Synagogue. Back then, I hated synagogue. I hated the seemingly endless train ride from the nearest city big enough to have a train, which happened to be Chrzanow. But that all changed on October 21, 1939, shortly before my 8th birthday.
I remember how proud I was of my synagogue clothes: crisp khaki pants that seemed to swim on my scrawny legs, paired with my clean, white flannel shirt. It was the last day I would wear that outfit. The last carefree day I would remember.
It was getting late and my whole family was yelling for me to hurry up, but I hated synagogue, so I dawdled.
“Kurt...pospiesz się!” My mom yelled. Hurry up!
I ran downstairs to where Karl--my twin--and my older sister Miriam were already ready and waiting. Hopping into the car for the train station, we drove the few miles to Chrzanow where we met up with my best friend, Raphael, and his family. I didn’t know it then, but this would be last time we would ever see them. My mother handed a coin to the man standing in front of the train and my family found its way to the wooden seats covered with worn gray cloth, across from Raphael and his family.
Looking back, I wish we had spoken, or joked around as we sometimes did. But on this afternoon, most of the ride was spent in silence, admiring the progressing scenery outside the cloudy, grimy windows. The world held a vibrancy it would soon lose: emerald green fields that melted into coyote-colored farms and amber-dotted suburbs. Soon we would reach what remained of the bustling city, crowded with shops trying to make a profit despite the invasion. I imagined my mother as part of that crowd: my 8th birthday was approaching and she never failed to bring me a present as big as I was tall. With images of my birthday swirling in my head, the chronic hum of the engine lulled me to sleep.
That evening, after services and another train ride home, there was a thundering pounding at the door. My mom’s laughter vanished and I saw panic flash across her face. She motioned for my father to leave the room. As quickly as the fear came, it was gone, but concealed behind the deep blue of her eyes, I saw it. Her face was serious; her body stiff. My father pulled Karl and I close, hidden safely behind him and out of view.
In our doorway stood a man in military uniform: A black suit dotted with shiny silver buckles. On his arm was a red band with a large white circle in the center, within which lived what looked like a black spider. I can’t recall if I was more afraid of the spider, the man, or of the terrifying change that came over my mother so suddenly. The soldier looked sharply around the room. We sunk into the shadows. Seeing no one, he looked back towards my mother.
He spoke in German, “Wir benötigen Deine Jungs. Sie werden für einen guten Zweck ist. Wann können wir sie?” We need your boys. It is for a good cause. When can we take them? My mother let out a slight gasp which she quickly stifled. If she was afraid, she hid it well.
Taking a breath, my mother courageously spoke back in Polish, our native language. “Tygodniu, tygodniu. Dajcie nam jeszcze tydzień.” Did my mother just tell him that that he could have us in a week?!
“Morgen Abend!” He shot back as he turned abruptly. Tomorrow night? Tomorrow he would return to take us? Where?
In my innocent state, I did not realize the soldier’s words were a death sentence.
I ran to the window to watch him leave, noticing a flag identical to his armband hanging outside.
“Pack up your belongings. Any you wish to keep.” My mother’s tone was harsh, horrified as she ordered us.
October 22, 1939
That morning, our family of five huddled around our kitchen table, our egg matzos smothered with butter.
“We have to go,” my father told us, speaking Polish, “We have to go or we will all die. There is nothing here worth staying for if we have to put our lives in jeopardy for it.”
Even after a night’s rest, he sounded tired, exhausted, as he told us this news. I didn’t understand. Why did we need to run from this man, who only wanted us “for a good cause?” What about my friends? My home? My life? Just leave it behind? If there was danger, why couldn’t my parents, who had always protected me before, not keep me safe from it?
But the decision was made. We were leaving in two hours. Two hours to say goodbye. Somberly, I went upstairs and gathered my few clothes and stuffed them into a satchel along with my favorite toy train.
“Do widzenia.” Goodbye.
“Do widzenia, lamp. Do widzenia, cozy warm quilt. I will miss you, comforting, small room,” I meandered down the stairs and out of the door, soaking up the images of home I would never see again. Do widzenia. I ran to my neighbors’ houses, giving them hugs and whispering do widzenia in their ears. They looked at me sorrowfully, hugging me back. Without words, they knew that we needed to leave, and why.
On my walk back home, the tears came flooding down, every tear a piece of my life being ripped from me, each something that I loved that I was forced to let go of. There would be no 8th birthday celebration for me. None for many years to come.
Bringing what little we could carry, leaving almost everything we knew and loved behind, we left. For nowhere. Into the darkness. Into the blackness where there hid a large gray monster lurking, waiting to swallow us whole. Glancing back, I saw the spider flag flapping in the wind outside our door.
© Maya Hunter, Campus Middle School