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rena michalowska

I remember very well when one evening my father inauspiciously turned on the radio when I was still awake. A Hitler speech was on. I remember, as if it was today, that terrifying shriek and my terrible fear. I have that day, 1st September, right in front of my eyes. Maybe it's a figment of my imagination, but what I see are peasants walking around the town square, many of them holding an ax or a sack on a wooden stick, as if waiting for the moment when they can start looting.
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Nachman Elencwajg

I remember the beginning of the war in 1939. On the ninth day of the war [probably] the Germans dropped firebombs on Miedzyrzec, burned half of the town. It was then my friends and I agreed it was time to run. The Germans were close, and we, as communists, would be the first to die. The police had us in their files, so they knew each one of us. And so we ran.

One of my friend's parents had a bike shop, so he took a bike, and everyone had something, a few shirts. And we went, on foot, towards the Russian border, and that was like three hundred kilometers. To the old Russian border! We chose the side roads, going through villages, avoiding the towns. And the Germans were close on our heels. Anywhere we entered, we'd hear the Germans kept advancing. And in the end, on the last day, when we arrived at the border with the Soviet Union, they told us the Russians had entered. Because it was after the 17th of September [when the Red Army invaded Poland to meet the advancing Germans halfway].

It turned out we had covered too many kilometers. We stayed for a while in the town and when we heard the Red Army was heading towards Warsaw, towards the Vistula, we went back to Miedzyrzec.
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Teofila Silberring

in September the war broke out. Mom was shot in 1939, at home, by Germans who were taking away the furniture. She tried to stop them and they shot her. I don't know where she's buried. We weren't allowed to have funerals. They took her to somewhere in
Podgorze and there, I don't know, whether in a mass grave... I don't know anything. I was at school then, because the schools hadn't been closed. And all I remember is that I came back, our janitor was standing in the gateway and said, 'Toska, you don't have a mommy any more!' That's all I know; there was nobody there when it happened.
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Apolonia Starzec

Before the war actually began, there were preparations, fake alarms, that kind of thing. There was a nurse in every house, with a first-aid kit, to help if need be. I also received first-aid training. To prevent the Germans from entering Warsaw, we dug trenches in the Smocza Street area. I later saw what use those trenches turned out to be... when the motorized [German] army rolled into Warsaw [on 30th September 1939]. They didn't have a single horse... first came the motorcycles, then the tanks.

The first air raid. I was downtown, on Marszalkowska. Doing some business, and suddenly - the alert. We knew what to do. Jump into the nearest gate, because in every house there was a civil defense committee, there was a basement to hide, gas masks... So we're crowding into the gate. Suddenly we hear - the swish of falling bombs. This isn't an alert, this is for real. 'Here we are!' they demonstrated. [The first German bombs fell on Warsaw at 6am on 1st September 1939. They hit working-class apartment blocks in the Kolo and Rakowiec neighborhoods. Ms. Starzec must have remembered the bombing on some other day].

In the meantime, they seized the whole of Poland. Warsaw defended itself until the very end. I was still able to call my parents but soon the telephones were cut off. When the war started, I demonstrated with others in front of the French and British embassies - come help us! Starzynski, the president of Warsaw, a decent, wonderful man, ran the defense effort [21]. He gave instructions until the last moment, ordered the men to evacuate from the city. We received all that because we had a radio at the factory. But when the daily air raids began, they didn't let me go anymore.
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tomasz miedzinski

Between 1939 and 1941 we were under Soviet rule, because in 1939 after the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [16], our lands, Western Ukraine, were occupied by the Soviet army. To be honest, that pleased a lot of Jews, many of whom then believed in the famous slogans about equality and elimination of unemployment, and above all we believed that there would be no more nationalism and racial discrimination. I was an 11-year-old child then, at elementary school.
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Daniel Bertram

And then Dad went with me to buy a rucksack. I have that rucksack to this day. We bought the essential clothes for two weeks, because everyone was lying, saying that the war would last two weeks. The neighbor also said that I should take my matriculation certificate and my birth certificate. Well, I didn't want the matriculation certificate because it wouldn't fold up; it lay so nicely in my desk. So I took my birth certificate; I didn't have my ID card yet, just my school ID.

