The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 3
The Blitzkrieg

Throughout the summer of 1939 the threat that Germany would invade Poland intensified. Since Dobra was only about 160 kilometers east of Germany, we had good reason to be concerned. My parents, who remembered the First World War, feared war more than the threat from the Germans. Their war experiences hung over them like a bad dream. I was not quite twenty, though, and I was more intrigued by war than scared.

Josek had served two years in the Yellow Cavalry of the Polish army. Consequently, as war hysteria began, he was recalled and moved with his unit to the Polish border. September 1, 1939, came, and the tense waiting ended, for Hitler's armies crossed into Poland and the Second World War began. Many people enlisted, and although it was against my mother's wishes, I also tried to join up. However, the draft age in Poland was twenty-one then. The recruiting officer sent me home. "We'll call you when we need you," he said. Perhaps he already knew that fighting the well-equipped Nazi armies was senseless.

The next day the nearby mental hospital released all its patients, and hundreds of the insane paraded through the village, creating unbelievable scenes. One man mimicked Napoleon Bonaparte and claimed his armies were coming to fight the Germans. Another, marching as if on parade, saluted everything in sight. A pretty young girl, who seemed perfectly normal at first, suddenly burst into a confused tirade. It was pitiful and grotesque to see them all wandering the streets, staring off into the distance. When the Germans arrived, they put them against a wall and executed them.

On September 3 the Nazi armies were just thirty kilometers away. They would soon be marching on the village. Our retreating soldiers vowed to take a stand and fight at the Warta River, the most logical place to resist the German advance. Our parents remembered a similar situation in the First World War, when our village changed hands several times. We prepared to leave. Just before we left, Josek appeared. "Our battalion," he said, "had only rifles and lances. We were forced into a chaotic retreat."

On Monday, September 4, we decided to leave Dobra. Our truck, an old Peugeot, seemed only to run when we did not need it, so to be safe Papa hitched two horses to a wagon and tied a third to the rear as a spare. After we packed the most essential provisions, clothes and valuables, blankets and bedding, we were ready to leave.

Grandpa refused to come with us. He did not fear German soldiers. "We fought them in the last war. Soldiers are soldiers. They won't harm an old man," he said calmly. And so we left him behind and entered a congested trail of war refugees.

The road was packed with horse-drawn vehicles. Some families even took their cows to provide milk for their children. There were few automobiles, for the army had confiscated them. Our horses were long past their prime, so we walked on foot behind the wagon at each hill. After an hour of slow travel, we heard the sound of approaching airplanes. At first we believed they were Polish. As they came closer, however, we clearly saw that they were not. Their unusual heavy roar and their black cross insignias were enough to tell us that they held the enemy. However fearful we were, we knew that they could see that only civilians were on the road.

When they glided down, we thought it was just to see if we were innocent civilians. We were sure they would not harm us then. Yet to our surprise, they fired at us, creating a mass panic. On the right was the Warta, on the left a field. Only a few trees lined the roadside. We were trapped, with nowhere to run. Since the vehicles followed one another only centimeters apart, every salvo of bullets took a toll. Our three animals rose and whinnied in alarm and tried to tear themselves free of the wagon. After the assault, the bombers rose up and departed, leaving death and destruction behind. Strewn about were dead and injured people and animals and wrecked wagons. This was my first taste of war. What followed convinced me of the validity of my parents' concerns.

A few kilometers farther on we were spotted by two other German planes. Since there were no Polish airplanes to fight them off, we knew what to expect. We had good reason to be frightened. On the right of the road an embankment ran down to the river. Suddenly an army unit passed us on the left, pushing us onto the slippery, grass-covered embankment. Papa jumped down and gripped the horses' reins close to their mouths to steady them. "Out of the way," people shouted, jockeying for space. At that point Mama, Pola, Josek, and I were walking behind the wagon. Suddenly Papa yelled, "Untie the horse in the back!" Just as my brother did, a bomb fell into the river, and an explosion drenched the road. Our wagon was pushed further to the side, and gravity pulled the horses and wagon down into the river. The Warta parted. After a gigantic splash, the water churned, foamed, and sent our belongings and valuables to the bottom of the river. Large waves rolled away in a circle and then dissipated. Only ripples covered our property and the grave of two horses. We had nothing left except what we wore and the horse Josek held on to. The Stukas departed, and we were stunned and horrified. People who had seen what had happened streamed by. They were frightened, and everyone just wanted us out of the way.

Papa suggested that we go to his brother's home in Uniejów. "We'll stay there until the war is over," he said.

Uncle Chaim, Papa's older brother, was a very orthodox and extremely pious Jew who often neglected his family. He and his wife and nine children lived on the edge of poverty in a small apartment. Toba, his oldest daughter, had lived with us for years. But in the months before the war she had returned home.

When we arrived at Uncle Chaim's, the apartment was empty. Like most people in Uniejów, they had realized that our army couldn't stop the Germans. They too were probably heading eastward. We could not turn back; we had to go on. Dragging our one horse farther made no sense. We left it grazing in a field, and bedraggled, despondent, and hungry, we left Uniejów.

Outside the town we heard Papa's name being called. It was Mr. Chmielinski. A few years back he had bought Herr Heller's bankrupted estate. My father had had lots of dealings with him since. It was an unexpected miracle. "Wigdor! What are you doing here?" he yelled. "Is that your wife and your children? Come on, we will take you with us," he shouted, unable to stop for us in the traffic.

