Two Days of Infamy that have Remained Enshrined
in my Memory Forever

    

     The days that I have in mind are August 30 and September 1, 1939. On August 30, 1939, Stalin ratified the friendship pact with Hitler. This ratification was the last nail in the coffin of close to fifty million people in Europe, among which were six million Jewish People.

     The entire world was shocked with disbelief from such a treacherous step taken by the Communist Soviet Union who was supposedly the standard bearers of freedom and democracy for the working people throughout the world. Freedom loving nations could not believe that Communism could join hands with Fascism and give Hitler the green light to attack Poland. The above agreement permitted the Soviet Union to stab Poland in the back and occupy Eastern Poland.

     On September 1, 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. Within days almost all of Poland was occupied by the Nazi hordes. During the first few nights the Germans rained incendiary bombs throughout Tarnow, the city I had moved to for work. These bombs set the entire city on fire. I was alone in a big city, not knowing what to do. I had no one to ask for advice. Frankly, no one could give me any advice.

     An avalanche of refugees flooded the city. Some were heading east, and some were already returning home after the German troops had caught up with them. There was no transportation to get out or to get in. The railroads were in shambles.

     I had two choices: to go home to my birthplace and be with my father, or join my brother who was working in a bakery about 15 kilometers from the city. I decided to go and see my brother and together decide what to do next. I left my belongings in the place where I was staying, thinking that after we decided what to do I would return to pick them up. I left town on Monday afternoon, September 3rd, joining the people who were leaving town.

     There were thousands of refugees heading in both directions; it was total pandemonium. Most refugees were Jews. Even though the roads were unpaved, they were off limit to civilians. They were cleared for the retreating Polish Army. We had to use the soft edges of the roads or the ditches on both sides of the road.

     Every few minutes, German planes flew low and strafed people with machineguns, killing and injuring soldiers and civilians. Every time we heard the oncoming planes we jumped into the wheat or potato fields. The Angel of Death was constantly hovering over our heads. One time when we got up after the strafing, we saw a German paratroop military unit that had just landed in front of us. A nearby ammunition factory was their target; luckily, they did not bother the civilians.

     When I arrived at my brother's bakery the doors and windows were ajar and a hungry crowd of refugees had just stripped the bakery of everything edible. I found my brother's employer and asked him about my brother's whereabouts. He told me that in all probability he left in the direction of the city where my married sister was living, a distance of 25 kilometers.

     Now I was confused again and did not know what to do next. In my stupidity or confusion, I decided to go back to where my belongings were and planned from there to join my brother and sister. My brother's boss fed me some bread that he had managed to save and some hot tea. I was stupefied. What a fool I was to think about my belongings - I hadn¹t learned anything from what I had just seen with my own eyes on the road to my brother¹s bakery - how people threw their belongings away, being too tired to carry them on their backs.

     Before the day was over I turned around and went back to Tarnow to pick up my miserable belongings and immediately began marching again towards Dombrowa where my married sister was living. I walked all night and arrived in Dombrowa early in the morning. I had never walked so many kilometers without rest and barely made it to my destination. My feet were covered with blisters. My sister was glad to see me and so was my brother. They could hardly withhold their tears, since I was the youngest sibling. For a while we were happy to be together and hoped to come up with a plan what to do next.

     The city was overcrowded with refugees. The retreating Polish Army, even though on the run, did not forget to pilfer Jewish stores, and the cavalry men, while riding horses, whipped every Jew they came across with their riding crops. There was a serious food shortage, mainly bread.

     My sister¹s in-laws owned a bakery that had been requisitioned by the army and she was forced to bake bread for the retreating soldiers. Fortunately, I was able to sneak into the bakery through a secret entrance and carried out a few loaves of bread for our family and also helped some hungry refugees with their children.

     There was panic all around us. We were stunned from the sudden onslaught of the Germans, and from the influx of the refugees who told us horror stories about their mistreatment from the retreating Polish soldiers and by the occupying German soldiers.

     And the Jewish tragedy was growing by the hour. At first we thought about going east, believing the rumors that there was still a possibility that by heading southeast we might avoid the German Army. Older people, who remembered the Germans from World War I, insisted on staying put. They claimed that as soon as the occupation was completed the situation would improve. They claimed that after all, the Germans are not animals, they are a cultured nation. How wrong they were.

     In any case, we got ready to move as soon as the situation was clear, because there were rumors that the Polish Army was concentrating along the Visloka River and would try to stop the German forces there. These rumors made us worry again because the Visloka River flowed through our beloved birthplace and our father was there. There was no means of communication.

     We stashed away a few loaves of bread, packed our knapsacks and waited. Tuesday and Wednesday, September 5th and 6th we spent waiting. On Thursday the army cleared out from the bakery; they could not risk being captured by the advancing German Army.

     Announcements were pasted on bulletin boards all over the city that on Friday morning all residents would have to evacuate the city to the immediate outskirts because explosives would be placed in a few strategic locations to stop the German advance troops from entering the city.

     The Polish army was lagging behind in their escape and was afraid of becoming war prisoners. In the meantime, local non-Jewish neighbors were gloating and waiting for the arrival of the Germans. The hatred for their neighbors was so strong that it did not bother them that they were losing their own freedom.

     The Jewish Cemetery was located on the outskirts of the city and there, the Jewish population sought shelter Friday morning. Silently, the families gathered together in separate groups. Their mouths were paralyzed, and no one was able to exchange any words.

     I was there with my brother, my sister with her husband and three little darling boys. Her elderly in-laws and my brother-in-law's great-grandpa, who was almost a hundred years old, were with them too.

     Around eight o'clock in the morning we heard the explosions, one after another one. One strong explosion was heard from a nearby bridge. Rubble from the bridge came flying upon us, but no one was hurt. Brokenheartedly, everyone sat behind gravestones immersed in his or her own thoughts. I was lying on the grass protected by a huge gravestone, and my whole young life story passed by me like a movie. With deep regret and disappointment I thought about how unlucky I was: Finally when I had just begun living a decent life, socially and even romantically, with a fine girl, such tragedy has befallen not only me but also the entire Jewry. My instinct bode ill; I knew that the Nazi onslaught would be very tragic for mankind in general and particularly for the Jews.

     I felt abandoned by the mankind and by God. Friday, September the 8th in the early afternoon hours, a local water carrier brought us the "good tidings" that the first German patrol had arrived and was parked in the central square. Who can describe the faces of the people around me? I couldn't. Marching back into town with everyone, each carrying a bundle of valuables that was brought to save it from pilfering, it felt like we were going to our own funerals. All that could be heard was sighing and little children crying about being hungry.

     Coming home, the women immediately began preparing for the oncoming Sabbath Day and the men started to bake some bread in a hurry from the leftover flour the Polish soldiers did not use. We happened to live across the street from Rabbi Weidenfeld who, by the way, was one of the famous Talmudic Scholars and Torah authorities in Poland. We went there for the Sabbath evening services.

     It was a pity to look at the gloomy faces that had gathered in that room to praise God for his greatness, having given us such a precious gift as the Day of the Sabbath Rest. We looked in the Rabbi's direction, expecting to hear some words of wisdom. All that he said was that we have nobody to rely on but the Master of the world, and to pray to Him for help. On that day the Nazis had occupied the entire Galician District including my beloved shtetl, Strzyzow.

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