Translated from the Yiddish by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Published with the permission of the author’s daughter, Bella Bryks-Klein
Translator’s Note: “This is How It All Began” and “Fugitives” are the first two chapters of Rachmil Bryks’ Di antloyfers (The Fugitives) (New York, 1975), a memoir of his experiences from the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 until the establishment of the Łódź Ghetto in May 1940. Bryks graphically depicts the confusion, chaos, and danger of the early days of the war: the false propaganda coming from Polish radio, the air raids and bombs, the fugitives desperate to escape the bombings, and his own experiences in German captivity. The Fugitives is the second of three memoirs by Rachmil Bryks I translated as a 2018 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow.
I would like to thank Bella Bryks-Klein for her enthusiastic support of this translation project, Norman Buder for his responses to my Yiddish language queries, Elizabeth Harris for feedback on an earlier draft, and Elżbieta Pelish for her help with Polish orthography and other Polish matters. Additionally, I would like to thank all of the individuals associated with the Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship Program—instructors, mentor, staff, and Translation Fellows—for their backing, insights, and encouragement.
This is How It All Began
On Friday, September 1, 1939, at exactly noon, Warsaw radio announced, “War is on! Hitler has declared war on Poland!”
The world already knew that war had been declared, but not the Polish nation. As early as the night before, the Germans had invaded Poland, overwhelming the shtetlach and villages near the border with incendiary bombs, causing these settlements to vanish in flames. On the previous night, the German army had occupied Wołyń, a city with a thousand Jews, and since morning, German airplanes flew freely over all of Poland, bombing vital locations. The Polish government kept all of this a secret, only making the announcement now about the war.
Since not all households had a radio, people didn’t learn the terrible news at once. Not everyone wanted to believe it, although it had certainly been expected. Hitler, may his name be erased, had been threatening Poland with war for a long time.
At the time, I was in my hometown of Łódź, the “Polish Manchester,” the second largest city in Poland, which Jews helped build. This was the most unpretentious Jewish city in Poland. When the radio announced the most wretched news in human history, I was at the home of my older sister, Tobtshe, who had gotten married four weeks earlier.
I was born in Skarżysko-Kamienna, a shtetl between Radom and Kielce. I was the third of eight children. When I was a boy, our parents moved the family to Łódź so we could have a better standard of living and so the children could become “respectable.” But several years before the war, my parents and their five youngest returned to the shtetl, because, with the development of new industries, it was actually easier to find work there.
From childhood on, I worked hard and was no stranger to hunger. That fall I had made plans to take time off for a stay in a guesthouse for the High Holidays and Sukkot for the first time in my life. I just can’t seem to catch a break and enjoy myself even just once, I thought. The radio broadcast horrified me. I couldn’t calm down. I raced out into the street. Life was going on as usual, since most people had not yet heard about the calamity. No one wanted to believe me when I told them war had broken out. They all thought I was joking. When I managed to convince one of my friends that I wasn’t kidding around, he shuddered, his face changing, and he said, “This all happened so fast because Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. Well, the apple doesn’t fall from the tree. One murderer befriends another. But, listen up: in 1914, “Fonye khazer” went against the Germans, and today “Foyne Khazer” is with the Germans.”
Someone else responded, “The capitalist world built Hitler’s authority up and allowed him to become the most formidable military power just so he would destroy the Soviet Union. But Stalin got the better of them. He was cunning, that one—he had no choice. But the match won’t turn out well. With this ‘true love’ they’ll cover each with burning kisses and a fire the likes of which the world has never seen.”
On several street corners, radio loudspeakers had been installed, and to confound the mind, the radio station from Warsaw now only played cheerful Polish folk music.
I left my friends and continued on my way. There was still the typical hustle and bustle on the streets. The factories were operating as usual, and the stores were open, but with few customers, as had been the case throughout the last few weeks when the threat of war loomed. The streets were full of people. Streetcars drove on, their steel wheels clanging on the tracks and their bells ringing out. Droshkies hitched to horses stood in the streets waiting for passengers. Several of them drove by; there were few taxis in sight.
I now found myself in the commercial center, where only Jews lived. I hurried over to my eldest sister Ester, who lived in the old city. I reached the circular Freedom Plaza, with a statue of the Polish freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko in its center. Here too, loudspeakers blared cheerful music from the radio. The magistrate’s building was located here and, on its tower, the great city clock rang out and showed 12:30.
The largest confectionary stores, which Jews owned, were in the plaza. “Barkers” called out to potential customers. If they could not be coaxed with sweet talk, they literally dragged them into the stores by force. “Pani, we’ve got the best suits, the best coats. Cheap, half price! Come with me, you’ll see for yourself!”
