On the road to extermination

Books | A chilling account of the nightmare that was Nazi-occupied Poland
by Josef Zelkowicz & Peretz Opoczynski
Posted 2/18/17, 11:20 am

In Those Nightmarish Days: The Ghetto Reportage of Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz was WORLD’s Book of the Year for 2015-2016 in the history/biography category. It is the work of two extraordinary writers who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II and came to realize they were on the road to their worst nightmares: extermination. The two journalists and almost all their subjects died in concentration camps or from starvation. (Germans provided ghetto occupants with a daily allotment of 184 calories.)

To do their jobs, Opoczynski and Zelkowicz had to preach to themselves: “Go out into the street and look for yourself, breathe in the unconscious terror of the tiny babies being ready for slaughter—look hard, and do not cry. Look good and hard, and do not let your heart burst, so that you will later be able to give a deliberate and considered account.” The Gospel writer Luke had the same goal of presenting an orderly account, but he had good news to report.

Here’s an example from In Those Nightmarish Days—and thanks to Yale University Press for publishing this book and giving us permission to run an excerpt from it. Waiters sometimes bring food to a table and say, “Enjoy.” That word is inappropriate with this selection, but maybe the right word is “Engage”—and don’t let that nightmare reoccur. —Marvin Olasky

Friday, September 4, 1942

The deportation of children and the elderly is a fact

The ghetto fell into a dreadful, monstrous terror today when surprised this morning by the fact that what just yesterday seemed an improbable, unbelievable report has unfortunately revealed itself to be the case: children ten years old and under will be torn from their parents and siblings and deported. The elderly sixty-five and older are being ripped from the last refuge they’ve clung to so desperately with all their strength, with both hands—their four walls and hard beds. Like extra ballast, they’re being deported from the ghetto.

If deportation were only the end of it—if only the slightest indication existed that these “deported” will actually be sent someplace! If they were actually to be sent to a definite location under some kind of specified conditions, given some kind of accommodation and subsistence, the tragedy would not be so immense. Every Jew has always been ready to wander, and Jewish life has always been able to adapt to the harshest and most threatening conditions; every Jew has always been ready to take his wandering staff in his hands and, when ordered, to leave his home and way of life. All the more so in the ghetto, with no fortune or household goods or property, no rest and repose tying them to the place! Jews’ lives have always centered securely on their ancient God, who, they believe, will never abandon them and of course told them that he would never leave them. “Somehow, everything will turn out fine,” they say, or “Somehow, we’ll scrape together a meager existence.” If only they could find the least certainty, the slightest ray of possibility, that they would be sent somewhere, the ghetto would not be so shaken by this new and unknown decree. But never mind. So many unknown decrees have been handed down that everyone has had to accept, whether they wanted to or not, that it might have seemed natural to accept this decree as well. Except that now there is no doubt—it is certain those now being deported from the ghetto are not being “sent” anywhere. They’re simply being tossed away, discarded like garbage. And with this being the case, how can anyone make his peace with the new decree? How can anyone be convinced to go on living, whether he wants to or not? No words are available—no power can summon the force necessary to convey the current mood: the wailing and shrieks that began to make themselves heard today from early morning in the ghetto.

If you were to say that today the ghetto is swimming in tears, it would hardly be a flowery expression—it would just be an unsuccessful description, a shorthand for describing the scenes and images that could be seen and heard in the Litzmannstadt ghetto, wherever you take a step and wherever you turn an eye or ear. No building, no apartment, no family escapes from the crushing weight of this ominous decree. This one has a child, the other an aged father. Another, an aged mother. No one has any patience, and no one can sit still inside their apartment—sit with hands folded and await his fate. Inside they suffer utter misery. Inside their apartments they feel alone, all alone with their unbearable sorrow eating at their hearts. And so the streets fill quickly, for in the street, no one feels quite as blind or quite so abandoned. Animals, they say, when they feel sorrow join together in a pack in the same way. Animals with mute tongues, unable to speak the sorrow in their hearts, do it, so why shouldn’t human beings?

