On September 1, 1939, World War II started with the German-Soviet invasion of Poland. German’s air raided the town of Tomazow twice. Further air raids were carried out in the following days, forcing many inhabitants to flee. The Germans bombed houses, factories, and fire engines. Grandma saw soldiers of the Polish Army cowardly run away, throw away their uniforms and flee the city.
On September 5, the Battle of Tomaszów Mazowiecki was fought between Poland and Germany. On September 13 the Poles lost the battle and the Germans entered the town. The Einsatzgruppe III arrived to commit various atrocities against the populace. The Germans then looted the town, burned houses, and committed murders of many of its inhabitants. The Great Synagogue, next door to Grandma’s house, was burned to the ground on the 16th of October 1939; the remaining two synagogues were destroyed between the seventh and fourteenth of November 1939.
From September 7th to the 9th (1939), Tomaszów was bombed by the Nazi air force; a large part of the Jewish quarter, located between the walls of the market square and the old city defensive walls, was destroyed by fire. A great number of the Tomaszów Jews were killed at that time.
After the Nazi army had invaded the town on 13 September, Jewish property was robbed, and mass Jewish persecution started. In the end of September, the Red Army entered Tomaszów and stayed there for a dozen of days. Along with the withdrawing Soviets, the majority of local Jews (about 4,500 people) left Tomaszów, among them the last rabbi of Tomaszów – Arie Leib Rubin. Merely 1,500 people remained in the town.
When the Nazis again took over the town, they murdered all disabled Jews, and forced all the others to leave the town’s center. The Jewish population was gathered in a dozen houses located mostly in Piekarska Street, where an open ghetto was established. The Nazis devastated the cemetery, and in 1940 blew up the ruins of the synagogue left over after the bombing. Grunwaldzka Street was paved with the bricks from the synagogue’s walls up to the building of the secondary school, which housed the headquarters of military police. The matzevos from Tomaszów’s cemetery were used for paving a pavement in front of the house of the German prefect of the town.
Jurkiewicz Family – Tomaszow Poland, Rosh Hashanah 1939
They were very naïve of what was soon to occur to European Jewry. They did not feel that they needed any economic assistance. She had two younger brothers: Josec and Icek. Josec was murdered during the war.
The Jurkiewicz family store was located in their house. The store was closed on the 13th of September because it was the Erev Rosh HaShanah (29th of Elul 5699). The Jurkiewicz’s had a family hardware business. All the members in the family worked. They sold hardware, silverware, building materials. They supplied the building materials for entire neighborhoods in Tomaszow.
Eventually, the Jew-hating Poles brought the Germans to the Jurkiewicz home. Grandma’s brothers were initially taken away by the Germans on the Saturday after Rosh Hashanah, September 16, 1939. The Nazis conducted door to door house arrests of all Jewish men.
They banged down the front doors with their Gewehr rifles. They forced grandma’s mother to open the rest of the store and then they proceeded to empty the contents of their hardware store onto the street. The local Germans and Poles stole everything they could manually grab. The Germans arrested grandma’s brothers Icek and Josec and took them away. Several of their German customers promised to help get her brothers back.
Her mother, Esther, was so traumatized at the destruction and theft of their family store and abduction of her sons, that she began screaming in frustration and pulled off her Sheitel in public. They all screamed out loud in desperation and cried in protest, but to no avail. The Nazis eventually left.
Szyfra was eventually able to secure the release of Icek from the Germans (he subsequently survived the war and later on lived in San Francisco). However, Josec was nowhere to be found.
The Jurkiewicz apartment was adjacent to the main shul. Their windows actually faced the Great synagogue at Handlowa Street that was famously built in the form of a castle. On October 16, 1939, the German military came by and ordered the Jurkiewicz family to cover all of their windows. All night long the Germans doused the Great Synagogue with gasoline and worked hard to burn it down. The flames of the burning Shul made the roof of grandma’s building catch on fire. So, the Jurkiewicz family had to work all night pouring buckets of water on their own roof to prevent their home from burning as a well.
In the morning, all that was left from the Great Synagogue was a burned-out shell. Also, the next morning the German military officers came by and put on a show, stating that they wanted to know who committed this arson and destruction of the Great Synagogue! Everyone knew that the Germans were guilty of this crime.
Trip from Tomaszow to Krakow
It became clear to grandma that it was time to leave Tomaszow as soon as possible. At this time Szyfra was a young lady aged twenty-three years old. She was frequently harassed by the German soldiers.
Eventually it was discovered that Josec was sent away to a forced labor slave camp in Germany. After two months of hard labor, he was returned to Krakow to serve a local German Army unit. One man from this slave labor detail escaped to Tomaszow and told Grandma the news that Josec was alive in Krakow (the old capitol city of Poland). She therefore hitched a ride with her sister to Krakow in order to find her brother. She was accompanied with two other women, who were trying to find their husbands after they were arrested by the Germans.
There was no ghetto established at that time. But they had to wear “Jude” arm bands. She still had this arm band when they lived in Sweden at the end of the war. In Lodz after the war, in the comitet (the repatriation office) she found a bar of soap made from Jewish body fat and buttons made from the bones of Jews. The walls in the city of Lodz, after the war, were covered with names of people looking for survivors. She did not find any survivors from her family after the war.
On the way to Krakow, they stopped in Czestochowa, since they ran out of gas. She had a maternal Aunt who lived there; she did not visit her at that time. They were stranded. Nightfall came and they attempted to hitchhike; however, no cars stopped for them. All the cars passing by were German military cars.
