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But only hope:
I've hope to live, and am prepared to die.
Claudio in Measure for Measure by Shakespeare
ADVENTURES OF SURVIVAL
Our escape from Poland to Hungary took place on a sunny October day in 1943. We were instructed by the smugglers to buy tickets to the border town of Nowy Sacz. In a specific area of the railroad station we would find a man with a handkerchief tied around his left hand. He would be our smuggler across the border to Slovakia; from there we would be guided to Hungary.
My mother, Olenka and Gina went to the Krakow central railroad station separately. Whenever possible I stayed away from mother and the girls because to identify a boy as a Jew by circumcision was easy. My presence endangered them. Women with good papers could deny being Jews.
I was walking at a leisurely pace to the railroad station, carrying a backpack with all of my worldly possessions. Suddenly, I heard the familiar cry "Lapanka! Lapanka!" This meant that the Germans were conducting a human roundup. The most common reason for this exercise was snatching Poles for forced labor in Germany; at times, the Germans would grab Poles for execution in retaliation for some act of sabotage.
I ran into an old building, climbed into the attic and up unto the roof. From there I could see the Germans seizing people and loading them onto a truck. I returned to the street as soon as it seemed safe. The train was leaving in 15 minutes, and I was at least 30 minutes away from the station on foot. Fortunately, I saw a "doroshka" (a carriage for hire). I told the driver I would give him three times his usual fare if he really hurried. When I ran onto the platform, my train was moving; I ran as fast as I could and got on one of the last wagons. I could see a man with a white handkerchief on his hand leaning out a window. I made my way through the crowded train to where mother and the girls were. My progress was slow. People were crowded together like sardines in a can. I wanted to reach Mother; I knew she would be despondent. "Oh, my God!" Mother exclaimed when I finally reached them. I pretended not to know them.
At Nowy Sawcz, we were taken from the station by a horse-drawn wagon to a village at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. I had doubts that Mother, Olenka, and Gina would be able to cross the mountain range that loomed on the horizon. We drove through the village and ended up near an isolated farmhouse. The smugglers told us to hide in a cluster of trees, and that they would come to get us when it got dark. Later, one of them showed up and led us to a barn full of fresh-smelling hay. Through a crack in the barn door, we could see the farmhouse. It felt good to settle snugly away from the overcrowded train and the danger of hiding in the woods.
A few hours later I saw two men approach the barn. They wore the garb of Polish mountain people: tight pants, moccasin-like shoes, capes draped over their shoulders, and round black hats. The taller of the two had a moustache; he also seemed older. Inside the barn, they introduced themselves to us as Jozek, the older one, and Stasiek, who had two gold crowns on his front teeth. Father always refused to put gold crowns on the good teeth of the peasants who requested it. A gold crown was a status symbol. Jozek told us that we would get going soon. One of them would walk ahead and the other would follow with us. "It is a good night to cross the border; there are clouds. It will be pitch-black in the mountains. If you get separated, don't talk; just give a sound like a cricket and the other person will respond in the same way," Jozek told us. He was obviously in charge. He and his companion spoke Polish with a dialect typical of Polish mountain people.
When we got on our way, Stasiek was the point man. Mother and ten-year-old Olenka walked behind him, Gina was next and I was the last. At first we followed a path through fields that led us into a forest. The Beskid Mountain range, unlike the adjoining Tartra Mountains, was covered by a thick growth of trees. The area was familiar to us; my parents had visited the fashionable spa in Beskid known as Krynica regularly. We had often spent our vacation in Zakopane at the foot of the Tartra Mountains.
We climbed in complete darkness through the forest. It was mystifying how our guides knew where to go. At one point, Olenka refused to take one more step. She did not cry; she simply announced, "I will not walk anymore. You can leave me here."
Jozek put her on his back. After a short time, she was ready to walk on her own. Whenever we had to cross a road, our guides became apprehensive. Before going to the other side of a road, we stood for a short time in silence. We welcomed these brief rests. Jozek explained that the roads were dangerous because the Germans patrolled them on foot. They would hide in the roadside ditches, but they rarely ventured into the forest.
"What would happen if the Germans came upon us?" Gina asked me during one of these stops.
