Are you afraid I will leave you again?” “Yes, and I don’t want you to.” “I can’t lie to you,” Eva said. “I will have to go back to my home.” “But this is your home,” I argued. Eva shook her head. “My home now is with my husband and my baby.” I could not understand how everyone could be so happy if Eva was going to leave us again. And suddenly, as we all sat there, as I stared at my little niece, my father collapsed. Isydor tried to revive him while Abraham called for a doctor. I ran to my father’s side, weeping. But an SS man appeared, looming over our celebration, to announce in a booming voice that we were all going to die. I woke up in a sweat. An SS man was there, standing over me, barking at us to leave the shower room. I am alive! I thought as I stood up. Tatus and Isydor were right, and I am still alive. “Stand up! Line up! Move!” One by one, we were ordered through yet another door into yet another room. SS guards stood at the ready, but this time, the man in the white coat was presumably a doctor. When my turn came, he examined my measles scars and listened to my


heart, then pointed me to the line on the right. Those who went to the right went to work. Who knew what awaited those who were selected for line on the left? This was my terrifying entry into Buchenwald—this succession of cold rooms, the certainty I would die, the deadly selection that I, my brothers, my cousins, and Hesiek survived. We were each given a blue and white striped uniform that seemed to be made of paper, not cloth. Each uniform had a yellow Star of David on it, and each was stamped with a number; mine was 94983. We were given shoes and were ordered outside. My brother Samek was there. “Look,” I said, “I’m not Herman Rosenblat. I’m 94983.” Samek looked down at his own uniform and was silent. To all of us, the numbers told us that our former identities were part of a dim and distant past. We knew that the Germans could take our lives at any moment, and now we saw it meant they could also take away who we were. The ever-present weight of mortality changes you forever; you’re not you anymore, you’re a number. We were marched through barbed-wire gates to the barracks in which we would be housed. There were four shelves on each side of the barrack, a stove, three tables with a single light bulb hung from a wire over each, and in the rear, two outhouses. The shelves were our bunks, eight men to a bed. My brother found some wood, and we made a fire to keep warm. I sat down next to the stove. Two guards and two inmates brought us bread and soup. Dividing two two-pound loaves of bread among fifty hungry men was a difficult chore, but we tried our best for an equal distribution. After we had finished eating, everybody rushed to get the top bunk. I learned why that first night in Buchenwald. We were so cramped in our bunks that if you went to the


outhouse at night, you could never get back in. Instead, the men urinated in bed, and the urine trickled through the bunk onto the person below. That’s why the top bunk was so desirable. We slept close—my brothers, my cousins, Hesiek, and I. In the early hours of the morning, we were awakened with a shout and were ordered outside to the Appellplatz. There was fresh snow on the ground, and a freezing rain was falling. They counted us again, then lined us up for another selection. This time we were ushered into a room that had two doors on the far wall—one to the left, one to the right, each guarded by two SS men. In the middle of the room was a table behind which sat two uniformed SS officers. Their visored caps were perched on the table. I was first among my brothers to approach the table. Herman goes first, and we all follow, Isydor had always said. Where one goes, we all go. Abraham whispered to me to be brave, to answer all their questions, and to say I was sixteen years old. I stood as tall and erect as I could. “Name?” “Herman Rosenblat.” “He is number 94983,” one of the SS officers said. “How old are you?” the other asked. “Sixteen.” I said it loud, boldly. “Over there,” the officer said, motioning me to the door on the right. Quickly after me, as I barely dared to breathe, my brothers, my cousins, and Hesiek also came through that door. Later, we learned that those who gone through the door on the left hand door had become guinea pigs in medical experiments. I never saw any of them again.


We were taken outside. It was still dark and very cold. The searchlights from the towers were focused on us as we were divided into groups. Thankfully, my brothers and I were all placed in the same group, and two SS men led us to our place of work. A tall SS officer with broad shoulders and closely cropped hair was waiting for us. He held a whip in his hand. He did not speak. Rather, he screamed—a harsh, grating scream that told us this was a stone quarry and our job was to load stones into a wagon, cart them through a tunnel, and bring them to the surface. He divided us into groups. There were five of us in my group. We would go down into a mine at the bottom of the quarry, load the wagon with stones, push it through a tunnel, then up the side of the quarry to the surface. Over and over and over again. Every time I went down into the quarry, the dust from the stones made me choke and cough, and I couldn’t wait to emerge from underground and again breathe fresh air. If we did not work fast enough, the SS officer whipped us. Guard dogs barked at us all day; it was as if they were saying to us, “Work, you dogs! Work!” We understood that the whip, the dogs, the brutal tedium of the work itself were all aimed at keeping us from thinking, wearing us down until we, like the Nazis, would not recognize our own humanity. “Achtung! Achtung!” That night, two SS men came into the barracks as we were climbing wearily into our bunks. “We need six volunteers to be kapos. Kapos will get extra food,” they said. Six prisoners immediately volunteered. The kapos were trusties; they carried out the will of the Nazis running the camp, and they received extra food and often other privileges as well. We saw the Jewish kapos as complicit; they patrolled and inspected the barracks, and they saw to it that we worked hard at the quarry. They were also victims. Yes, the extra food they got made them better able to survive, but failure 106

to carry out their orders would have meant instant death. Still, some of them were often as brutal as the Nazis, and I feared their power almost as much as I feared the SS. We worked—day after day, seven days a week. The conditions were miserable, the work hard, the tedium relentless. After a time, I ceased to care what happened to me. I had given up all hope of survival. I was cold, hungry, and tired. My body was all skin and bones without an ounce of fat. I had been beaten by the SS man’s whip and shouted at by the Jewish kapo. Life, if you could call it that, had become a brutish thing. Yet there were sometimes moments that renewed my interest in living, if only briefly and temporarily. Buchenwald was huge—a sprawling complex of barracks and barbed wire, with inmates from every part of conquered Europe wearing different uniforms marked with different insignia and speaking a host of languages. There was one uniform that particularly intrigued me. It belonged to a group of Danish policemen, and one day after our work, I saw one of these Danes as I was walking outside. I asked him why they were prisoners in Buchenwald, and he told me that when the Germans came to Denmark, the Danish police refused to take orders from the Nazis, especially when it came to protecting certain enterprises from espionage by the Danish resistance. As a result, nearly two thousand Danish policemen were arrested and sent to Buchenwald. He told me something else. He said that when the Germans ordered the Danish Jews to wear yellow armbands with the Star of David, the Danish king proclaimed that since one Danish citizen was like any other, all Danes would wear the armband—starting with the king himself. I was amazed at this act of bravery, this statement of humanity and fellow feeling. Many years later, I learned that this legendary story about the Danish king is not true. He never wore an armband; in fact, the Germans never ordered Denmark’s Jews to wear yellow 107

armbands. The reason is that the Danes had made it clear from very early on that they would not acquiesce in the round-up and deportation of Danish Jews. The current Queen of Denmark, Margarethe II, has been quoted as saying that she thinks it even more of an honor that people so readily believe this myth than that it never really happened. It means that people everywhere understood implicitly that the Danish people, led by their monarch, were in solidarity with their Jewish fellow citizens, and indeed, almost all of Denmark’s Jews escaped Nazi persecution and survived the War. All I understood at the time, however, was that there actually were people somewhere in the wider world who were saying no to Hitler and no to the extermination of the Jews. To see the Danish policemen suffering with us in Buchenwald because they had defied Nazism was a revelation. I could not quite get my mind around it, but I recognized it as something hopeful. There were other hopeful signs. Every night, bombs fell on areas very near to the camp. We could see the explosions as these bombs landed, and we also heard more bombing farther away. We did not know what the targets were, but we knew the planes must be bombers of the Allied Forces because we thought no German airplane would ever bomb German territory. Was it possible—was there really a chance—that this war might end? By day, it was impossible to believe there could be any end to our suffering or any salvation to come. Toiling in the dust of the quarry, mindlessly putting stones in the wagon, then taking them out, putting in more, hour after hour left no time or space for hope. One day, as I was digging beside the tunnel at the bottom of the quarry, one of the kapos guarding us announced that one of the inmates had just fallen over dead. “Bury him,” said the kapo. I asked where, and he pointed to a spot in the tunnel. “Right here,” he said.


I hoisted my pickax, and two other inmates picked up their shovels, and we began to dig a grave. After we had dug down a bit, I saw a tiny spot of light coming through an opening the size of a pinhole at the bottom of the grave. I aimed my pick there, struck, and enlarged the hole. “Look, there’s a light there,” I said to one of the other inmates. The kapo heard me, saw what I had done, and ordered us to cover the hole at once. “Take the corpse to the crematorium instead!” he barked. But that night, the kapo and an SS man marched into our barracks and ordered me to come with them. Isydor was there in an instant. “Where are you taking him?” he asked the SS officer. “Why is he being taken?” The officer shoved my brother away, and I followed him and the kapo out of the barracks, into the main camp, across the Appellplatz, into an administration building filled with SS, and then into a small room. I told myself that I was not afraid to die, and I remember wondering briefly if the kapo was going to die here as well. “What did you see in the tunnel?” the SS officer demanded. “Nothing.” I shook my head. Clearly, the kapo had incriminated me, perhaps trying to get more food or extra privileges by telling the SS that I had seen a light. But what was the light? What went on underground? The officer took a whip off the table and beat me with it. “What did you see?” he demanded again. Again I answered, “Nothing.” The questioning and the beating went on for a while, and then suddenly, they let me go. The kapo escorted me back to the barracks, where my brother Abraham, seconded by our elected barracks leader, reminded me to be careful what I say if any kapos were within earshot. “They are not to be trusted,” Abraham said. 109

Later I would learn that there were several armaments factories at Buchenwald, some of them underground. The light must have come from one such factory, and in uncovering it, I had perhaps learned something I was not supposed to know. Whatever the twisted logic of Nazi thinking, it resulted in my number being called out the next morning in the Appellplatz. “94983! Over here!” I joined a group of inmates I did not know, and they marched us toward the building everyone dreaded even to think about. The crematorium at Buchenwald sat atop a slope inside the perimeter of the camp, where all of us could see it. We were halted just outside it. An SS officer ordered the kapos to divide us into groups, and I thought to myself that this was the end. “We are all going to die,” I said to the inmate next to me. “I don’t want to die!” “You would be better off dead than living as we are living now,” he said. I looked at the men around me. Scarecrows, all of them, with cadaverous bodies and gaunt, sunken-eyed faces. I saw the suffering and fear on those faces. I felt my own suffering and fear and thought at that moment that maybe I would be better off dead. If it truly meant that I could be with my mother and father again, it would be a blessing to die. And thinking that, I suddenly wanted to go into the building to my death. I recited the kaddish for myself and felt at peace with the idea of my death; I only wondered what would happen to my brothers. Then it was the turn of my group. There was an outside staircase on the front of the building; they took us down the staircase to a basement. The walls of the basement were lined with meat hooks just beneath the ceiling. There were piles of clothing neatly stacked in the corner. I waited for the order to undress, knowing I would die as naked as I had been born.


Instead, some twenty inmates were brought into the room. Each was ordered to climb a step-stool under the hooks. The SS guards looped ropes around the inmates’ necks, tied the ropes to the hooks, then kicked away the stools. It was not the quickest way to die. The loss of consciousness often took several minutes, and even then, the bodies kept twitching. But for the Nazis, this was a cost-efficient method of killing; it didn’t really cost anything—not even a bullet—and the hanging rope could be re-used again and again. My group’s job was to take the corpses off the meat hooks and load them onto the handdrawn elevator that would lift them upstairs to the ovens. I was fourteen years old, but I was not unacquainted with death. I had seen death in the ghetto, death on the cattle car, death in the Buchenwald quarry. Yet witnessing these meat hook hangings in the basement of the crematorium of Buchenwald made me literally sick, and it was all I could do to keep my stomach from heaving up the bitter bile I tasted. All day, we worked at this task. We watched as inmates were brought in, knowing they would die. Some wept, some shrieked in terror, some called for their mothers or whispered the names of loved ones or prayed, while others just walked like automata to their deaths. We watched as the stools were kicked away, the necks broken or the carotid arteries compressed as strangulation began, the often surprised look on the faces of the dying as the brain swelled with excruciating pain—till the heart stopped. Then we cut down the still-warm bodies and loaded them onto the elevator. All day, we inhaled the foul smell of burning flesh. When the kapos brought us back to the barracks that night, I could not get the smell out of my nostrils. It clung to my clothing. And the vision of what I had witnessed all day would not 111

leave my brain. So when my brothers asked me where I had worked that day, the tears began to flow. But I told them only that I had seen many dead bodies; I did not explain the manner in which the people had died. I did not want my brothers to feel sorry for me; they had their own heavy burdens to bear, and I did not want to add to them. We were given bread and soup for supper, but I found it hard to swallow. I drank the soup, but the bread would not go down. I put it under my pillow to save it. I did not sleep that night; every time I closed my eyes I saw rows of innocent people being hanged. Before dying, many had screamed out the Sh’ma, the central prayer of Judaism that Jews on the point of death have always recited: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The shouted prayer was like a weapon—the only weapon the dying had—and it was as if by screaming it out, they proclaimed their defiance of Nazism with their last breath. I couldn’t get the sound of their praying out of my head anymore than I could get rid of the sight of their dying or the smell of their bodies. All I could do that night was pray to be sent back to work in the quarry. I had experienced enough horror in the crematorium to last a lifetime. Re-thinking it again in my bunk, my body finally rebelled; the soup I had barely swallowed came up my throat, and I vomited it out. My prayer was not answered. The next day, I was sent back to the crematorium, but this time, I was upstairs. My job was to load corpses onto a chute so they could be pushed down into the basement. Not everybody in Buchenwald died on a meat hook; many were gassed or shot, killed in medical experiments, or simply worked to death, and their bodies were conveyed to the basement to await being hoisted upstairs to the ovens. I had to wait till the ovens had been cleared of the ashes and remains. Only then could the elevator bring up more corpses, thus making room in the basement for the bodies I sent down the chute. 112

The next day, when I reported to work, I was told that I would be placing the dead bodies into the ovens. I did so, of course, but I could not look at the burning corpses. My work in the crematorium alternated among these jobs. Some days, I worked the ovens. Some days, I sent bodies down the chute. Mostly, I worked in the basement on the elevator, hand-cranking dead bodies upward. The cremation process was unable to keep up with the number of dead. I could never get used to it. I saw dead bodies in my sleep, and I could smell burning flesh even when I was in the barracks. One day while I was working in the basement, I noticed a partially open door. Since no one was around—no guards, no SS—I opened the door and looked in. What I saw then I will never forget as long as I live, nor could I believe it at the time. Two inmates were skinning a body. I could not help but cry out. “What are you doing?” I asked, stupefied by what I saw. The answer came in a dead, flat voice. “Skinning for the Bitch of Buchenwald,” the fellow said. That was Ilse Koch, the notoriously sadistic wife of the camp commandant, famous— infamous!—for wanting “souvenirs” made from the skin of murdered inmates, especially skin with a tattoo. She was said to be particularly interested in lampshades made out of tattooed human skin. For a moment, I could not speak. “How could anyone want such a thing?” I finally muttered. “Don’t worry about it,” the other inmate said. “You won’t have long to think about it. They will kill you, just as they have killed all the others before you. Just as they will kill me.” Later that day, I heard screams coming from the room. I knew that a man was being skinned alive.


I became sick and vomited, turning away so nobody would see me. If I had been seen, a guard might have thought I was really ill and might cart me off to the infirmary. No one ever survived a visit to the infirmary. The next day, the guards yanked me out of the basement, and I joined other inmates in a special room near the ovens. I had never known what was behind the door of this room, but I feared it was a holding room for the gas chamber, and I was certain this would be the end of my life. I was sorry I could not say good-bye to my brothers, but I was not afraid to die. An SS officer came into the room and inspected us. “What is your name?” he asked me. “Herman Rosenblat.” “How old are you?” “Sixteen,” I said, the lie now automatic. He looked at me for a second. Then he exclaimed: “You are German! You come with me.” I had a hard time keeping up with him, as my strength was at a low ebb. We walked through the iron gates of the camp and into one of the residential barracks for German officers. He opened a door and ordered me to clean his quarters. “When you finish cleaning the room, you will shine my boots,” he said. “Yes sir,” I answered in German, as he left me. I cleaned his room as slowly as I could—in no hurry to return to the crematorium. An hour passed. I looked at the clock on one of the dressers and noted that it was noon. Suddenly, the door opened, and a woman stepped in. She was good-looking, with dark brown hair, and she wore a pretty dress. It was a long time since I had seen a prettily dressed woman.


Old habits of courtesy kicked in, and I rose to my feet as she walked in, then explained in German that the SS officer was not here. She looked at me uncomprehendingly, then, in Polish, told me she didn’t understand German. I explained that I was cleaning the SS officer’s quarters, and that he would be back later. She pointed to the yellow Star of David on my jacket and told me that she also was Jewish. I was stunned. “What are you doing here?” I asked, wondering how a Jewish girl had ended up in Buchenwald. We thought that Buchenwald was a camp for men only—and did not know that some women inmates had been brought here around the same time we arrived. The young woman sat down on the officer’s bed as if she were at home. Again I asked what she was doing here. “Don’t you know?” she asked. “There are ten girls here, and we serve the Germans in this camp.” I didn’t answer her. I just kept cleaning. After a few minutes she said to me, “You don’t understand, do you?” “No, I don’t. How can a Jewish girl, as pretty as you are, serve the German soldiers?” “You are so naïve. We were selected as prostitutes, for the pleasure of German soldiers. Now do you understand?” But I didn’t. I had no idea what a prostitute was. The SS officer soon returned and ordered me to go back where I came from. Returning to the crematorium, however, was the last thing I had in mind. As I walked through the iron gate to the main camp, a guard stopped me at gunpoint and demanded I explain my presence. I told him I had been cleaning an officer’s quarters.


“You must return to the camp where you were working,” he said. “You can’t walk by yourself in the middle of the day. Where were you working?” “In the quarry.” “Wait here,” he ordered me. What would happen now? I wondered. Would he verify where I had been working? If he were to find out that I had been working in the crematorium, would he send me back there? Or would he find some other punishment for me? What will be, will be, I told myself. Before long, a kapo arrived to take me back to camp. “You’re very lucky,” the kapo said as we walked through the gate. “Why?” “Don’t you know? All the inmates who were working in the crematorium were murdered while you were cleaning up for your officer.” How did he know I had cleaned an officer’s quarters—and that I had been working in the crematorium? Would he inform the SS about me? I decided to pretend I didn’t know about the crematorium and quickly changed the subject. “What do all the different insignia mean?” I asked him as we walked through the Appellplatz. The kapo began to explain the various designations for prisoners—politicals, Gypsies, deserters, asocials. He liked to talk, and he soon seemed to have forgotten about how lucky I was. He dropped me at our barracks. I am alive, I said to myself as he left. I went to our top bunk and lay down, trying to make myself so small that I would be invisible. My brothers came into the barracks from work and fell on me tearfully. They too had heard that everybody working at the crematorium had been killed, and they assumed I was dead. Our reunion was joyful, but we remained wary; someone might still inform on me. 116

I knew I could not go back to work at the crematorium the next day, but where could I go? If I tried to go to the quarry, I would be spotted, since my number would not match the work roster. But my brothers decided that I would go with them to the quarry. Where one goes, all go—it would be better to be together. Sure enough, when we grouped up to go to the quarry, the SS realized there was one more person in the group than there were numbers on the list. Although puzzled at this glitch in their management information system, the decision was made to send us to work. When we arrived at the quarry, I was ordered to dig stones. This time, I did not look underneath them. Throughout that day, I expected to be recognized as not belonging in that detail, or worse, as belonging with the crematorium detail. But nothing happened. By nightfall, I had decided there was no use in worrying. I had no control over anything. I was feverish when I woke up in the morning—burning up. Isydor said that I had a high fever but that I must go to work as if nothing were wrong. I must tell no one that I had a fever. I went to work and felt increasingly ill all day. That night as we returned to the barracks, I could barely walk. I fell onto the bunk feeling half dead. Samek brought me my portion of bread, which I could not eat, and he washed me down with cold water. “Why do I have so much fever?” I asked. “I think you might have typhus,” Samek said. It made sense. We were all filthy, and there were lice everywhere. An infirmary visit was out of the question. “You will not come back from the infirmary,” Isydor said. “No one gets well there.” “I will just have to get better on my own,” I told my brothers. But I wondered if I would. I asked Isydor if a diagnosis of typhus meant I would die. “If the fever breaks in a few days,” he said, “you will live.” I remembered my father dying of typhus 117

in the ghetto—in better circumstances than the conditions I now faced. Was there any possibility I could live through this disease? That night I was burning up with fever. I finally slept, and I dreamed that my father came to me. “Do you want to come to me and leave your brothers?” he asked. “You left us alone, and you later took Mamusia with you,” I said reproachfully. But as tempting as it was to go with him, I still could not answer his question. Daybreak, and we went to work again. Isydor and Abraham were on either side of me, and Samek was behind me. I was surrounded by my brothers who then, as always, supported me in all ways. They worked next to me in the quarry, and if I was unable to complete a task because I was too weak, they did it for me. That night, when we came back from work, I told Isydor that I wanted to die. I could not go on any longer. “Take me to the infirmary,” I begged. “No,” he said. “As long as I am alive, you will be too.” The fever seemed to burn even more fiercely that night. In our cramped bunk, I could neither toss nor turn, so I just lay there, the sweat pouring off me. I felt as if my flesh was on fire, and the image of the crematorium hovered in my brain. Yet I suppose I slept again, for it was this night—this terrible night when I thought I would die—that my mother came to me in my dream. She held my hand, and she smiled at me. “I’m here, Herman,” she said. “I will always be here. It will be all right. You must live, and I will send an angel to care for you. . Now sleep.” I did. I slept deeply, as if my cares had been lifted, as if I were safe in my mother’s protective embrace. The fever broke that night. I woke up because I felt cooler, felt better. I woke Isydor as well; he felt my forehead and confirmed that the fever had broken. In the morning when I went 118

to work, everything seemed different. I felt as if I had returned from the dead, and although I was still weak, I knew my strength would return. I understood now that my mother was looking out for me. She looked out for us all. She was there when my brothers held me up as we walked to and from work, when they kept me at their side in the quarry. She was with us when they refused to let me out of their sight. She was there when my brothers gave me portions of their bread allotments so that I could become stronger. In time, as I did indeed grow stronger, I was able to depend less on my brothers and could eventually refuse their bread, but it was a blessing to realize that I had such caring brothers who would protect me, even at the risk of their own lives. We had no identity in Buchenwald. We were numbers, not people. But it was there that I learned my identity as a brother. Even today, as the sole surviving sibling, that is an identity I cherish. Weeks passed, and I grew stronger. Then one bitterly cold morning, instead of sending us to the quarry, the guards took us to the Appellplatz. A number of Danish policemen were already there, and we were arranged four rows deep behind them. The SS counted the Danish prisoners. We all waited. Hours passed. Finally, at around noon, the Danish policemen were marched through the main gate and out of Buchenwald. We continued to stand there. After a couple of more hours, they began to count us. We stood for another hour, and then we too started to move. Four abreast, we passed through the iron gates of Buchenwald, flanked by SS men aiming their automatic weapons at us. The road was narrow. On one side of it were buses, and beside the buses, the Danish policemen were eating cake, drinking, and laughing, while we were marching to who knew what destination. 119

The wind felt like ice, and the snow underfoot was slippery. We had to march fast. “Schnell!” the SS shouted at us. “Schnell!” Those who couldn’t walk fast enough were shot. I saw a father and son walking together. When the father fell down, an SS man shot him in front of his son. We came to Weimar station. The cattle cars were waiting.


