I RAN BAREFOOT ACROSS THE Meadow toward the river. Once among the trees, I flung off my clothes, grabbed my favorite low-hanging branch, swung out across the river, and let go.
A perfect landing!
Floating along in the water, I heard one splash and then another as two of my friends joined me. Soon we climbed out of the river and raced back to our favorite branches to start all over again. When lumberjacks working upstream threatened to spoil our fun by sending their freshly cut trees downstream to the mill, we adapted quickly, opting to lie on our backs, each on a separate log, gazing at the sunlight breaking through the canopy of oak, spruce, and pines.
No matter how many times we repeated these routines, I never tired of them. Sometimes on those hot summer days, we wore swim trunks, at least if we thought any adults might be around. Mostly we wore nothing.
What made the escapades even more exciting was that my mother had forbidden my going to the river.
After all, I didn’t know how to swim.
In winter the river was just as much fun. My older brother Tsalig helped me create ice skates from all kinds of unlikely materials, metal remnants retrieved from our grandfather the blacksmith and bits of wood from the firewood pile. We were inventive in crafting our skates. They were primitive and clumsy, but they worked! I was small yet fast; I loved racing with the bigger boys across the bumpy ice. One time David, another of my brothers, skated on thin ice that gave way. He fell into the freezing river. Luckily, it was shallow water. I helped him out and we hurried home to change our dripping clothes and thaw out by the hearth. Once we were warm and dry, back we raced to the river for another adventure.
Life seemed an endless, carefree journey.
So not even the scariest of fairy tales could have prepared me for the monsters I would confront just a few years later, the narrow escapes I would experience, or the hero, disguised as a monster himself, who would save my life. My first years gave no warning of what was to come.
My given name is Leib Lejzon, although now I am known as Leon Leyson. I was born in Narewka, a rural village in northeastern Poland, near Białystok, not far from the border with Belarus. My ancestors had lived there for generations; in fact, for more than two hundred years.
My parents were honest, hardworking people who never expected anything they did not earn. My mother, Chanah, was the youngest of five children, two daughters and three sons. Her older sister was called Shaina, which in Yiddish means “beautiful.” My aunt was indeed beautiful; my mother wasn’t, and that fact informed the way everyone treated them, including their own parents. Their parents certainly loved both their daughters, but Shaina was regarded as too beautiful to do physical labor, while my mother was not. I remember my mother telling me about having to haul buckets of water to the workers in the fields. It was hot; the water was heavy, but the task turned out to be fortuitous for her—and for me. It was in these fields my mother first caught the eye of her future husband.
Even though my father initiated their courtship, their marriage had to be arranged by their parents, or at least seem to be. That was the accepted custom in eastern Europe at the time. Fortunately, both sets of parents were pleased with their children’s mutual attraction. Soon the couple married; my mother was sixteen and my father, Moshe, was eighteen.
For my mother, married life was in many ways similar to how her life had been with her parents. Her days were spent doing housework, cooking, and caring for her family, but instead of her parents and siblings, she now looked after her husband and soon their children.
As the youngest of five children, I didn’t have my mother to myself very often, so one of my favorite times was when my brothers and sister were at school and our women neighbors came to visit. They would sit around the hearth, knitting or making pillows from goose feathers. I watched as the women gathered the feathers and stuffed them into the pillowcases just so, gently shaking them so they spread evenly. Inevitably, some of the down would escape. My job was to retrieve the little feathers that wafted through the air like snowflakes. I reached for them, but they would float away. Now and then, I’d get lucky and catch a handful, and the women would reward my efforts with laughter and applause. Plucking geese was hard work, so every single feather was precious.
I looked forward to listening to my mother swap stories and sometimes a bit of local village gossip with her friends. I saw a different, more peaceful and relaxed side of her then.
Busy as my mother was, she always had time to show her love. She sang with us children, and, of course, she made sure we did our homework. Once I was sitting by myself at the table, studying arithmetic, when I heard a rustling behind me. I had been so focused on what I was learning that I hadn’t heard my mother come in and begin cooking. It wasn’t mealtime, so that was surprising. Then she handed me a plate of scrambled eggs, made just for me. She said, “You are such a good boy, you deserve a special treat.” I still feel the pride that welled up within me at that moment. I had made my mother proud.
