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All That Was: Chapter Ten - ...And Down

“The details of all the torture inflicted by the Germans on the defenceless population of Lodz have been well documented in many works, I will therefore concentrate only on some events that I personally witnessed…

I remember seeing a Chasid being forced by strokes of a whip to his back to move a grand piano out of a first floor apartment window. The window was much too small for such an operation. I saw another poor wretch being dragged by his beard, screaming, along the street.

Soon beating up Jews became an everyday event. It was almost a pastime to some SS men. Polish and Volksdeutch cooperation helped the Nazis to identify the Jews, until the entire Jewish community became identifiable by the yellow Stars of David displayed on the front and back of our outer clothing. Non-compliance with this particular order meant death. The new law applied even to babies in prams.’’

Nazi troops march into Poland in September, 1939 – and Lusia Przybyszewicz witnesses the commencement of the greatest evil.

Lusia’s noble and wonderfully well-written autobiography, All That Was, is available from PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Australia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

On the 23rd August, 1939, one day after our return home from Barkowice Mokre, Ribbentrop signed a non-aggression pact with Molotov in Moscow. For Poland, this was the last straw. After about 20 years of independence, the country stood poised, yet again, for an onslaught from both the East and the West. Mobilization began on the 24th August.

Total panic broke out in the streets of Lodz. First of all, in their frantic effort to store supplies, people began their assault on every conceivable food outlet. Simultaneously, the shopkeepers, determined 'to make hay when the sun shines,' hid much of their usual stock in the hope of fetching higher prices later on. Non-perishable goods, such as sugar, flour, or kasza (a Polish staple diet of grits, groat, barley, etc) suddenly disappeared from the shelves.

Overnight, all of the transactions went underground. This drove an invisible black market into full operation. Luckily, our family had had a special rapport for years with a small Jewish grocery store on the corner of Wolczanska and Andrzeja Sreets.
In better times, Mother would sometimes send me there on a special errand on the Sabbath. The shop would, of course, be closed from the front, but I could always gain access through the back into their kitchen. There, on these occasions, I would find Mrs Moncaz seated on a stool by the sink. More often than not, the sink was filled with soaking herrings. Mrs Moncaz's massive legs would be immersed up to the swollen ankles in a tub of future sauerkraut which she was pressing with her feet. This was obviously her version of what the French or the Spaniards do with their wine grapes. The pervasive, familiar smell of pickled herrings and cucumbers was overwhelming.
I have no doubt that the hessian bags of essential foodstuffs hidden in the corners of our kitchen at that time had been acquired by Mother, thanks to this connection with Mrs Moncaz.
Instantly, bread became very precious indeed. For breakfast, we ate stale bread, very slightly buttered. We soaked each mouthful in sweetened, white ersatz coffee. (Toasters did not exist in Poland.)

Meanwhile, spurred on by the frequent Polish radio broadcasts, we all spent much time and effort sealing doors and windows with strips of oiled felt to keep the threatened enemy gas bomb attacks at bay. This was an enormous task in itself, because Polish flats were built with double windows, against the severe winter cold. In addition, we secured the guest toilet to become our hermetically sealed official shelter, as requested by the authorities.

With our Telefunken radio, which was very powerful for those days, we were able to hear the Nazi broadcasts full of news which the Polish stations tried to suppress. At Konigs Wusterhousen (a town to the southwest of Frankfurt am Oder) was Father's favoured German radio station. Before the war, it was not unlike the Australian ABC FM in that it usually played beautiful classical and operatic music. We enjoyed listening to the programs during meals or recreation times. Now, it kept spitting out threats and insults at Poland, and it left us in no doubt that the dreaded conflict was indeed imminent.

My parents' attention turned next to finding hiding places for our numerous valuable possessions. Within the space of a day or so, all of our crystal, Persian carpets, silver cutlery, crocodile leather lounge suite, family fur coats (other than Mother's astrakhan coat), and I do not know what else, found their way to the homes of Father's trusted Christian associates and employees.

