The Second World War started 80 years ago yesterday. For the great majority of people in the UK, it didn’t begin to seriously impinge on their lives for some months. In Poland however, it was very real right from the start. Sam Pivnik (1926-2017) was a Polish Jew living with his family in the town of Bedzin, close to the border with Germany. The following is an extract from the original manuscript of his memoirs, later published, after some (pointless and destructive in my view) revisions as ‘Survivor’:
‘It so happened that Friday 1 September 1939 was my thirteenth birthday. I don’t remember whether I got any presents although I suppose I must have done. I do remember that it was a warm, late summer’s day: typical weather in central Europe. School hadn’t restarted for the autumn – it was due to open again the following Monday – so my friends and I were playing around in the streets like we always did during the holidays. Somehow, word got to us that there was excitement down at the barracks and a group of us boys wandered down to see what was going on.
I had always enjoyed watching the soldiers at the barracks, as they paraded in their smart, khaki-brown uniforms with shiny boots, green collar patches and gleaming badges; and I liked to watch them as they rode out of town on manoeuvres, their horses towing the green painted guns and limbers behind them. Our local regiment was the 23rdLight Artillery and like most of the Polish Army at the time, it was still horse-drawn. But as we arrived at the barracks, the polished elegance was all gone; instead, it all looked a bit chaotic and desperate.
‘What’s happening?’, we asked some of the people who were standing around watching.
‘Haven’t you heard? The Germans have invaded… the war has started. Daft bloody kids…’
Fair enough; we’d been too busy playing football.
A little group of us spent an hour or so watching the preparations until, some time in the late morning – getting on towards lunch – the gates of the barracks were thrown open and the regiment marched out. The hooves of the horses clopped and clattered on the cobblestones; leather harnesses rattled; guns and limbers clanked and bumped against each other. Some of the small crowd cheered, applauded and waved. The soldiers – in my memory at least – looked stern and brave: many, if not most, of them would not be coming home. With the excitement over for the time being, we boys went back to our games.
Playing that afternoon, we began to notice an intermittent rumbling which steadily increased in intensity. This began to resolve itself into individual bangs and booms as time went on. None of us had heard anything like it before but it seemed obvious that this was, in some way, the war coming towards Bedzin.
In mid-afternoon our unspoken questions were answered. We heard the steady drone of propeller-driven aircraft approaching as we played football on an open field near the castle, which stood on higher ground on the north side of town. Soon we could see a small formation of green-painted aircraft coming towards the town from the west. Before they reached us, the formation split up and the planes seemed to head for different parts of the local area, but a couple of them came close enough for us to see that they carried black crosses painted on their sides and under their wings.
No sooner had the first of the planes flown over us than we heard the first loud ‘THUMP!’ of a bomb exploding, followed by several more. The surprising thing was that you didn’t just hear the bang, but also felt the physical shock-wave from the bombs as well, it felt like being pushed in the pit of the stomach.
As far as I remember, bombs fell around the zinc works, the copper works and the railway station: none were close to where we stood watching. The planes left and we carried on playing for a bit, but by this stage even I was anxious to get home to find out from my parents what was happening and before too long the game broke up and I ran home.
When I arrived home, mother and Handel were preparing the Shabbat meal for that evening. Father wasn’t there and I suppose he had gone to the synagogue to talk with the Rabbi and his friends, as he inevitably did when there was some crisis looming. I was desperate to talk about the strange events that were suddenly overtaking us but mother wouldn’t or perhaps couldn’t. I have a feeling that my father may have forbidden her to talk to us children about them.
But there was no denying the columns of smoke rising from the town and the smell of burning on the warm evening air. This wasn’t going to a happy Shabbat eve; there was no joy in our songs and our conversation was stilted and strained. After we had eaten, we listened to father reading from the scriptures and then went to bed, wondering what the next day would bring.
Saturday the second of September was another warm day. Normally we would have all gone to the synagogue with our neighbours and friends, but today the town was beginning to fill with refugees, fleeing the fighting just a few kilometres to the west. These people, Jew and Gentile, had packed all they could into suitcases, kit bags, hand-carts, wagons, cars and trucks and were heading east to try to get out of the way of the Germans. All kinds of wild rumours were flying around: the Germans were bombing all the towns and killing everyone there; they were rounding up Polish civilians and shooting them; the Polish Army was pushing them back into Germany.
