In the last decade, before her death, my mother became progressively distraught. It was the knowledge that she was running out of time of ever finding out the truth, of how and where her family perished. She spend hours talking about them, how she left them behind on a dreary November in 1939. My mother was the only one in her family who read Mein Kampf. She believed Hitler and his evil plans for Europe’s Jews. At the same time she had no idea what genocide meant and that it was about to be unleashed on her people. My mother fled, she lived, her family stayed, they all were murdered. My mother’s family in Warsaw was murdered most likely in the Ghetto and in Treblinka. She felt defeated, powerless, overrode with guilt. Her entire family disappeared without a trace. Not knowing, how the family she loved died, overwhelmed her. Death was never far from her mind. After such thing as Auschwitz, life in many respects stopped for many survivors. My mother returned to be among the living, but lived among the ghosts of her murdered family. I watched both my parents haunted by darkness, burden by unbearable memories and what I alleged as capitulation. Holocaust aftermath and living with Communist terror tinted my childhood. Thinking about those years, in my later years, I realized that my parents while dealing with darkness that enveloped their life found a way to fight back. They kept the only shred of dignity they had, even as our lives were threatened. After the war they refused to join the communist party. They survived Soviet Russia and Uzbekistan but they refused to be brainwashed by the dangerous communist ideology. Far too many did not follow their lead.
Mein Kampf, Hitler’s evil plans for Europe’s Jews was first published in 1925, Hitler came to power in 1933. For 10 years before coming to power Hitler was brainwashing his people. This did not happen overnight. His visions were clearly spelled out in his book. Hitler demonized, isolated and blamed only the Jews, his was a virulent hatred of Jews, portraying them as sub-human. He used them as a scapegoat, blaming them for Germany’s economic and social problems. The persecution and anti-Jewish decrees, began shortly after he came to power and after he came to power in 1933, half of German Jews fled the other half perceived themselves as German first.
Giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler only emboldened the aggressor, and on September 1, 1939 he attacked Poland. After a month of bombing, Nazi Germany marched into Warsaw. My mother was able to recall vividly the scenes from the attack on Warsaw. “As each house caught on fire from the bombs, we would run to the nearest house that was still standing. At one point, the whole Jewish neighborhood was on fire. We listened helplessly to cries for help. Dead and wounded lay strewn in the streets. There was no place to run; what we needed now was a miracle. Pola and I jumped over dead bodies to get to the safety of next building. I saw a dead man on the street still clutching a sack of his belongings. A few steps further, a young woman lay on the pavement calling out for help. Blood gushed from her legs. We had to jump over dead bodies as we were running for cover. It took all my strength to keep going, I was terrified. The black sky, the smell of smoke, and the deafening sounds penetrated everything. I had never known such fear. I tried not to look at the corpses around me. I let Pola take over. She would tell me when to run and when it was safe to stop. I was no longer rational. All I wanted was for the bombing to stop.”
Heinous treatment of Jews by the Germans was immediate. From the start German soldiers, for no reason at all beat Jews in the street of Warsaw. My mother witnessed this before November 8 1939, the day she escaped. A couple of days earlier she met on the street her old friend Roman. He was the boy she dated briefly and helped get out jail. She was surprised to see him since he was supposed to be in Russia. His only dream had been to go there and join the revolution. Meeting him that day on the street is when my mother realized people chose obliviousness and that her generation was doomed. His face turned red, as he proceeded to tell my mother how he switched and how now he was working for the Nazis. My mother went into a shock. The first thing that came to her mind was the letter she help deliver when he was in jail, to his revolutionary organization, begging them to buy his freedom. She had been an instrument in getting him out of jail and now Roman was collaborating with the Nazis. She said good-bye to him. She needed to get away in a hurry. Walking away, she was dizzy with emotion. She couldn’t understand how a Jewish person could turn his back on his own people and collaborate with the Nazis. My mother was both horrified and scared by Roman’s lack of morality and his cowardice. Most importantly, Roman’s actions made her realize, how dangerous the situation actually was.
Prior to the war, the Kehilla organization served the Jewish people. It existed in every city and town. In Warsaw, it managed to stay in operation until October 4, 1939 when it was replaced by the ‘Judenrat.’ The Nazis’ ordered the establishment of a Jewish council, the Judenrat was responsible for implementing the Nazis’ orders in the Jewish community. Warsaw Jews were soon made to identify themselves by wearing a blue Star of David on a white armband. Jewish schools were closed. Jewish-owned property was confiscated, and Jewish men were taken to perform forced labor. Prewar Jewish organizations were dissolved. By October 1940, all Jewish residents of Warsaw were forced to move into a designated area, sealed off by the Nazis from the rest of the city. The Warsaw Ghetto was enclosed by a wall that was over ten-feet high and topped with barbed wire. It was closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the outside world. The population of the ghetto increased as Jews from nearby towns were forced to move into the Ghetto. The population was estimated to be over 400,000. During the next year, thousands more were forced to move there. Typhus and starvation, along with random killings, claimed 100,000 people—this even before the Nazis began massive deportations from the Ghetto’s Umschlagplatz to the Treblinka extermination camp. Adam Czerniakow, a Polish Jew appointed by the Germans to be in charge of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Judenrat, government, committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill, on July 23, 1942, a day after the start of mass extermination of Jews.
My mother run away from Warsaw in November of 1939. She made her way to towns like Siedlce and Losice and crossed the Bug. She was detained by the Russians in Drohiczyn and a Russian soldier saved her life. The town of Bialystok was their next stop. From there she was forced to sign up for mandatory work inside of Russia, this saved her life. She lived in Saratov until the Nazi invasion of Russia. There she met my father, a survivor from Lodz. They traveled with the Polish army in February of 1942 to Guzar, Uzbekistan. After being discharged from the army my parents stood on a platform and almost got on a train to take them to Iran. They knew many survivors who did just that, to escape the daily hunger. What stooped my parents was the idea of moving further and further away from their homeland, Poland. They survived for one reason only, to return to family they left behind. Both my parents grew up in a large, closely-knit family. My father’s loyalty and love of his family was one of the things that attracted my mother to him. The thought of going home to Poland, back to their families, was what kept them alive during their six years in Russia. In Uzbekistan they were isolated from the rest of the world, returning home in the summer of 1946 they were unprepared for the shattering news, that all Polish Jews had been murdered. My mother walked through the ruins of Warsaw crying. She was twenty-seven and broken. She had lost everything. The war was over, but in her mind, the enemy had won.