From the middle ages to the partitions of Poland, my native city of Krak��w was a European metropolis and the capital of the great Polish-Lithuanian empire. Beginning in about the thirteenth century, Jews were already settling in Krak��w.
I was born in 1920 and lived almost forty years in this architecturally and historically important city on the Vistula. When I was liberated from the camp, I had just turned twenty-five. After my mother's death in 1958, my father and I moved to Augsburg, Germany, where my brother had already gone immediately after the war. My family was long established in Krak��w. Only my paternal grandmother was from Breslau (today, Wroclaw), and that's why her children and grandchildren all spoke both Polish and German at home. It was unusual to grow up bilingual in Krak��w, but it seemed quite normal in our house. For me, being bilingual opened a window onto the world, and right up to the present I've always felt equally at home in the cultures of the Poles, the Germans, and the Jews. Even as a little boy, I knew that just as some people were blond and others brunette, some big and others small, there were also different languages, different religions, and different cultures.
In Poland after the First World War, there was a powerful return to Slavic traditions. This was due to Poland's newly won independence from the powers that had partitioned her in years gone by. Austria, Russia, and Prussia. That's why I was named Mieczyslaw. It means "he who won fame with his sword," although in my whole life I've never had a sword in my hand, nor ever wanted to. In Polish, my first name gets shortened to Mietek and that's what my friends and relatives call me to this day. If a Jewish family in the early twentieth century did not give its children biblical names, it indicated a high degree of assimilation. My father's cousin was named Egmont; you can't get any more German than that. So I passed my early years in two cultural spheres-Polish on the one hand, German on the other-both integrated within Judaism.
In contrast to many Jews in Krak��w, both my parents and my grandparents were assimilated in their habits and dress. Nevertheless, my family was observant and strongly rooted in their faith. During the First World War, my father even made a solemn vow to donate a Torah scroll if he survived. And he kept his promise. After 1945, one of the few Torah scrolls not defiled by the Nazis was returned to us. I don't know if it was the one my father had donated, but I brought it along when I moved to Germany, and it is now in a synagogue in Hamburg, where my brother Stefan's family lives.
My parents, Jakob and Regina, were married in 1918 after my father was discharged from the Austrian Army and had returned to Krak��w. During the First World War, his experiences with his German comrades at the front had been positive. One of my mother's brothers had also served in the Austrian Army and liked to tell about a certain sector of the front and the German units stationed there. To him, they were "no-nonsense, forthright comrades." He liked to refer to them as "honest Michels." Later, after 1933, when my family discussed Hitler, we were of course worried about political developments in Germany, but we were incapable of imagining their devastating consequences. When we talked about Germany, we considered the situation something of an aberration that would soon be over. Herr von Papen is said to have made a similar remark. We were all convinced that what was going on at the moment in Germany must surely be connected to unemployment or to the economic crisis or perhaps even to the lost war. Incidentally, while not one German general committed suicide after the First World War, Albert Ballin, a Jewish ship owner from Hamburg and an advisor to Wilhelm II on naval matters, took his own life because he could not accept the German defeat.
I was rather delicate as a child and prone to illness. I also seemed to have taken hold of things the wrong way. I mean that literally, for I am left-handed-something that was regarded as a genuine handicap in those days. Even the simple act of shaking hands with a visitor caused me problems. My family and my teachers went to great lengths to correct my "handicap" by a program of systematic reconditioning. So I learned to suppress my spontaneity in favor of cautious deliberation. My interests also clearly set me apart from the majority of my classmates. Instead of playing soccer, I began to learn the violin when I was barely seven years old. But despite good progress, I gave up music lessons after a few years in favor of reading, my real passion. I was especially interested in books about history, first in biographies and later in primary sources as well. Thus, at a relatively young age, I was fascinated by historical events and their connection to politics.
On Saturdays, my father took me to the synagogue. On the High Holy Days I accompanied him to small prayer houses where rabbis from surrounding towns prayed with their Krak��w congregants. This experience gave me a broader perspective on Judaism. I recall one rabbi by the name of Lipschitz from Wielopole, east of Krak��w, who read aloud from the prayer book. In a whisper, I asked my father if the rabbi didn't know the prayers by heart. I must have been about ten years old at the time, and even I had already memorized some of them. Of course the rabbi knew the prayers by heart. He probably even knew half the entire book by heart, my father replied, but he didn't want to make anyone feel ashamed who didn't. That was the reason he read from the open prayer book, so the others wouldn't feel inferior. To this day, I think about his exquisite tact and modesty.
