Poland, June 1942
Tarnów, Poland, June 1942. The Germans have been occupying Poland for almost three years. Restrictions on the town’s Jewish population have progressed. First it was harassment, then imprisonment, deportations, beatings and executions. The ghetto has been established, and a curfew is in force.
Luckily, my father, Salomon Lederberger, found a room within the ghetto walls for himself, Mother and me, his 18-month-old daughter. We shared this “apartment” with another couple and their two children.
The Germans had confiscated our newly furnished, five-room apartment and the watchmaker store Father co-owned with my grandfather. During the first deportation, a few weeks earlier, June 10,1942, three of my grandparents and other seniors had been “resettled.” My maternal grandmother died in 1934 and thus was spared that ordeal.
Father had no illusions. He had heard the accounts of mass shootings in near-by forests. He strongly suspected that he would never see his parents again. The last letter he had received from his sister was a few months earlier indicated that she, too, expected the worst.
Some of his young friends had fled to Russia. My parents could not go along as Mother was five months pregnant. It was too dangerous for her to make the perilous and exhausting journey on foot.
That spring Father had endured severe beatings, barely escaping death. A German officer caught him with a two-pound sack of illegal white flour bought from an acquaintance. It was a precious gift for his mother who was not well and could not tolerate the sawdust flour allowed for Jews. The Nazi had broken a chair on Father’s back, beaten him with an iron pipe and held a pistol to his head. He wanted to know the source of that contraband. Father kept insisting that he did not have that information. He knew it would be a death sentence to reveal his supplier. The beatings stopped when Father convinced the German that he would find out the information and bring it to the Gestapo headquarters. He meant to buy time to warn the people involved.
Now, in our new home in the ghetto, Father found a door leading to a large attic. That door could be easily hidden behind furniture; it was a perfect hiding place in case of a new roundup. Many Jews were unable to conform to the numerous compulsory regulations the Nazis commanded. This was a matter of life and death.
September 11, 1942, erev Rosh Hashanah, was the beginning of the second deportation from the Tarnów ghetto. Our attic provided shelter to about 200 people. Together with our mother, Father fed and cared for them at the peril of all our lives for about one week.
During that deportation period, when I was a black-haired, black-eyed toddler, a desperate parent placed his blond, blue-eyed baby in my crib. Little ones were not accepted in any hiding places as they might compromise it with their cries. Father’s gusty contention convinced the inspecting German that this boy was his son.
In addition, this deportation turned out to be a special child Aktion. Parents were “allowed” to accompany their child. My parents volunteered to be deported with me. However, because of my father’s connections, we were released. On the way out of the transport, Father also smuggled a little blond girl out and took her back to her parents in the ghetto.
A few weeks after this miraculous release, Father acquired false Aryan papers for Mother and me. He then bribed a young man to smuggle us out of the ghetto and out of town.
My father also helped fellow captives in the ghetto on other occasions. He divulged the vital name of a driver prearranged for his escape to a man desperate to join his wife on the Aryan side. Tapping his connections and resources, he also arranged for the flight of two women, putting his own life in jeopardy.
In 1943, Father successfully escaped to Warsaw and joined Mother and me. Our room then became a place of refuge for any fugitive Jew needing an emergency night’s stay. That was at a time when no one ever revealed his/her address to anyone for fear of being discovered. He always said, “I just did whatever I could to help someone in need.”
After liberation, he found a room for us in Łódź. Here, he tried unsuccessfully to find watchmaker tools to restart a business. Having failed, he hitched a ride on a Russian army transport to Gdańsk in the north. Gdańsk was in total ruins and he was unable to find what he needed. He then walked eight miles to Sopot and there he found the instruments among the ruins of a bombed watchmaker store. He also sublet a room for Mother and me.
Father assumed that people needed watches and glasses to get back to work after the war. As a watchmaker, he hired an optician and business flourished for the next two years.
In 1947, the Communists took over the government of Poland. They extorted Father, the capitalist, with unrealistic never-ending taxes and fees. In the summer of that year, he bribed a Belgian consul for a visa, and we escaped to Brussels leaving all possessions behind.
Belgium gave us political asylum but refused foreigners a work permit. For the next four years, Father commuted to West Germany which was under American occupation. There, he reestablished a prosperous business from scratch for the second time in two years.
Mother initially refused to move to Germany. “I will not raise my children on German soil,” she proclaimed. Finally, however, she gave in, and we moved to Frankfurt in 1951.
My father, Salomon Lederberger, was born August 30, 1909, the 13th of Elul, 5669 in Zabno, Poland, and died June 28, 1991, the 16 of Tamuz, 5751 in St. Louis, Missouri.
May his memory be a blessing.
Read more by Felicia Graber.