So the decision was made that I should go. Dad had approached the neighbor and found out that he was going, that he was going to evacuate, or escape. He was supposed to be going with his brother-in-law and his friend. And on Monday 4th September he said that they weren't going. Dad came back from the neighbor's with the news that they weren't going. And it wasn't until Tuesday 5th September that he found out that they were going. But on the Sunday I'd met a friend called Grossbart outside his parents' shop. And he told me that people were escaping, that there was illness in Wieliczka [a small town outside Cracow] and starvation. He wanted to escape with me, and I should let him know. So I sent my brother on 5th September at 6 in the morning to tell him to get ready to leave. My brother went to his place, and he said that he wasn't going, he wouldn't go. So then I went at 8 in the morning to see him. His mother was there, and his sister too. They stood in a line and he said that he wouldn't go. 'What will be will be!' I wanted to go with him; I wanted to save him. His mother was trying to persuade him, and his sister, but he didn't want to go. And he died! In Remuh synagogue there is a memorial plaque, white marble, in English and Hebrew, saying that he - Joel Grossbart - and his whole family died. One of my friends married Grossbart's sister after the war. She was the only one of the whole family to survive. I suspect that she had Aryan papers. It was a Hasidic family.

I was packed up and I said goodbye to my family. They all stood in a line outside the door: Mom, my brother, my sister and Dad. And they all said goodbye. That was the last time I saw them. I didn't know it was the last time. I thought I would be going back, that I would meet up with them. So I set off then. Mom saw us off; she walked down the opposite sidewalk. She wanted to give me a blanket. I didn't want it, because it would have been too heavy for me to carry. I already had to lug my overcoat during the heat wave, and all that in my rucksack. So my journey was very tragic, because I walked nine days and nine nights. And I slept 15 minutes, in a ditch.

There were four of us: my next-door neighbor, his brother-in-law, a friend and me. We walked in the direction of Plaszow [a station in the east of Cracow] and there we boarded a cattle wagon at noon. There weren't any windows in there, just a bench along, and another bench. It was dark, and all the seats were taken, but they made room for us. We traveled like that until 3am. The others traveled on, but we got off, because the train was going too slowly. It was dangerous, because the Germans were already close to Cracow, and Cracow was taken on 6th September. Then we jumped onto another train. That was the first time I had ever jumped on when the train was moving, and with my rucksack as well! We couldn't get inside because the door was locked. We couldn't open it. And the handle was very cold. And I didn't have any gloves. And we had to hold onto the handle for half an hour and stand on the steps: each of us on a different step, because two of us wouldn't fit on one step.

We were heading east: via Debica, Tarnow, Rozwadow, Przemysl, Lwow, and then on to Zloczow. [see Annexation of Eastern Poland] [4] In Zloczow there was a holiday celebration, the New Year festival, Rosh Hashanah. We slept and in the next room they were praying. Then we went back to Tarnopol [today Ukraine]. I spent a few days in Tarnopol. When we arrived in Tarnopol there was another holiday, this time Sukkot. There this family took us in, or two families actually, because I ate with the older couple, and the others stayed with their daughters, in the same building. They were called Fleischman. They had a daughter, and in the other place there were two older daughters. He was a poor man, a barber; he had one or two rooms and a kitchen. They were supporting me; I wanted to pay them before I left but they wouldn't take anything.
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Mieczyslaw Weinryb

When the war broke out, my call-up papers were for the seventh day of war. Before I had a chance to report for service, though, the army had already been smashed. There was no unit for us to go to. We were directed east. I walked with a group of friends from the army in a crowd of people who were escaping from the Germans. In their haste people took with them whatever they had been able to lay their hands on. Then they realized that they didn’t have the strength to carry it, so they abandoned various things including clothes and shoes – heaps of them lay in ditches.

When we crossed the Bug river, we started to meet Ukrainians – armed and on horseback [see annexation of Eastern Poland] [16]. They stopped us, even though we wore civilian clothes. Finally we made it to Kamien Koszurski, and from there I set out for Kovel a few days later. I hoped I would find my parents and my sister there because my Aunt Lea – my father’s sister – lived there. The whole journey took me over a week – it was several hundred kilometers. [Kamien Koszurski is actually no more than 100 km from Kovel]. There were a few of us, and we slept where we could. There were lots of abandoned houses in the villages. People were escaping; they were afraid. Sometimes we caught a stray chicken, found a pot and lit a fire. We wanted to cook the chicken, but we were so hungry that the chicken was eaten before it had a chance to go tender.