"The gorale (mountain people) are like mountain goats; they would run away." I said.
"What would happen to us?" she asked.
"They would catch us and kill us," I said with uncharacteristic pessimism. The probability of walking into a German ambush was on my mind. A few hours later, Gina's question and my familiarity with the lore of American Indians saved our lives.
Like all boys in Poland, I was an avid reader of Karl May, who wrote juvenile adventure stories about American Indians in the Wild West. May was a German writer whose books were best sellers throughout Europe. Karl May told the exploits of the Indian chief Winnetou, in three volumes that I had read more than once.
The adventures described by Karl May became the instructional texts of my survival. The basic message was to never give up and always look for a way out. Thanks to him I was steeped in the methods of outwitting the enemy.
"Halt! Halt!" we suddenly heard Germans shout as we were making one of our road crossings. We saw flashlights. Rapid gunfire followed. The guides ran like mountain goats. In the excitement I kept up with them. Seconds later I stopped as if I had hit a brick wall and turned around. I could see Gina, followed by Mother and Olenka, running in my direction. To my left was a narrow ravine with a mountain stream. At once I knew what to do. As Gina approached, I grabbed her and shoved her down the deep ravine. She fell and rolled down the steep bank into the stream. I did the same with Mother and Olenka, and then I leaped into the creek myself. Shortly after I landed in the water, I heard the stomping of German boots above us as they tried in vain to catch up with the mountain people. I heard barking dogs in the distance. "Quick, get up. We must walk upstream," I whispered. I made them walk in the water until I was satisfied it was safe to climb up on the bank of the stream, hoping that the dogs would have lost our scent. Afraid and cold, we huddled together. It was a chilly night, and we were wet. Mother was weeping; Olenka was sobbing. Gina and I, in whispers, tried to figure out what to do. Neither Gina nor I panicked; we were calm and deliberate, as if oblivious to the danger. We agreed that at dawn I would go looking for the guides. "I can find the village where they live," I claimed with the bravado of a 15 year old with his girlfriend by his side.
Daybreak was approaching. All at once we spotted, on the opposite side of the valley, two figures moving slowly as if searching for something. "They are Germans," Gina said, "I can see their helmets." "No, they are not helmets and they have no guns, they could be our guides," I said. We argued briefly about it but there was no time to lose. Soon they would be out of sight. I gave the cricket signal.
There is no sweeter musical tone on Earth than the response we heard; it was the sound of a cricket. We were suddenly energized and ran over to the guides. They told us to follow them straight up the mountain; we were led to a small clearing where we remained for two days. We were told that it was dangerous to move because the Germans would be searching the area. The guides brought us food and blankets. The weather was beautiful and we were able to dry our clothes and gather berries. I enjoyed the praise I received from Jozek and Stasiek for my actions; Mother was very proud also and I cherished Gina's unspoken admiration. "If only Father were here," I thought. I told our guides, "My father will be coming through here soon, if you see him tell him we made it safely to Slovakia." I was convinced that we would succeed in reaching the 'promised land".
On the second night after the encounter with the German patrol, we resumed the effort to get to Slovakia. After a few hours of trekking through the mountains, we slipped into the barn of a Slovakian peasant. These were our Slovakian smugglers.
They greeted us cordially. The similarity between Polish and Slovakian languages made communication possible. We ate our first hot meal in days; it was a variety of grits. They fed us in a large kitchen and we sat at a table as if we were visiting guests. Unlike the Poles, the Slovaks were not fearful of their neighbors' suspicions. When the time came to say goodbye to Stasiek and Jozek, we hugged them gratefully. Money alone was not the only motive for the courage these simple strangers had shown. To us they were heroes.
The bad news was that the Slovakian smugglers expected money from us. They were not paid. We had none. Mr. Wiater had told us that escapees from occupied Poland apprehended within 30 kilometers of the border were handed over by the Slovakian police to the Germans. If they were Jews, they were shot on the spot. Slovakia was a German puppet state; we feared the Slovakian police slightly less than we feared the Germans. I knew that in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was dismembered, a Slovak state had been created with Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest, as President. The "independent" Slovakia was collaborating with its German benefactors to solve the Jewish problem.
