Did you ever yearn to be a tree? Or a cat, or even a rat? True, a cat lives no more then twenty years, a rat much less. And yet, how I envied them all, on the eerily silent streets of Lvov in June 1941. I was eighteen then and all around me were these other creatures I envied intensely.
Lvov was a charming city on the eastern edge of Poland, bordering the Ukraine. It was the gateway to the East, rich in history, rich with people whose faces bore witness to past invaders—Tartars, Mongols, Russians, Austrians. It was a Polish city with a large Ukrainian minority. There were Jews, too, who’d been invited here by the Polish king centuries ago to enhance the local commerce. The Jews stuck to their shtetls and ghettos, their ancient ways in total contrast to modern Polish life. Through nearly eight centuries, this “coexistence” produced endless years of persecution, pogroms, suffering, and death.
All this stood in my mind on that hushed summer day. For the past two years, after Poland was divided between Hitler and Stalin, Lvov had been under Soviet occupation. But Germany had invaded Russia, and now the Russians were leaving the city in haste.
Lvov stood waiting, in quiet, for the victorious Germans to march in. Here and there some Poles or Ukrainians passed by in a hurry, with obvious joy in their faces. The Bolsheviks were on the run!
Before the war, the Polish government openly advocated boycott of Jews. Beatings on the street were common. The few Jewish students who were admitted to the universities had to sit on the left side, and the common cry was “Jews to Madagascar!” I often wondered why Madagascar, of all places in this world.
Under the Russian occupation, however, things had actually improved. Jews were admitted to schools and government positions, things that many Poles could not stomach. I was studying graphics at the Art Institute, having escaped from German-occupied western Poland to come live with my aunt and uncle in Lvov. Most of my older classmates grew beards in silent protest against the presence of Jews in their school. They could not even call us kikes—under Stalin’s rule they could go to jail for that.
No wonder that now, on the streets of Lvov, one could see smiles on the faces looking out the windows. Theirs was a joy of expectation. The hour of revenge was coming! The Jews of Lvov already knew what had been going on in German-occupied Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow. But, so far, for almost a week, only ominous silence ruled the deserted streets in Lvov.
Then one day, after a week of waiting, the old shoemaker climbed up the stairs to our flat from his basement workshop. He blurted out in Yiddish, “Zis zennen shoein du,” then hastily translated into halting Polish: “They are already here.” Yes, indeed, through the streets rolled an armada of tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, and motorcycles filled with young, smiling soldiers. They passed by with ease, covered with flowers, cheered on by the enthusiastic crowds lining the streets. “Handsome, ain’t they?” chirped the girls. “Golden boys!” echoed the matrons of Lvov.
Two days later, after the golden boys, came the black boys of the SS and Gestapo.
My uncle, a tailor, spoke Yiddish only. Slightly retarded, he lived his restricted life at his workbench, set up in the kitchen. My aunt’s dowry had helped to set up his shop, and survival was their sole goal. These were religious people and when the old shoemaker came up to tell them that the Germans had just entered the city, they took it in stride. The Almighty will take care of us, announced my aunt.
The next day the Almighty turned his face away from us. That was the day of the worst pogrom Lvov ever experienced in its long history of persecution of the Jewish people. I opened the door for our Ukrainian janitor, who came in followed by two armed men. They grabbed me and dragged me into the street, where a screaming mob was pushing hundreds of bloodied and beaten Jews. There were sticks, clubs, wrenches, and deadly cobblestones. People fell down, disappearing into the violently twisting procession. The lovely unmolested birch trees, lining the streets, looked on in silent amazement.
We were shoved toward the city jail. Word went around that the retreating Soviets had shot some political prisoners there. Ukrainian policemen and the SS were waiting at the jail and those who were forced there never came back. Young and determined, without bothering to assess my chances, I pushed my way out of the crowd, beaten and kicked. At our house, my uncle looked at my bloodied face in horror. He did not comprehend what had happened. On that day, it seemed, the retarded inherited the world—they did not understand.
