Eluding the Intruders
(pages 13 - 19)
I was in the barber shop waiting my turn. The barber had sat me on the special children's bench so I would be high enough. Then he wrapped the white smock around me and smiled. Suddenly there was shouting in the street. "Lozt arop die shiuzen, der gast iz do . . . Lozt arop die sbluzen der gast iz do." "Put down the grating, the guest is here," a man was screaming as he ran by outside the shop's window. "Put down the grating, the guest is here."
My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the chair. Quickly she put my coat on. The September air was chilly and our hasty departure didn't give me time to button my coat. There were many others in the street scurrying, slamming shutters, closing doors, pulling down window shades, drawing curtains. The entire city was in a crouching lope.
"Gicber Leibl." "Hurry Leibl," my mother urged, pulling my hand. I had never seen her move so fast. Though she didn't say another word, I could sense her frenzy. But I couldn't figure out if we were running to something or away from something. It took us a while to get to our destination because we had moved out of our own house to my father's building which was at the edge of the city. It was a brick two-story structure, where he grew up and where his mother, my paternal grandmother, and his sister Bobble, lived. My father made us move there just before the bombing began, only days before he left Bialystok. He felt that not only would the brick structure be safer during the bombing, but we would also be together. There was safety in numbers, he had told my mother.
By the time we reached the building, my aunt Bobble and both my grandmothers were already anxiously awaiting us. All the windows and doors were tightly locked. My father had painted most of the upstairs windows with black paint so no light would shine through during the blackouts. Like everyone in Bialystok, we were hiding, too.
The Germans were marching into Bialystok. And word of their arrival had spread throughout the city like an unchecked virus. All of Bialystok had hunkered down under an omnipresent fear. The Poles had been easily outgunned and outnumbered. It was hardly a contest, and now the victors were claiming their spoils without any resistance from the Polish army.
Because of our location on the outskirts of Bialystok, we were among the first to witness their arrival. One shutter was ajar so that we could catch a glimpse of the arriving intruders. The tanks came first. You could hear their thunderous roar long before you saw them. There were countless numbers of them moving slowly into Bialystok like so many alien robots. As they passed our building, they made a strange squealing and eerie noise. Oddly, they were followed by five horsemen. I sat in wonderment peeking through the shutter. They were in officer uniforms and one of them raised his hand as if to give an order to the long convoy of trucks carrying thousands of soldiers who were silent and grim.
We were being forced to look at the world in a different way. There was still a semblance of humanity. But that didn't last long. Immediately, there were orders. No one was to walk outside with their hands in their pockets. No one was allowed to congregate on the streets. Six o'clock curfew for everyone. Anyone violating the curfew would be summarily shot.
Across the street from father's building was a cemetery with neat rows of gravestones among tall trees. Some of the graves, my aunt once told me, were as old as the trees. For the dead, it was the final stop. For the living, it was a shortcut into town, a way of saving a good 10 minutes. During the day, it was a well-traveled route. After curfew, it was mostly deserted, although on occasion I would sometimes spot some brave soul hurriedly sneaking through the gravestones. Often after dinner, around dusk, I would sit upstairs at the living room window and gaze outside through a peephole I had secretly scratched in the painted window with a key. I had nothing else to do but to watch and think. Things were turning ugly, and inhumanity became the enemy.
It happened in front of my eyes. One evening, my eye had caught a teenage girl turning quickly into the cemetery on the way into town. It was near curfew time and she walked very fast. She held down her head as if that would prevent her from being seen. Suddenly, I saw not far behind her two German soldiers. When they caught up to her, they grabbed her and threw her to the ground. They were laughing. One of them held her arms down and placed his hand over her mouth, but not before she screamed out. The other fell on top of her. Over the years, that vision flashed into my memory off and on. I didn't understand what I had witnessed until sometime in my early teens, but I could never forget the incident. It kept turning up - and still does - like a recurring nightmare. I suppose I remembered the episode because it was my first encounter with violence - I had heard the girl's scream. It was the only time I ever witnessed a rape.
Not long after the German's arrival, we moved back to our own house. Because the bombing had stopped there seemed no reason to remain in the outskirts of the city. Besides, my mother feared that our empty house would attract looters. It was good we returned because not much later, they came to look for my father - just as he had anticipated. He was to be taken as a hostage. In the event anyone disobeyed their orders, he would be held responsible and shot. Once they entered our home, it made the war a personal affair. I saw their boots, their black clicking-clacking boots, but I don't remember seeing faces. Perhaps I was too afraid to look up. There was also the sound of their stern and bellowing voices. Several of them milled about the house, poking into drawers and closets. One began to shout when he saw my father's clothes. Where was he, they demanded. They spoke in a language vaguely resembling Yiddish. I had never heard that kind of shouting nor had I ever heard anyone yell at my mother before. She tried to remain calm although I saw tears welling in her eyes. Her fear was transmitted to me and I squeezed her hand.
