Eleh Ezkerah: My Father’s Escape From Warsaw
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur 2014
In July 1939, two months before the Germans invaded Poland, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionist Zionism, spoke in Warsaw. Once again he called for the immediate evacuation of Poland’s Jews. He told his audience:
“I must say to my shame that the Jews are behaving as if their doom has already been sealed. I know of nothing like it in all the history books. Millions of educated, well-mannered people are being driven towards the edge of a cliff. What do they do? One cries, one smokes a cigarette, one sings but no one can be found to jump to his feet, grab the reins and change the wagon’s direction. That’s the mood we are all in.”
My grandparents were there. Rosa and Beresz (“Berish”) Lichtenberg returned home shaken, but where could they go? How could they leave behind their elderly mothers? What country would take them in?
Their teenage son, Zevulun (Zvilin), my father, was filled with dread and determined to leave. He had read Mein Kampf. He listened on the radio to Germany’s leader ranting against the Jews. He read Simon Dubnow’s harrowing history of medieval massacres of German Jewish communities. Kristallnacht, Germany’s national pogrom against its Jews, had taken place a few months earlier. A Jewish family recently expelled from Germany lodged in his family’s apartment. A cousin had been admitted to Warsaw medical school, exceedingly rare for a Jew and woman in the late 1930s, but under new regulations, she had no seat and remained standing during class. When she returned from school, my father would sometimes help her soak her swollen feet in a pail. A beloved uncle (Elchonon Levin) on his deathbed said Germany would enter a Poland filled with Jews and leave it with no Jews.
But maybe things would get better. They couldn’t get much worse. Lichtenbergs had lived and prospered in Warsaw for centuries. “Tuta Nasha Palestina” my great-grandfather had said, “this is our Palestine.” When my father’s cousin, Victor Bialer, was mobilized with the Polish Army in that unusually hot summer, the entire Lichtenberg family went to the railroad station to see him off. Victor’s last words were “See you all in Berlin.” Another cousin laughed at my father’s worries. “There are three million of us here. What can they do to us?” My grandparents prepared as well as they could. Relatives in Paris sent gas masks. One tenant delivered cartons of vegetables and another delivered coal.
On (or about) September 10, 1939, my father bid his parents farewell. The previous week,
following the German invasion of September 1, there had been heated arguments as to what he and the family should do.
From the roof of the massive apartment building on Nowolipkie Street where our family lived together with many relatives, my father could see the German bombers releasing their payload in the opening days of the war. But then the bombing stopped. Tentatively at first, people walked onto their terraces and waved at their neighbors across the buildings’ inner courtyard. Perhaps the worst was over. Polish radio played martial music, oddly enough mostly American marching band compositions of John Philip Sousa. My grandfather, Beresz Lichtenberg, whose name I bear, urged my father to remain.
Try as I might, I could never really get my father to talk about his parents. The few photos I have reveal a sharply dressed couple standing or sitting close together, my grandmother, Rosa, smiling warmly at the camera, and my grandfather, his eyes averted, gazing off into the distance. It is not easy to miss grandparents you never knew. So I grew up trying to learn something from them, and perhaps through them, to better understand my often indecipherable father.
I suppose today my grandparents might be called “modern orthodox,” but that label does not begin to do justice to a large, diverse and sprawling family. My father was raised as a committed Jew and Polish patriot. One of my father’s uncles, Herschel Eisenstadt, represented the orthodox Agudath Israel party in the Polish Parliament. One of my father’s Aunts studied psychiatry in Paris.
My father attended the Chinuch School, which was a modern Jewish high school, a pre-war Polish version of the Heschel School. Mordecai Anielewicz, the hero of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was two grades ahead of my father. Every September, with the start of the school year, Dr. Meir Balaban, a leading Jewish educator, would address thousands of Jewish students and their families on the steps of the massive Tlomacki Synagogue. Apparently, the speech didn’t change very much from year to year and my father would sometimes recite it to me in Polish. The Germans burned the Tlomacki Synagogue during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Perhaps my father’s greatest influence was his one sibling, his older brother, Zvi Lichtenberg, a’h, who headed the Warsaw branch of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist youth movement, Betar. My uncle made Aliyah in 1935 and was wounded in the Arab uprising of 1936. His parents brought him back to Warsaw for medical treatment, but as soon as Uncle Zvi recovered, he returned to Palestine. The Jews of Poland had no future, he said.
At the last moment, my grandparents gave their blessing and told my father to go. They suggested he head east and would meet up with him in two weeks, as soon as things settled down. My father left, carrying a rucksack, a couple of zloty, and two buttered rolls. And so my father began a journey unlike any other—an odyssey that Homer could not have imagined. (“Lekh lekha”—go—with no promise of “ha’aretz asher arecha”—the land that I will show you.)