Three months passed. The Jews were crammed into a sealed ghetto. The Germans hardly bothered to enter. They appointed “Judenrat”—Jewish elders—to enforce the countless Gestapo edicts, orders, and decrees posted frequently on the ghetto’s walls. The Judenrat relied on Jewish policemen—local thugs, really—to carry out the orders. Noncompliance meant death. There was no other penalty.
I was sitting at the window, one day, watching a commotion on the ghetto street. Jewish policemen were running from house to house, fishing out people to be “resettled in the East.” That day the Germans had asked for two thousand people—men or women, old or young, sick or healthy. Even though bread and marmalade for the trip was promised, there were no volunteers. That day only those with arbeitsausweis were spared, those with a permit certifying that they were employed in ghetto workshops producing uniforms, boots, belts, or anything else used by the German army. I was lucky to have such a permit.
Nobody seemed to accept the truth that “resettlement to the East” meant gas chambers in Belzec. After all, if Germans were to kill these people, why would they give them bread and marmalade? Why would they allow them to carry a small bag with personal belongings?
Yet, nobody would go. The Jewish policemen—the hated enforcers—had to drag the yelling and crying victims. Armed with clubs, the cruel and ruthless policemen knew that the quota of two thousand had to be met by midday or they themselves would be taken. The elders of the Judenrat hoped to save themselves and their families. And so did the policemen, who now dragged their victims to the lorries, reprimanding the lamenting: “Shame on you! Keep order! What’s the matter? Afraid to go to work?”
Evening came and the anthills of the ghetto finally quieted down. Exhausted people, packed tightly into the crammed rooms, always hungry, went to sleep on beds, floors or tables, dressed and ready for night’s emergency. The curfew was of no concern to the cats. Undisturbed, they played and made love on the empty streets. The cats were free.
One day the Germans asked for two thousand children. We saw the procession moving along under our window. Parents, some with toddlers in their arms, chose to go with their children. There went my friend, Jurek Weiss, with his twins. No fear in his eyes, just smiling at his kids. Some small boys and girls marched it alone. Their mamas and papas stayed behind. Maybe they had other kids hidden somewhere or maybe they just did not want to die. Their agony must have been a thousand times worse than death.
Nobody talked about “working in the East” anymore. The illusions disappeared with the little children. The policemen had to work hard now—the daily quotas increased to five thousand, ten thousand, or more. But now, almost a year after we were forced into the ghetto, hunger took over and each morning the streets were busy with men from the burial society, picking up the emaciated bodies thrown out by families, which could not bury their own.
Now the German offer of bread and marmalade was not refused lightly. Hunger eliminated the fear of death and there were scores of volunteers, starved skeletons, climbing into the trams and lorries, choking on mouths full of gooey bread. Ukrainian policemen and the SS looked on, sparing bullets only on those too weak to crawl and draw their bodies up to the lorries. Flies were all over, buzzing around freely. The flies were free to live.
People now knew that this was the end, yet hardly anybody took off his Star of David armband and ran out of the ghetto. To run where? The denunciators, streets full of them, had an uncanny ability to spot a Jew. Just looked for fear in the eyes. To make sure, they dragged their victim inside a house—pants down please, or we will call the Germans.
Women? At the police station their faked Aryan documents were examined, their false addresses checked, and their fate sealed. Sometimes, denunciators took a bribe and let the victim go. Into the next trap. Some Jews were hidden, for money. When their money ran out, so did their life. There were some precious few who did hide the Jews out of pity, at terrible personal risk. Discovery meant death to them and their families. These unknown soldiers of humanity were true Christians of the early Christian tradition. They could not, however, absolve the vast majority of the population eager to grab Jewish property, approving of the genocide.
Then came August 15th, 1942. My friend Arthur and I were leaving for our jobs in a German furniture warehouse. Suddenly, we noticed unusual commotion and panic in the streets. Specially trained SS Einsatzgruppen had arrived in Lvov and now surrounded the ghetto. These units, traveling from one city to another, specialized in extermination procedures. Arthur and I confidently produced our working permits to these Germans. The SS men did not even look at them but simply pushed us into the waiting tram, one of many lining the street and filling up with Jewish people. The trams clanked over the tracks and through the familiar streets. The smell of fear grew stronger. “Janowska Street,” whispered the men, as the tram bell rang and the tram changed direction. We all knew what that meant.