Something had permanently changed. After the Gestapo left our house, there was always the fear that they would return. Dinner that night was eaten in total silence. From then on, everyone seemed to whisper. There was little conversation between my mother and grandmother.
Their apprehension permeated my being. How foolish of me to wait for sword fighters. There was hardly any fighting at all. Where were all the Bialystok fighters, I wondered. Had they left with my father? When would they return? Would I see my father again? Where was he? My mother said everything would be all right and that my father would be in contact. But the alarm in her eyes belied her words. I was afraid.
Although my mother began working at school again, she would not let me leave the house. I stayed inside every day with my Babba. Sometimes a friend would come over and we played soldier. Rumors and stories circulated among the children about relatives and neighbors who had been taken away for work somewhere by the invaders. Myron, the grocer, was dragged out of his store and had both of his hands broken because two German soldiers accused him of overcharging for bread. Rochl Wiseberg was taken away and never heard from again. The Goldberg's house was set on fire and burned to the ground.
Two more weeks had passed, and by now all over Poland synagogues were going up in flames. Senseless violence against Jews had become habitual and commonplace. And though there was an overwhelming dreariness on the streets, the situation in Bialystok had not yet erupted into the insanity of the Holocaust. One reason was because Bialystok had become part of the prewar tinkering between Hitler and Stalin. Teutonic Knights, Prussians, Germans, Russians, and Poles; it made no difference who dominated. They all did so with a heavy hand as far as the Jews were concerned. There would be little sympathy generated from the locals for whatever plight the Jews faced. In 1934, for example, the Polish government denounced a promise made in 1919 to guarantee civil and political equality to its minorities. At the time, Jews represented about 10 percent of the total Polish population. Pogroms became more frequent. Jews trying to get into universities and professional schools faced a strict quota system. Such discriminatory regulations and restrictive practices became an economic noose that had tightened even more in 1935 with the death of Poland's premier, Marshal Pilsudski, the old revolutionary and diehard socialist. By 1938, a torrent of anti-Semitic legislation swept the country that included even withdrawing citizenship from Polish Jews living abroad.
All its promises to respect the rights of minorities were scrapped. Anti-Semitism was a ready-made lightning rod to divert revolution. But the Jews persisted with their religious, educational, and cultural institutions. They even managed to organize politically. And in the late 1930s, Jews shifted their support in municipal elections from the Zionist parties to the socialist-minded "Bund," which in the elections of 1938 and 1939, claimed sweeping victories in many large cities including Bialystok. That's how my father won his seat on the city council. He was a Bundist who abhorred the Bolsheviks not much less than the Nazis. For him, Communism was as bitter a pill as Fascism. By whatever name, totalitarian states stole a person's mind, my father would say. For him there could be no compromise of intellectual freedom.
As a child, I did not have a grasp of what anti-Semitism was all about. I knew that we were moderately comfortable and my parents were respected teachers and that there was a parallel world in which the gentiles spoke no Yiddish. There were rules that people played by, but the political leaders kept changing them, my father would explain to me. My mother agreed. Sometimes there would be heated discussions between my father, my mother, and their friends about the inevitability of war and how Poland would be the first target.
History, geography, and politics were some of my father's favorite topics. He knew quite a lot and kept me informed about everything. My parents always explained what was happening around us. Children, my father said, should understand history and political matters because they kept repeating themselves. Children must always be aware of what is happening around them so that they are prepared. One is never too young to learn, he stated. But it was my mother who did most of the teaching. We were close, because it was easy to be close to her. She was not only smart and insightful, she had the sixth sense one hears about. She knew my questions before I could ask them, and always provided the answer. Later in life, no matter how. hard I tried to keep it from her, she always knew when I had a bad day trading the market.
Thus, even as a kid, I knew there was something about history and politics that aroused passion in grown people. Although I was by nature quite shy, I was comfortable around adults and I had learned to listen to them closely. Though I might not always understand what they were saying, by the time I was six, my ear was tuned to pick up on the emotional ebbs and flows of their conversations. The decibels in their voices would rise whenever the topic was politics. Later, my parents would explain.
If, however, there was any lesson to be learned, it was never to ignore politics, even at a tender age. I and my schoolmates were removed from all of it, until Nazi madness became a child's war, too. Like our parents caught up in war-ravaged Europe, we also found ourselves coping with the rules of chance and probability and distorted codes of conduct. The world had unwittingly taken Hitler's bait and was paying the price; Jews were methodically being annihilated man by man, woman by woman, child by child.
