WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
mother's fruit trees told us the life we knew was crumbling. For three
weeks in September 1939, my mother and I stood for hours on a hilltop
overlooking her miles of orchards: apples, plums, pears, and many other
fruits, a green blanket with riotous reds, purples, and yellows stitched
Now, every once in a while,
she would look at me with her large brown eye turned sad, and say "Life is
all over. All of the years we worked, all the things we hoped for, they're
gone. It's the end of our future, the end of the orchard, the end of the
money. We lived a good life these past couple of years. Now, God knows
what's going to happen."
We lived in Miedzyrzec, located about forty miles from the Russian border, near Brest-Litovsk. It is also southeast of Warsaw and north of Lublin, thirty-five miles from the Russian border and seventy miles from Treblinka. Yudel was a very modern man. As early as 1935, he had a radio and a telephone. In Poland, only a few people in any city of our size had either luxury. Yudel had both. He didn't look as though he were rich. He was five feet, eight inches, and was built like a barrel. He looked more like a wrestler.
He made his money from pig bristles, which were used for paintbrushes, clothing brushes, combs, and brushes for polishing shoes. He was so illiterate he couldn't sign his own name, but he had ben all over the world. He had forty-five people working for him, plus a few relatives. He created the idea of building slaughterhouses in small Chinese villages.
Farmers there traditionally would go to another town and pay to have their hogs butchered. Yudel did the butchering for free, but with the understanding that all the bristles from the hogs would belong to him. Then he'd ship the bristles to his factory in our town, where they would be treated, then sent to factories which made them into various kinds of brushes. He had customers in the United States, France, and England. I myself worked in Yudel's bristle factory after school. Yudel also owned a wholesale egg business which shipped thousands of eggs a year to England and even to Germany.
When my father, Samuel, and I went to visit Yudel on Saturdays, we would admire his tabletop radio, the only one in town. It held both fascination and menace. We always went to Yudel's house after attending synagogue on Saturday. It was a family tradition--first celebrate the Sabbath, then attend a gathering at Yudel's. My father, brothers, and I would dress up in our finest clothing. Sometimes my mother would go, too, elegant in high-heeled shoes and calf-length dresses trimmed in lace and made of silk. Usually, the dress was either bright purple or deep red. For the occasion, she always prepared fish and pastries, which she carried in sparkling clean glass containers.
Though not many of the women in the family attended these affairs, nobody doubted my mother's right to be there. As Yudel's little sister Mindl, she knew at least as much about politics and business as any man in the room. She also was universally respected for her skill and knowledge, both of which had made her orchard enterprise bloom. Meanwhile, my sisters, Sara, Fay, and Rachel, were visiting some of their girlfriends or attending a science club or political meeting instead.
Politics, business the comings and goings of the relatives, all were the staples of our Saturday conversations. Sometimes my father would tell his World War I stories, most of which we'd all heard countless times before.
We all were on our best behavior. We would talk, sip tea, munch cookies, and say hello to my father's cousin and brothers who lived in the city as well. Yudel's daughters, Sara, Rachel, Shana, and Liche; his sons, Hymie and Morris; and his wife, Mate, would stay dressed in their best synagogue garb and serve us food on silver platters. We would sit in Yudel's deep-cushioned chairs and marvel at the thick, polished wood of his furniture.
My brothers Hymie and Benny would run around the room, or rub at the ears of Yudel's Saint Bernard dog, who suffered through my brothers' rough-housing with a far better nature than I would have.
Hymie Kronhartz often was there. He was the son of Sarah, my mother's sister. Hymie Kronhartz was tall, with sculptured good looks. He was well respected in our town and in our family. He had graduated from a university, now lived on the main street in our town, and was a master photographer and portrait painter. He had a studio visited by the wealthiest people in town, who wanted their likeness captured by his skilled hands and eyes.
All of us would pause when Yudel turned on the radio. I myself was fascinated by it, both as an object and as a source of news. I was passionate about talking politics, and I loved listening to Yudel's radio. It constantly amazed me that Yudel could just turn a knob on a box and voices would come pouring out, especially that of Adolph Hitler.
I had been hearing Hitler's speeches on that radio since 1935. Although I was now fourteen, I had been reading for several years, so I knew about Hitler's grabbing one country after another. And I knew Hitler's voice. Every time he would snatch another country, we would hear another speech about why it was necessary.
We also had movie theaters in our town, so we all had seen newsreels about the Kristallnacht in November 1938, when in one night the Nazis attacked thousands of Jews and destroyed centuries-old ghettos all over Germany and Austria. All of us in the family watched and listened to those reports and trembled. We knew if Hitler ever made it to Poland, he would do even worse to us.
We were right, though the awaiting ugliness was beyond what anyone could have imagined. How could we? I knew from my father, Samuel, and others that during World War I, the Germans had treated Polish Jews like brothers. We had no way of knowing the stabbing hatred in their hearts this time.
I particularly remember hearing Hitler's speech justifying his annexation of Czechoslovakia in March of that year. He had already sent troops to occupy the Rhineland and annexed Austria. I could feel Yudel's tea go sour in my stomach as I listened to Hitler's ranting.
The bad times are closing in on us, I thought. We have had our homes, our businesses, our lives here. We have been citizens of this town for hundreds of years. Our whole family has lived a peaceful life. Still, we have no place to run, no place to go, no place where we are welcome.