Chapter 10 This time, I knew what to expect. When the SS began to pack us into the cars, I immediately headed for a corner of the car and sat down. I was out of the wind, and I hoped that once everyone was inside, even those scrawny bodies, all packed together, might produce some warmth. The guards closed the door, and the locks were slammed shut. It was so dark we could not see one another. It didn’t matter. I knew what lay ahead. I did not know our destination or our fate—none of us did—but I knew what awaited us on the journey: misery, filth, hunger, suffering, and every now and then, a Nazi atrocity. I think the mind tolerates what it is able to tolerate. Later, I would realize that this train trip covered no more than about 150 miles. Yet in my memory, it went on for several weeks. Only in a way, I wasn’t there. I was physically there, of course. I was physically there when the man next to me died. I was there when we stacked his body and the bodies of other dead men against the side of the cattle car. I was there when they threw a loaf of bread and a bucket of water into the car to feed those of us still alive, and I was there when the train stopped and we had to unload the sick, dig their graves, and stand watching as they were shot to death. I was physically there to scratch at my lice bites till I bled, and to clean out the human waste with my bare hands. I was there to be lifted up by Abraham to peer through the cracks and look out on fields of pure white snow, with nothing on the horizon. But mostly, I was somewhere else. I lived that cattle car journey in my mind—in memory, in dream, and in thought.


I thought about the things I had seen. I remembered the woman in the officer’s quarters I had cleaned in Buchenwald. I had asked Isydor what a prostitute was, and he had told me it was a woman who has sex with men for money—or in this case, to save her life. The prostitute I saw and talked to was well fed and properly clothed. She did her work, as I was doing mine. We both we did it because we had to. We did it to survive—but would we? I thought about the crematorium, the meat hooks hung with twitching bodies, lampshades made from human skin, the hated quarry where inmates worked and died, carrying stones— seemingly for no reason. I realized that I had already seen more horrible things in a few months than most people see in an entire lifetime—and I realized too that this would not be the end of it. I thought about the men who prayed, no matter what—some were praying now—and it seemed to me they had no idea to whom they were praying. Did God not hear the prayers? And if He did, why didn’t He stop all this suffering? Was it possible that God was powerless? I wondered about myself—if I were in danger because I was a witness to the murders in the hanging basement, a witness to the skinning of human corpses, a witness to the pinprick of light coming from some mysterious underground room? Would the Nazis discover that I wasn’t dead after all, come after me, find me, and silence me because of what I had seen? I marveled that I was alive at all. Outside, there was clean and gleaming snow—pure and white—while within were filth and vermin and disease. I marveled that more of us had not died from the lack of even the most basic hygiene. I thought how accustomed I had become to death. It no longer shocked me. I had seen many deaths, many murders; death and murder had become ordinary facts of my existence. As this train journey went on, I saw more—the sick murdered whenever the train stopped, men dying of starvation each day, their bodies piled one on top of the other in a corner of the cattle 122

car. The sight of those bodies made me sick to my stomach. Starvation, I concluded, was the cruelest death of all, and I couldn’t bear to look at the wasted bodies of those who had died of hunger. The train rumbled forward, stopped, started again. Sometimes we were fed, sometimes not. There were hours of waiting on sidings, waiting for other trains to pass, waiting for who knew what. Sometimes, the car door was left open, and light and fresh air blessed us with their cleansing power. Sometimes, the door remained closed and locked, and we were prisoners of the darkness and the foul stench that never became bearable. I retreated into dreams. I dreamed a lot of my sister, Eva. She was the one who was not with us, the one whose fate none of us knew or could guess, and she had been my special protector when we were a family. In my dreams, Eva took me by the arm and said, “Let’s go for a walk.” We walked through the woods in brilliant sunlight, and I told her that I loved her. Eva smiled and in reply urged me to “just be strong.” Then dark clouds appeared, and it began to rain. We ran for shelter but could find none. I was drenched from the rain and suddenly noticed that my sister had disappeared; I was alone in the woods in a violent storm. I tried looking for her, crying out her name: “Eva, Eva!” I would wake from this dream still calling for my sister and soaked with sweat. Around me, most of the men were asleep. I wanted to know what time it was, but we had long ago been stripped of our watches, and I had long since lost all track of the day or week or month. Each day was the same as the day before. I was still on the filthy floor of a cattle car, dirty and lice-bitten and traveling to who knew where.


But in dreams—and only in dreams—I could escape the cattle car. Sometimes I dreamed that I was at a banquet. Music was playing, and all my siblings were there. We were all dressed to the hilt, my sister Eva in a beautiful long gown, my brothers and I in elegant suits. Waiters passed among us offering food, but when I stepped forward to take the food, the waiters disappeared. Oh, there was so much food! Eva and I walked into another room where an orchestra was playing and people were dancing. Everybody was smiling and laughing. A man asked Eva to dance, and I decided to return to the room where the food had been. That room was now empty. All traces of food had vanished, although I looked very carefully. So I turned back to the room where the couples had been dancing, and now, nobody was there either. I was alone in an empty house. I ran out of the house and saw people getting into cars and driving away. I had been left completely alone, and I began to sob. The sobbing wasn’t just in the dream. My brother Samek woke me to say I had been crying in my sleep. “You must have been dreaming,” Samek said. When my dreams became troubled like this, or when I couldn’t sleep, memory took over. I found myself reminiscing about my childhood. Only much later, when I had children of my own who grew up in the safety and comfort and freedom of postwar America, would I realize how diminished a childhood I had had. Even then, however, I felt that I had been cheated of something. The pogroms, my suffering in the schoolyard, the hatred of Jews that loomed over our lives at all times, and now the camps, deportation, forced labor: it was a lot for a child to bear. Yet the truth is that at this stage in my life, I didn’t feel like a child at all. I felt that all I had witnessed in my short lifetime had turned me into an old man.


I thought of the people who had brought all this suffering into my life, and I wanted them dead—even though, with my eyes closed, I could hear my father’s constant refrain, right up to the moment of his death: “Be kind to everybody, and bear no grudges.” I understood the words, but I knew I could not obey them. I told myself that my father could never have imagined what his children would have to undergo. I was twelve years old when my father died. I remembered more about his death than about his life. I knew he was a good man, a hard-working and honest man. But I knew very little about his inner feelings or about what made him tick. Perhaps because I was the youngest of five and he was already middle-aged when I was born, or perhaps because he worked so much of the time, my father and I had seldom spent time together. In a way, we were strangers. My most vivid memories of him were of Shabbos, of going with him to the synagogue on Friday night and again on Saturday morning. I remember how we walked together, and how elegant he appeared to me all dressed up in his Sabbath finery. I was very proud of him, and I loved him. And although he was not a man who was demonstrative in his affection, I knew that he loved me. In the cattle car trundling across Germany, however, I began to think about who my father really was and about how he had become the man he was. I had never known my paternal grandparents; both had died before I was born. Although I was named for my grandfather, my father never talked about him. Nor had I ever heard him speak of his mother. I wondered what she looked like; I had never seen a picture of her and did not even know her name. But I remembered my father’s sister, Hannah, who had lived in Wolborz. She and my mother had ridden together from the Umschlagplatz to their deaths in Treblinka. I had not thought to ask her—there had not been time to ask her—to tell me more about my father and my grandparents.


I realized too that I knew very little about my mother. I could see her vividly in my mind’s eye; at times, it was as if she were standing next to me and I was able to touch her. But had I ever really known her? Had she really known me? She had spent her life working hard to keep the family together. I remembered how she got up with the sun and went to the basement to feed the geese, brought the firewood for the stove, made breakfast for everybody, and served it to us in the dining room. When my older siblings went to their various jobs, she made my lunch and saw me off to school. Later, she cleaned the house and cooked supper. By night, she was so tired all she could do was go to sleep. Her routine was the same, day after day, with little time for me amidst her chores. As with my father, I knew she loved me, but her need to take care of us all meant that we had little time alone together—time to cuddle, time to talk, time for me to learn about life from her. Sometimes, I thought again about the last time I saw my mother. I tried to understand the kind of love she had demonstrated when she pushed me away from her, shouting that I was a nuisance and that she didn’t love me anymore. I had come to accept that this was the most courageous act of motherhood. For other women, believing that all was lost for all of us, had indeed taken their children with them to their deaths. I had seen them do that. My mother, foreseeing death, nevertheless pushed me toward life. There could be no greater love, and once again I resolved to cling to life as best I could and to preserve my strength for whatever lay ahead. On this journey as on the earlier journey, our train moved mostly at night and remained stationary during the day. Often, the doors remained closed and locked. But sometimes, they were opened, and the bright light from outside would temporarily blind us. We were then ordered to haul out the dead and bury them, then to clean the car. We’d be ordered back into the 126

car, and someone would throw in some bread and water, which we divided among those of us still living. One day, they opened the doors and left them open, although we were not at first permitted to exit the car. The sun was coming up. I sat in the doorway of the car, my legs dangling over the side, and just breathed in the fresh air. The fields outside were covered with snow, and although I had grown weak, I imagined myself running and playing in the snow, even building a snowman. Just looking at nature was a tonic; it gave me hope that I would come out of this hell alive. My eyelids grew heavy, and I must have fallen asleep, for I was rudely awakened by a blow from the guard; he ordered me out with the others to clean the car. We got out and got to work. I suddenly noticed that the snow was melting a bit, and I realized that the air was warmer. I was not shivering, and I could see that where the snow had melted, there was green grass sprouting from the ground. I wanted to take a handful of grass and eat it, but I was afraid the SS might beat me or even shoot me. “What month is it?” I asked. Someone answered that he thought it was March. The next day felt warmer still. The guards kept the doors open again, and the fresh air seemed to clear the car of the ever-present stench. Again I sat in the doorway; this time, the sun’s rays were so strong I got a mild sunburn. Then, when we were ordered to get inside the car, much to our surprise, we were given an extra piece of bread. Hope is a dangerous thing. A little warmth, a glimpse of green grass, an extra piece of bread can set the mind spinning and the heart yearning. Reality was something else again. Inside the locked cattle car, I noticed that the praying had stopped, and so had the crying. There were no more tears left. No one was listening to our prayers. We were all skin and bones, too weak even to speak with one another. Fifty men or more had died so far on this trip, and each of us knew we 127

could be next. Some of us feared that; a few perhaps craved it. My mother had promised me survival and an angel to take care of me, but clearly, that was just a dream—as wispy and insubstantial as hope. The cattle car was reality. When night fell, our train started up. It seemed to move particularly slowly. I wondered why, but I was not in any hurry. I hoped we were going to another camp and that we would get there before all the Jews had been killed. The rocking of the train put me to sleep. I awakened to commotion. The SS were ordering all of us out of the train. It was still dark, and since the train routinely stopped only during the day, we knew something was up. It felt cold again. My brothers, my cousins Lutek and Barak, and I all walked together as we had always done, at all cost trying not to be separated. We walked along small roads and across fields, through woods with trees so tall it seemed they could reach the sky. Finally, at first light, we came to a set of barbed-wire gates. The SS held the gates open for us, and we walked in.


Chapter 11 The place was called Schlieben, and it was hell on earth. Schlieben was a sub-camp of Buchenwald and was similar in every way, except size; it was much, much smaller. Like Buchenwald, it was not officially a death camp. That is, you were not instantly exterminated on arrival; instead, they just worked you to death. It was in Schlieben that I first began to think that I might not make it—might not survive the war. And that was ironic, for it was in Schlieben that air raids first began to give us real hope that the war would end. It was 1944—the year of the most intense Allied bombing in the European theater, when the U.S. Air Force by day and the Royal Air Force by night poured hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs onto Germany’s strategic production facilities, her cities, her countryside. All we knew was that the planes overhead were not German, that they came frequently, and that they meant that the Allies—and our possible liberation—were getting closer. But not yet close enough. We entered Schlieben in the same way we had entered Buchenwald; in fact, it was a little like seeing a movie a second time. There was the Apellplatz where we were made to stand in our thin clothing while SS guards pointed their guns at us, while searchlights were beamed down on us from towers, while we were counted—over and over and over. The counting had begun to strike me as almost comical—laughable, in a twisted sort of way. Did they think we had the strength to escape? The camp perimeter was a barbed wire fence, high, tight, sharp., and electrified. Even if we had the chance to run and could clear the fence, where did they suppose we would go? We were, after all, in a country that was foreign to most of us, where a language not our own was spoken, and where the population was hostile—to say the very least. We were safer being together, even in captivity. 129

The night we arrived, I looked up at the towers as we were lined up and counted. I saw the guards sitting there in their warm coats and high boots. We were tired and cold and I didn’t remember the last time I had eaten. The waiting, the hunger, the robotic sameness of our servitude was in every way numbing. The camp commandant finally emerged to tell us we must “work hard and produce.” Then we were divided into groups of fifty, each led by a kapo, and were marched to our barracks. The barracks were like the barracks in Buchenwald, and here as there, my brothers and I found adjacent bunks. Some of the kapos from Buchenwald had also come with us to Schlieben, and we suspected they would continue to inform on us here too. It was a reminder that we could never be too careful. Bread and water were once again our meal—a measly two loaves of bread, two pounds apiece, to be divided among fifty starving men. Abraham was in charge of this procedure and was given a knife by the SS man overseeing the distribution of food. All the inmates stood around and watched the process intently. The aim was to cut slices that were each two inches wide by three inches long and one inch thick. To do this precisely, however, the end slices had to be thicker and the middle slices thinner so that everybody received an equal share. In the end, a lottery decided which slice went to which prisoner. And of course, the SS man took the bread knife with him. The one notable difference from Buchenwald in our “living” arrangements, if you could call them that, was the presence of pillows. They were filled with straw, as were the mattresses, but I found my pillow surprisingly comfortable—especially after weeks on the train’s hard wooden floor and all those uncomfortable months in Buchenwald.


The other difference was in work assignments. When they divided us into work groups, I was placed with other boys my age. This meant that I would not be working alongside my brothers. What’s more, my group was to get up at five in the morning and work the day shift, while the other groups, including the one with my brothers, would get up at six in the evening and work at night. For three years, my brothers and I had not been separated for more than a few days. This would be the first time I would be assigned different working hours from theirs. It made me fearful, but I had no say in the matter, so I decided that I would have to be satisfied catching a glimpse of them in the morning and at night on my way to and from work. Inmates from a previous transport clued us in about the work. They explained that we would be making armaments—specifically, anti-tank weapons—and they taunted us with the warning that this would be the last camp we would be going to. “The chemicals you’ll be exposed to will in all likelihood kill us all before the Germans do,” one of the inmates said. But the routine was the same as at Buchenwald—paralyzingly the same. We woke at five. There was no such thing as changing clothing or washing up; I hadn’t changed my clothes since arriving at Buchenwald. My outfit, day and night, consisted of a shirt and pants, with a pair of shoes but no socks. Thus attired, we stumbled out to the Appellplatz and were counted. At five-thirty, the guards began to march us out of the camp to our work site. We walked through a forest for about a mile, passing the inmates coming back to the barracks from the night shift. The work site had a canvas roof and looked something like a tent. In charge was an SS officer called the Master; directly over us was our kapo, a German Jew who “apprenticed” each of us to a veteran prisoner who could instruct us in the work. My instructor was Yosek, who had been at Schlieben for some nine months.


The assignment was to assemble the trigger mechanism for an anti-tank gun—the equivalent of a bazooka in the U.S. army. The particular anti-tank gun we worked on was called the Panzerfaust, a simple but sufficiently deadly weapon a soldier could easily carry. It was basically a tube about three feet long, filled with propellant, and with a warhead at one end and the trigger at the other. The warhead was about five inches in diameter and contained enough explosive to pierce the armor of a tank. It didn’t take too long for me to understand how the trigger mechanism was put together. We worked on an assembly-line basis. After I finished assembling the trigger, the next man on line would place it into a three-foot long tube, then pass it on to the next prisoner performing the next step in the process. We did this all day long till the Master released us at six o’clock, when we assembled outside the tent to return through the woods back to camp. Naturally, when we arrived, we were counted again and again and again until the numbers squared up. Then we were sent back into our barracks, where we waited for our kapo to give each of us one slice of bread and a cup of water. Hesiek and I began to talk to one another about how much longer he and I could last. Unlike my older brothers, who were more or less grown men when we entered the camps, Hesiek and I were boys, not fully grown, our bodies still developing—or trying to develop in any event. To say that we were not getting the nutrition we needed was a grotesque understatement. I felt weaker by the day, and although Hesiek kept trying to encourage me, I knew that we could not last too much longer. I felt I was in a race—and wondered if I could hold out until the war ended. The danger was real. Yosek, my work-mate and instructor, had told me that in Schlieben, inmates “died like flies”— from disease, weakness, hunger, or running afoul of the SS and the kapos. Our kapos were everywhere, constantly hovering over us as we worked, checking what 132

we did. I wondered why they cared so much whether the work was being done correctly. After all, weren’t they Jews like the rest of us? But I supposed that the extra piece of bread a kapo earned would be at risk if he allowed slow or shoddy work to occur on his watch. What was really at stake, said Yosek, was sabotage. The reason we worked in this tentlike structure was because the original factory had been blown up in an explosion, and the Germans suspected that the explosion had been an act of sabotage. My brothers had warned me not to talk about sabotage with anyone, even Yosek; after all, I could not be sure my workmate was not himself an informant for the Germans. Then one night, there was a commotion in the barracks. A group of prisoners was mercilessly beating one of the kapos who had come with us from Buchenwald, accusing him of being an informant here at Schlieben. Though he screamed and begged for his life, they threw him out the barracks door. The tower searchlights found and illuminated him, and a burst of gunfire followed. None of us slept that night. I shuddered at what had happened, but I felt no pity for the kapo, for it seemed to me that if a Jew cooperated with the Nazis, this is what he should expect. About a week later, a huge explosion at the power station interrupted the entire camp’s electrical system—and blew the juice out of the electrified fence. Now it was just a barbed-wire fence, without the extra added ability to electrocute you at a touch. Instead, new guards, wearing uniforms we had not seen before, were brought in to patrol the perimeter of the camp. But such drama was rare. For the most part, the dreary routine continued: wake, walk, work, then reverse it all at the end of the day before grabbing our meager bread and water and trying to sleep. A number of those who had come with us from Buchenwald succumbed to typhus or other diseases and died in those early weeks at Schlieben. It frightened me to see them 133

slip silently away, as I myself felt weaker each day. Sometimes, when I was going through the woods to work or coming back, I would hear my name—“Herman! Herman!”—and would spot one of my brothers. I always told them I was doing fine; I did not want them to worry about their little brother. Then one day, as I passed my brothers in the woods, Samek whispered to me that they were working in the giesserei, the foundry. I asked Yosek what this was, and he said it was the place where they filled ordnance with explosive. “Less talk! More work!” the SS Master shrieked at us, ending our conversation abruptly. A rumor began to circulate that some inmates were going to be shipped to another location. Fearing we might be separated, Isydor approached the SS Master of the foundry to see if I could be transferred there. The transfer was arranged—for both me and Hesiek, even though his small fingers were perfect for working the trigger mechanisms for the anti-tank guns—and we moved to the foundry and switched to the night shift. I was assigned to work with Isydor filling projectiles with TNT explosive in the form of a yellow liquid. This liquid was derived from a powder that other inmates—including my brother Samek and my cousin Lutek—carried from a warehouse some three miles away. The powder was heated in large retorts and rendered into the liquid form that we poured into the anti-tank guns. Between two hundred and three hundred prisoners were engaged in this work in the foundry, and most of them were ghostlike, with yellow skin. For it was clear that the fumes from the heating process were toxic. The SS Master who inspected our work routinely wore a mask over his face, and inmates who worked at the foundry died—as Yosek had said—like flies. One night, five men dropped dead. Even if it didn’t kill us outright, the odor from the mixing and heating of the chemicals was unbearable. 134

