Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

Table of Contents

M
My favourite picture of my grandfather Osser Khan.

My favourite picture of my grandfather Osser Khan.

y beloved grandfather died in the spring of 1939 at the age of eighty-two. I was heartbroken. During his final days, he took food and drink only from me. Our bond remained special until the very end. That was the spring I turned thirteen.

In late June, my mother and Gitta and I went to the country for our summer vacation. My father joined us every weekend. As usual, we travelled to our vacation spot by horse and buggy; there were still very few cars in our part of the world at that time. When we were home in Bydgoszcz, we walked or took the streetcar.

Around the first week in August, there was no loose change to be had; it became apparent that people were hoarding money. That was a bad sign, my parents said. The truth is that until that summer, I’d had a happy childhood. I hadn’t experienced any real hardships and I knew almost nothing of what was going on in the world. My parents had protected me.

On the morning of September 1, 1939, everything changed — forever. The Germans had declared war on Poland and my father told my mother, “Pack a few things, we’re leaving.” They must have discussed it earlier because even before we went on vacation my parents had packed some valuables in wooden boxes and sent them east to Warsaw, where my mother had a cousin. Other Jews had done similar things.

My parents’ and Gitta’s Polish passports, dated 1938. Apparently I was too young to require one. These are the last pictures I have of my sister and parents before the war.

My parents' and Gitta's Polish passports, dated 1938. Apparently I was too young to require one. These are the last pictures I have of my sister and parents before the war.

My parents were clearly worried but they were trying not to worry me or my sister, although I’m sure Gitta, who was eighteen, understood more. We lived not far from the train station and on the morning of September 1, my father announced we were going there. My aunt Sala’s children were still on vacation and their father had gone to pick them up; because war had broken out, they weren’t able to return home immediately. So my aunt decided to leave with us. Gitta didn’t want to come. She’d been studying at a business school in Bydgoszcz and doing bookkeeping for a bicycle wholesaler during the last weeks of summer. And there was a boy she’d begun seeing. As she dressed for work, my father asked her not to leave. She went anyway. Later that morning, he called her at work and insisted that she come home. She did.

We each took as much as we could. My mother wanted to lock up everything we left behind but my father said, no. They were both nervous and they disagreed about what to do. She locked drawers; he opened them and put the keys inside. “The Germans will just break into the drawers if they’re locked,” he said. “Leave them.” So that’s what they did. My mother told me what clothing to take. I can’t remember whether I took any special souvenirs. As we were walking to the station, Germans were already shooting from windows. There were a lot of Germans in Bydgoszcz. We came to the station and waited. A freight train arrived and we got on. Other Jews were there too and when we got on the train, the people in charge gave us a kit with which to assemble gas masks.

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