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Even to the Edge of Doom
A Love that Survived the Holocaust
By William Schiff, Rosalie Schiff, Craig Hanley
The History PressCopyright © 2011 W-R Schiff Literary Works LLC and Craig Hanley
All rights reserved.
'When will people stop hating?'
On this lovely Thursday at the end of summer the citizens of Kraków move as usual through some of the finest architecture in Europe. Towering gothic churches, stately Renaissance homes and trendy cafes with gilt lettering crowd together around the main square. The true heart of the city is the storybook castle up on the hill where the Polish kings are buried. Below its thick wall flows the shimmering Vistula River.
It is 1939 and radio is a big deal. People are amazed the technology can bring them news from the other side of the world. Inspired by the breakthrough, many students at the university are obsessed with maths and electronics. Four centuries earlier, Copernicus learned enough maths here to figure out that the Earth goes around the Sun.
Not everybody is caught up in the radio craze, however. The bearded men in long, black silk coats walking under the iron streetlamps spend a good bit of their time mastering ancient religious texts. Some believe in a miracle-worker who lived in the dark mountains on the horizon where melting snow feeds the river.
Horse hoofs echo through the cobbled streets as wagons bring food in from the countryside and supplies to stores and shops. Twelve of the wagons belong to Benzion Baum. He and his partners sell firewood to bakeries, candy makers, and hundreds of homes. Twenty-five years ago it was just Benzion in one wagon. He carried the split trunks through front doors and back doors, making neat stacks by stoves, bread ovens, and pots of bubbling chocolate.
Customers liked the wood vendor. He was dependable, earnest and fair. Today he owns a yard on the other side of the river where twenty employees unload wood from train cars into the delivery wagons. In the new factory next door thirty more workers can't keep up with orders for the insulation product Benzion designed ten years ago. During harsh Polish winters it helps people save money on firewood.
Benzion lives at 7 Dietlovska Street, a prestigious address in a neighbourhood called Kazimierz, home to most of the 70,000 Jews in the city. His wife's name is Helena and the couple have two girls and a boy. His oldest daughter, Rosalie, is 16.
Our apartment was not far from downtown on a tree-lined street a few blocks from the river. From our windows we could see the Vistula and the castle on top of Wawel Hill. Mom and Dad gave us a home full of love. As committed as he was to his work, he stayed home if one of the kids was sick.
My sister Lucy was 14 and my little brother Henry was 8. We played in the parks and jumped on the backs of the wagons the horses pulled up and down our street. In winter we went sledding and on sunny days we played kickball. In Poland back then children didn't have many toys or dolls. In my favourite game you tried to flick pebbles into a hole with your finger. I kept coming home with dirty hands and Mom was afraid I was turning into a tomboy.
I went to a little school not far from home. History was my favourite subject so I loved it when our class went to the castle. It has an ancient hall with a winding stair that goes way down into the dark. This was supposed to be the cave of Smoke, the Kraków dragon. When we were little we were terrified of Smoke because the legend says he liked to eat children. None of us was afraid of the Germans because we were not informed about politics at all. At that age I never really thought about being Polish. It was just the country where I was born.
My dad's best friend owned a soap factory and lived directly above our apartment. Their daughter Mania was my sister's best friend. Dad and Mania's dad would drink coffee and listen to news on the radio. Hitler was kicking Polish Jews out of Germany and Dad helped three of these refugees find a place to stay. My uncle Isaac lived in Germany. He could tell what was coming and moved to England. He kept urging my father to come with him but Dad said everything would blow over.
I had no idea what was going on. At 16 you walk past nightclubs and wonder when you'll finally be able to go out dancing. Once in a while we would go into downtown Kraków to visit the dress shop owned by my mother's younger sister. She looked like a supermodel, tall and skinny, blonde hair and blue eyes. She always wore gorgeous clothes and broad-brimmed hats. This woman was my idol.
Basically I was still a child. My main interest in life was probably the powdered sugar napoleons at the restaurant across the street. Dad's customers always gave him samples and one night he came home with a huge box of chocolate-covered cherries from Suchard's, the gourmet chocolatier. Mom locked this in a cabinet but I found the key and ate every one. Before the invasion, that stomach ache was the biggest trauma in my life.
The Schiff family lives half a mile from the Baums, on Kraków Street near the Jewish Community Centre. They don't have it quite as easy. Up on the third floor of a big grey housing block the five family members share two bedrooms and a large kitchen. The whole family shares a bathroom with the Applebaums next door. The Schiffs' kitchen serves as dining room, family room and conference room. According to William, the middle child, money discussions frequently required encryption.
When my parents wanted to keep secrets from us they spoke Yiddish. Dad was a terrible businessman so we heard a lot of Yiddish. At one point my father and his partner had two barber-beauty shops and we lived in a much nicer apartment. Then he made some bad deals and lost his partner. We ended up with the smaller shop and had to move into the little place on Kraków Street. He had four employees and five chairs in this shop. I swept the floors when I was young to help out.
