This compelling memoir takes readers through the eyes of a child surviving World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland. As a nine-year-old, the author witnessed his father being herded into a truck—never to be seen again. He, his mother, and sister fled to Warsaw to live in disguise as Catholics under the noses of the Nazi SS, constantly fearful of discovery and persecution. A sobering reminder of the personal toll of the Holocaust on Jews during World War II, this book is a harrowing portrait of one child's loss of innocence. This edition contains previously unpublished content from the original text.
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About the Author
Yehuda Nir is an associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical Center and a speaker and lecturer on the Holocaust, drawing largely from his own personal experiences. He and his wife, Bonnie Maslin, coauthored the book Patterns of Heartbreak. He lives in New York City. Cynthia Ozick is an award-winning novelist and essayist and a National Book Award Finalist in 2002 for her novel The Puttermesser Papers. She lives outside New York City.
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The Lost Childhood
By Yehuda Nir
Schaffner PressCopyright © 2006 Yehuda Nir
All rights reserved.
The Romantic Period
It all happened very fast, although not unexpectedly. The war had started only a week before, and now I was on a straw-filled cart pulled by two tired horses, a Polish peasant at the reins, running away from the Germans southeast toward Romania.
Since my ninth birthday, in March 1939, I had seen my father listening tensely to the news on the radio. We had just bought the radio, our first, a beautiful German Telefunken; but instead of listening to tangos (which until then we could hear only on our Victrola), we had to watch my father nervously turning the dial in search of news from abroad in any language. He knew German as well as Polish, and claimed to understand English. During World War I he had received a degree in business from the Handelsakademie in Vienna, where English was required as preparation for commercial contacts with then-powerful Great Britain. But although my father did well as a businessman, his affairs had not required contact with England; so the fact that he knew English came as a surprise to me.
Until that time I hadn't been sure of the nature of my father's business. I sensed that we were better off than many of my parents' relatives, who would admire our beautiful apartment, grand piano, and Meissen china on their rare visits to Lwów from the small towns in eastern Poland where they lived. My mother's life-style enhanced that image of affluence. She would spend the morning with friends in the elegant Cafe Roma, leaving me and my sister Lala in the care of our Kinderfräulein, Rosa. My mother's involvement with household affairs was limited to picking the menu for dinner and purchasing kosher meat at our local butcher. Frieda, our German maid, was in charge of the household and cooking, although Mother was an expert cook. I remember Father being criticized by my uncle Arthur for employing an ethnic German. "I love it," Father would answer. "Don't forget, they're working for me!"
In the summer of 1939 I began to scrutinize my father, trying to find out how strong he was, how capable of protecting us in those difficult times. I listened carefully to my parents' conversation, which was often in German so that Lala and I would not understand. I'd never revealed to them that I understood German, having been taught the language by Frieda and before that by her sister Adela, who had also worked for us. I gathered that my father's business was better than ever: he was a major manufacturer of kilims, the most popular type of carpets in Poland during those days. He maintained a network of artisans to hand-weave the rugs, and an army of salesmen to sell them, often door-to-door, all over Poland. I began to understand how we could afford our elegant life-style, my mother's endless visits to the local couturiers, the car with the chauffeur we had had the summer before, my father's fur-lined cashmere winter coat with a beaver collar, his many trips abroad. I felt very safe.
That summer everyone was talking politics, but it was beyond me to comprehend the nature of the news. The names of our own Polish leaders were somewhat familiar: the chief of the armed forces, Marshal Rydz-Smigly; the president, Moscicki; and the foreign minister, Beck. I had also seen the streets full of patriotic slogans. One of them, "Strong, United, and Ready," we joked about at home: "Strong to retreat, united to cheat, and ready to give up." All I remember of the foreign governments of that time is the names of Chamberlain and Hitler. The name Chamberlain had a benign association for me — his perennial umbrella made me think of Charlie Chaplin — but Hitler sounded ominous, like the man-eating monsters in stories from my early childhood.
War, the omnipresent word of those days, was still a very abstract concept. It sounded exciting. In June warplanes flew very low and trial air-raid warnings were broadcast on the radio; a man with a very low, frightening voice would announce "Caution, caution; it's coming ... it's coming." No doubt it was. But none of us knew what was coming, or when.
In July we went away as usual for our summer vacation in the country, but my parents were very tense. I heard my mother telling Father, after he had refused me an additional allowance, "Let him have it; you don't know how long we will be able to afford it." I found this special permissiveness very disturbing.
Mother had said the same thing once before, earlier in the year; even then it had sounded ominous. The first occasion was a birthday party for my classmate Lotti. Lotti was my first love, and I desperately wanted to impress her. She was a refugee from Vienna, a child of Polish Jews who had been forced to leave Austria when Hitler invaded it in 1938. Lotti spoke very little Polish and only a few words of Hebrew. The private Hebrew school I attended accepted her, since there were no other learning facilities for children of her background. What she lacked in language skills, Lotti made up for in looks. She was the closest thing to Shirley Temple ever to appear in our school. Her hair was black, but she had the same mass of curls and wore beautiful velvet dresses with white frilly collars, together with red rubber boots.