If you visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, you will come upon the Janowska-Lvov commemorative plate, right next to Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Chelmno, and other concentration camps in Poland. Janowska Camp earned its reputation as Vertichtungs-lager—an extermination camp. No cover-up, no concealment. Just Vertichtungs-lager.
The trams, carrying thousands of people, soon came to a stop at the Janowska Camp in the suburbs of Lvov. The escorting Ukrainian policemen and the SS came to life. “Run!” they commanded, pointing to the camp’s gate. But as we ran from the trams to the gate, there were shots all around us. Some fell, bringing down the men nearest to them, as we all ran for our lives toward the camp’s gate.
Darkness slowly enveloped the masses of bleeding, moaning people waiting in an endless line to be registered. The searchlights came upon us, sweeping over the camp from corner to corner, in relentless monotony interrupted by shouting, shooting, running in a crazed frenzy. A young woman sitting behind a desk took our names as we entered, while a camp inmate searched our pockets. He took away my watch and dropped it into one box, empty leather wallet into another, loose change into yet another. Boxes were filling up with the possessions of men who preceded me. The woman’s voice was expressionless: “Name. Birthday. Profession. Move on.” Another inmate, holding a large bucket, painted a wide red stripe on the back of my jacket.
As we went in, the Askaris took over. These Russian prisoners of war had volunteered to work in the camp. They herded a group of us together, pushing us past the long line of barracks and onto the higher grounds. There, huddled together, lay hundreds of living skeletons. Around each man’s waist, attached to a cord, were a tin dish and a spoon. One of the Askaris reached down, wrenched a dish and a spoon from an inmate, held them up to us. “Help yourselves,” he said. “They won’t be needing them anymore.”
This was the cruelest, most merciless ordeal. To take a dish and spoon from these bundles of bones wrapped in yellow, dirty skin was like severing a lifeline. I stood there, paralyzed, until a powerful blow on the back brought me back to the horror of reality. “Move on!” the Askaris bellowed. The bruised, hollow eyes of the previous owners watched us as we walked away with their utensils.
Thousands of inmates ran through the camp grounds carrying bricks and wooden logs, from one end to the other, back and forth, without any reason or purpose. All around them, like vicious dogs, the SS men and the Ukrainian guards were shooting, kicking, whipping people in a craze of murder. Night brought a brief peace to the barracks. Weak bulbs showed the faces of thousands of men, on two-story bunks, one man next to the other, fully dressed, no blankets, no mattresses. Two buckets of urine, overflowing, were making smelly puddles on the floor. I watched the rats all around us, free to run out of that camp anytime. Masters of their fate, at ease. How I envied them.
Only Jews were taken to Janowska Camp. This meant no pardon, no amnesty. You were there until you died. Exhausted, dirty, always hungry, I now knew that my fate was sealed unless I got away. I had to get away before my skin turned yellow, before my clothes took on the odor of the concentration camp, before I was wounded or caught dysentery or typhus, which were raging through the camp. I realized that if I began to look and smell like the figures carting logs, bricks, or pushing wheelbarrows of stones, I was finished. These men, even if not shot, hanged, or beaten to death, could not live for more than a month, before joining thousands of skeletons and waiting for merciful machine guns. But there was no escape from that camp.
Ironically, the SS came to my aid. They occupied Lvov’s fashionable district and needed carpenters, plumbers, electricians, tailors, and other “work Jews” to modernize the apartments where they had moved in with their wives and children. Arthur and I raised our hands as the call for painters was heard. After studying at the Art Institute we ought to be able to paint walls.
But an even greater surprise awaited us as we arrived under guard at the SS headquarters. It turned out that we had been assigned to the SS grave registration office, where wooden crosses were readied for the graves of SS men fallen in Russia. We were to paint on the crosses, calligraphically, the names of these men and the dates of their birth and death. Not only was this a great relief from the daily murderous routine of the camp, but we also cherished our work. Here, under our eyes, was the evidence that things were not going so well on the Eastern Front. The SS men, in ever increasing numbers, were fertilizing the Ukrainian steppes.