Dad had been a medic in the army of the Austro-Hungarian monarch in the First World War. He trained as a corpsman and learned to dress wounds. I was born right after the war. What can I say? I grew up in a family where the woman was the smart one and the man wouldn't listen. I loved my father but I never really liked him a whole lot. When I was 6 I wanted to buy some candy and he wouldn't give me a nickel. After I cried for two days he finally gave in. I was so excited running to the store I tripped and the nickel fell in the gutter and went down the sewer. Our whole relationship was kind of like that.
My mother I loved dearly. She and I had to scramble to get the family finances back on track. She ran the shop and Dad just cut hair. My older sister Dorothy was studying to be a pharmacist. To help pay her tuition I quit school at 14 and got a job in a sewing machine repair shop. Over the next six years I also became a bicycle mechanic and learned how to fix radios in the same shop. I was fascinated by radio technology and started taking night school classes. When I was 18 I was making ten zloties a week and giving most of it to my Mom. This was more money than my uncles were making. My younger brother Bronek helped Dad at the shop.
I couldn't afford to be full-time sports crazy like other kids, but working in a bicycle shop you couldn't avoid sports. In Poland at that time bicycle racing was like football and baseball and basketball combined. I did road races with a Jewish club called Maccabi and won a few events. When I turned 16 I discovered girls and it was bye-bye bicycles.
Throughout my childhood I had always been painfully shy around girls. My sister saw how pathetic I was and said, 'William, let me teach you how to dance.' She was a phenomenal dancer and after a few years I got very good at classic styles like the tango, foxtrot and paso doble.
Dorothy and I would save our money, dress up, and go dancing with older friends at popular spots like The Gypsy Club. We thought we were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and we could clear the dance floor when we felt like showing off. I could sing, too, so things started to open up for me socially and I was dating a lot.
That was my life when the Germans seized our city. I was just an average guy. I worked all day fixing bikes and radios, studied electronics at night, and chased girls on the weekend. We didn't have any money, but I was ambitious and excited about my future.
When the sun goes down on the lovely end-of-summer Thursday the Schiff and Baum families sit down to their dinners. Three hundred miles west of their tables an enormous force is gathering in silence on the German border. After six years in power, Adolf Hitler has completed his plan to invade Poland. While the Schiffs and the Baums sleep, his diplomats publicise the excuses. They claim their army has to cross the border to put down Polish rebel attacks. Nazi intelligence agents have faked the terror incidents, but newspapers and radio stations controlled by the government support the shaky argument for war.
The Second World War begins with ultra-modern tanks and planes and nihilism. Hitler tells his generals to forget their tradition of fair play. Operation White is not about taking ground and capturing flags. Secret units from the SS will be following the tanks. Their initial mission seems straightforward: to occupy local media and political offices and pacify the population. But the ruthless methods of the Death's Head scandalise several old-school officers.
Most soldiers in the regular army believe that Germany was dishonoured by foreign politicians and betrayed by its own liberals twenty years earlier. Many grew up in homes squeezed by a hard economy, especially if their fathers were killed in the First World War. They have been trained to view the Polish people as backward and treacherous 'semi-Asians' and eastern Jews as cockroaches.
Older soldiers who started as storm troopers embrace the racial politics of their leaders. Younger boots who came up through the Hitler Youth are even more extreme. They believe the future cannot be built until the present is destroyed. Raised on bonfires and the People's Radio, they have idolised combat all their lives. They are schooled to be dominating, indifferent to pain, and free of tenderness. At fifteen minutes before five o'clock on the first morning of September, this bitter generation erupts in rage.
Rosalie's heaven is shattered.
A lot of it is still like a cloud in my mind. Right before the Germans came I had a very vivid dream. In this dream I was looking outside through the keyhole in the front door of our apartment complex. The street was full of dead people. I remember this so well because I saw my favourite aunt, the beautiful girl who owned the dress shop, lying among the other bodies wearing a fancy hat.
The next day Dad came home early from work and said all the men had been told to evacuate. The Germans were calling everybody terrorists so they could shoot anybody they felt like shooting. Dad told us he loved us and kissed us goodbye. Then he left with his two partners and headed for the Russian border.
We never found out what happened to him. One of the partner's sons told me many years later that he was killed while Russian soldiers were chasing him. My last memory of the man I worshipped are the words he spoke to my mother when he kissed her as he went out the front door. He said, 'When will people ever stop hating one another?'
A few days later we heard bombing and the soldiers came marching into the city. I went downstairs with my brother and sister and we walked to the main street to watch the parade. There were heavy tanks and miles of men with scowling faces. They swung their arms and stomped their boots and sang, 'Germany! Germany! Number One!' We threw candy, one of the great regrets of my life. If I knew then what I know now it would have been poison.
Rosalie's father and his partners march towards the Russian border. All must go on foot because German bombers have crippled the train system. Once their hard targets are taken out, the Luftwaffe pilots tear into the huge column of men. William is in the thick of things with his father and younger brother.
