Refugee

1. Fleeing Poland (1939)

Not many pictures survived. They were the only members of that family to survive.  Abraham, his wife Esther, and their daughter Jonah, six or seven years old; they are all dressed in their best clothes, as if it was a special occasion. They are looking straight at the camera, into a future which they could never have imagined.

Jonah remembers that spring, that summer, as almost perfect, her parents were at peace: with each other, with their jobs, which were finally paying well, and all the family gatherings and picnics, all together, all happy (as she remembers), all two hundred of them (once she could recall all their names), and her favorite aunt had just given birth to a baby girl.

Sometime after Jonah’s seventh birthday, August 6th 1939, Jonah accompanied her Father to a Yom Kippur Service at Warsaw’s main synagogue, a grand building, she tightly holding her father’s hand. It was the only time she went to a synagogue; her parents were not religious. She doesn’t remember the service, only that it was the most beautiful building she had ever seen. 

It was a beautiful time for a little girl, a somewhat spoilt girl, but an anxious time for her parents.  The German war machine was poised on Poland’s borders.  September first she should have returned to school. But school was cancelled. Instead the bombs fell.

The Poles were defiant.   Not a button off our coat!  was the refrain.
When it was over, Poland had ceased to be.

So they didn’t give a button, she remarked.  Instead they gave the whole coat.    They smiled at the little girl’s wit. There was not much to laugh about.

Every night the bombs fell. Days were spent gathering food, water, and preparing for the night.  At night the bombs fell. They gathered in the basement of the next door building. Jonah, her Mother and Father, all their neighbors from their building; all those from other buildings, which had been destroyed.  Crammed into a small basement, hiding from the bombs. As the bombing continued and more houses were destroyed, more and more people collected into the basement, squeezed against each other, frightened, despairing, tense and tired.  Listening to the bombs. Listening to the swish, swish as they fell all around, waiting, waiting, for the explosion, the bone rattling explosion, hearing how close, hearing them fall closer, closer, to the left, to the right, to the north, to the west, and the east, hearing them all around, and the relief as they passed by, another night they had been spared.

And during the day looking around, seeing what damage had been done, walking long distances through destroyed neighborhoods searching for water, and waiting for another night spent in darkness and in fear; trying not to.

More and more neighbors collected in that basement. The basement was small and crowded with too many people, all crowded into a small space, standing room only, pushing against each other, struggling against each other and against fear, and struggling for air. The basement was hot, the air thin, the atmosphere claustrophobic. 

Finally Jonah’s Mother, a tiny women just 5 feet tall, could take it no more, could not take the suffocation, the fear and panic, the fear of being more frightened in the shelter than of the bombs falling all around.  They left the shelter and took their chances in their own ground floor apartment.

A few days later, the neighboring building, the one with the shelter, took a direct hit and collapsed in fire and dust. Most of those in the shelter were buried under the burning rubble.  Only a few survived.

A few days later, their own building was hit.  There was extensive damage but no fire.   They were unharmed, but had to flee the unsafe building.  They walked through the streets, through the streets of Warsaw as Warsaw burned. All around there were fires, fires burning out of control, consuming the city.  The sky was lit up, the sky was filled with bright dancing lights, so beautiful in their horror and evil. They passed a hospital that had been bombed and was burning.
They found refuge in her grandfathers home, her father’s father.

The next day, Jonah’s father returned to their partially destroyed apartment building, hoping to salvage a few possessions from the shell that had once been home. He collected some items, two large bundles wrapped up in sheets. He took them outside, saw a neighbor and asked her to watch his bundles while he returned to bring out more. When he returned, the neighbor was gone and so were his few possessions. Just as he passed the gate, he heard a rumble behind him. What had once been his home was now a cloud of dust and rubbish.  He picked up what little he had salvaged, and slowly walked towards his father’s home.

Once, Jonah accompanied her father to the cemetery, Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, where there was fresh and clean water.  In the cemetery, they walked down a narrow path.  On each side, high mounds, were piles and piles of charred bodies.

Daddy, Daddy.  Why are they brown?  Why are they brown?
He did not answer.
Did somebody spill iodine?
He didn’t answer her.
He did not take her again.

