Part One: Before the War
(Posted to this site on 12/22/2006)
The Altus Family
For more than two hundred years before my birth, the Altus family lived and prospered in Ciechanow, a city about fifty kilometers north of Warsaw, Poland, not far from the East Prussian border.
I, Samuel Altus, was born into that family on Friday, October 26, 1924, the fifth son of Herschel and Ita Altus.
I was among the Altus family’s third-generation to happily live in Ciechanow.
My father, Hershel, was a devoted husband and father who worked long hours at his business to provide the necessities of life for our family. An average-size man, about 5-foot-6-inches tall, he had light brown hair and blue eyes like the sea.
He was a modern man who took a keen interest in what was happening in the world, but his life and ours were deeply rooted in the ancient rituals and beliefs inherent in the Jewish faith.
Our religion prescribed the activities of our daily lives. Early each morning, before going to work at the family poultry business, my father placed his prayer shawl over his shoulders and retreated to a corner of the room for daily prayers. He believed deeply in his religion and always tried to comply with the strict tenets of his faith.
He and my mother kept a kosher home, and our meals were always prepared according to the rules of kosher.
My mother, Ita, whose maiden name was also Altus, supported him in everything. A slender, pretty woman, she had pale blue eyes and straight blond hair that she wore up in back. She was dedicated to raising her children with high morals and a positive outlook on life, and while she could neither read nor write, she insisted that all her children learn how.
Her illiteracy did not mean she was stupid. She was one of the smartest people in my life. She spoke three languages, as did everyone else in the family: Yiddish, for talking with family and friends; Polish, the language used in public school and with Polish friends and businessmen; and Hebrew, used during religious services and in Hebrew school. Later I became fluent in German, Russian, and of course, English, after coming to America.
My mother also knew all the classical music. She listened to symphonies whenever she could … and operas. She had a lovely, lilting voice, and we often would stop to listen to her sing her favorite pieces, the soft, sweet notes drifting through the open window to the garden outside where we played.
All my brothers and I had light brown hair and blue eyes like my father.
My oldest brother, Yussell, at about 5-feet, 11-inches, was much taller than father, though. He was nine years older than I was, so by the time I started school, he had finished his studies and was working with my father in the poultry business.
Likewise, Srulek, who was seven years older, was considered grown and had begun working with father by the time I started school. He also was tall, at 5-feet, 10-inches, and had the Altus hair and eyes.
Simon, who was five years older, and Leibel, just two years older, were in school when I started. Of course, Simon finished long before Leibel and I, leaving all the household chores to us while he and my brothers worked with father outside the home.
My sister, Chaia was born four years after me, and being the only daughter — for a few years at least — quickly became the darling of the family. Chaia was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. Her soft golden hair shone and her eyes, pale blue like our mother’s, sparkled when she smiled. Petite and pretty, she wasfastidious about her appearance almost from the day she was born. She hated to get dirty and played in such a way that she never would have to.
My baby sister, Feigel, was just the opposite. Chaia was three when Feigel was born, all dark hair and eyes and an energy that could not be contained. She was a very lively addition to our family and kept us busy trying to keep up with her. She was somewhat of a tomboy who, unlike Chaia, didn’t mind getting dirty at all.
Hundreds of people made up our extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on both my father’s and mother’s side — all of whom lived nearby and interacted with us daily. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I believe that nearly 10,000 Jews lived in Ciechanow prior to the Nazi occupation. Many of them were family.
I remember well my maternal grandmother, who had a small baking oven in her home that she used to make matzos for Passover. She never used that particular oven for other types of baking. In preparation for the Passover holidays, she hired a few people to help her roll the dough and bake it, insisting that the religious rituals be strictly followed throughout the matzo baking process.
My paternal grandmother, actually my father’s stepmother, was well known throughout our community because she had made several trips throughout Western Europe. For us Jews it was considered something special if you were able to travel to Warsaw, never mind to some other country.
She and my other grandparents died of natural causes before the Holocaust and were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ciechanow. I have not been back to Poland since the war, but I have learned that the cemetery still exists in a wooded area outside of the town. There is nothing to mark the cemetery and no gravestones remain, but there are people in the village who remember it and have documented its existence.