His tall, spacious wagon, pulled by stalwart Belgian horses, was a stark contrast to our scanty rig. We jogged along next to it long enough for him and his son, Karol, to help us up. Then Papa explained our dilemma. Chmielinski and his wife sat in front. Mama and Papa sat on the same seat facing the rear. The rest of us sat on the bench in the rear with Karol. We are more comfortable now, I thought.

When the traffic thinned out, Chmielinski pulled the wagon off the road so the horses could feed. He hung bags filled with oats on their necks and spread hay on the ground. Then the family shared what they had with us--home-baked bread, butter, and milk--with a hospitality that was easy to accept.

The Polish soldiers that passed us along the road didn't resemble an army anymore. "Where are the Germans?" we asked.

"Keep going, keep going," they replied. Although it was getting dark, we took their advice. Chmielinski set the horses off at a brisk trot. With fewer army vehicles crowding the road, we made better time.

Karol was a good-humored young man of twenty-seven who had been studying at Jagiello University in Kraków. He liked to talk about Marxism, pacifism, and Hitler. The falling dusk and the rhythmic sway of the wagon made me drowsy, and before long I was sound asleep.

It didn't seem that I had slept long when I awoke to a familiar sound. I looked to the west and saw two dots on the horizon. The roar grew louder, and the dots grew bigger, until I could see the much-feared Messerschmitt. Chmielinski turned the wagon into a field that had already been harvested, and we climbed out. People ran, frenzied, slipping, staggering, desperate, but there was no place to hide. The roar was deafening as two bombers, side by side, circled above us. Suddenly I heard the bombs whistle. I dropped to the ground. The explosion sent earth flying, leaving huge craters behind. Terrified by the noise, the horses, sniffing blood and the odor of death, rose up on their hind legs. Although we were civilians and there was nothing military in sight, the Germans kept blasting their machine guns.

Finally, simply because they were out of ammunition, they flew off. I stood up, shaken. My heart was pounding. Above a wrecked wagon and a dead horse hung a bloodied jacket with part of an arm still in it on a telephone pole. We were all scared, and we thanked God that we had survived. There had been wars before but none like this. This wasn't war, people were saying. It was cold-blooded murder. "This is the result of the new terrible weapons," Karol mumbled, shaking his head.

As we continued moving east, the sun rose high. It baked us in an unusual September heat. We came across dozens of dead animals and wrecked vehicles. The smell of carrion was everywhere. I could not shake off my memory of the arm dangling from that telephone pole. After a few kilometers we stopped, and when Papa tried to buy provisions for zlotys, he discovered that what was plentiful just a few days before had all but disappeared. Although our friends' food was almost depleted, they continued to share with us what they had.

We had a few hours' relief from the bombings, but soon the familiar roar reminded us that the Germans ruled the skies. We now knew what to expect, and when the wagon pulled off the road we swiftly ran for cover. I followed my brother into some dry and thorny bushes. We flattened ourselves, to be as obscure as possible. The planes came as before. Swooping down, they covered the area with machine-gun fire and dropped bombs. But their guns did the most damage. I checked myself after each salvo to see if I was hit and bleeding.

Not far from us, someone lay slumped over. We went over, and we could see blood trickling from his right temple. A bullet had ended his life. A woman in her middle forties came screaming, "It's Stasiek. My God, it's Stasiek!" Two men were behind her. There was sadness and sorrow and much sympathy, but people were afraid. All knew they could be next and tried to get away. The cries of "Stasiek!" rang in my ears for a long time.

I understood then why my parents had so feared war. It was on this day, in the middle of a Polish field under a sky filled with the rapid fire of airborne machine guns, that I lost the illusion that war was an adventure. As we continued on, we passed Lodz and drove on eastward toward Warsaw. We had decided not to stop before dawn. We knew now that daytime travel was dangerous, and from here on we would move only by night. Living off our benefactors became increasingly embarrassing. Besides, their food was nearly gone. We agreed that we would stop in the next village and again try to buy provisions.

Dark clouds hung in the sky, threatening rain, but as the sun came out they dispersed into another sunny morning. We knew it wouldn't be long until the planes returned. We feared the next bombing, concerned that eventually we would have casualties. But we had to go on. We were near the Kampinoska barrens. The village of Kampinos was dead ahead. We stopped at the first farmhouse. No doubt, a land baron carried weight, and Mr. Chmielinski's status was the reason for the remarkable greeting we received. The exceedingly hospitable peasant allowed us to move not only into his yard but also into his barn. He kept chattering in a dialect that was difficult for us to understand. When he realized that we could hardly follow him, he began gesturing with his hands.

His wife had just milked their cows. She came from the cowshed with their two children--a girl about eight and a boy not over fourteen. They both peeked shyly at us. The plopping of the warm milk in the woman's pail stirred our hunger. Thanks to the bread, butter, eggs, and milk, which we bought from this family, we had our first warm meal since leaving home.

After the long night on the wagon, it was comforting to get down and stretch our legs. But before long the Stukas came again. God, will this never cease? I thought. This time, though, the planes--on their way to Warsaw, no doubt--just passed by.

The next morning we heard that the German troops had been advancing rapidly. Poland could no longer offer them any resistance. What remained of our army could not stop the advance. Rydz-Smigy's bravado, "Not one button will we surrender!" now rung hollow indeed. For us to run any farther east seemed useless. With the farmer's hospitality assured, we decided to stay. The German planes headed toward Warsaw no longer fired upon us. They flew back and forth as if on a regular airline route.

In the next forty-eight hours we heard rumors that the Soviets had declared war on Germany. Great Britain and France were already at war with Germany, but we wondered where they were. Was declaring war just a political ploy? It was no longer a question of whether we would fall into German hands, but when.

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