[For some reason the Germans did not destroy that cemetery. In spite of occupation, the revolts and the complete destruction of Warsaw, that cemetery survived.  It is perhaps the only physical reminder of the Jewish presence in Warsaw.  It is very over grown, those who would maintain it —all gone.]

The Germans occupied Warsaw. Tanks and armored vehicles guarded every corner, an army of occupation strutted along the streets, citizens of Warsaw were commandeered to clean up the destruction, and Jews were abused..   
The city attempted to create a charade of normalcy. Jonah’s school reopened. She returned to school.  The school was occupied by the Germans.

What are you doing in my school?
Get out of my school.  You have no business being here!
The Germans laughed, and offered her candy.
I don’t want your candy.  I want my school!
Her school had been moved to some small buildings behind the main, now German, building.

While Jonah resumed the illusion of a normal existence, her parents tried to make do.   Their livelihood destroyed, they sold garments on the street. They continued living with his father and older sisters, but uneasily.  The two sisters, old maids, had never gotten on well with Jonah’s Mother, Esther. One sister had given up her room for her brother’s family, and never let them forget it. They did not approve of the permissive way they raised their daughter. There was tension in the apartment.

With the Germans in occupation, with half the city destroyed, with restrictions on Jews, the outlook was not rosy.  One day they received a letter from Esther’s brother. He had been hiking in eastern Poland when the war started. He drifted into Russia, found work, and liked it there.
Come, he wrote, Life is better here, and there are no Germans, and no anti-semitism.   The people are good. Come.

They did not come right away. It is no easy matter to leave home, family, friends,  and familiar surroundings. No matter how hard conditions became, Jonah’s father was always content. He did what he needed to do, and hoped the world would let him be.  Esther–—tiny, charming, intelligent, energetic and strong willed–—had a sense that the Germans would not let them be.  She argued, she pleaded, she begged, she did everything in her power to persuade her hu-sband that they should leave. He was content. He would not budge.
All right. Stay! If you want to stay, stay. But I’m leaving!

That finished the argument, and they made preparations to leave as a family. The preparations were simple, the Germans had seen to that.  Their few clothes, bedding, and some food.

The three of them took a rickshaw to the train station. Her Father, Abraham, a handsome man well dressed in a dark suit and a grey coat, her Mother wore a coat with a fur collar, and Jonah was wearing a green coat, and a small green hat with a rim band of small flowers. All were wearing their best clothes.  Jonah carried a small knapsack, and two metal milk cans filled with goose fat.

Their tickets were for a space in a cattle car. Normal passenger cars were for the exclusive use of the occupiers. They clambered into a car, which soon filled up with many more trying to leave Warsaw. Just before the train was scheduled to leave, a German officer climbed into the car.

Juden raus   Jews get out!

He was wearing a leather jacket and the veins on the neck bulged.   A few got off the train.  Juden raus.

The veins on the Germans neck throbbed. He searched into all the faces, looking for the Jews.  Esther hid behind a tall man. Jonah held onto her father’s hand. There was silence in the cattle car, just some feet shuffling nervously.  Abraham felt he could hear, could feel,  the German’s vein throb. He watched, in horror and fascination, as his veins bulged in and out. In and out.  Some men pulled their caps down over their faces.
 Jude Ñ Mach aweg die Mtze! Jews!  Move your caps!

He forced some more men out.  He gave a last baneful stare at the remaining Poles and started to leave.  You left a Jew behind!   A Pole cried out, pointing at Abraham. The German paused and looked at Abraham. Abraham started to walk towards the door. His daughter held onto his hand.

You. You have a little girl. You stay.
The German pointed to the Pole. You get off!

He pushed the Pole off, climbed down and shut the door.  The train left Warsaw.  A small little girl, dressed in her best, hanging on to her Father’s hand, had somehow momentarily aroused an element of humanity within a person bursting with hate, and saved their lives.

They travelled all night, arriving at Biala Podlaska early in the morning, a town near the River Bug the new Polish-Russian boundary. Esther had a friend there, a doctor. The city was unnaturally quiet. There was no sign of life on the streets. Houses were shuttered and still. Stores were locked. The only people on the streets were German soldiers. They had no choice, so asked one of the German officers if he knew where the doctor lived.