My two oldest brothers, who worked with my father, sometimes joined him for morning prayers. We were observant but not fanatical, and sometimes, as kids do, we tested the religious rules just for the fun of it.
The most mischievous thing I remember any of us ever doing was the day Leibel and one of his friends saw the shoemaker’s wife place a cooked goose in a pan on her windowsill to cool. They crept outside her window and stole the goose. It wasn’t that they were hungry or mean, they did it just to have some fun. I don’t know if the shoemaker’s wife ever figured out what happened to her goose that day.
Another neighbor had goats in her yard. Occasionally, my friends and I sneaked into her yard and milked them. Then we hid and watched her come outside with a puzzled look on her face as she tried to figure out how the goats’ milk had disappeared.
We never did anything seriously wrong, though, and our father had no need to be a strict disciplinarian.
In Ciechanow, I knew of only one synagogue and it was strictly orthodox. On Sabbath, my brothers and I accompanied my father to the synagogue and participated in the services. I looked forward to going to synagogue each week because of the mysterious and spiritual feeling of the services. I didn’t always understand the meanings of the various prayers and rituals, but I knew they were important to my father and so they were also important to me. I also enjoyed going to the synagogue because it was a special time to be with my father, brothers, uncles and other male members of my family while we practiced our religion.
At the age of thirteen, the religious community recognized me when I studied for, and completed the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Each of my older brothers had completed the same ceremony when they reached the age of thirteen.
As Jews, we understood that the non-Jewish population of Ciechanow considered us different. Besides our synagogue, the only other religious establishment in Ciechanow that I knew about was the Catholic Church located on a hill overlooking the town.
The priest, who had been assigned to that church for many years, was a very powerful force in the community. He lived some eight to ten miles outside the city on an estate.
Although we sometimes associated with non-Jews, did business with them, and played sports with them, the one thing we never did was enter non-Jewish places of worship.
There was a gap between the Catholic community and us. We did business with them, but we didn’t associate socially.
They lived their lives and we lived ours without conflict.
We never dreamed that our entire family, all our friends and, indeed, all Jews throughout Europe, would be targeted for elimination simply because of our faith.
In those days, Ciechanow wasn’t divided into sections for Jews and non-Jews. Nevertheless, most of the Jews chose to live in the area near the synagogue, the Hebrew schools, the kosher markets and so forth.
And the Jewish and Christian children attended separate public schools because of the different Sabbath observances. Jewish children went to school from Sunday through Friday and observed the Sabbath on Saturday while the Christian children attended school from Monday through Saturday and kept their Sabbath on Sunday. No one attended school in the summer.
My parents believed in the importance of a good education both from a secular and religious perspective. They felt that education was the key to a successful future, so they made sure we all went to school and studied hard.
I entered first grade when I was seven years old and graduated from seventh grade when I was thirteen. This was the end of my formal education because the local high school charged tuition and my parents could not afford to pay it. My brothers only went through sixth grade and then went to work with my father in his business.
In those days there were no school buses, so we walked several miles to school carrying our books and school supplies with us. We wore school uniforms of blue blazers and caps with shiny brims; the Polish schoolchildren wore very similar uniforms.
Occasionally, groups of Jewish and Catholic students got into intentional confrontations with shoving matches and name-calling. No one ever got seriously hurt, but we knew there were some hard feelings on both sides and we always expected a little skirmish when we met.
At the teacher level, at least for awhile, things were different. Some of our teachers were Jewish but many were Christian. I don’t know if there were any Jewish teachers at the Christian school, but there may have been, especially prior to the Nazi occupation.
Our public school teachers were very strict and demanded excellence. Homework assignments and reading required several hours of study each evening. We were required to do our written homework with pen and ink so that a mistake, and our correction, would be noticed when the teacher checked it the next day. If our homework assignments did not meet the teacher’s strict standards, we had to repeat the assignments until they were correct.
My favorite subjects were mathematics and geography, and I managed to get excellent grades in both. My math education came in handy while working in the concentration camp warehouse and later during my successful business career.
