Mr. George Topas (Part 1)

I was born in Warsaw, Poland.  My father’s family had been in Warsaw for generations. My mother, whose maiden name was Borenstein, came from Plock, a city west of Warsaw.  She was a law student at Warsaw University and was hired by my paternal grandmother to tutor her three sons.  Eventually, she married the oldest son, Abraham Chaim (Henry), my father-to-be.

I was born in a home that was not religious. When I was about eight years old, my father became a baal teshuvah. At that point, everything in our lifestyle changed.

I was the oldest of three children. We were well off — my father and my mother, Genia, together with my paternal grandparents, owned a shoe factory and several shoe stores in Katowice and Warsaw.

Poland was known for its anti-Semitism for years. However, in Warsaw, which had about 300,000 Jews, it was not felt as badly as in provincial towns.

I went to Gymnasium Chinuch, which was a Jewish high school.  I was fortunate that when I studied there, we were required to learn either German or French, in addition to Hebrew.  My father advised me to learn German. It came in handy.

In the summer of 1938, my father saw that war was looming and decided to send me to an agricultural school. It was a Zionistic school in Eastern Poland. He felt that a farmer would have a better chance of emigrating than a professional. I feel that this school was partially responsible for saving my life, because there we worked extremely hard and it made me very strong.

My bar mitzvah took place on January 1, 1938, at the biggest shul in Warsaw. Moshe Koussevitzky was the chazzan. We saw Jewish refugees arriving from Germany and the clouds of war hung heavy over us. 

I remember that a few years prior to the outbreak of the war, my father sat with my grandfather in his lavish dining room trying to convince him to liquidate his businesses, sell his properties and leave home to emigrate to Canada.

My grandfather’s answer was, “And who will know Topas in Canada?” Topas Shoes were well-known in Poland. The family business had been established in the early 1900s. But who would know them elsewhere? “Do you think that these are Avraham Avinu’s times, that you could move from one place to another?” he asked. So, no, we would not leave.

Nevertheless, in August 1939, my grandmother left Poland on one of the last ships to leave the country. My father went with her to the American consulate in Warsaw. He told her to dress in her fur coat and wear nice jewelry, since the officials at the consulate was very suspicious of people who wanted to travel to America. They were afraid that these people would settle there and bring other refugees in their wake.

When they questioned my father on the purpose of his mother’s trip to America, he said, “She wants to see the World’s Fair.” They gave her a visa without any hesitation. Her passport has a stamp dated August 22, 1939. Her ship docked in New York just days before the outbreak of the war.

I recall that on September 1, we were in the dining room of the agricultural school when we heard on the radio that the war had begun.  We were told that on that morning, the German air force had bombed Warsaw.  Hitler did not declare war before attacking Poland from the air.

At first the administration of the school thought they would keep it open until the war passed.  When they realized that the war was not going to be over quickly, they allowed everyone to return to their respective towns except for the students from Warsaw, because of the bombing there.  Not long after, however, they let us go home as well.

The Polish authorities in Warsaw ordered all able-bodied men to go to southeast Poland, where they would be recruited by the army. The Polish government was especially interested in men like my father, who had served in the Polish army previously. My mother wired some money to me, so that I could purchase a train ticket and come home.

That was not to happen, however.


To be continued.

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.