Our host told us that the town of Mikulas was our destination. From there we would be smuggled to Kosice, which, at that point, belonged to Hungary and was called Kassa. From Kosice we would travel by train to Budapest. He claimed that Slovakian border police, contrary to regulations, did not turn escapees over to the Germans but took them to headquarters in Presov and released them to a Jewish community in Mikulas. This sounded incredible to us. We suspected that the smugglers, who did not get their money, were trying to get rid of us. "You go to the border police station and surrender to them and everything will turn out all right," we were told repeatedly. "Tell them you just came across but don't tell them you were in my house. Now get some sleep. We will take care of it in the morning," the man of the house told us.
In the privacy of the barn, we talked over the situation. Could it be true that the police were helpful to Jews who had escaped the Germans? Should we slip out of the barn and keep going south until we were beyond the 30-kilometer zone and less likely to be handed over to the Germans? Our host anticipated this move; he told us that he knew what the border police would do. If regular police apprehended us, then the outcome was unclear. As usual I relied upon my intuition and I decided to trust the advice of the smugglers. By now, Mother was leaving such decisions up to me.
At daybreak, our host woke us up, "Walk down the road, the police station is easy to find. It's the only building with the Slovak flag." A few minutes later we stood in front of a brick building. It seemed strange to surrender to police and tell them we were Jews. What would they do to us?
Gina and I entered; Mother and Olenka stayed outside. Once inside, the sight of one lonely policeman sleeping in a chair, his rifle propped against the wall, startled us. It took some effort to wake him up. The policeman was a handsome blond fellow in his early 20's. We explained our situation. He was pleasant and friendly. I went outside and got Mother and Olenka to join us. "I have to take you to the headquarters," he explained. We started at once on foot along a path. The young policeman encouraged us to take rest stops. At one point he gave me his rifle and he carried our meager belongings. I could hardly believe my eyes, a prisoner holding the rifle, the policeman carrying the luggage. Would anyone believe that in Krakow?
We were brought to what seemed like the regional headquarters of the border police. The man in charge was friendly and told us that we would be taken to Mikulas soon. A few hours later we were placed on a regular bus accompanied by an older policeman. The bus was crowded with people going into the city. We looked more like tourists than prisoners.
Once we arrived at our destination, our escort took us to the police station. To our surprise, we were placed in a dingy cell in the local jail. It was not a pleasant setting. We became alarmed about our future. The cell had two jail bunks, Olenka insisted on being next to Mother. I would not admit my eagerness to share the bed with Gina and slept on the floor.
The next day I was taken from the cell to an office and interrogated by two detectives. I told them that we were Jews who had escaped from occupied Poland. "Did you say your father was born in Hungary?" one of the men asked casually. I took the hint. "Yes", was my response. The rest was easy, it developed through a question and answer exchange that my father had been born in Budapest and was living there now. My mother, my two sisters (they assumed Gina was my sister) and I were visiting relatives in Poland when we were trapped by the outbreak of the war. There was no doubt that the police were trying to help. They were writing a fictitious report that we were not Polish but Hungarian Jews. Later I found out that they were bribed by the Slovak Jews to protect the Jews who were apprehended at the border.
When I returned to the cell, Mother and Gina were eager to know what had happened. "We have nothing to worry about. The Slovak police are on our side. Just remember we are Hungarian Jews returning home," I told them.
The next day we were transferred to a "detention facility" which turned out to be a small schoolhouse with a classroom filled with bunk beds. It was nominally under police supervision, but was operated by the Jewish Community Council of Mikulas. There must have been at least 20 to 30 Polish Jews there, mostly women. The "inmates" surrounded us, eager to hear news from Poland. We were told that no one supervised the place. The residents did their own cooking and cleaning. The head of the Jewish Council or another member of the group came once a day for a visit. From time to time, a group of four or five people would be taken to the Hungarian border and smuggled across.
A few days after our arrival, the head of the Jewish Council picked me to be in charge; I looked older than my 15 years. My responsibility was to assign cleaning and cooking duties. The sleeping-living area had no electrical lights. The kitchen was upstairs and had one electric bulb and a table.