On a typical school day we would wake up early and one of us would run down the street to the bakery and return with a six- to eight-pound loaf of bread for breakfast. We then helped with the chores, while mother made our usual breakfast of cooked cereal, bread, butter and cheese, and a coffee-like beverage made of chicory.
After breakfast, we walked to school.
Four days a week, after finishing my last class at public school around two o’clock, I walked to Hebrew school for two and a half hours of instruction in the Jewish religion. The Hebrew teachers were learned Jews who taught their lessons in Yiddish and Hebrew. They were strict and demanded that we learn our lessons well. I went to Hebrew school for more than four years.
To this day I can still read the Hebrew language.
My earliest friends were two Christian boys whose mother was a widow. I was about seven years old at the time and don’t remember their names. Although we went to different public schools the three of us ran around and played together after school.
We would play soccer in the streets or get a heavy limb from a tree to make a bat for our baseball games in a nearby field. Sometimes we’d take off across the bridge and head for the castle ruins on the hill just outside of town where we’d wander around and play imaginary games.
We were too young then for prejudice, and our times together were good. But as we became older, we grew apart and eventually had nothing more to do with each other.
This was typical of many relationships between Jews and non-Jews in those days, not only in Ciechanow, but most likely throughout the rest of Eastern Europe.
Over the years, my family developed long-standing friendships with several Christian families in our neighborhood. During the Christmas holidays we were invited to their homes to share cookies and other holiday treats. We always visited them on the second day of Christmas since we Jews considered it bad luck to visit a Christian family on the first day of Christmas.
As our family grew, my mother hired a Polish Catholic woman, Miss Viercza, to help with the household. She worked in our home a few days a week for several years. My two little sisters loved and respected this kind and gentle woman. Once a year, Miss Viercza went on a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Czestochowa. We knew she walked most of the way and that she would be gone for several months. During those periods, we really missed her and couldn’t wait for her to return. After the first day of the Nazi occupation, we never saw or heard from her again.
My mother also was very friendly with a kind, well-to-do, Christian lady named Mrs. Wesolowski. Her family owned the largest Polish ham and sausage factory in the area and also owned the first apartment building where my family lived.
During the Passover and Easter holidays, she sent cakes and cookies to our family, and my mother reciprocated by sending matzo to her. Although the two women developed a close and trusting friendship, they always met secretly because they feared that the woman’s Polish friends would ostracize her for being friendly with a Jew.
Our apartment overlooked Mrs. Wesolowski’s very large garden, and at times, she shared her fresh vegetables, honey and flowers with my mother. Occasionally, she even loaned money to my mother who, being a proud and honorable person, always repaid the loan as soon as possible.
Even without modern conveniences, our home was always clean and supplied with ample food.
When I was a little boy, my older brothers often brought their friends home after work where they’d sit and talk about what was going on in their lives.
My mother welcomed them into our home and always managed to have homemade treats to feed them. In the summertime she made blueberry turnovers and other pastries and goodies. There were lots of fruits — strawberries, sour cherries, currants and gooseberries — and in the spring she served up rhubarb cooked with lots of sugar to sweeten its tangy, green-apple flavor.
One of my brother’s friends always liked to tease me. He would sit at the table telling frightening tales while I stood by wide-eyed and mesmerized.
“Angel of Death,” my mother would call him, in her scolding Yiddish. But even though she got upset over those stories, she always encouraged my brothers and me to bring our friends home.
Our home was a busy, happy place overflowing with family and friends. Many nights, after the evening meal, my uncles and aunts would come to visit. While we cousins played, the adults would gather around the big table in the kitchen to talk. They would tell stories, often they would sing. But what I remember most as a child was the cadence of their voices and their laughter as it rang out into the night.
Daily Life in Ciechanow
Even though we didn’t live in poverty, we didn’t live an easy life either. Our family was considered by our neighbors and friends to be respectable and honorable, and the family business was a success.
All of us — my father, my mother, four brothers, two sisters and I — always had to work hard. The children wore hand-me-down clothes, and we all did chores willingly. We never complained about the hard work and second-hand clothes; that’s just the way life was.
Life in our part of Eastern Europe was more primitive than in the west. Running water and indoor plumbing was out of the question, but we did have electricity, and even with our tight quarters, there was always a place to do our homework.