I turned onto Nowomiejska Street and onto Zgierza Street, lined with wholesale dry goods merchants, confectionary stores, and groceries. There were throngs of traffic here, as in normal times. The war was already underway, but people still didn’t know. Suddenly, a siren wailed, and the police herded people through the courtyard gates and into the courtyards. The traffic came to a halt: the streetcars, the cars, the trucks, the droshkies stood motionless by the pavement. The horses were unhitched and led inside the gates, their muzzles between the wagon shafts and their rear-ends to the facade.
The streets emptied out. The people, who had been driving, also had to go through the gates. Everyone looked for cover in a “schron” (fallout shelter), but there weren’t any to be found. So people stood in the covered courtyard gateways or against pavilion walls. They came from various locations and packed the courtyards. The Polish government had not prepared any protection for the people—not a single “schron.” The entire country was defenseless, the enemy’s for the taking.
There was no national defense, because that morning the Germans had smashed to smithereens the few feeble airplanes Poland supposedly had in its airfields. As soon as enemy aircraft flew through metropolitan Łódź’s airspace (They wanted to capture Łódź intact and untouched because it was and remained an industrial city, where many Germans lived), the radio announced that this was an alarm test. In this way, the so-called test sirens regularly sounded throughout the day. Only at nightfall, when a siren sounded, did the radio announce: “This is not a test, but a real alarm. We arranged a test, but the enemy is flying over the country.”
The Jews called the old city of Łódź Jerusalem, because ordinary Jewish folk lived there. Here stood the largest, tallest, and most magnificent synagogue in all of Europe. The Jewish Community supported this Orthodox synagogue with a cantor and a choir that performed throughout the year. The largest house of study, a yeshiva, and a Talmud Torah were located in the synagogue’s courtyard. Except for the Polish building superintendents, only Jews lived in the old city. The multi-story houses here were old, dilapidated, with wooden stairs, and wooden balconies that ran the entire length of the walls.
When I reached the fifth floor of my sister Ester’s building, I found her crying. Standing next to her were her two children, Moniekl (Moyshele) and Rużkele (Rokhl). The boy was six years old, with long, curly blond hair and black eyes. The girl was four years old. She had long black hair and black eyes. Their little faces, white as milk, were as adorable as cherubs found in paintings.
Moniekl had a resounding soprano voice. He sang liturgy and folk songs with great feeling. In this, he took after his parents and Ester’s side of the family.
Ester was a bit taller than average. She was lovely and charming with black hair and blue eyes. Two weeks earlier, her husband Yekhiel was dragged out of bed and conscripted into the military. He left Ester and the children with barely a groschen to their name, because he lived hand to mouth. Now there was no one to look after her and the children. Her cries tore at my heartstrings. Up to that point, my sister Tobtshe and I had helped out however we could, but now with the war, we wondered how we ourselves would make money. Ester had given the children the last bit of bread that day. She was penniless. I looked at the two “living orphans” and “living widow” now left to fend for themselves in the absence of their father and husband and thought: Woe is the Polish government to leave so completely defenseless the wives and children of the men fighting to defend the country!
In 1917, Yekhiel had served in the Polish military, but after that he never so much as saw a gun. Now, twenty-two years later, the Poles sent him again to the battlefront. The elderly, the militarily unfit, and thirteen to fourteen year old boys enlisted in “pszyobienia woiskawa” (military boot camp) were all conscripted. They didn’t even know how to hold a gun. They were sent to the battlefront to stave off an enemy force with the most advanced equipment to be found in the world at that time.
The government administration of Kielce, part of the largest voivodeship, ordered the mobilization a whole twenty-four hours later than it should have at a time when every minute was of the essence and lives were in such grave danger.
When the workers and peasants reported for military duty, there was no housing for them. They stayed outdoors day and night, and there were no uniforms, coats, shoes (some had received shoes that were too narrow, others too large), guns, coal, or food.
My brother Simkhe, may he rest in peace, a non-commissioned Polish army officer who served in Warsaw and the region below it, told us, “When they opened a box to take bullets out, they found books; and when they did find bullets, they didn’t have the rifles for them.” Polish leaders were too preoccupied with their own incitements against the Jews. They parroted back everything Goebbels and Rosenberg preached against the Jews from Berlin, instilling a savage anti-Semitism in the Polish people.
