IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWASTIKA
The twenty-one months of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland saw the conflict unfold into a world war. On November 30, 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland, consequently being expelled from the League of Nations on December 14. On May 10, 1940, German forces invaded the Lowlands - Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Four days later, the Dutch army surrendered, Belgium capitulated on May 28. In the meanwhile, German forces had invaded France. On June 9, the Norwegian army surrendered. On June 14, Paris fell to the Germans, and on the 22nd of the month France accepted Hitler's armistice terms. On June 15, 1940, the Red Army occupied the Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The Atlantic Ocean witnessed fierce clashes between the fleets of Germany and Britain, after the latter country had responded to the invasion of Poland by declaring war on Germany on September 3, 1939. On August 5, 1940. Hitler's Italian allies invaded British Somalia in Africa. On September 13, the Italian army began to advance towards the Egyptian border. German forces entered Romania on October 7; on the 28th of that month, Italy invaded Greece. On February 12, 1941, German forces under Fieldmarshal ROMMEL reached Libya, to join the Italians in their campaign against the British. On March I, Bulgaria adhered to the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan. Yugoslavia followed suit on the 24th of that month, but the formation of a new anti-Axis government two days later brought a volte-face.
Geographically and mentally, we in Pruzany were remote from all these events. Those townsfolk who followed the press and radio news had an inkling of what was going on at the battlefronts. Others endeavored to come to terms with the situation created under Soviet rule. But then the war again loomed on our very doorsteps. It happened with great suddenness - literally overnight.
During the night between June 21 and 22, the Russians held a practice alert in Pruzany, with schoolchildren taking part alongside the grown-ups. It was a mild spring night, and many of the youngsters enjoyed the nocturnal drill, as though it were a night game-in the youth movement. While we were dispersed in the fields outside the town, planes appeared overhead to launch a bombing raid. "It's part of the alert," we were reassured by the Soviet soldiers who supervised the exercise, "They want to make it appear realistic." We returned home in the early morning to hear from thc radio that war had broken out between Germany and the Soviet Union. It was later claimed that German spies in the region had instigated the exercise alert as a smoke screen for the invasion.
On June 24, 1941, while we were still stunned by the news, German tanks reached Pruzany, which lay less than 20 miles from the border. The Russians in the area fled for their lives, heading for Soviet territory. Some of the Jews joined them in their eastward stampede. Along with thousands of Jews from the Baltic countries, youngsters from our region enlisted in the Red Army. But of the Jews living in the Baltic states, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Bessarabia and the Crimean peninsula, the majority fell into the hands of the Germans, who advanced too swiftly to allow for an orderly evacuation.
On March 27, Hitler issued a directive to "crush Yugoslavia". On April 6, the Germans launched an offensive against Yugoslavia and Greece. Yugoslavia capitulated on April 17; on the 27th of the month, the Germans entered Athens, which had surrendered three days previously. On May 18, the Germans invaded the Greek island of Crete. On June 18, Germany and Turkey concluded a treaty of friendship
When the German units entered Pruzany, the Christians poured into the streets to welcome them, but the Jews withdrew into their homes. We had heard rumors about the persecutions that was the lot of Jews in the German-occupied parts of Poland. Even before the war, numerous Jews from Reich territory had been deported into Poland. When the Germans reached Pruzany, we preferred to keep out of their way. As the days passed without the German troops doing us any harm, life began to revert to normal.
Admittedly, there were sporadic executions of persons the Germans accused of "obstructing" them, and an occasional act of looting by some German soldier. But it was evident to anyone with eyes in his head that, for the army eastward bound to the battlefront, Pruzany's civilian population was not the prime concern. The soldiers were preoccupied with their own deployment. But two weeks later the S.S. and the Gestapo, the German security police, reached Pruzany to enforce the new regime. Much of what I did not know at the time came to my notice after the war. I learned of the administrative division instituted by the Germans when the Israeli police war crimes investigation unit supplied me with the verdict from the trial of S.S. men who had served in our town. I found a more detailed account in "The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945", by American Jewish scholar LUCY S. DAWIDOWICZ (Bantam Books, 1986).
The Polish province of Lomza, and the portion of Grodno bounded by East Prussia to the north and the Generalgouvernement to the south, an area the Germans dubbed Generalkommissariat Bialystok for the city of that name, were partially integrated into the Reich, being attached to East Prussia. Northeast Poland was included in Reichskommissariat Ostland, along with the Baltic states and Byelorussia. Wohlin province, the eastern portion of central Poland, became part of Reichskommissariat Ukraina. Galicia in southeast Poland became the fifth section of the Generalgouvernement (Lvov).
Under this division, our lot was initially better than that of the regions administratively attached to Poland. In townships such as Slonim, the Germans set the local peasants against the Jews, instigating pogroms in which property was plundered and homes razed. The story was related, with wide-eyed terror, by refugees from that area. Our treatment from the Germans was milder, but not for long.
The advancing German army was followed by the Einsatzgruppen, units which specialized in "handling" Jews. Their arrival was attended by anti-Jewish decrees; Jewish homes were attacked, Jews were subjected to robbery and abuse. Abetted by anti-Semitic elements and collaborators from among the local population, the Germans herded the Jews together massacring them by the thousands. Initially, they would burn the corpses in great pits; later, they developed more efficient techniques. The Einsatzgruppen were backed up by the German civilian administration, which established ghettoes in the larger Jewish towns (Vilna, Kovno, Shabli, Riga, Pinsk, Minsk, Mohilev, Zhitomir and Berdichev).
One of the first anti-Jewish decrees required Jews to wear the "yellow badge". Later, they were directed to surrender money and valuables. Everywhere, the Jewish population was decimated by the Nazi angel of death. In some places, extermination was too swift for any need of ghettoes. In September 1941, for example, in a gulch near Baby Yar, over 33,000 Jews were shot in the course of two days. In late October 1941, German statistics for the Baltic region and Byelorussia recorded the extermination of a quarter of a million Jews, many succumbing to starvation and disease. Before their annihilation, the Germans exploited the Jewish communities as a labor force and a source of money and valuables.
At the time, we knew nothing of the wholesale massacres or the systematic extermination known as the "final solution", but the rumors reaching us from every quarter filled our hearts with dread. Fear was soon overtaken by reality. Our lives were transformed overnight; having grown up in a township where uniforms were rarely to be seen, and where violence was almost nonexistent, we suddenly found ourselves awash in a veritable sea of uniforms and a maelstrom of violence.