Life was the same everywhere.
The streets outside our apartment were paved with cobblestones and kept swept clean by the tenants in the buildings that lined each side. Traffic consisted of horses and buggies since the town had only one passenger car, owned by the druggist. We had trucks for the family poultry business, but they were driven by helpers hired by my father and were never used for our personal transportation.
Our apartment was on the ground floor of a brick, four-story building that was occupied by thirty or more Jewish families. The Catholics didn’t consider the building good enough for them, but that didn’t bother us because we were grateful just to have a decent place to live.
It’s amazing that despite the social separation, my father did business with many Catholic farmers, and mutual respect was always shown in many ways.
Our three-room apartment — a kitchen, a parlor and bedroom — became very crowded when the entire family was present. Two of my brothers often slept at my aunt’s home, which gave the rest of us a little more space. As I look back on those days, I wonder how we all managed to live in harmony in such crowded conditions. I guess it’s because we loved each other and got along well.
And, we had the occasional escape to my father’s poultry farm just outside of town. We’d hitch the horse to the wagon and ride out to the farm with father where we’d help him with the poultry or just wander through the countryside. We loved being out in nature, loved watching the birds and loved playing in the forests and fields. We also loved spending time with the family dog that lived at the farm most of the time, except when father gave into our begging and allowed him to come back to town with us for a day or two.
Of course, that was in the summer. The winters were a different matter altogether.
Poland is a cold, dark land in the winter.
Luckily, the apartments where we lived stayed fairly warm all night because coal furnaces heated them. The fire in the kitchen wood stove, however, sometimes went out during the night, forcing my mother to thaw out the solid block of ice in the water barrel before she could cook breakfast and we could wash up for the day.
One of my chores each morning was to fill the water barrel. I placed a wooden yoke across my shoulders, attached two empty buckets to it and walked to the community well several miles away. I filled the buckets, attached them back on the ends of the yoke and walked back home.
Several days a week I made more than one trip to the well to get extra water for cooking, meals, bathing or laundry.
Laundry day was a major undertaking for my mother who boiled and scrubbed our linens and clothing and hung them on lines strung across the rooms. On laundry day, our small apartment was transformed into a maze that smelled of soap and humidity and rang with calls of admonition from my mother as she strove to protect her hard work from the grubby hands of seven active offspring.
We never knew the luxury of a shower, but my mother insisted that our bodies and clothing always be clean.
Poland’s fertile plains in general, and the rural area around Ciechanow in particular, were blessed with very rich soil that produced abundant harvests. It was Poland’s blessing and her curse. Her people have fought many wars through the centuries because first one nation then another wanted to claim her rich lands as their own.
Wheat grew tall there. Grain was plentiful. Sugar beets, which grew fat and sweet in this area, were another staple crop. After the beet harvest, the farmers loaded their wagons full to overflowing to take them to the sugar beet factory. We followed behind those wagons, and if any beets fell off, we quickly scooped them up and ran home. My mother made wonderful beet preserves that were so sweet you never had to add sugar.
Many of the streets in the city were lined with fruit trees. We weren’t allowed to pick the fruit to take home, but anyone could take some to eat as they walked.
Before the Nazi occupation, my father made sure that we always had plenty to eat and my mother managed the household frugally. Whenever my mother cooked a chicken, duck or goose she rendered the fat and used it for seasoning and cooking. We sometimes spread the fat on bread and made a meal out of it. My mother also made use of the goose down and feathers in pillows and blankets. Nothing was ever wasted.
Landowners in Ciechanow had the added advantage of being able to hunt for game. After the annual grain harvest, it was traditional for the Polish landowners to hunt quail and other game on their large estates.
On several occasions, when I was about ten years old, I accompanied the owner of the sausage factory as he hunted quail in his grain fields. Before the hunt, he gave me a special belt to wear. When I retrieved the quail from the field, I would hang them on the loops of my belt so they could be carried home.
At the end of each hunt I had fifteen or twenty big fat quail hanging from my belt. He never shared those quail with me, but he always treated me very kindly during those times we spent together.
We didn’t eat meat more than three times a week usually. And while we had chickens, we never ate eggs unless we were sick.