Adolf Brauner hid some of our treasures at his place. These included the crystal bowls, (some of which Claude and I saw on Mr Brauner's sideboard in our 1977 visit to Poland), a very valuable stamp collection which my father started as a boy at the age of six, family albums, my little camera with an undeveloped film still in it, deeds to the Julianow property, as well as an insurance policy with Lloyds of London. (The latter was never found).

For greater safety, a Jewish employee, Mr Levy, had assumed the identity of the Catholic: Mr Leszczynski. He was supposed to have hidden our silver and carpets behind a concrete wall. I was in touch with him briefly during the war, but I eventually lost all trace of him.

Many Jewish families were engaged in similar 'projects'. As Lodz, after Warsaw, had the highest Jewish population in Europe before the war (250,000), it should not be too difficult to imagine the utter chaos and bedlam in the streets. Stunned people were running hither and thither aimlessly holding on to some useless object. Some were carrying cages with canaries or candlesticks in one direction. Others carried musical instruments, pets, babies in arms, tennis rackets and so on, in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, in the courtyards, fires were consuming 'suspect' printing material.

Several Jewish families used those last moments before the invasion to pack their essentials and flee to the East: they feared the German wolf more than the Russian bear. In my view, on the whole, they were wise. Most Jews whom I know and who sought shelter in the Soviet Union and the territories it occupied, survived the war. The Poles often did not fare so well there.

I often ask myself why we did not attempt to escape. Maybe Father's capital was a little low due to the purchase of the Julianow property in 1938. Maybe he did not find the courage to abandon all that he had built up in his lifetime...

By the end of August, many anti-aircraft ditches were dug throughout the city by the request of the then socialist Mayor Kwapinski. All of the reservists (including Jews), up to the age of 40 were called up to arms by Gen. Smigly-Rydz. On the 1st September, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland without declaring war. It was probably already too late for decision-making.
On the 3rd of September, with the Germans already inside the Polish territory, England and France declared war on Germany. Initially, the Polish media led us to believe that the French managed to halt the enemy in their tracks. The gullible believed this propaganda and were naturally completely bewildered by the arrival of German troops in Lodz on the 8th September.

In the last days of August 1939, in spite of all these ominous signs around us, Bolek and I did not entirely comprehend the gravity of the situation. The strange happenings that were so full of suspense, seemed more like an adventure into the unknown: exciting rather than frightening.

One day, in the general commotion of transporting some furniture out of the flat, Cherry somehow disappeared into the lift and was gone for two days. I was absolutely devastated. Fortunately, someone in the vicinity spotted it in the street and my doggy was returned unharmed. It seemed then that all my troubles were over.

I also remember having seen the film 'Modern Times' with Charlie Chaplin about that time.

In the first week of September, we experienced the first air raids. Germans began bombing strategic targets around Warsaw. Some small damage was done to Lodz as well. Zamenhofa Sreet became one of the targets. Gas bombs (the most feared) never eventuated; however, at the first blow of the air raid sirens, the whole population was expected to seek shelter in the cellars.

In our block, all of the tenants would rush down the back stairs taking their valuables with them. I always carried Cherry and my photo albums with me. At night, I would descend the stairs with my hair curlers still in place. For years, I was obsessed with the unattainable desire to have my straight hair curly. I was quite unaware of how silly and out of place I must have looked. My parents' agony did not seem to penetrate just yet. It was a slow process!

Needless to say, we spent many fateful moments together in the cellar, with the result that within a short space of time our enforced alliance created a strong bond amongst many families. Unexpectedly, most of our neighbours became also our new friends.

School year recommenced on the 5th of September in the midst of total chaos: the Germans were already in the country. The teaching of French was instantly suspended, while German became a compulsory subject for everyone. Some teachers were already missing. Our Headmistress appeared distracted and not quite in control.

My recollections of those few days at school are very patchy. Soon afterwards the invader ordered all the schools to close down. We, the school kids, were left largely to our own devices. At first, this sounded like a lot of fun. We would gather in the daytime at some friend's place, to play all sorts of games. The very popular one was called Faraon, but I am no longer sure how it was played. It was a card game, I think. Gradually the task of killing time grew more difficult. It seemed as though our whole existence became suspended in a kind of eerie void.