All of us had hoped England and France would put a stop to Hitler's devouring other countries. By this time, we were reading about Der Fuehrer and the Nazis every day in the press. And, of course, there were his radio speeches.
We had been living a comfortable life. There wasn't a trace of anti-Semitism in our city, but I still knew a lot about Hitler. I had learned by reading, but listening to his speeches was actually more educational. I heard the menace in his voice. I heard the hatred drench his words. He frightened me.
We were all terrified after hearing that speech about Czechoslovakia. My family talked long and hard. We knew Poland was near the top of Hitler's list, and our feeling that England and France wouldn't stop him made everyone's voice shake.
We also had some Jews living in our city who had lived under Hitler. The year before, Hitler had stripped German Jews whose parents were both Polish Jews of their property and shipped them back to our country. These people survived here by peddling perfumes and shoes. They told people what happened to them, and how Hitler was whipping up hatred against our people.
Our family had lived very well during the last five years. Our city, which was on the road between Berlin and Moscow, was Miedzyrzec, meaning "surrounded by rivers," as indeed it was. Our city was both the richest in Poland and almost exclusively Jewish. We thought of both facts as our good fortune. They may have been our greatest calamity.
Miedzyrzec was bursting with prosperity. We had about sixteen thousand people living there, of whom only four thousand were not Jewish. We had pharmacies, universities, a hospital, movies, and a theater. We had religious schools to which Jews from all over Europe came to study.
The city was filled with factories. The largest industry was making bristles for countries worldwide. There were dozens of such factories, of which Uncle Yudel's was only one. We had a leather tannery and factories making fertilizer and farm equipment. We had twenty bakeries and just as many butcher shops. We had a fire department with the newest trucks.
Aside from being prosperous and largely Jewish, my city had committed another sin in German eyes. We knew what the Germans were doing to our people in Germany, and we despised them for it. In 1935 and 1936, Germans sent trucks full of their glassware to our city. They made good glassware, but if it was German-made, we wouldn't touch it. I can jut imagine how our attitude must have eaten away, like dripping acid, on the Nazis' pride.
Whatever the reasons, we could see trouble coming. By listening to Yudel's radio and reading the newspapers, we knew Hitler wanted to take over Danzig, one of our most important ports. We knew when the Polish government refused him. We also knew when the Germans took that refusal as an excuse to declare war. After all, Hitler had a much bigger army.
MY MOTHER'S BUSINESS
Every unmarried man in Poland who was in good physical shape and over age eighteen was being drafted. My father was still with us. He wasn't drafted because he had already served in the army and was married. I was four years too young, so I was allowed to stay home. In fact, none of my immediate family was drafted. The closest the draft struck was when the son of our next-door neighbor had to go, as did hundreds of others. Our city seemed emptier now. Most of the men were gone, and the women and children had to do the work men would have done. My mother, however, already was laboring in her orchards. The whole family was extremely proud of what she had accomplished since she had bought one small orchard four years before.
In 1935, after bearing six children, she had told my father, Samuel Rosenblum, it was her turn to start a business. My father didn't mind. We needed the money. All of us children volunteered to do our share. My sister Sara became a seamstress and ran the house. Fay, the oldest, worked in an underwear factory. Rachel, Hymie, Benny, and I went to school. Meanwhile, my mother set out to build an orchard empire.
She was succeeding. My mother had an almost magical ability to calculate during the winter how much fruit each tree would bear come summer. As a girl, she had worked during the summer with her parents in many orchards. Her parents had never owned them, but she had inherited the experience of peering at the buds, knowing what fruits would bloom and when. That first year she had a six-acre apple farm. She had six times that acreage three years later.
In 1938, the year before we were standing on that hill together, she had bought the orchard that we were standing in. At five hundred acres, it was one of Poland's largest. It was in an ideal location, on the main highway between Berlin and Moscow.
Buying the orchard was difficult, but accomplishing it was a tribute to my mother's character and skills. The orchard was owned by a sharp-tongued old woman whose sons and daughters didn't want the business. Several people wanted to pay her large sums, but the woman trusted only my mother to treat the property with the respect and appreciation it deserved.
My mother had a charm about her everyone liked. She had grown up among Polish Gentiles, spoke Polish fluently, and was very smart. As Yudel's sister, she had learned much about politics and business matters. She was smart enough to get the vast financing she needed to buy the orchard by finding two silent partners.
Most people had confidence in my mother and her integrity after meeting her only once. Her trademark was her elegant way of dressing. No matter what the occasion, unless she was working in the fields, she would wear high heels and a stylish dress. She was five feet, three inches, and had rich black hair. She needed no jewelry to be attractive, though she had plenty: The way she dressed, spoke, and carried herself were striking enough on their own. When she worked in the orchards, however, she dressed plainly for the hard, sweaty work ahead.
THE BOMBS RAINED DOWN ON OUR LITTLE CITY
Now, as the German bombers blackened the sky over my mother's orchards and the refugees ripped the fruit from her trees, all of her hard work and our family's new prosperity began crashing down around us. The war between Poland and Germany had started that summer of 1939, and German bombs were raining down on our little city. The bombardments lasted for more than two weeks. Clumps of planes came at us from all directions. At times, we almost felt surrounded from the air.
Our city was on the highway connecting Germany and Russia, and tens of thousands of people were running east toward the Russian border to hide from the bombs and strafing. The roads were clogged with people on foot, in cars, on bicycles, with small bags or suitcases strapped with rope to every conceivable section of their vehicles and themselves.
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