My grandparents survived the Holocaust in Poland. They survived by their wits. They were only in their early 20s when the war began. My grandfather managed to buy fake Catholic identity documents, the Schatzbergs became the Sawickis, and they were off. They traveled around Poland, never staying in one place for more than a couple of months. My grandfather played violin in street orchestras. My grandmother tutored in Polish underground schools. They lived in constant fear of someone recognizing them and denouncing them to the Germans, or to the Polish police, who would surely have handed them over to the Germans.
My grandfather was the sole survivor of a very large family. My grandmother’s two sisters survived.
I am a parent now. My children will know their late great-grandparents’ stories when they grow up. They will share them with their children.
There is one story that I know especially well. When I heard the news that the lower house of the Polish parliament voted to criminalize any implication of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes, I decided to make sure that the story gets out.
The story is about Arnold. No one in our family, to our great regret, remembers his last name.
In the spring of 1944, my grandparents found themselves in eastern Poland. They found jobs as orderlies in a small hospital at the outskirts of the town of Bychawa, in Lublin County. By then it was already clear that the Nazis were going to lose the war. The Red Army was barely 100 kilometers away. It literally became dangerous for the Germans to come to the hospital at night because of the partisan fighters in the surrounding forests. Consequently, the hospital began treating underground fighters from different partisan groups.
Most prominent among the partisans was a large unit of AK fighters — the Home Army partisans, who received their orders from the Polish government in exile, in London. Their ultimate goal was to liberate Poland from the Nazis before the Soviets got there — the history is known; they ultimately failed.
One evening, my grandparents heard that the local AK were going to bring their wounded to the hospital. Someone mentioned to my grandparents that the unit had a doctor from Lvov. The Sawickis were not from Lvov, but the Schatzbergs were. Not only that, but my grandparents were doctors who had finished their medical studies in Lvov on the eve of the Nazi invasion. The chance that a doctor from Lvov would recognize them was very real.
Instead of tending to the wounded, my grandparents hid in the attic of the hospital. The partisans arrived close to midnight. Looking down at the group through the cracks in the roof, my grandparents recognized Arnold. Arnold, whose parents had owned a kosher butcher shop in Lvov. Arnold who studied medicine with my parents.
They slowly went down and began helping with the wounded. Arnold saw them, but behaved as if he had no idea who they were.
By the morning, my parents went back to their room. A sudden knock on the door woke them up. It was Arnold. After the three of them stopped crying, he told them how afraid he was of coming to the hospital because someone told him that there might be someone from Lvov working there. Although he had spent two years with the AK unit, he had never told them his real name, never told them he was Jewish. The AK fighters were members of the ND — “the National Democracy” — a strongly nationalistic and anti-Semitic movement. He did not want to take a chance, my grandparents remembered him telling them. My grandfather also remembered giving Arnold a pair of long underwear. They made plans to reunite after the war.
By the summer of 1944, the Red Army arrived and eastern Poland found itself free of the Nazis. As different underground units came out into the open, my grandparents started asking about Arnold. Finally, some of the AK fighters remembered. “Ah, that Zhid doctor” is what my grandparents heard. “When he told us he was Jewish, we shot him.”
When the AK fighters found out that Arnold was Jewish, they killed him. They killed a doctor who had tended to their wounded for two years. They killed someone who had saved many of their own lives.
Were the Poles complicit in the extermination of the Jews? The story of the village of Jedwabne, where the locals massacred hundreds of Jews, is well known. Did Polish police give up Jews to the Nazis during the occupation? They did. Did AK fighters kill Arnold? They did. And now the descendants of those Polish nationalists voted to criminalize those who suggest that Poles were complicit in killing Jews. According to that new law, I am guilty.