On September 1, 1939, World War II broke out. The German army, with an estimated 1.7 million troops, mechanized and motorized, with an abundance of tanks and enjoying aerial superiority - invaded Poland. Advancing with swift ease, the Germans overwhelmed the Polish army, which was inferior in numbers and equipment. Against the nine armored divisions flung into the offensive by the Germans, the Poles could deploy no more than a dozen brigades of cavalry and a handful of light tanks.
The German forces were massed, whereas the Poles, aligned all along the border, were as a consequence under strength in any sector. The Polish army pursued the combat doctrines of World War I, while the Germans waged a Blitzkrieg - a lightning campaign relying principally on surprise, speed and intimidation of the civilian population. The Germans achieved surprise by launching their initial strike without declaring war. They were abetted by a Fifth Column, two million ethnic German 'Volksdeutsche', residing in Poland.
The front line collapsed overnight, and the German army advanced swiftly in a pincer movement. On September 12, Lemberg fell. On the 17th of the month, the German pincers closed near Brisk. After eighteen days, Poland had been routed. Of the people of Pruzany, many fled eastwards. But the east produced its own menace. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union, having concluded a non-aggression pact with Germany on August 23, invaded eastern Poland - in part due to the Kremlin's concern over the deployment of German forces along its western borders. The Red Army met up with German troops at Brest-Litovsk on September 19. That same day, a Soviet advance unit reached our town.
The victors promptly set about sharing Poland between them. The German and Soviet foreign ministers, VON RIBBENTROP and MOLOTOV, convened on September 28 to amend the prewar Moscow accord. The Russians annexed 197,000 square kilometers of Polish territory, comprising most of the country's oil reserves and a population of thirteen million. 187 million square kilometers, 22 million inhabitants and most of the industrial regions came under the “protection” of Nazi Germany. Germany promptly annexed Danzig (Gdansk), along with the land lying between East Prussia and Silesia, comprising about 40% of the Polish territory in German hands. The western portions were divided into two provinces ("Gauen" in German), Danzig-West Prussia (under Gauleiter Albert Poster) and Wartha (under Gauleiter Arthur Greizer). The remaining territory, named the Generalgouvernement of Poland, was governed by a German civilian administration. On November 8, 1939, HANS FRANK was appointed governor-general, setting up his headquarters in Krakow. The Generalgouvernement was divided into four provinces each under its own governor - Krakow, Lublin, Radom, Warsaw.
Immediately after seizing control of western Poland, the Germans began enforcing their race policy by mass deportations of Jews and Poles from the territories they had annexed. By the end of 1939, the Germans had executed 18,000 Poles for a variety of "offenses". Thousands more were sent to Germany for forced labor. Others were resettled in the Generalgouvernement. The Poles were granted a modicum of autonomy. However, under strict German supervision the Jews came in for "special treatment". Ordinary folk like us of course knew nothing of all this at the time. All we knew was that, shortly after entering our area, the German units were withdrawn only to be replaced by Russians. In our home at least, tension was defused. We were in no fear of the Russians. My parents were familiar with them, having lived within their cultural domain prior to World War I. My mother had attended a Russian school in Czarist Russia. My parents were abreast of developments in Russia and, after the Soviet takeover of our town, they came to terms with the new regime.
Admittedly, that regime did change the pattern of life in Pruzany. On January 1, 1940, all business, trade and crafts were nationalized. But at the same time, the Russians established new institutions - administrative, economic, educational and social - as well as state-controlled cooperatives of tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers, barbers, etc. There was a job for anyone willing to work, irrespective of race or class, and most of the townsfolk found employment with these new bodies. Unlike the practice under Polish rule, Jews now enjoyed free access to any government post. Many of them regarded this as compensation for their nationalized businesses and as salvation from the Germans.
The educational system was overhauled. All schools, Jewish and Polish alike were closed down and merged, reopening under the Soviet system with ten years of elementary school followed by secondary schooling. Separate schools were instituted in each of four languages: Russian. Polish, Byelorussian and Yiddish. Being free to choose, Jews attended the school whose language of instruction was Yiddish - though it was a different Yiddish, employing the, to us, unfamiliar Soviet spelling. All the Hebrew terms employed in Yiddish were written like the non-Hebrew words, with vowel letters to stress their pronunciation. For example, the Hebrew "Shabat" was written as "Shabess". The school my brother and I had attended hitherto was converted to other purposes, and we switched to what had formerly been the Polish school. Of our teachers, those who knew Hebrew alone were obliged give up their vocation. Those with a mastery of Yiddish continued to teach.
A high school for adults was established, with lessons held in the afternoons and evenings. The number of students. particularly in the senior grades, soon doubled. Schooling was free. The town's two orphanages - that of the Jews, administered by the community with support from the United States, and the Christian institution run by the local authorities - were merged and maintained at state expense.
Health services were established, with one-and-all entitled to medical care, visits to the dispensary, house calls by a doctor or hospitalization - all for free. The health service employed all the local physicians, and those who had come from elsewhere. The number of beds at the local hospital was tripled. A hospital for venereal diseases was founded as well as a maternity hospital. Medicines were on sale at low prices. A library was established with books in each of the four local languages.
Owning no property, my father was not inconvenienced by the Communist takeover. The sole change was in his work: giving up his post with the local administration, he was now employed as an accountant at a government office. My mother remained a housewife. My grandmother, however, forfeited the small grocery she had run from her home, which was adjacent to ours.
But not everyone did well under the Soviet regime. The Russians exiled a number of personages who had achieved prominence under Polish rule, particularly members of the Bund. It was an irony of fate because, as Socialists, they had anticipated favored treatment from the Soviet authorities. At the time, we knew nothing of what was going on in the German-occupied areas. Living in the Soviet controlled region, our situation was relatively good. Regrettably, that did not last long.