Food was delivered to the night shift at one o’clock in the morning. It was a thin soup, which we ate outside the building. The fresh air seemed delicious after the work of filling projectiles with the foul-smelling explosive. In the mornings, now that I was working the night shift, I could actually explore the camp—wander around as if I were a free person out for a walk, not a slave laborer who might be shot at any moment. One day a soldier in a uniform I did not recognize asked if he could have my shoes. In return, he offered to give me his shoes, which were falling apart, and a loaf of bread. I agreed. I brought the bread back to the barracks and tied rags around my “new” shoes to keep them from falling off my feet. Weak as I was, discouraged as I was becoming, there was a moment of sheer joy and excitement one night when a siren wailed throughout the camp. The SS shut off all the lights and halted the generator. Our call to work was cancelled. Our guards and the SS were suddenly nowhere to be seen; they had headed for the bomb shelters, for Allied planes were overhead and were dropping their bombs not far from us. For us, this was an event to celebrate. We all rushed outside, enjoying the warm spring night and the sky lit up with explosions. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever witnessed. The bombing lasted for hours; we all gathered to talk about what it might mean, but none of us really knew what was going on. All we knew was that there was something nearby that the Allies thought worth bombing, and every man of us had a smile on his face from ear to ear. Yet when I lay down again on the narrow bunk, I began to wonder if I would make it, if I would live to see the Allies victorious. There was so much we did not know. Yes, it was clear that Germany was now suffering damage, but what damage was Germany inflicting on the Allies? This we did not know. And even though the bombs were effective, when would the 135

troops come—and with them, our liberation? There was no way of knowing any of this. All I knew was that I was hungry, I was weak, and people around me were dying every day. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep so I could dream of my mother, so I could hear her tell me again that I would live, that I would be okay. She had promised she would send an angel to care for me, but there was no sign of this angel. I wanted my mother to come to me in a dream so I could ask her about the angel. But no dream came that night. As always, I woke up hungry. I knew I would not have any food till evening. But I thought I might as well at least fill my lungs with fresh air. I went out of the barracks and began to walk. Camp rules prohibited us to go near the fence—two layers of barbed wire some ten feet high. Guards in the watchtowers supposedly kept an eye on the fence, and that new set of soldiers in their new uniforms patrolled the perimeter, but there were blind spots in their surveillance, and sometimes it was pleasant to look out—through the wire, as we thought of it— to the world outside the camp. That is how I first happened to see the little girl. I had walked for perhaps half an hour when I spotted her on the other side of the wire, hiding behind a tree. She seemed little to me, and thin, although not skeletally skinny, as we on my side of the fence were. With her dark hair in pigtails that hung down stiffly on either side of her pretty face, and wearing boots that were clearly several sizes too big for her, I guessed she was a few years younger than I. But the thing about her that was so striking to me in that first instant of seeing her was that she brought into my line of sight something that had long been missing from it: color. Even now when I think back to my life in the ghettos of Wolborz and Piotrkow and in the camps, the picture is monochromatic. It seems to be always winter, with white snow on the 136

ground and black watchtowers and barbed wire defining the world, and an unbroken horizon that seems always gray. I remembered the hothouse flowers I had seen for a brief moment when I arrived at Buchenwald: their varied colors were a sudden, brilliant reminder of life. The little girl at the fence that morning in Schlieben seemed to offer the same promise of life. Her red sweater over a blue skirt were striking, but it was really the color in her cheeks and the sweet innocence with which she stared, so artlessly and candidly, across the wire that drew me to her. Maybe it was because she didn’t have to look at us—she was free, after all—or maybe it was the freshness she seemed to represent amidst all the death and destruction I had seen: whatever the reason, she seemed to me as if sent from another world to stand here at the fence of Schlieben. “What are you doing here?” I called out to her in German. She looked puzzled, so I asked if she spoke Polish. I don’t know why I asked that; there was no reason for me to think she might speak my native tongue, but I asked it anyway. The little girl nodded. Yes, she spoke Polish. I looked around to make sure there were no guards, no SS, no soldiers patrolling. “Do you have any bread?” I asked the little girl. She shook her head. No bread. Then she reached into the pocket of her sweater, pulled out an apple, and threw it to me over the fence. I grabbed the apple and instinctively started to run away. “See you tomorrow,” I heard her call to my back. I probably should have thanked her. I probably should have smiled. I did neither. I just ran away, as any animal would, with my stash of stolen food. I told myself that to stay longer was to court danger: a guard in one of the watchtowers might glance downward, a patrolling 137

soldier might turn the corner. If the little girl and I were seen—or heard—communicating in any way, we both would have been at risk. For me, the risk was death. I ran back to the barracks and began to eat the apple. It seemed to me a miracle. I had not seen an apple, much less tasted one, since leaving Wolborz three years before. I took tiny bites of this blessed fruit, hiding what I was doing, just like a thief, while savoring every delicious bite. I suppose no meal before or since has ever tasted as good to me as that apple given to me by that little girl and eaten in total stealth. And crazy as it sounds, I could almost feel its goodness flow into my body and nourish me with its strength. There was something else nourishing about that apple. It had been a gift, and it was a very long time since I had received a gift. In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, there was little chance for nobility and little room for kindness. I had been the beneficiary of sacrifices made by my brothers—and would be again—acts that in my view have inscribed them in the Book of Life forever. But simple charity, courtesy, even civility were almost nonexistent in the camps, for brutality brutalizes not just those who do it but those to whom it is done. Here, suddenly, from a little girl outside the camps, came an act of pure benevolence. It asked nothing in return. It was done only out of goodness. For me, it was a reminder that such qualities existed in the world, and as such, it fed my will to live on till a time that such qualities could be restored to my world. There was another air raid that night, and again we all went outside to watch the fires the bombing produced. Seeing those airplanes flying overhead filled my heart with joy. I now could almost believe that the Germans would lose the war and we would be freed! Every bomb that fell sent my spirits soaring higher, and even when the air raid ended and we were ordered back to work, the good feeling persisted. 138

I kept thinking about the little girl at the fence, about her kindness, about the fresh start she seemed to represent to me. I hoped she had meant it when she said she would see me tomorrow; it was all I thought about, although I did not expect her to be there. She was there! Taking every precaution, I remained hidden in a shadow until, to my surprise, she suddenly appeared. I ran to the fence, and she threw me a piece of bread, then an apple! I retrieved both and ran away. Again, I was too tongue-tied even to thank her. It was she who spoke, whispering that she would return tomorrow with more food and would hide outside the fence until she saw me. I ate the bread, but I hid the apple under my pillow as a luxurious treat for later. A kind of spring arrived. There were aid raids every night without fail. And every day, the little girl showed up at the fence and brought me food. I never spoke of her, even to my brothers, because I feared it could endanger our meetings. And I believed—I still believe—that the added sustenance she gave me, both in the form of the food she brought and her presence, is what saved my life. Without her, as I believed then and believe now, I would not have lived. All around me, inmates were dying. At one point, a number of inmates were transferred—whether to other camps or to their deaths we did not know. But it meant, said our commandant, that those of us who remained would have to pick up the slack. Instead of working twelve-hour days, we worked fourteen-hour days—with no additional rations. Some inmates simply succumbed to overwork and exhaustion. Others died from chemical poisoning. The more deaths, the harder we had to work, for production, the commandant said, could not be compromised. But in truth, we were compromising production all the time—through sabotage. It was easy to do. The Panzerfaust was a simple device, and all you had to do to make it malfunction 139

was to stint on the amount of liquid explosive added to the casing. But on one unforgettable day in early summer, it seemed that we would die for our sabotage. On that day, the whole camp was summoned to the Appellplatz. The commandant, flanked by four other SS officers, stood before us. This in itself was unusual, and I sensed that nothing good could be expected. The commandant gave the order to select one hundred inmates and separate them from the main group. My brothers and I were among the hundred. A machine gun was placed in front of us and pointed at us. The commandant announced that there had been complaints from the front that the weapons we had been producing were defective. The commandant said he would test the weapons, and if indeed they were defective, the hundred of us selected would die as a lesson to the others. I whispered good-bye to my brothers. I had only a moment to think how sorry I would be to depart this life now that hope had returned to it, but at least I would be joining my parents. The weapons were packed four to a box, and the boxes were piled near the Appellplatz. Two inmates were ordered to bring a box of weapons from the middle of the pile of weapons. One of the SS men opened the box, took out the first weapon, hoisted it to his shoulder, and pulled the trigger. It fired! It was good! He hoisted a second weapon and fired it. It too was good! But how much luck could we have? My brother Isydor, ever my protector and mentor, took my hand and held it. The SS man picked up a third weapon and placed it on his shoulder. I closed my eyes and began to pray. I heard the shell explode and opened my eyes, raising them to heaven. Thank you, God, I whispered. One more weapon to be fired. Our lives rested on whether or not it worked.


Now two SS men examined the weapon, tapping the tube and checking the position of the warhead. They seemed satisfied that everything was in order. It was the crucial moment. The SS man picked up the fourth weapon. I was so frightened I could not bear to look. I felt warm liquid streaming down my leg and realized I had urinated in my pants. One hundred lives hung on this final shot, and at that moment I wanted so to live! Explosion! The weapon was good, and I couldn’t help myself: I jumped up and down for joy. I had seen the sabotage in the workplace, had participated in it. That there should be one box out of all those boxes in which all four weapons worked was so unlikely as to be almost impossible. It had to be a miracle. We continued to stand in the Appelplatz. The commandant did not dismiss us. Instead, he conferred with the other SS officers. The machine gun was still pointed at us, and German soldiers stood ready behind it. Then the commandant ordered the two inmates to bring over another box from the pile: they were going to do it all again. Time seemed to be stretched; what happened now happened in slow motion. It seemed to take ages for the box to be brought, ages to pry it open with a crowbar, ages for the SS officer to take out the first weapon and place it on his shoulder. Please God, I prayed, let it fire. And it did! He picked up the second weapon, aimed it, fired it, and it too was good. So was the third. So was the fourth. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. We all knew that the majority of the weapons we produced were defective, yet here again, there was not one failure. “Back to the barracks!” the commandant ordered. “Schnell!” “But if there are any more complaints from the front,” he added, “we will shoot you all.” I fell asleep. When I awoke, I realized that I might have missed my meeting with the girl


at the fence. When he saw me leaving the bunk, Abraham asked where I was going. I made a poor excuse that I needed fresh air and exercise. I moved like a scared rat from barracks to barracks, hiding from light and people. I came to our meeting place at the fence, but the little girl wasn’t there. That’s it, I thought to myself, she won’t come again. Maybe she had encountered the perimeter guards—or worse, the SS. I waited a little longer, looked around to make sure I hadn’t been spotted, and turned to go. That’s when I saw her. She was walking toward me, and she was smiling. As always, she tossed me food and said she would see me tomorrow. As always, I said nothing. She had been coming to the fence every day for some six months now, and I still hadn’t spoken a word to her. All I ever did was collect the tossed food and run toward the barracks, as if I feared that even a whispered thank you would give me away. Sometimes, the food was wrapped in a bit of newspaper or a note she had written. But I still could not read or write—in Polish or any other language—though I was too embarrassed to let her know that. I always destroyed the notes out of fear that someone would learn of our meetings. That was also why I never told my brothers about the little girl or about going to the fence, for they would have forbidden me to do so. I felt guilty about lying to them, but now, thanks to the secret extra food I was getting, I could refuse the food my brothers always offered me from their rations. I don’t know when exactly I began to believe that the little girl at the fence was the angel my mother had promised to send me. I knew little of angels. The only one I had ever heard of was the prophet Elijah who carried a great wooden staff and did miracles before he ascended to heaven on the whirlwind. The little girl was nothing like that sort of angel, yet everything about her seemed miraculous. She had become essential to me—not just for the food, which was in fact a critical help, but for the feelings she stirred in me: a kind of hope for the future, and a 142

feeling that I was not alone. She had brought me color that had brightened my senses, friendliness, nourishment, a gift, and the promise, which she never failed to keep, to return each day. It had all made me want to live again, and wasn’t that a miracle? It was a miracle that could be achieved only by an angel—and only by an angel sent to me by my loving mother. That, at least, is what I came to believe as day followed day, and month followed month. And one night I dreamed that my mother said yes, this was the angel she had sent to feed me. Then in the dream my mother disappeared, and in her place was the little girl, dressed as I imagined as an angel might dress—in a flowing, prophet’s robe. I asked her if she would help get me out of the camp. No, she said; that she could not do. But she would continue to feed me and would bring me bread every day. I had faith in these dreams, and I had growing faith in the protection I believed my mother was providing to me. The nightly air raids were growing longer, dropping more bombs, and dropping them closer. It pleased us to run outside as the German guards ran inside, ducking for shelter. It pleased us to think of German cities and strategic installations being destroyed. There were times when I could actually feel the earth shaking, when the heat generated by the bombs felt warm on my face. The sky lit up so brightly that night became day. And even after the planes had flown off, we could still hear explosions in the distance. Sometimes, towards the end of that summer of 1944, the bombers flew so low I thought I almost could touch them, and debris from their targets seemed to be falling all around us. But I was getting weaker. The effort was unremitting, but so were the toxic fumes I breathed every day, and so was the fear. I was becoming unable to stand the strain. Then, in early September, I was assigned to a new job that at least got me outdoors and away from the deathly smell. My new group had the task of piling up the boxes of weapons. Our new SS Master for this 143

assignment was a short man with a hunchback. He wore high boots and carried a whip inside one of the boots. He never spoke to us, he only yelled. Mostly, he yelled at the Jewish kapo, telling him he was responsible for all the boxes being properly piled up. He was a nervous and sadistic man. As he inspected our work, he would play with his whip, stroking his boots with it and snapping it on the ground. He liked to pace up and down yelling at us to work faster. Faster! By this time I was too weak to pick up a full box on my own, so other inmates helped me. One night, the SS Master saw another prisoner helping me, and he began beating him with his whip. “Don’t beat me,” begged the prisoner, a man almost as weak as I, “I will never do it again.” But the Master continued whipping the man till he lay unconscious. Then he ordered the kapo to the motionless man on his back. Then he kicked his unconscious victim and walked away. The kapo delegated two inmates to take the man to the infirmary, but in the morning when I inquired about him, I was told he was dead. Guilt took hold of me: a man had died on my account; a man had died because he had helped me. I could not sleep that morning. When I closed my eyes, I saw the Master’s face contorted with anger and hatred and that poor, helpless scarecrow of a man, whose name I did not know, as he was being beaten to death. What I could not then know was that my turn was coming soon. It was October, the rainy season. The nightly air raids allowed my work group to get out of the rain, move inside the tent, and sit next to the hot kettle that warmed us even if its fumes were poisonous. One night was so cold that one of the inmates made a fire from old broken weapons boxes. When the all-clear was sounded, and we were ordered outside to work again, I noticed 144

that the fire was still smoldering. I threw another few pieces of wood on it to rekindle it so that we could keep warm when the next raid came. This was of course against the rules; we were supposed to douse all the lights, including the fire. The Master had seen me and of course began shrieking at me. But shrieking wasn’t enough. He pulled his whip from his boot and began to beat me. The metal on the butt of the whip struck me in the face, and I began to bleed, but the Master kept hitting me until I fell to the muddy ground. Then he kicked me. Again and again. Abraham and another inmate pulled me away from him, but the Master ordered them to leave me there and go back to work. Someone—I think it was Isydor—washed the blood from my face. I opened my eyes but could not see anything. “I am blind,” I said. “It’s just temporary.” It was Samek’s voice. “You will be fine in a few days. Can you stand up and walk, Herman?” I half-walked and was half-pulled by my brothers into the woods, where they hid me, covering me with tree boughs before they raced back to their own work. But I knew this was the end. It wasn’t just that I would now be a burden to my brothers. Blind, I would be useless to the Germans. I would be put in the infirmary, and I would die there—or they would shoot me. There was no way my brothers could protect me now. I got to my feet and began to walk. I heard somebody call my name. At first I didn’t answer, but then I recognized Abraham’s voice. He chided me for leaving the hiding place he had made for me, then said we needed to hurry to get back into the line to go back to camp. “Is it morning?” I asked. “Yes, and Isydor is waiting for us. You will walk between us, and we’ll guide you.” We got back to the camp; so far, no one suspected that I couldn’t see.


“When we go to work tonight,” Isydor said to me, “you will walk between me and Abraham until we get to the factory. We will do the work for you. You must stay near me. If the Master shows up, I will take your arm and pretend that I am instructing you in the procedure.” That night I did exactly as they told me. At one point, the Master started toward me, but just then, the air raid siren went off, and he ran for the bunker. The air raids were a blessing, for they gave me time to rest my eyes. Still, how long could we keep up the pretence that I could see? It was a very risky undertaking—a charade that endangered the lives of my brothers as well as my own. “It would have been better had I been killed,” I said to Isydor, but he told me sternly to stop talking such nonsense. “Without you there is no life for me,” he said. He had become the father to us all, seeing it as his solemn duty to get all of us out of this war alive. That night during the frequent air raids, I sat with my eyes closed and listened to the bombs falling. After a while, I opened my eyes and thought I saw light. I closed my eyes again, opened them, and again saw light. Then some moving shadows came into view—the other inmates. “I can see a little,” I whispered to Isydor. By morning, as I stumbled back to camp held up by my brothers, my eyesight was even clearer. I lay in my bunk resting my eyes, and each time I opened them, my eyesight had improved a bit more. Suddenly, we were all summoned to the Appellplatz, and this time, I did not need the support of my brothers to make my way there. There were a lot of us there—even the day shift workers. The commandant stepped forward and told us that we would be leaving the camp tonight. “Dismissed!” he shouted at us. As always, it was frightening to think of being transferred. Where? we all wondered. And why? Rumors had been flying around the camp all summer. We knew the Allies had landed on 146

the soil of Europe; we hoped and prayed they were coming closer. But it seemed their approach was a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword was our liberation—and we hardly dared speak the word. But the other edge of the sword was the danger that the Nazis might just find it easier to kill us all. We were, after all, witnesses to their atrocities, victims of their brutality. There was no doubt but that they had it in their power to silence the evidence we represented by murdering us—something they had already shown they would not hesitate to do. For me, the fear and uncertainty were compounded by my distress over the loss of my angel, the little girl at the fence. She had become my lifeline, and the idea that I would never see her again was suddenly unbearable. When we got back to the barracks, and the usual argument over the distribution of bread slices began—made even uglier because we were all so nervous about the future— I slipped out of the barracks and headed for the fence. A guard was patrolling the area and chased me away, but I hid behind one of the barracks and waited. My eyes, still not fully back to normal, scanned the horizon in search of her. After a while, I saw her, and I emerged from my shadow. When she noticed me, she began to run toward to the fence, a sight that made my heart swell with gratitude and affection. “Where were you?” she asked me. I didn’t answer. Instead, I told her she must not come to the fence anymore. “We are being transferred tonight,” I said. “I will not see you again.” I wanted to tell her so much that I didn’t know how to say, couldn’t say because as I looked at her, I saw the tears starting down her cheeks and felt my throat choke. I wanted to say that losing her was like losing a part of my family. It was like standing on the Umschlagplatz in Piotrkow watching my mother being deported to Treblinka—and her death. It felt the same. My mother had saved my life at the Umschlagplatz by pushing me away from her. The little girl had kept me alive by nourishing my 147

body and soul. She had provided the food that enabled me to fight disease and weakness, while her goodness had reminded me that there was a world of humanity outside the fence—and that it was worth living for. I said none of this. We both stood there looking at one another—two children crying. Then I heard the guard returning, and I ran away. Back at the barracks, I unwrapped the package and found two slices of bread and a note. I ate one of the slices of bread and saved the other for later. The note, as with all the others, I destroyed. That night, we were marched out of Schlieben to the train station. As always, the inmates who were too weak to keep up were shot. They remained unburied on the road. The rest of us arrived to find not cattle cars awaiting us but coal hoppers. SS officers began shouting, herding us onto the open cars of the train. I pressed the little girl’s gift of bread close to my scrawny body, knowing it might be the only food I would have for some time. I clung to the memory of the little girl too. Her image was engraved on my mind, and her goodness had a special place in my heart. There was no doubt in my mind: I believed she was the angel my mother had sent to care for me when I most needed care. I still believe it.


