The following manuscript was discovered in the chimney of a nineteenth century apartment building in the city of Lodz, Poland in 2010. Although partially damaged by smoke and moisture, the writing was remarkably well preserved. Any changes or additions to the manuscript were intended for clarity and are noted when they occur. Spelling and grammatical errors have been corrected but overall this translation is intended to accurately convey the meaning of the text in question without introducing intentional bias. Translated from the original Polish.
When the first ungodly shells fell from the sky onto our city of Lodz, I truly felt that that the world was coming to an end. How right I was. On September 2, 1939, only three weeks removed from my Bar mitzvah, we first heard the sound of the warning sirens, coupled with distant explosions, that heralded the arrival of the enemy and announced the three days of thunder which were to follow. My thirteenth year was supposed to be a time joy, of celebration in my life, marking my transition from boy to man. Instead, it was during this time that I took the first steps in a hellish journey that would force forced me from the comfort of that which I knew, and plunge me into the darkness of Sheol’s embrace.
We had been hearing reports of unrest and upheaval from the West for some time now. In recent weeks, the threat of war had changed from a possibility too frightening to dwell on, to what seemed an imminent certainty. Everywhere I heard people speaking of it, especially at school where my classmates traded their own, often distorted versions, of what they had heard from the elders.
A week before the shelling began, I had walked down to the kosher market with my sister Esther to purchase meat for the Friday night dinner. We were astonished by the number of people in the streets. Shabbat and the meals that accompany it always guaranteed brisk business on Friday, but not to this extent. Every person we saw wore the same expression, one attempting to say “all is well” but actually revealing the opposite.
In the market square throngs of buyers pressed around each vendor’s stall, each clamoring for attention. These people lived in our community, but the strain we were under made them as strangers unto us. Although I accompanied my sister we were not given any preferential treatment on account of her gender that day. I had to forget the manners my Muter had instilled in me and literally push my way through a crush of men in order to attempt our purchases. By the time we got to the front of any line, the best meat and produce was long gone. Fear of impending disaster drove our community to stockpile what non-perishables they could get their hands on, while the best fresh food was being bought and consumed at an unprecedented rate by people who feared that each meal would be the last they would enjoy in the comfort of their own homes.
At home my Tatti was waiting for us, with my older brother Aaron and my younger sister Shoshana, in the living room, listening intently to the radio. His voice, as always was measured and calm as he did his best to allay our concerns, but I remember clearly the story that his eyes told, even before the radio confirmed the worst of our fears.
In the synagogue the embers of our fear were stoked into full-on visions of terror: “Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The LORD is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter…”
After that first day, life began to change for us rapidly. Our neighbors, already stockpiling food and supplies, began to board up their windows, in anticipation of what was to come. More than a few families packed up and left the city, seemingly overnight. Many had no firm plans for the future in mind, only the fear of the unknown drove them from their homes. For a time I wondered if we would join this Exodus. I feared broaching the subject, as if bringing up the idea would make the bad dream we walked in become a reality, but I searched Tatti’s face for some clue as to his plans for us. If he ever considered leaving though he did not mention it, and I was unable to ascertain from his expressions whether or not it was on his mind.
Groups of men from the city, mostly Polish laborers but some Jewish men as well, formed work groups and headed out to dig trenches around Lodz in hope of slowing the approaching army. A sense of dread hung over us all. Each day we followed the unfolding drama, listening to the radio with rapt attention as the German machine ground its way across the countryside, inching ever closer to our home.
While the newscasts maintained that Poland was defending herself heroically, and would triumph in the end, we knew that reality was much more dire than the picture painted by the official narrative. Reports of victory over the invaders were clearly embellished and stood in alarming contrast to the stories spread by word of mouth which had reached us from the front. Defeat, we understood, was inevitable.
The first sounds of battle that reached us were sporadic and muffled. The boom of artillery sounded far away but even to one as naive as I was, it was not far enough. “If we can hear the guns, doesn’t that mean that we are within their range?” I asked Tatti on that first night, no doubt giving voice to a fear the elders had enough sense not to voice aloud.
Yet that first day, the danger was still abstract in my young mind. The sounds of fighting rose and ebbed throughout the day. At first we listened to the warnings on the radio and went to the cellar of our building at the first sound of planes passing over us But the shelters were all full of nagging old women and screaming babes. We soon tired of being cooped up with them and, as no bombs had fallen yet on our neighborhood, we elected to take our chances in the relative comfort of our apartment. Still whenever we heard the drone of planes overhead we would hurry out into the street, afraid of being trapped in a collapsing building if we were struck. In the space between these sorties, sometimes the booming of the artillery would cease. During these lulls in the fighting all would be eerily quiet. Looking out the window, I recall our street being totally empty, something I had never experienced before that day anywhere in our city, but a feature that I would come to know all too well during the occupation we now live under.