My father had always been determined to provide a good life for us. He saw a better future in factory work than in his family’s trade of blacksmithing. Shortly after marrying, he began working as an apprentice machinist in a small factory that produced handblown glass bottles of all sizes. There my father learned how to make the molds for the bottles. Thanks to his hard work, his innate ability, and his sheer determination, he was frequently promoted. One time the factory owner selected my father to attend an advanced course in tool design in the nearby city of Białystok. I knew it was an important opportunity because he bought a new jacket especially for the occasion. Buying new clothes was something that didn’t happen very often in our family.
The glass factory prospered, and the owner decided to expand the business by moving it to Kraków, a thriving city about three hundred fifty miles southwest of Narewka. This caused a great deal of excitement in our village. In those days it was rare for young people, really for anyone, to leave the town of their birth. My father was one of the few employees to move with the factory. The plan was for my father to go first. When he had enough money, he would bring all of us to Kraków. It took him several years to save that much and to find a suitable place for us to live. In the meantime, my father returned every six months or so to see us.
I was too young to recall exactly when my father left Narewka that first time, but I do remember when he came back to spend a few days. When he arrived, the entire village knew. My father was a tall, handsome man who always took great pride in his appearance. He liked the more formal attire of men in Kraków and gradually purchased several elegant suits. Whenever he came for a visit, he wore a beautiful suit, dress shirt, and necktie. That caused quite a sensation among the villagers, who were accustomed to loose-fitting, simple peasant clothing. Little did I know, those very suits would help to save our lives during the terrible years ahead.
My father’s visits always felt like a holiday. Everything was different when he was home. Most days, given all that Mother had to do to look after my four siblings and me, meals were pretty informal. This changed when my father was there. We sat around the table with the serving dishes spread out before us. There were always a few more eggs at breakfast and a little more meat at dinner. We listened to his stories of life in the city, enthralled by his tales of the modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and streetcars, things we could scarcely imagine. We four brothers, Hershel, Tsalig, David, and I, were on our best behavior. We vied for our father’s attention, but we knew our sister, Pesza, was really his favorite. Since she was the only girl in our family of rambunctious boys, that probably wasn’t surprising. Whenever we siblings got into a minor altercation, I can remember it was never Pesza’s fault, even though it might have been. When we teased her too much, Father intervened and reprimanded us. Pesza had long blond hair that my mother plaited into thick braids. She helped my mother around the house and was quiet and obedient. I can understand why my father favored her.
Often, Father brought us presents from the big city. The candy boxes he brought had photos of some of the grand historic buildings and tree-lined boulevards of Kraków. I used to stare at them for a long time, trying to imagine what it would be like actually to live in such a glamorous place.
As the youngest child, I always got the hand-me-downs: shirts, shoes, pants, and toys. On one visit my father brought us gifts of child-size briefcases. I saw my brothers with theirs and thought that once again I would have to wait until one of them passed his on to me. I really didn’t think that was fair. This time I was in for a surprise. Packed into one of the briefcases was an even smaller one, just right for me. I was so happy.
Though his visits were only for a few days, my father always made a special time for me. Nothing gave me more joy than walking with him to his parents’ house, with his friends greeting him along the way. He always held my hand in his, playing with my fingers. It was like a secret signal between us of how much he loved me, his youngest child.
My brother Hershel was the oldest; then came my brother Betzalel, known as Tsalig; my sister, Pesza; my brother David; and me. I thought of Hershel as the biblical Samson. He was big, strong, and feisty. My parents used to say he was a handful. As a teenager, he rebelled and refused to go to school. He wanted to be doing something more “useful.” By that time my father was working in Kraków, so my parents made the decision that Hershel should join my father there. I had mixed feelings about this. I was sorry to see my big brother leave, but it was a relief also. He had been a worry for my mother, and, young as I was, I knew it was better for Hershel to be with my father. Hershel preferred city life and rarely came with Father when he visited us.
