HE WALKED THROUGH WALLS
A TWENTIETH-CENTURY TALE OF SURVIVAL
My Life In Poland: World War 1 and the Russian-Polish War
It was a Friday night and we were sitting in the dining room finishing dinner. The table was set with a bright white tablecloth, and our best silverware and dishes that we used only for Shabbos [the Sabbath] and holidays. In the middle of the table were two big candlesticks with candle lights shining so bright….We were all dressed up, but we were eating potatoes with fried onions, and bread. During the war, this is what we ate almost every day for lunch and dinner. Because it was Shabbos the bread was challah and we had a small lekach [pound cake] for dessert. My father was just pouring some home made cherry brandy—my brother Jakob and I were old enough to get a little bit—when we heard from outside the sound of a drushke [horse and buggy]. We were living in the middle of the country, about ten kilometers from Przedborz, a small town where we had a lot of family and friends. By drushke this was far away; nobody dropped in to see us at night. We looked at each other—who could this be?
My mother looked worried. “I hope nothing bad has happened to Moshe and his family,” she said. Moshe was my mother’s son from her first marriage. He and his wife lived in Przedborz. My parents were both widowed when they got married to each other. My mother was still in her twenties and only had one son. My father was about thirty years older and already had seven children—some of my half brothers and sisters were about twenty-five years older than me.
Soon we heard a loud knocking on the door. Tatte [father] went to open it. Three soldiers carrying rifles marched in. I still remember I was surprised when I saw the rifles because I had read in the newspaper that the Russian army officers were very angry at the Americans because the rifles they had ordered had not yet been delivered. Very soon I wasn’t wondering anymore how they got the rifles. I had other things to worry about.
One of the soldiers stepped out. He was wearing an army cap, but still I could see that his hair was red and curly. We didn’t see very often people with red hair. He said, “We are looking for pan Josef Miedzianagora and his sons Jakob and Henyek.”
“I am pan Josef Miedzianagora,” my father told them, “and here are my two sons.” By then everybody had gotten up from the table and was standing near the front door. Besides me, “everybody” was my parents, my brother Jakob who was sixteen—two years older than me—and my two younger sisters Balche and Fella who was only four….
Now the red-headed soldier told us, “Josef, Jakob, and Henyek Miedzianagora, you are accused of spying for our German enemies and we are here under orders to arrest you and take you to the prison in Kielce.”
Those words put a knife through me. Only six months before, two Jews were accused of being spies for the Germans. They took them to the prison in Kielce, and a few days later they hanged them. I had heard that one of them had gotten into an argument with a rich Polish farmer, something about a horse. So when the Russian army was in our area, the farmer told them that the Jew was a spy.
“Officer, I understand you are following your orders, but someone has made a mistake,”tatte said. “My sons and I would never. . . .”
The soldier interrupted him. “I give you five minutes if you want to take something with you, and then we go. No discussion. We have here a warrant.”…
We wanted to hug everybody goodbye, but the soldiers pulled us away. They pushed us into the back of the drushke and took us to the prison in Kielce.
The whole night we didn’t close our eyes. The next morning, the guard took us out to see a high officer. He had a face like a pig—a nose so flat you could see into the holes. For lips, a thin opening at the bottom of his face. A chin he didn’t have. There was maybe two inches between his eyes and the whole face was slanted back. His skin was pink and pockmarked and he had a twitch—all the time he was shaking his head to one side. Around his thick neck was one of those stiff, white collars with a little embroidery on it that the officers were wearing. His wide leather belt was lying closer to his chest than his waist. He told us that since we were German spies, they were going to execute us. “Don’t worry, you still have a few days left,” he said with a smile on his face. Probably he thought this was very funny. Killing a few Jews was for him the same as for me stepping on a few cockroaches.
My father tried to say something, but he cut him off, just like the soldier the night before. “We have witnesses,” he said. “I don’t have to listen to your lies.”
When we got back to our dark cell—it was maybe nine feet by six feet with a tiny window so high up you couldn’t get near it—tatte put his arms around us and said, “Children, don’t worry, your mother is a very, very smart woman; you’ll see, she will get us out of here.” Whether he really believed this or was just trying to make Jakob and me feel a little bit better—we were both shivering—I don’t know; but in the end, what he said turned out to be true.
