Did you know what was happening in other parts of Europe at this time?
During my second year in seminary, we began to hear rumors about a war; but these were remote fantasies and did not affect us in any real way. The teachers and administrators knew more than we did, but they did not discuss it with us; partly because they did not want to arouse panic and partly because they honestly did not believe it themselves. The concept of a Jewish Holocaust or even of another world war was beyond the scope of even the wildest imagination.
During the winter of 1938–39, we had our first suggestion that there might be some basis to the rumors. Several girls from Germany who were of Polish birth came to Cracow and six of them stayed in the dormitory with us. It seemed that all residents of Polish birth had suddenly been expelled from Germany, told to pack their bags on short notice and get out of the country. The girls who came to us were totally alone. Most of them were suffering from malnutrition and had to be taken to the local hospital.
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?
In the summer of 1939, the entire seminary adjourned to the countryside in the area of Chrobacze. Towards the end of August, in the middle of a tranquil afternoon, one of the administrators announced to us suddenly that we were to disband the camp immediately. The message fell from the sky without warning of any kind. Alarmed, we threw our belongings together as quickly as we could and climbed into the horse-drawn buggies that had been rounded up to take us back into town. We did not know it at that moment, but Poland was already mobilizing in anticipation of war and the German invasion would begin in a matter of days.
When we arrived at the dormitory we were greeted by panic. The principals were already gone; even the cook had left. There was a mad scattering of people and baggage in every direction and every girl had to fend for herself. I found a message waiting for me in the office, informing me that a telegram had arrived from my mother to come home to Warsaw. To pay my way, she had forwarded 25 zlotys to my cousins the Levys in Cracow. But a neighbor told me that the Levys had left for South America. They were gone.
That night several of us slept in the dormitory. When we came down to the dining room the next morning our bags were gone. Every last thing had been stolen.
After a few days of luckless attempts to make arrangements to get home, only one girl remained with me, Ruth Nussbaum. A messenger came to the dorm with a note for me from an elderly aunt of mine, the wife of the famed tzaddik Reb Shayale Czechower, zt”l. She invited me to come to her house for a meal. When we came to visit, Reb Shayale had just given her 20 zlotys to buy food for Shabbos and she insisted that I take the money and use it to get home.
Before I left the house that day I went into the Rebbe with a kvittel. “I’m going away now,” I said simply. “I have no idea where I’ll wind up. I would like to have a brachah that everything should be all right.” The brachah I received from Reb Shayale Czechower was very different from what I expected and it turned out to be one of the greatest and most powerful gifts I ever received. He said: “Zolst nosei chein zein in die oigen fun Hashem Yisborach und die oigen for mentschen. — You should find favor in both Hashem’s eyes and the eyes of people.” I could not imagine how often this blessing would save me from grief in the years to come.
There was a frantic atmosphere in the streets now. People rushed back and forth in a disoriented flutter. The train station was full of Polish soldiers going to the front. When we went to the window to purchase tickets, we were told that there was not a single seat left on the train. We wandered out to the platform in a daze. We saw the red cap of the conductor above the crowd, near the open doorway of one of the cars, and pushed our way through to him. “Is there anything that could be done?” we begged him. The conductor glanced down at our frightened faces; instantly he took pity on us. I thought to myself that Reb Shayale’s brachah must already be taking effect.
“Listen,” he said. “There is a very rich man on the train who hired an entire car for himself. He fell down skiing and broke his back. He can’t move, and I bet he could use some company.” The conductor took us around to the window of the rich man’s car. He boosted us up and actually pushed us through the window. Moreover, he did not take any money from us.
When we reached the station in Warsaw, the bedlam that greeted us on the platform was even greater than in Cracow. A couple from our neighborhood who happened to be at the station recognized me and came over to us. Somehow, the husband managed to flag down a carriage and he paid the driver to take us home.
We pulled up at Gensia 7A at about three in the morning. My mother was sitting on our balcony, looking down. She had been sitting there for eight days.
To be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.