If Hershel was tough and headstrong, my brother Tsalig was in many ways his opposite. Tsalig was gentle and kind. Though he was six years older and had every reason to act vastly superior to me, his kid brother, he never did. In fact, I don’t remember him once treating me like the nuisance I probably was. He even let me tag along with him on his excursions about town. A technical wizard, Tsalig was a superhero to me. There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do. He once built a radio using crystals instead of electricity to pick up broadcasts from Warsaw and Białystok and even Kraków. He made the entire apparatus, including the box that housed the equipment, and he figured out how to rig up a long wire antenna to get a signal. It seemed like magic to me when I put on the headphones Tsalig handed me and heard the famous trumpeter of Kraków marking the noon hour with his horn, hundreds of miles away.
It was my brother David, a little over a year older than I, who was my closest companion. I remember David telling me that when I was a baby, he would rock the cradle if I was crying. We were often together. Still, teasing me seemed to be among his favorite pastimes. He had a gleeful smirk whenever I fell for one of his pranks. Sometimes I felt so frustrated with his tricks, tears filled my eyes. Once, when he and I were eating noodles, he told me the noodles really were worms. He kept at it so long and remained so serious he finally convinced me. I gagged, and David howled with laughter. It wasn’t long before we were best friends again . . . until David found another opportunity to pester me.
There were about a thousand Jews in Narewka. I looked forward to going to synagogue services with my maternal grandparents, with whom I was especially close. I loved hearing the prayers resonate throughout the building. The rabbi would begin the service in a strong, vibrant voice that soon blended in with the voices of the congregation. Every few minutes his voice would rise again as he called out a line or two, indicating where everyone should be in the prayer book. The rest of the time each member of the congregation was on his or her own. It felt as if we were one, but also that each of us had a personal communion with God. I guess to an outsider it might have seemed strange, but to us it felt utterly right. Sometimes when a Christian Pole wanted to describe a chaotic event, he would say, “It was like a Jewish congregation.” In those peaceful times, such a comment wasn’t meant in a hostile way, but as an affirmation of how strange we seemed to those whose religious practices differed from ours.
For the most part, Christians and Jews lived side by side in harmony in Narewka, although I learned early on that I was pushing my luck by walking down the streets in my usual carefree way during Holy Week, the week before Easter. That was the one time our Christian neighbors treated us differently, as if we Jews suddenly were their enemies. Even some of my playmates became my assailants. They pelted me with stones and called me names that were cruel and hurtful, names like “Christ killer.” That didn’t make much sense to me, since I knew Jesus had lived centuries before, but my personal identity didn’t count for much compared to my identity as a Jew; and for those who seemed to hate us, it didn’t matter when a Jew lived: A Jew was a Jew, and every Jew was accountable for the death of Jesus. Fortunately the animosity lasted only a few days out of the year, and generally in Narewka, Jews and gentiles existed peacefully alongside each other. Of course, there were always exceptions. The woman who lived across the street from us threw rocks at my Jewish pals and me just for walking on the sidewalk in front of her house. I guess she thought the very proximity of a Jew brought bad luck. I learned to cross to the other side of the street when I approached her house. Other neighbors were much nicer. The family who lived next door invited us over each year to see their decorated Christmas tree.
All in all, Narewka in the 1930s was a pretty idyllic place to grow up. From sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, the Jews of Narewka observed the Sabbath. I loved the quietness that fell as shops and businesses closed, a welcome respite from the weekday routines. After services in the synagogue, people would sit on their porches, chatting and chewing pumpkin seeds. They would often ask me to sing when I strolled by, since I knew a lot of tunes and was admired for my voice, a distinction I lost when I entered adolescence and my voice changed.
September through May, I went to public school in the morning and to heder, Jewish school, in the afternoon. There, I was expected to learn Hebrew and study the Bible. I had an edge on my classmates, since I had learned from my brothers, imitating them as they were doing their heder homework even if I didn’t understand what they were studying. My parents enrolled me in the heder when I was five years old.
Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion of Poland, and religion was very much a part of the public school I attended. When my Catholic classmates recited their prayers, we Jews were required to stand and be silent. That was easier said than done; we were often reprimanded for trying to sneak in a whisper or a playful nudge when we were supposed to be standing like statues. It was risky to misbehave even a little bit, since our teacher was quite willing to tell our parents. Sometimes my mother knew I had gotten into trouble even before I arrived home in the afternoon! My mother never spanked me, but she had a way of letting me know when I had displeased her. I didn’t much like that feeling, so for the most part, I tried to be good.
One time my cousin Yossel asked his teacher if he could change his name to Józef in honor of Józef Pilsudski, a Polish national hero. The teacher told him that a Jew was not allowed to have a Polish first name. I couldn’t figure out why my cousin would want to exchange his Yiddish name—which in English means Joseph—for the Polish version, but the teacher’s rebuff didn’t surprise me. That was just the way life was.
I made my second home with our neighbor Lansman the tailor. I was fascinated by how he could direct the thinnest, most even spray of water from his mouth onto the clothes he was pressing. I loved visiting him, his wife, and their four sons, all of whom were skilled tailors. They sang at their work and in the evenings sat together making music, singing and playing instruments. I was mystified when the youngest son, a Zionist, decided to leave his home for distant Palestine. Why would he go so far away from his family and give up working and playing music with them? Now I realize his decision saved his life. His mother, his father, and his brothers all died in the Holocaust.
Narewka lacked most of what we consider necessities today. Streets were made of cobblestones or were unpaved; most buildings were constructed of wood and were only one story high; people walked or traveled on horseback or by horse and wagon. I still remember when the marvel of electricity reached us in 1935. I was six years old. Every household had to decide whether or not to opt for electrical power. After a lot of discussion, my parents made the daring decision to bring the new invention into our home. A lone wire led to a socket installed in the middle of our ceiling. It seemed incredible that instead of a kerosene lamp, we now had a single glass bulb overhead by which we could read at night. All we had to do was pull the cord to turn it on and off. Whenever I thought my parents weren’t looking, I’d climb on a chair and pull the cord, just to see the light appear and disappear as if by magic. Amazing.
In spite of the wonder of electricity, in most other ways life in Narewka remained as it had been for centuries. There was no indoor plumbing, and in the bitter winter the trip to the outhouse was one I learned to delay as long as possible. Our home had one large room that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room—all in one—and one bedroom. Privacy in the way we think of it today was entirely foreign to us. There was one bed, and we all shared it, my mother, brothers, sister, and I.
We collected our water from a well in our yard, dropping a bucket until we heard a splash, then winding it up full of water. The challenge was not to lose too much of the water as we lugged the bucket from the well to the house. It took several trips a day to meet our needs, so there was a lot of going back and forth to and from the well. I also gathered eggs, stacked wood chopped by Tsalig, dried dishes that Pesza washed, and ran errands for my mother. Most days I was the one who went to my grandfather’s barn to carry home a pitcher of milk from his cow.
Our village at the edge of the Białowieża Forest was made up of farmers and blacksmiths, butchers and tailors, teachers and shopkeepers. We were agrarian, unsophisticated, industrious people, Jews and Christians alike, whose lives revolved around family, our religious calendars, and the seasons of sowing and reaping.
Those of us who were Jewish spoke Yiddish at home, Polish in public, and Hebrew in religious school or at the synagogue. I also learned some German from my parents. It turned out that knowing German would prove more useful to us than we ever could have imagined.
Because Polish law prohibited Jews from owning land, as had been the case for centuries for Jews in Europe, my maternal grandfather, Jacob Meyer, leased his farmland from the Eastern Orthodox Church. He endured long hours of physical labor to support his family. He tilled his fields. He dug potatoes out of the earth with a spade and cut down hay with a scythe. I felt grand riding atop his horse-drawn wagon when it was piled high with bundles of hay at the end of the harvest. After my father left for Kraków, my mother increasingly relied on her parents for help. My grandfather frequently came by our house with potatoes and beets and other produce from his garden to make sure his daughter and his grandchildren didn’t go hungry. Still, even with her parents’ help, my mother had her hands full, since by and large she was a single parent raising a houseful of children. Just keeping us fed and in clean clothes and making sure we had the supplies we needed for school was a huge job. She never had any time completely for herself.
