I am a Pole and I belong to that generation which, through the eyes of a child, witnessed human tragedy during World War II.
. . . Situated along the path of busy commercial traffic and because of its proximity to the city of Lwow, the town [of Brody] developed into a thriving, dynamic community. A population of 22,000 comprised of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians coexisted there peacefully. Knowledgeable statisticians claim that Jews accounted for sixty percent of the town's inhabitants. This mosaic of ethnic and cultural diversity greatly contributed to the development of a colorful and unique folklore reflecting those times.
Beautiful Roman and Greek-Orthodox churches and synagogues graced the town, and old cemeteries chronicled the history of Brody's inhabitants. On a Sunday, people would walk along lovely main streets, such as Gold and Mickiewicza or relax in a park in the center of town, called Rojekowka, which was close to my family's home. Young boys admired the soldiers marching on parade to the accompaniment of a brass band, and the cavalry soldiers proudly riding astride beautifully groomed horses. These soldiers were our heroes. Youngsters paraded in boy scout uniforms . . . It was a time of happiness and tranquillity.
In September, 1939 . . . an airplane flew over Rojekowka, shooting down at people running around. Bombs were erupting all over. Later, foreign soldiers, afoot and on horses, wearing hats with a Red Star, appeared on the scene. They were armed with shotguns with long bayonets. During the night, screams were heard from the street. From the window, we could see soldiers leading away people dressed only in underwear. Soldiers of the Soviet Union deported by railway virtually all affluent inhabitants: landowners, officers, government officials, teachers, pharmacists, police officers and such, mostly Poles and wealthy Jews. Their homes were confiscated and taken over by the new regime. Religious services became more and more infrequent, until churches and synagogues were closed down altogether. The Polish school was also closed down. People were subdued. When grownups were talking, my brother and I had to leave the room. We were often hungry. I must admit that at that time I developed a taste for "Tuszonka," which my mother was able to barter for burlap sacks which were used to store potatoes. The Russians would send these sacks back home to their families to be sewn into clothing. In a nearby forest, "Enemies of the People" were shot and buried in a mass grave. Among those were several family friends. We learned about them being "Enemies" by reading their names on posters plastered on walls of buildings. In schools, as well as government offices, the official language became Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. The use of Polish was forbidden. The atmosphere in town was gloomy.
In June of 1941, Soviet soldiers left the town of Brody in a hurry. Streets were deserted, but not for long. The following day, German soldiers appeared. They arrived in automobiles and motorcycles. I remember them being much better dressed than the Russians; they were always well groomed and clean shaven. Many of the German soldiers spoke Polish, being from the region of Silesia. One of them requested my mother to work in a German cafeteria, and my father was forced to work in a lumberyard. One day, my mother learned that an action to liquidate Jews was planned for that night. This was confirmed by our neighbor, the commandant of the Ukrainian police by the name of Sachowicz whose wife was Jewish. My parents immediately alerted many of their Jewish friends. Some of them stayed in a hiding place underneath our kitchen. The entrance was through the floor, covered by a rug, under a table. Hidden in this space were the following persons: Bronia, Herman Achtentuch, Isaac Kupferman, Runia Seltzer (maiden name Meles). Other were hidden in a shed, behind some firewood. In the beginning, Commandant Sachowicz protected his wife and her family which lived on Gesia Street, but that was short-lived. Very soon, they too came to our house and my parents wound up hiding out eleven people. At the last minute, aware of the grave danger, my parents also alerted our next door neighbor Markus Schwadron who lived with his daughter Lisa Grunfeld and granddaughter Greta. They managed to hide out in a space behind the stairs in their own house for two days. When this action was over, all remaining Jews were ordered to leave their homes and move into an area designated as the Ghetto. However, my parents were able to find a hiding place for this family with Joseph Bobik in a Polish village of Majdan Pieniacki, some 25 kilometers from Brody.
In addition to sheltering eleven people, it was necessary for my parents to provide food, medicine, clothing and sanitation, which, in view of the general shortage, proved to be very difficult. My brother and I would visit my mother at her workplace, and she was able to smuggle out to us some food articles which we would take home. Commandant Sachowicz also helped by supplying food, medicine and clothing, but medical help was impossible to obtain. The situation got worse every day; informants were betraying their neighbors, and everyone lived in fear because entire families could be shot for harboring Jews.