Chapter 12 A little longer. Try to last a little longer. That was what we all told ourselves—and one another. It was our constant prayer. It was mid-autumn of 1944, and we could sense that Germany was in trouble, that the Allies were gaining. If we could only last a little longer, we reasoned, we might just survive. And survival, as I had long believed, would be our triumph. But lasting a little longer was becoming increasingly difficult for us all, and in my case, it was beginning to look more and more like an improbability. There were still some lucky breaks. For example, our entire family—my brothers, my cousins, Hesiek, and I—were able to stay together as always, joining some 75 other inmates in the coal hopper car. And that first night on the train, the stars above were brilliantly clear, and a full moon seemed to be watching over us. But it was cold. The wind whipped us fiercely—especially when the train began to roll somewhere around midnight—and the sanitary and “living” conditions were of course appalling. Disease and starvation loomed as ever-present dangers. I managed to find a place on the floor of the hopper car, out of the wind. I looked up at the heavens and considered how beautiful the natural world was and how ugly man’s role in it had become. In the morning, when the train stopped, we all woke to the view over the edge of the coal car. The sun was peeking through the darkness, and the morning dew glistened on the grass. SS men patrolled up and down alongside the train. I focused on the green fields and tried not to look at the SS men in the foreground. I tried to see the beauty of the land—not the misery the SS had placed us in. I sat down in the corner of the car and pulled out the crust of bread my angel at the fence had given me. It was the last gift I would have from her—the last vestige of our special 149

friendship, the final evidence of everything she had meant to me. I ate the bread very slowly, wanting it to last. Where was she? Was she thinking of me? Who would keep me alive now, as she had, all those months? We were not allowed out of the car. We sat motionless. The lice were still biting me, and I wished I could take a bath. At some point, someone noticed that one of the inmates in our car had died. We laid him against the wall of the car and covered his face with his jacket. I looked at the dead body, but seeing it had very little effect on me. I had seen so many dead bodies—the bodies of men violently murdered, the bodies of men dead of disease, the bodies of men who simply wasted away. I knew that another person’s needless death should have affected me greatly, but at this point in my life, it didn’t. I understood that this showed there was something was terribly wrong with me. I had become numb to the suffering of others and could now see only my own problems, think only about my own hardships. I forced myself to recite kaddish for the dead man in my head. All I could hope for now, I thought to myself, was that someone would recite kaddish for me; there would be no other sign that I had ever lived or died. Our journey on the coal hopper would eventually take us only some 134 miles in distance from point to point. Yet I remember the journey lasting for weeks. Maybe it did, and maybe I only remember it that way—the cold and snow, the constant and intense hunger, the fear of death, thoughts of suicide, and loss of faith. Like Jacob, I wrestled with God on that coal train from Schlieben, and it exhausted me. I had recently turned fifteen, but I felt a hundred years old. In some ways, this train trip was like the others. For the most part, we traveled at night and spent the days stopped at a siding. Sometimes, we would be ordered out of the train so we could pile up the dead bodies in a car of the train specially designated for that purpose. 150

Sometimes, we were allowed to walk around a bit for exercise. Always, we were required to clean the human waste from our car with our bare hands. We were filthy and crawling with vermin. When we washed our hands in the snow, the snow itself turned black. At night, when the sun went down and the train began to move, the cold fell on us like a weight, and the only warmth was whatever heat gaunt bodies could produce as we huddled together. I wondered again how the human body managed in such conditions, how it was possible that weakened and starved as we were, we were able to ward off disease. There were days when we were given nothing to eat—sometimes for days at a time— before a meager portion of bread and water was tossed at us. Some nights, it rained, soaking us to the skin. But I would turn my face upward, open my mouth, and drink the rain water as it fell. When they told us to get out of the cars, those unable to jump over the side were shot. We piled their bodies into the death car. But in other ways, this journey was different from the others. The world outside was different, and we could sense it, even if we did not know the particulars. Night after night was filled with loud explosions and a sky so red it looked like a ball of fire, as Allied bombs lit up the sky. As sheer display, it seemed beautiful in its pyrotechnic drama. But of course we really found beauty in the fact that our destroyers were being destroyed. “The Allies are winning,” my brother Abraham whispered night after night. “I hope they win before we all die.” The explosions and fires would illuminate the fields around us, and sometimes we would see smoke coming out of chimneys from houses in the distance. I thought how wonderful it must feel to be cozy and warm beside a fireplace or stove, with real food to eat. Somewhere in this world, I thought, people still live like that; they have food and comfort and health. I vowed that if


I ever got out of this war alive, I would never complain about anything again. Oh, to be free, warm, dry, and fed! Daytimes, when our train pulled over onto a siding, it was to let other train traffic go by. For the most part, these were supply trains carrying armaments or troop trains filled with German soldiers sitting comfortably in club cars. They would look at us and point and laugh. Maybe they believed we were on our way to our deaths. Maybe they thought they were on the way to their deaths. All I could think of was that they had food and warmth and a place to sit comfortably. I, by contrast, was in trouble. I had begun to notice that I was unable to stand on my feet for long periods of time. My ankles were becoming swollen, and I knew that when an inmate’s feet swelled, it was just a matter of time before it spread to his ankles, then his legs, then his entire body, then the heart and other internal organs. Death followed quickly. We had all seen it happen often enough. So when I saw it beginning to happen to me, I was in despair. Not for the first time, I thought of suicide. I was already a burden to my brothers; if I became ill, I would be an even greater burden and could lessen their chances for survival. They will be better off without me, I thought, and I said as much to Isydor. He had truly become the surrogate father to all of us, and like our father, his optimism was undimmed. “Your ankles will get better,” Isydor assured me, and he warned me against becoming downhearted. “I tell you we will get through this war,” he said. “I tell you we will be free!” I wanted to believe him—I wanted to live!—but I somehow felt sure I would die on this train. As the days grew shorter, the weather grew more severe. One night it snowed, and by morning there were two inches of slush on the floor of the car. It was impossible to sit down, so 152

instead we all had to kneel. This aggravated the swelling in my legs, and I feared again that I was losing the race for liberation. Another night, the inmate next to me fell dead in my lap. Repulsed, I pushed him off. I had no particular feelings about the man or his death. I cared only that he was crushing me. Besides, I thought he was probably better off dead. Minutes later, I cursed my insensitivity. Now I began truly to struggle with God. Where was He? Some days I was filled with rage against Him for allowing His children to suffer so. Some days I would pray to Him. And at times I told myself that prayer was useless, that maybe God didn’t exist. When I was small, I was told to believe in God. But now when I saw inmates praying, I wondered what they thought they were doing and to whom they were praying. How could there be a God if all this was happening to us? Tatus had told me that we were all God’s children, but what God would let such things happen to his children? What God would allow his children to do such things to one another? I asked Abraham what he thought: Was there a God? And could we count on Him for help? Abraham shrugged, as if he weren’t sure of the answer. “One must believe in something,” he finally said. He reminded me of what our parents had taught us: that the God of our fathers— the God of our Jewish tradition—gave us laws to live by. “Our parents are in heaven with God,” he told me, “and we must continue to believe what they taught us.” I asked Isydor what he thought, certain that he would reassure me that God existed and that we were, as my father had said, God’s children. But his answer surprised me. “Belief is within every individual,” Isydor said, “and nobody can tell you your own beliefs or impose their beliefs on you.”


I thought of what I had learned from my parents, and I thought of the realities I had seen in my life—a young life that might soon be over. In my fifteen-plus years, there had never really been peace in my world. There had certainly never been security. Now I was on a cold, wet coal hopper rumbling across Germany toward what was likely to be my death. It was hard to have faith in such a situation. And then I remembered my angel at the fence—and my mother coming to me so vividly in my dreams promising that she was watching over me. Surely, this was real. The little girl had appeared, as if out of nowhere, at the fence. She had fed me when I was starving. She had brought me comfort when I was lonely and in despair. Was this a sign that God worked through my dead mother to keep me alive? Again I wanted to live, but could I last even a little bit longer? The train rumbled on through the night, but when morning came, it kept going. That was unusual. We hoped it signaled change. After a few more hours of travel, we passed a railroad sign that read “Theresienstadt,” then stopped. Someone said it meant we were now in Czechoslovakia. We could see a high brick wall encircling the town, but there was no order to disembark. We just stood there. Then, after some time, the train reversed its direction, heading back the way we had come. We were all amazed. What could be happening? Confusion seemed to reign, and the Third Reich was rarely confused about anything. Later we would learn that the commandant of Theresienstadt had complained that since he had received no written orders to receive us, we would have to return to Germany. Instead, however, we stayed on a railroad siding in the middle of nowhere for four days while the officials worked out whatever it was that needed working out. We were allowed to get off the train and to wander around; the only order given us was not to try to escape. The idea was


laughable. How far could we have gone in our thin, camp-striped clothing—especially in the dead of winter, and especially with yellow stars on our chests? In those four days, I alternated between feelings of total despair and incipient hope. Sometimes I was certain that the train had stopped so they could shoot us, or that they were preparing gas chambers they hadn’t had time to build yet. Then I shifted completely and decided that the war was coming to an end and our camp commander, who had come with us from Schlieben, wanted to undo some of the horrors he had perpetrated so he wouldn’t be held responsible for them after the war. For certainly, in letting us wander at will outside the train, he seemed a changed man; in any event, he was transmitting a different kind of message from his usual sadism. But not knowing which message was right was itself a kind of torture. My legs had swollen badly, and I began to believe that I had survived hunger, misery, and humiliation only to end in a gas chamber and then a crematorium at the age of fifteen. We had been ordered back into the coal car and had been given nothing to eat or drink. The floor of the car was wet and cold, but standing hurt my legs so much that I sat down anyway. If there was any good news, it was that the lice were not biting as much as they usually did. It was as if they knew there was no nourishment left on our emaciated bodies. The train started suddenly, moved a short distance, and dropped us at Bohusovice Station—the entrance to the Ghetto Theresienstadt.


Chapter 13

I was confused. Theresienstadt was indeed a town—one that looked a lot like the ghettos I had previously known. But I also knew that all ghettos had been liquidated, so this must be yet another camp. In fact, that was the case; the entire town, an eighteenth-century fortress, was one large camp. As we marched through the narrow streets, inmates cheered us as if we were an invading force. The cheers seemed recognition that we and they were joined together in the game of survival, that our collective Jewish survival would show the Germans—and perhaps the world— that even without weapons, Jews could resist. Survival was itself resistance—the only form of resistance open to us; the two were synonymous. We marched until we came to an arched doorway with massive steel gates. Arbeit Macht Frei was the slogan written over the gate: Work will make you free. The irony of it was bitter beyond words. We entered into a large courtyard with buildings on three sides. Catwalks connected the buildings. It seemed like a palace from another era—a time when kings and queens had hundreds of rooms to fill. We were told we would be confined to a building and assigned rooms. They packed us in—twelve men to a room only about twenty feet square. Our entire transport—thousands of men—was squeezed into an eighth of a building. We could not understand why they were not spreading us out since there was so much empty space.


I expected—we all expected—that we would be put to work the next day. But nothing happened. No one came for us. No orders were issued. We were not summoned to an Appellplatz or counted or divided into work groups. Nothing. It seemed odd. And it was frightening. If we were not going to be put to work, what was the plan for us? I lay on my cot, my legs swollen and painful, wondering what they were going to do with us. Day merged into night, but I could not sleep. Again the next day, there was again no summons to work. But in every other camp, we were put to work immediately. We had now been in Theresienstadt for two days, and no work orders were forthcoming. It was a terrifying departure from routine. Isydor insisted I walk. He was sure that exercise would help my body absorb the water being retained in my legs and ankles. I started by walking halfway around the building, which was all I could manage before I had to stop and rest. The next day, I made it out to the almost empty courtyard. The only people there were inmates from our transport. I noted that the three buildings around the courtyard were in a U-shape and were all built of stone. The iron gates were locked from outside. The only guards were on the gate; there was no need for other supervision, for there was absolutely no way out. I searched the compound for something—anything—to eat. I was desperately hungry. I hoped to find grass or a mouse. But there was nothing. All the mice and every blade of grass must have been eaten by other hungry inmates. Day followed day, and still there was no work to be done, and still we couldn’t figure out what the Nazis were going to do with us. Theresienstadt was a prison, not a factory. With no work, I knew that our confinement here could not end happily.


I kept trying to walk for exercise, as Isydor demanded. There were many empty rooms in our building—and in the other buildings as well. Our building was marked by a plaque on which was written the phrase Hamburger Kaserne. I asked my brother Abraham what it meant, and he guessed that barracks of the ancient garrison—each kaserne—had the name of a German city— in this case, Hamburg. “But why are we separated from all the others?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Abraham snapped, “but why do you ask such a stupid questions?!” Our tempers had grown short. All the world now knows that Theresienstadt was the concentration camp that Hitler presented to the world as a model Jewish settlement, the “city” he had built for Jews. Famous rabbis, artists, musicians, and writers were brought here to showcase the humane treatment— better than humane—that the Third Reich claimed to be providing to Jews. Prominent Jewish leaders comprised a Council of Elders, and there was a full cultural program of activities. The aim was to counter the rumors, then spreading across Europe and the world, that Jews in Nazioccupied lands were in danger. It was all a ruse, and the ruse was a grotesque hoax. Theresienstadt was not a death camp, like Auschwitz, nor even a forced labor camp, like Buchenwald. It was a true concentration camp. Here Jews were concentrated—brought together from various points of the Reich—before they were trans-shipped to Buchenwald or Auschwitz like so many cattle or commodities. Many died in Theresienstadt itself, of course, mostly through starvation and disease due to overcrowding: the town had been home to seven thousand people before the war but had a permanent ghetto population of between thirty thousand and forty thousand. Both the deaths in Theresienstadt and the deportations to extermination camps were 158

part of the detailed Nazi strategy for the final solution: deprive the Jews of their rights, their possessions, their means of living, then isolate them in ghettos, then concentrate them in camps, then annihilate them. That was the plan, and Theresienstadt, so far from being a model of humane treatment, was an essential part of this murderous strategy. The tragedy was that the ruse worked. People were deceived by the camouflage of Theresienstadt. Hitler even allowed an inspection team from the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the town. To show there was no overcrowding, the Nazis prepared for the team’s visit by transporting thousands of prisoners to Auschwitz—certainly a quick and effective way to relieve overcrowding. They also built phony shops and planted gardens to fool the committee. And they showed off a propaganda film they had made, although after filming, the cast members—including the children—were all sent to Auschwitz. The Red Cross team visited Theresienstadt in the summer of 1944 and believed what they were shown. Given the pressures of war, the team members concluded, the treatment of the Jews in Theresienstadt was acceptable; conditions were in compliance with international standards. We came to Theresienstadt in the winter following that infamous Red Cross visit. More and more transports arrived after us. We were being concentrated all right; the overcrowding and lack of food were killing us in great numbers. As always, we piled the corpses one on top of another in a designated room, for there was no place to bury them. The smell of death in that room was overpowering, and the appearance of the decaying bodies was sickening. We all feared that diseases emanated from the corpses would finish us off. I hoped that if I died, I wouldn’t be remembered in this way—as a deformed, ugly skeleton giving off an unbearable stench.


After more transports arrived and it became apparent that the whole camp was now filled to capacity, there was even more starvation—and more deaths. We had to remove the dead bodies from the room and stack them in a corner of the courtyard. Then finally one cold morning, we were summoned to assemble outside. The SS selected 300 inmates for a work detail. My brothers and I were not selected, but that evening, when the work detail came back to the camp, they reported that they had been working at the edge of the town building more barracks. Each day after that, a number of inmates were selected for work. The rest of us, however, did nothing. I slept in my cot and covered myself to keep warm. The days were cold, and the inactivity was making my limbs swell even worse. I really worried now that I could not live much longer. Thankfully, the very next day, our entire Schlieben transport was selected to work on the new barracks. It seemed like a reprieve. Every day I returned from work exhausted. The more exhausted I became, the sicker I became. Isydor massaged my legs each night to stimulate my circulation. It was painful, but Isydor insisted that it must be done. He also insisted that I must keep walking; he was afraid that I would die if I didn’t walk. “Think of our mother and father,” he said. “They wanted you to live! Do you remember when Mamusia pushed you away from her when she was taken to Treblinka? She gave her life so that you would live. You must live, Herman!” Isydor’s words made me ashamed that I had thought of giving up. I began to walk for ten minutes at a time. Then, exhausted from my painful efforts, I lay down to rest. I got up again and forced myself to walk some more. I kept telling myself that the pain I was enduring was for my beloved parents, and that I must try to live for their sake. This seemed to give me strength to go on, and in time, I could feel the difference. 160

By the end of January 1945, we had completed the skeletal framework of the barracks. Now the SS wanted to know if there were any plumbers in our ranks—several inmates stepped forward—then if there were any bricklayers present. A few more inmates were chosen. These prisoners went to work while the rest of us were sent back to the barracks. When they returned that evening, the inmates told us they had been put to work digging trenches and installing pipes in the new barracks. We could not understand why plumbing was being put into the new barracks. No camps we had been in had ever had running water. It was all mysterious, but no answers were forthcoming. Meanwhile, the pile of bodies in the courtyard grew higher, and I wondered how long before I would be stacked up there as well. New transports kept arriving, exacerbating the overcrowding; even the daily dying didn’t seem to thin our ranks. There was nowhere near enough food. We typically ate every second day, sometimes every third day. February was another cold month. I was confined to my cot, able to get up for only short walks that seemed insufficient to keep my circulation going. In truth, I could barely walk now. I was getting weaker every day, and knew I didn’t have much time left. March brought a little sunshine and a little warmth. I forced myself outside for walks and soaked up as much sun as I could. Then one day the plumbers told us that what they had been ordered to build now was a gas chamber, and the bricklayers confirmed that the Germans were installing ovens in a crematorium building. That was it. We now knew that this camp was the last stop for us all, that we were nearing the end of our lives. The Germans had concentrated here what was left of the Jews of Europe, and here we would all be executed. 161

All we could do was implore the plumbers and the bricklayers to work as slowly as possible, hoping against hope that the Allies would reach us and the war end before the new machinery of death could be completed. I tried to imagine what a gas chamber might look like and how I would react at the actual moment of my death. Isydor was having none of it. “A little longer,” he said. “Hold on a little longer.” It wasn’t just to comfort me; he truly believed that we would come out of this hell alive. He had always believed it, and I wanted to believe my brother. April arrived; as the days passed, spring arrived as well. We hardly noticed. Each day was just like the day before. Then the bricklayers and plumbers announced that their projects were finished, and that there was no more work for them to do. A day went by, then another. Nothing happened. We wondered what the SS was waiting for. Maybe the gas hadn’t yet arrived, or maybe they had decided they would rather starve us to death. We wondered and waited. More transports arrived. More epidemics broke out. There was more disease, more death. Still, nothing happened. Then they summoned us into the courtyard and announced we would be shipped out tomorrow. All of us. It was the end, surely. No one slept that night. We believed it to be our last night on earth; tomorrow we would begin the journey to death by asphyxiation. We were summoned to the courtyard at seven in the morning, told we would be moving out at ten. An hour later, I heard two shots and assumed the SS had murdered some inmate or other. The gates of the compound burst open, and a tank, accompanied by infantrymen, rolled into the yard. I noted vaguely that the soldiers’ tunics were gray, and that the insignia on the


uniforms were unfamiliar. Then I realized this was a Soviet tank, and these were Russian soldiers. “Liberation,” Abraham whispered. Let it not be another daydream, I prayed.


Chapter 14

It was no daydream. Later, we would learn that the camp had actually been turned over to the Red Cross five days before, awaiting a liberating army. Soviet troops, en route to Prague, had detoured to Theresienstadt to rid it of Nazis and take command. And those were the soldiers marching into our courtyard in their unfamiliar uniforms—Russian soldiers—and it was absolutely true that we had been liberated. “God bless the Russians!” inmates shouted, whispered, repeated like a prayer. Many kissed the soldiers, weeping, often falling to their knees as they wept. It was true, but it did not seem real. What did liberation mean? I couldn’t take it in. After years of slavery, dirt, disease, and death, my mind had trouble understanding how we could be free in just one instant. My brothers and I hugged one another. We had survived—all of us, together. We had triumphed over hatred, bigotry, cruelty; we had lived through it as a family, and we were still here. Yet in those first hours of freedom, we were more stunned than jubilant; jubilation was a response we had forgotten how to express, if we had ever known it. And death and dying were still all around us, for some inmates had not made it to the moment of freedom, and some had succumbed to starvation or disease despite liberation. And there were corpses of German soldiers, killed in the final fight or shot as they ran from it. In fact, in the distance, I could still hear shots being fired. The war was over for us, but perhaps not for everybody.


