Julius Menn discusses his family's flight eastward from advancing German troops invading Poland in September 1939. Julius' family escaped from Bialystok, Poland to Vilna, Lithuania, eventually making their way through the Soviet Union to Palestine, where they had previously lived.
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“In those days allegiance, friendships were much more pronounced than they are today. People did things for others for no cost but just for the loyalty of friendship.”
Over sixty years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program, First PersonConversations with Holocaust Survivors.
In today’s episode Julius Menn talks with host Bill Benson about his family’s flight eastward from German troops invading Poland in September 1939. Julius’ family began their escape in Bialystok, Poland, and ended in Vilna, Lithuania.
So ’39 came. I went again to the school and then in the summer we went to a resort near the East Prussian border. That was not far from Bialystok. Bialystok as you saw on the map if you remember was about less than a hundred miles from the German border, on the east German. So we were there in the summer. It was a wonderful place. My father was in Warsaw and came September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. We immediately everybody wanted to go back to wherever they came from and we want…my mother wanted to go back to Bialystok so friends of ours that were also in the resort took us in their car to Bialystok. We came to Bialystok. The Germans were bombing the city and I as a 10-year-old had to dig ditches so that we could hide in the ditches when they machine-gunned the streets. We also were afraid of war gas. So the windows were taped. And we were there a few days. My mother went back to Warsaw to look for my father. They managed to meet just before the city was totally surrounded and they came back by train to Bialystok.
My father realized the Germans were advancing on the city and we had to get away. We had to go eastward. At least there was Russia. He managed to find my late grandfather’s coachman. My father was…my grandfather was very beloved in the city and he had all these ex... So the coachman came with a horse hitched to a wagon that was filled with straw, covered with a tent. Just think about the pioneers going west.
Kind of like a Conestoga wagon.
Yes. So we piled in. My sister, my sister was 6 years younger than I, I, and my parents. And we started wandering east as you saw with that arrow. Now, it didn’t look like a long distance but it was probably the total escape was several hundred miles. We had nothing to eat so we would stop. I remember we stopped at the farm house and they gave us apples. It was September so some apples were already ripe. So we ate apples for about a week. Then we came to another farm and my father bought raw eggs. So we ate raw eggs for another week.
The Germans they had these Stuka dive-bombers that made this terrible whistling sound. As we were on the roads they would machine-gun the refugees, bomb them. And it sort of became almost instinctive, we would stop, we would run into the wheat field. The wheat fields were ripe, the wheat was very tall. There was nobody to harvest it because everybody was in the army. And we would lie there and come out and get back into the wagon, dead people all over the place, dead horses, cars on fire. It was…I was ten, it was quite horrible.
But the human spirit is very strong and you get inured and you sort of…became sort of used to it. This lasted two weeks.
We went through several towns. We came to one town called Slonim. You may have heard this name because there are many Jews who are called Slonim. They probably came from that eastern Polish town. In Slonim my mother had some cousins so…
We were at these cousins and we were able to wash and get a decent meal and from there we proceeded, as Bill mentioned, to a rail road junction town called Maladzyechna. Now it’s in Belarus but then it was Poland. And we heard this rumble of tanks for hours. Well, the coachman left us at the train station. Suddenly we saw these tanks. First we thought they were German but then we saw the red star, we realized they were Russians.
As we were standing there this young, Soviet Lieutenant came up and he gave my sister a chocolate bar. He was playing with her. My sister was very blonde, very pretty. So he asked my father, “Are you Jews?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Well I am Jewish also. Where do you want to go?” He said, “Well we hope to go to Vilna.” That was about 200 kilometers, 150 miles away. So he said, “I’ll put you on this military train.” And he put us on the train and we got to Vilna. You want me to stop now or continue?
No actually I am going to ask you to go back to something just for a moment. The coachman, and now when you first mentioned him he had been your grandfather’s coachman, but he drove you for those two weeks…
He drove us for those two weeks because he felt he did it he owed it to my grandfather.
Due to his affection…wow.
And then he left and I don’t know what happened to him. But, you know, in those days, allegiance, friendships were much more pronounced than they are today. People did things for others for no cost but just for loyalty of friendship.
You have been listening to First PersonConversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, D.C. We would appreciate your feedback on this series. Please visit our Web site, www.ushmm.org/firstperson, and follow the prompts to the First Person podcast survey to let us know what you think.
At our website you can also learn more about the Museum’s survivors, listen to the complete recordings of their conversations, and listen to Museum podcasts Voices on Antisemitism and Voices on Genocide Prevention.