To survive took wits - and luck. And time. But by September 1939, the fate of Europe's Polish Jews had been compressed into a matter of days. When the Poles refused to give up the port of Gdansk, Germany invaded, touching off the war. The Germans attacked from the west. Seventeen days later, Russia sent its troops in from the east. Two days later, the German and Russian armies met near Brest Litovsk, and Poland was pulled apart like a piece of taffy. The partition sent Jews scurrying in every direction; some 300,000 of them fled into Soviet occupied Poland that now included Bialystok.
In just weeks, Bialystok had moved from the hands of the Poles to the hands of the Germans to the hands of the Russians. Bialystokers were wringing their hands in frustration. The town elders, who long ruled Bialystok, were now emblems of Tolstoy's view of history in which the most powerful generals often have less freedom than the foot soldiers, becoming prisoners of the events and forces they have sought to strenuously manipulate.
After the acrid smoke had lifted and chunks of stone and brick lay scattered, after the whir and whine of incoming barrages, after the clatter of machine-gunfire, after the whop, whop of mortars in the countryside, a strange calm settled upon Bialystok. It was as if the old city had paused to gasp for breath. Perhaps a last breath. The day had arrived when Bialystok was to change hands.
My mother took me to witness the strange ceremony. We were among thousands who had lined Bialystok's major boulevard bisected by a carefully manicured grassy parkway with a rainbow of flowers. It was an historic event: the German troops goose-stepping down one side of the avenue on their way out of the city, and a little later, the Russians troops marching up the other side as they triumphantly entered the city. Although there was clearly a festive mood, the crowds stood silently watching the Nazis leave. No one publicly dared to display any pleasure at seeing that hated enemy depart. Later, when the Russians soldiers appeared, the crowd broke loudly into cheers and, suddenly, red flags appeared everywhere to welcome the incoming "liberators." Looking back on that scene, it is easy to understand that the Bialystokers were welcoming what they perceived as the lesser of two evils; two of the most repressive and cruelest regimes in history had been shoved down Bialystok's gullet. The Poles seemed to be saying the odds favored the Russians as far as their chances for survival. After all, the Russians had been to Poland before. They were a better choice than the Germans. The prospect, however, left a queasy feeling in one's stomach.
Even the Bialystok elite who had fled with my father, showed their confidence in the new conquerors. Bringing up the rear of the Soviet troops marched the returning councilmen and other prominent citizens to the relief and delight of their families and friends. But not my father. Only he and one other close friend were not part of the returning entourage, much to the sorrow of my mother. Why had he failed to return with the others? Did he not miss his wife and child? Had something terrible befallen him? Why did all the others know to return with the Russian army, but not my father?
What had happened to him, no one knew. Those who returned told my mother that he was a stubborn fool, that his anti-communist views had clouded his good senses, that his refusal to return with them sentenced him to a life of hiding and fear. They said these things, until they learned of their mistake.
How strangely things turn out. Even before the week was out, all those who had followed the Russians back into Bialystok were rounded up by the GPU - the precursor to the dreaded KGB - and summarily arrested to be sent off to Siberia. We never heard from them again. The Russians, it seemed, no different than the Nazis before them, wanted no part of the hierarchy of Bialystok. In effect, by returning to Bialystok, the councilmen and others were turning themselves in. Now it was painfully clear. My father was right not to trust the Bolsheviks. He could not return to Bialystok. In effect, for him to remain in Poland meant either a Nazi firing squad or a Siberian outpost. He was now truly a man without a country.
They came to look for him just as did the Germans. These were not soldiers, nor did they wear boots. They were in plain clothes, but the stern language was the same. My mother could speak to them because she knew Russian fluently. No, she didn't know where my father was or when he would return. Yes, she would advise them as soon as she heard from him. Fat chance!
Of course, we did not hear from him and had no idea of his whereabouts. He seemed to have vanished from the earth. Had he gone underground to become a partisan, my mother wondered? Was he safe? Had something befallen him?
"Why do you always fear the worst?" my aunt Bobble would say. "You need not worry," she said to my mother. Father was too smart, too shrewd, she insisted, to be caught. After all, hadn't he avoided the fate of his fellow councilmen?
It didn't help. "What about those who returned?" my mother pointed out to Bobble, "They were smart men, too." My mother always thought the worst. To her, disaster lurked around every corner. Especially for Jews.
What were the chances of a fugitive Jew escaping two enemies bent on destroying him? And where do you run in a world at war? Obviously, what my father needed if he were still alive was time, time to figure things out. To come up with a plan. Even Stalin had bought himself some time with the non-aggression pact. And Hitler also bought time by not having to open a second front by facing the Russians in the east.
If only my father would contact us. Once again, I found myself waiting and afraid
Last Updated October 30th, 2003