Suddenly, a German army jeep stopped. The Officer said,
“Get in as many as you can fit!”
She was afraid at first to enter the vehicle. She told him that she was Jewish.
“Jueden”, Szyfra replied.
“But you are a mench (a human being)!”
Szyfra explained that she was accompanied with other women who were also Jewish.
“That does not matter, get in!”
They sat in the German Volkswagen Kubwelwagen, a total of five people in the car. During the ride, his German companions in the car warned him,
“What are you doing with civilians? You are on a mission!”
He seemed to be a high-ranking German officer. He retorted,
“I am fulfilling a humanitarian gesture.”
Krakow, Ancient Capital City of Poland, November 1939
The German officer drove them all the way to Krakow. As they approached the edge of the city, they had a motor vehicle accident and they crashed into a telephone pole. The entire vehicle fell into a ditch. The occupants of the vehicle all fell on top of each other and miraculously no one was injured.
They were directed by the German officer to walk towards a local street car and continue on into the city of Krakow. They stayed by the home of the uncle of one of the women; they were orthodox observant Jews. The next day they made their way to the military camp for Jewish prisoners. They brought with them suitcases filled with sandwiches, rolls, meat, and cheese. They proceeded to throw these food items over the fence of the compound towards the Jewish prisoners, who were clearly starving. She was hoping to spot her brother in the crowd.
This ruse worked and her brother Josec eventually approached them with the crowd of prisoners running towards the food. However, she did not recognize him at first, because of his malnourished appearance. As the prisoners ran towards the food, the German guards began shooting the Jewish prisoners, some were actually killed on the spot, and others escaped. Szyfra and her sister ran away from the camp.
Over the next ten days they witnessed many atrocities. This included seeing Jewish men wearing Taliesim being harassed by the Germans. Jews were being shot dead in the street. At times Jews were made to run naked in the street prior to being shot dead by the Germans, for fun.
They finally found someone who offered to get her brother out of the prison; only if they paid him the proper fee. This fee was to be determined by this con-man sending an inspector to Tomaszow in order to verify how wealthy they were. She gave the smugglers a cash deposit and then waited for them to return and evaluate her financial status in Tomaszow Mazowiecki.
This ransom fee was to be collected in conjunction with leaders of the Jewish community. The Jews worked together with the Nazis in this type of dirty business. This was typical in Krakow Poland, November 1939.
Szyfra was friendly with a local German, who was a school principal. Prior to the war he was a very nice and amicable with their family. However, when it came to help free Josec, everyone promised to assist but actually did nothing.
Unfortunately, at this time, they were unable to secure the release of her older brother Josec for any financial price. They tried getting help from friends, Germans, Poles, to no avail. Since they had a big business, they had lots of contacts and connections. However, this did not help them free Josec initially.
In the meantime, someone told them, “There is a high-ranking officer. If you lie to him that your mother needs your brother at home, he might release him to you.” She did exactly that. She explained that her mother is a widow, and that this boy was the breadwinner of the family. After a ten-minute conversation her brother Josec was miraculously freed!
Josec told them of stories of the many beatings he suffered. However, he was fortunate since he was not sent to forced harsh labor. He was physically ill and not very muscular. On the return trip home with Josec, they left Krakow and took a train to Piotrkow Trybunalski. Then they secured a horse and buggy as a means of transportation. Eventually, they got on a bus for the rest of the ride home to Tomaszow. This is how the ten day trip to Krakow concluded.
Back In Tomaszow from Krakow
The return journey from Krakow to Tomaszow was terrible; Grandma Szyfra described it as a nightmare and like the stories of “A Thousand Arabian Nights”. It drained a lot of her mental energy and strength. When they arrived at her home, the German’s military police soon followed. They were making inquiries about her brothers, whom they previously arrested. The Poles informed on them to the Germans.
When she returned home with her brother Josec; people around her thought that that she was the one freed from the prison camp, since she looked terrible. She had developed a dark complexion on her face as a consequence of her recent stressful experience.
One of her neighbors was severely abused by the Germans. They attempted to cut off this beard with a knife; in the process they removed a significant part of his face with his beard.
Josec could have run away to the Russian side of the border. However, Szyfra wanted to show her mother and other family members that she was successful in saving her brother. They were all understandably worried, and she wanted to cheer them up.
They had German customers. Many of them owed them large sums of money, since they purchased products on credit. The Poles wanted to take advantage of the situation. If the Germans could catch the Jurkiewicz family with illegally housing her brother who was a prisoner, the Poles felt that they would not have to pay back the money they owed. In reality, the Jurkiewiz family did not care about the money, and would have preferred to be left alone.
Grandma told everyone who would listen, that they must leave Poland as soon as possible. The German soldiers returned to their house again looking for her brothers; two days after she returned from Krakow. They heard that her brothers were back at home. After this incident, she helped her brothers Josec and Icek, fiancé Lejbus Pelta (my grandfather), Icek Pelta (my grandfather’s brother) with his wife Sarah, and her brother in-law Nesanayil escape from Tomazow to Baranovichi.
At their initial failed attempt, Josec and Icek both rode on the same bicycle from Tomazow to Rawa Mazowiecka. It was a long ride. They had no idea where to from there, so they returned home to Tomazow. Nesanayil also returned to Tomazow. He got as far as Warsaw and then he turned back as well.