Gina and I became friends with Heniek Westereich, who was the only other teenager in the place. Olenka and Heniek's little brother were the only children. Heniek and his brother were alone. I chose three older women to do the cooking, but Gina, Heniek and I washed the dishes after supper. This gave us a chance to be in a room with a light.
"Isn't technology wonderful? If I survive, I will become an engineer," Heniek exclaimed when we turned on the light.
"Look at our condition. If I survive, I will study people," was my response. He became a professor of physics at MIT and Boston University. His name now is Bar-Yam. I am a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit.
One of the residents of the Mikulas "camp" recognized my mother. He was from Slomniki, a little town half way between Krakow and Miechow. My parents had practiced dentistry there before moving to Miechow. Slomniki had a large Jewish population. This man, named Blat, was related to Bialybroda, whom the Germans had named the "Kommissar der Juden" for Slomniki. Blat was very deferential to my mother, constantly calling her "Pani Doktor" all the time. His obsequiousness was a combination of respect and fear. He was concerned that we would denounce him as a collaborator. He was the head of the OD (Order Service) of the Judenrat in Slomniki. He had abused his power and was hated by the Jews of Slomniki. I don't remember his first name. To undermine our credibility, he later spread the rumor that we were Jews who converted to Catholicism before the war. We found that out after he was sent ahead of us to Hungary. He was killed by a member of the Jewish Zionist group a few months later.
I remember Mikulas also as the place where I earned money by my own physical labor. For two days, I moved furniture and was paid an hourly wage.
It seems incredible that in the fall of 1943, Jews in Slovakia were able to assist Polish Jews in an organized manner. It is even hard to believe that a Jewish community existed so late into the Final Solution and was able to organize and support a whole network dedicated to the protection of Polish Jews. The danger and expense must have been enormous. I have been unable to find any mention of these altruistic efforts in any book dealing with the Holocaust.
"Tonight is your family's turn. Be ready at 10 o'clock in the evening. Good luck!" the head of the Jewish Council told me one day. At the appointed hour, a car drove up to the schoolhouse. We were at long last on our way to safety. Mother, Gina and Olenka were told by the driver to take the back seat; I sat next to the driver. It was the first time I had been in a car since the trip to Grandmother's in September of 1939. We were driven to a village near the Slovak-Hungarian border and once again, we ended up in a barn. Our driver handed us to a Slovak farmer and his son.
"They will take you on foot in the early hours of the morning to Kosice which is now a Hungarian town. They will put you on a train to Budapest. When you get off the train, wrap a handkerchief around your left hand; someone will meet you", the driver told us. Our host gave us some blankets and encouraged us to get some sleep.
It was still dark when our guides awakened us. There was a full moon. Our guides were relaxed and casual. Illegal crossing of the border from Slovakia to Hungary was less dangerous than leaving German-occupied Poland. There were also no mountains. We walked along a road until we got to a forest. "On the other side of these trees is Hungary," the guide told us. Less than an hour later, we were on the outskirts of a sizable town. We were spread out, the guides were ahead, I was next, and then mother and the girls followed. Suddenly armed men in uniforms were all around us, shouting in a language we did not understand. It looked like an ambush. I stood motionless, as screaming armed men moved around me. Mother and the girls were a little distance behind me. The armed men, who I believed were border policemen, paid no attention to me. They pointed guns at each other and walked away laughing. I realized that these were Hungarian soldiers on maneuvers.
But our guides had gotten frightened and disappeared. I kept on walking, expecting the guides to reappear just like their Polish counterparts did before. Mother and the girls followed me, unaware that I had no one to follow. What to do? I had been told in Mikulas that Hungarians, unlike the Slovaks, turned escapees from Poland over to the Germans. I did not know a single word in Hungarian. Should I look for the railroad station? If I walked slowly, maybe the guides would turn up? After at least half an hour of looking around, I gave up hope that the guides would return. We were on our own in a strange city, which by now was coming alive. People were going to work and shopping. The store windows were loaded with goods. I looked in the window of a food store with a large sign; part of the inscription contained a Jewish name that I believe was "Steinberg" or some other Jewish sounding name. "That's it!" was my next thought. This was our chance to get help. I entered the store; a few customers were inside. Behind the counter were an older man with a beard, a woman, and a boy about my age. They looked Jewish.