My predictions came true and to my delight I found my family in Kovel. It turned out that when the war broke out my parents had bought a fairly big cart, loaded up some of the goods from the shop and their own luggage, of course, and gone east, to Aunt Lea. Margolia had gone with them because on the day the war broke out she was still in Zamosc, where she had been spending the summer holidays. In Kovel they lived from selling the goods from the shop. They were even able to rent an apartment.

As for me, soon after I arrived in Kovel I saw a notice that they were looking for people to do construction work in a garrison left by the Poles that the Russians had taken over. I volunteered and was given the job. I was in charge of renovation work there. As a person employed in the Soviet garrison I was allocated a bachelor apartment by the municipal authorities. They billeted me in a private house. I remember that I paid the owner some rent. Thanks to the job in the garrison I was even able to help my parents a little because there was always the chance to take a bit of coal or firewood home.

When the Germans were approaching Kovel evacuation trains began to be put on at the station. People were going east in droves. I went to my parents and Margolia and tried to persuade them that we should all go together, but they didn’t want to just drop everything immediately. They had no idea what might happen. My parents were older by then, and Margolia wanted to stay with them. They talked me into believing that nothing would be lost if they spent a few days packing and so on. I was younger. I sensed that something was going to happen. I decided to leave first, but I thought they would manage to leave in time and that we would meet up. Unfortunately they didn’t make it.

I never found out what exactly happened to them. I never found anybody who could tell me what fate befell them. They were probably in Kovel ghetto, and were most likely shot and buried in the mass graves in the woods outside Kovel. After the war I tried to get news of them. I hoped that they might contact me. But nothing like that happened. I went back to Kovel two years ago thinking that I might find some clues. I went to the site of the Jewish mass graves – all that stands there today is a small monument. But I was unable to find out any details. In the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw there’s a whole wall commemorating people who were killed during the war. I put up a plaque there bearing the names of my family.

Anyway, I made it onto an evacuation train. We traveled southeast, and before long the German air attacks started. I was wounded when they bombarded the train. I was put on an army vehicle and taken to a hospital. No one had time to look after me, and I got gangrene and in the end they amputated a part of my arm. After that I set off into the unknown once more, and the trains started running again. That way I reached Vladikavkaz, a beautiful place at the foot of the mountains [the Caucasus]. It was reached by a straight road, and on the horizon there were huge mountains, with their peaks shrouded in mist.
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Feliks Nieznanowski

On 1st September 1939 [27], when the Germans started bombing Warsaw, my first thought was, ‘Hey, I’m not going to school today!’ I should have been starting seventh grade. I walked there two days later, one of the wings had been bombed, and there was no school anymore. I never turned up at Swietojerska again. We lost touch also with the rest of the family, except for spending some time on Wolynska at my maternal aunt’s, I don’t remember her name, she lived in a wooden house. Wolynska was all wooden houses. Two-story wooden houses.

When the war broke out, my brother was in jail, in Kalisz [town ca. 200 km south-west of Warsaw]. They already knew air raids had started, and the guards fled, leaving all documents laid out in the open on the central courtyard. The criminal prisoners started forcing the bars open. When they broke out in one place, they started freeing each other. And they freed themselves. The first thing they did was to pour gasoline on those documents and set them on fire, lest the Germans find them. And the flight from Kalisz began. We didn’t knew what was happening to Josif. Three days after the Germans marched into Warsaw – which was around 30th September [the Germans indeed marched into Warsaw on 30th September, 1939, and on 1st October a military parade was held on the city’s central square, the Pilsudskiego Square] – there was a night curfew, suddenly there’s knocking on the window! We open the door – my brother walks in! Unshaven, scrawny, hands in bandages. As if he had been resurrected from the dead.

