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Faces of Courage, Jacob


When the Nazis invaded Poland at the beginning of World War II, there was panic in the small village in Poland where Jacob and his family lived. Jacob was thirteen years old, he and his family were in grave danger because they were Jewish. The Polish peasants who lived around the village of Parczewa were frightened of the Germans and many were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors to seek favor with the Nazis. Jacob was determined to survive. This is his story.

I was born on the eighth of May in 1926 in Parczewa, in the province of Lubelskie in Poland. The youngest of eight children, I managed to finish six grades of school before the Germans came. After the Germans came to our village, no Jews were allowed to go to public schools. With my light brown hair and blue eyes, I did not look different from other Polish boys, but after the Germans came; Polish boys would not speak to me any more.

At the beginning of the war the Germans bombed our town. The planes came at ten o’clock in the morning and we all had to go into the fields and lie down until the bombing stopped. Only one house was demolished, but everyone was very frightened. Until that happened I did not really know what bombing was.

The German army came to our town and forced us to work for them at the Wehrmacht canteen they set up in the gymnasium. I worked for the soldiers, shining their shoes. Cleaning their rooms, chopping wood and going on errands for them. I did not mind the work, there was nothing else to do and I was a lonely 13-year-old boy who was curious about everything. Two other Jewish boys also worked for the German soldiers. The soldiers gave us official papers to prove we were workers in the Wehrmacht canteen. We came to the canteen to begin work at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 5 in the afternoon.

The soldiers did not mistreat us at that time, in fact some of them were good to us. Often a soldier would send me buy him cigarettes and then I was able to buy food at the canteen and bring it home to my family. The soldiers in the SS were different and they were often cruel when they came to the canteen. They called us names but most of the time I felt safe working in the canteen. It was only a few months later when the military police came to the town and life became much harder.

The Polish military police worked for the Germans and we were very afraid of them. I was only a young boy, but I will never forget one policeman who walked around in yellow boots and had a big dog. He beat people on the streets and everybody was afraid of him. As soon as he came on the street, everyone ran away.

I was fourteen years old when the war with the Russians began and many more German soldiers came to the town on their way to the front lines and it was very busy in the canteen. New soldiers were always coming and going and the canteen was very crowded. One day a soldier came up to me and shouted, “You’re a dirty Jew” and he punched me and spat in my face. I wanted to hit him back, but I turned away. I knew then that my life was not going to be easy, but I was determined to survive. My friend Rubin was beaten up by a soldier and he talked to me about quitting the canteen and going into hiding. It was very hard to hide from the Polish military police who were looking for Jews. The police knew the village very well and they knew every place where people could hide.

To make all Polish towns and cities “free of Jews”, the Germans decided to make the village of Parczewa a “Jewish” town. Hundreds of Jewish refugees were coming from neighboring towns and cities. The leaders of the Jewish Council thought if they cooperated with the Germans, they would leave us alone. They sent people house to house to collect food and clothing for the refugees.

Two families moved in with us, one was from Germany and the other from a city called Jablonka in Poland. Our small house was very crowded with four more adults and six children. I had to share my bedroom with two of my brothers and three other boys.

When my older brother Richard came home, he told us that the Germans planned
to murder all the Jews. Most people did not want to believe him, they thought this misery was only temporary and things would get better. My brother knew we needed a safe hiding place and he built a very good hideout underneath the shed where we kept wood.

We all helped to dig a tunnel from the kitchen to the wood shed. My brother put double floors in the shed beneath the shed. In between the floors he put in a drawer full of dirt, so if the Germans came and tore up the floor, they would find only dirt. We barely finished building our hiding place when German soldiers began searching Jewish homes. The soldiers came to search our house many times, but they never found our hiding place.

I was still looking for work after leaving the canteen, but I didn’t know where to look. We began to hear terrible stories about the concentration camps, but the old man who was the leader of the Jewish Council told us to help the German soldiers. They picked me as one of fifty Jewish boys to be helpers to the German army. The Russian troops were destroying everything and the German soldiers had to depend on food supplies from distant places.

My mother was crying the day I left to escort a transport of cattle to German soldiers in the front lines. She thought she would never see me again. A German man was the director of our group and he was very strict. All fifty of us boys were packed into two sealed freight cars which were opened twice a day so we could feed the cattle. It was hot and stuffy inside the freight cars and we had nothing to drink or eat. Every few hours the train would stop and we boys had to get off the train and go and feed the cattle the hay we brought with us. Then we went to the train station and fill big jugs with water for the cattle. When we were finished, they gave us food from the military canteen at the station.

At a train station close to the Russian border, a Russian soldier came up and whispered to us. One of the boys spoke Russian and talked with the soldier who told him about the partisans who were fighting the Germans. The soldier wanted us to escape and join the partisans. We could have escaped because we were not carefully guarded. But one boy told the director and he was furious. He told us if we escaped our families would be severely punished, so we stayed on the train.

At the train stations, we could see freight trains full of people and I knew they were Jews who were being taken away. On the way home, we saw women, old people and children being pushed into trains. We heard their screams and cries. The soldiers who came with us were worried that we would be discovered and told us to stay in the freight cars and be very quiet. They did not want anyone to know that there were Jewish boys in the train. But someone from the SS knew we were on the train and came for us. The soldiers told them that they had orders to deliver us back to Parczewa and when we finally got home, everyone was surprised that we had returned safely.

