Refugeehood: From Warsaw to Shanghai

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In 1937 we could feel political unrest coming from the West. There was no talk about war yet, but about how Hitler was treating Jews. Many of them were thrown out of Germany across the border into Poland, where they lay in the cold and snow without food. The Warsaw Jews started to organize help, but this was not enough. Many nights your father spent not sleeping. He was very clever, he knew something was going to happen. Many times he told me that we should emigrate to Australia. But I don’t think he really meant it. The business was too good. We had good times, going out often, entertaining often, going away on holidays, and we had a marvelous little boy. You were so beautiful, golden locks and beautiful blue eyes. You had plenty of beautiful clothes to wear, a full wardrobe, my mother used to make them for you. Among many others you had a little black velvet suit with a white lace collar. Your other grandmother once said when she saw you in that suit that you look like a little prince.

Your father’s parents seldom visited us. The time came when they could not afford to keep that big house of theirs, there were about 10 rooms, so they liquidated it and retired to their villa in the country, where they had two houses, one for themselves and the other, much bigger with a few flats which they let in the summer seasons. They had five children of their own and five grandchildren at that time, and they did not show any particular feelings for anybody in particular. I suppose they loved them in their fashion, but I could not say if their children or grandchildren loved them. I just don’t know.

Time went on, we spent three months on holidays in a summer resort with you each year of the first three years of your life, dear, up to the first day of September 1939.
All summer people discussed the possibility of war coming. Some said there would be no war, others said there certainly would. The discussions never stopped until the first of September. Your father believed there would be a war. At the beginning of that year he went to England for a short time and put some money in an English bank. He also bought a very big diamond (7 carat) as a location of the capital. And we decided to stay in the countryside not just till September as usual, but as long as the war would last, if it came. Your father bought provisions which could last us for a year in the country, and the same in case we had to go back to the city, and coal, you had to have coal to keep warm in winter, and to cook on in the kitchen, all stoves used coal in those days.
In August of that year he bought a new car, and paid cash for it. New, straight from the factory. By the end of August the car was confiscated by the Polish government, as most private vehicles were, they already knew that war was coming. We stayed in the country, your father was in the city, then on the first of September the news came that the German army had crossed the border, without declaring war, and had started bombing. Bombing not the cities yet, but the country, they dropped bombs on women and children and cattle, they dropped poison lollies that killed children.

The decision was made quickly. We had to return to the city. From hour to hour they were nearer us. Your father came with a client’s van, we packed what we could take, it was only a small van, we left all the provisions, he took you and the girl who took care of you, and all the clothing. There was no room for me, I took the next bus. It was the 5th of September. They had started bombing Warsaw.
My mother was at our place when I arrived. We were all in despair. The radio kept broadcasting a message that all men of military age should leave Warsaw. Every ten minutes, the same message. You could not buy food in the shops, everything had disappeared.
Your father said he would not leave alone, that we must go with him. No car… no petrol…
He went out and bought an old car, with petrol.
Just to leave Warsaw for a couple of weeks. Don’t take anything with you. The war would be over in two weeks. We believed it. Poland was supposed to be very strong then, and with the help of France and England it would not take longer than two weeks!
Well, we decided not to take anything. I took only a change of underwear, I had a suit on, a change of suits and underwear for you dear and for your father. The girl who took care of you said she would come with us, my mother decided to stay in our place to take care of everything for these couple of weeks. Couple of weeks… if we only knew. Never in my whole life will I forget my mother standing in the doorway crying, not saying a word. I think the only one who knew was my mother, she knew she would never see us again, but she did not say that. She just stood there and the tears were running down her cheeks.

Just after we started in the car, we were just around the corner, the bombing started. We left the car and took shelter in a large department store. Everybody was scared. All was very still except for the bombs, and all of a sudden you started to sing, and everybody started to laugh.
After the “all clear” we started our wandering, we took the same route as the fleeing Polish government, everybody who had a vehicle took the same route, most of the people had to stop, took shelter somewhere, and after the fall of Warsaw went back, went back to die. But some went on further, and we among them.
You just can’t imagine what was going on the roads, how many cars, the panics when the bombing started, looking for places to sleep, for places to eat, and for petrol. When there was no petrol we got methylated spirits, and as it was a strong Packard and it also went on spirit.

Of course you could not understand what was happening, you were taken from a sheltered life to running from bombs. I remember us sitting in some restaurant in one of the small cities we passed through. You started crying that you want to go home. I suppose at the start it was just an adventure for you, but after some time you had enough of that and you wanted to go home. It took me some time to quiten you, but after that you were very brave.

When we were well south news came that we had to change our route, we could not pass through Rumania, the border was closed, we had to go east. We went east, and when we got to the border of Russia the Russians crossed the border into Poland and invaded part of Poland. At first they said they had come to help us but very soon we realized what help that meant. Everything disappeared from the shops, I had to wait in queues for everything, a bit of milk, butter, bread, sometimes standing in line for hours and when it came to my turn everything was sold out.