A Russian soldier approached and said something to me in Russian, which I let him know I did not understand. Then he said it again in Polish: “We are here to liberate you!” He took a bar of chocolate from his pocket and gave it to me, and I sat down on the ground and began to cry. I suppose I cried because I realized in that moment, through that soldier’s act of kindness, that our torment was over. A soldier in uniform had given me a sweet treat, and both the treat and the fact that it had been given seemed to symbolize the possibilities of freedom. In a sense, those possibilities were limited. Free to do what? Free to go where? We had nothing—no possessions, no resources. In a Europe devastated by years of war, where the population as a whole was now suffering severe want, we were the worst off. We were utterly dependent on others—on the Soviet army or some nameless charity—for the most basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter. We were none of us anywhere near our homes. It was unlikely we had homes at all, and most of us almost certainly did not want to go back to the towns and neighbors that had shunned us, persecuted us, and cheered when we were sent to the ghetto and later to the camps. What we began to understand in those first hours and days of liberation was that what we had been freed from was the danger of being killed on a whim. We had been freed from the death sentence of having been born Jewish. We would not be deliberately starved to death or worked to death. We were not slaves anymore; we had been liberated to have a future. It was glorious, but it wasn’t always easy. That first afternoon, a Red Cross truck carrying food drove into the camp, and Russian soldiers began distributing the food. My brothers and I ran toward the truck, quickly becoming part of a stampede—a mad throng of starving people desperately reaching for the cans of food being tossed at us. I got knocked down and nearly trampled in the scramble, but my brothers 165

managed to haul me up even as they grabbed several cans of beans. We opened two and filled our stomachs with this delicacy, as it was to us, who had been starved of any legumes for years; then Isydor took the rest away from us. “But I am so hungry,” I said, begging for more. “You must eat only what I give you,” he warned us. “If you eat too much too soon—after eating so little for years—you will become very sick. You must teach your body how to digest food again, and it will take time.” He was being true to his character and true to the role he had assumed as head of the family, and I knew he was looking out for me as always. I embraced him and promised to do as he said. Later, we received clothing from the Red Cross—new and fresh-smelling. I took mine up to our room, where, for the first time in four years, I took off my striped camp clothing. I examined my body. It was crisscrossed by lice bites, insect bites, and sores, and there was still swelling in my limbs. The clothing was far too big for me; I was all skin and bones. But Isydor was right about the eating. In those first days of freedom, the smell of vomit was in the air as inmates who satisfied their hunger were made ill from it, many of them dying from overeating. I found my own hunger almost impossible to bear, but I took solace in knowing that at least there was food available—we would not starve. We milled around in those first days of liberation, luxuriating in the very idea of freedom and in the fact that our torment was over. Russian soldiers going about their duties waved at us, and it felt wonderful. It made us feel safe. Despite this newfound comfort, it was difficult for me to sleep at night. I was waiting for the dawn of what would truly be a new day—and was anxious about it. Would we really be free? Would we be able to go wherever we wanted? Would our hunger finally disappear? Would the 166

swelling of my body be reduced? Would we ever have a normal life? Where would we go? These questions kept tumbling through my mind, keeping me from my rest. We wandered out through the iron gate into the town and walked down narrow streets, often stepping over dead bodies. There was destruction everywhere. One day we came to what appeared to be a large warehouse, still guarded by two Germans, who refused us entry. One of our group found a length of wood and beat one of the Germans with it. We broke open the doors and were amazed to find a warehouse completely filled, from floor to ceiling, with foods of all kinds. This had been here all along, but of course, it had not been for the likes of us. We filled a sack with food: a five-pound can of sardines, a loaf of bread, jars of jam. Lutek found a side of meat. Soon, hundreds of ex-inmates and Russian soldiers too had found the warehouse and were scrambling for food. As we left, I found a live chicken scratching near the town wall. I grabbed it and brought it back to the camp. Isydor was waiting for us when we returned, and he stowed the food away. By now, we understood his reasons and were willing to eat only small portions till we gradually built up our strength and our bodies learned again how to deal with food. The looting continued. It wasn’t just food, either. We would head out as if on foraging parties, then come back to camp to tell of our adventures in the outside world and to exhibit our treasures. Samek came back one day on a horse and with two pairs of boots. “Why the horse?” I asked him. “I was tired,” he said, “and I didn’t want to walk anymore.” He gave one pair of boots to me, the other to Abraham. My pair was too big for me, and Abraham’s were too small for him, so we traded, and by the end of the day, each member of our family had found a suitable pair of boots. 167

It was strange to be in the streets and to see German civilians pulling wagons piled high with bundles—refugees trying to make their way back to safety in Germany. It reminded me of the invasion of Poland when we were the people pulling the wagons, taking ourselves and our few possessions away from the front line toward a safety that, for us as Jews, simply did not exist. I suppose it was not surprising to see former inmates attacking these wagons, tearing at the bundles and grabbing what they could. I joined in, picking through the contents till I found a winter jacket I put on at once, even though spring had arrived. Nor was I unhappy to see Russian soldiers shooting at any German soldiers they could find. In fact, I felt glad about it; in my eyes, German soldiers deserved to be shot. I was glad also when German prisoners of war were ordered to clean up the courtyard, to remove and bury dead bodies, and to clean the lavatories overflowing with the loose excrement of inmates who had eaten too quickly. It was gratifying to see how the tables had been turned. But I was surprised and a bit frightened at my capacity for revenge. For that is what it was: a desire to hit back, to do to them what they had done to us. That is the awful lesson of cruelty: it doesn’t make its victims noble, it makes them cruel. I was a part of it. I saw worse vengeance than I committed myself; inmates who had lost everyone and everything were not above beating now helpless Germans—and worse. I had lost a great deal in this Holocaust—my parents, my childhood, maybe my sister—but I at least had my brothers and cousins. I had never been alone, as so many had. I had my brothers to rely on, and as I had all these years, I would leave it to them to make the decision for me about where to go and what to do in the future. Wherever and whatever, I would be with them.


Yet at the same time, I was beginning to chafe at the restrictions on my movements. Isydor worried when I wandered out of the camp into the town—where soldiers and looters made the streets dangerous—and he ordered me not to go out unless one of my brothers went with me. I felt humiliated. Yes, I knew that there was danger in the lawlessness of liberation, but I was no baby. After all, I was fifteen years old! Still, I realized how difficult it was for my brothers to change overnight. They had protected me diligently throughout the war; it was a habit that was not easy to break. The days passed, and so did the old terror and gloom. Now when I woke up mornings, I was aware that it was May, that the sun was shining, and that we didn’t have to go to work with SS men barking orders at us or beating us. It was hard to get used to, this freedom. I realized that I had spent the majority of my life either running from those trying to persecute us or imprisoned and enslaved. When doctors were brought in to examine us, my limbs were still swollen, but the physician said I would recover. It confirmed that I had a future. I would be warm and would have enough to eat. I would live as my parents had wished. These were all new realities, and they stirred new feelings of optimism and anticipation. The doctors found evidence of a diphtheria outbreak and quarantined the camp. They needed help dealing with the sick and asked if there were any doctors in the camp. “I am a dentist,” Isydor offered. “That will do,” he was told. My brother’s organizational skills and leadership abilities soon became evident—and were put to good use. He became part of the medical committee and helped get all the sick into the hospital. Then he advocated for placing the children of the camp in better housing. Working with the doctors, the Russians, and the Czech officer who was now the camp commandant, he 169

managed to find housing for some 300 young boys and girls. The Czech commandant put Isydor in charge of the children and appointed my other brothers, my cousins, and a man named Isaac Finkelstein to help him. Again, we were all together—where one goes, we all go—and were transferred to new quarters. Our new housing was like paradise. There were four boys to a room—in four real beds with clean sheets. We had our new clean clothing from the Red Cross. We had plenty to eat, although Isydor still exercised control over our diet. And since we were in quarantine, we were examined daily by medical doctors. I took a shower at least once a day, and there were some days when I took two. I felt that it would take a great many showers to remove the filth that had accumulated on my body over my years of internment. Putting on clean clothing was an absolute treat, and I was quickly getting used to it. Outside the quarantine, things were changing. The Russians left for Prague, and refugees continued to flee destruction and seek safety. We saw little of this, however, for while we were permitted to walk within the building, we were not allowed outside. For medical reasons, the demarcation between outside and inside was strictly managed, although German prisoners of war were brought into our area to clean, and nobody seemed to care that they were exposed to diphtheria. The days of inactivity began to be wearing, especially for us young boys, especially as our bodies grew stronger. Two of my buddies and I found a hole in the outside wall of our building, and we sneaked through it. Once we had made our escape to the outside world, we would ply the roads and wander wherever we wanted, feeling free to roam the countryside. We hadn’t a care or a worry in the world. We saw Russian tanks and Russian military vehicles on the 170

road. We saw German civilians in slow-moving carts as well. Czech police allowed the Russian vehicles through but checked the Germans who were leaving, inspecting their belongings slowly and deliberately. Once I even saw one Czech policeman frisking two women. He thrust a hand down the front of the dress of one of the women and emerged with a small package. I wondered what valuable object he had found—and confiscated. We would sneak back into our camp through the same hole in the wall, but it was increasingly difficult to leave the freedom of the road behind and re-enter the dismal world of the camp. I suppose I shouldn’t have felt this way; after all, I was clean, I had new clothing, and no one was ordering me to do anything. But I still felt the constraint of being cooped up, and I bristled at being bossed by my brother Isydor, who demanded to know where I was at all times. “If I am free,” I said crossly, “I should be allowed to go wherever I want.” “No,” Isydor insisted, “not until the area is normalized.” He was our family leader, and I knew I must obey him, but it was difficult to stay within the walls when there was so much to explore just beyond them. By June, some of the former inmates had begun to head back to Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, even Germany—to search for the homes and perhaps the families they had had before the war. We were sure they would find no one there—and their homes and property gone as well. “Going back” was not something the Rosenblat brothers were about to do, although what we would do and where we would go I had no idea. Abraham was forming an idea of where he would go, however. He had met a girl from Poland, a pharmacist. They had decided to marry and journey to France, where, among other things, they would look for my sister, Eva, or at least try to determine if she was still alive.


Isydor gave them his blessing, and after many visits to the French embassy, they received permission to leave. The idea of it stunned me. In captivity, we had all been together. Ironically, now as we were gaining our freedom, our family was drifting apart. I knew that Abraham was going to look for Eva, but I also knew that he would not come back to the camp again—and if he did, we would probably be gone. I began to worry that I would never see him again, and his departure was a bittersweet moment for me. In time, my cousin Lutek followed Abraham to France, while Barak went to a Displaced Persons camp in Germany—and from there, some time later, to Palestine. We were being scattered across the continents, and although we all vowed to keep in touch, the bonds of family were being stretched. Meanwhile, a Jewish organization in England—the Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps—had been working with the Czech camp commandant and British authorities to try to arrange for all the orphaned children of the camp to immigrate to England. By the middle of July, the deal was done, and Isydor was asked to take charge of the initiative, scheduled for some time in August. We had not yet heard from Abraham, but there was no help for it: life was moving on, and we had to catch it. Isydor agreed to take responsibility for seeing the children delivered safely to England. Samek would serve as one of the counselors, and of course I was one of the children. Just a few months after liberation, everything seemed to be working out well for us, and Theresienstadt itself seemed to be winding down. By the end of July, about three quarters of the camp’s inmates had departed. For myself, I felt uncertain—even fearful—over what lay ahead. I took an inventory of myself, and the results were not promising: I was nearly sixteen and was completely illiterate. I 172

had very few skills—except, perhaps, the skill of surviving against all odds. I had almost no knowledge of things that were about to be important to me; for example, I did not know where England was, had no sense of geography, knew little of history except the brutality I had lived through, and certainly spoke not a word of English. Maybe that is why, in that summer of 1945, I found myself reliving the death of my father and the moment when my mother pushed me away from her at the Umschlagplatz—and feeling again the incomprehensible pain of these events. In my mind, images of the various ghettos we had lived played like a movie. I experienced again the interminable train rides in the cattle cars, the filth and torment of Buchenwald and Schlieben and Theresienstadt, the scenes of death and suffering. All these turned over and over vividly in my mind—till I wondered if there would ever come a time when such thoughts and images would be dim shadows from a distant past. And sometimes, too, I would be reminded of the one light that had pierced the darkness of those years—the little girl, my angel at the fence, who had fed me, lessened my loneliness, and reminded me of a world where horror did not reign. She was proof, if proof were needed, that wherever I was to go and whatever I was to do, my mother would always be watching out for me. In the first week of August, word came that we would be leaving for England on the seventeenth of that month. As I packed my few belongings the night before our trip, my feelings swung like a pendulum between excitement and panic. I thought I even sensed a little reluctance on Isydor’s part as well, although he spoke feelingly about making a fresh start in a new country. After breakfast the next morning, we boarded the buses that would take us to our plane. It was so quiet one could hear a pin drop. I guessed that I was not the only one on a rollercoaster of 173

emotions. The emotions silenced us all as we prepared to leave this damnable Europe that had been our home and the execution-ground of our families—to try to make a new life as strangers in a strange land.


Chapter 15 On the way to the airport, the buses passed through the city of Prague. There, we lined up in front of the statue of Jan Hus, the Czech national hero, and were photographed for posterity. We were, after all, the remnant that had survived. The last time I had been in a big city was more than three years before, and the city was Warsaw, which was under attack and on fire at the time. But Prague had escaped the war virtually unscathed by aerial bombardment—except for one awful night when the U.S. air force missed its intended target—and the Czech capital’s ancient spires and facades, castles and bridges were as beautiful in that summer of 1945 as they are today. It was a long time since I had seen anything manmade that was beautiful, and I couldn’t get enough of what I was seeing. As if that wasn’t sufficient excitement, I was about to board an airplane. Of course I had seen many planes during air raids, but I had never been in an airplane, nor had I ever expected to be! I think it is safe to say that not one of the three hundred of us had ever had such an expectation, and when we first clapped eyes on the ten Lancaster bombers, refitted for transport, that would take us to England, it seemed illogical that these big machines could lift off the ground and ride the air. But this had already been a day of wonders: we had left the camps behind, we had seen one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, and we were on our way to live in a different country with new people and a new language. Most wonderful of all, an airplane would take us there! We were divided into ten groups, one group per plane. Samek boarded with me, as did my friend Hesiek, but Isydor was on another plane. We sat on the floor, for there were neither seats nor windows, and for a moment, this reminded me of our train rides in the cattle cars. The 175

plane engines made an alarmingly loud noise, too, but I comforted myself with the thought they would not put children on a form of transport that was unsafe—not these people, not the English and our Czech commandant and the Jewish organizers of this trip; these people were nothing like the Nazi soldiers and officials who had run my life to this point. Still, it was all unsettling, and I had my heart in my throat as we taxied down the runway. Then, suddenly, we were airborne, and it was thrilling. After a while, one of the plane’s officers emerged from the cockpit, looking every inch a British flying officer in his leather jacket and helmet. He gave each of us a slice of soft white bread and asked if we’d like a cup of tea—the most English of suggestions, although I did not realize it at the time. Still, despite the excitement and the kindness of the officer, the mood on the plane was subdued, and we were a quiet group, to say the least. For one thing, we all bore the scars of the trauma we had just lived through. All of us had experienced extreme deprivation. We were all skinny, still recovering from near-starvation. We had all suffered great loss at the hands of the Germans. Looking at some of the other boys and girls was like looking in a mirror; our faces were the gaunt faces of children grown old before their time. And the faces also showed fear. This wasn’t the old fear—the daily fear of suffering or death, the fear we all knew all too well. Instead, this was uncertainty. We did not know and could not conceive what lay ahead. Our experience had prepared us only for the worst sorts of brutality; we couldn’t imagine much else. In truth, the others were probably more frightened than I. After all, I had an older brother aboard and my oldest brother on another plane. In fact, the separation from Isydor, understandable as it was, made me uneasy. What if the planes landed in two different places, I 176

wondered, and what if we could not find one another again? If I could feel such anxiety, what must have been the fears of the rest of the three hundred children—who for the most part had lost everyone they loved? Each of us sat quietly. Not touching. Not talking. The sound of the engines was frighteningly loud, making communication difficult, even if we had wanted to talk to one another or had known what to say. So it seemed a stroke of genius on my brother Samek’s part when he suggested, “Let’s sing.” Someone began a Hebrew song, and a few of the children joined in, then several more, and more, and in a few minutes, everybody was singing. We sang some songs in Hebrew—none of us knew very many—then several Yiddish songs, and singing made us feel like a family. It was a bond I had never experienced when we were in the camps together. When we were all enduring beatings, hunger, freezing cold, and humiliation, I had not felt this fraternal link—even though it certainly was there all along. But now that my own extended biological family was beginning to go off in different directions, I was glad for this connection with others based on our Jewish identity and our shared experience. When the singing stopped, we went back to being apprehensive. Even Samek couldn’t answer when I asked him what would happen when we arrived in England. The flight officer might as well have been the man in the moon for all I understood of anything he said; the English sounds were utterly foreign to me, and I began to understand that my success in my new country—and in my new life—would greatly depend how well I learned English. The flight took about four hours, during which I fidgeted, worried, and wondered. We sang again as we disembarked from the plane at Crosby-on-Eden, way in the north of England, and I was surprised to see a welcoming party of grown-ups waiting for us at the airfield. Buses 177

were lined up as far as the eye could see. One by one, the other planes landed and discharged other boys and girls; they were singing too. I felt much better when our entire group had landed safely and when I caught sight of Isydor in the crowd. It was a summer day, and in England, especially in the north, summer days last a long, long time, so there was plenty of light for us to see by as our bus traveled through the countryside. Out the window were green fields where cows, sheep, goats, and horses grazed. My mind wandered back to the terrible train rides in middle of the war, when we were transported from one camp to another, and the difference became vivid: here, I was free, I was not hungry, was not cold, and no lice were biting me. It seemed to sum up the great change that had taken place in my life. There was a counselor with us on the bus, an Englishman who spoke Yiddish and told us that we were going to a camp in where we would live for a time to become oriented to our new surroundings. The word “camp” sent a cold chill through my body. I knew he didn’t mean a camp like the ones we had experienced, but the word nevertheless struck me very hard; it still does. I turned my head away from the sound of it and dreamed of the day I would be on my own, would have nobody to answer to, and would not be confined to any camp. The buses pulled into a large yard and stopped. One-story houses surrounded the yard— an arrangement that reminded me of Theresienstadt. There was a group of adults there—the people who were to take care of us, I assumed. But the whole scene took me back to our entry into Piotrkow when the Judenrat and the Jewish police stood in the marketplace and “welcomed” us to the ghetto. From there my thoughts moved inexorably to the selection at the Umschlagplatz and my mother separating me from herself. There seemed to be little I could do to keep these memories at bay; the images and the feelings the images evoked were easily unleashed and 178

flooded my brain automatically. I wanted to try to change the way I looked at the world, but I knew that I had no control over the tide of recollections. “Welcome to Windermere,” said the Director in charge of our program. The place that was to be our new home in England’s lovely Lake District was a wartime hostel that was no longer needed and was no longer in use. The Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps had funded our immigration to England—thanks to contributions from Jewish organizations, some individuals, and the British government—and would conduct this orientation program of at least two months’ duration. During our time here, the Director told us in Yiddish as we stood in the cool English evening at the end of our long and stunning day, we would learn English and other skills and would become accustomed to our new country. Our time here, the Director said, would equip us to move on, in smaller groups, to specific hostels for further education. “Eat, rest, learn,” the Director encouraged us, “and try not to worry about anything.” I was ready to eat, rest, and learn, but I was already anxious about what was coming next—after we left Windermere. I asked my brothers, and for perhaps the first time in my life, they had no answers. They simply didn’t know; we were all facing a new life, and we all had questions about what was to come. I was part of a group of twenty boys assigned to one of the houses, two boys to a room. I was given a roommate—a boy I did not know before, for my friend Hesiek was in another group—and we moved into our small room, about ten feet by twelve, furnished with two beds, and two chests of drawers. I was awed by how crisp and clean the sheets on the bed looked and felt.


I was also exhausted. We all were—more from the emotions of the day than from any exertions. I lay on my bed that first night at Windermere, on those crisp, clean sheets, and thought how happy I was that I was finally out of Germany, out of Czechoslovakia, off the continent of Europe, living instead in a country that had fought hard against Germany—and had won. I felt grateful and safe to be here. The next day, I got up early to explore. The sun was just coming up, and it was still chilly outside. I could see no barbed wire fences; I did not smell the awful smell of death I was so used to. Truly, a new day was greeting me; it seemed possible that I would really have a new start. But the flood of memories intruded, as it often would—as it still does, from time to time. I saw a body of water in the distance—I would later learn it was England’s largest lake—and as I walked toward it, I tried to will my mind not to remember the work on the riverbank in the Wolburz ghetto. But my brain wouldn’t obey my will, and it seemed that every fresh sight in this new country would one way or another prompt a reminder of those dark days. I spent two months in Windermere—for the most part, happy and productive months. But it was there that I experienced one of the most momentous milestones of my life to that point. It wasn’t Windermere itself that was momentous. We went to classes, began to speak English, ate good food—I drank milk by the gallon—played outdoors, and attended group meetings where we learned more about our new country and the options for our new lives. Occasionally a psychologist was brought in to talk with us, usually in group situations. I was shy and withdrawn, and I was not comfortable talking to anyone except my brothers about my experiences and feelings. No, the momentous milestone of Windermere was something else altogether.