Although we never talked about it, I knew that at least two of my classmates shared my feelings about Lotti. As we couldn't talk to her, we had to show our interest through deeds. It was hard. I smuggled all the Polish-German dictionaries out of my house, only to find that she didn't need them. I tried fetching her coat when we were dismissed from school, but I was usually too late; my two friends were already fighting for it, and she didn't need three perfect gentlemen. When she invited me to her birthday party I saw it as the perfect opportunity to show her how much I cared: I would bring her the biggest present of all. But my mother's statement clouded the image of my first love with the prospect of war.
Two days before the war began, we came back from the country. School was to start that week. Despite all the warnings, we were not prepared. When the first German plane attacked Lwów, the radio was playing martial music ironically appropriate to events in the air. The usual low-pitched announcer wasn't there. Sirens started to sound only after the bombing, as the planes were leaving. A week later, almost half of Poland had been overrun by the Germans; Britain and France had declared war on Germany — and my parents, my sister Lala, and I were in a cart on our way to the Romanian border.
Lala's boyfriend Lonek and his parents had left a few days earlier. Unlike us, Lonek's parents had a car, a funny-looking, beetle-like Skoda. Our horse-drawn vehicle was not unusual for those days, but in one short week we were transformed from a well-to-do middle-class family into four refugees. It was the beginning of a long journey for which we were unprepared.
We must have looked funny in that cart. My father wore his custom-tailored cashmere fall coat and brown Borselino hat. He looked tense, his dark brown eyes conveying determination. His black bushy hair and large protruding nose gave him a very masculine and distinctly Semitic, Middle-Eastern appearance. Mother, on the other hand, exuded her usual ladylike calm and good spirits. She was wearing one of the beautiful, beige Chanel-like woolen suits that Mrs. Herzog, the local couturier, had made for her that spring, together with a silver fox scarf and matching hat. With her light brown hair beautifully set by the hairdresser who had come to our home that morning, her innocent blue eyes, perfect complexion, and light pink lipstick, she seemed totally out of place in this straw-filled vehicle.
My sister and I wore our Sunday clothes, which were supposed to last the longest. We took only two suitcases with us — enough, according to my mother, to tide us over until we got to Romania, where my father's sister lived and where "we should have no problems."
We were silent during the first day of the trip. I guess we were overwhelmed by our new situation, and unable to appreciate the comfort of being refugees not on foot, but in a cart drawn by horses. Six years later, in 1945, we would be barefoot, pulling a cart ourselves. Compared to our way back from Germany to Poland, this trip was a luxury cruise.
In the second week of the war, the Polish army was already on the verge of collapse. We got an inkling of the situation when we saw army trucks racing back and forth on the dirt roads, roads which were the highways of those days. Each time they were confronted with rumbling tanks our horses panicked, and we were forced off the road. As a result we covered only twenty kilometers the first day. By the end of the second day my father realized that we were not going to make it to the border. Rumor had it that the Russians had made a deal with the Germans to divide Poland in two and had invaded Poland from the east. They were said to be only kilometers from where we were to sleep that night.
We had guessed from the behavior of the Polish army that the situation was growing worse. Soldiers had stopped our cart several times during the day, searching for weapons. It was hard to believe that they could suspect us of smuggling arms. For whom would we smuggle? From where? I was secretly pleased with these searches: they gave our trip an air of importance. Were we spies? I was rather disappointed when they didn't find a gun on my father. I was sure he had one; surely he wouldn't have taken us on such a dangerous trip without a gun to protect us.
I had always overestimated my father. When I was six he had sent me a post card from Zakopane, a winter ski resort, which showed a man on skis jumping high in the air. On the other side of the card my father had written, "How do you like my progress?" This was the first time I had learned of my father's skiing or, for that matter, his being involved in any sport. I was exhilarated. The card made the rounds among my school friends, and my popularity skyrocketed. Years later, after my father had been murdered, I found the picture in his desk. It was only then that I realized it was a commercial post card.
Our first encounter with the Russians came unexpectedly. We were stopped by soldiers again, but to our amazement these looked different: they had two red stars on their lapels, pointed army hats, and very dirty, smelly uniforms. It was clear that this was the Red Army, freeing Poland (so they said) from capitalist oppression. They would not search for guns, they assured us, but they did want to see our documents. My father took out his wallet.
