When did the Germans actually invade Warsaw?
At seven o’clock Friday morning, September 1, 1939, my brother Yankel and I saw planes swooping through the air at dangerously low altitudes. Yankel was now the man of the house and he did his best to ease our distress although it was obvious that he was not convinced of his own words.
Many people in our building rushed downstairs to the basement for shelter. My mother refused to go. The words of Tehillim were always her guidelines and she quoted them now with a simple sincerity that I will never forget. “Anah miPanechah evrach? — Hashem, where can a person run to escape You? You are everywhere. If You come for me, come for me where I am.” And so she stayed upstairs. We did, however, prepare some basic necessities in case we would have to get out quickly.
The bombing continued for several more weeks. Then the Germans reached the outskirts of Warsaw, captured the airport and began to close in on us. During lulls in the bombing, we used to go out into the neighborhood and fields to look for food. When you walked out the door you never knew if you would return alive. You prepared yourself constantly to die.
During the siege of Warsaw our house continued to draw people. They came for many reasons: because my mother’s shoulders were very broad, because we alone had a heater and because our building was one of the few that were not disturbed by the bombing; young people, old people, Rabbanim, businessmen…
The Jews of Warsaw were determined to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in spite of everything. My mother baked challos with the only flour available, rice flour. Unfortunately, the challos did not rise, but they were the best we had; together with sardines, they were our Yom Tov meals.
On Rosh Hashanah morning the bombing was renewed. By the time the situation calmed down, the entire street was consumed in flames. In the streets lay dead animals and dead people. There were a few people scurrying about carrying sifrei Torah and sefarim. Our house was the only house that remained standing.
The next day, Rosh Hashanah minyanim were held in our house while the noise of rockets could be heard, their impacts blowing open our windows. No one stepped out of Shemoneh Esrei. There was no panic, only the stillness of davening. On Yom Kippur it was the same. Our beis medrash was even fuller than it had been on Rosh Hashanah since so many other shuls had been destroyed. After Yom Kippur the Jews began to think about building a sukkah.
We quickly began to feel the practical daily effects of the German presence. Young Jews were arrested randomly in the streets and taken for labor. One of their jobs was to erect a wall around the neighborhood. The Germans formed a Judenrat. They appointed Jewish officials of their own choosing, giving them administrative responsibility in the neighborhood for law enforcement, economic management, housing, food distribution, and education. In addition, it was the Judenrat’s responsibility to deliver quotas of people to the Germans for labor.
The arrest of young girls in the streets escalated. The captured people were loaded onto trucks and sent away to work. They were given menial tasks. When they returned a day or two later they were unrecognizable. They had been brutally beaten. The girls told us that they were ordered to wash the floors with their own undergarments and then they were forced to put the soiled clothing on again. I felt quite lucky for I had been hidden in a closet when the soldiers came to search our house and luckily they never opened the door.
What other limitations were enforced by the Germans?
In addition to forced labor, Jews were prohibited from using public transportation and were required to wear the infamous yellow star. Their possessions were given to the Germans and they were unprotected, left to the mercy of the dozens of thieves and vagabonds. There was no food left in the stores to buy.
Did you spend time in a ghetto?
On October 2, 1940, our neighborhood was officially declared ghetto territory. We were fortunate that we did not have to resettle. People came from Warsaw, Lodz, Kalish, and other surrounding villages. We were crowded into an area of 1,000 acres, which the Germans declared a “plague- infested” zone. There were 50,000 people crushed together, surrounded by a wall 10 feet high that was crowned with barbed wire. There was an average of 13 people to a room, in addition to thousands of homeless.
The ghetto was sealed. Jews could enter and leave only with special permits and only at specific points. Typhus raged in the buildings and on the streets. The sight of dead bodies outside became commonplace.
My brother Yankel fled to Russia along with countless other young men rather than become victims to forced labor, roundups and deportation. Yankel was hoping to find a place to settle there, intending to bring us over as soon as he could.
My mother might have had a chance to escape. She said, “My house is full of sifrei Torah in addition to thousands of sefarim.” My mother resolved to stay with them. She began to consider sending me away; maybe outside I would have a chance of survival.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.