We didn’t go to synagogue that day. In fact, I don’t think I went to synagogue again until the war was over and I was in London. I suppose I must have gone out to play with my mates, if my parents had let me, but I really don’t remember. I have no real memories of the Sunday either, other than that there were more rumours flying around, and precious little hard news. Some people were saying that they had heard on the wireless that the British and French had issued an ultimatum to Germany in order to help us. That had to be good, didn’t it? If the British and French were on our side, we were bound to win.
We were meant to start back at school on Monday but such was the turmoil that it didn’t open. Bedzin was quickly filling up with refugees: families with children, their belongings thrown onto hand-carts or carried in suitcases and knapsacks, all with contradictory stories about what was happening.
Sometime in the morning, the rumour ran round our neighbourhood that the British and French armies were arriving to rescue us from the German invaders. A wave of relief and euphoria swept through the town and many of us hurried down to the main street to welcome them. Many of the women had gathered flowers to give to our saviours, in gratitude.
We had not been waiting long when we heard the rumble of heavy vehicles approaching. A feeling of excited anticipation ran through the crowd and there were sporadic outbreaks of cheering in the distance. But as the vehicles got closer, the mood seemed to change. The first vehicles I saw were motorcycles with side-cars, carrying men wearing dusty grey-green uniforms, with rifles slung across their backs, steel helmets, heavy goggles and gauntlets. As they moved along the road, they looked carefully about, hard-faced and wary. They were followed by a mixed group of grey-painted trucks and armoured cars, all carrying unsmiling, heavily armed men.
I was standing near to some neighbours who lived in the same apartment building as us. They were Jewish refugees from Dusseldorf who had left Germany in order to escape Nazi persecution two years before: I forget their name. The mother said what we were all thinking: “This isn’t the French or British; these are German soldiers!”
The crowd began to break up very quickly as people hurried back to their homes. I hung around a bit longer and saw what is still a puzzling sight. Not long after the first group of vehicles had passed through, some more open-backed grey-painted trucks appeared. Although evidently driven by Germans, the men being carried in the back were wearing Polish Army uniforms and were smiling and joking amongst themselves. I don’t know to this day if these were Polish soldiers who had been taken prisoner or Germans who had been dressed in Polish uniforms for one reason or another. It was an odd enough sight that it was talked about quite a lot over the next few days, with some suggesting that these might have been Polish soldiers of German extraction – what we later learned to call ‘Volksdeutsche’ – who had changed sides with the arrival of the Germans. I still don’t know.
By the time I got home, there was a degree of panic creeping through the civilian population: what were they to do? Could they get away? But with more and more German soldiers arriving in town, there was really nowhere to go. We stayed at home, not venturing out the courtyard of our block, as the Nazis took control. Only a few hours after the first soldiers had appeared, trucks were driving around town with loudspeakers, warning everyone to stay in their homes or be shot. I didn’t see them, but I certainly heard them.
We stayed in for all the rest of the day and that night too. Outside it was mostly quiet except for the noise of passing vehicles, but there were a few sporadic gunshots to remind us of what was taking place around us.
I’m not sure if I remember exactly how I felt. I suppose I was scared but I was curious too. Of course, we had all been brought up as loyal Poles – we had to say a prayer for the life of the Polish President in school every morning – but I didn’t know enough about the Germans or the Nazis to realise just how bad things might get. Of course, even those who did know about the Nazis had no idea exactly what might happen and I think most of the grown ups were probably hoping that this German occupation would be no worse than some of the other more recent episodes of anti-Semitic persecution: deeply unpleasant and uncomfortable, but ultimately not murderous. The reality is that the Jews of Europe had always faced hostility, from Roman times onwards, but we had always managed to survive as a people by adapting, hiding or moving on. Perhaps we imagined that we would be able to do so again.
The details of the next couple of days are not clear in my mind. At some stage we must have been allowed out during the day to try to buy food but there was certainly still a curfew in the evening and through the night. There hadn’t been any significant fighting in Bedzin so physically the town wasn’t changed but I do remember seeing the large numbers of uniformed and armed men who had arrived and were exerting control. At this stage, the majority were wearing the grey-green of the German soldiers and military police but as the days passed, increasing numbers of civil police in their blue-green uniforms arrived, together with a large number of Nazi Party officials in brown uniforms, who moved into the town hall and other civic buildings. Along with the German civil police, some members of the Bedzin police force also began patrolling again, although I think these must have been ethnic German ‘Volksdeutsche’.