I began this book by asserting that I am lucky. The studies done on children who survived the Holocaust would confirm that. My timing was lucky. For while I was born into a political situation that was troubled and dangerous, my all-important early childhood development took place in a loving home where I always felt supported, cared for, secure—where I was well nourished both physically and mentally. My older siblings were playmates and protectors who set an example for me and often provided discipline. My father was a warm presence who taught me the tolerance and optimism that have enabled me to keep bitterness at bay in my life. And my mother, of course, was that constant, caring Mamusia who gave me life twice—once at birth, and once when she sent me away from her so I could live. I had known a structured home life, had had time for play and kindness before I was swallowed up by suffering and trauma. When I was in the midst of the suffering, I had the memory of my past to fall back on. I had the conviction that my mother was watching over me, for even when I doubted God, I never doubted that my parents were in heaven and were looking down on me. And of course, I also had three loving siblings with me. Compared to so many of the other child survivors of the Holocaust—compared to so many of the children with me at Windermere—I was very lucky indeed. That was why what happened when I was at Windermere seemed so momentous. For it was there, for the first time in my life, that I was separated from my family; it was there I learned to be totally alone. It was simple really—and necessary. The time came when Isydor and Samek—now called Sam—were no longer needed as part of the staff at Windermere. They had succeeded in their task, which was to bring the three hundred of us safely to England and see us well settled. Now it was time for them to move on and re-create their lives. 181

But when Isydor announced to me that he and Sam were going to move to London, I was stunned. “Will you leave me here all by myself,” I asked him, “after all that we have gone through together?” “Of course we don’t want to leave you,” Isydor answered, “but we have been told we must go. The Jewish Refugees Committee is now taking responsibility for all of you, and all the counselors have been told they must leave. Besides, we are older—at a different point in our lives. We must make new lives, and we both think it best for you to stay here with children of your own age and finish this program.” Burning with anger, I turned and walked away. I went to my room and cried, and after a while, both brothers came to find me. “If you mean to go, why are you still here?” I asked them in a bitter, resentful tone. Isydor sat down on the bed beside me. “Listen, Herman,” he said. “We cannot stay, but you must. This is important, and at the end of two months here, you will go to a hostel where they will teach you to speak, read, and write in English. You had no schooling to speak of before; you really need this education.” He paused. “And of course we will be in touch with you.” “How will you know where I am?” I retorted. “How will I know where you are?” Isydor put his hand on my head. “Herman, we will never abandon you. We never have, and we never will. We have gone through too much together to be separated now.” It was true, but I felt little comfort in this promise. All I knew was that one brother was in France, and now two would be in London, wherever that was, and far away from me. “As soon as we are settled,” Isydor went on, “we will write and tell you where we are and what we are doing. By then, we may also be able to give you news of Abraham—and maybe of Eva.” 182

It didn’t lessen my fear of losing them, but what could I do? That night, I tried not to fall asleep lest I miss their departure in the morning. I wanted to see them once more before they left me all on my own. The night was long. I thought daylight would never come. Terrible thoughts kept rising into my brain, and my brain tried to argue back. I thought perhaps my brothers had had enough of me and simply wanted to move on—to abandon me, to be done with me. Now that this new Committee had taken over, they could safely free themselves of this troublesome, annoying little brother. On the other hand, had they really wanted to abandon me, they certainly could have done so a long time ago, when we were in the camps. Daylight seeped through my window. It was foggy and misty outside, as it often was in the mornings in Windermere. Because I didn’t have a watch, I couldn’t tell the time, but I knew it was very early. I opened the door of my room and looked down the corridor. Nobody. Not a sound, not a movement. I lay down again, and now I found myself wondering how my brothers would make it all by themselves. How would they find housing and earn a living? It struck me suddenly that they were ill prepared to make their way. Like me, they knew no English. Without it, Isydor would be unable to practice dentistry; he and Sam would have to learn new skills or work as laborers. From having been angry with them, I now felt fear and concern on their behalf. I, after all, was safely situated: I had the strong guardianship of a well organized Committee, I was with other children and caring counselors, and all the needs of life were being provided to me. My brothers, by contrast, had only each other and their wits; they were about to strike out on their own in a strange country. The tables had turned: it was I who should be worried about them; it was they who needed help. 183

We had a last breakfast together in the big dining room. Then we walked together in the yard, and I went with them to their room to help them pack what little they had. A bus would be coming to take all the counselors away, and I waited with my brothers till it arrived. Then I waited by myself till it drove out of sight. For the first time in my life, I was separated from my family. There were three hundred boys and girls in our program, all living closely together, yet I felt utterly alone. I suppose in that moment I understood how much I had depended on my brothers, how easily and automatically I had always looked to them for advice or help whenever I felt the need. From now on, I would have only myself to depend on. It was a profoundly frightening realization—and at the same time, oddly exhilarating. After all, I was sixteen years old—capable, certainly, of making my own decisions. In the days that followed, I threw myself into all the activities organized for us, keeping myself busy from morning until night: English classes, history lessons that helped explain the war and why we were brought to England, life skills classes so that we could cope with problems in our new life. After just two weeks, I found that while I still missed my brothers, and still wondered how and what they were doing, I wasn’t so lonely anymore. A little while later, a letter came for me, written in Polish. As I still could not read any language, I found somebody who could read the letter and learned that, with the help of a Jewish refugee organization, my brothers had found a place to live in London and were learning English. As I was still unable to write, I couldn’t answer the letter, but it was good to hear from them.


Meanwhile, the Windermere routine continued—the same from day to day. Classes, meals, tea, games, walks, free time: I was beginning to feel impatient. I wanted to get on with my life instead of being kept here idling the time away. When the two months at Windermere were finally up, I was placed in a group of twentyeight boys. Once again, the buses pulled into the yard at Windermere, and my group, along with our counselor, hopped on board. You would think that by now, I would have grown accustomed to loss. But I suppose loss is something you never get used to. Eager as I was to move on from Windermere, the thought of leaving behind some of the boys who had endured the same unhappy history I had lived through made me unbearably sad. It meant fewer people to share experiences with. I had already learned that “outsiders” often found the stories of our collective horror impossible to believe, exaggerated, outlandish. Our daily struggle with death struck them as totally unreal. Even to us, our life in the camps and our survival was now beginning to seem incomprehensible. But it had happened, and now we were leaving behind some of those who would understand when we spoke of these things, some of the children who would know, without explanation, the scenes and feelings that could be evoked by the word “camp” or “Appellplatz,” or “cattle car.” The journey also reminded me of my aloneness; after all, this was the first move I was making on my own—without any family members to protect me, take care of me, remind me of my identity. I wasn’t entirely alone; Hesiek was with me, and it was good to have this close friend by my side. And of course we were both still under the guardianship of the Jewish Refugees Committee, so it wasn’t as if no one was looking out for me. But whenever I had been unmoored before—moving from home to ghetto, from ghetto to camp, from camp to camp—I at 185

least had the sense of belonging that my brothers’ presence provided. That was gone. Add to that loss the disorienting reality of trying to speak a new language and understand new customs, and everything felt difficult—like swimming against a strong current. I felt as if I were still trapped by the past, a bit adrift in the present, and frightened of the future. The other boys did not seem to me to be troubled in the same way. As the bus headed south—we had a journey of nearly three hundred miles ahead of us—they sang and joked, teased one another, and appeared to be enjoying themselves. They showed a confidence and poise I didn’t think I could muster. “Come on, Herman,” one of them said on seeing my sullen, frightened face. “The war is over. We’re free!” But was I? Could I ever be free of that terrible war and all the horrible and inhuman things I had experienced and witnessed? On that long ride from Windermere in the north of England to Ascot in the south, I thought about this. And as the miles added up and the lovely countryside of England sped by out the window, it seemed to me that I had a choice. What I had lived through could never be completely repressed—I was sure of that. The question was how and to what extent the sadness over past horrors would shape or rule my life—and above all, my future. It seemed to me that I was in control of that choice. And maybe that was the real definition of freedom—the fact that now I was in control. I could decide my life—not some Nazi guard, not even my brothers or the Jewish Refugees Committee. I could chart my own course through life, and I could choose what to do with the memories that were so hard to bear. I chose to put them in a trunk in a corner of my mind—all the horrors, all the pain, all the grief, and also all the hatred and bitterness the memories could engender. All I would keep unlocked in the front of my mind, I decided, was the benevolent image of my mother as she 186

appeared in my dreams—and of course, my memory of the angel she had sent to me in Schlieben. This realization even made it possible for me to see that it was good that our family was now dispersed in different directions. We each of us must make a new life. My brothers were of an age to be married and to start families that could help replenish our people’s loss. I realized I had no wish to be the younger brother tagging along after them or clinging to them. We would always be in touch. We would always be brothers. For all its horrors, my survival had taught me what the bond of brotherhood really means. I would not allow myself to be miserable because my brothers and I were separated; I would not do that to them or to me. Somehow, to do so would be to dishonor our parents’ memory. My spirits lifted, and I began to think ahead to the future, not back to the past with all its losses. Our trip ended in darkness when our bus passed through an iron gate—a frighteningly familiar sight to many of us—but this time, beyond the gate were the friendly faces of welcoming hosts. They took our few pieces of luggage, showed us to our rooms, and told us we were in the town of Ascot. It was in Ascot that I got my education. At breakfast the next morning, the leader in charge of the operation, Hans Samuel, explained that we would be reorganized into small study groups to study English, mathematics, and history in classes that would last for five hours a day. We would also be given some free time. “This isn’t a work camp,” Samuel assured us, “but you must work very hard to prepare for your future. ” Work we did. Throughout the winter of 1945-46, and into the spring and summer, we worked hard. We had to; the curriculum was rigorous. We had three hours of English lessons a day, and after the first month of cramming, we were prohibited from speaking any language 187

other than English. We cheated, however, when we were alone. We Polish boys spoke Polish to one another, and we spoke Yiddish to the other boys, who were mostly from Hungary. Of course, if one of the English teachers came into the room, we quickly reverted to our broken English. Yet in time I found that I wanted less and less to speak Polish; I simply didn’t want to be reminded of that country. By not speaking the language, I could distance myself from my unhappy past. English was my new language; English, as I saw it, was my future. We lived four boys to a room. The rooms were large and were furnished with a bed, dresser, and table for each of the four, as well as a closet we all shared. From the windows in my room, we could view a large park full of gardens in bloom. Our home at Ascot had its own gardens, and, to our amazement, there was also a swimming pool on the grounds—although, of course, it was too cold in the English winter to swim there. In the park nearby, we saw horses and horse transport vans. We learned that there was a famous racetrack nearby, and while I had certainly seen horses before, I had never seen horses like the thoroughbreds of Ascot. To go into the town of Ascot—which we did just about every Saturday, when no classes were scheduled—we had to cross the park and pass through a tunnel over which the horses were led to the track for practice runs and for races. The town was small, with only a few streets and not very many stores. It’s hard to describe what it felt like to wander around Ascot in those days. I think it made us all feel truly free. No one asked for identification. No one called us names. No one looked at us askance. We stared at shop windows. Passersby might nod at us. But we were, it seemed, just like everybody else, part of the scenery, with as much right to be here as anyone else.


I learned more than the school curriculum in Ascot. A couple of the boys knew card games. I didn’t, but I was willing to learn. I found card-playing fun, and I still enjoy it to this day. I also learned to ride a bicycle! One day in spring, a truck pulled into our compound carrying ten bicycles. We each took our turn, and although I had never been on a bike in my life, I quickly learned how to ride and could barely be pried off the bike after that. In fact, in my memory, I spent that entire spring and summer riding a bike all over the place. It was warm, the days were long, and everything was in bloom. That was also the time of year that people came to Ascot for the horse races. I soon figured out that horse racing was considered a sport and an entertainment; I also learned that part of the entertainment included gambling on which horses would win the race. It was another part of my education in Ascot, which seemed to provide a new learning experience every day. We had a rather famous visitor one day—an elegant gentleman we were told was Mr. Leonard G. Montefiore. The scion of one of the legendary Jewish families, onetime president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, Montefiore had been the major benefactor of our program, and he had come to see how it was going and to welcome us to England. Simply put, he was responsible for bringing us here, and we were grateful. He spent the day. Photographs were taken—I still have mine—and at dinner, one of our group rose and, with great emotion, thanked the man for getting us out of Czechoslovakia and bringing us here. Montefiore was not the only one so moved by this speech of gratitude that he was in tears at the end. I have never forgotten what he did for me—for all of us. At the end of the summer, Mr. Samuel announced that there was an opportunity for some of the boys from our program to attend a technical school in London, and he asked if anyone 189

might be interested. I thought it over. It seemed to me that learning a technical trade was a way to advance myself. Technical skills and knowledge, I reasoned, would be necessary as the world rebuilt after the war and could provide me both security and mobility. I sought out Mr. Samuel and told him I was interested. It took a week, but I was “accepted” into the program with four other boys. The program would be run by ORT, the legendary Jewish organization that had provided technical training for Jews since the time of the Russian czars. Although the name ORT originally was a Russian acronym for the “Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor,” the letters were now understood to stand for the “Organization for Rehabilitation and Training.” And one day, the five of us, along with one counselor, were invited to take the train down to London for an “introduction” to our further training. It was the first time I had traveled on a train like a human being. I had a window seat and was not packed in like an animal. What a difference a year could make! The ride to London took nearly an hour, and Waterloo Station astounded us with its size and busyness. There seemed to be an endless number of train platforms, and an endless bustle of people going in all directions. Our counselor led us into the Underground subway system. This was even more astounding. I was amazed that an electrical train could travel underground, amazed to see people coming and going in complete freedom—without restriction of any kind, and amazed to be among them. I was also amazed to find that when we got to our stop and took a long staircase up to the street, the sun was still shining brightly. London was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Taxis and automobiles rushed through the streets with horns blaring. There was a mad crush of people, yet no one got hurt; everyone just


stepped aside. I saw men in blue uniforms wearing funny helmets. “Those are policemen,” our counselor explained. “But they have no weapons,” I protested; “how can they be policemen?” “In England,” the counselor replied, “the police carry only whistles, not guns.” I was speechless with astonishment. Now we took a bus to the place where our classes would be held, and I made sure I had a window seat on the bus so that I could look out. Everything I saw fascinated me—starting with the sight of people with seemingly important places to go. Stores were already open, and people were coming out of them with packages in their hands. It all seemed so normal, and it took me back to my family’s city life in Bydgoszcz, which had a similar hustle and bustle, although on a much smaller scale. I saw a little boy walking with his parents on a London street and thought how I had walked in the same way with my parents, going in and out of stores, carrying packages, taking care of chores. When we got off the bus to walk the rest of the way to our school, I couldn’t keep my eyes away from the shop windows. I was entranced by the men’s clothing—shirts, jackets, ties, shoes—by the stationery shops, newsagents, the small food markets, the bakeries. I stopped, looked, and admired everything. All that food made me want to eat, although I wasn’t at all hungry. Rather, the years of deprivation in the camps were playing tricks on my brain. I was jolted out of my trance by the bellow of our counselor: “Herman, stop looking in the windows!” I had fallen behind and had to hurry to catch up with the rest of the group. We came to an alleyway lined with dilapidated buildings and entered one of them. This couldn’t be a school, I thought. It was just four empty rooms with bare walls.


“This is where our school will be,” our counselor said. “In time, our machinery and everything else we need will be delivered. And of course, the teachers will be here then as well.” The plan—and I thought it a good one—was for us to install the machinery and to wire all the needed electricity as part of our training. We would learn by doing, creating the school facility from scratch, and would thus be trained much more quickly. It made sense to me; we would be practical from the very beginning, and we would receive more focused individual attention. In the meantime, we would continue our studies at Ascot, to which we returned that evening by train. On that train ride back to Ascot, I reflected on the day’s activity. I had seen some of the wonders of a free society, I felt lucky to be alive, and I suddenly felt tremendous optimism about the future, as if I was just beginning to scratch the surface of the possibilities before me. I knew that the course of study I had chosen would be difficult to master. I realized how important it would be for me to perfect my English. I still could not read or write proficiently, and I knew that in any profession, I would need first and foremost to be able to communicate. I resolved to apply myself assiduously to my studies at Ascot. Tough as English seemed, I told myself that learning it well would be a snap compared to surviving the Nazi concentration camps. In the months that followed, I studied as hard as I could. I became proficient enough in English to be able to write to my brothers to tell them of my plans—and that I would soon be joining them in London. By the time the ORT technical school opened, we had even found a London family that could accommodate three of us—my oldest friend, Hesiek Mlynarski, a new friend, Ben England, and me. We were on our way to the big city. 192


Chapter 16 I would spend the next four years of my life in London. It is where I came of age, and it is where I came into my own. The Holocaust had made me old before my time; in London, I was able to grew to maturity in something approaching the normal way, was able to catch up with my age group and to ripen as an adult. This was also the time when I learned to fend for myself, to become my own man, even as my brothers and I re-shaped the fraternal bond that had been our mainstay through the Holocaust. In London, I learned to enjoy life. I spread my wings, played, opened my mind and spirit to new adventures and people and possibilities. For London, like any great city, is an education unto itself, and I was an eager pupil. But it wasn’t just eagerness. I felt real pressure to catch up with life and make up for a shortened childhood. I wanted to experience everything the way a child might, as if for the first: cold, heat, rain, sun, pleasure, happiness, puzzlement, disappointment. I wanted to go everywhere and see everything. It was as if I had had no previous experiences, for truly, the experiences I had had did not belong to the realm of life; they had no place there. Three of us—Hesiek, Ben, and I—shared quarters in a rooming house on a tree-lined street in the northern reaches of London. Our main priority was our technical training at ORT. In the beginning, school consisted of about twenty boys and three teachers— our headmaster, Mr. Levinek, and two specialists in electricity and welding respectively. A few months later, a dressmaking department for girls was added to the ORT curriculum, and appropriate faculty was brought on board. The promised equipment had duly arrived, and we immediately set to work installing it and wiring it. I was part of the electrical group, and that was my job—wiring the facilities so the new machinery could operate. As I had anticipated, it was a great way to learn the job. 194

We immediately settled into a daily routine. The first three hours of our day were taken up with lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. After that, each student worked at his specific trade. The last two hours of the school day were spent learning drafting. In addition, my landlady’s husband owned a pocketbook factory, and a few times a week I went there to learn to cut leather. I thought that if my electrical trade didn’t pan out, I could fall back on another trade. I was determined to succeed and I knew having multiple skills would help my chances. The days passed quickly. By the time I had been in London for six months, my English was pretty proficient , and I was able to read and write the language fairly well. This also meant that I had no trouble getting around. On the weekends, I took the long Underground ride to visit my brothers on the other side of London, or I joined friends at the Primrose Jewish Youth Club, a social and sports club, where I played on the soccer team and did some boxing. I wasn’t a terribly good boxer, but I thought it was great exercise, was a good way of participating in the Club, and was certainly a diversion from the rigors of school. In the summer, whole groups of us—boys and girls together—went to the shore at Brighton. Yet as summer turned to fall, our ranks kept being diminished, as hostel after hostel closed, and their occupants, plus new immigrants still arriving from Europe, were scattered all over England—or were leaving for other countries. Most of my original group remained in London, but many others were starting their new lives elsewhere. Then one day, Isydor phoned to tell me he had received a letter from Abraham in France. I went to Isydor’s the next day after school to hear every word; I was ecstatic to think that all four brothers were finally back in touch with one another.