Yes, he replied, I know him, a good man.
He offered to take them there himself. While walking through the street escorted by the German officer, they saw a column of Jews, 20 - 30 persons, being led through the city by some German soldiers. They had obviously been abused. Some had half their hair or half their beard shaved off. The Germans were screaming at them.
Jude!    Ferfluchter Jude    Jews!!   Dirty Jews!
Meanwhile, a Nazi Officer was escorting some Jewish refugees to the home of a Jewish doctor!

Once they had settled in with the doctor’s family, they learned the source of his popularity with the Germans, and the reasons for their protection. The German Commandant had taken for himself a Polish mistress. Her jealous husband had stabbed him. The doctor had treated him.. The Commandant was a frequent visitor at the house, a stocky, red faced man with his arm in a sling. 

However, that protection did not extend to the doctor’s Father. He was one of the abused whom they had seen when they had first arrived in the town.  Eventually he was released, a tiny old man, traumatized.  Nor did the doctor’s skills protect his home from arbitrary searches.  One day, at dusk, the Germans, searching throughout the neighborhood, burst into the doctor’s home.  Jonah’s father fled out the back and hid in the outhouse. The Germans saw a shadow in the garden, and went in search.  They found the doctor’s father hiding in an ante-room, and searched no further. Abraham was spared, but the old man was taken away once more.

Life under Nazi occupation is a precarious existence.

Arrangements had been made, a man had been payed to take them to a fisherman who will ferry them across the river to the Russian side. They left the following night, traveling under hay in a horse drawn cart. But the guide did not take them to the fisherman, however, but left them in a deserted barn. He said that he would return later, but if they wanted him to take them any further, they would have to pay, again.

Hours later he returned, they paid what he demanded, and so they continued on to a fisherman’s house near the river. The fisherman had a daughter, Jonah’s age, and they played together. She showed Jonah her dolls, they played hide and seek around the house. They played hop scotch, throwing the stone, hopping, hopping through the squares, picking the stone, throwing it again, challenging each other.  

The fisherman called his daughter. When she returned, she said that she had an errand, Come.  Come with me.
The two of them went to the police station, the German Police station.  While Jonah’s new friend went inside, Jonah ran back to the house.
The Germans are coming!  The Germans are coming!

Her parents and the other refugees who were waiting to cross the river could do nothing but wait. They did not have long to wait. The Germans ransacked everyone’s luggage, taking anything of value. One man had a suitcase filled with woman’s underwear and some perfume. They beat him.
Speculator! Dirty Jew!

They abused the large, well dressed woman with a young son. They went through all her  belongings and were not pleasant when they could find nothing of value.
Stop joking, we know you have more money.
We’re not stupid.
What do you take us for?
Where are you hiding it.
It’s better that you tell us.
She swore that was all she had.  They had taken it all.
I have nothing.  Nothing.
Finally they let her go. 

They did not bother much with Jonah and her family. Their possessions were so meager , they could be nothing but refugees. Abraham had very carefully sewn their money into the thick, triple hem of one of Jonahs dresses. That dress,  a beautiful, pleated orange woolen dress, had originally been made for a party celebrating the birth of a cousin. Their money was safe within the dress, which remained Jonahs best, sometimes only, dress. She wore it for many years, the hem being taken down as she grew up.

After the Germans had left, the fisherman’s daughter complained to Jonah, Why did you leave me?  Why did you run away?

The River Bug, brown, slow moving river was the divide between two friendly but hostile empires. That night it looked very dark and frightening. Jonah looked across to the other side but could see nothing but emptiness. The night sky was dark and there were no lights.

The other travelers the man and the woman with her son went first, rowed across by the fisherman's son. Jonah and her parents went with the fisherman, slowly and quietly rowing across in a small boat. They were in the middle of the dark and still river as the other boat approached the far shore.  The Russians started firing at the first boat, and soon the Germans joined in the sport.    The fisherman stopped rowing.

It’s too dangerous.  We’ll have to go back.
No. You must go on.
No, its too dangerous.

They pleaded with him, and reminded him that they had paid him to to take them across. The shooting had died down. The other boat reached the shore in safety,
All right, I’ll take you, but you will have to pay me more.

They paid, again, and he continued rowing to the Russian side. As the boat approached the shore the Russians started firing again. The fisherman forced his charges out of the boat.  They had to wade through the shallow and muddy water and into the embrace of the Soviet Army.

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Copyright 2017© by Peter D. Goodwin