In Narewka everyone knew their neighbors and knew what they did for a living. Men were frequently identified by their occupation rather than by their last name. My paternal grandfather was known as Jacob the blacksmith, and our neighbor was Lansman the tailor. A woman was often referred to by her husband’s name—as Jacob’s wife, for example—while children were sometimes known according to who their parents or grandparents were. People didn’t think of me first and foremost as being Leib Lejzon. They didn’t even think of me as the son of Moshe and Chanah, but rather they referred to me as Jacob Meyer’s eynikl, Jacob Meyer’s grandson. That simple fact says a lot about the world in which I grew up. It was a patriarchal society, in which age was respected, even revered, especially when, as in my maternal grandfather’s case, age meant a lifetime of hard work, of caring for his family, and of devotion to his faith. I always stood a little taller and felt a little more special when people spoke of me as Jacob Meyer’s eynikl.
Every Friday night and Saturday morning at Sabbath services in the synagogue, I would stand next to my grandfather, bowing my head when he did and following his lead through the prayers. I still remember looking up at him and thinking how strong and tall he looked, like a giant tree shielding me. We always spent Passover at my mother’s parents’ house. Since I was the youngest grandson, I had the nerve-racking honor of asking the four questions traditional to the holiday service. As I recited the questions in Hebrew, trying hard not to make a mistake, I could feel my grandfather’s eyes on me, willing me through my part. When I finished, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had fulfilled his expectations. I felt lucky to be his grandson, and I always wanted to earn his approval and be worthy of his affection. I especially enjoyed spending the night with my grandparents all by myself. I would sleep with them in their bed, happy I didn’t have to share it with my siblings as I did at home. How I loved being the center of my grandparents’ attention!
Protected by the love and support of my family, I had little knowledge of the past persecutions that Jews in Narewka and other villages had experienced over the centuries, at the hands of first one ruler and then another. My parents had lived through attacks, called pogroms, in the early 1900s. Afterward many of Narewka’s Jews left for America, among them my mother’s brothers, Morris and Karl. Even though they knew no English, they believed that a better future was possible in the United States. A few years later Shaina, the beautiful sister, also sought a new life in America.
My parents had experienced war firsthand, the Great War of 1914–1918. No one before 1939 thought of it as World War I, since we had no idea that only twenty years later the world would again erupt in conflict. During the Great War, the German soldiers who occupied Poland were usually considerate of Poles, regardless of their faith. At the same time, in Narewka and many other villages throughout Poland, men were conscripted for forced labor. My father worked for the Germans on the narrow-gauge railroad that transported lumber and other supplies from our area to Germany. In 1918, when Germany was defeated, the occupying troops withdrew and returned to their homeland.
In retrospect, my parents and many others made a terrible mistake in thinking the Germans who came to Narewka in the Second World War would be like the Germans who had come in the First World War. They thought they would be people like themselves, men doing their military duty, anxious to return to their wives and children, and appreciative of any hospitality and kindness. In the same way people thought of me in relation to my grandfather and held certain expectations of me because of who my grandfather was, we thought of the Germans who entered Poland in 1939 in relation to those who had come before them. Logically, there was no reason for us to think otherwise. After all, what can we trust if not our own experience?
When I think back to the place where I grew up, the village that gave me so many treasured memories, I am reminded of a Yiddish song I used to sing with Lansman and his sons. It is titled “Oyfn Pripetchik”—in English, “On the Hearth.” With a mournful melody, it tells of a rabbi teaching the Hebrew alphabet to his young students, just the way I was learning those letters in heder. The song concludes with ominous words as the rabbi warns:
When you grow older, children,
You will understand
How many tears lie in these letters
And how much lament.
In the evenings, when I sang this song with the Lansman family, those words seemed like ancient history. It never would have occurred to me those words were forecasting my imminent and terrifying future.