Beef was only eaten on the Sabbath.
My mother bought processed grain by the kilo and made noodles quite frequently. We had very little fried food. Most of our meals were cooked on top of the stove, meat and vegetables together. Even when we ate fish, it was cooked with the vegetables.
In those days, everyone had a garden. It wasn’t enough to provide all the needs of a family such as ours, but it helped. And it was a form of recreation for my mother. She enjoyed working in the soil.
There were no supermarkets where we could buy canned or frozen vegetables, so in the fall, every family had to make sure they had enough vegetables to last through the long, cold Polish winter.
Each October, we stored large quantities of potatoes, onions, and dried mushrooms in our shed and covered them with straw to make sure they didn’t freeze or rot.
We also bought hundreds of pounds of cabbage that we shredded into a fifty-gallon wooden cabbage barrel. We added salt and other ingredients that turned it into naturally fermented sauerkraut.
As children, we worked for hours shredding the cabbage with a hand-operated shredder with two steel knife blades. Hour after hour, we children took turns using the shredder and filling the fifty-gallon barrel to the brim. It was hard work but we understood that it was necessary to enable us to get through the winter in good health. After our family finished shredding the cabbage, other families in our building borrowed the shredder. Each day after school, my mother sent one of us to the shed to stir the cabbage with a large stick to allow the gasses to escape. During the winter months the fermenting sauerkraut, potatoes, onions and dried mushrooms from that shed were our only source of vegetables.
There were no refrigerators in our home or in the homes of any of our friends. During the very cold winters, men cut huge blocks of ice from the frozen rivers and lakes and stored them in a large icehouse. Wood shavings, used as insulation, kept the blocks of ice frozen until late summer. My father occasionally bought a large block of ice and used it to keep meat, cheese, and other foods cool in our basement.
Our family was very grateful that we always had enough to eat and we shared our blessings with others less fortunate.
Since the Sabbath began on Friday at sundown and work was forbidden until sundown Saturday, people prepared the Sabbath meal on Friday.
On most Friday afternoons, my uncle Leibel gathered the boys together, loaded our arms with chickens and egg breads (chala) and had us deliver them to several families in our neighborhood who were not as well off as we were. We never looked down on those people; they were just neighbors who were having a hard time. I have tried to honor Uncle Leibel’s memory by following his example to this day.
The Altus Family Business
My father was a poultry and fowl dealer who operated a business that had been in our family for several generations.
Each day he went into the countryside around Ciechanow to buy geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys from farmers. He then brought them to his small farm on the outskirts of the city where they were fattened up and prepared for sale. After the birds reached the proper size and weight, he shipped most of them to Germany in special trains designed for carrying live fowl. My father shipped the rest in trucks to the marketplaces of Warsaw and other Polish cities.
Looking back, it is interesting that in spite of all the separation between Jews and Catholics, my father did business successfully with everyone.
His office was in his pocket. There, he carried a small ledger book where he recorded how many geese or other birds he got from each farm. On his next trip he paid the farmer.
This business relationship was based on the mutual respect and trust that developed between the Jewish poultry dealer and the Polish farmers even though they were from distinctly different backgrounds. Despite thousands of transactions over the years, there were never any invoices and never a dispute.
Your word was your bond.
On most days, the farmers invited my father to share the noon meal. They observed his dietary restrictions, and made sure that he didn’t get any pork or other unkosher food.
On our family’s farm, the birds always had a supply of fresh water and grain. It was essential that they have a heavy layer of fat before being taken to market. I can distinctly remember watching the birds stick their heads out of their stalls to eat the grain and drink the water from troughs which ran alongside. It seemed as though their entire existence was spent with their heads sticking out into the feed troughs.
One day, when I was about ten years old and school was out, my father took me along with one of his helpers on a buying trip. One farmer had a large flock of 150 to 200 geese to sell, so my father asked his helper to walk them directly back the eight or nine miles to our small farm.
After the goose herder left with the flock, my father and I went to another farm. Unexpectedly, that farmer also had a large flock to sell. By that time, the goose herder was too far ahead for me to catch up to him with the second flock.
It looked as though my father would have to pass up the purchase until I spoke up.