The news was even better than I had hoped: Eva was alive! Abraham was even now waiting for her to return to France from Palestine. As I heard Isydor reading those words, I stared at the blank wall of his flat and pictured my mother, my father, and the rest of our family sitting around a table as we had so many years before. “Herman? Herman!” My brother had to shake me by the shoulders to bring me out of my reverie. “What are you staring at?” he asked me. “Us,” I answered. “All of us—Mamusia, Tatus, you, me, Abraham and Sam. Eva. All of us together at Shabbos dinner in Bydgoszcz.” I paused. “Now, with Eva back, we are almost a whole family again.” Isydor took me in his arms and hugged me. Then he said, “Listen, Herman, there is someone I want you to meet.” It was the woman who had delivered Abraham’s letter. I had wondered, in fact, how the letter had arrived. How could Abraham have known where we were? How did he manage to find Isydor’s address? It turned out that this young woman had been in France visiting her uncle, who was serving in the British army at the time. She and Abraham had met purely by chance, and Abraham had asked her if she would be willing to try to find his brother in London and take a letter to him. She agreed and—obviously—succeeded. And Isydor wanted me to meet her—fast. I was introduced to her the next afternoon, in fact, and I remember thinking how very pretty she looked in her uniform. I also couldn’t help but notice that Isydor couldn’t keep his eyes off her. That was my first inkling that this nice young Englishwoman, Marietta by name, might someday come between my brother and me. “Someday” arrived quickly: Isydor and Marietta were married three weeks later. I had never seen a wedding and had no idea what to expect. Since Isydor could not afford a professional photographer, I was appointed to take the pictures—both at the synagogue, where 196

the ceremony took place, and at the small reception held for the newlyweds at the home of one of the families that had taken care of Isydor when he first came to London. He seemed well fixed, busily working as a dentist again, and now a married man. My brother Sam, by contrast, without a trade, was struggling to make a living—and was feeling the lack of the kind of intensive language program I had been lucky enough to undergo. At the moment, he was attempting to make his way as a carpenter, a skill he had learned in one of the camps. Abraham seemed settled in France. And I was busy creating a new life for myself. In one sense, the Rosenblat brothers were doing all right. On the other hand, we saw much less of one another were rarely together, and it seemed to me that our family was breaking up. It gave me a forlorn feeling, exacerbated by the fact that, except for the presence of Hesiek and Ben, I still often felt alone in a very foreign, very English world. I expressed this one evening to Isydor shortly after his marriage. “I feel sometimes that we are all losing each other,” I said. “Do you think so?” “Never!” my brother replied emphatically. “Herman, what we four lived through together has bonded this family forever. Wherever we are, wherever each of us may end up, we are absolutely inseparable. Forever one!” Slowly, I began to see it that way. Where one goes, we all go. That might not mean that we would be physically together in the same geographical location, but rather that we were so closely joined that not even geographic distance could separate us. The following year, 1947, it was Sam’s turn. He had met a woman, Jutta, had fallen in love, and planned to marry in April. A simple ceremony was planned. My uncle, whom I had never met before, was to come from France for the happy occasion. Abraham would be unable to make it, but his wife, my sister-in-law, whom I had known in Theresienstadt, would be there. 197

Best of all, however, my sister Eva, whom I had not seen for twelve years, was to come to Sam’s wedding. My excitement at the idea of seeing Eva again was only exceeded by the reality of her appearance, which was pure joy. Weddings are happy occasions in general—statements of optimism, of faith in the future—but the happiness at this wedding was magnified a million fold by our reunion. There had been a time when I doubted I would ever see Eva again. And now Eva was here; Eva was here! We gathered for a small reception at my brother’s apartment, but I wanted only to spend as much time as I could with my sister before she had to return to France, for who knew when we would see each other again. Her presence seemed to return an aspect of my mother to me. In any case, I knew my mother was present at the wedding, looking down on her children reunited—all but Abraham—and on our growing family. And Eva summoned so many memories of my childhood before the war—and of our happy family life. Even as I looked at this grown woman in her mid-twenties, I saw the young girl who used to play the piano for the family back in Poland. And I tried to incise onto my brain every detail of this visit so I could recall it later. Eva stayed in London for several days, and when we parted at the train station, we at least knew we would now be separated only by land and water—by distance, not by the imminent threat of death. “Next time,” Eva said as we embraced, “we will meet in France.” Life went back to its routine. I continued to study English, history, mathematics, and other subjects as well, and to expand and enhance my technical skills. In my course on electricity, I was learning electrical particle theory now as well.


I finished my schooling in 1948—a momentous achievement for me in a year that was exceptionally momentous for the Jewish people. The nation of Israel was being proclaimed, and it was under siege. A bunch of us, including Hesiek, Ben, and I, wanted to go to Palestine to fight with the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that would become the core of the Israel Defense Forces. We made our way across Europe and stood upon the soil we call Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, a very moving moment for all of us who had survived Hitler’s attempt, at which he nearly succeeded, to exterminate the Jewish people. But we never fought with the Haganah. The truth is the Haganah had little need of a bunch of eager but untrained would-be soldiers. In the end, Hesiek and Ben decided to settle in Israel and suggested I think about it, too. But with my family far away in England and France, I decided I would return to London, which I did after only some two weeks. In fact, the thing I most remember about that visit to Israel was a date with a nurse at the Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. Ben had arranged the date, and I remember that the four of us went to dinner and had lovely time. I also remember that my date was strikingly attractive and that I had felt instantly drawn to her, but knowing I was heading back to England the next day seemed a good reason not to follow my feelings, and I soon forgot even her name. Back in London, I left the rooming house and moved in with Isydor and Marietta in their flat near Regents’ Park. Eager to start my life in the electrical trade, I quickly found a job with an electrical contracting firm. I kept in touch with most of my friends from the training school and made new friends as well.


One of my new friends was Mark Goldfinger—a Polish Jew like me but one who had come to England before the war. Mark’s father owned a luggage factory, and when Mr. Goldfinger offered me a job there, I took it. Six months later, both Isydor and Sam became fathers. Needless to say, the focus of their lives was now on their children and on their duties as parents; fatherhood, as I would learn one day, concentrates the mind on the future. Yet our closeness as siblings seemed fresh and vibrant and as strong as it had been throughout the war. Then, in late 1948, Sam and Jutta immigrated to the United States. Added to the departure of Hesiek and Ben for Israel, this prompted a fresh sense of loss. Especially because we had already lived several lifetimes together, these separations were difficult for me. Yes, I was nearly nineteen years old, and yes, it was certainly time for me to stand on my own two feet and not to depend on my brothers—or anybody else—as I had done in the past. I understood this. I understood that each of us who had experienced the ghettoes and the camps had to make our lives separate and independent. And I understood that the bonds forged in that shared experience were stronger than the separation of oceans and miles. But it still hurt. Indeed, I was becoming more and more independent, standing more and more on my own two feet. By the middle of 1949, I had found my own place to live and was beginning to feel at long last as if I had the world by the tail. I was dedicated to making up for all the time I had lost, and I became something of a ladies’ man, dating all sorts of girls and going out on the town just about every night and off to Brighton on weekends, often double-dating with my friend Mark Goldfinger. With a little cash in my pocket, I was ready to enjoy the good life. I liked to work hard during the day and play hard at night.


In the beginning of 1950, I received a letter from Sam led in New York. “Would you consider living in the United States?” he asked. It could be arranged. Sam had found someone willing to sponsor me, and the pertinent papers would be forwarded. A month later, I got a letter from the American Embassy. Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Isydor and his family, I decided to investigate the possibility of immigration. To do that, I needed to go to the embassy in person. Then as now, the embassy offices were located in elegant Grosvenor Square, but I felt a certain reluctance about entering. Any official building made me nervous, for in the past, officialdom had always meant danger and difficulty. I reminded myself that the war had been over for five years, that I was in England now, and that there was really nothing to be afraid of. My appointment was with the immigration officer who had written me the official letter. “So how do you know Mr. Mazer?” the officer asked me. “I don’t know a Mr. Mazer,” I replied. “Really? Well, Mr. Mazer must be a really great friend of your brother.” He looked again at the folder on his desk. “He has agreed to sponsor your immigration to the United States . That means he has guaranteed the American government that you won’t become an expense to the taxpayers. That could amount to a great deal of money if you don’t find work, so this Mr. Mazer is really taking a big chance for a person he doesn’t know.” The officer set his eyeglasses down on the desk, told me I would hear from him within six months, and politely showed me to the door. Again, I had to consider the prospect of leaving Isydor, and as I had done since I was a child, I asked him what he thought. “I think you should make your own decision, Herman,” he


said. “You are a grown man now. It is up to you.” He added encouragingly: “Perhaps, God willing, we will also come to America.” Four months later, I received notification that my visa had been approved. In the second week of September, 1950, I boarded the Queen Mary and set sail for America.


Chapter 17 The legendary Cunard ocean liner, the Queen Mary, had served an important role in wartime, ferrying troops to points of conflict and then home again. Since 1947, however, it had been exclusively a tourist ferry between Southampton and New York, and I was looking forward to the ride. It had been hard to say goodbye to Isydor; he had been my surrogate father and had played a role of the greatest importance in my life, but somehow, I believed that he would one day join Sam and me in the United States, as eventually he did. Even at the time, however, I couldn’t help but feel excited as I climbed up the gangplank of the great ship. I didn’t have much money with me, and my shipboard wardrobe consisted of a single suit. What I did have was the feeling that I had been granted a clean slate to draw on. My mind was brimming with possibilities. But for the voyage ahead, I just wanted to think of nothing at all, to live for the moment, and to have not a care in the world. I wanted to banquet till sated and dance till I dropped. The idea of all that food available on an ocean crossing was enticing, for even though the war had been over for five years, it was as if my body automatically remembered the deprivations of the war years, and my stomach almost never felt full. To work off any extra pounds I might put on, I resolved to indulge in such strenuous exercises as the fox trot, the tango, and the rumba. And at first, that’s exactly the way it went: I danced all night, went to sleep early in the morning, and didn’t get up for breakfast till it was nearly the afternoon. I made friends with a lot of different girls, danced some more, ate some more. It was a great experience. I felt good about myself. I knew I was in a different world. My past seemed never to have existed. 203

But it intruded, of course, as one way or the other, it always manages to—to this very day. My cabin in tourist class was a tiny one, and although I wasn’t planning to spend that much time in it, the closeness of the walls nevertheless brought back a flood of unpleasant memories. When I lay down on the narrow bed at night, images from the past flashed in front of my eyes. In my mind’s eye, I saw my mother and father, whose deaths had made me an orphan too early in life, while the cramped quarters of the cabin harked back to the cattle cars that took us from Piotrkow to Buchenwald and from Buchenwald to Schlieben. It all reminded me that this was a very large ship on a seemingly infinite ocean, and it etched in sharp relief the loneliness that was never far beneath the surface of my life. Whether it was loneliness or my pained memory, the airlessness of the cabin made me feel suddenly panicked. It was as if I could not get enough air; I felt I might choke. I got out of bed, left the cabin, and went to one of the public sitting rooms. Seeing people talking, drinking, playing cards was a relief. I sat down on the couch and fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, a man in a uniform was looming over me. For a split second, I thought I was back in camp, and that an SS man was prodding me. But this was no SS man; it was a Cunard Line crew member, a simple sailor not much older than I. “Sir,” he said politely, “you must have fallen asleep.” He helped me off the couch, and I headed back to my cabin. I was beginning to learn that no matter how tightly I packed away my memories in that trunk in my brain, they would escape. The escape often came when I least expected it and in circumstances as unlikely as on a luxury liner built for pleasure. Not for the first time, I wondered whether I would ever be released from these memories. Would every new thought be measured against my past? Did other people relate to their past in this same way? Was every 204

event seared indelibly into the minds of others the way my past was seared into my brain? I knew I was not unique, yet it seemed to me that for others, for the other passengers on the Queen Mary, for example, the past was not nearly as frightening a room to enter as it was for me. It could not have been so, I reasoned, for the people who shared my table in the dining room: American couples for the most part, heading home from European vacations and having a good time along the way—people like Jack and Dorothy, a hearty, congenial pair from California who seemed to want to take me under their wing. “What are we going to do this afternoon?” Dorothy asked when I finally appeared at lunch the following day. One of the men suggested that we all go to the bar for a “couple of drinks.” Short of money, I bowed out, saying I had other plans. My plan was to relax on the upper deck in a lounge chair. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brilliantly with not a cloud in the sky. I closed my eyes and thought I might nap. Then I felt a tapping on my shoulder, opened my eyes, and there was Jack. “Come along,” he said to me, “let’s have a drink. You can’t sit here all alone.” Again I tried to decline, asserting that I simply didn’t drink. “What?” Jack was incredulous. “You mean you have never had alcohol in your life?” “That’s right,” I said. “We will have to do something about that,” he replied with a grin. A few minutes later he came back with drinks in his hands. “Here, for you.” “What is it?” I asked him, feeling wary. “It’s called a whisky sour,” Jack said.


I took a sip, and before I even swallowed, I began to cough. Jack cracked up, as if this were the funniest thing he had ever seen, and his loud laughter embarrassed me. That evening, I asked the maitre d’ to seat me at a different table, as I was afraid of further embarrassment. But Jack came over and apologized, asserting that he had not meant to laugh at me but was just very surprised at my inexperience with liquor. “Please come back to the table,” he begged. And I did, then joined Jack and Dorothy in the ballroom after supper. There, we ran into another couple they knew, George and Helen, who introduced me to their daughter, Jennifer— eighteen, slender, lovely, the classic picture of an American college girl. I was smitten instantly. The name Jennifer rolled like a river in my brain. She was absolutely beautiful—with long blonde hair, large dark eyes, rosy cheeks, and a slim body, and I could not stop staring at her. “This is Herman,” Jack said for me. I muttered something, and George caught my accent. “Are you German?” he asked me. “Polish.” “I see. And how long have you been in England?” The past— my wartime whereabouts and experiences—was the furthest thing from my mind at that moment, a conversation I didn’t want to have. What I wanted was to dance with Jennifer; I asked her, and she said yes, and as I followed her to the dance floor, I had a chance to admire her beautiful figure sheathed in a long white dress, and the way her hair moved rhythmically with each step. She turned, faced me, and opened her arms. It was as if she were saying, “I am yours.”


At first, we did not speak a word to each other. I, for one, was incapable of speech. My dancing must have been a matter of muscle memory, too, for I am quite sure my feet did not touch the ground. I was just floating on air. Our bodies were so close I could barely breathe. When the dance was over, we managed the beginnings of small talk. She asked if I had ever been to America, and her words sounded like a song. I shook my head. “And where are you going in America?” she asked. “New York. My brother is there.” “You must come visit me in West Virginia,” Jennifer said. Back at the table, George had ordered a bottle of champagne. It cooled me off for a moment, and the bubbles tickled my throat. When the bottle was empty, George and Helen, Jack and Dorothy announced it was “time for the old folks to go to bed.” It was two a.m. But Jennifer and I weren’t tired, and we danced the night away. Fox trot, tango, champagne, conversation. I was in heaven. Jennifer suggested we go out on the upper deck for some fresh air. She leaned against the railing, and her golden hair was illumined in the full moon. “Where have you come from?” she asked breathlessly. “I come from Poland,” I told her, “from a town called Bydgoszcz, but I have lived in England for the last five years.” It was all I wanted to say about the past; it was more than I wanted to say. Jennifer moved closer to me, and I took her in my arms and kissed her—for a long time. My eyes were closed, but I saw fireworks exploding in the sky. Nothing existed but us. “I wanted to kiss you from the first moment we met,” Jennifer said, and my heart took wing. 207

“You will never know how much I wanted to kiss you,” I replied, and kissed her again. The clock said four a.m., but for me, time stood still. I walked Jennifer to her cabin, kissed her good night, and seemed to float back to my cramped quarters. It had been the best night of my life. I dreamt that night that Jennifer and I were on a boat making passionate love—so passionate that suddenly, the boat began to tip over, and we both ended in the water. I awoke to find myself on the floor beside my bed. It was six in the morning. I got back in bed and just lay there, reliving the wonderful evening of the night before. Jennifer and I spent the whole next day together—every minute. She looked so beautiful when I first saw her at breakfast, dressed casually in a low-cut shirt and a pair of shorts that displayed her long legs. We talked endlessly all morning long—about her dreams of becoming a teacher and mine of becoming an electrical engineer. After lunch, she suggested that we go for a swim. I was too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t own a bathing suit, so I went to my cabin, picked up my total stash of fifty-five dollars, headed for the shops on Deck B, and bought a tendollar swimsuit. I now had forty-five dollars to start a new life in America. Jennifer looked stunning in her bikini. I couldn’t get over that so gorgeous a young woman—a college student to boot!—could really be interested in me. But she wasn’t just gorgeous. She was confident, assertive in that American way, proud of her body and of the way she conducted herself. She had no qualms about embracing me in public. When I mentioned that people were staring at us when we kissed underwater, her response was easygoing. “Let them,” she said.


I had never heard the term “shipboard romance.” If I had, I wouldn’t have understood it. I was wildly infatuated, thought myself madly in love, and was certain it would last forever. The great joy was that Jennifer reciprocated my feelings. While she probed me a bit about my past, the one subject I was reluctant to discuss, she was more interested in our future together, urging me to come to West Virginia, where, she assured me, her father could give me a job in his construction company. “You know I love you,” she told me, and I thought my heart would burst with happiness. That day together was like a dream. Our embraces grew more intensely passionate, our conversation more intimate. That night, I put on my only suit as usual, and met Jennifer and her parents for dinner. George and Helen could not have been more congenial. “You must come to West Virginia and visit us,” George said, and Helen agreed: “Jennifer is so fond of you,” she said, “please come and visit.” “I will try,” I said, overwhelmed by this friendliness. “Jennifer tells us you came to England in 1945,” George said. “Where were you during the war?” There it was again: the past I wanted to put behind me. But the question had been asked so often that I felt obliged to answer. I began to speak of my life—my childhood in Poland, the ghetto, the camps. I told it quickly, yet even this abridged version brought tears to Jennifer’s eyes. “You poor man,” Helen said quietly. Then no one said anything, and I asked Jennifer to dance. Later that night, as we strolled the deck, arm in arm, she told me I was the only boy she had ever loved. I took her in my arms, looked out at the vast ocean, and for a moment, it seemed 209

to me we were the only two people on earth. “Don’t ever let me go,” Jennifer said, and we kissed. I had never known a happier moment in my life. Someone loved and needed me. Surely this was the way to end the loneliness and despair that had followed me since childhood. We danced until daylight crept up over the horizon. The music stopped, and we continued to hold each other. Finally, we kissed and said good night. I went to my cabin, lay down on the bed, and basked in the knowledge that I loved and was loved. I was an uneducated man, with a burdensome past, and a beautiful, intelligent young woman had fallen in love with me. I woke up at one in the afternoon on this, the last day aboard ship. I dressed quickly and went looking for Jennifer. She was not in her cabin, and although I searched all the places on the ship that had become our haunts, I could not find her anywhere. Finally I saw her, tucked away in a corner of the top deck all alone. I ran to her and opened my arms as if for an embrace, but something stopped me. Jennifer wouldn’t look at me. She kept her eyes focused on the deck, and with a cry in her voice she told me that she would not be allowed to see me anymore. I was stunned. “Why? Is it because I have nothing?” I cried. Jennifer shook her head. “No. My father has forbidden me to see you again because you are Jewish.” I thought I must be hearing things. Was it possible that the very thing that had poisoned my past was now being uttered by the person I had thought would make up for my past? I was hurt to the quick—to a depth I had not known existed. But I was also angry. I turned and began to walk away. “Herman!” Jennifer called after me. I stopped. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she offered. I kept walking. I remained in my cabin for the rest of the afternoon—in the cramped, airless space that had once again reminded me of what I had suffered in the Holocaust. Was it possible in 1950, 210

when the facts of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution had been revealed, that I would once again be shunned because I was a Jew? I did not think George and Helen and their ilk wanted Jews to die in concentration camps; no doubt they had been horrified at what happened in the camps, and no doubt they thought of themselves as upright citizens and possibly even as tolerant people. What I realized with a chill was that this is how it all begins: First, you see the Jew as “the other”—someone you don’t want your daughter to date, someone you don’t think your kids should play with. And soon enough, “the other” had becomes “the lesser”—someone we don’t want in our hotels, or our clubs, or our schools. Once that happens, everything that happened to me and my family becomes possible. George and Helen and Jennifer were a reminder that even in freedom and in love, as a Jew, I could be seen and described in less than one dimension. I was absolutely devastated. I was also frightened. In what seemed a split second, the old bigotry had overturned the most powerful emotions I had ever felt. Happiness was clearly a fragile thing in a world where hatred could still overcome love, where prejudice still ruled. That evening I didn’t go to dinner. I didn’t want anybody to see me. I stayed in my cabin. There was a knock on the door. It was Jennifer. “I just wanted to tell you that my father didn’t mean it that way,” she said when I opened the door to her. “In what way did he mean it then?” I asked coldly. “I really don’t know, it’s all so confusing,” she said. “I am eighteen years old, but I don’t really know very much about our Protestant religion. I just know my father thinks it isn’t a good idea for people of different religions to be together.” She paused. “Please come to the dance tonight,” Jennifer went on. “Please dance with me again.” I told her I would see her there.


When I arrived in the ballroom, Jennifer spotted me and waved. I walked past her to the table where her parents were sitting, and I addressed her father. “I understand you told Jennifer not to spend time with me because I am a Jew,” I began. At nearby tables, guests in the ballroom turned, stopped their conversation, and looked at me. “Tell me, am I different today from yesterday when you invited me to your home in West Virginia? Did I change overnight? Have I suddenly become a monster with horns?” George said nothing. I went on. “You are nothing but a bigot. And you are teaching your daughter to be one too. If every non-Jew is as bigoted as you, then I am certainly glad to be a Jew!” The crowd in the ballroom applauded. I looked at Jennifer and saw tears roll down her cheeks. I did not feel sorry for her. Instead, I felt proud of myself for having had the guts to tell George off in front of all those people—even at the price of losing my first real love. We were not in Nazi Germany now. I could finally answer back, and I would. The next morning the ship docked in New York. I went for my last breakfast in the ship’s dining room, and Jennifer came over and sat down next to me. “I am very proud of your standing up to my father,” she said. “If you’re ever in West Virginia, here is my address. Please call on me.” Then she left. An announcement over the loudspeakers stated that all U.S. citizens were to be ready to disembark, while visitors and immigrants were to wait in the ballroom. I saw Jennifer walk by with her father, and although George did not look my way, Jennifer did. I checked the address she had given me: Morgantown, West Virginia. A long way away. I did not think I would ever see Jennifer again, yet I could not get our romance out of my mind. It had been a dream—till reality intruded. It was the same reality that had defined my life from the 212

very beginning: I was Jewish. Being Jewish had meant a childhood of limited options and constant fear. It had meant the ghetto and the camps. Even with the war over and on a ship bound for America, being Jewish had stood in the way of my first real romance. I had re-learned the lesson of this absolute reality, and reality is where I was going to have to live for the rest of my life. Yet also walking by among the disembarking U.S. citizens were all those people who had cheered when I answered back against George’s prejudice. Those people, too, were reality, and I had to remember that as well. After the citizens and the visitors had gone, there were just nine other immigrants and me left in the ballroom. My name was called, and I was summoned to a table where an official questioned me. Where was I going to live? What work would I do? Was I now or had I ever been a Communist, and might I intend to become one? I answered that I was not now and never had been, but as for the future, how could I be sure? “Can you be sure you won’t break a leg in the future?” I asked the official, who looked stunned. Our conversation ended there, however, as another official arrived with a note from Sam saying he was down on the pier waiting for me. I walked down the gangplank and there he was in the crowd. We embraced, and it made me think of all I was leaving behind in Europe: Isydor and Abraham and Eva and their growing families, but also the graves of my parents—one known and one unknown, the horrors of the ghetto and the camps, and the ashes of millions of people murdered for their faith because of ancient hatreds. Suddenly, as Sam and I waited beside the pier for a taxi, Jennifer came over, kissed me quickly, and said good-bye. “Who is she?” Sam asked. 213

“A reminder,” I said and resolutely turned my face to the new world.


