Construction Literary Magazine

March 2019: Conflict & Displacement

What Papa Told Me

What Papa Told Me

Photograph via Flickr by Sybren Lempsink

I remember that first night, Kristallnacht they call it, because of all the broken glass on the streets of our town. In one day, the Germans destroyed many Jewish businesses and burned down every shul. No one could believe it. We were in shock. I kept hoping I would wake up from a nightmare. It was a wake-up call that many decided to ignore, thinking it couldn’t get worse. But my brother Joseph knew better. He paid someone to smuggle him to the border and he made it safely to Russia. He had begged me to go with him, but I stayed with my family. If we knew even a part of what was coming, we all would have gone with Joseph to Russia.

By September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, we realized it was too late to escape. We sent my grandmother to live with my mother’s sister Sarah, and she died soon after. Many old people died quickly as if they knew what was coming, as if they knew they’d be the first killed. Our family did not want to be separated again, so my father decided it was time for all of us to leave Bedzin. My parents, four sisters, and I all went back to Szczekociny. We did not think Hitler’s army would come so fast, but we were wrong.

As we headed to Szczekociny on foot, we saw Jewish spies coming from that direction. They told us that German soldiers disguised in Polish uniforms speaking perfect Polish, had floated down from the sky in parachutes. When they landed, all hell broke loose. Right away they rounded up as many Jews as they could and marched them to the town of Slavkov nearby. They lined them up on the shore of the Warta River, shot each one, and then dumped their bodies into the water. The river soon became known as “The Bloody River.”

The spies said we should turn around and go back. My mother and father had wanted to continue to Szczekociny to be with the rest of our family, but we became afraid, so we went back to Bedzin. It was evening when we returned home. We hoped we would be safe but the Germans had already begun taking over. We were terrified to leave our house again.

Weeks went by and we lived like prisoners in our own home, allowed out only to work. The Jews were made to clean the streets. Then Germans, dressed in uniforms with red swastikas on their arms, posted flyers around our town on all the storefront windows and houses ordering the Jews now to wear yellow armbands. We had to buy them ourselves and wear them whenever we went outside. If we didn’t—as some in the beginning did not do—the Germans shot them on the spot, no questions asked. Jews were also given a curfew. We were not allowed to leave our homes after five in the evening. Life was changing so fast it was like a dream. A bad dream.

During the day green military jeeps drove through the streets kicking up dust, with microphones attached to their roofs that were all the time shouting propaganda, announcing things like “All Jews look alike. Not like human beings, but like crazy people!” Or “Jews look like cartoon characters.” Soon after, cartoons appeared in the newspaper making fun of how we looked. Groups of SS officers were often seen pinning religious Jewish men to the ground and cutting off their long beards, a very sacred part of our Judaism, as it is the Torah’s commandment for them not to shave. The men screamed as if their long beards had nerve endings and they could feel each hair being cut. Polish friends I knew for years suddenly hated me. If you met a thousand Poles you’d be lucky to find one good one.

Meanwhile, we heard from Joseph through letters he sent. He had settled into the town of Rostov and got a job as a journalist for the Russian newspaper Pravda, the leading newspaper of the Communist Party. Along with the letters he also sent sugar, tea and coffee. But soon his packages came without letters. Strange, we thought, until one day two SS officers appeared at our door demanding my father tell them who was sending packages from Russia and what other secrets he knew. My father was afraid if he said it was his son they would track Joseph down and kill him, so Meyer didn’t answer and they began to beat him. My father begged the SS officers to let him go but they only answered with more beating. Finally my father admitted where the packages came from. Even after his confession they beat him again and left him bleeding and moaning on the ground.

The Germans had taken over the post offices and were opening our packages. At first they let us keep the tea, coffee and sugar, but after the SS officers’ visit, those too, were confiscated. No one heard from Joseph ever again.

By November, two months after the war began, the Germans gave orders that all Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and thirty were to report to the center of town. From there they were sent to labor camps where they were forced to build roads. Most every family had been split up and I did not want to go.

We lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building, so when the order to assemble came, I climbed up to the roof and slid down the chimney to hide. The chimneys were a lot wider back then. I would have been safe, but a neighbor, a Jewish policeman named Blum, ratted me out to the Germans.

“The Schwartzbaums have a son who must be hiding,” Blum told the German police who were going from home to home.

Then two SS officers barged into our apartment looking for me but could not find me. I heard all this from my hiding spot in the chimney and smiled to myself thinking I’d outsmarted them. But when I heard them threatening to take my mother instead, I came down right away and reported myself to the German authorities.

They sent me to Sosnowitz, twenty minutes away, along with hundreds of other prisoners, mostly Jews. In Sosnowitz we were put into straight even rows, identified, logged in like the lumber I used to sell, divided up and sent off in trucks to various labor camps.

I was sent to Gogolin labor camp. On arrival they gave all of us black uniforms with white armbands that had yellow Jewish stars on the sleeves. There we built entire highways by hand. I was still young and healthy and worked hard. If you worked hard they did not kill you. If you worked hard, you lived. If you could not work, the Germans beat you and if you were lucky, you died right away. I was at Gogolin a year and a half. It was 1941. I was nineteen. I never saw my parents again.


This story is excerpted with permission from the author from the book What Papa Told Me, published by Dividends Press in 2010.