Initially, no one felt sure what the future held. In the main streets, especially in Piotrkowska, throngs of defeated Polish soldiers could be seen on foot or in horse-drawn wooden carts, pushing their way through crowds of civilian onlookers. Dispirited, bedraggled, dishevelled, often in tatters, some limping, all utterly exhausted, they soon dispelled any glimmer of hope still held by some.

On the 8th of September, 1939, a Friday, German tanks and army trucks filed along Piotrkowska Street.
Against the strongest possible objections from my parents, I ventured out with some school friends to view the enemy. The footpaths were lined with the silent inhabitants of Lodz, seemingly resigned to their fate. It was a fine warm autumn day. I was making my way along two blocks of Andrzeja Street to the corner of Piotrkowska Street. I even remember the beige summer dress I wore that day: lightly patterned with small, mauve leaves.

The young German soldiers in field uniforms, wearing forage caps, were waving and laughing from their army lorries. Their progress came to a halt along the block between Andrzeja and Traugutta Streets, where my Father's office was situated. Out of the back of their vehicles, the victors unexpectedly proceeded to throw loaves of bread to the onlookers. Since food shortages were by then quite significant, as the Germans must have known, there were many grateful takers of this rare gift.

This acceptance in turn made the smart-looking soldiers grin even more broadly. It was altogether a curious scene. I came away a little reassured and returned home in a rather buoyant frame of mind. There was, of course, much relief amongst my family to see me back safe and sound. However, I could discern much distress in my parents’ expressions. In particular, my father looked as if he were trying to hold back tears.

I learned much later, that during my absence, he had attempted to commit suicide by jumping out of our third floor window next to the fountain for exotic plants. Somehow, Mother managed to restrain him.

The events from then on moved so fast that I feel unable to place them in chronological order. I remember a hurriedly summoned gathering of our Koberowo clan at Lola's place (still at Wolczanska Street). We all understood by then how unpredictable our future had become. Both Lola D. and Hania B. with their respective families were almost immediately setting out for the East. We hugged a lot, wished each other good fortune and determined, once the war was over, to place notices in the London Times in order to find each other again.
As we must now concede, the untold savagery of the ensuing Holocaust wiped out any such resolve.

Within days of the German invasion, the worst Jewish fears became realized. Decree after decree quickly stripped us of any semblance of human rights. The early victims of the German atrocities were members of the intelligentsia. Many of them were unceremoniously marched out of their homes in the middle of the night, at the point of a gun. They were shot dead from behind as they walked ahead in darkness. We knew several people who disappeared in that way.

The details of all the torture inflicted by the Germans on the defenceless population of Lodz have been well documented in many works, I will therefore concentrate only on some events that I personally witnessed.

As one can guess, the Hun had a field day with the very conspicuous and numerous bearded orthodox Jews, Chasidim, who traditionally wore long black coats and black-brimmed hats. The younger men displayed wisps of side curls, payot, hanging over their ears.

I remember seeing a Chasid being forced by strokes of a whip to his back to move a grand piano out of a first floor apartment window. The window was much too small for such an operation. I saw another poor wretch being dragged by his beard, screaming, along the street.

Soon beating up Jews became an everyday event. It was almost a pastime to some SS men. Polish and Volksdeutch cooperation helped the Nazis to identify the Jews, until the entire Jewish community became identifiable by the yellow Stars of David displayed on the front and back of our outer clothing. Non-compliance with this particular order meant death. The new law applied even to babies in prams.

We learned that by Hitler's decree of the 8th October, 1939, the western regions of Poland, including Lodz, became part of the German Reich. Further to the East, a semi-autonomous 'General Government' was set up. Its authority stretched from Warsaw to the South, with Krakow as its capital. Thus, Lodz became known as Litzmannstadt.
The synagogues were set on fire. The beautiful Reform Synagogue in Al. Kosciuszki was a block away from where we lived. Once, Father had smuggled me into this synagogue for the festival of Purim. (Girls were not allowed to participate). It was set on fire, and it burned fiercely for days on end.
Jewish bank accounts, Spehrkonto, were seized. All Jewish businesses were passed on to German control.