I remember walking down the street with my father. We saw German police prodding Jews, men and women, with rifle butts towards waiting trucks. Some time later, we heard sounds of machine guns. People in the street were saying that Jews are being shot near the Jewish cemetery. They were forced to dig a mass grave and throw in their murdered brothers before they themselves were executed and thrown on top. Another place of mass execution was the farm of Sznela. Participating with the Germans were Ukrainian policemen, under the command of Sachowicz. Whenever the police encountered people too sick to get up, or unwilling to leave their homes to go to the ghetto, they would shoot them on the spot.
~ . . . ~
Among my tragic memories was one relating to Doctor Billig, who attended my mother during my birth. I was standing with my mother near the gate of our house, when policemen were leading a group of Jews towards the railroad station. Dr. Billig with his wife and daughter were among them. When he spotted us, he motioned to my mother that he would like a drink of water. My mother got a cup of water and requested the policeman's permission to hand it to him; he agreed. Dr. Billig, his wife and daughter drank the water and nobody noticed him putting poison into the water. In a matter of seconds, the three of them were dead. It was the sign of this horrible time in our history that poison became a most valuable commodity; many preferred instant death.
Crowds of Jews, surrounded by armed guards with dogs, were led out of the ghetto towards the railroad station some two kilometers from the center of town. During this forced march, those who could not keep up with the pace were beaten and bitten by the dogs. Those unable to go on, were shot on the spot. Squeezed into packed freight cars which were directed towards Belzec and, later on, towards Majdanek near the city of Lublin was the human cargo destined for destruction. In one of them was the family Hochberg. They made a desperate decision to push their daughter Ginia through the narrow bars of the tiny window, imploring her to save herself, crying out: "You have got to survive!" The German guard shot after and hit the escaping girl. She lost consciousness, but fortunately it was a flesh wound. After a while she came to in a pool of blood. Two villagers were in the process of stripping her clothes, thinking she was dead. Realizing she was alive did not prevent them from taking all her clothes. They were going to hand her over to the Police when a Polish railroad employee intervened, stating that the area was under the jurisdiction of the railway department and that he would take custody of the girl. He escorted the wounded, chilled girl into a booth, where he dressed her wound, gave her some food and clothing and released her. Ginia made her way to a church in a nearby village, where a compassionate priest helped the unfortunate girl. He gave her shelter until she recovered and provided her with a false birth and baptism certificate. Such documents were extremely valuable, and some Poles with the help of Catholic priests would make them available to a few Jews. Thus, they could try to survive the "final solution." It must be said, however, that there were also those who would blackmail individuals trying to get by on Aryan documents and would sometimes betray them to the Germans.
One evening, Commandant Sachowicz came to our house and stated that we must "clean the Jews out" of our house. As mentioned before, his wife and her family were hiding in our house. At night, under cover of darkness, my father hitched up horses and transported the fugitives, two at a time, to several Polish villages some 20 kilometers from town: Majdan Pieniacki, Hta Pieniacka and Katy. There friends of my family agreed to temporarily shelter them. This was part of a far-reaching conspiracy. Some Polish villagers were willing to help. Mrs. Lisa Grunfeld with her father and daughter Greta, and Philip Chalfin with three other members of his family, were staying with Joseph Bobik in Majdan Pieniacki. Later four more individuals found shelter with that family. Other Jews were hiding in the homestead of the Sznicer family, and still others in the woods. They had to keep moving from place to place, because hatred and fear permeated surrounding villages. Suspicion and betrayal prevailed, and at times even murder of Jews was committed by local villagers. It has also been rumored that partisans were active in these woods, and some Jews were able to survive by joining the underground.
One day the cook in the German kitchen announced to his workers that during the next few days they would not be preparing any meals. The Silesians told my mother that they were getting ready for a special action against the village of Huta Pieniacka in retaliation for the killing of a three-man German patrol. During the night, in great hurry, Katarzyna and Franciszek Kulczycki set out for that village to warn friends of the impending danger. Some men from Huta Pieniacka decided to prepare for battle, others ignored the warning. Next day, early in the morning, this Polish ethnic village was burned to the ground and the inhabitants were killed or burned alive in barns. Later, in winter, I remember passing through this village with my family. We saw bodies laid out in rows, frozen solid in a river of mud. There was no way for us to bypass this road of death. Very few villagers survived this tragedy. After the war, I ran into one of them, Marie, living in the town of Wschowa in the reclaimed territories. She and her parents hid out in a mound of potatoes, and that's how she survived.
