The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 2
A Small Shtetl in Poland

I was launched into the sea of life in Dobra, a small village of Western Poland, on a cold November day in 1919. According to tradition, I was named Berek, after my deceased maternal grandmother, Baila. In retrospect, I see that I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong religion to see my youthful dreams fulfilled.

With my brother, Josek, and my sister, Pola, I grew to adulthood in Dobra, where my ancestors, as far as I can tell, had lived ever since Jews settled in Poland. Our family owned a house with two and a half hectares of land that my parents had bought after they married. Ours was a modest house, even by the standard of those days. We had two bedrooms, a dining and living room, and a kitchen. A coal-fired oven, two meters tall, covered with brown ceramic tile, provided heat to our living and dining room in the winter. A black iron cookstove stood in the kitchen. Behind the house, the yard held a straw-roofed barn, two stables, and a small chicken coop. Behind that were several fruit trees. One dwarf tree bore the sweetest yellow cherries, but the sparrows always got them before we did. Plum, pear, and apple trees also flourished there. The sickle pear tree was always the last to bear fruit. On the rest of the land we grew enough rye, wheat, and potatoes to last us for the entire winter season. We worked our farmland, rising every morning at dawn to begin the daily task of plowing, sowing, and reaping crops. We were not rich. In our nonmaterialistic world we did not have much and did not want much. But we were comfortable and happy.

The only luxury I recall in our house was a colorful Oriental rug under the dining table, which was embroidered with a castle and kings. There, in my young years I lay for hours, reading adventure books or listening to music on my crystal radio set. Our dining and living room walls were covered with family portraits, pictures of men with long gray beards and women in traditional lace dresses--our ancestors.

Papa owned and operated a modest grain business in which we all helped. At the age of ten I carried hundred-kilo sacks of grain on my back from the warehouse to the scale. My father was a simple, hard-working man, good-natured and utterly devoted to his family. He was short--shorter than my mother--and almost totally bald. His face was round, and his cheeks rosy. When he smiled, he expressed a kind nature. I recall that Papa had been very heavy, but once a doctor diagnosed him as having an enlarged heart, he slimmed down. He and his eight brothers and sisters were orphaned when he was only eleven. After that he moved into my maternal grandfather's house, where he met my mother. Although they shared the same last name, Jakubowicz, they were not related. Since Papa had to work at an early age, he did not attend school and barely knew how to read or write. His signature was three crosses, but it was valid everywhere in town. My parents were married in 1912, when Papa was eighteen and Mama was sixteen. My parents rarely argued. Any disharmony that arose resulted from my father's thrift clashing with my mother's generosity. But an argument was as far as it ever got.

Mama was the most progressive Jewish woman in the village, the first to stop wearing the traditional wig. A mild case of diabetes kept her slim. She had dark, wavy hair and was tanned from her outdoor work. She was blessed with a heart of gold, and the poor knew on whose door to knock. The blind man, Itzchak, visited us at least once a week and was assured that he wouldn't leave our house hungry. With a spool of wire and a cane and a bow for a musical instrument, he played songs any trained musician could envy. He imitated all the parts of the orchestra on that ersatz instrument. Mother even gave the wandering gypsies something when they came begging.

We children were never physically disciplined. Denying us meals and keeping us indoors, beyond our patience, was enough. Mama was a parent any growing child would want to have. She had complete authority over the household, although the kitchen was the responsibility of my paternal cousin Toba. We loved both our parents, not out of fear, but for the love and kindness they gave us. We were raised with devotion to Jewish tradition and with a firm belief in God.

My sister, Pola, was two years older than I. She was bright, intelligent and as tall as Mama. She wore her brown hair in a bob over her slightly elongated face. Except for lipstick, she rarely wore makeup. Her hazel eyes, with thick lashes and nicely shaped brows, accented her good looks. My brother, Josek, was six years older than I. After his Bar Mitzvah, he began the study of the Talmud. But the considerable yeshiva rigor soon proved too much for him, and he left the yeshiva and became a dental technician.

The best times of our childhood were the summers, when we went to a tiny cottage my father rented in Linne. It lay in the midst of a forest full of wild berries and mushrooms. In the mornings we set out to explore the small river, abundant with kielbiki, a small chublike fish that we would catch in round nets.

