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Authors: R. D. Rosen

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BOOK: Such Good Girls
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She’d grown up with her parents, Mina and Josef Litwak, and four siblings in a grand three-story house with French windows, scrollwork, and a courtyard. The home was owned by her wealthy paternal grandfather Moses, who also lived there with his wife, Sarah. In their sprawling apartment, the walls were covered in silk, the parquet floors were lined with Persian rugs, the ceiling dripped with chandeliers, and Laura’s grandmother favored Parisian dresses and stylish sheitels—the wigs worn by Orthodox married women. The crowning achievement of Laura’s parents’ Judaism was the fact that her father, a banker, and grandfather had organized their own synagogue.

Laura and her husband, Daniel Schwarzwald, who worked in his family’s successful timber export business, lived elsewhere in Lvov in a smaller apartment in the Christian section of the city with their two-year-old daughter, Selma. They were all among the highly cultured citizens of Lvov, which until 1918 had been the capital of Galicia, part of the Austrian Empire. Much of the Litwak family spoke German fluently as well as Polish and Yiddish. After the collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1918, Lvov became the third largest city in Poland, and its second most important cultural and intellectual center—a city with well over 100,000 Jews—a third of the city’s entire population.

On September 24, 1939, the life that Lvov had known for the past twenty years was shattered as suddenly and easily as one of Moses and Sarah Litwak’s Venetian wineglasses. Just two weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, Russia invaded from the east, where it overwhelmed Polish resistance and took a quarter of a million Poles as prisoners. The Russians occupied Lvov—whose Jewish population began to swell rapidly as it absorbed Jews fleeing the area occupied by Germany in the west—and soon began to deport the city’s anti-Communists, “bourgeois bloodsuckers,” even Polish Communists, and other “untrustworthy elements” to Siberia. The well-to-do merchants and professionals were relieved of their livelihoods, then retrained as laborers. The Soviets immediately emptied the stores of all food and merchandise and appropriated it for their own use. The citizens of Lvov were ordered to change their zlotys for rubles at the banks, only to be told after standing on line the whole night that there would be no exchange after all. Suddenly the Poles were paupers.

The Soviets had barged into Lvov without much ceremony, and a commissar and his family took over the apartment of Laura’s grandparents—moved right in—and forced them to retreat to a single room. The elderly couple cowered in their bedroom, inmates in the ornate prison of their home. The man who had his own synagogue now had barely two kopeks to rub together. The commissar and his family made themselves comfortable, helping themselves to the Litwaks’ food and possessions while denying Moses his kosher food.

The commissar then announced that Moses, being a bourgeois, would have to leave Lvov and live at least thirty kilometers away to avoid contaminating the new Communist regime. Preferring starvation to eating treif, and death to ceding his home to the intruders, Moses’s heart gave out.

That night his little great-granddaughter Selma happened to glimpse, through a bedroom doorway, Moses laid out on his bed in a black suit. To circumvent the Russian Communists’ prohibition against any kind of religious ceremony, before dawn the next morning everyone in the family walked separately to the Jewish cemetery to meet his casket and give him a Jewish burial. Many from the Litwak and Schwarzwald family who were there that morning would themselves soon be dead, with neither burial nor family around to say good-bye.

For the moment, though, thirty-year-old Laura, her husband, Daniel, and their Selma seemed safe enough. The Russians retrained Daniel as a road worker, then a baker’s apprentice, and, finally, after he hurriedly learned Russian, he was given a job as a timber specialist in a factory. Laura was allowed to remain at home with Selma.

At least on the surface, life in Lvov actually improved for a while. The Russians set about beautifying Lvov, keeping the streets spotless and requiring all tenants to sweep in front of their buildings daily—while wearing white aprons, no less! The Russians quickly organized schools and promoted Russian culture, reopened theaters, and produced ballets the likes of which the Poles had never seen. Moreover, tickets prices were kept low enough so that all workers, including the newly minted laborers, could afford them, the better to expose the locals to Russia’s “superior” culture.