We found out they had been negotiating their way towards Warsaw during the whole of September but as long as the Germans stood around the city, they couldn’t enter. On their way, the fugitives split into groups. The criminals did well, and the political ones – everyone pulled in their own direction. There were many Ukrainians, Belarusians, and many Jews – from Lodz, from Warsaw. One day they were surrounded, was it the Poles who had denounced them? They hid in a cabbage field. The Germans picked them out, started interrogating them. Handcuffed them. But they escaped again, it was the front, they weren’t guarded closely. He worked his way, in those handcuffs, to some village, to a blacksmith, who unchained the handcuffs. But they had left bruises on his wrists, hence the bandages. It seemed the danger was over.

After the Germans entered, I traded a little – sold flowers, Germans newspapers, worked as a paperboy.
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A tragedy befell them when, during the air raids in [September] 1939, a shrapnel killed their baby virtually in their arms.
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Gustawa Birencwajg

Then the war broke out in 1939 [2]. My daughter was ten years old by then. I came back from a summer holiday [in Kolumna-Las, a town southeast of Lodz], it was in the morning, I heard this commotion in the hallway. I went out and asked about what had happened, 'You don't know anything? There's a war, the men are leaving to save Warsaw.' I stood there for a while, went up to the bed to wake my husband up: 'Dawid, get up, there's a war. People are going to the army.' And he said, 'Stop bugging me.' But I didn't give up and he had to wake up. He got up and said to me, 'Dress the child and let's go.'

So we went, we went outside to the gate. These high galoshes were in fashion then, with a zipper, but it was unbearably hot. So my husband said to me, 'Put on these shoes' [the galoshes]. I left the child with him, I started looking for them, I couldn't find them. As if they'd disappeared off the face of the earth. I went out, I told him I couldn't find them. My husband said, 'So stay, I'll go.' And he went.

He went, I stayed with the child, I didn't have a lot of money. I was lucky not to have gone with him. Because they would have trampled me with the child and we would have been lost. And he went and disappeared without a trace. I had a guilty conscience, I felt guilty that I had woken him up and he went away. I was hoping we'd meet after the war, but it was difficult to think about that. Bombs were flying over our heads. Very low. And you kept hearing about how they'd rape and take you for forced labor. The Germans were cruel. They had no mercy.
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Mieczyslaw Najman

In 1939 [10] the Germans came, stayed for a week and left, and the Russians came [11]. Nothing really happened under the Germans, only rumors circulated that people were being murdered in Przemysl [city 250 km north- west of Drohobycz]. Very many Jews arrived from Przemysl, it could have been the 14th, 15th September [1939], I don't even know where they went [12].

When the Russians came, they had nothing against anyone, gave everyone a job.
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Michal Nadel

In 1939 the war broke out [17]. The Germans reached Lwow and stopped on the perimeter of the city, captured Execution Hill, they were pushed out of the station and the fighting lasted ten days. I have no proof, but I did take part in the defense of Lwow [18]. In the Jewish unit of the scouts. There were several regiments. I remember 19, 26, 40… so these regiments went to the front and there were many Jewish men there, because that was a normal recruitment. Only so-called administrative, quartermaster units stayed. And they fought against the Germans in the city. Firemen, police, school scout regiments, and just young people: there were also very many Jews there. I remember that the recruitment headquarters was on Batorego Street. A lot of people went there, but they didn’t accept everyone, because they didn’t have enough weapons for everybody.

We volunteered to defend Lwow and we had an opposition point in the ‘Dublany’ Agricultural College. The center was in Polish, our hands, and the Germans were up on the hills from which they were shooting at us. After ten days of sitting in the shelters we heard, all of a sudden, that Russians are coming to aid us. They were saying the Soviet Army was entering in order to liberate those areas. We didn’t understand their real goals [19]. The Germans issued a notice urging all civilians to leave the city in the southern direction, through Lyczakowska Street, because they were going to attack the city as a military target [Lyczakowska: the main street of the district in the eastern part of the city, leading to the city limits]. They decided to bomb the entire city, so they ordered the civilians to leave the city.

It was a tragedy. Some decided to leave the city; others decided that whatever happens, happens. I began going around, saying goodbye to relatives, to friends, because my family decided to stay – Father was handicapped, there were small children. We stayed in a shelter. At night – silence. Usually there was shooting at night – then silence, and in the morning a Polish soldier comes in and yells: ‘The war is over!’ Literally: ‘The war is over!’