One early spring when I was barely seven, Mama gave me a small patch of land the size of the barn. "This is going to be yours," she said. This was my special piece of land, and receiving it was a very proud moment in my young life. Since lots of wildflowers already grew nearby, I planted vegetables in my garden.

Since my mother's mother died before I was born, her father lived with us. He was tall and slender and wore a neatly shaped goatee. He walked erect with a slight forward thrust and a rhythmic motion. He used a cane with a silver handle, not merely for support but as an expression of good taste. He loved all three of us children, but I always felt that he had special affection for me, his youngest grandson. He played a decisive role in shaping my early life. Grandpa was an expert fisherman. On warm days he would take me to the river, and in time I too could land the big ones.

Many summer days, when I came home from heder, I would find Grandpa sitting on a bench, his skullcap on, bent over and reading the Scriptures. Sometimes his eyes closed involuntarily, and he would doze off in the glow of the sun. Hearing me, he would awaken, and his mustache would turn up in a happy smile. In those days people over sixty were considered old. They usually had lined faces and toothless mouths. Our grandpa, though, had all his teeth and still read without glasses.

At times he would wait for me, prepared with two rods, a net, and a bundle under his arm, ready to take me for a fifteen-minute walk from our house, to a small tributary of the Warta River. It was so small it didn't even have a name. As my grandfather raised his trouser legs above his calves and waded into the water, his body looked much thinner. I followed him, and he watched me bait my hook. His arms lifted as he swung the line into wide circles, until the bait fell just where he wanted it. "Slowly, Berele," he would say, "slowly," seeing me wrestle with my line. He knew I could do it right and wouldn't settle for bad casts. I followed closely as the pebbles dug into the soles of my feet. When we fished with a hand net, like one used to catch butterflies, we moved in tandem, pushing the net quietly under the lily pads. "Reach deep, move slowly, step in rhythm," he would say. No catch went to waste. Perch were made into meals, and Mama used the pickerel for gefilte fish.

Grandpa also taught me to play chess. "Chess sharpens the mind," he would say. I knew that in the First World War he had received a citation for bravery from Polish marshal Józef Pilsudski, but Grandpa never wanted to talk about it.

Anti-Semitism in Poland was already a social disease before Hitler's time. Although other minorities were treated fairly, Jews were made an exception. In the late 1930s in Poland, those who had previously sat on the fence joined Hitler in the Nazi's racial policy. Even though we were born there, we were considered foreigners. For a Jew to be equal in Poland, he had to become a Christian first. While the Polish clergy didn't advocate violence against us, they did not promote brotherly love either. My parents' generation was willing to accept such an oppressed role in Polish society, but my generation found it difficult to live with. We were not Jews first and Poles second. We thought that if we adopted a new way of life and adhered to Polish customs, dress, culture, and language, non-Jews would tolerate us better, but nothing seemed to work. Nothing seemed more astonishing than the lie that the Jews in Poland lived in luxury.

Jews were verbally abused and often beaten in broad daylight. As long as a person was not visibly hurt, the police claimed that they could do nothing about it. The label on Jewish businessmen was handlarz, a term suggesting profiteer. Neither my brother nor I wanted to continue our father's business, so we opted for a profession. Little did we know that whatever we became, the deep-rooted bias would persist.

In school our books ignored our history, our culture, and even our existence. The Dobra public school did not have a single Jewish teacher. Because of my given name, Berek, the non-Jews called me spitefully Beilis, after the Beilis Affair, in tsarist Russia, where a Jew by that name had been accused of ritual child killing. I was so embarrassed that before I attended secondary school, I changed my name to the Polish equivalent, Bronek.

In the mid-1930s the Farmers' Union established farm cooperatives in Poland. Their purpose was obvious: to stop Jews from trading in farm products. The cooperative's motto was "We, to Ours, for Ours." This economic squeeze affected all Jewish businesses and, indeed, the entire Jewish population in Poland.