But the citizens of Lvov were getting a taste of the worse terror to come. One evening, the Russians cut off electricity, a trick that forced everyone to stay home while the Soviet secret police—the NKVD—went door to door, selecting Polish Communists—who had their own ideas about socialism—for deportation to forced labor camps in Siberia and the Far East, and in some cases immediate death. The ballet tickets may have been cheap, but the towering portraits of Lenin and Stalin left no doubt that life in Lvov would never be the same. Between February and June 1940, the Soviets deported almost 400,000 people from the newly acquired territories, 200,000 Jews among them.

By June 1941, the Germans and the Russians were no longer merely sharing poor Poland. They were now at war with each other, and the Germans were winning. After less than two years of Soviet occupation, the Germans arrived in Lvov in the summer of 1941, routing their former allies—but not before the Soviet secret police murdered thousands of civilian prisoners they had been holding in Lvov prisons. The Germans compounded the violence by promptly blaming the massacre on the Jews, inciting a pogrom organized by the Ukrainian Nationalists that lasted four days and left more than 2,000 Jews dead in the streets of Lvov while the Germans filmed the atrocities.

The Nazis brought to Poland a killing machine the likes of which the human imagination had not yet been able to conjure. The Einsatzgruppen were special mobile killing squads, the leading edge of the Final Solution that would not be made official until a few months later. As the German army advanced eastward, the job of the Einsatzgruppen, 3,000 executioners divided into four groups, was to follow close behind the Wehrmacht, gathering and disposing of the Jewish people as they went.

Between June 30 and July 3, the Einsatzgruppen murdered at least 4,000 more Jews with help from Ukrainian Nationalists—herding them to secluded killing grounds, where they were relieved of their watches, jewelry, money, and clothes, then shot to death in the back of the skull, one by one, and piled in mass graves, many of which the victims had dug themselves. Others were gassed in groups after being piled into olive green trucks and vans that had been outfitted and sealed airtight for the purpose.

On July 15, all Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David.

On July 25, Ukrainian Nationalists organized another pogrom in which 2,000 more Jews were slaughtered. By the end of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than half a million Jews, more than 3,000 a day. Before it was all over, they would murder well over a million Jews. The work was done mostly by professional men—including doctors, lawyers, even clergymen—men whose work ethic and deep sense of duty to the Third Reich, if not an inherited hatred of the Jewish people, made them excellent executioners. To keep up both their strength and morale for this arduous labor, they were well fed and provided with copious amounts of alcohol, but even some Nazis had their limit, could finally take no more of the daily grind of extermination, and were relieved without prejudice by an understanding Führer. Those with sturdier constitutions just kept at it, learning quickly that, once they had negotiated certain moral obstacles, less stubborn than one would have thought, they became accustomed to almost anything, especially if the music blaring over loudspeakers distracted them from the sounds of their own pistol shots and the begging and shrieking of their victims.

But killing Jews one by one could accomplish only so much. By October 1941, the first Jews were taken as forced labor, and a month later all remaining Jews in Lvov were forced into a ghetto. Laura’s family—her parents and her three remaining siblings (a fourth, Edek, had immigrated to Palestine)—were all German-speaking Polish believers in Teutonic culture, but they too awaited their turn. Before long, a group of storm troopers and German soldiers invaded the apartment, where Laura and her husband had hidden her grandfather’s gold and silver religious objects. The SS men found everything, including the Torah with its magnificent silver crown and pointer. When Laura refused to tell them what the objects were for, one of them smacked her across the face with the back of his hand.

Laura’s brother Manek was soon caught in the street without his Star of David and taken to an SS camp, but at least he was given a pass to return to the apartment at night. One evening he told the adults of watching two German soldiers beat two men for stealing a bar of soap, then bash their skulls against each other until their brains splashed against the wall. Another time, he reported that a soldier took a child by the ankles and swung him as hard as he could against a brick wall. The German was laughing. Atrocities Laura never before imagined had become her daily reality, like the potatoes and cabbage the family now subsisted on.