In 1918, after 123 years of occupation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia, and Russia, Poland finally became an independent country. This happened thanks to President Woodrow Wilson. Ignace Paderewski, the famous Polish pianist and spokesman for an independent Poland, came to the United States and convinced Wilson to stand up for Polish independence after World War I. So what did Poland do when it finally got independence and Pilsudski became prime minister? (Paderewski was prime minister first, but he lasted not even a year.) It started a war against Russia!
At that time—the Russian–Polish War started in 1919—my parents had sent me to a boarding school in Radomsk, a town about thirty kilometers from Klucze. Most of the boys at the gymnasium [high school] were Christians; just a few Jewish families that didn’t have any high school near them, sent their sons. One day, we were sitting in the dining hall eating breakfast when the school principal came in with two army officers. Right away we stood up. (In those days, students had to show respect; not like now. When we walked by a teacher or the principal in the hallway, we bowed down our heads.) One of the officers walked with a limp—he probably got wounded in World War I, or maybe in the Russian–Japanese War, or the Balkan War. He was very tall, and thin like a toothpick, and he had one of those big mustaches that curl up.
The dining hall was a big rectangle with a platform on one of the long sides. The long wood tables where we were sitting were perpendicular to it. The principal and the officers went up on the platform. The principal told us, “You may sit down now,” and then he introduced the officers. “They have something very important to tell you,” he said.
The toothpick started talking. “You are educated young men, so I do not need to tell you that Lithuania, the Ukraine, Belarussia belong to Poland, not to Russia, and certainly not to those criminal Russian Communists. With that great patriot prime minister Pilsudski leading us, with our courageous young men fighting for the fatherland, and with God’s help, Poland will take back these occupied territories. . . .” He was talking and talking. But after the first few words, I understood that they came to take us into the army …
When the training was finished, they sent us to Western Ukraine. I was very lucky. They gave me a job helping the cook to make meals for the men in the caserne; I was chopping onions and peeling potatoes from morning to night but this was okay with me as long as I didn’t have to go and kill people or get killed. After a few months, I even got a leave to go home for a few days—I still have a picture with me in my uniform and my brothers and sisters and cousins and friends all around me.
Soon after I got back from the leave, an officer came into the barracks early one morning just as we were waking up. “I have some good news for you,” he told us. “You will now have an opportunity to prove your courage, your manhood. I have orders here to send you to the front to fight the Russian enemy. You will be leaving by Friday at the latest. You will come home heroes. Your mothers, your girlfriends, your whole family will be proud of you.”…
When I heard this, right away, I decided to run. But how? I was thinking what to do while I was getting dressed, while I was eating breakfast, while I was peeling potatoes, while I was eating lunch. . . . All day I could think of nothing else. But I couldn’t see how to get out. There were guards surrounding the barracks day and night. If they caught me trying to run away, they would shoot me. I could steal an officer’s outfit and badge and get on a horse and ride out. But how could I steal an officer’s outfit? If they caught me trying to do this, they would shoot me. Every idea I had finished with me getting shot.
My Life in Belgium: Ten Years of Peace in the Shadow of Hitler
Our dining room and kitchen were behind the store. We didn’t have a living room. In those times, this was not unusual. When people came to visit, you sat around the dining room table. Our table took up almost the whole room. The kitchen was right behind—there was no door in between. The dining room didn’t have a window; the kitchen did, but it looked out on a wall in a courtyard. Betty cooked on a coal stove that was next to the window. A lot of times we would eat dinner at her parents’ house. Betty was too busy with the store to have much time for cooking. Also cooking didn’t interest her too much.
Today they sell stoves in antique stores just like the one we had in our kitchen. They get hundreds of dollars for them. I like nice modern furniture. Maybe I lived too long with old stuff. Our two small bedrooms upstairs also had old furniture.
