Mr. George Topas – Part II

When the war started, you were studying in southeastern Poland. Your mother wired you money so you could come home to Warsaw. Did you get home in time for Rosh Hashanah?

Five other boys and I left school and marched for a few days to get to Lublin. We started off by train but the train tracks had been bombed about 25 miles into our trip, so we had to get off and walk the rest of the way. We were inexperienced and didn’t know how to deal with the situation. It would have been wiser for us to march at night and sleep during the day, but we did the opposite. There were bombs falling and many casualties, but we did make it to Lublin.

Once we got there, we headed straight for a shul. It was on the same street as Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. The people there were very hospitable and brought us food several times a day. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, while I was davening there, I spotted my father up front! He, too, had come from Warsaw and we were reunited.

The Germans marched into Lublin between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the day they arrived, they positioned German soldiers at the entrance of each apartment building, shouting that the women should remain inside and the men should come out. My father and I assembled with the other men in the street.

The soldiers marched us to the former Polish army barracks.  There were hundreds of people there. My father, who knew how to speak fluent German, walked up to a German officer and asked him how long they were planning to keep us there. The soldier said, “Until the German army passes through Lublin, to protect them from being shot at.” My father tried to get permission for me to return home, but the officers refused to let me go.

The next day, women arrived to bring food for us. I went up to one of them and offered to carry her basket for her. I acted as if I was one of the minors who had come to help bring the food and I left the compound with her. In this way, I got past the guards and I was able to bring my father things that he needed. The men were kept in that place a few days and were released just before Sukkos.

My father was befriended by a Chassidic family and the two of us stayed with them in Lublin for Yom Tov. During this time, we had no contact at all with our family back in Warsaw. With the railroad tracks bombed out, travel was extremely difficult. After Sukkos, my father hired a horse and wagon together with some other families and we planned to return to Warsaw.

When we finally got home, we were reunited with my mother and brothers. The apartment building that my grandparents owned and lived in had been badly damaged. The Germans had assigned to each building an administrator whose job it was to collect the rent. Our building had a German woman as administrator. My father made a deal with her: He offered to do the repairs on the four-story building and she would pay him from the proceeds of the rent that she collected. My brother and I helped by clearing the masonry.

I remember Shabbos Shirah during the winter of 1940. We were davening at the home of a Chassidic Rav who had a shtiebel.  The main shuls in Warsaw were closed. At one point, everyone in our minyan gathered around the Torah. I asked my father what they were looking at. My father pointed out that in the Torah it says, “The enemy declared: ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide plunder…,” which in gematria equals 1,940 — corresponding to the year 1940 when all this tragedy was occurring and our enemy was confiscating Jewish possessions.

We lived in what was considered a good section of the city, which became part of the ghetto.  There were approximately 450,000 Jews living in Warsaw, including those who were shipped to the ghetto from surrounding areas. The hunger was terrible and many people died.  The food rations that we received were half of what Poles were given. Conditions were so crowded that lice and typhus spread quickly.

My grandmother who had immigrated to the United States managed to get affidavits for the entire family. However, when the papers arrived, my father felt it would be dangerous to take them to the German government offices. He feared we would be arrested. We will never know if that was a good idea or not.

Until the ghetto was closed, my grandmother sent us several packages a week. We were able to sell many of the items that she sent. When the United States declared war on Germany, she was no longer able to send packages from there, so she contacted the embassy in Portugal and all her packages to us were shipped through Portugal and forwarded from there. 

To be continued.

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.