That night I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the guns in the distance, and tried to dream that it was summer’s last rainstorm, crashing the final fury of the season down upon my head as I huddled beneath my blanket shaking with fear.
My face burned as I lay on my back wondering if I was dreaming. A fiery night sky spun overhead. All was quiet and I tried to make sense of where I was, then my thoughts were interrupted by a high pitched whistling that crescendoed and then fragmented into a million muffled noises. The spinning of the sky began to slow as my disoriented mind began to grasp reality. No sooner had I realized that I was still in bed than I felt hands upon me, first on my feet and then feeling frantically up my body as if searching for something. Suddenly, as if coming awake, I recognized Tatti’s voice in the midst of the cacophony surrounding me but the only words I could distinguish were “Here! Here!”. Then I was being lifted and my senses fully returned to me. I looked into the panicked face of my father and he stared back in horror. I reached up and wiped blood and soot from my face. In reality I was lucky, my wounds were superficial, just minor cuts and burns and a nasty bruise where a timber had struck my side. I must have looked much worse though because Tatti was obviously struggling to keep his emotions in check as he wiped me down and gave me a hurried examination. My brother Aaron stood by his side, shifting anxiously from foot to foot beneath the smoky sky now pouring through the ragged hole where our roof had been. I did not see my sisters and as soon as he had realized that I wasn’t gravely wounded Tatti turned and, picking his way through the smoldering debris that had so recently comprised our home, he clambered down the partially collapsed hallway in search of them, frantically calling for Esther.
The hole that had been blown through the roof extended over the living room where the youngest of our family, little Shoshi slept. Shoshi had never learned to walk or talk, although Esther swore that she could communicate with her eyes. The living room was the warmest room at night and because her disabilities kept her mostly immobile we had moved a mattress into it and re-arranged the other furniture to accommodate her. My sweet Muter had died giving birth so caring for Shoshana had become Esther’s responsibility, although she was still but a girl at the time. Nevertheless, she had never shown any resentment towards our youngest sibling, caring for her as tenderly as if she were here own daughter. She always slept on the sofa so as to be near to Shoshi, and would get up periodically to tend to her.
The smoke bit into my throat sending me into coughing fits as I stumbled along behind Tatti. Although I was almost close enough to reach out and touch him, I had the strange feeling that if I took my eyes from him, even momentarily, he would be vanish forever. We entered the ruined living room, fanning the air in a vain attempt to coax more oxygen into the path of our noses.
Esther was on lying on top of Shoshana, very still. Both were quiet. As we drew closer I saw, not for the last time, the face of death. Esther’s back was covered in wounds from something, maybe shrapnel. Perhaps the same shrapnel that had torn the back of her head off.
This horror could not be real. I retched violently but neither my brother nor Tatti seemed to notice. Tatti reached out gently and lifted my poor sister in his arms. As he did we saw that Shoshi was alive, and apparently shielded by Esther, unscathed. Always incapable of speech, she was, nevertheless, quite vocal in her expressions and would often raise a tremendous racket when her needs were not satisfied. Now she was quiet as a stone. Her pale grey eyes though, said everything. Esther had always insisted she could read Shoshi’s thoughts by looking in her eyes, but I lack the words to describe what I saw there. All I could do was hold her close cry as Tatti, in a quavering voice, recited the words: “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, dayan ha-emet (Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the Judge of Truth).
Within four days of my sisters passing, Lodz was completely under German control. The same Germans who had killed my sister strutted through the streets like nobility. My family, like the rest of our community, cowered in our ruined home, scurrying to and fro in search of some semblance of normalcy, all the while trying in vain to avoid drawing attention from our new masters.
One young German offered my neighbor a candy on our way to school and Aaron shamed him when he accepted it. That same day Tatti and I crossed town to arrange Esther’s funeral, leaving Aaron to watch over her body and take care of Shoshi. On our way I witnessed a German officer beat an old Roma man who had the bad luck to cross his path. He whipped a cane across the old man’s balding head until the blood poured and left him for dead in the gutter. No one came to his aide.
Because of the fighting we had not been able to bury my sister as soon as we should have, and I knew that this brought my father great pain. We were not alone in our suffering though, hundreds had died in our neighborhood alone and they were still bringing the empty shells of the dead out of the empty shells of their homes.