Most of the time we were sitting around the dining-room table waiting for customers…. In 1932, when Betty and I opened our store, working-class women were so poor they didn’t have any money to buy nice shoes. They wore sabots, or very heavy ugly shoes, so this is what we sold. Stylish shoes were only for richer ladies who went to fancy boot-makers to buy—or to have made to order—elegant shoes made out of the finest leather. One morning, maybe six months after we had been in business, Betty and I were sitting at the table waiting for the bell to ring and a customer to come in. On the table was an open box of shoes that Betty had bought that morning to wear to a wedding. Betty was never the kind of woman who likes to spend a lot of money on clothes and shoes, and is always thinking about something new to buy. Now she was complaining how expensive these shoes were and they were not even from the best boot-makers. “They cost about as much as some of our customers earn in a month,” she said. As she was saying this we both started to get the same idea: Let’s buy some more shoes from the boot-maker, and take them to the manufacturer in Iseghem from whom we were buying most of the shoes in our store. We will ask him to make cheap copies for our customers. This turned out to be a million-dollar idea. The women were so happy to have these nice-looking shoes, they were waiting in line to get into our store…
Soon after we moved into 242 Avenue Coghen, I said to Betty that I would like to bring my mother over from Poland to live with us. My mother had problems with her heart and I thought that in Brussels we could get better doctors to take care of her than in the country in Poland…She was happy living with us. Sometimes she would go with Golda and take the children to Parc Wolvendael to play. The park was less than ten minutes from our house, but sometimes even this was too much for her, so they would take a little walk on Avenue Coghen. Across the street from us was the entrance to the College St. Pierre, a fancy Catholic high school for boys. On one side of our building was a big empty lot where the children were playing, and on the other side a one-family house where the Schoerman family lived. They were very nice people—he was a baron—and they had three children, Yves, Roger, and Ginette. Joe and Myriam used to play with them...
After the war, Madame Schoerman came to see us and she gave us an envelope. Inside were some of our family pictures. She told us that in 1940, a few months after we ran away, she was hiding behind the drapes in her living room watching the German soldiers carry our personal things out of our apartment to make room for a general. “I was so upset when I saw them carrying boxes with your photo albums,” she said, “and I could see some of the pictures falling down, I wanted to run out and pick them up, but I knew they could put me in prison or even kill me if I did. After they left, I waited a little bit and then I went outside to see if there were any pictures lying in the gutter; there were only a few. They are in this envelope.”…
What is “paranoid” in a world like ours? If I had not been so “paranoid” about Adolf Hitler, we would have been in Auschwitz in 1943, instead of on Central Park West. Starting in the early 1930s, I was listening on the radio to Hitler’s speeches, and reading the newspapers. A lot of people including Betty were not so worried about Hitler. They laughed at him. He was such a michugana [crazy person], soon the German people would get rid of him. They were not paranoid enough.
How My Family and I Escaped from Europe and
Came to America
We followed the signs to the office and soon we were stopped by a couple of boy scouts standing in the hallway. They were talking to each other and laughing, but as soon as they saw us, they stood up straight, like soldiers. Betty and I looked at each other—what are boy scouts doing here?“Bonjour,” I said, “we are here to see the consul.”
“The consulate is closed indefinitely; the consul has fled from Toulouse; he went to London.”
“But we are Polish citizens and we need passports urgently,” I told them.
“There are plenty of passports in the office, but we have no right to let you or any one in.”
“But pan Kowalski is an old friend of mine from Poland,” I told them. “He
was expecting us. He must have left very suddenly. Isn’t there someone else who could help us?” (I had read the name of the consul—Roman Kowalski—on the plaque near the front door to the building.)
“No, there is no one from the consulate here, just us; we were asked to help out to make sure no one gets in. We cannot make exceptions.”
This was a very bad situation. While we were talking to them and thinking what to do, another couple came over. These people were very angry when they found out that the consul had run away. They were yelling very loud at the boy scouts and swearing in Polish, “niech to szlag trafi” [damn it] and other stuff like this. So while this was going on, we walked very quietly down the hall. We got to the door of the consul’s office and the boys were still so busy with the other people, they didn’t see what we were doing. I tried to turn the doorknob and I couldn’t believe how lucky we were—the door was not locked. Probably the consul left in such a hurry he forgot to lock it. We went into the office.
“The boys will think that we left the building,” Betty whispered to me.
“Yes, but how will we get out of the building?”
“Let’s find some passports first, then we’ll worry about getting out.”