Father was by now a broken man. He walked to and from his office each day with his yellow stars front and back. He was escorted by Adolf Brauner, empowered by the red and black German Hakenkreuz arm band on his left sleeve. The friendly Volksdeutch became officially the boss.

The change in my father, who was once the confident, cheerful, wise, successful managing director of a large textile enterprise, was striking! I still remember my girlish pride on visiting him in his large, comfortable office, seated behind an imposing desk, with a large map of Europe on the wall behind him.
In the calamity which had befallen us, Father had become despondent and listless. His face was expressionless; he looked like a shadow of his former self. To watch him walk to the office stooped and downcast, beside the lanky Brauner, made the rest of us feel wretched.

In the streets Jews were required to move out of the way of the uniformed Germans at all times and to be the last ones to go through any doorways. ‘Juden Eintritt Verboten’ notices appeared on all the public buildings.

The fast approaching winter severely curtailed our daylight hours. With the curfew set for five p.m., anyone seen loitering in the streets after that time was to be shot on sight. Naturally, no one I knew was prepared to take such a risk Throughout those months, we huddled in our flats from 5 p.m. on. Then, after dinner, our neighbours would drop in for a chat. Together, we would pass the long evenings, seated around the dining room table - a fellowship in adversity, you could say. To break the monotony and constant anxiety, the grownups often played cards - poker or the extremely boring rummy.

The neighbour occupying the flat above us was Prof. Halpern, a famous classical music critic. He was also known as the national wit. Books of his jokes were published in Poland.
Naturally, in these circumstances, he became our inexhaustible source of entertainment. Unmarried, he lived with his sister, a hard-of-hearing elderly spinster. For some time before the outbreak of war, the third member of the household was a lazy, uncooperative, illiterate maid.

This very setting lent itself to some hilarious tales. In cold weather, exposed water pipes often cracked. On such occasions, one had to fetch water needed to run the household from some more fortunate neighbours. One winter, after the Halperns' pipes had burst, the maid refused to do anything about it. For several days, the professor and his sister were obliged to carry heavy buckets of water by themselves.
When that emergency was over, they decided that it was time to sack the maid. Before she left however, she insisted on a reference from her employer. This was the moment the professor had been waiting for! He was well aware of the maid's inability to read, so he wrote the following: 'My sister and I were the obedient servants of Maria for the last X years. I believe we carried all the duties assigned to us by her to the best of our ability...' and so on. Her next employer must have found the reference a little unusual.

The professor had also a curious way of dealing with the neighbour who lived with his family in the flat above. Their small son used to ride his scooter up and down the long corridor, day after day. During one of those forays, the professor ventured upstairs and told the parent that it was not so much the racket that the child created travelling one way that was disturbing, but the anticipation of his imminent return trip that was driving the professor crazy.
One memorable morning, Mother and I were travelling in a dorozka on some important errand. Our yellow stars were clearly displayed. As we were passing in front of a building requisitioned by the Wehrmacht for a Kaserne (barracks), the Wache (guard on duty) motioned our coachman to stop. After ordering the coachman to wait for us, the soldier politely told us both to alight and then led us inside the building.
Mother was dressed very elegantly in her astrakhan fur coat. The soldier told her to scrub the long staircase on her hands and knees. I was taken to the dormitory and shown how to make up several rows of beds. We were unable to see each other. We carried out our tasks separately, under strict supervision and in total silence. As we had no experience in performing such work we did not find it easy. This was especially so for my poor mother who was still strapped in her corsets. After we completed our tasks satisfactorily, a guard led us back to the waiting dorozka, to continue on our way. We both felt so relieved that we had not come to any real harm that our humiliation and resentment were almost forgotten. Mother disposed of her astrakhan fur coat soon after that episode.

As the occupation took hold, all of our radios were confiscated. We were thus deprived of any news from the outside world. Those silly enough to have still kept their furs or valuables of any kind had to declare them in order to have them confiscated.

Another decree ordered the well-to-do Jews to make the best room of their home available to accommodate a member of the new German 'elite’. Accordingly, I had to give up my bedroom and move in with my parents.