The Schwarzwalds were told to pack the few belongings that the Soviets and Germans hadn’t already taken, and they joined the rest of the city’s Jews in the Lvov ghetto in the Zamarstynow borough. Their new home was a single room that the family—Laura, her husband and daughter, her parents, her father’s parents, and her aunts and uncles—had to share with another Jew, a total stranger. Not a mile away, the Germans had already established, in a former factory, the Janowska forced labor and concentration camp for Jews destined for Belzec, the extermination camp near Lublin. In fact, Janowska itself became an extermination camp, where killing often took the form of entertainment. The SS officials there organized a prisoner band, instructed them to compose “The Death Tango,” and ordered them to play it during executions.

In a matter of weeks, the family’s comfortable life had been reduced to a meager existence of fear and chaos. Their only hope was to obtain false documents in the bustling market of Poles and Ukrainians who were getting rich selling their identification papers to the doomed.

Daniel started work as a security guard at a hostel for construction workers of the German military engineering group, Organisation Todt. At least it was a job that paid him in increasingly scarce food and work passes for him and Laura, who was permitted to remain in the apartment with their daughter, as his hausfrau. Laura’s two unmarried younger sisters, Adela (whom everyone called Putzi) and Fryda, were given jobs in a factory making military uniforms.

“Selections” continued, now right under their noses. One night Laura heard unfamiliar noises outside and got out of bed to see thousands of Jews, denied transportation, trudging to work on foot before dawn, many near collapse, a column of human despair shuffling along between lines of German soldiers prodding them with their rifles.

After a few weeks, the noise changed to the rumbling sounds of trucks carrying deportees to the concentration camps. The frightened Jews stood tightly packed in the open trucks, staring at the sky, searching for God, hoping for a miracle. Laura heard one man cry out loud, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad… .” Then a woman took up the words that are supposed to be the last ones uttered by a Jew before death. Then the others joined in, like a demented congregation, their voices rising, unheard, into the gray sky.

In exchange for her diamond ring, Laura temporarily rescued her own parents from the Germans and arranged to hide them at her husband’s place of work. Life was now a lethal game of musical chairs, in which those who couldn’t find one of the diminishing number of places to hide were taken away, almost surely to their deaths.

The Schwarzwalds clung to each other on Janowska Street in the Lvov ghetto as the Germans shot 5,000 Jews who were elderly and sick, and therefore useless to them. In early spring 1942, 15,000 more Jews—mostly women, children, and the elderly—were deported to the extermination camp in Belzec, not far from Lvov. In August, tens of thousands more were sent there. Another thousand orphans and sick Jews were shot dead. By September 1942, of the 100,000 Jews who lived in Lvov before the war, there were approximately 65,000 left, and they could only imagine what was happening elsewhere. Every morning the Jews of Lvov awoke to horrible news—that the nightmare was still real.

Laura learned that in the nearby town of Gorlice, Laura’s great-uncle had been made head of that ghetto’s Judenrat, or Jewish Council, the administrative organization made up of the community leaders, that the Nazis forced the Jews to form in every ghetto, under penalty of death, to facilitate their own deportation and extermination. This policy, used in the camps as well, put the decision of which Jews would live and which would die not in the hands of God, or even the Nazis, but of the Jews themselves. If the Nazis ordered the head of the Judenrat to produce 5,000 Jews at six in the morning to be deported, he had three choices. He could comply, comforting himself with the Nazis’ reassurance that deciding which Jews would live and which would die was preferable to all of them dying. He could refuse and be executed, along with who knows how many others for good measure. Or he could do what Laura’s great-uncle did. In Gorlice, the Nazis asked him to prepare lists of Jews to be “resettled.” He told them such an assignment would require serious thought, so that he could make sure the Jews left would be of the utmost use to them. “Come tomorrow morning,” Laura’s great-uncle said, “and I will have for you exactly what you want.” When the Nazis returned, they found him dead at his desk, a suicide.

Daniel was able to visit his family in the ghetto only occasionally, leaving Laura and Selma alone and at the mercy of the German soldiers, who three times came to their room and ordered them to be deported to the gas chambers at Belzec. Each time, Laura used her fluent German to persuade them to leave her and Selma alone.

BOOK: Such Good Girls
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