September 17, 2006
By Manya Friedman
With disbelief we watched the young men, our soldiers, looking tired, in deplorable condition, many wounded, returning defeated from the frontline after only a few days of fighting.
It was most astonishing to us. For years we had been taught in school about the bravery of our fighting armies—how the Polish armies always bravely stood up against the enemy. They stood in the defense of Europe from the armies pouring in from Asia. They stopped the Tartars and defeated the Turks. Even the Polish national anthem attests to the bravery of its fighting soldiers—the song the soldiers sang in the Polish Legion marching in the armies of Napoleon, in Haller’s Army, as they marched with the French, English, and Americans in the First World War:
Poland still is not forgotten
while her sons remain
Honor out of shame begotten
Let our swords proclaim.
Being young and patriotic, we were very proud to know this. Therefore the shocking revelation we were witnessing was unbelievable.
Some time later, in my hometown in central Poland, a handsome young man, who happened to be Jewish, also returned wounded from the front, a bullet lodged in his knee. He was kept secretly at home, hidden from several deportations. It was obvious what his destiny would be if deported. His family was temporarily spared from the deportations because they owned a large machine shop and were therefore useful to the Germans because they could do all kinds of repairs for them. But the Jewish population in town kept diminishing and the family was concerned that soon their turn would come.
They had a close acquaintance, a Pole, who lived in a neighboring hamlet, and he agreed to provide a hiding place for the young man. The family was relieved. The Pole also agreed to hide the young man’s sweetheart—I can still recall what a handsome couple they made. A hasty wedding was arranged, and the couple went into hiding. The families of the young man and his wife were both well-off and the acquaintance was well compensated. The young man’s family also buried many valuable items on the Pole’s property.
Finally, the young man’s family was deported to the camps with the rest of the Jewish population in town. The young man’s mother was sent to Auschwitz and the other members of the family were sent to different camps in Germany. Miraculously, the mother managed to avoid evacuation and the death march when the Soviet army was approaching, by hiding under a staircase. She was soon liberated by the Soviet army and was the first one to return to their hometown, hoping to find her hidden son and his wife.
She could not find them, nor the acquaintance that was hiding them. Eventually, the acquaintance’s neighbor told her that the young couple had been killed. With help, the mother searched the wooded area and found the burial place. When they unearthed the grave they found two decapitated bodies. The heartbroken mother had them removed and buried in the Jewish cemetery. There is now no trace of that Jewish cemetery.
The acquaintance and his family vanished and were never brought to justice.
The adjustment to life in this new country was quite challenging. I had not only to master the language but also adopt to an entirely new way of life. There were new manners, behaviors, ways of addressing people. I was uncomfortable addressing everybody as “you”—I was used to calling people Mr., Mrs., and Miss. I was teased for using a fork and knife without switching from one hand to the other. At first I was embarrassed, until I started watching movies and noticed that the actors did it my way. Even ironing the clothing (before perma-press) became an item of ridicule. Adjusting to a new job, bus schedules, and routes was another challenge.
Then it became time to furnish a new apartment. I recall my husband’s aunt promised us a set of dinner dishes, but in the meantime I just bought two settings for us. I also tried to acquire culinary skills, attempting to please my husband by cooking dishes his mother used to cook. One day my husband was visiting some of his relatives and brought them all back for dinner. (He was very sociable.) We had to eat in shifts. The stacks of books on the floor served as chairs, in addition to the two lone kitchen chairs.
Amid all that turmoil my husband received a letter from friends in a displaced persons camp in Germany reporting that they had received their visas to come to the States. My husband was very pleased with the news, but I was somewhat concerned about how we would accommodate them. Luckily upon their arrival, a Jewish organization arranged a place for them to stay and jobs for both husband and wife. The jobs were not exactly what they were trained to do, but with limited knowledge of English they were glad to have some employment. The newcomers were also friends of some other members of my husband’s family. After some time they all got together to help the newcomers find a place in a better neighborhood and better jobs.
One of my cousins who had also arrived from a displaced persons camp some time before had a very responsible job at a large factory, and because of his skills was made foreman. My husband approached him and asked if he could provide employment for his newly arrived friend. The man was hired, and my cousin seemed pleased with the new employee’s performance. They could communicate in their native language. Things went well, everybody was happy, until one day my cousin found out that my husband’s friend was a “goy” (a Christian, a Pole). This news brought back the bitterness and the agonizing memories of his brother and sister-in-law who had been decapitated by another Pole.
He was furious with us, he would not listen to any explanation or reason. It took some time till my husband managed to sit down with my cousin. He told him that he fully understood how he felt, but that he could not blame all Poles for what was done to his brother and sister-in-law, and he succeeded in telling him the story about the Pole whom he had hired.
When Germany invaded Poland, this young man, a Pole, was engaged to a young Jewish lady. They resided in Warsaw. When the deportation of Warsaw’s Jews started, he married this young woman and decided to take care of her two sisters and her mother. His family was very much against this, fearing that if they were discovered they would all pay the consequences—maybe even with their lives. But he went ahead with his plan and became estranged from his own family. He got false papers for his wife’s family, and they moved away from Warsaw. The wife’s mother had to go into hiding because of her Semitic features. They all survived. The mother and the two sisters went to Palestine after the war, and the young couple left Poland and went to a displaced persons camp in Germany, where my husband and some of his relatives met them.
At last my husband convinced my cousin that it was not just to blame his friend for the crimes another Pole had committed.
©2006, Manya Friedman. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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