Leon Jedwab’s poignant recollections of his wartime experience - which he documented in Yiddish on a typewriter in Halmstadt, Sweden just after the war in 1945:
(Translated by R. Mukotow in Melbourne from the original Yiddish - in Latin characters)
1st September 1939
The first news I heard about the war came from Polish radio. The Nazis had attacked Poland. They bombed the Polish border without even declaring war. Later I found out that the Nazis had marched through Poland without opposition and at a fast pace. The first German patrols appeared on a dark day, the evening of the first night of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). No one can describe the sorrow of the Jews and the joy of the Nazis.
First thing the next morning, the Nazis started on the Jews. There was a large Hasidic shtibl (prayer and study house) in our courtyard. The Nazis got correct directions and entered the shtibl with the intention of having a good time, which upset us greatly. They came into the shtibl, ordered everyone to go outside wearing their taleysim (prayer shawls) and lined the Jews up against a wall with their hands up in the air. Some of the Nazis positioned themselves with their guns, ready to fire, and told the Jews to say their last prayers, because they were going to be shot. The few older Jews who were prepared for this began to recite Vide (the prayer one says before death) out loud and cried. Right after this, the Nazis laughed sadistically and called out: "You prayed well, so we'll let you live". In the meantime, another group of Nazis carried the Torah scrolls out of the shtibl and began to tread on them.
This was how it began. The next morning, the second day of Rosh Hashana, they ordered all Jews aged 15-50 to present themselves at the marketplace and to bring along cutlery in order to clear the grass and weeds growing in between the cobblestones.
Yes! This was how the first Rosh Hashana under Nazi rule passed. The whole marketplace was full of Jews and the Nazis turned around and made fun of us. Later they started to grab people to carry out municipal, public duties, As soon as the Nazi soldiers spotted a Jew on the street, they grabbed him for work. Their intention was not so much the completion of the work, as allowing the soldiers to laugh at us and to make fun of the Jews at the same time. We Jews were so frightened that we avoided leaving our homes. So the Nazis went right into our houses and when they found a Jew, they pulled him out for work-duty, ignoring whether or not he was ill or aged, because this was not important to them. After this came the order to register the addresses of all Jews. They also ordered all Jews to wear a Star of David - 15 centimetres across - on their front and back. At the same time, Jews were forced to hang a sign with the word Jude (Jew) on their homes. We understood that it would be difficult to continue this way. They entered our houses and took away people who were really no longer capable of work. So a Jewish committee was formed and it requested of the Nazi leadership that it be allowed to provide them with the number of workers required. The Nazis were no longer supposed to appear unexpectedly in Jewish homes and to pull people out without any plan. From then on the situation improved slightly. But when the Nazis wanted to entertain themselves, they did whatever they wanted anyway. For a short time afterwards, the Nazis began to cut the beards off religious Jews. They went through Jewish homes looking for elderly Jews with beards. I didn't envy those who they found. They would pull the Jew out onto the street and cut off his beard in public.
At this time some Jews still had businesses. On a certain day trucks drove up to these businesses and the Nazis asked the owners politely to load their merchandise onto the trucks (for which the Jews were even issued receipts). This is how the remaining Jewish businessmen were slowly pauperized. One day the Nazis came into our house and started to take stock and search the whole dwelling, overturning everything they could put their hands on. Not finding anything of great worth, they were terribly annoyed. Then they said to my mother: "You Jewish sow, where have you hidden the valuables? If you don't tell us where they are, we will arrest you!" And this is exactly what happened. For the first time in her life, she was arrested and put into jail. We ran about helplessly, because there was a danger that our mother would be sent away. A woman had been arrested under similar circumstances in a nearby town. This other woman was sent away. A few weeks later her family received a letter saying that she had died of a heart-attack. We went to the mayor and brought him many presents. The next morning my dear mother was freed.
This whole time the Jews had been forbidden to be on the streets between 6pm and 6am. Those who were caught on the streets during the curfew were arrested immediately. A few weeks later, when the Nazis had already stuffed themselves with Jewish property, they started on the synagogues. One night, when everyone was already asleep, fire bells rang to proclaim that a fire had broken out. Everyone got up quickly to help put out the fire, but gendarmes and soldiers were already on the streets. They chased everyone back into the houses. We were curious to know where the fire broke out and why we were not allowed to help put it out. It seemed that our beautiful synagogue was on fire. The next morning the Nazis came to the Jewish Community Council and demanded that it sign a paper stating that the fire broke out as a result of a short-circuit in the building. We knew very well that there had not been any short-circuit. I will tell you exactly what happened. I heard it myself from my friend who lived opposite the synagogue. He saw what happened right from the start.