It was daytime, so we didn’t have to turn on any lights. Very very quietly we opened drawers and pretty soon we found blank passports. We took two and I filled them out. We had brought pictures. I found some glue and we attached them. We looked around some more and found the official Polish government stamp. I stamped the passports. While I was doing some of this, Betty was looking around the room to see if there was any other way to get out.
When I was finished, she said, “Listen, we could jump out the window, but it’s concrete outside and the ground floor is pretty high on this side of the building.”
“Do we have a choice?” I asked.
“I noticed when we were sneaking down the hall that the hallway continues to the left just a little bit after the entrance to this office. If we can make it to there and turn the corner, the boys scouts won’t be able to see us and maybe we can find another way out of the building.”
“What if they do see us?”
“Give me the passports; I’ll put them inside my girdle.”
“That’s a very good idea. If they stop us, I’ll tell them that my good friend Roman was always writing to me about what a beautiful office he has, so I wanted to take a look at it. See those big oil paintings on the wall—the Polish country side, portraits of Pilsudski and other big shots. See that big Persian rug on the floor. Roman was telling me about all these things in his letters!”
“Very good,” Betty said, “Between your talent for telling stories and my girdle, I think we will be fine. What are they going to do? Ask to look in my girdle? They’ll look in my pocket book and in our clothes pockets and that’s all.”
I agreed with her, “If the police cared very much about what is happening at the Polish consulate, they would not have sent a couple of sixteen year old boy scouts to guard the place.”…
We were waiting for the American visas, but our permit to stay in Casablanca was expiring. They gave us one extension without trouble, but when Betty went back for a second extension the French official said, “No, you have to go back to Safi.” She was begging him to give us a little more time, but again he said “no.” So Betty made up a story. She said, “Listen, my little girl Myriam is very, very sick; she has a terrible sore throat and a very high fever and she can’t be moved.”
He told her, “I don’t believe you and I am going to get in my car right now and go to your hotel. If you are lying, you will have to wait a very, very long time before you ever get another permit to come to Casablanca.”
Betty answered him very calmly “Okay, I’ll see you back at our residence.” Later, she told me that in her whole life she never felt her heart beat so fast.
She ran out of the building and was lucky she got a taxi right away, so she arrived at the hotel before the French official. She ran into our room and grabbed a bottle with some blue medicine inside—people used to smear this on the tonsils and the throat for sore throats. She grabbed Myriam and tried to paint her throat with it, but Myriam started screaming and crying, so a lot of this blue stuff got on her lips and around her mouth. Betty put her in bed and told her to stay there. While she was doing all this, she was explaining to me what had happened.
A couple of minutes later, the official comes in and takes a look. Myriam is lying in bed screaming, with this blue stuff on her face, so he says, “Pardon me, Madame, I made a mistake; I can see now that your daughter is very sick. I will give you an extension for two weeks.” We waited a few minutes and then we took Myriam out of bed and washed her face. We told her that she could have an extra, fancy dessert when we went for lunch. At the restaurant, we asked the waitress to put some whipped cream and a cookie on top of her chocolate pudding.
Finally, we left Havana. One morning, after a few days, we were sitting in the dining room finishing breakfast, when we heard a lot of yelling outside. We knew that we would be arriving in New York on this day, but we thought it would be later in the afternoon. Betty jumped up from the table, “It’s possible we are arriving early. I will go and find out.” In a few minutes, she came back very excited. “We are already entering the port of New York,” she told us. We took the children and we ran up on the highest deck. It was very crowded, but we found a place on the railing, on the left side of the boat. Everybody was looking for the tall buildings, but we couldn’t see any. When you come into New York, first you see Staten Island on the left and Brooklyn on the right, but we didn’t know this. We all thought that right away you see Manhattan and the skyscrapers.
Next to us was standing an older Jewish couple from Frankfurt. Sometimes, Betty and I were sitting in the lounge talking with them. The lady was very nervous; always she was blinking her eyes and rubbing her hands. One time, I met her husband on the deck. We were talking, and he told me, “My wife has not always been like this. She was a happy woman before the Nazis took away our Germany.” Now she was sounding very worried. “Our children are waiting for us in New York City,” she said to her husband. “Perhaps the captain has decided to land in another city. What shall we do? How will they find us? ”
“Schatzi [darling], wherever we land we are safe now. and the children will find us,” he told her. “You don’t need anymore to worry so much.”
