The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 4
German Occupation

We were homesick and tired of running. We looked forward to the day our flight would end. Kaziek, the farmer's young son, became my daily companion, eager to show me around the village. On September 10, just before noon, we went for a walk. We had gone barely one kilometer when we heard the whine of a motorcycle. It soon became visible at the top of an incline, speeding toward us with a strange-looking soldier in the seat. Its sidecar was empty, and there was a trail of heavy smoke and dust. We were the only people on the road. We were frightened, but it was too late to run.

The motorcycle stopped. The soldier shut the engine off and paused a minute. He then raised his goggles to his forehead and asked if we spoke German.

"Yes," I answered, lowering my eyes in fear.

"Are you afraid?"

"No," I said clearly.

"Are many Polish soldiers here?" he asked me.

"No," I responded.

"Have any gone by today?"

"No," I repeated.

He had seen no one on the road. He asked us where everyone was. "Are the people afraid of us? Tell them that they need not be," he said. Then this soldier reached into his bag and pulled out bars of chocolate and German cigarettes. As he handed them to us, he said, "This is for you," and stared at us both. I was not prepared to see such friendliness or generosity from a German invader and hesitated. He nodded then and repeatedly urged us to accept, and we did. By then several other motorcycles had pulled over to join us. Had these soldiers not been dressed in such strange uniforms, they would have looked like the locals. Many armored vehicles and trucks approached. It was an impressive sight as the soldiers roared away on their motorcycles. We could see why the Germans had won such an easy victory over us. Unlike our army, which moved around on foot and on horseback, theirs was fully motorized.

We ran back to the farm with the news and told everyone how decent the German soldiers were. Everyone knew the Germans had arrived. If this is how they all are, we said, we won't have much to worry about. On the road German troops were steadily passing, singing their glorious odes to the Führer.

We could run no farther. The only choice was to return as quickly as possible to our home. The flow of German tanks and vehicles moving east, however, made that impossible. Furthermore, we heard that the Germans had announced a ban on all civilian travel for the rest of the day.

The next morning we left early, and we traveled all day without incident. On the second day, however, several German officers stood on a hill, watching the streaming refugees. Women and children could pass in silence, while men had to tip their caps in wary respect. As we went by that grandstand review, an officer shouted at us in an belligerent voice, "Look at the Jews! They wanted to escape. Damned Jews, we'll get you now!" Chmielinski saw our faces turn white. He knew the impact this had on us.

"Those bastards!" he said, bristling with outrage. "Someday we'll get even with them." Little did Chmielinski know that two weeks later he would be arrested. Later he would return to his family as a handful of ashes.

With heavy heart, I recalled then what our uncle Shlomo predicted when we had talked about the Germans. He shook his head, saying, "God help us all."

It was dusty and hot when at dusk we drove off the road and stopped for the night under a stand of isolated trees. This attracted others, and we soon had a lot of company. In the rumors of the night we heard that the Soviets had been occupying eastern Poland. That eventually turned out to be true. Those who tried to flee to the Russians were turned back. "Go home," they were told. "Before long we'll come to you." The 1939 "mystery agreement" between Ribbentrop and Molotov became perfectly clear now, but no one believed that those two long-time enemies would stay on good terms for long. Throughout that night, thoughts of the Nazi's ridicule and threats kept me awake. I asked myself the same question over and over: "Are we people of a lesser god?"

Thanks to the Chmielinskis' kindness and generosity, we arrived home safely. Although nothing had changed in our house, the Nazis had nevertheless made their authority felt in the village. On the second day of their occupation, the Germans, at random, hung ten men on the gallows, while the rest of the people had to stand by and witness it. Their aim was to discourage any resistance. One of those executed was my best friend, Szymon Trzaskala.

On September 27 Warsaw fell. In a way we were happy the war was over, or so we thought. Annexing the Corridor and Warthegau was one of the Nazis' first territorial grabs in Poland. Otherwise, except for food shortages, little changed initially. To win the Polish people's cooperation in repressing the Jews, Radio Warsaw fed outrageous lies to them. Someone once said, "Blatant falsehood, if repeated often, eventually seems to be the truth." So it was.

Before long Polish publications, as well as Jewish ones, were shut down. The eight-page tabloid that appeared in their place was filled with nothing more than bulletins and stories about the persecution of Germans in Poland before the war. It was the Germans' attempt to justify their occupation. When all our radios were confiscated, we knew only what the Germans told us. The rest of the world became a remote place.

