The train hurtled along the tracks and the occupants in the cattle car sway from side to side, bumping into each other and pushing each other this way or that way. There is no space to sit down and everyone is miserable, worried about what the future will hold as they are sent to resettle in the east. Some talk of new beginnings that they were promised by the Nazi officers and other talk of stories and rumours they had heard before the Ghetto was evacuated of the majority of Jews. Living in the Warsaw Ghetto had been living hell for many and some hoped that their lives would improve. This is the story of a girl who survived.
We were once equals and suddenly we were the enemy. In one fell swoop we had lost everything. Our names became unimportant and our lives were turned upside down as Hitler's decrees and regulations became part of our daily lives, the Nuremberg laws were created to divide the Jewish people from everyone else and our identities became lost in the chaos of antisemitism. We were not welcome in public places like parks or restaurants and could not buy produce from the grocers, butchers or bakers. We could not study like our peers in school and were forced to sit at the back of the classroom and were ignored and taunted. Anyone with a Jewish bloodline in so many generations were also cast out from German society and despite all of this, my father taught us to still love Germany and it's people.
My name is Irma Biermann and I am the fourth born out of five children to my parents, Gunther and Rivka. Father owned a bakery and my mother worked as a seamstress, my two eldest brothers, Rudi and Klaus worked in the bakery alongside father since they had left school and dreamed of being the next generation of bakers. My eldest sister Helga worked as a seamstress with mother and my youngest sister Frida was still at school. Our parents were not rich but they were comfortable with five children to feed and at the start of the troubles, Rudi turned twenty and Klaus turned seventeen, both dating respectable Jewish girls at the time. Helga was sixteen and was content with her life as she applied to study art. I had not long turned fourteen when Hitler rose to power and Frida had turned four. We lived in Berlin and our family was complete, then the trouble started and everything we knew was questioned.
Chapter 2: The Night Of Broken Glass
In 1938 Adolf Hitler passed a decree to eliminate all Jews from economic life, banning Jews from operating retail stores and carrying on a trade and forbidden Jews from selling goods from any kind of establishments- The livelihood of thousands were being taken away and that was only the beginning of things to come.
The day father lost his business and livelihood is a day I shall never forget. He never got over it and often spoke of trying to bribe officials to remain open, to provide for his own family as well as his customers, but to bribe an officer or even suggest it was punishable by certain death. It destroyed father although he pretended that it didn't trouble him as much as it really did. Losing the family business was horrific and it happened in the most horrible of ways.
Every Saturday I would go to the store with father and I would work as hard as I could, sweeping the floors and serving customers, helping bake bread or slice meats and arrange the shelves so they were presentable. Father would often allow me to have sweets from the glass jars behind the counter under the promise that I didn't tell mother he had gave me them. I always looked forward to a Saturday because I could spend time with father and he always promised to teach me everything he knew so that I could take care of the business when he was gone. But this one Saturday was different and heartbreaking.
Father and I walked along the streets towards the bakery, greeting friends and neighbours and ignoring the Nazi decree posters that lined the streets. Groups of people would read the posters and then dash off to tell everyone else, but father never played attention to them when is children were there. We were almost at the bakery when a friend of father's stopped us in the street.
"Gunher, I am terribly sorry about the bakery. The soldiers have took everything." The friend of father told us. "There was nothing we could do!"
"What is going on?" Father demanded.
"Jews all across the country are not allowed to have businesses. Our livelihoods have been taken and under control of the Nazis." He told us.
"They can not do this to us! How are we supposed to survive?" Father tried to hide his anguish. "I must find out what is going on."
"Be careful, Gunther." The man warned him and leaned in close so I didn't hear, but I could. "There have been deaths. The soldiers are executing anyone who opposes or tries to stop them from taking their businesses. Be very careful, my friend."
Father hurriedly walked towards the bakery and he stopped dead at the sight before him. I stood in awe, suddenly very afraid. The windows of the bakery were broken and the door was on the floor. We stepped into the empty shell of our former bakery and we stood in shock. The shelves were empty and the glass crunched under our feet as we looked at what we can salvage. All the products we had sold for many years was gone and only a few dented cans remained amongst the broken wood and glass.
"Papa?" I tugged at his sleeve. "Why have they done this?"
"Shhh. We will talk at home." He says quietly. "We must take what we can and go. There is nothing we can do here."
Father and I started to gather what we could from the mess when two soldiers demanded our attention.
"Stop! You are taking property belonging to the German state." The soldier barked, his gun pointed at father's chest.
"Please sir, I am just trying to salvage what I can for my family. This is....was my business." Father explained and was cut off.
"It is the property of Germany and not yours, you Jewish scum. Now get out before I change my mind and shoot you!" The soldier demands.
Father dropped everything he had tried to carry and quickly ushered me out of the store and down the street. It isn't until we are at home that father becomes angry at being treated and mother doesn't know what had happened.