During my early years, we lived with my paternal grandfather at 3 Wegierska Street in the neighborhood of Podg��rze. My grandfather and father dealt in agricultural products and my grandfather was even called upon as an expert witness on matters concerning legumes and grains. My father purchased rye and wheat flour by the wagonload from the area surrounding Posen (today, Poznan) and sold it to bakers in and around Krak��w. His office was always in our apartment, for he conducted business through trucking companies and needed only a small space for bookkeeping.
When I was seven, we moved to a larger apartment building right next to the parish church of St. Joseph. Our new apartment at I Parkowa Street, only a few steps from my grandfather's house, was not far from a large park, and our building stood almost directly on the market square of Podg��rze. Podg��rze means "lower mountain" and this quarter of Krak��w is located on the opposite bank of the Vistula. If you stand with your back to the church, you see the market square in front of you. To the right was the beginning of the ghetto that was set up in 1941. There was also a Jewish-owned chocolate factory there. Most of the families in our apartment building were gentiles. Besides us there were only three other Jewish families. At school, too, there were only a few Jews in my class, and almost all my friends were gentiles. I liked my school. Learning was easy for me, and later on in high school, I built up the German collection of the library. For a short time, starting in about 1936, I even edited the school newspaper.
Many rural Jews who had only briefly attended public schools didn't speak Polish well. The language of their daily lives was Yiddish, the language of their religion Hebrew. That was one of the causes of anti-Semitic prejudice. The Poles felt insulted when country Jews didn't speak good Polish, and they often made fun of them. I am very grateful that I was exposed to hardly any prejudice from my Polish classmates or my high school teachers.
Still, there was widespread anti-Semitism throughout Poland. The fires of prejudice were fanned especially by the Catholic Church. But that wasn't the only institution that propagated racism. Anti-Semitism was the glue holding together a new kind of Polish nationalism, increasingly in evidence after the death of the "gentle" dictator Marshall J��sef Pilsudski in 1935. The historian Saul Friedl��nder goes so far as to call anti-Semitism the point of "national cohesion" at this time. After Pilsudski's death, there were riots at the universities, especially in Lw��w and Warsaw, but also in Krak��w. Fortunately, this virulent anti-Semitism did not affect me directly until I began to attend university.
Because I did very well on my university qualifying exams in May 1938, I was given permission to pursue my studies at two universities simultaneously. I don't say that to boast, but my early successes in learning are a possible explanation for the fact that later, in the ghetto and especially in the camp, I was able to understand and correctly assess certain political developments. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Until the decree that closed all Polish universities in 1939, I studied law at the Jagiellonian University and at the same time business administration and accounting at the Academy of Economics. The latter was on Sienkiewicza Street in the part of Krak��w with the most modern and elegant houses. After 1939, the owners were driven from their homes as it became the favorite place for the German occupiers to set up their quarters. Although some classes continued to be held underground during the entire occupation, they were only for Polish students, not for Jews. I was not able to complete my master's degree until after the war.
In the fall of 1938, the president of the Jagiellonian University ordered that Jewish students sit only on certain benches in the lecture halls. In protest, we remained standing during our lectures. A rule was immediately promulgated that students were forbidden to stand during classes. They wanted to force us to sit on the "Jewish benches." Not that these benches were badly located-in the back of the hall, for instance. But for us, it was a matter of principle. We regarded the rule as blatant discrimination, an attempt to introduce into Poland the Nuremberg laws that had already been in force in Germany since 1935, legalizing the exclusion of Jews. Moreover, once the "Jewish benches" had been adopted, students from other institutions-from the School of Mines, for instance, which had no Jewish students enrolled-would come to the Jagiellonian University so as not to miss out on the fun of seeing Jews being humiliated. My fellow Jewish students and I were disciplined and had a warning recorded in our transcripts because we had "disobeyed the directive of the university president." This incident led me to adopt a more distanced attitude toward the Poles. I realized how fragile and superficial the veneer of coexistence can be. For the first time, I became aware that my native country didn't really want me, a Jew, to live there.