Hans Frank became the governor of Warthegau, and Herr Schweikert was to be our county's administrator. They quickly enacted a number of directives that restricted Jewish freedom. The rules were sometimes so murky that anything that wasn't explicitly allowed for us we had to assume was forbidden.

The last time our family was together for a celebration was in December 1939. It was during Hanukkah, the miracle of lights. But suddenly the sky reddened. It seemed as if the whole town was afire. Terrified, we learned that the Germans were burning down the Jewish synagogue and its two adjoining prayer houses and destroying the Torahs. The village Jews were devastated. The orthodox Jews rent their garments and sat shivah in mourning. Each subsequent December reminded me of this, our last and saddest holiday together.

Each day the governor imposed more restrictions on us. Only six people were allowed to attend funerals, although ten were needed for a prayer service. A new curfew barred us from the streets between 7:00 P.M. and 8:00 A.M., and it was so strictly enforced that some Jews were shot. We were limited in what we could buy and where we could buy it. Since our avenues to the farmers were cut, even those of us with money couldn't buy much with it. Our few non-Jewish friends, those who were still willing to help us, were prohibited from doing so. Soon all Jewish homes had to display the Star of David, and all Jews six years of age and older had to wear it. Not sparing us another insult, the German word for Jew, Jude, in Hebrew-style letters had to appear inside the star. Our own emblem was to be our badge of shame. Then our use of the sidewalks was forbidden, forcing us to walk in the gutters. The Germans amused themselves by driving their vehicles at us. Bearded Jews became their prime targets. They cut or plucked the beards or set them on fire. All our gold and silver was ordered confiscated, and withholding any was punishable by death. Physical brutality now occurred daily.

One December night we woke to a violent pounding on the door and a order to open it. At first we didn't answer, hoping the intruders would leave. They threatened to break down the door. Because males were primary targets, Mama went to the door. "Who are you? What do you want from us?"

"Open!" they repeated, pounding. "Weapons inspection." We knew the inspection claim was just a thin excuse, but refusing to open the door would bring more wrath. Mama unlocked the door and let in what seemed to be four German postal employees. Mama looked relieved. "Jews?" one asked. Mama didn't answer.

While three of them went roaming around the house, the fourth asked Mama where our guns were. She shook her head. "There are no guns in our house," she answered.

Nearby in the foyer, where Grandpa slept, one asked him the same question. "Where are your guns?" The man peeked under the bed and found my dental instruments in a small box. A triumphant smile widened on his face as he lifted it up and shouted, "Was ist da drin?"

"Those are my grandson's dental tools," Grandpa answered.

"Dental tools?" he blurted in disgust and slammed the box into Grandpa's face. As my instruments scattered, my grandfather shrieked.

In the meantime, another one of them had been cursing my father. "You Jews are the cause of all evil. You wanted this war, and you'll have to pay for it."

My father, his face white, protested quietly. "See for yourself. We have no weapons." But his words fell on deaf ears. Even a confession from him wouldn't have changed their minds. They were here for one purpose, to castigate and beat up Jews.

The man then hit Papa in the head with his bayonet. When I saw blood dripping down my father's face, I thought he had been killed. Another German kept shooting bullets into our furniture and mirrors. The third slapped my brother in the face. Then he turned to me. "Auch Jude?" he bellowed, as if to assure me that I also deserved a beating. Terrified, I pushed my body into a corner, dropped to the floor, and pulled my knees up to my chest. I covered my face, hoping to escape the worst.

"Leave him alone. Don't you see he is not quite there?" I heard another say to him. I did not escape entirely. He landed his boot on my behind, kicking me a few times. Otherwise he let me alone.

Then they left. The nightmare was over. Josek's nose was broken, Papa's forehead required several stitches, and Grandpa lay bloodied in the foyer. Pola tended to Grandpa. Mama kept placing wet towels on Papa's head and muttering, "They were just plain post office workers." She sighed. This was too unthinkable and too cruel. In spite of my twenty years, I was still too naive to understand that people could carry so much hatred for others. Then I thought of the golem story, which dates back to the Bible and the Talmud and has been retold throughout the centuries: In a mystical rite, invoking the Divine Name, a wise man gave artificial life to a human body made of clay or wood. This soulless body was then ordered to do tasks blindly. The golem was the perfect metaphor and offered an answer to my questions. "Who are we? What have we done? Why are we so despised?" I asked myself. That night something changed my theory of humanity forever. I realized that our lives had been irreparably altered.