"Our business is gone. The Nazis have taken everything and has made it illegal for us to own anything or to sell from our own businesses." Father told mother. "How shall we survive?"
"We shall survive like we always do and we shall do it in spite of everything that is being done to us." Mother told him and took him into the kitchen so they could talk.
I was supposed to be listening to the wireless but I listened to their conversation. Father was worried and mother was doing her best to reassure him that we would survive. That night at supper, father went to his bedroom while we sat in silence at the table. Mother had prepared a lovely meal, but it did nothing to reassure us as I had told Rudi, Klaus and Helga. They too were worried as the next day, they had stones thrown at them in the street by non Jews who had once been friends. My brothers promised to find work so they could contribute towards food and coal for the fire, but mother told them not to worry as they would survive. It wasn't until the Monday following the Saturday that we lost the family business that I experienced the hatred of Jews for myself.
Even at school there was a strange atmosphere between the students and as soon class was called, all the Jewish students were called to the front and were made to stand. There were nine of us in total and none of us knew what was going on and then it became clear when Mr Stroebel commanded the attention of everyone.
"Good morning students. I have a very important announcement to make and everyone must take heed and obey. " Mr Stroebel begins. "We must follow the laws of our great nation during these dark times and work together for a better Germany. The Jews are Germany's enemy and we must stop them from taking over our great land. Go sit at the back you disgusting pigs."
Mr Stroebel had always been a good teacher and we were confused as we went and sat at the back of the classroom, everyone's eyes upon us as we felt our faces burn with shame. Mr Stroebel continued to tell the rest of the class that we were not to be spoken to or acknowledged and then began the lesson. None of us could concentrate on the lesson because and it was made clear that our classmates had also turned against us. We were ridiculed and belittled, we were called names and were forced to stick together and were called atrocious names by people we had once called friends. A few of the girls cried as they were verbally assaulted while two of the boys were taken to the Headmaster's office for fighting.
They were caned repeatedly and were made to scrub the floors after school. They rarely disobeyed the teacher again and stayed out of trouble. It was a few days later that we were told to compose an essay on why Jews were dirty and we were told that we also had to compose the essay and read it out to the class. My parents were angry and disgusted when I told them what we were asked to write and then to be subjected to listening to from the other students, but there was nothing we could do. We just had to write it and then tell it to the class.
The next day, Mr Stroebel made all the gentile students go first and the nine Jewish students were horrified at the things we were being called. We were called dogs and filth, thieves and liars and we were told we were a waste of life and should be ashamed that we were Jewish. Mr Stroebel praised the students on their excellent penmanship and rewarded them with Nazi badges to wear proudly. Then it came to the Jewish students turn and none of us dared to go first. One girl, Chaya was distraught as she stood at the front of the class and was laughed at by the teacher and other pupils. Tears ran down her cheeks as she began reading what she had written.
"My names is Chaya and I am a Jew." She tells the class and stops, holding back tears. "I am ashamed to be Jewish. We are liars, thieves and are vermin. We are not fit to be part of this great German nation. We do not deserve the kindness that we receive from many and should be treated like the rats that we are, thank you."
Mr Stroebel applauded and the other students joined in and I felt sick to my stomach as I watched poor Chaya walk back to her seat trying not to cry with embarrassment. It was my turn next and I had written almost the same thing and my face burned as I stood there. I was embarrassed at having to talk about myself and my friends and family like that and my face burned with anger. I had known most of my peers for many years at school and had played with them, went to parties for their birthdays and this was how they were treating us for simply being a Jew. A few of them, the ones I had once been friends with looked at me with sympathy and I knew then that they didn't agree with what was being done to us, but they had to partake or risk investigations from the Nazi's police force. The rest of the day felt like a century as we worked our way through the lessons and it always came back to why the Jews were bad news, even in the Mathematics lesson. I learned then that whatever lesson we would have we would be subjected to this bullying.
Leaving school for the day and going home had been the best part of the day and many of my friends, of course the Jewish ones were also relieved to be out of that toxic environment. But I was still hurting and angry as I arrived home and I threw my school bag onto the floor by the apartment door and sat at the kitchen table, groaning with despair.
"What is the matter with you, Irma?" Mother asked.
Mother was busy kneading bread and the last thing I wanted to do was upset her.
"It doesn't matter, Mama." I told her. "Just a bad day at school."
She instantly stopped what she was doing and sat at the table with me and took hold of my hand.
"Come on now, tell me your troubles and then we shall have tea and freshly baked bread." She said with a smile and I relented and told her what had happened.
"Mr Stroebel made us compose an essay as to why we were dirty and filthy for being Jewish and if we didn't do it, we were told the headmaster would punish us." I told mother and I grew even angrier at the look on mother's face.