My brother-in-law Yekhiel Vaynberg was a poor man. He struggled to make a living by selling glasses of tea to the storekeepers of Dobronicki Market on Nowomieske Street. There were several hundred Jewish dry goods and haberdashery stores; Yekhiel sold tea for them for ten groschens. The family lived in a single room. Ester ran a respectable household. Twice a day she punctually served home-cooked meals. There was a bit of meat every day. She was generous, ready to share any available morsel. Once, a girl—a cousin, in fact—showed up unannounced from Skarżysko-Kamienna. She appeared with only her suitcase and lived, ate, and slept there without contributing any payment to the household.
Since the military had dragged Yekhiel out of bed in the middle of the night and sent him away, I drove the next morning to the summer residence in Wiśniowa Góra, not far from Łódź, to bring Esther and the two children back home. It was difficult to explain to her why I was taking her home so unexpectedly before the end of summer. She asked, “Why didn’t Yekhiel come get me?” Because she was so thoroughly distraught and imagining the worst, I replied, “There’s nothing for you to worry about, God forbid. There hasn’t been a calamity. Yekhiel got his military summons. I believe it was an error; they’ll send him home soon.” I consoled her with words that I myself didn’t believe. I knew all too well that no words would comfort her heavy heart. I hired a Jewish wagon driver. We loaded up our luggage, and we all seated ourselves on the wagon.
In the evening, my older sister Tobtshe came by. We both gave Ester what we could—a small amount of money. Ester stood and wept, the children clinging to her. I comforted her and gave her a few more zlotys. She went down to buy something right away, but by then there were long lines in the grocery stores. The wealthy had bought out whole sacks of food: sugar, meal, chickpeas, etc. Nothing was left for the poor. Shopkeepers hid their food and jacked up the prices. The poor would soon go hungry. Some Jewish merchants allotted the food to just one or two portions per family. Ester managed to bring home a small amount of food.
By the time of the blessing of the candles at nightfall, I was back at my sister Tobtshe’s house. Jews decided not to greet that Sabbath by coming together in a minyan; everyone prayed individually at home. We all sat down at the table. My sister had somehow managed to prepare a typical Sabbath meal. In middle of the meal, an alarm went off again. Electric lights glowed in every house. People shouted into the courtyard, “Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!”
I went down onto the street. There were very few people out. Darkness enveloped the entire city. Not a single car or droshky was in sight. From time to time, a streetcar, dimly lit, drove by—a single car, usually empty, sometimes with two or three passengers. Dark blue blotting paper covered the electric lights.
All of the businesses were bolted shut and completely dark. Only the pharmacies stayed open, and all of their electric lights were also covered in dark blue blotting paper. In the pharmacies, people bought small bags with bicarbonate soda to be mixed in water to save themselves from the German incendiary bombs, demolition bombs, and possible poison gases. I too bought a small bag of bicarbonate soda. I poured a small amount into a small bottle of water. Out of gauze I fashioned a “tampon”—a little cap for the nose—and made sure to carry it with me at all times.
The radio continued to repeat: “We are strong! Our Marshalek (military marshall whom the Jews called “brass head”) said: ‘Ani guzika nie damy (We won’t surrender a single button)!’” This resolve spread from person to person. Demagogic propaganda buoyed the confidence of the entire populace: “Poland is much stronger than Germany! In a few days, we’ll crush Germany! The Germans have nothing to eat! The Germans lack the means to wage war! We are not alone—England and France will help us!”
I thought to myself: It won’t be long before the Germans cross the border. If the war is drawn out, I’ll make my way to the Kresy near the Russian border and wait out the fighting there. Walking around this way with such self-assured notions—this was on Freedom Plaza, no less, in the very heart of the city—I suddenly heard a woman crying. I followed the sound and saw a large Jewish family. A Jewish woman approached them from the street and asked, “Who are you?” The crying woman answered, “We’re from Wołyń. The Germans bombed our city last night. A bomb dropped on us. We narrowly escaped with just the shirts on our backs. The Germans are bombing the whole country. We barely made it here alive.”
The woman from the street asked them if they had any relatives here. She responded, “Yes, but very far from here, near the flea market.” With tears in her eyes, the woman invited all of them into her home. “Come with me,” she said, “First you’ll have something to eat and somewhere to stay, and in the morning, we’ll see …”
The grandparents, parents, and six children left with her, heading through the nearest covered gateway. I overheard the grandfather say, “At eight o’clock last night, the Germans were in Wołyń; and yet here in Łódź, no one knows about the war.” I didn’t fully grasp the import of his words, because I still believed the lying propaganda the Polish government was spewing over the radio. And as I believed so too did the nation.