We decided to go to a bigger city. We had to hide the car, otherwise it would be taken from us, and one night we left the city where we were and arrived in Lemberg.
In Lemberg your father found a little two-room flat, furnished. We had bought a bed for you on the way, a little cot with a little mattress, and we traveled all the time with it strapped to the back or roof of the car. This way we were sure that wherever we went you would have a clean bed.
Lemberg was taken by the Russians. It is an old, beautiful Polish city, but I had little time to look around. I took you to the park for a walk every day, and then went shopping, it meant standing in queues for hours. The girl who had been taking care of you before was given the cooking and cleaning to do.
We stayed in Lemberg for about two months. During that time many people who passed through Lemberg visited us. Many unexpectedly. One day my brother came. He had left Warsaw on foot, and was going back to his wife and our mother. He did not stay with us, but he ate with us, did his washing and all he needed in our place. I don’t know where he slept, probably in some café with some other refugees, probably slept on the floor.
At that time your father found out that your Uncle Leon, who was an officer in the Polish army, had been taken prisoner by the Russians and was being kept not far from where we were. Your father went there and brought him back. He stayed with us.
Word was going around at this time that the Russians intended to leave Vilna and include it in Lithuania with North Poland up to the Baltic Sea, while we were in Lemberg which was South Poland. When your father heard about this he said he was not going to stay in Lemberg, he hated the Communists and their regime. He stated preparing the car for the long trip to Vilna. It had to be done in secret, otherwise we would be arrested, the car would be taken from us, and probably we would be sent to Russia, like the many thousands of people who were being taken from their beds each night and sent to Siberia. Your Uncle Leon decided to stay in Lemberg and then go back to Warsaw to his wife and son a bit later.

One night when everything was ready we went down to the car and wanted to leave, but the car would not start. Hours and hours your father worked on it but it did not help, we had to go back to the flat. You would think that your father would give up. I did, but not he. I must say, he was a fighter, and he knew what he was doing. He was so clever that he sold the car to a Russian officer. Then he decided that he would first go to Vilna alone and see if it was possible to cross the border illegally. You could not do it legally, they would not give you papers. So one day he left by train.

About two weeks later he sent two men to bring us to Vilna. It seems that he had crossed the border once and been arrested, had stayed in prison for two days, but then was set free and had crossed the border again in a different place, and it was all right for us to come. It was already December, very cold, not so cold in the south of Poland where we were but very cold in the north.
We started our journey by train, we traveled a whole night, you and I, the girl, and the two strangers. We arrived at a small city near the border, spent a night there, and the next day we started on a sleigh towards Vilna. Your father was waiting on the other side of the border, but not far away from the border Russian sentries caught us, with their guns on us, they took us to some of their offices, to higher officials. They started questioning us and then decided to imprison us.

The prison was a barn on an occupied Polish farm. Cold, snow, hunger, nothing to eat, nothing to drink, searches every night. Even you were taken to be searched every night about 2 a.m., even though you were sick, you had a very high temperature. I had a small suitcase with me, where I had some condensed milk and some chocolate. That was all we had to eat during those 7 days. The barn was small, and there were about 300 people there. There were only two children, and both of you were allowed to sleep on the table, the rest of us slept on the floor. Dirt, lice, hunger…
When I wanted to go to the lavatory, which was outside, I had to walk on top of other people, there was no room to put your feet. During the searches I was scared, I had the large diamond covered as a button on my sweater, I had plenty of $20 gold coins sewn into my girdle, and some English sovereigns, I had my gold bracelet, your father’s gold cigarette-case, a very expensive gold watch with a gold chain, and lots more $20 gold pieces in your fur coat and in your quilt. But I was lucky, they did not find anything, and after seven days they took us back to the town we had started out from and allowed us to stay in a hotel.

In this hotel I met a friend of your father’s. He had also come from Lemberg to see if it was possible to cross, and was trying to make contacts with some people who would take him, and his wife and son who would be coming soon, across the border. Thanks to him I found some new men who would take us across the border, for a very big amount of money. They decided to wait till New Year’s Eve, when the Russian soldiers would be drunk.
We stayed one month in that hotel, the three of us in a tiny little room. Your father’s friend was next door, and I must say he was very helpful. Then came New Year’s Eve. We prepared for the journey, of course in secret. We left the town on foot. I remember you in your high boots, fur cap covering your hair and ears, and fur coat, the girl and I also very warmly dressed. The snow was about a foot deep. I will never forget how bravely you walked between us, your little hands in ours.

At the end of the town where the fields began, a sleigh was waiting for us. It got dark very early. We started out. We could go on the sleigh only to a certain point, and from there we had to cross the border on foot. You were carried on the shoulders of one of the men, because the snow was too deep for you to walk. There was a full moon. At a certain point you started to cry, dogs started to bark, and we had to hide, because they started to look for us.
But after some time we got clear, and crossed the Russian border, then there was no-man’s-land, and then a Lithuanian border, they had lots of dogs barking there, and we had to hide again, until they went a bit further, and then we crossed.
We came to some farmer’s house and slept the night on the floor, but a clean floor, and the next morning your father came by taxi and took us to Vilna, to the room which he had been renting in some family’s house. It was a small room, which he had there while he was living alone, but when we arrived he found two beautiful rooms with a bathroom and kitchen in a 5-room flat that was occupied only by one Polish colonel whose wife and son had left for Warsaw. Your father was so happy to have us with him, you just can’t imagine. He loved us more than ever.

