The following is adapted from Undying Will by Harvy Berman
Kaluszyn, 1940–1942 — Joseph Berman
Rumors began to circulate that the Germans were starting to build a ghetto in Warsaw. One day, I believe it was in December or January 1940, our brother Moshe arrived in Warsaw with three horse-drawn wagons, which would be used to get the raw material we still had in the warehouses. He had with him a permit from the German governor in our area. The Germans were confiscating all sheepskins in the hands of wholesalers.
My sister and I decided to leave Warsaw and return home with Moshe and the wagons. We would ride on top of the raw material. Conditions in Warsaw were already very bad, since the gestapo were picking up people at random, and they just disappeared.
Every morning, the SS came to houses and picked up the men and took them off to do all kinds of work, without giving them food. Then they would order them to return the next day or be shot.
At home, in Kaluszyn, they put our entire family to work at our factory. This was actually a privilege in those days, since we were safe from being picked up by the gestapo or other German units, which were always looking for Jews to do all the dirty work for them.
Ninety-five percent of our city had been destroyed since the beginning of the war, due to the counterattack by the Polish army around Kaluszyn. This resulted in about 800 to 900 German soldiers being killed in house-to-house fighting. In retaliation, the German command ordered the destruction of Kaluszyn by the air force and artillery. In addition, about 2,000 civilians were killed and the city was burned to the ground.
Luckily, no one from our family was killed or injured, since most of them hid in the factory which was constructed of brick. But after the bombardment was over, all of the family homes were burned down by the fire bombs, except our old home and that of Mendel. All of their belongings were destroyed as well.
The two surviving homes had been saved by family members during the bombardment. This was made possible since there was a creek running near those two homes and there was enough water to save them from burning. Everyone had to move to the old house with Frank and Fay, who had been married for six months.
Meanwhile, with all this going on at home, I was on the front line, about one hundred kilometers from Kaluszyn, fighting the German army along with my regiment. I later learned that during the bombardment and explosions, Uncle Frank and Chaim and other family members had saved our house from the fire.
As the war in Poland came to an end, and the Germans gained complete control of the country, news that the Soviet army was coming from the east caused many men and women to attempt escape to the Soviet-controlled area of Eastern Poland.
The older people began settling in neighboring towns and villages. By the winter of 1939 to 1940, the Jewish population of Kaluszyn had decreased by 50 percent from what it had been before the war.
NOTE: Some may wonder, why didn’t the Jews just leave Europe and save themselves? The answer: they could not. Virtually the entire world turned its back on Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. Even the great democracies of the United States and United Kingdom refused Jewish refugees, even when it became apparent that the Nazis were intent on their extermination.
As the Nazi threat rose in the late 1930s, thirty-two European countries met in Évian, France to discuss the Jewish situation. It became clear there would be few, if any, safe havens for the Jews.
By the end of 1940, the German governor had ordered that a ghetto be created in Kaluszyn. Posters on all roads leading out of the city warned that any Jew found outside the ghetto would be shot.
So, we became shut out from the rest of the world, with no telephones or radios, which were outlawed soon after the German occupation. The only news we heard was from the German-controlled press.
The Germans would gather Jews from Kaluszyn and force them to perform all kinds of work without pay. At night, after curfew, the Germans with the help of Polish hoodlums, would come to Jewish homes and search for valuables, taking whatever they wished. You could not complain to anyone. They were our masters during this time.
Meanwhile, as our factory started to operate again with only a few members of our family, we were saved from performing other, less desirable work such as building roads and other dirty jobs. Often, they would beat Jews doing that and other dirty work, till they bled. Eventually, all family members were performing some type of work in the factory. Living conditions were just terrible.
Two or three families were living in one or two rooms, and sanitary conditions were unbearable. All types of contagious diseases began to affect nearly every home. The worst plague was the deadly typhoid, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.
With all this going on, our people were hopeful that when the spring of 1940 arrived, and France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, that we would be liberated.
Our factory was busy, and the Germans kept bringing in more raw material. In town, the German generals ordered the Polish mayor to form a Jewish committee, which would be responsible for delivering Jewish men to work when needed.
In addition, they would supply all the offices the Germans required in and around Kaluszyn. Spring of 1940 arrived and hopes that the Germans would be defeated by the French and British disappeared. It took the German army only five weeks to occupy all of France.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet-occupied portion of Poland, living conditions became very bad. With the influx of a few million refugees from the German-held territory, the Russians and Germans agreed to allow those refugees back from where they came.
After the ghetto was created, food and other necessities became scarce. In spite of the threat of being shot, people took risks and left the town for the farms in order to buy some food for their families. In most cases, they would leave the ghetto at night and return the next evening, after dark.
Even during those hard times, people had hope that some miracle might happen soon.
To learn more about the Berman family’s story of survival, you can find Undying Will on Amazon.
HARVY BERMAN worked alongside his family for more than twenty years. Inside the factory’s large conference room, meal time often became story time, and Harvy got to hear firsthand accounts of the stories shared in this book from his uncles and his father. Harvy’s quest to share his family’s journey began in earnest when he learned of his father’s first wife, who’d been killed during the Holocaust. Harvy started piecing together his family’s history from before, during, and after that horrific event, and is proud to share it for the first time in Undying Will.