On the Sabbath, the second day of the war, posters with the words “It’s war! We’re now on war footing! –Jozef Mościcki, Present of the Polish Republic” in large print and on two lines, were plastered all over the streets.
The Jews stuck together. In the courtyard where my sister Tobtshe’s apartment was located and where I was staying at the time, there were only Jewish residents, approximately forty to fifty families. On the corner, near the gate, the superintendent for the courtyard—a Christian—lived. At noon, he turned on the radio to listen to the news. Dozens of Jews gathered near the open window where the radio had been placed and listened raptly. “Hello! Hello! This is Radio Warszawa! Bloody and heroic battles in Westerplatte! Our soldiers are fighting heroically with guns, while the Germans are circling overhead and raining incendiary bombs on them! They’re raining fire on them, those barbarians!” And: “From the air, the Germans are firing on peasants working in the fields! They’re throwing down poisoned candies to kill our children! Such barbarism! The Germans are bombing hospitals. The hospitals are going up in flames! The savages are also releasing poison gas on the civilian population. Hide in cellars and trenches. Soak a tampon in water and bicarbonate soda and hold it to your nose!”
That is really what the Polish government was telling us to use to fight and protect ourselves from German bombs and poison gas! What a joke!
On the last Sunday before the war, the men spontaneously organized themselves. They formed groups that dug up long, narrow trenches in the parks and in fields.
I headed over to my sister Ester’s place to see how she and her children were faring. The police, armed with loaded rifles with sharp tips, were now patrolling. Two types of fear overwhelmed the population: of the war itself and of their own government. It was war, after all, and the most trivial infraction could lead to a conviction of treason. Near my sister’s home, an air raid siren sounded. The siren wailed, and the police herded people, myself included, through the courtyard gates with their guns. Traffic stopped completely. There were few people on the street, in any case: it was the Sabbath when the stores were closed and, by that point, people knew it was wartime. In the courtyard I was forced into, the people looked around for a fallout shelter, but there weren’t any so we situated ourselves behind the wall.
When the all-clear was given, I made my way to my sister Ester’s courtyard. Children were playing there, including Ester’s two children. Children are children, after all. They quickly forget their troubles and busy themselves in play. But suddenly a siren sounded again; it was another air raid alarm. The terrified children—Ester’s four-year old Rużkele crying heartbreakingly among them—ran behind a wall. She noticed me, but was afraid to run over. I ran to her, took her by the hand and clasped her to my chest. She embraced me with her little hands, weeping and whimpering. And that’s how I took her down to the cellar.
More than sixty families lived facing that courtyard. Since it was a commercial center, a business or a workbench occupied every possible space, every hole in the wall. In one annex, there was a one-room cellar with its door torn off and its window panes shattered. This had to serve as the fallout shelter to protect more than sixty families from bombs and poison gas. There was a single radio. I noticed a straw sack was on the ground. Ester said to me, “I brought that down. I slept on it with the kids. I don’t have the strength to run down from the fifth floor on dark stairs and through a dark courtyard into the shelter.” Both children, Rużkele and Moyshele, clung to me. They missed their father who was now at the battlefront.
“Any news about bread?” Ester asked.
“The baker where Tobtshe lives promised to sell her two loaves away from the queue—one for us and one for you.” I wanted so badly to provide for my sister and the two children. The radio was now playing Polish folk music continuously. Before the war, you never heard this kind of music. Back then, they only played wild jazz music. Now, the radio stayed on at all times, in case there were any important developments. After the air raid alarm, shrill messages came from the radio: “Hello! Hello! Polskie Radio Warszawa! Yesterday, the German barbarians bombed Radom, Kielce, Warsaw, Piotrkow, and Tomaszow. They bombed trains carrying women and children returning home from summer holiday. The German barbarians are firing on the civilian population in the cities and villages! The German barbarians are bombing hospitals! We’re warning you again: make sure your children don’t eat the poisoned chocolates and candies that the Germans are raining down! Don’t pick them up!”
The listeners became infuriated. I was crushed, overwhelmed by having to face what the nation of Goethe, Schiller, and Kant was capable of. Afterwards, the P.P.S. (Polish Social Democrats) figure Stańczyk, a Sejm deputy, came on the air and spoke in German to the German people: he depicted the cruelties and horrors that the Germans had already inflicted on Poland in such a short time. He appealed to the German people not to let themselves be seduced by Nazism. He spoke with great feeling and ended in the following heartrending appeal: “Deutsches volk, erwache! People of Germany, wake up!” Those who understood German applauded ardently.