All hearts have turned to ice—all hands are limp from being wrung. All eyes are filled with despair. All faces are distorted. All eyes are downcast, and all are bleeding tears. Tears burst out of their own accord, and no one can stop them. And at the same time they know these tears are spilled in vain. Those who might be able to help them do not want to see them—and those who will see them, they themselves are bursting with tears spilled in vain and are unable to help even themselves. Worst of all, the tears that are shed do nothing to lighten the burden on their hearts. Just the opposite: instead of pouring from the heart, they fall upon it and make the heart heavier. Their hearts struggle and squirm amid the tears like fish in poisoned water, drowning in their own tears, and there’s no one who can help even in the slightest. There’s no one there to save them at all.

Is there really no one—nobody in the whole ghetto—who has the will and the ability to save them? Is there no one at all? There must be someone! Maybe they just don’t know yet who that someone might be! Maybe he’s gone into hiding somewhere because he can’t help, can’t save, everyone! Maybe that’s the reason people are running around like poisoned mice throughout the ghetto. Everyone is looking for that hidden “someone.” Maybe that explains why the ghetto Jews are pounding on the putrid walls—maybe the wall contains that longed-for “someone” within. Maybe it’s this one, or maybe that one there. Perhaps that’s why everyone runs on about their noble family tree, because today everyone’s looking for someone with “connections”; perhaps a distinguished family tie will bring them mercy.

And then there are the children, who still, alas, know absolutely nothing at all. The small children have no idea whatsoever of the sword of Damocles now hanging over their innocent little heads, though they may unconsciously sense the great danger. So they cling all the tighter with both little hands to the thin, drawn necks of their fathers and mothers.

You, son of man, go out into the street and look for yourself, breathe in the unconscious terror of the tiny babies being readied for slaughter—look hard, and do not cry!1 Look good and hard, and do not let your heart burst, so that you will later be able to give a deliberate and considered account of a small part of what happened in the ghetto in the first days of September of the year nineteen hundred and forty-two! Mothers run through the streets, a shoe on one foot and the other bare, half their hair combed and the other wild, their kerchiefs dangling from their chests down to the ground, still clutching their children tightly—mothers who can press them all the more stiffly and firmly to their emaciated breasts, who can still smother their gleaming eyes and faces with kisses. But what will tomorrow bring—or what will happen in the next hour? The rumors fly aplenty: it’s today that children will be taken from their parents. Another rumor has it that the children will be deported on Monday. The children will be deported—but where?

Deported as soon as Monday. Or today they will be seized. But for the time being, the present moment, every mother is still holding on to her child, still able to give it everything. The best that she can—that is, her last little piece of bread. Everything that she has in her heart, her best and most precious treasures! Today her child shouldn’t wait for an hour and cry before mother and father determine it’s time to give them a piece of their twenty-five decagrams of bread. Today the child will be asked instead, maybe, my little soul, you’d like a little piece of bread right now? And the piece of bread that child receives today is not, as per usual, dry and moldy—today it will be smeared with margarine, if a little morsel of it is left. Today it is sprinkled with sugar, if there’s any still there—the ghetto is living on credit today. No one is weighing or measuring anything today. No one is holding on to their sugar or margarine today so that they’ll last the whole ten days until the next “ration.” Today no one in the ghetto lives with the future in mind. Today they live for the moment—in the current moment before it passes. Every mother still has her child by her side, her very heart and soul; what wouldn’t she give to keep them there? And the children? What do children know? Most are naive creatures, and if one of them is a bit more clever, he asks, “Mama, why are you giving me so much good stuff to eat today, am I sick?”

Can a mother respond to this question with anything other than tears? The child chews on the little piece of bread and chokes on the first bite. Without any answer to the question “Am I sick nor not?” he or she eventually comes to the conclusion, I’m probably sick. Because if the child weren’t sick, it wouldn’t be receiving such good food and in such quantities … if the child weren’t sick, neither the father nor mother would be clasping it so close and so tight. And if it weren’t sick, neither father nor mother would have wept so long and so hard while they did. Only one thing remains a puzzle for the child: if it’s sickness, then why are they running back and forth through the streets together? Why not the usual bed rest instead? Why all this running about but no trip to the doctor? Of course they are sick, these poor little Jewish children. They are wretchedly ill, these little Jewish fledglings, and a final fate has been determined for these sick birds: slaughter.

Today no one in the ghetto lives with the future in mind. Today they live for the moment—in the current moment before it passes.