About ten o'clock at night he heard loud noises outside. He peeked through the window and saw a group of uniformed and civilian-clothed Nazis entering the synagogie. They went right up to the Holy Ark immediately and profaned the Torah scrolls. I can’t say that I believe in miracles, but in this case, the way my friend told it, a miracle really did happen. When it was torched, the Holy Ark did not burn. They tried five times and five times it did not catch fire. Later they collected all the seats and poured an incendiary fluid over the balemer (podium), which burnt a little bit but quickly put itself out because the fire didn't have enough oxygen. In the end they went out into the streets and broke all the synagogue windows through which they threw grenades which exploded throughout building. My friend didn't stop watching the events that followed. He saw the burning Torah scrolls and said they looked like little blue Chanuka (Jewish Festival of Lights) candles were burning. The fire continued to burn until about noon the next day. That same night the Nazis demolished the shtibl. They ripped all the holy books. Some Gemoras (Talmud and other holy books) were taken into the shops because there was a shortage of wrapping paper. Once I went into a shop to buy vegetables and I noticed a Gemora lying on the counter. The German woman serving me tore out pages from one book containing my name! I remembered how once we had sat in the shtibl and studied with the Rebbe (orthodox teacher) from the same Gemora in which my purchases were now being wrapped. After burning down the synagogue they found new work for the Jews. The walls of the synagogue had to be demolished. The fire had only burned the inside of the building. The outside brick walls had not been damaged by the fire. Now the Jews had to take the bricks apart so that no sign of the synagogue remained.
This occurred approximately at the same time as the German invasion of Russia. Our situation worsened. Travel from place to place became almost impossible without special permission. At the same time rumours started, based on what people heard on the illegal radios. Those who listened to the radio did so secretly and with great care, because they did so at risk to their lives. Various bits of news were interpreted as being positive. We believed that the war would end soon and that Hitler's defeat was not far off. We listened and hoped for better times. Unfortunately, no one knew of the plans to exterminate us. Quite the opposite - we interpreted everything as being a sign of good things to come.
They had started emptying Jews out of the towns near Cracow back in 1940 because Cracow belonged to the German Protectorate. The panic amongst local Jews was terrible. Every day they told us that the next day we too would be expelled. I remember that we had packed exactly ten kilo packs for each of us, because we thought that we would be leaving soon. This was only meant to scare us. One day they came and said that "tomorrow you will leave” and that we would only be allowed to take baggage weighing up to ten kilos - but we shouldn't be afraid because we were being sent to a camp and we would all be together. We would have to work and if we wanted, we could leave our things with them and they would send them to us in the camp later. They just wanted to trick us into giving them our belongings.
A few days later, we were told that we should prepare space for other Jews who were coming from other towns and that we should not be frightened that we would be expelled because we would be staying put. Our joy was great. We greeted the Jews from the surrounding towns happily.
In the meantime, before the Jews from other towns arrived, gendarmes and police entered our house and demanded that we vacate the premises within one hour. The German women who came with them didn't say a word while they chose whatever appealed to them from amongst our household belongings. They didn't need to apologize. The police placed stickers on each item, which said that they had been requisitioned and could not be removed. One of the German women who came to claim their "inheritance" was a woman named Helmann who used to come to us every Shabbes (Sabbath) to light the fires. We just had to look on and not say a word.
During the short amount of time that they gave us to vacate, we didn't know what to do first. Luckily some acquaintances of ours came in and helped us to take the most needed items. We were then my dear mother, my sister, my younger brother - who wasn't even 13 years old yet - and me. An hour later the head of the gendarmes came. We called him the "shooter" because he went around all day with his gun in hand and if he saw so much as a dog in the street, he would shoot it to death. They didn't even let dogs live.
By utilising some connections we had in the town, we got a flat with two rooms and a kitchen. Two families who lived on the street after they were brought from other towns, moved in with us as well. Whoever could, tried to help the refugee families settle in. One family moved out after living with us for a week. The others remained with us. One was a refugee from Germany who had been repatriated to Poland in 1938. He married a daughter of Rabbi Sheynman, who also lived in our flat with his family. The rabbi had a brother - Moyshe Anshel Sheynman - who also lived with us. He was a fine person and we were happy to welcome him. We weren't destined to enjoy their company for long.
The two brothers died within a short time of one another. The whole town felt their loss. People interpreted it as a curse from G-d that both brothers had died within a week of one another.
I remember to this very day how I went to the funeral and how Rabbi Sheynman eulogized his brother - and a week later he died as well. People considered it a disaster, but it turned out later, after all that happened to the town Zagorow, that they were privileged to die a natural death and to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.