It turned out that those who had access to a radio in their basements, heard that Russians announced on the radio that they are entering Poland to help their brothers. They, Russians, meant, of course, help for Ukrainians, liberation of Ukraine. But people didn’t understand. If they were entering the city, against Germans – they were allies. So when there was this silence and it was known that the Russians were coming, to those who had been expecting death, it was joy! And the Germans withdrew. You could still hear some far away machine gun shots.

After a few hours the Russian army marched in. They looked very disappointingly, they behaved very disappointingly. First of all, Polish uniforms, compared to theirs, looked very elegant, we looked like aristocracy. They, the Russians, were wearing some poor belts, not leather, but some canvas, and those big hats. And there were some Mongol units with them. And those guns on strings. Yes, I’m not kidding, many had them. They walked silently. People came out to greet them, and they started shooting. Over there, in Lyczakow, there were still opposition points, but usually everyone, both Poles and Jews, were treating them like saviors, because they imagined that the Germans entering the city would have been the worst possibility.
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In 1939 the war broke out [17]. The Germans reached Lwow and stopped on the perimeter of the city, captured Execution Hill, they were pushed out of the station and the fighting lasted ten days. I have no proof, but I did take part in the defense of Lwow [18]. In the Jewish unit of the scouts. There were several regiments. I remember 19, 26, 40… so these regiments went to the front and there were many Jewish men there, because that was a normal recruitment. Only so-called administrative, quartermaster units stayed. And they fought against the Germans in the city. Firemen, police, school scout regiments, and just young people: there were also very many Jews there. I remember that the recruitment headquarters was on Batorego Street. A lot of people went there, but they didn’t accept everyone, because they didn’t have enough weapons for everybody.

We volunteered to defend Lwow and we had an opposition point in the ‘Dublany’ Agricultural College. The center was in Polish, our hands, and the Germans were up on the hills from which they were shooting at us. After ten days of sitting in the shelters we heard, all of a sudden, that Russians are coming to aid us. They were saying the Soviet Army was entering in order to liberate those areas. We didn’t understand their real goals [19]. The Germans issued a notice urging all civilians to leave the city in the southern direction, through Lyczakowska Street, because they were going to attack the city as a military target [Lyczakowska: the main street of the district in the eastern part of the city, leading to the city limits]. They decided to bomb the entire city, so they ordered the civilians to leave the city.

It was a tragedy. Some decided to leave the city; others decided that whatever happens, happens. I began going around, saying goodbye to relatives, to friends, because my family decided to stay – Father was handicapped, there were small children. We stayed in a shelter. At night – silence. Usually there was shooting at night – then silence, and in the morning a Polish soldier comes in and yells: ‘The war is over!’ Literally: ‘The war is over!’

It turned out that those who had access to a radio in their basements, heard that Russians announced on the radio that they are entering Poland to help their brothers. They, Russians, meant, of course, help for Ukrainians, liberation of Ukraine. But people didn’t understand. If they were entering the city, against Germans – they were allies. So when there was this silence and it was known that the Russians were coming, to those who had been expecting death, it was joy! And the Germans withdrew. You could still hear some far away machine gun shots.

After a few hours the Russian army marched in. They looked very disappointingly, they behaved very disappointingly. First of all, Polish uniforms, compared to theirs, looked very elegant, we looked like aristocracy. They, the Russians, were wearing some poor belts, not leather, but some canvas, and those big hats. And there were some Mongol units with them. And those guns on strings. Yes, I’m not kidding, many had them. They walked silently. People came out to greet them, and they started shooting. Over there, in Lyczakow, there were still opposition points, but usually everyone, both Poles and Jews, were treating them like saviors, because they imagined that the Germans entering the city would have been the worst possibility.
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Rozalia Unger

We fled, some people went to the station, to the trains, while we went on foot, and many people walked with us, back from Silesia, I guess, some teachers, we walked along the Vistula bank, and there was a house, and besides the house lay our Polish soldiers who had been mobilized to fight but had received no order and didn’t know where to go, what to do, and they lay in a row because they were exhausted [8].
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