Coming back to the camp that night meant another brush with death from bullets freely sprayed through the bunks by visiting Germans and Ukrainians doing “inspection.” They shot at random at the sleeping people who, in their total exhaustion, were indifferent to death.
In the morning we marched off to work again. “Hats off!” shouted the Ukrainians as we approached the gate. The much-feared camp commandant Gebauer, his assistant Wilhaus, and a pack of SS men were reviewing the passing column. Wilhaus, with his whip, pointed to the weak, limping, emaciated. They had to step aside and wait to be shot. The camp’s orchestra played on as we passed through the deadly selection process.
After the Battle of Stalingrad, the SS men started sending their ladies back home, so there was less need for gardeners, carpenters, or tailors. These tradesmen were stopped at the gate next morning and shot after we painters had left.
We knew our days were numbered so Arthur and I decided to make a run for life. On March 15th, 1943, at dusk, after being marched out of the SS office to head back to the camp, we slipped out of the line. The guard shouted “Halt!” but did not dare to shoot in a district full of Germans. We boarded a tram full of people. It was a perilous ride, what with red stripes painted on our backs, but we squeezed into the mass of Poles and Ukrainians rushing home before curfew and managed to reach the hiding place of Arthur’s older brother.
Accomplished in graphic arts, Arthur’s brother made his living by producing false Aryan documents, in high demand in the ghetto. These represented some psychological reassurance for those who decided to escape the ghetto, though were not of much use to those Jewish men denounced on the streets. Arthur’s brother had “bad looks” and his Semitic features kept him at home. It was for me to make the perilous trips to deliver the documents. After earning my keep I was given a document stating that I was born and christened in some nonexistent Polish village and my name was, from now on, Kazimierz Lozinski.
At that time advertisements appeared in the local paper, offering young Poles work in the occupied regions of Russia. Many volunteered. The pay and conditions were better than the slave labor in Germany. Armed with my fake document, I registered at Dronke AG, a company that built hangars in airports. I was told to show up at Lvov’s railway station next evening and join the other workers travelling to Dniepropetrovsk in the Ukraine.
The brightly lit railway station, though, full of Germans and civilians, was a favorite hunting ground for the Gestapo, local Polish and Ukrainian police, and the many “volunteers” looking for Jews trying to escape. Here and there beneath its huge, now blackened, windows, I saw a man, agony in his eyes, grabbed by policemen. I had “good looks,” and there was no red stripe on my jacket now, and yet, fear still paralyzed my body. I crouched on the floor, took out a pencil and, bending my head low, started a letter. “Dear God,” I wrote. I went on, begging the Almighty for my life. Amazing how quickly one discovers Him in moments like this.
I joined the work group and we boarded the train bound for Dniepropetrovsk. The train was full of soldiers. We soon passed the former Polish border and were now in the Ukraine. Two young men approached me in the train’s corridor. “Yid, right?” blurted one in Polish, as the other demanded money, or else. “Think it over” were their passing words. “We will be back in five minutes,” added the other.
Without hesitation I went back to the door, pulled up the latch and jumped. Luckily, the train was passing a curve and so was running slow. I landed on all fours and remained crouched, anxiously watching the passing coaches.
As I entered the forest, without any idea of what to do or where to go, a strange feeling of joy came over me—I was free, just as free as all the trees around me.
I spotted an old peasant gathering branches into his wagon. He believed my story when I told him that I had escaped from a German prison. He showed me the way to his village and I began my new odyssey as Kazimierz Lozinski. I faced death many more times during my long wanderings through the Ukraine. But the exhilarating feeling of being on my own, of being master of my own fate, took the edge off the fear. I was like a cat, a rat, a fly, a tree.
It all happened seventy-five years ago. There are those today who call it a hoax, a fabrication. If I did not suspect malevolent intentions, I could understand, because it is not believable, unless you were there. Survival confers no automatic nobility. It bestows only an obligation to speak out.