A rather elderly, distinguished-looking German official moved in. We were absolutely terrified of him at first, but, to our great relief, we found him extraordinarily friendly and very ashamed of the deeds of his superiors. He made every effort to make it up to us in any small way he could. He often tried to explain that all the evil of the regime was brought about by the young people who were in charge of his country. He said he feared for its future. He sometimes alluded to his son as 'one of them.’
He regularly brought us some delicacies which were, by then, not seen or available anywhere else. He let us listen to his radio, but we could listen only to the German stations. He always respectfully allowed my Mother to go through the front door first.

During that last autumn ’39, Litzmannstadt received an inspection visit from Himmler, the head of the SS. I actually saw the monster once from our footpath; he was quartered almost opposite us in a modern block of flats.

As one might expect, the whole side of Al. Kosciuszki was entirely evacuated. Throughout those few days, the Jewish terror reached crescendo. We barely ventured out at all. It was not safe. Our beautiful avenue was the only one of its kind in the city. It comprised a tree lined central path, where normally nannies seated on the garden benches in the shade were rocking babies to sleep in their prams or watching their young charges play. Under the new regime, our avenue went through a swift metamorphosis. Its inhabitants became particularly vulnerable, with German sentries posted all over the place, their guns at the ready. It was a nightmare!

Throughout our last few months in Lodz, now officially known as Litzmannstadt, our new maid became ever more arrogant. Encouraged by the Nazi propaganda, she freely gave vent to her ingrained anti-Semitism. As the situation worsened, it was imperative that we not cross her in any way in order to keep her 'on side.' We depended a lot on her good will for doing our shopping, dealing with officialdom on our behalf, or, on the rare occasions, simply escorting us, the children, through the streets in safety.

By displaying her Arian features to the outside world, she gave legitimacy to our presence, and so reduced the potential for the unpleasant incidents which were occurring daily in the streets. We were paying dearly though for her compliance! At all times we were expected to show our deference to her and to satisfy many of her fancies. At home, she did as she pleased, and Mother had to carry out most of the household chores.
Our plight which brought out in 'our German' a genuine respect and decency, gave license to this Polish Jew-hater to humiliate us as often as she could.

All the while, our living conditions were becoming untenable. Father still continued working. He was physically protected by the watchful Brauner with his swastika, but, with every passing day Dad was becoming more aware that it would not be feasible to continue in this manner for much longer. In general, Jews were increasingly subjected to reprisals and violence. The alarming scarcity of food added to our woes.
By November 1939, the situation worsened further. Before the plan for a Lodz Ghetto had crystallized, the Germans decided to get rid of the Jews all together. They began deporting them out of the city and resettling them in the General Government, principally in Warsaw.

Before this enforced deportation took hold, it was decided, for safety reasons, that Bolek and I should be dispatched to Warsaw to stay with our aunt Natka and uncle Adolf.
We made our tearful farewells to babcia Przybyszewicz, uncle Warmund, aunt Cyla and uncle Izak. At this stage, they still lived at 4 Kopernika Street. I remember my great sadness on returning home from that last visit to my relatives.
In fact, except for aunt Bela and her son Stefanek and uncle Wladek, aunt Niuta and their baby (whom we saw briefly at a later time), we never saw any member of my Father's Lodz family again. I believe babcia probably died in the Lodz Ghetto before all of the others were deported to Auschwitz, (Oswiecim in Polish). To my knowledge, there they were all eventually gassed out of existence.

Saying goodbye to our parents was heartbreaking, although we knew that, at that stage, our separation was only temporary.
Since Jews were also forbidden to use trains, (or for that matter any other means of transportation), our yellow stars were removed as we were being whisked away to the railway station with our maid. She was to be our 'aunt' for the duration of this highly risky journey. Our Ausweiss (special travel permits) were secured by Adolf Brauner.

I recall that in spite of, or because of, everything that happened so far, both Bolek and I rather welcomed this latest adventure. We dealt quite comfortably with the uniformed personnel of various ranks on the train. They were mostly Germans. We could savour once again the wonderful sensation of a relatively normal life after what for us had become a subhuman existence. It felt great!

The maid likewise enjoyed the experience of a fully paid return trip to the capital which she had probably never visited before.


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