There are children who already understand what’s afoot. Ten-year-old children in the ghetto, for example, are already fully mature individuals who recognize and understand the fate that awaits them. They don’t yet know why they’re being torn away from their parents—that, perhaps, no one has told them just yet. In the meantime, however, the fact that they will be taken away from their trusted protectors—from their fathers and devoted mothers—is enough for them. Such a child is difficult to hold in your arms or even to lead by the hand; such a child walks alone in the street. Such a child cries alone, shedding tears of its own: tears sharp and pointed enough to pierce your heart like so many poisoned arrows. But hearts in the ghetto have turned to stone. If only they could break, but the poor things have simply become too hard, and that is perhaps their hardest and most bitter curse. That is how the most terrifying pain a Jew can imagine is produced: pressed on the one side by the ghetto and on the other by a Jewish—by a caring—heart.

The hurt becomes even greater and the pain more senseless when the situation is considered logically: okay, the elderly are, well, elderly. If they’ve lived out their sixty-five years, maybe they can persuade themselves, or others can persuade them, to come to a conclusion that looks roughly like this: “You know, I’ve lived, praised be the Holy Name, a good number of years already, both in happiness and sorrow—what’s done is done. It’s probably just a matter of fate. Anyway, no one lives forever, so what real difference does it make if the end comes a few days, a few weeks, or even a few years sooner? You’ve got to go sometime, and that sometime might finally be this time. Let it be—what’s done is done.” Perhaps the elderly talk themselves into it, or perhaps they are persuaded by their closest relations to come to this conclusion. Children, however, who have barely pecked their noses out of the eggshell—children who have seen God’s world only in the ghetto, children for whom a cow or a chicken are nothing but strange shapes from some fairyland, children who have spent their entire lives without smelling a flower, seeing an orange, tasting an apple or a pear—fate has decreed that their lives are to come to an end! On these heads, the full black and brutal fate of death is to fall?

Bitter fathers and mothers gnash their teeth. “Mine won’t go! No living child of mine will be handed over! They’ll take our children from us as corpses!” The ghetto skies, like yesterday and the day before, are as clear as ever. The sun shines with the light of the month of Elul, as it did yesterday and the day before, and looks with a smile at Jewish sorrow and misery.2 The sun looks down as if worms were being trampled or as if a decree against bedbugs had been announced. As if the Day of Judgment on rats had been proclaimed—to be annihilated and exterminated from the earth. And for all that, some in the ghetto still have their doubts. There are still enough people to be found in the ghetto who want to carry on confidently with their lives and even offer a logical explanation: “Here in the ghetto, 80 percent of the population is performing useful labor. We’re not a provincial city they can make ‘Judenrein’ in half an hour.3 We’re needed for their purposes, since the work has to be done. It makes no sense that they’d take people from here and deport them.”

Others who have no logical argument to make retain their confidence—they simply believe in miracles: “There are so many stories where it’s happened. A bitter decree has hung over us more than once in Jewish history, and every time we were saved at the last moment. And for the first time in the war, Łódź has just been bombed from the air. The deportation announcement can still be rescinded—how can we know what will be?”

The atmosphere has grown strange in the ghetto. People have already heard so much, so much good as well as bad, that previous experience should have taught them a lesson: good rumors have never proven to be true, and life in the ghetto never improves. Life here is meant to get worse, and the hundreds of evil rumors that have proven to be true prove the case. Nevertheless, people are eager to hear about the most distant prospect that might mean good news rather than confront the evil that faces them right here and now. So the public has allowed itself to be persuaded by logical arguments and permitted itself to be sung to sleep by their optimistic lullabies; the public has returned to the ressorts and to the everyday working routine.

From In Those Nightmarish Days: The Ghetto Reportage of Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz, edited and with an introduction by Samuel D. Kassow and translated and co-edited by David Suchoff. Copyright © 2015. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press.


1. An allusion to the opening lines of “In the City of Slaughter” by Haim Nahman Bialik, written in response to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. See The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David G. Roskies (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), sec. 47.

2. Elul, in late summer, is when Jewish families traditionally visit graveyards and commune with the spirits of their departed loved ones.

3. Nazi term, in German in the text, meaning “clean of Jews.”

Peretz Opoczynski
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  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Tue, 02/21/2017 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the excerpt.  It is important to not allow the reality of this unbelievable horror to be forgotten.  A national government did this and the citizens did not rise up and stop it.  If you think this cannot happen again, even here, you don't know the depravity of the human heart.