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Feb 2013 Journal

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A record of the fate of Polish Jewry (review)

This is one of the few books about the Shoah reviewed in the AJR Journal that relates to the experiences of the rare survivors from Poland. ‘Gone to Pitchipoi’ was the term used by Polish Jews to describe fellow Jews sent to unknown destinations by the Nazis, knowing that few would be seen again.

Only eight years old when the Nazis invaded, the author had led a very pleasant life with his middle-class family, who were active in the community and owned a confectionery factory. In a fascinating 40-page prologue, he describes life in pre-war Ostrowiec, a town of 30,000 inhabitants, where over a third of the population were Jewish. The general description of the community is enlivened with many personal anecdotes and pen-portraits of its various characters.

The invasion of September 1939 had catastrophic effects on Rubin Katz’s family and on the Jewish population of the town. What had been a child’s carefree existence turned into a bitter five-year battle for survival. Rubin, a frequent contributor to this journal’s correspondence columns, chronicles the gradual deterioration of the life of his family and community. Initially the Jews were treated as slave labour but remained in their homes. Later they, together with several thousand co-religionists from the surrounding area, were crammed into a ghetto in the town. In October 1942 the first major deportation - destination ‘Pitchipoi’ - took place. During 1943 there were further deportations and mass shootings within the town, and Jewish life in Ostrowiec ceased to exist.

Using elaborately planned hiding places, and with the encouragement of his family, Rubin escaped and the greater part of the book relates to the period when he was living under cover. Part of the time he was in hiding but for the rest he assumed the role of a Polish Christian orphan, changed his name and attended church. However, the continuous threat of exposure to the Nazis remained. The most challenging aspect was that in round-ups the Nazis could identify men suspected of being Jewish simply by telling them to pull down their trousers. Rubin used ingenious techniques to overcome this problem. At one time, he even became leader of a gang of young Poles and with them managed to scrape together enough food for survival.

The author’s older sister had managed to escape to Warsaw and she too was living with an assumed identity. For some time they shared dangers together, and Rubin feels he owes his survival to her. There were individual Poles who either knew or suspected that he was Jewish and turned a blind eye or even helped. This also applied to a German soldier who helped him to avoid starvation. He is very bitter, however, about the great majority of Poles, who, he feels, were only too happy to turn Jews over to the Nazis or demanded extortionate bribes to keep silent, at least for a while.

Throughout the book the author puts his own dramatic story in the wider context of the Nazi campaign to liquidate all Polish Jewry as well as of the war itself. During the Warsaw Uprising he was particularly shocked when he saw leaflets with the message ‘CITIZENS OF WARSAW! We are fighting for a FREE POLAND – a Poland without Germans, Russians and Jews.’

There is a moving account of the day Rubin and his sister were liberated by the Red Army, but their troubles did not end there. They were initially looked after in a Jewish emergency centre in Lublin, where Rubin was even able to go to school for the first time in over five years, but then they decided to return to Ostrowiec. There they and a few Jewish survivors were exposed to a hostile reception from the Polish population, who had not expected any returnees. There was good news, however, as their mother and two of their four brothers had survived after horrific experiences in camps. As it was not safe to stay in Poland the survivors left for Palestine - or in Rubin’s case for England, as he was one of those rescued by Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld. The concluding part of the book describes his initial difficulties in settling down in England but these were followed eventually by a successful life in this country. The author ends with fuller accounts of the individual fates of members of his family and of his return visits to the place of his childhood.

Rubin Katz’s remarkable memory has enabled him to produce an account not only about his own life and family, but also a record of the fate of Polish Jewry.
The only minor criticism is that some of the photos are of poor quality and do not add to the value of the record.

George Vulkan

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