Until 1944, I still possessed a copy of my transcript with the disciplinary entry. I always carried it with me, along with my other papers, in the ghetto and later in the camp as well. That proved to be a mistake. I should have hidden it. For when we were transported by cattle car from the concentration camp Plasz��w to Br��nnlitz in October 1944, the transport was routed via the Gross Rosen camp, where we had to surrender all our possessions and clothes, and that's when I lost my transcript as well.
From the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century right up to the end of the First World War, the ancient Polish coronation city of Krak��w belonged-with occasional interruptions-to the Danube Monarchy of the Habsburgs. Its inhabitants were under the influence of Austro-German culture and liberalism. Among Krak��w's idiosyncrasies are the many Renaissance inscriptions in Latin found in inner courtyards, on churches, and on old walls, admonishing passers-by and exhorting them to reflection. On Grodzka Street, below the royal palace, there's a small church that stands at a slight angle to the roadway. During my youth, it was a Lutheran church and it had one of these inscriptions. Since at the time I hadn't yet learned Latin in school, I had to translate the phrase with the help of a dictionary: Frustra vivit, qui nemini prodest-"He who helps no one lives without purpose (in vain)." I've never been able to forget that inscription. Especially during the war, its significance for me was enormous, since there were so few people who selflessly helped persecuted Jews. But those few rescuers evinced a high degree of goodness and humanity. Another inscription that was meaningful to me was located inside the Krak��w municipal administration building: Praestantibus viris negligere virtutem concessum non est-"Men standing before others (leaders, those at the forefront) must not neglect (forget) courage (fortitude, morality)." Thus I understood early on that a person who, by his own actions or through the influence of others, is in a privileged position, is not at liberty to simply carry out his tasks mechanically.
This venerable old city of Krak��w was declared by the Nazis in 1939 to be urdeutsch-originally and essentially German-and as a consequence was hardly bombed at all during the war. Only occasional bombs fell near the train station, and even then not onto the building itself. Later, Krak��w also became a hub of supply lines between the Reich and the troops on the eastern front. It thus proved advantageous to have preserved the modern university clinics in order to care for German casualties. The Krak��w-Plasz��w station had long been located southeast of the city. At the beginning of 1943, the complex was greatly expanded. Who could have foreseen in 1939 that from 1943 on, the Nazis would intern us in a forced labor camp not far from this train station?
In contrast to Krak��w, Hitler ordered Warsaw to be leveled. The city was considered a "nest of resistance," a "symbol of Polishness." The western part of the country was absorbed into the German Reich. The Nazis declared the middle section-including Krak��w and Warsaw-a Polish Generalgouvernement and the eastern part was annexed by the Soviet Union until 1941. At first, the German jurist Dr. Hans Frank had the title "Generalgouverneur for the occupied Polish districts." However, this designation disappeared after a few weeks and only the name Generalgouvernement remained. As his residence and administrative offices, Frank chose the venerable Wawel Castle, once the home of the Polish kings. The stately Wawel overlooks Krak��w like a patron saint. Under the German occupation, flying hundreds of Nazi flags, it became the threatening Krakauer Burg-the Krak��w Castle. At first, extraordinarily high spirits prevailed among the occupiers. That changed only when the German front was broken through at Stalingrad and Kursk in early 1943. Until then, the Nazis apparently thought Russia was on the verge of collapse.
The Germans introduced into Poland the distinction between Reichsdeutsche, German citizens of the Reich, and Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans from beyond its borders. I recall my revered Latin teacher and the principal of my high school, Edward T��rschmid. As a Polish patriot, he did not want his name entered in the Volksliste, the list of ethnic Germans created by the occupiers immediately after the invasion. Whoever could prove German ancestry was entitled, as a Volksdeutscher, to certain professional advantages and subjected to fewer restrictions in daily life. Principal T��rschmid wanted to remain a Pole; that wish alone was considered an affront to the German occupiers. T��rschmid was not allowed to continue teaching and had to put up with harassment and special privations. After the war, he helped me get new copies of my qualifying exams and wrote another recommendation, as he had in 1938, that I receive special permission to study at two universities simultaneously.
Because of the increased need for housing in the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Jews were to be expelled from the city. This didn't happen from one day to the next, but gradually.
Excerpted from THE ROAD TO RESCUEby MIETEK PEMPER Copyright © 2005 by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg. Excerpted by permission.
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