After all that terrible traveling, life started to seem better, quieter, easier. The shops were full of everything, you could buy anything you wanted, no queues, no Communists. Quite. But for how long? That was the question.
The news from Warsaw was terrible. My mother wrote from time to time, but she could not write everything she wanted to, and the biggest imagination could not tell us what was going on there, or what was under that black ink, which the German censors put over her words.
The Germans were moving nearer, eastwards, and the Russians had to move further west, so one day they took Vilna again. This was just six months after we arrived. Immediately everything disappeared from the shops and the queues started again. The Russians ordered us to leave the place where we were living, it was too good for us, they gave us a tiny little room, without a bathroom, about five miles out of the city, for the three of us – the girl left us, and we had one who came over for a few hours.

Your father wanted to run again. He was looking around, trying to find out how and where to go. And fortunately enough a Japanese consul started giving out transit visas to people who had visas to some other countries. Two thousand people received Japanese transit visas, but nobody had destination visas. All the destination visas were forged. Everyone hoped that by the time we reached Japan friendly consulates would help and give us visas.
The next problem was how to get exit visas from Vilna. The Russians didn’t like giving exit visas. But after some time they decided to give some people exit visas if they paid in dollars for travel through Russia. The Russians needed dollars.
The same day they announced that refugees could apply for exit visas, your father was the first on the list. But that was a mistake. He should not have been in such a hurry. They did not like it. And they did not give the first visas to the first to apply. On the contrary. All the people who were first to apply were nearly the last to receive those visas.
How much your father suffered, and I with him, during that time, you just can’t imagine. They issued these visas on certain nights, starting about 11 p.m. letting the people wait for hours, and then they started to call names at random. Your father went there all the time for months, and never succeeded to get the visa. One night he came home at 3 a.m. and said he was sick of it, he would not go any more.
The next time I went. And at about 2 a.m. our names were called, and I brought the visas home. New energy came into your father. He could not go to sleep, he started preparing everything for the trip. He took rooms in the best hotel in Vilna immediately, and started booking tickets, a hotel room in Moscow, everything. After a couple of weeks we were ready to leave.
We left by train with a few hundred refugees. We had to be on that train about two weeks. We had provisions for nearly all that time, we could not count much on getting food on a Russian train. There were soldiers and GPU (secret police) on the train and we were watched all the time. All the time we were not sure if we would reach Japan. They could send us to Siberia, as they sent so many thousands of people form other places. We were scared stiff.

We started from Vilna, then Minsk, then Moscow. We stayed in Moscow for three days, in a big hotel. We were shown only the nicest places in the city, but sometimes we were able to see the slums too, though we were watched all the time. But your father knew Moscow, because he had been there as a boy at school when his family lived there during the First World War, and he spoke beautiful Russian. We were shown even the night life in Moscow, but it was pathetic compared to what we knew.
After leaving Moscow we took the train across Siberia. Ten days across Siberia. The cold was intense. I remember in one city we got off the train for a bit to stretch our legs, it was about 40 degrees Celsius below zero. We could hardly breathe. But you enjoyed it, dear. You were playing with other children in the train, and it was a change and an experience for you.
At last we came to the last city in Russia, Vladivostok, from where we were to take a boat to Japan. When we left the train there were plenty of soldiers around us and they took us to customs. I was lucky, they just asked me if I had anything on me, they meant jewelry. Actually I had nearly everything we possessed on me, and some of that was in your fur coat pockets. Your father had nothing on him. That too showed how clever he was, or perhaps it was just intuition. Out of all the hundreds of people on the train, he was the only one who was thoroughly searched. He was ordered to undress, to take off everything until he was standing there naked, and they searched all his clothes. Of course they did not find anything. If they had searched me we would have lost all the jewelry I had on me, but they just asked me that question. At the very moment when they asked me, my golden bracelet, which was pretty loose, moved down my arm and showed on my wrist, but I covered it quickly.
After long humiliations, fears and suffering we were allowed to board the Japanese boat. We were put into the bottom deck, all the hundreds of us, and we slept on the floor, on mats. The Japanese crew were very cheeky to us, especially to the women. But after a few days we arrived at the Japanese port. How beautiful it was, it is beyond me to describe it. The sea, the mountains, the women in colorful national dresses, sun, warmth.
Some Jewish representatives met us there, and we were transferred to Kobe. Your father found a beautiful Japanese house, which we shared with another family.
He started looking for possible destination visas − American, English, Australian −  but unfortunately all the consulates were closed. After a few months the Japanese authorities would not let us stay any longer, and we had to go to Shanghai, where anyone could come without a visa. The stay in Kobe was nice and pleasant, we were free people again, and though food was scarce I managed to get everything we needed. I don’t remember how I spoke to them, I didn’t know English then. Next section →


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