To sustain the courage of the nation, the poems of the great national poets, the very ones who’d been forced into silence in recent years, were recited on the radio. Afterwards, there was a news synopsis, direct from the greatest munitions factory in Skarżysko-Kamienna, over the din of machines, banging hammers, and the “skipper” added: “We are well prepared and will continue to ready ourselves to crush the enemy. The Polish nation can rest assured, because it can depend on its great leader, Marshal Śmigły Rydz. Our brilliant leader says: ‘We won’t surrender a single button!’ Long live Poland!” And many voices responded, “Long live!” Then the Polish national anthem rang out. People assembled by the radio loudspeakers in the streets, believing completely in Poland’s victory.
So why were the munitions factories running as usual? The Germans wanted to take control of them without firing a shot, and that’s exactly what they did—the factories were soon working for the Germans at a fully operational capacity. All of the engineers and technicians were either ethnic Germans or Reich Germans. They started running the factories the moment they assumed power. The Polish government had entire colonies of houses with all of the modern conveniences built especially for them. They often went back home to Germany, so the Germans knew exactly what was happening here. In the factories, the Poles only performed unskilled labor or the dangerous jobs such as manufacturing gunpowder and poison gases. The Germans engineers even carried out highway construction, leaving the Polish engineers unemployed. The German engineers proceeded quickly to construct first-class highways from the German borders to Warsaw, over Kraków to Lviv so Hitler’s army could quickly occupy the country.
A young man said: “Let’s hear what the vile painter [Hitler] has to say.” And he turned the radio on to Radio Berlin, and we heard, “The Polish army has been crushed! The Germany army is marching forward! Kraków has been taken! Częstochowa has been taken! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” He quickly turned off the radio, saying furiously, “It’s a lie! It’s all propaganda!”
“Of course! Of course!” everyone agreed. I went along with them, but in my heart, doubt crept in. There probably was a bit of truth in these claims, I thought.
When the news that England had declared all-out war was broadcast on the radio, everyone became confident. A group of grateful demonstrators soon assembled at the English consulate. They chanted slogans such as “Long live England!” and “Down with Germany!”
As soon as I got home, a siren went off. I quickly ran into the courtyard to find a hiding place in the cellar. In an open cellar, neighbors were lying on the coals; a few were standing behind the walls. We heard airplanes. Soon we saw one flying over the courtyard. Everyone shouted, “It’s one of ours! It’s one of ours!” But when we heard shots and saw that after every shot there were small white clouds dissolving near the airplane, we realized it was German. Our defense repeatedly shot up, and the airplane flew comfortably on, as if invoking the saying: “You can pour salt on the bird’s tail but it won’t help you catch the bird.”
At night, we learned that the Germans had bombed Radogosz Hospital and the hospital on Radwańksa Street during the day. The bombs destroyed the closest house. In the evening, I brought Ester a kilo loaf of white bread. It was just wheat flour, and they were only baking small loaves and selling them to those who stood in line. That night, Łódź was completely calm.
The next day—Sunday morning—my sister Tobtshe and I went to “Kibbutz Borochov” to retrieve the laundry from the kibbutz laundromat. The kibbutz had four hundred halutsim—young men and women pioneers. Almost all of them were from the Kresy. The kibbutz had its own bakery, cobbler, carpentry workshop, and a large tailoring shop operating according to the latest technical standards of the day. Jewish factory workers produced clothes that were exported to the English colonies. The kibbutz also had its own chemical laundry. The dining room, which doubled as an entertainment hall, was on the top floor and took up the entire length of the large building.
A radio stood in the corner, bringing news from “all over the world.” The room also had a stage. Not long before, in that very hall, I had presented a literary evening for the members of the kibbutz. I read our classic writers as well as the modern Yiddish poets. This happened on a Friday night. The national poet and martyr, Itzhak Katzenelson, may his memory be for a blessing, was a frequent guest of the kibbutz, giving lectures as well as readings of his works.
The bulk of the kibbutz members had set out on foot to their shtetlach, and those that stayed behind in the city dug protective trenches near the wall.
On the way back from the kibbutz, a siren sounded, catching us in the most dangerous place: Halera Plaza, near the barracks and the Kalisz train station. We had nowhere to run. We heard the thunderous explosion of the bombs; the earth shook beneath us. Then we heard shots. When we managed to make our way to Zielona Street, alarm sirens wailed and church bells tolled. The streetcars and droshkies came to a halt. People were running in great confusion.
We ran to the nearest covered courtyard gateway. But the police weren’t ordering anyone in from the streets. When the sirens stopped, we went back out. We wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Going through side streets, we finally made it back, feeling as if we were only half-alive.