Markus Schwadron, Lisa's father, was a distinguished old gentleman and bore with dignity all hardships. It was tragic that he had to witness the terminal illness and death of his beloved daughter. Forced to escape from the hiding place in panic only one week after Lisa died, he and Greta became separated. In desperation, the distraught man returned to Brody, where he sat down on a park bench opposite his house and waited for his execution. There was nothing left for him to live for.
Philip Chalfin was a strong young man. He assisted the elderly and weaker people from his group. When Greta lost her mother and then her grandfather, he looked after her and, when the war ended, they were married. Greta now has in her possession several precious mementos from the Holocaust. One of them is a letter, written by her mother to my father but never delivered, now yellowed by age, thanking him for a loaf of bread. The letter reads as follows:
Mr. Kulczycki! Many thanks and God Bless you for the bread.
will not forget your kindness. Your grateful neighbor Lisa Grunfeld.
If it were possible and you would be so kind, please try next week again
to get me a bread. If you could be so kind. Regards to you and your
wife - Lisa
~ . . . ~
When the eastern front approached former Polish-Russian borders, Brody repeatedly changed hands between the warring armies. As a result, the town was ruled one day by Germans and the next by Russians. At that time, while in possession of the town, the Germans increased their reign of terror. They killed my 14-year-old brother, Marian, in our own backyard. We were informed that he was executed as a member of the Polish resistance.
When the Germans were finally pushed back, my father, Franciszek Kulczycki, joined the ranks of the 1st Division of the T. Kosciuszko Polish Army Unit. He took part in the liberation of Lublin, Warsaw, Kolobrzeg and Berlin. He was among the first soldiers who entered the concentration camp Majdanek. Regretfully, nobody from our town of Brody was left among the survivors . . .
END OF WAR, May 9, 1945. The inhabitants of Brody gathered at the Rojekowka Park for a grand celebration. The band played and people were congratulating each other, laughing, crying, and dancing. There was great joy - but not for long. Law and order was maintained by NKVD guards, 18-year-old inexperienced youths. In the crowd of singing townspeople, somebody spread the rumor that one of my colleagues had a gun. It was just a typical toy, a gun carved out of wood, but the young boy was, nevertheless, detained by the NKVD. We notified his mother and waited for his release by the gate of their headquarters. After a while, they released him. His mother had to cover him with a shirt to stem the flow of blood from open wounds. His back was black and blue and all cut up from blows. This is just one example of how the "Day of Victory" touched a young boy whose father, at this very time, was fighting within the ranks of the "undefeated army."
Well organized, armed Ukrainian bands began to terrorize Poles and the very few remaining Jews in the region. Their actions were characterized by extreme cruelty and sadism. I remember a priest seeking information about one of my friends, who had been missing. Later, I looked on when the mother discovered his tortured body, his throat cut and hands all twisted. Near the body they left a message: "That's how all Poles should die." In surrounding villages, Ukrainian bands systematically planned the murder of all Poles - only because they were Poles. The Poles of Brody lived in constant fear until the day they left their homeland, into the unknown, the so-called Polish Reclaimed Territories. They left forever, by freight train, several families packed into one car. Those Polish families which decided to remain in Brody had to renounce their Polish heritage and accept Soviet citizenship.
GENOCIDE IN BRODY swallowed up thousands of human beings. Jews and Poles were murdered in brutal fashion. Innocent little children, adults, bedridden, infirm and elderly people, all were sacrificed to this inhuman cause. The perpetrators carried out this annihilation with treachery and great cunning.
awful days of World War II, wherever there were battle lines, people were
dying. However, it is true that German soldiers were systematically
carrying out the plan to kill all Jews, either on the spot or by transporting
them to concentration/death camps. That is why almost all of the
13,000 Jewish population of Brody perished. Only a handful survived.
Translated from the Polish
Copyright © 1999 Greta Chalfin
EDITOR'S NOTE: Toward the end of his account, Mr. Kulczycki identifies Poles in neighboring villages who also helped Brody Jews survive. These Righteous Gentiles remained in Poland after the war. They are:
Kararzyna Kulczycka in Miedzystroje
The Bobik family in Glogow
Joseph Sznicer in Wiazowno
The Margazyn family in Glubczyce.
Copyright © 1999 M S Rosenfeld