A few minutes later, we could see the Statue of Liberty, and she was yelling, “Die Freiheitsstatue! Die Freiheitsstatue!”
“So now you believe that we are in New York?” her husband asked her. She looked at him and started to cry.
Everybody was yelling in their language “freiheitsstatue,” “la statue de la liberté,” “statuia libertati.” Some people were already practicing English and saying “statue of liberty.”
“Why is everybody yelling so much about a statue?” Myriam asked.
“Because it is a statue of a lady who welcomes everybody to America,” Betty told her. When we got very close to the statue, I put Myriam on my shoulders. She started to wave and she said “Bonjour, madame.”
Joe looked up at her and said, “It’s a statue silly, it’s not a real person.”
“I know that it’s a statue,” Myriam said, “but I want to say ‘bonjour’ to her anyway.”
I must admit that for many years, I viewed the survival stories that make up this book as nothing special. Children tend to take for granted the environment and family histories that they grow up with. Years ago, I met a woman who had eighteen-month-old twins; she told me that she had recently taken her children to visit a friend and her newborn baby. Her twins ran around the apartment looking in every corner for “the other one.” I have always remembered this story because it captures so succinctly and clearly how we view as normal whatever we grow up with. I grew up hearing stories of escaping death by execution, and running from Nazis. No big deal!
I did not give much thought either when I was young to how difficult it must have been for my parents, who had grown up in Northern Europe and were living in a twelve-room apartment in Brussels when the war started, to spend six months in one room with two young children in a casbah alley in a small Moroccan town where the temperature could go up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
In my case, the tendency to take for granted one’s childhood background, to not ask questions or reflect on it, was undoubtedly intensified by the fact that until the early 1980s I did not in any conscious way allow the Holocaust into my life. I avoided all books, films, and TV shows about it. In 1982, I took my first step towards facing the horror—I went to see Alan Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, a film about a woman who upon arriving at Auschwitz must choose which of her children will live. I then read the William Styron novel that the film was based on. My timing seems to have been about average. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Hidden Children and Holocaust Survivor groups were started. It apparently took most of us close to forty years to be able to begin to deal on a conscious level with the horrors of our and our families past.
My way of dealing with the horror was to dedicate myself to taking whatever small steps were in my power to work against war and other forms of violence. While I had in earlier years been devastated by the unnecessary, senseless bloodshed of the Vietnam war, and as early as 1964 had been a founding member of the Ad Hoc Committee To End The War in Vietnam, I did not at that time connect my intense horror at the war and deep commitment to activism with my own and my family’s Holocaust experiences.
After I allowed myself to face my personal experience, my efforts became conscious and focused. The result was my book, Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence, first published in 1991, and dedicated to the memory of my family slaughtered in the Holocaust. There was nothing unique about my reaction; as I started to research books on violence, I soon realized that Holocaust survivors were well represented among the authors.
In the late 1990s, I attended a meditation retreat with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and found out that a group of Vietnam War Veterans met every year at the retreat. Thich Nhat Hanh had in the early ‘90s, invited Vietnam veterans to join him, and the result was the formation of what can best be described as an emotional support group. The vets were generous in their “admission policy.” As the author ofBoys Will Be Boys and as a Holocaust survivor, I became part of the group.
The men, now in their fifties and sixties, were still coping emotionally with their war experiences. Those who killed Vietnamese men, women, or children, or accidentally killed comrades, tended to be in the most, often excruciating, pain. The vets’ horror at war matched mine and I felt very at home with them. As I listened to them talk over and over again about their eighteen-year-old naïveté—raised on John Wayne, war toys, and patriotism (some had volunteered to go and “defend democracy,” others had not resisted the draft)—my admiration for my father’s decision to go AWOL in the Russian–Polish war kept growing.
In these early years of the twenty-first century, a new generation of American soldiers is returning from yet another senseless, unnecessary war. Of the fortunate ones who did not lose their lives in Iraq or return amputees, blind, or otherwise physically disabled, about twenty percent suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This new tragedy (as well as the warfare that continues to plague so many other parts of the world) leads me to think often, and with intense sadness of my father’s letter to his three month old granddaughter Nadia, expressing his hope that “peace will be in this crazy world” in her lifetime.