Attempts to set quotas at learning institutions were propagated. Banning shechita, kosher animal slaughter, was another overt act of anti-Semitism. Although Poland was close to war with Germany, Jews were the big enemy. Even the moderates tried to find ways to get rid of us. Taking a cue from the Nazis, the fascists demanded the expatriation of all Jewish people from Poland.

Excessive taxation was another of our dilemmas. Though we paid a parochial tax, Jewish schools and synagogues received no part of the money. I remember hearing Mama plead one day with a tax collector who came with a truck to take our furniture away to wait for Papa. He ignored her and called in his two helpers to take out our furniture. They threw our clean, freshly ironed clothes on the floor and stepped on them. Mama begged them to wait, to no avail. Suddenly lightning flashed, and thunder struck nearby. That shattered my mother's nerves, and she trembled. "The lightning that may have struck someone innocent should have struck you," she said, distressed, as she ran out.

Within weeks a trial against my mother began. She was accused of slandering the state. Twisting her words, the collector said that Mama had said that "the lightning should strike Poland." His helpers supported this callous lie, and the judge convicted Mama and sentenced her to a year in jail. This falsehood created much concern among Jews, not because of the tax man's cheap personal vengeance, but because the state had engaged in an act of overt anti-Semitism.

Jail for my mother was unthinkable, for she would certainly be killed by a patriotic zealot there. Since this was an election year, we hoped that eventually the new government would pardon people sentenced for minor political offenses, so Mama went into hiding, moving regularly from place to place.

Occasionally she dared to come home. On one such night, we heard a fierce knocking on the front door. "Open! Police!" a voice demanded.

"Wait," my grandfather answered them, and he let some time go by.

When he finally opened the door, two police officers pushed in. "Where is Ester?" they asked Grandpa.

"I don't know," Grandpa answered calmly. Appearing unconcerned, he returned to bed, turned over, and seemed to go back to sleep. We knew that it wouldn't be long before they discovered Mother. Each time they were to emerge from searching a room, I closed my eyes in fear that they would have found Mama and handcuffed her. To our surprise, however, they did not. They asked me, then, where my mother was. I bit my lip, and I said, "She is not here." I wondered how well I lied. Nonetheless, they claimed to know that Mama was in the house.

One officer said to Papa: "Look, Wigdor, we know that Ester is here. Where is she?"

Papa told them that they were wrong: "She isn't here," he said matter-of-factly.

They finally left, still shaking their heads in disbelief. We too wondered where Mama was. She couldn't have just vanished into thin air. Then Grandpa asked us to check to see if the policemen were really leaving. Assured that they were, he got out of bed, and we saw where Mama was hidden--in the bed behind her father! A little bit later Papa filled the wagon with hay and buried Mama in it. Then he drove her to a new hiding place. In time, after the elections were over, the hoped-for pardon came. Although Mama had escaped jail, she had served a personal sentence by hiding for more than eight months.

The world depression cast a long shadow over Poland, and it became hard to scratch out a living. To exacerbate matters, Papa had guaranteed bank loans for a German Junker, Herr Heller, and when he went bankrupt Papa had to make good on the loans. Herr Heller coerced Papa into guaranteeing a further loan, with the assurance that he would be repaid with the coming harvest. Papa, trying to rescue himself from his previous loss, agreed. It was a clever deception, for Herr Heller never paid us back and almost bankrupted us. We were deeply in debt, and the vegetables from my garden provided our dinner on many a day. As hard as those years were for us, though, many others in our village were worse off. Knowing a family was in want, those who were better off would help. I remember many times as a child that Mother sent me before the Shabbat with a gift package for the poor.

As grim as the situation got, we had nowhere else to go. The British mandate over Palestine presented great obstacles for our immigration there. The League of Nations debated resettling Jews in Birobidzhan in the Soviet Union or Madagascar. Even though support for Jews in Poland melted, the belief in nazism was not universal. All Christians did not believe in a world built on hatred and deceit, and many went on helping us. My own survival, as the succeeding pages will show, was also due to the help of many kind Christians.

In 1938 Hitler demanded from Poland the Corridor, a narrow strip of land that separated East Prussia from the German mainland. Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigy, who succeeded Pisudski in 1935, said, "Not one button will we surrender!"

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