One woman in the village admitted that she had heard Germans asking where Jews lived. "Someone must have pointed you out," she said.

In Poland, the Volksdeutsche, ethnic German living outside Germany, seemed to have sold their souls to the Führer. The best example was our long-time neighbors and friends, the Marxes. Mrs. Marx now defended the Nazis in whatever they did. She didn't even come to see us after that night. From that time on we lived in fear. Each time we heard someone outside at night, we wondered if Germans were coming to terrorize us again. This was not the first nor was it the last time that Jewish homes were invaded at night and people were beaten. The fear of that night terror became our steady companion. Killing Jews was now permitted and even encouraged.

The Racias (roundups) followed. Jews were gathered and ordered to do demeaning labor. One day Pola was seized and taken to the German army barracks. There she was made to clean privies. "It's a pity that a pretty girl like you has to be Jewish," one soldier wisecracked, as the others laughed. Pola came home trembling. "I would rather die," she said, "than go through this again."

Pola and I decided to escape into the Soviet-occupied part of Poland. Although our parents weren't in favor of this, they recognized that, in circumstances like these, everyone had to make a personal decision. It was late December, almost New Year's, when we left. It was cold enough for a heavy snowfall that morning, but no snow had fallen. We removed our yellow patches from our clothes and hoped to pass for non-Jews. To be less conspicuous, we took only necessities. After exchanging farewells with the rest of our family, we left. The air was raw. A white frost blanket covered the fields, and the streams were frozen. We trekked through the forests on our fateful odyssey.

Four hours later we reached the train station. It was the end of the first leg of our journey. We had several hundred kilometers to go. Pola, a light-haired brunette with non-Semitic features, had no difficulty buying the tickets to a town near the Russian border. Then we sat and waited for the train to arrive. We spotted more Jews who had the same intention in the waiting area. We didn't talk to anyone for fear of being recognized. When the train finally arrived and we thought we had made it, we were stunned to hear an announcement: Jews were restricted from using the train. All others could board it. Somehow the SS men knew that Jews were among the travelers.

A dozen of us who remained on the platform looked on as the train chugged away and slowly disappeared. Then two SS men collected our papers and stamped a J on them. Before returning them to us, they issued an angry warning. "Whoever tries to use the trains again will be shot." Our plans ruined, we felt crushed. We had little choice but to return home.

Although our family shared our disappointment, they were happy to have us back. Papa, as always, found a silver lining. "Whatever happens to us, we'll at least be together," he said. Then he added a contention he had often used. "Things are never eaten as hot as they're cooked!"

A few weeks later one of my sister's friends returned disappointed from the Soviet-occupied part of Poland. He warned us not to go there. "The Russians have been rounding up the Jews that came over and deporting them to labor camps in Siberia," he said. We could not imagine why the Soviets were also our enemies. It shattered our idea about Jews being seen as equal to others under communism.

Because my grandfather was constantly harassed in the street about his beard, he stopped going out. Removed from his friends, he grew weak. One morning we were shocked to find him in a deep sleep from which he never awoke. My idol was dead. We knew that Grandpa had died because he lost his will to live. I understood that with him gone, my life would never be the same. The procession to the cemetery consisted of only the family, as others were forbidden to attend. All the mirrors in our house were covered, and we sat shivah for a week. Friends, at risk to themselves, came to make up the ten-man prayer service. I overheard them saying that they envied my grandfather for his peaceful death.

A few days later Mother and I took a back road to the other side of the village. Halfway there, I noticed a former classmate of mine coming toward us. Like many of the others of German ancestry, he too had joined the Nazis. He wore a brown shirt with a red Hakenkreuz (swastika) armband. Presenting himself as a German, he sought to demonstrate his faithfulness to the Führer. Coming upon us, he pushed my mother, and she fell to the ground.

I was shocked. I searched his face. "Otto, why are you doing this?" I demanded, outraged. In his eyes I saw sinister cruelty and mercilessness. The schoolmate of yesterday was a foe today.

Then he began to use the common Nazi hate rhetoric. "You Jew swine, you pests, you war criminals."

I could see that he knew who we were, but he showed no remorse. He left us, still mumbling with enmity. My blood pounded in my temples. I thought that I should have ripped the swastika off his arm, but I was paralyzed, as if I had no command over my limbs. Pale and humiliated, Mama could not stop trembling, but fortunately she was not hurt. I could not comfort her. I had not defended her, and I felt a deep guilt. This incident convinced me how quickly people's minds could be poisoned. This was a bad year, and the next one might be worse.

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