Things were very bad when I returned. Most of the Jewish families already been taken away, only a few hundred Jews were left in the town. They made us all move to one street that was guarded by Polish and Jewish guards. The street had barbed wire around it and we could not leave. My family were still in hiding. The Germans were telling us that if we came out of hiding and were willing to work, we would not be evacuated.

My brother believed him and he took me with him to work in a temporary store of the Wehrmacht in an old glass factory. My job was to load blankets and other provisions into freight trains for the soldiers on the front lines. We worked every day, but the work was not hard and I didn’t mind it. We worked there for a few weeks when a Polish policeman came to the store with orders to bring all the Jewish workers to the Gestapo prison.

At first I did not know what to do, but then I caught a glimpse of my brother being pushed into a truck. I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going to prison. I didn’t care what happened and I began to run. I did not stop running until I got to the outskirts of the town, where there were open fields. The only time I stopped running was to pick up an old shoe polish tin that had been thrown on the street. Once I reached the field, I started to dig a ditch with the can. Then I lay down in the ditch not knowing what else to do. It was very quiet and I stayed there for a long time. I was worried about my brother and prayed that he managed to get away.

As soon as it was dark I left the hiding place and walked back to the village. No one else was around, but I was still very frightened. When I got close to the town, I met Tadek, a Polish fellow who was brought up with us and even learned to speak Yiddish. I trusted him and told him I ran away. Tadek took me to his house and gave me food and then he gave me terrible news. The Gestapo killed all the boys they took to the prison. Tadek told me that I was very smart to run away. He didn’t know where the rest of my family was. I told him I had to go home to see my mother.

Tadek pushed me down on the chair and would not let me leave. He said it was too dangerous. He wanted me to go with him to Germany. The Germans were sending Poles to work in Germany. I looked at him and shook my head, but he refused to take No for an answer. He said I had no choice because nobody would be looking for Jews in Germany. The next day Tadek brought me false identification papers and a ticket to Warsaw. He took me to the train station and told me not to worry. He had arranged everything, he said. When I boarded the train I did not know what was ahead of me or if I would ever see my family again.

Tadek’s friend met me at the train station in Warsaw and brought me to his house. A few days later we left for Stargard in Pomerania. When we arrived, the Germans gave us an Arbeitskarte (work permits) that had a photo. They also gave us a small piece of linen with the letter “P” for Polish printed on it. We had to sew the linen on the front of our shirts. Then they cut our hair very short and put us in barracks. I was surprised to see so many workers from so many different countries in the barracks. There were 2000 foreign workers in Stargard and I was one of them.

I was still afraid I would be discovered, but deep inside I felt very angry. I made up my mind that if I was caught, I would not let myself be killed without fighting back. I would defend myself to my last breath.

The factory in Stargard was a big place where we built big bunkers for the army.

It was owned by a private company and we had to obey the foreman who was the boss. He was a real but for some reason he liked me. He told me I reminded him of his son and he gave me his son’s shoes and some shirts to wear. He did not hit me like he hit the other boys and for that I was grateful. Sine I was the youngest worker, the others felt sorry for me. When the foreman was not around, we took breaks. We did not feel like working too hard. One of the workers was always on guard and when he saw the foreman coming, he would signal us and we would begin to work.

In December of 1942, when we first arrived in Stargard, the Germans were cruel to foreign workers, especially the Poles. Even children threw rocks at us. But when the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, things changed and many Germans started treating us better. We had a day off every second Sunday and I took jobs cleaning private houses. I wanted to save money to get back to my family.

There were just women and old people living in the houses, the men were gone. Even though I still felt very angry with the Germans, I had to admit that some of them were very good to us. The woman who owned the bakery gave me bread even though I did not have a rationing card. I till had to be very careful and not go into the store if there were people around.

I stayed in Stargard for two years. When the Allies began bombing the city, I rejoiced. Factories were destroyed. At the end of the war I was working to rebuild one of the factories. We were still being heavily guarded because among the thousands of us foreign workers and there were prisoners from concentration camps.

I was still afraid I would be caught. Some of the other boys received parcels from home and I didn’t want anyone to think I did not get any either. I saved my money and went to another barrack and bought a parcel. I came back and yelled, “Boys, I have a parcel from home. Let’s eat.” I also wrote myself letters and mailed them from another place. It was risky to travel and I had to take the ” P ” off my chest, because we were not allowed to travel. The office posted a list of those who received mail and I waited for one of my friends to tell me my name was on the list. My friends also saw me writing letters and that helped me too. I knew I would be in more danger if anyone suspected that I was Jewish.

The Russians were coming closer and closer and the Germans knew they were losing the war. They evacuated the civilian population and planned to send foreign workers to the west. But the Russians came before we were moved. We waited to be liberated, but instead of liberating us, the Russians moved us from Stargard to another city, where we were supposed to work. I found my sister there and we got permission to return to our home. When we got back to Poland, we found out that my mother and father and two of my brothers had also survived. They had been in hiding for a long time.

It was still difficult for Jewish people in Poland after the war. The peasants stole our possessions, they occupied our houses and took our lands. People were desperate and there were bands of robbers everywhere. In 1948 with the help of an international Jewish agency, we escaped to Israel.