My father left without Divine promise. He was on his own. He literally took the last bus out of Warsaw, commandeered by some relatives with a Polish officer they had bought off standing guard at the door. The bus made it to the outskirts of town until it ran out of gas. My father and a few others walked east. Those who remained were later killed. The scene on the road resembled a nightmare version of a Marc Chagall tapestry, with Stuka bombers in place of flying angels: masses of refugees walking along the road and preventing the precious few military vehicles from getting through; a Hassidic family holding hands around a large tree such that they looked to be dancing when in fact they were running in circles in fright; a lone policeman firing his pistol against a dive bomber; Zvilin and his friend diving into the high grass when a Stuka returns to strafe the road. Zvilin emerged from the high grass alone and never again saw his friend. My father made his way to Kletsk just in time for the Russians to enter. Then onto Vilna where he met his uncle Herschel, the Agudah representative. My father remained in Vilna for a few months. He hoped the situation had stabilized.
He registered for University, Stefano Bartorega. His mother even managed to send him his winter overcoat. He ripped open the lining. Perhaps Rosa had also sent money, a letter. But there was only the overcoat. The situation deteriorated. One night a large group of students called my father a “Jhid” and set on him and beat him to an inch of his life. My father said he knew that unless he could break away, he would die then and there. He somehow managed to flee the gang and knew he had to leave Vilna.
There was a flight leaving for Stockholm and his uncle provided airfare. The Russians did not permit men 16 and older to leave, so my father dressed in shorts like a 12-year-old and did his best to look prepubescent. Unfortunately, he forgot to shave, but the Russian soldiers didn’t seem to notice and he made the flight.
From Stockholm, he made his way to Malmo; from Malmo to Copenhagen; from Copenhagen to Amsterdam; from Amsterdam to Brussels; from Brussels to Paris, always one step ahead of the German onslaught from Paris to Marseilles, where he befriended some Jewish longshoremen and hitched a ride on a freighter to Beirut; and finally, from Beirut to the Port of Haifa, perhaps the first refugee of the German invasion.
Zevulun headed to Palestine because his brother was able to obtain a student visa for him—a lifesaving exception to the British White Paper then in effect that severely restricted Jewish immigration. In May 1940, Zevulun arrived in Haifa, penniless. A Jewish Agency functionary greeted him. The Jewish Agency had been granted autonomy in processing Jewish immigration. There was a two pound entrance tax. My father had no money and the functionary threatened to send him back. For the first time since leaving Warsaw, my father broke down and cried. A compromise was reached. The Jewish Agency took my father’s overcoat as collateral, pending remittance of the two pounds.
Presumably the coat still sits in some government warehouse gathering interest. My father had arrived in Eretz Yisrael. He later told me that at the time he thought: “If I do nothing else in my life, I will have accomplished this.” He was 19.
Zevulun eventually attended and graduated from American University of Beirut. AUB was a positive experience. My father spoke fondly of his experiences there. Another strong influence was Judah Magnes, President of Hebrew University and a leading advocate for bi-nationalism. Before becoming president, Judah Magnes had served as rabbi of this synagogue, BJ.
My father eventually settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, married and started a family. His wife, my mother, was born in
Lithuania as Vichnah Vilkomirska. She arrived in New York shortly before war erupted and her name was Americanized to Vera Wolk. And Zvilin Lichtenberg became William Lichtenberg. William worked for 32 years at Barton’s Candy Corporation, rising from stock boy to Treasurer. He seldom left New York.
My father left Warsaw in 1939 with only a rucksack. Forty four years later, in 1983, he returned for the first time with a couple of suitcases, some kosher food and me. We found a living fossil, a retired lawyer (Mishlanko) who knew my grandparents and was with them in the Warsaw Ghetto until they were killed.
On Yom Kippur, 1940, my grandfather Berish went to shul, even though the Typhus epidemic was then raging in the Warsaw Ghetto and he had been urged to stay home. Four days later, on the eve of the Sukkot holiday, he died. My grandmother continued to live in the family’s apartment, now located within the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah 1942, she was sent to the Treblinka death camp.
In total, over 25 members of the Lichtenberg family were killed in the Shoah. My grandparents’ name and their values live on in their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in America and Israel. Their names are contained in BJ’s Scroll of Remembrance that was displayed and recited on Yom HaShoah.
I am deeply grateful to the rabbis of BJ, Roly, Marcelo and Felicia, and Ari for weaving the lives of the six million martyrs into the tapestry of the Yom Kippur service. I also thank Myriam Abramowicz who has inspired and led BJ’s Holocaust programming. Finally, thank you all for listening to my father’s story.
Any Jew living in Europe in 1939 who was still alive in 1945 has a story to tell. This has been my father’s story. But it is not over yet. One river’s churning waters is heard on another’s shore. A decision Zevulun Lichtenberg made 75 years ago ripples across time and into this sanctuary on this holiest of days. Today, we too have decisions to make, decisions that may profoundly affect, and perhaps change for the better, our relationships with our families, our friends, our God and ourselves.
May we all be granted a sweet, healthy, happy and peaceful new year. Thank you and G’mar Hatimah Tovah.