Chapter 18 New York, I was instantly certain, was like no place else on earth. As the taxi took me and Sam up to his apartment in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, I was torn between my happiness at being with my brother and my desire to see all the sights out the window. My sister-in-law Jutta was waiting for us at the apartment, and after a cozy lunch during which we got caught up on all our news, Sam and Jutta assured me that they wanted me with them until I got a good job and was settled. That was both welcoming and reassuring, and I will always be grateful to both of them. My first days in the city were a whirl of sight-seeing and of “firsts.” When Sam and Jutta went to work, I wandered around their neighborhood on my own. I walked from their building on 144th Street and Riverside Drive to Broadway, looked into store windows, found a park, went back towards the river to watch the boats go by. How good to be alive and in a country of plenty, I thought to myself. In the evening, after supper, I was introduced to television. Although I had been trained in electricity and electronics, I could not imagine how this contraption worked. The first night I saw it was a Friday, and we watched I Remember Mama and several other shows. Then Sam and Jutta went to bed, and I kept on watching television until all the programs went off the air. It seemed an intriguing mystery to me at the time, yet some years later, television repair would become my life’s work. That first weekend, Sam and Jutta set out to show me the town. Down into the subway we went, and pretty soon, we emerged at 42nd Street. “Take a look!” said Sam, and he pointed up, up, up to the top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. In fact, the top was too high for me to see from street level, even from several blocks away, and when 215

we arrived at the eightieth-floor observation deck and looked down, I understood why: people on the street below were no bigger than ants. I was dazzled. Next we traveled to lower Manhattan to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Like millions before and since, I was moved by the symbolism of the Lady in the Harbor, holding her golden lamp. And as I read the poem by Emma Lazarus, herself a Jew, I understood that I was one of the people the poem was about. Surely I was “homeless” and “tempest-tossed,” and surely the Mother of Exiles was welcoming me as well as all those others. It made me feel that I had come to the right place. From Liberty Island, we came back up to midtown—to the center of everything, in fact: Times Square. By now, it was nighttime, and the bright lights, neon signs, glittering skyscrapers, theaters and restaurants and bars, all the busyness and noise were almost overwhelming. I was sure I had never seen so many people in my life, and I was certain I had never seen such diversity of people. We walked down Broadway, then strolled into Lindy’s, where Sam ordered coffee and cheesecake for all. I had never heard of cheesecake, and I had never eaten anything as delicious in my life. It was midnight when we headed back down into the subway and made our way up to the top of Manhattan; it had indeed been a day of wonders. The next day, we turned to more practical concerns, combing through the Help Wanted section of the Sunday papers and circling a number of ads for electricians. Sam gave me some pointers on how to prepare for an interview with a prospective employer, and on Monday morning, I was ready to go. Like many Europeans, I had perhaps thought that America was an offshoot of Europe and that New York was just another version of London. I would learn over the next several days, 216

however, that this was a foreign country. It started that morning when I went into a coffee shop to have breakfast before my first interview. The American coffee shop was an entirely new concept to me, and I was nervous about what to do there. The menu seemed to have been written in abbreviations, and I had difficulty deciphering their meaning. I decided to sit next to another customer and order what he did. At least, that way, I won’t look foolish, I reasoned. The waiter placed a cup and saucer in front of me. I noticed that everyone, except me, had his nose buried in a newspaper. Nothing yet had been said. I waited. The counterman pulled out his notebook and started going along the counter. I heard one customer order “English.” Another customer, without taking his eyes off the newspaper, ordered “Danish.” Aha! I thought, they are stating their nationality. So when the counterman came to me, I quite naturally said “Polish.” The counterman laughed. “Maybe you want kielbasa?” he said. And that was just the beginning of a very difficult day. I got lost on my way to the interview and when I did get there, late, I was told that if I had learned about electricity in England, I knew nothing. I protested that electricity was, after all, electricity, but that didn’t seem to convince anyone. It was the same at other interviews, and as the day went by, I became increasingly disappointed and discouraged. I went home without eating, walking most of the way from midtown to my brother’s apartment—a distance of several miles. Why had I come here? I asked myself. Why hadn’t I stayed in England where I had a job and knew everything I needed to know? Here I would have to start all over again from the beginning. But one thing was sure: I had no money to go back. I would have to make my way somehow. 217

It was late when I got home, and Sam and Jutta had started to worry that I was lost. “How did it go?” Sam asked, but I was reluctant to tell him about the rejections and just said I had been told they would let me know. The next day was the same. Job interviews came and went with nothing to show for the effort. Weeks went by—still no real prospects for a job. In desperation, I decided to look for a job in leather cutting, the backup trade I head learned in London. I told Sam, and since he worked in the garment district at the time, he said he would ask around for me. The very next day, Sam came home and announced that he had found a job for me as a cutter in a belt factory. I was excited but worried and didn’t sleep all night. What if leather was cut differently here? What if they didn’t like my work? What if I had forgotten how to do it? Early the next morning, I went downtown with Sam, who took me to the belt factory and introduced me to the owner. I was shown to a cutting table and was given a pattern and a skin of leather. Nervously, I started to work. I really wanted to do a good job. Fortunately, there was almost no difference between how leather was cut in New York and the way I had learned it in London. At the end of the day, the owner examined my work and took offered me a job at $50 a week. I thanked him and went away happy. I was on my way and soon would be independent. Two months later, I got a $5-a-week raise. I was feeling good. Confident. Happy. Looking toward a bright future. I dusted off my dancing shoes and started dating actively, putting the memory of Jennifer even further out of my mind. I had been in New York not quite six months when I began looking for a room of my own. Then something happened which settled my housing situation for me. “Greetings!” began the letter I received in April 1951 from none other than the President of the United States. I kept on reading and learned that I had 30 days to report to the induction 218

center at Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan: I was being drafted into the army. I was afraid that I might be sent off to the war in Korea, but I also knew there was little I could do about it. True, I had been in the country just five months, knew almost no one, and was not a citizen, but if I intended to stay in the United States, I would have to report. And so I did. Along with a bunch of other recruits all wearing long, somber faces like mine, we were told to form up, were counted, received a series of injections, and were then ordered to raise our right hands and swear to defend the United States of America. “Congratulations,” the officer said, “and now get ready to leave for camp in half an hour.” Again that word “camp”—another camp. But it was only Fort Dix, New Jersey for eight weeks of basic training, after which I was assigned to a military reservation in Trieste, Italy, quite near the border with Yugoslavia. I spent two years there, working in the post’s electrical department, part of the Post Engineers division in charge of all maintenance, making sure all the barracks and facilities were properly wired and equipped, and on every military leave, I went to France to visit with Abraham and Eva and their families. I did something else during my two years in Italy: I got engaged. Twice. My first fiancée was Hélène, a French woman I met on one of my visits to France. We hit it off, and when I returned on my next leave, I asked her to marry me. The second she said yes, I had a feeling it was all a mistake, and I soon broke off the engagement—to the relief, I was surprised to learn, of both Abraham and Eva. My second fiancée was an Italian. Trieste had long had a vibrant Jewish community, and when some 1500 Jews returned after the war, they immediately began to restore the Great Synagogue, one of the largest and most famous in Europe. I attended several functions there and 219

so met Natalia. We began dating and had been dating for about a year when my separation orders arrived, thus forcing the issue of our future. I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. But on the boat back to the States, I began to have misgivings. I suddenly felt too young for this great responsibility of marriage, and I worried that I would have to struggle to provide for two—eventually maybe more than two. Moreover, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing between us—some connection that ought to be there— and when I got back to the States, I wrote to Natalia and ended the engagement. Back in New York, I moved in with Sam and Jutta again till I got on my feet. That wasn’t easy: electrician jobs were hard to come by, and after a while, reluctantly, I went back to the leather-cutting trade. I also decided to go to night school to learn television repair and electronics, and after two years of study and training, I got a job with a firm that repaired televisions. I moved into an apartment on 157th Street with an old buddy from England, now also in the States, as a roommate, and soon thereafter, both of us joined two other “boys” from our hostel in England and moved into a house in Queens—a real bachelors’ establishment. I went to work as an electrician at Republic Aviation’s research facility and stayed for two years till a whole slew of Republic employees lost their jobs in a downsizing. I got a similar job right away, but there was another downsizing, and I was laid off a second time. I was tired of the uncertainty and felt frustrated working for other people’s businesses, so I decided to open my own television repair shop in Brooklyn. I called it Herman’s TV. I was tired of the uncertainty in my love life as well. Despite the evenings out on the dance floor and the numerous girlfriends, I was, as always, lonely—and looking for someone to assuage my loneliness. In 1954, I thought I had found her. Millie and I dated for several months until she simply asked me how long I thought we could go on without making any commitment 220

to one other. Once again, feeling unready, I broke off that relationship, for once again, I sensed that Millie was not the one. But where was “the one”? All my siblings were married and had families. All my friends were entering into committed relationships. But although I went out with many delightful, attractive, intelligent women, none of them carried the special brightness that would light the darkness in my soul; none of them pierced my loneliness. As always, I thought back to the little girl in Schlieben and the feeling her presence had brought to me. That is what I sought. It was time for my mother to send me another angel.


Chapter 19

“Do me a favor, Herman,” begged my friend Dave. “Let me fix you up with Sarah’s friend.” It was the summer of 1957, and Dave had met Sarah the previous week-end in the Catskills, the region of hills and streams north of New York that has long been a favorite destination for city dwellers eager to escape the heat of July and August in the city. Now he wanted to go out with her again—the plan was for an evening in Coney Island—but Sarah wanted her friend to come along, and Dave wanted me to date the friend. “She’s Polish,” he added as a special inducement, as if my Polish background was a bond I was eager to share. I was both weary and wary of blind dates. I was tired of trying to make conversation, ticking off various topics to find the one that would open the door to some sort of sharing between two people who had been brought together by others. I was tired of the anticipation I couldn’t help but feel each time—the hopes inevitably raised—wondering whether this woman might possibly be “the one.” But Dave was a friend, and he was asking a favor, and I had no plans for the weekend, so I agreed to go along. “You owe me one,” I told Dave. It was a debt for which I would never ask repayment. The plan was to drive first to the Bronx to pick up “the girls,” then head down to Coney Island. It meant a long drive from the top of New York virtually to the bottom of New York, and I can’t say I was looking forward to trying to start a dialogue with a stranger in the back seat of the car. Dave and I drove to the Bronx, found the apartment building, rode the elevator up, rang the bell, and waited. The door opened, and my heart leapt. The woman standing next to Sarah


was absolutely beautiful—black-eyed, black-haired, exuding a sense of energy and life—and I was instantly attracted. “This is Roma,” Sarah said. The name seemed magical to me—romantic. I kissed her hand. “Ah,” said Roma, “quite the gentleman.” The long ride down to Coney Island was wonderful. Roma’s English was not yet fluent, and she was glad to be able to speak Polish, so I reverted to my native tongue to make small talk just for the pleasure of looking at her. She told me she was a registered nurse in a large hospital in the Bronx; I told her I had my own television repair business. She asked where I was from in Poland. “Bydgoszcz. And you?” “Kutno.” I knew it as a city in central Poland, near Lodz. I had heard that there was a ghetto there, and that virtually the entire Jewish population had been sent to a death camp and exterminated. We skirted these issues; it seemed neither of us wanted to go there—at least not yet. Instead, we talked about how hot and humid the summer was, about seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show on television, about the new luxury car Ford had issued—the Edsel. We arrived in Coney Island, and the four of us had a lovely dinner in a seaside restaurant, then strolled the boardwalk. Dave and Sarah decided to go on some rides in the amusement park, but Roma and I chose to walk barefoot on the sand for a while. To say I felt drawn to this woman was an understatement. It wasn’t just that I was attracted to her; it went well beyond that. At the time, I supposed it was because of our shared background in Poland and the Polish language. Yet it felt more like the shock of recognition, as


if that elusive connection with another human being that I was always searching for already existed between us. And so, as if by unspoken agreement, we finally approached the difficult subject of our separate pasts—and where and how we had gotten through the war. I told her about Piotrkow and the deaths of my parents. And then I told her how I spent the rest of the war in the camps. She turned away at the mere mention of the word, as if at a painful memory, so I talked instead about England and my life in the U.S. Then I asked for her story, and this is what she told me: She was born in 1932 in Kutno, the oldest child of Bernard Radzika, a sheet metal worker, and his wife, Rose. She had two younger sisters, Milla and Basha, and a brother, Harvey, who was born after the war. As with any Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, her story was something of a miracle, and the survival of almost all of the family—she lost her youngest sister—could not have happened without help. In the case of the Radzikas, the help came from what history tells us was an unlikely source—the Catholic church, or in any event, one priest of the Catholic church. Bernard Radzika was working on a church building in 1939 when war was so very imminent, and the priest of the church advised him to “take your family and escape.” But how? Where? The priest arranged for the how by forging a new set of birth certificates for the Radzika family. In this way, he literally saved their lives, for armed with these birth certificates, they were able to obtain Aryan identification papers—perhaps the ultimate bulwark of safety in Nazi-occupied Europe. As to where, Bernard Radzika had seen a newspaper ad seeking a family to work on a large farm-estate in Germany, near the Polish border. And that is what they did. They made their 224

way out of war-torn Poland to the German countryside, to a place not sixty miles from the border. Both parents worked in the fields, and Bernard helped out with maintenance tasks while Rose put her homemaking abilities to work inside the house. Roma and Milla helped both inside and out. Only Basha was left behind. Considered too young to travel, she was left with Rose’s sister on the understanding that both sister and baby would soon follow the Radzikas to Germany. But events made that impossible, and Roma’s little sister as well as her aunt perished in the ghetto. The Radzikas had never been overly observant Jews, but now they found themselves attending Sunday mass and in numerous other ways pretending to be Catholic. Under this pretense and with their Aryan papers, the four of them survived the war. They returned to Poland, where Harvey was born, and where Roma was able to attend school—and they began to make plans to immigrate to the United States. Roma’s uncle was already in the States, and he was acting as the sponsor for their emigration, so when he advised them that it would be easier to immigrate from Palestine than from Poland, the family moved there. It was 1946. Soon after they arrived in Palestine, Roma began her nursing studies at the Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva… …and as she said this on the beach at Coney Island, the stem of a memory began to stir in my brain, and I remembered another blind date, in Palestine, in 1948 with a nurse from Beilinson. What a coincidence it would have been, I thought in a flash, if Roma had known the woman I dated at that time. Or if, by chance… But I let the unfinished memory fade as I continued to listen to her story. 225

There wasn’t much more to it. She had come to the States in 1953, had thus been here four years, and was happily established as a registered nurse at a major hospital—another survivor, like me, hungry for the future and ready to turn aside from an all too painful past. We walked on in silence for a while. Then we sat down on the beach and wiggled our bare toes in the sand. Suddenly Roma spoke: “There was a camp near us in Germany,” she said softly. “I remember that. A forced labor camp.” I recognized at once that this is the memory she had turned away from when I was telling my story. “I used to see it when I helped my parents in the fields,” she went on, “a camp surrounded by barbed wire. “And do you know? I used to sneak away from the fields each day to bring food to a boy in the camp. He was so skinny and starved-looking. And he never spoke. And every day I would bring a bit of food and throw it over the fence to him.” Time stood still. The world stood still. It seemed I could not breathe for a moment. Only my mind raced: Statistics. Probabilities. Impossible! “What did you bring this boy?” I was finally able to ask. “Bits of bread. Sometimes a piece of fruit.” “Just that?” Roma smiled, remembering. “And sometimes I wrote a note and wrapped the food in the note,” she said. “I took it very seriously, going there every day until...” Her voice trailed off. “ I like to think my little gifts helped him survive,” she went on. “I often wonder if he did.” Again, I could not speak. We were both silent. 226

“Do you remember,” I began tentatively, “what the boy looked like?” “He was tall. Very skinny. That’s all I remember.” She turned to me. “You’re very inquisitive, aren’t you?” “What did he wear on his feet?” I now asked. She looked at me strangely. “On his feet? Why do you ask that?” “Just answer,” I begged. “Rags,” she said. “Dirty rags, tied with string so that he would not lose them.” I could see the light dawning in her brain, the same light that was illumining my mind and pouring warmth into my heart. “Did that boy tell you,” I asked, “that he would be moving to another camp, and that you should not endanger yourself at the fence anymore?” There was no need for an answer. We both knew that I was that boy and that Roma was my angel at the fence, the girl who had saved my life, lit my darkness, given me the nourishment I needed for survival—in both body and soul. I felt as if I were emerging from a long, dark tunnel into the light. We sat stunned and motionless on the sand. The waves rolled in, receded, rolled in again. Then I took her hand in mine. “Marry me, Roma.” “But,” she began, “we’ve only known one another a few hours.” We both knew that wasn’t true. Besides, as I promised her then, we would have a lifetime to get acquainted.


Epilogue In June, 2008, we celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in the presence of three generations of family and a wide circle of friends. Yes, of course Roma was the nurse I had dated in Palestine in 1948. That was the second chance we were given to be together always. Having missed it then, it is little wonder I was so eager to take hold of her the third time, at Coney Island, and would not take no for an answer. If ever two people were fated for one another, it’s us. Isydor and Marietta took me down the aisle at my wedding, serving as surrogate parents, and Roma’s parents were there to escort her. Our respective sisters, Milla and Eva, were Roma’s maids of honor, and my brother Sam was my best man. We moved to an apartment, we both went to work, and every day I thanked God that my angel at the fence was with me for life. Our son Kenneth was born after two years of marriage, and our daughter, Renee, came two years later. By their Hebrew names, my son and daughter honor my parents, Jacob and Rose. Roma and I have never had much money. We often rented out the upstairs of our house to help make ends meet, and we have both had to work hard for years. For a while, in fact, Roma worked a night shift while I worked during the day and we only saw each other briefly during the week. On Sundays in those days, Roma’s parents would come and babysit so the two of us could have some time together when one wasn’t leaving as the other was coming home. In the summer, Roma would take a job at a sleep-away summer camp—both for the salary and so that our kids could go there for free. I would drive up on week-ends thinking how ironic it was that a country place where children came to play, a place that provided them health services on the premises, should be called a camp. 228

We have also had our share of illness, sorrow, and hardship. Like most people, we have known loss and grief. The one constant for us has been the love and respect we feel for one another. Whatever difficulty we might be facing, whatever sadness there might be, our love has never failed. I have never wanted to be apart from Roma, not even for one day. And every Friday, I bring her flowers and write her a note telling her how much I love her. At least, that has been my practice for these first fifty years of our marriage. Hitler failed. Hatred failed. Today, although I am the last of my siblings, my parents’ descendants are scattered across three continents, and our numbers continue to multiply. Love and caring have won out over bigotry and cruelty. I believe it has all come about through the grace of God, and I know how the grace of God has worked in my life; I see it in my dreams: We are all there—in a beautiful banquet room with a shiny dance floor. And we are dancing, all of us: Roma and I, and all my brothers, and my sister Eva dancing with my father, all of us swaying to the music. It is lovely music, a happy time. And there in the doorway, looking at us all and smiling and nodding her head, is my mother.


Afterword Jacob Rosenblat (father) Born Radomsko, Poland, 1886 Died Wolborz Ghetto, July, 1942 of Typhus Rose Rosenblat née Kamelgarn (mother) Born Czestochowa, Poland, 1889 Died Treblinka Death Camp, August, 1942 Isydor Rosenblat (brother) Born Lodz, Poland, 1911 Died New York City, 1979 of Cancer Abraham Rosenblat (brother) Born Lodz, Poland, 1913 Died [tk] Eva Rosenblat Yahonovitz (sister) Born Radomsko, Poland, 1915 Died [tk] France Samuel Rosenblat (brother) Born Radomsko, Poland Died [tk] Avram Wisberg (Uncle) Born Wolborz, Poland Died Treblinka Death Camp, August, 1942 Hannah Rosenblat Wisberg (Aunt) Born Radomsko, Poland Died Treblinka Death Camp, August, 1942 Barak Wisberg (Cousin) Born Wolborz, Poland Died Israel, 1984 Lutek Wisberg (Cousin) Born Wolborz, Poland Died France, 1992


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Description: herman rosenblat's "angel at the fence" memoir.