I saw a chance to do something important and asked permission to walk the geese to our farm alone. By this time it was three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Geese walk slowly, and the distance to our farm was far. My father must have seen how much it meant to me, because he reluctantly agreed. He turned his horse and buggy toward town, and I set off down the road with about 100 geese under my questionable control.
I adored my father and would not fail him under any circumstances. I was proud that he had given me an adult’s job, and I knew the geese were a big financial responsibility. I realized that the behavior of a large flock of geese was very unpredictable and that they might scatter if anything spooked them, so I stayed busy keeping them together as we walked through the forest and villages on the way to our farm.
In the middle of the night, I saw a stranger sitting alone at the edge of the forest. As I approached him, I asked what time it was, keeping a wary eye on him as I moved the geese down the path. I was very relieved that he didn’t bother me or try to steal any of the geese.
As night turned into morning, I approached the pond near our farm and feared once again that I might lose the geese if they decided to scatter and run into the water. As I looked into the distance, I was pleased to see my father with his horse and buggy coming to meet me.
To this day, that long overnight walk through the dark forest remains the most frightening thing I ever did as a child. Although I remember being very scared, there was no way I was going to disappoint my father by losing even one of those geese.
When I arrived home that morning I found that my mother was very upset with my father for allowing me to walk all night alone. We couldn’t know then that my father would not live to guide me to manhood. However, by giving me that responsibility as a young boy, he left me with one of my most treasured memories.
At Christmas time, a turkey dinner was traditional in Polish homes. Chickens were never in demand during the holidays. My father always provided fat turkeys as holiday gifts to the mayor of Ciechanow and to other city officials, including the chief of police. It became my job to deliver those live turkeys and I remember receiving some very large tips from the police chief.
Our family business owned a few trucks with which we shipped live fowl to Warsaw. The first trip I took out of Ciechanow was on a poultry truck that was going to deliver a load of live geese to the Warsaw marketplace.
Even though we were only a relatively short distance from Warsaw, the trip seemed to take hours. When we got to the big city we made the delivery and then immediately headed back to Ciechanow. I was very disappointed that I didn’t have a chance to look around and see the sights. I think I was about ten years old when I took that trip. Although I made other trips to Warsaw before the war, I never did get a chance to just be a tourist.
My Uncle Leibel, my mother’s brother, was a grain broker. Unlike like my father, who dealt primarily with the owners of smaller farms, Uncle Leibel’s business dealings were mainly with the owners of the large estate farms outside the city. Before the harvest season, while the grain was still in the field, he and the estate owners agreed on a price for grain.
Uncle Leibel bought grain contracts on speculation, similar to today’s commodity market. After the harvest, he moved the grain into large storage areas from which it was later sold to other businesses. Uncle Leibel employed several men to keep turning the grain in the storage silos to prevent it from rotting and combusting.
One of his best customers for grain was the owner of Ciechanow’s large brewery. Each Saturday, Uncle Leibel sent me and one of my brothers to the brewery to get a case of beer, which was provided free to him. In those days, beer came in bottles with corks. Occasionally, my brother and I popped a cork out of a bottle and drank some beer on the way home. Uncle Leibel probably knew what we had done, but he never reported us to our parents.
While Uncle Leibel dealt in much larger contracts than my father did, he conducted his business in the same ethical way. They both kept accurate records and worked on their honor.
The price of grain fluctuated then just like it does now. Sometimes he discussed his business dealings with my mother in the evenings. He was a very wealthy man before the Nazis confiscated his business, and to this day no one has made restitution for what was stolen from him and my father.
As a boy, I remember my father telling my brothers and me about the incidents where some priests and other influential men preached hatred towards the Jews. It was designed to cause the Polish population to hate us. Nevertheless, life for a Jewish boy growing up in Ciechanow, Poland, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, was very secure and safe.
My parents provided guidance and love. My brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins gave me a strong sense of the importance of family.
My teachers in public school and Hebrew school demanded excellence and instilled a strong desire for knowledge.
My friends and playmates provided hours of fun and companionship.
It was a sweet, wonderful existence for us all.
Never in any of our wildest imaginations could we have predicted the horror and tragedy that soon awaited us.