The soldier examined its contents, extracted the cash, thanked us, saluted, and left. We were stunned. Rookie refugees, we were not used to such treatment. My father was shaking; he wanted revenge. The Polish coachman, being more realistic, suggested we move on. A few minutes later we encountered a group of Soviet officers. Despite Mother's objections, my father self-righteously stopped to complain. Supporting himself with one hand on the side rail, he jumped off the cart. Then he crossed over to the army truck and exchanged a few words with one of the officers who had reached out to help him climb onto the truck platform. Within seconds, he had driven off with the officers. He returned a short while later, waving a sheaf of bills at us. The Soviets had taken my father back to the soldier who had our money, told Father to take back what was his, and returned him to us. He boasted that he had taken double what belonged to him. We believed him then.
Our exile from Lwow lasted all of ten days. A week after we had encountered them, the Russians met their German counterparts halfway through Poland. Lwów became part of the Soviet Ukraine, and we returned home. It was a pleasant surprise to find our apartment just as we had left it, our maid Frieda still there, our property untouched. If I could divide the war into stages or periods, this would have been the age of innocence, the romantic period. Properties were still respected, ownerships honored, belongings returned. This phase was not to last long.
In November the Soviets pronounced my father a "capitalist," as he owned a factory and the apartment house we lived in. We were ordered to move to a smaller apartment in our building and, later on, to sublet a room in that apartment to a young Russian officer and his wife. The Russians took over Father's factory and told him to get a job as a bookkeeper. This change of status overwhelmed him. He became subdued and paced restlessly through the apartment, impatient for the evening, when he could tune in the radio, shortwave reception of foreign stations being better at night. Although temporarily safe from German occupation and concentration camps, he knew how precarious his position was. As a "capitalist" he would probably be deported to Siberia; as a Jew he was doomed in Germany. The Romanian border, our only gate to freedom, was sealed off. He felt trapped. My Romanian uncle sent a messenger with plans for an illegal crossing of the border, but we feared a trap or blackmail.
My father's weakened position in the outside world somehow demoted him from the role of paterfamilias at home. Suddenly my mother took on new importance. She became the backbone of the family, a role she was to maintain throughout much of the war. While often sad, she never seemed frightened or helpless. I sensed the determination behind her low-keyed, somewhat passive stance. It was always either yes or no, with very little ambivalence — an attitude that would help us to make quick decisions in situations where our lives depended on an ability to act immediately. It was an important ability to have in those days. She was also very busy with household chores, as our maid and my governess were gone. She spent her free time knitting sweaters, which she then sold to stores. She knitted silently, listening to Father's daily analyses of the political situation.
The situation at home was very painful for me. But in school I was having a wonderful time. Hebrew, a language not recognized by the Russians because it was used by the Zionists, was replaced by Yiddish, and then a few months later by Ukrainian, with Russian as the second language. By the time I was ten, I spoke five languages. But more than that, the school atmosphere was exhilarating. New equipment, labs, toys, and books poured in as from a hom of plenty. The Soviets believed in starting their indoctrination early; they lavished attention on us children. The local count's palace was turned into a youth center, and we were asked to join the Pioneer movement, the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts. I felt like a double agent. I knew I didn't belong at the youth group meetings: I was the son of a capitalist. At home, I kept wondering why my parents couldn't forget their past and enjoy life as I did. Of course, I didn't voice any of these thoughts.
Ludwig, our next-door neighbor, was my only confidant. He shared my opinions. We had other things in common as well, other secrets, from before the war. One of them was the ménage-à-trois we had had when we were eight years old. Whose idea was it? Mine? Susie's? Susie was the daughter of our Catholic concierge, a rather sad, waif-like six-year-old. The three of us played a perverse little game. We would climb to the top of an enclosed fire escape. Susie would then pull down her panties and we would make her sit on the cold iron steps. I remember how my heart pounded — probably more from fear than from sexual excitement. These forbidden games were particularly scary now, as the concierge had been promoted by the Soviets, first to superintendent and then to administrator of our apartment house. The concierge, who had literally kissed my mother's hand six months before, now banged rudely at our door, demanding that my parents go shovel snow off the pavement. We soon found out that she was not only the administrator, but also the secret police (KGB) agent for the building. This last piece of news had a curative effect on our sex games with her daughter.
The conflict between my experience at home and my experience in the outside world kept growing in intensity. In retrospect, I can see that this identity split was good preparation for what was to follow. At the time, however, I was torn between the fun of my school experience and extracurricular activities and the acute pain and sadness of my parents.
The Soviets relentlessly fed us propaganda about Russia, Stalin, and the Soviet system. To my ten-year-old mind, Stalin was a benign, grandfatherly hero. We were shown pictures of him embracing children for outstanding patriotic deeds. He had kissed Mamlakat, a little girl from the Republic of Uzbekistan, for picking more cotton than any girl her age. If only cotton were cultivated near Lwów!
Excerpted from The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir. Copyright © 2006 Yehuda Nir. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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