Mother and the girls followed me and stood by the door. I approached the man and tried to tell him our predicament in Yiddish. The trouble was that my Yiddish was virtually non-existent. The man told me in Slovak to wait and be quiet; he seemed scared. He said something to the boy in Hungarian who came from behind the counter and motioned us to follow him. He took us to a storage room; after a few minutes, Mr. Steinberg appeared. He paid little attention to me and began to talk in Yiddish with Mother, who was fluent in Yiddish. I had already explained to Mother that our guides were gone and that we had to get away from the border town and get to Budapest. Mr. Steinberg left our strange room looking worried, but he promised to help.
It took a long time before he returned with his son and told us to follow the boy. We were taken to a synagogue and placed in a small room. Some people appeared with food and blankets, and assured us that they would find a way to get us out of Kassa, as the town was called in Hungarian. The Jews in this town, unlike those of Mikulas, seemed scared and less organized. Evidently this was a new challenge that I had created for them by walking into the store. They were improvising. Our survival was in their hands. We had no doubt that these Jewish strangers would find a way to help us. We did not sleep most of the night, but our expectations were not disappointed. The Jewish Community of Kassa took care of us. Mother was praising me for handling the disappearance of the guides in such a resourceful manner. Gina said nothing but I could tell that she was impressed.
The next morning, the young Steinberg showed up. He took us to the railroad station, bought tickets, and waited with us on the platform. In spite of the fear, being in a foreign country fascinated me. The language was incomprehensible. The clothing was different. People were relaxed and well fed. As usual, I kept separate from Mother and the girls while waiting for the train. This was our standard operating procedure that I followed at all times.
I walked up and down the platform trying to look casual. Then to my shock, a rifle-carrying, uniformed man with black feathers in his hat approached me and asked something in Hungarian. I looked at him bewildered. Then, in a moment of sudden inspiration I stuck out my tongue, gave a shriek and walked away. He looked puzzled and put his finger to the side of his head in a gesture pronouncing me crazy. I assumed he was a policeman asking for documents. I had it half right. "He was a state policeman; he asked what time it was," the young Steinberg explained later when he had seated us in a train compartment.
"Er is a kluger jing"("He is a smart boy"), our guide said to my mother in Yiddish, shaking his head with admiration for my getting out of a confrontation with one of the feared ("Csenders") gendarmes.
Shortly afterwards we were on our way to Budapest. Looking out the windows of the train, we saw tidy villages, cars and trucks. People and even the horses looked prosperous. There were no bombed out houses, no German military vehicles. The train was clean and not overcrowded.
Everybody seemed comfortable. The contrast with occupied Poland was striking. We smiled at the conductor but could not say one word in Hungarian. We pretended to be asleep when another traveler entered our compartment.
In Budapest, we got off the train like everyone else but we had no place to go and no one to turn to. The chain of contacts had been broken in Kosice when our guides disappeared and we did not take the designated train. We were on our own in a strange city; without papers or familiarity with the language, and we had no money.
I found a comfortable waiting room in the station for Mother and Olenka. "We will find some Polish Jews - they will help us," I told Mother. This turned out to be simpler than I expected. Gina and I had barely walked a block when we heard a man and a woman who looked Jewish speaking in Polish. We told them our plight and they were eager to help.
They went with us to the railroad station to pick up Mother and Olenka and took us to a café on Király Utca (King St.), a gathering place for Polish Jews. It had been a long time since I had seen so many free Jews. They gathered around us, asking questions about Poland. We were fed, given money and plenty of advice. A man knew of a nearby room for rent; he took us there and paid for our overnight stay. We marveled at his ability to speak Hungarian. We could not go to a hotel because we had no papers as legal Polish refugees. The room was a shabby space behind the workshop of a luggage repairman. They used the place to dry their laundry. Water dripped on our beds from the wet wash. The family lived next to the workroom. "Get some rest and come back to the Király Utca coffee house in the morning. Everything will be fine," were the parting words of our unknown Good Samaritan. That Jews would help Jews was taken for granted then and still is.