"Mr Stroebel was wrong to make you or anyone else do that, Irma. To treat another human being like that is horrible and I can not change what has been done, but I am giving you the choice to stay home from school to avoid these....new lessons." She answers after some careful thought.
"I don't want to miss going to school because of it, Mama. I love school and I want to learn and have a good education and if I leave school I can't have that." I told her and squeezed her hand tightly. "The worst is over."
How I had been so wrong.
We ate a hearty meal, washed and then relaxed in the sitting room before bed. Father listened to the wireless whole mama sewed and mended clothing. I sat and read a book that I found difficult to put down. Soon after, I went to bed with the memory of being ridiculed still fresh in my mind. I must have fallen asleep quickly because the next thing I knew I heard screams from outside of the window. I ran to the window and saw many men breaking the windows of shops. I fetched father and mama who were watching from the sitting room window, father's arm protectively around mother.
"Papa, what's going on?" I asked. "Why are they breaking the windows?"
"I don't know." He replies solemnly and pulled me closer to him with his other arm. "I don't know what is happening."
We watched in silence as the hooligans broke windows, dragging the contents from the shops into the street and setting them ablaze. Friends and neighbours tried to stop the chaos and to protect their businesses but they were beaten with clubs and sticks. I watched in horror as old Mr Dresner, the book keeper was pushed to the ground and beaten with fists and frets from the thugs. Beaten, in pain and in astonishment he watched as the thugs carried armfulls of books and set then on fire. He cried and pleaded for them to stop but the thugs would not listen and wouldn't stop their attack. This continued for hours. Some homes had been broken into and items were broken, windows smashed and glass littered the street. Piles of ash from the fires showed very little that could be salvaged. It wasn't until the next morning that we saw the real devastation. The riot and chaos lasted for twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours of persecution.
Father stood on the pavement in silence as he looked around at the broken windows and painted racial slurs against the Jews. The entire street was littered with the damage from the previous night and many families tried to salvage what they could. Everyone was crying, the wives of the shopkeepers, the shopkeepers themselves and their friends and neighbours. Sadness and anger filled everyone's hearts that day and for generations to come, they would remember what the Jewish people went through. Father told us we were to go with him to check on the family business and as we walked down the streets we saw more and more businesses vandalised and destroyed. We arrived at the store and father stood staring at the broken windows, the white paint with disgusting words over the bricks and a lot of the food had been trampled on and ruined, tins and jars of preserves lay smashed all over the floor. Father entered his store with hurt in his heart. Not one single item could be saved and it would cost a fortune to restock the shelves.
"Papa?" I took his hand. "Why did they do this?"
"It is because we are Jews." He croaked and squeezed my hand. "Come, we must do what we can to restore some sort of order in this chaos. Irma, once I have taken away the broken glass the floors will need scrubbed and swept. Go fetch the broom from the cupboard and we shall start."
"Yes, papa." I answered and went to fetch the broom. "I don't understand why anyone would do this. There are so many businesses ruined by those men."
"They are not men, they are animals. They destroy what they can not have." He told me as he picked up broken glass and battered cans. "It is going to take us all day to clean this mess up."
"I can help, papa." I had said with enthusiasm. It hurt so much to see my father hurting.
"You are such a good girl, a strong young lady just like your mother. You will make a husband very happy when you are older." He said with a smile. "Let's get started and we shall hopefully be home for supper."
We scrubbed, we swept, we organised and we salvaged what we could and put the shop back to some sort of normality. It took the whole day to clean and then father took note of everything that he would need to replenish the shelves and worked out how much it would cost. Of course this worried father because he suspected that the store could be destroyed again and again by those thugs. When we returned home Mother had prepared a delicious meal and tried to reassure father and us that everything would be okay in the coming days, then the conversation turned sour.
"Mrs Wechsler's flower shop has been totally destroyed by those thugs and poor Mr Eppstein has a broken wrist and broken ribs. Thankfully it wasn't any worse!" Mother told us.
The images of poor Mr Eppstein being beaten in the street with sticks and clubs by those thugs was still fresh in my mind.
"The poor man is afraid to leave his house now." Mother added. "But he was able to tell who some of them were. They were Nazi supporters with pin badges on some of their coats. Irma, you are excused."
I had known that mother didn't want me to hear whatever she knew, but father told her that I should be present as I needed to know what was going on. Grudgingly, Mother repeated what she had been told.
"The Sturmabteilung were responsible for the riots. They burned down some businesses and homes and then they have destroyed the synagogues." Mother told us, upset. "People were beaten to death in the streets and others were shot in front of their families."
"Their actions are unforgivable." Father said suddenly and comforted mother who was crying. "From now on, no one leaves the house themselves and we stay together. I have a feeling that this madness will not end for some time and I don't want any of you getting hurt."
Later that evening, father told my siblings of what was to be done and they accepted his advice straight away. They too had seen the description of the mob and had seen the blood in the street. As a family we all decided to stay together no matter what happened.