Not long after we had been allowed out on the streets again, the Germans began to round up adult men, particularly focusing on traditional Orthodox Jews who were, of course, immediately recognisable by their beards and clothing. Once they had collected a few hundred together, they were marched out to the edge of town and to the buildings which had been bombed on the first day of the war, where the Germans set them to work finding and collecting unexploded munitions. Of course, they had no safety equipment and no training for this, but if a bomb or shell happened to go off and kill or maim a couple of Jews, so what? They didn’t care.
On Friday the eighth of September, a new unit of Germans came into town in the usual collection of trucks, motorcycles and jeeps. Some appeared to be policemen, though they wore a form of combat uniform, others were wearing military uniforms which were subtly different from the normal soldiers of the German Army; they had the German eagle on their arm rather than their chest and their collar flashes and shoulder boards were black. I didn’t pay any special attention to them: there were many different German units moving through and around Bedzin by now, but it turned out that these people represented the start of the process which led to the Holocaust.
I was at home that afternoon, it still wasn’t safe to be out on the streets, and this turned out to be a good thing for me. As the day wore on, there were increasing outbreaks of shooting. In the late afternoon and early evening, a smell of burning began to drift across the town. What could it be? I was keen to go outside to find out, but my terrified parents wouldn’t hear of it: we had to stay in. As dusk fell and the shooting continued, I crept out into the courtyard of our building and climbed onto the top of a lean-to shed which stood against a high wall. From there I was able to scramble up to the top of the wall to try to see what was happening. The smell of burning was very strong now, and as soon as I reached the top, I saw what was causing it: at the top of the hill the old synagogue of Bedzin, which had stood since the seventeenth century, was ablaze, lighting the evening sky with an orange-red glow. I sat on the wall watching this until I heard the voice of Handel, my older sister, shouting for me to get down.
The violence continued for the next two days, but we stayed huddled in our apartment, not daring to look outside. On Monday morning, things seemed to have calmed down enough to risk a look at what had taken place. What we found was almost unimaginable.
The Germans had set light to the old synagogue deliberately, and allowed the fire to spread into the buildings surrounding it, most of which were either Jewish homes or Jewish businesses. While the fires were raging, German soldiers and police had rampaged through the old part of the town, attacking Jewish owned shops and businesses and shooting and beating any civilians they found at large. On the Monday morning, the bodies of those they had killed were still lying in the streets and the gutters were still stained a rusty brown colour from their blood.
It was the first time I had seen dead bodies and the shocking thing for me was that these were mostly people we knew. The majority of them, I remember, were older Jewish men who were easier for the Germans to identify as Jews, but amongst them were a good few younger people and even children of my age, who happened to have been caught out on the streets by the murderous Nazis. There were also quite a few Gentile Poles as well: the Nazis weren’t too fussy at that stage about who they killed or terrorised. I think I personally saw about twenty bodies but there were certainly more around and I wasn’t deliberately looking for them. Only the Almighty knows how many were killed when the synagogue and the surrounding buildings were burned down.
As well as the random shooting that happened out in the streets, the Germans had also been looking for specific people: leading members of the community, intellectuals and members of Polish Nationalist groups, very few of whom were Jewish. These were people that they thought might cause trouble for them later on – they were probably right – and so they were determined to nip any problems in the bud. They must have known about them from spies in the German-speaking community, because they went to their houses and took them all away, and very few of them were ever seen again. A rumour went round that they had been taken outside town and shot, though I don’t know if that was true.
So this was the situation which faced the Pivnik family. In a little more than ten days, our secure and reasonably happy world had been turned upside down by the invasion. What had been a secure Jewish community, living in reasonable co-existence with our gentile neighbours had been suddenly transformed into the target of unbelievable violence. It was beyond our ability to understand it. Whenever my father had faced a difficult situation in the past, he would go to the synagogue to discuss it with the rabbi and his friends amongst the elders of the community. Now, the synagogue was a smouldering ruin and many of the elders lay dead in the street, savagely beaten and then shot by the Nazi invaders. At that time, it seemed to us all that the situation could not possibly get any worse but we were completely and utterly wrong.’