We all headed for Lvov, a town 160 miles east. Before we even got started my brother was almost arrested by our own soldiers. He didn't want to give them his bicycle. Here come the Germans with a thousand tanks and the Polish army is scavenging bicycles from teenagers.
The first day on the road was not a problem. On the second day it was obvious the Polish air force was out of commission. The sky filled with German planes. Technically, they started bombing us because everybody was running away together and there were a lot of Polish soldiers mixed in with the civilians. The Germans didn't really give a damn. They just wanted to kill as many people as possible.
Wherever you turned there were explosions and horses and carriages full of men falling into craters. One bomb hit a wagon thirty yards in front of us and we got knocked over by all kinds of debris. I ran and looked down in the hole, but everybody was too mangled for me to help. Another bomb landed close behind us and we jumped up and ran. Dad fainted twice and we dragged him off the road into the trees. This went on for ten days and it broke my father psychologically. From that point until his deportation three years later he was pretty much like a little child.
Hitler and Stalin have an agreement on how they intend to divide Poland, but a Russian diplomat in Berlin discovers secret German plans to violate the pact and seize Lvov. To protect his nearby oil reserves Stalin rolls out the Ukrainian Front army. Ten days after the Schiff men leave Kraków, they run into a noisy and blinding wall of Soviet armoured vehicles.
We had been walking forever and sleeping at night in the woods, eating whatever we could find along the way, usually nothing. When we reached the outskirts of Lvov it was almost midnight. The Russians came charging out in tanks and shined spotlights on us. They said, 'Drop your weapons, turn around, and go home.'
I was three months shy of 21, the legal age for enlistment. Some Polish soldiers had given me an infantryman's jacket and a rifle anyway. They didn't give me any bullets and that was fine with me. I had never touched a gun before. I took off the jacket, put the rifle down and we marched back 160 miles. It only took us a week to get home because we didn't have to hide from the planes any more.
Dad was hysterical the whole time. He said the Germans were going to kill everybody. Based on his experience in the Austrian army he warned me that the Germans would do whatever their leaders told them. He said, 'These people are fanatics and orders are sacred to them. They'd kill their own families if that's what they were told to do.'
He begged me to listen to him but I thought he was crazy. I told him they were the most advanced people in the world. They had science, industry, Beethoven, everything. German was the universal cultural language, just like English is today. Who could believe that this sophisticated culture would send its army into a big important city like Kraków to kill a quarter of the population?
He begged me and Mom to sell the shop and sneak back into Russia some other way. My mother was actually packing for the trip one afternoon when I put my foot down. I hated communism and I wasn't going to live in that insane society. I didn't believe in everybody theoretically being equal while a small group of people ran the show. I didn't think that kind of system suited human nature.
Besides, even though everybody was Poland's enemy, the Russians had a special reputation for hating Jews. The Russian troops roughed some of us up outside Lvov, me and my brother included. After that experience I thought we'd be safer with the Germans.
There were other warnings we didn't read properly because we were so used to anti-Semitism. Polish kids had been picking fights with Bronek and me our whole lives. We always fought back because we learned early on that this saved you fights down the road. Two years before the invasion the harassment got much more intense. The Polish leader Edward Smigly-Ridz had an agreement with Hitler that let Germany keep dumping Jews on the border. When the Poles saw their leader turn a blind eye to this persecution, it sanctioned their own prejudice and they started coming after us more aggressively.
Bronek had to quit high school because the Polish kids were picking fights with him every day. Once a month he could handle, not every day. When I got back from Lvov I was walking my Mom home from the salon. We passed a street demonstration, some guy yelling about Jews to a crowd of people. My Mom said, 'Pity the man who is always right, William. There is nothing on earth sadder than a fanatic.' I met the first German troops the day after that.
William and a friend are walking in the main square downtown when three German officers approach. A lieutenant points to the metal Polish eagle pin William wears on his jacket lapel, a gift from an infantryman he made friends with on the long walk to Lvov. The lieutenant's jacket is the same field-grey SS style that Hitler wore in the Reichstag the day he announced the invasion. William is entranced by the silver skull badge on the officer's hat and impressed with his Polish language skills.
Excerpted from Even to the Edge of Doom by William Schiff, Rosalie Schiff, Craig Hanley. Copyright © 2011 W-R Schiff Literary Works LLC and Craig Hanley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface by Craig Hanley,
Chapter One 'When will people stop hating?',
Chapter Two 'In this ghetto we were married',
Chapter Three Plaszów: The First Camp,
Chapter Four 'It has to have an end',
Chapter Five 'I wish I could have helped more people',
Chapter Six 'Remember how I lived my life, Rose',
Chapter Seven Three Days in the Grave,
Chapter Eight One Hundred Miles of Rapists,
Chapter Nine A Human Being,
Chapter Ten Ghost Town,
Chapter Eleven On the Border,
Chapter Twelve The Future of Hate,
List of Illustrations,