Halina describes how the family managed to leave Warsaw and finally settle in Bialystock where Halina went to school.
Read the transcript:
INT: Can we take you back. You went back to Poland, obviously a very dangerous time. What happened after that?
HM: Well we got to Poland and we reoccupied our flat and on the 1st of September, a Friday, bombs practically fell in our backyard and we discovered the war had started because the night before the atmosphere had been electric, war, war, war. My father said, “There will be no war. I’m sure there are talks going on somewhere to stop the nonsense.” Well during the night war was declared. We didn’t know because we didn’t have a radio at the time, our radio had been broken, so we only knew when the bombs fell from a German bomber. It just sowed the bombs in our back garden and of course there was panic.
My father left the house on the 9th of September. People to this day don’t know exactly what happened. What we were aware of was that the main road from Warsaw out east was absolutely full of people walking with bundles and suitcases, some on bicycles, the odd car here and there, the odd horse-driven vehicle, but mostly people were on foot and it was like a river of people moving along. My father was sitting in the garden and my mother said, “What’s this? What are all these people doing?” and he said, “Well I don’t know, the weather is lovely, I’m not going anywhere” but my mother said, “You go. You never know, it might be important”. So she put some underwear and some sandwiches into his briefcase and sent him off. Luckily he was a good walker.
Later we heard what happened on the road. Most of them were young people and a lot of them were Jews, although not all, and the rumour was that the government in Warsaw had decided that there was no point in trying to keep the Germans out of Warsaw, better to go to the east and form a new army in Eastern Poland. That was one theory anyway but we don’t really know why people left.
INT: But I would imagine your parents understood well that Hitler was going to be very dangerous for Jewish people?
HM: Oh, of course they knew. I mean, my Auntie who brought us here, had lived in Germany until 1936 and she came over here en route to Canada but while she was in here in Britain, in Leeds, she met her husband and that was it.
So we knew alright that things were happening but we didn’t know how bad it was. People would be arrested and kept as hostages. If there was any outrage against the German, every tenth person would be shot. In fact every nine out ten people were killed. Anyway, my father, who was already in his fifties then, decided he would go, and about a month later my mother decided that she couldn’t stay. The Germans had already stepped into the town and occupied it. After battles and bombing and all kinds of things happening, (we had watched Warsaw being bombed for two weeks) and, because we were just outside of Warsaw, my mother felt the weight of the German occupation. The janitor of our flat suddenly stopped calling her ‘Mrs Leviner’ and just called her ‘Leviner’ which was very disrespectful.
Also she was in a queue for bread and there were people saying to the Germans who were watching the queue, “This is a Jew, take him out of here.” She had rations for bread, coal and so on, but everywhere the local Poles were worse than the Germans. I’m not saying they were all like that but there were enough of them to cause trouble because they were anti-Semitic as well you know. So my mother decided to leave and she managed to organise an escape for the two of us. We travelled with a young man who had been in a small place near Warsaw called Otwock. It was a holiday resort but people went there to, to be treated for TB. It was supposed to be a wonderful place to get treatment for TB. The air was pure and the weather was usually very even. The young man was 25 and he was going home to Vilna with his nurse so my mother joined them and we travelled in a droshky. I don’t know whether you know what a droshky is?
INT: Is that not a horse and cart?
HM: It was a horse and carriage but it was very comfortable. You know it was like this settee and there were seats facing this way and seats facing that way and of course the young man with his nurse sat there and my mother and I sat facing backwards but there was enough room to take sufficient luggage. It was a rather uneventful journey but on the way we saw the carcasses of dead horses and broken cars and broken bicycles, all that was left from the original exodus. These people had been shot at by low flying German planes and they had to hide in the surrounding woods and after a while they didn’t walk by day, only by night; by day they hid in the woods. My father had a hole in his briefcase from shrapnel or something and he would have been killed him if it hadn’t been for his briefcase.
Lots of people had died on the way but I suppose they must have been buried by the surrounding peasants because we didn’t see any dead bodies but we saw dead horses and broken down cars which had run out of petrol. We stayed in peasant huts overnight and at one point we were chased by a German patrol and luckily we made our driver stop (he was a bit deaf) and the Germans came over to us. They started pulling us out of the carriage and the nurse, who knew German and said, “Ein kranker – don’t touch him because he’s ill.” but they were still pulling us and my mother decided to pretend that they wanted her gloves so she let them pull her gloves off but another older German came and he said, “Lass ihn, leave them alone, let them go.”
INT: And did you know what had happened to your father by then?
HM: We heard rumours. It’s amazing; he would send a message. There was no post or telephone but someone would be coming back and would let someone else know that Leviner was seen in Brest or in Rovno or any of these towns so my mother thought she’d find him alright. We went for Bialystok, my mother and I. My father had friends everywhere because before the war he was an agent for a publishing firm and he used to place book orders especially among the intelligentsia and among the institutions like libraries or schools so he had lots of friends there. In Bialystok we found somewhere we could at least have a corner, because the place was overrun with refugees.
The flat we were in was a manufacturer’s and he had a big flat by Bialystok standards: four rooms, each with its own bathroom and in these four rooms there were never less than 16 people.
INT: That’s a lot of people.
HM: The family was just himself, his wife and a little boy and luckily my father knew him and that’s why we could get in there but my father couldn’t. There was just room for me and my mother. My father found somewhere else where he slept on a table. He would spread his bedding on the table and in the morning he would roll it up and put it under the table
INT: And you met him there then?
HM: Yes we met him within a few days of arriving. I can’t remember, maybe the following day and it was quite easy because people passed on the news his wife was there and we eventually moved out, just outside of Bialystok, my mother and I, because my mother was hoping to do some sewing. This move was wonderful for me. It was a very severe winter and ice covered the ground and there was snow and everything but I got to go to school. I was always keen to go to school. Now there was a choice of different language schools because the Russians had just stepped in and they were the idealistic Communists and they were going to encourage the expression of ethnic cultures so they allowed various schools and in fact encouraged various schools to flourish; there was a school where the language of instruction was Yiddish and one in which Polish was the main language.
Then there was a Belarus and a Russian school so I had a choice of four, and I said to my mother, “I want to go to the Yiddish school.” I had never been to Yiddish school. It was a most wonderful school with very devoted teachers and I learnt to speak Yiddish, learnt to read Yiddish and write Yiddish and learned some science taught in Yiddish as well.
INT: That would be very handy in Woodfarm Secondary!
HM: Well there was a lesson I could pass on. It was about convection. The teacher took a candle and held it high up in the open door and the flame pointed out and he held it down below the bottom of the door and the flame pointed in. You see cold air comes in and warm air comes up and goes out of the door – convection