Pinkhas Shvarts on the attempted flight from Warsaw
On the night of September 5 to September 6, 1939, only a few days after the German attack on Poland, a group of Jewish journalists and writers decided to leave Warsaw for the East at the behest of the Polish government in order to escape the German advance. Among them was Pinkhas Shvarts (1902-1963), who reported on the chaotic escape situation in Warsaw train stations.
Night. Darkness. An oppressive, dramatic silence. We approached the great Warsaw Kerbedzshe bridge. 11Today probably: Most Świętokrzyski. […]
Sad, somewhat like a fairy-tale legion of expelled people, our train of people silently crosses the footpath of the bridge. From there, we turn right and approach the eastern station of Praga (a suburb of Warsaw) through some side streets. […]
The way was incredibly tiring not only for the elderly. Even we, the “youth,” struggled quite a bit in the stuffy air of the hot, stuffy-hot summer night.
Finally we arrived at the train station via deserted streets. It didn’t look as if trains would leave from this station today. All doors of the huge station building were locked, all windows were dark. […]
Someone found out that there are long detours to get into the station. Tired and sweaty we dragged ourselves for a long time along the badly paved streets of Praga until we entered the dark, deserted station.
A train station has never looked like this before! […]
As we walked to the tunnels, one hand was carrying the suitcases and the other was holding on to the coat tip of the person in front of oneself – it was that dark from all sides. […]
Suddenly – a dazzling brightness and an extremely changed “décor” that probably more than one – me, at least – got dizzy: Is everything that is happening around me right now, a real event or a Fata Morgana, which I have mysteriously gotten into?
I suddenly found myself in a tight cluster of standing and lying human beings with crooked, foggy, half-mad faces. All around me from all sides there was a hum of thousands of human voices – choked conversations, crying of small children, moans of sick people, wild laughter of a mad woman. God in heaven – this is probably what hell looks like!
No, of course this was not hell, but only a small part of the reality of war. In the brightly lit tunnels lay thousands of refugees from Pomerania (the western part of Poland), where Hitler already ruled. They lay there abandoned by God, by people and by their own government. The only creatures who walked between them, stroking one over the head and giving others a hot glass of tea, were two dozen courageous Polish young women from the “Red Cross.” But for all their miraculous control, they had such limited possibilities so that hell… remained hell.
Someone screamed from a corner in a hoarse voice:
“Bring a train, I say! We have been promised to be taken to a safe area! Where is our voivod? 22A voivod is an official in charge of an administrative district in Poland. Where?”
A group of sailors sat in a corner playing cards on stacked suitcases, as if they didn’t even notice what was happening around them. On the steps next to them, two little girls lay with their heads on the rocks and slept. Above them, one step higher, sat a mad peasant woman, braiding long, half grey braids and breaking out again and again into a wild, insane laughter. Not far from her lay a woman in urban elegant clothes – even a lady’s hat was lying around on a suitcase – and out of her mouth came monotonously and incessantly a dull phrase repeated a thousand times:
“Jesus,” muttered the woman with her lips, “Jesus dear, I am about to die.”
But not only Jesus, but even the young women of the Red Cross didn’t care about her. In the same way, no one cared about the various moans that came from other corners of the big tunnel.
All these unfortunate people were waiting for trains which – according to the promises made a few days ago – were to take them “to a safe place.” Unfortunately, these unfortunates did not know that Warsaw would find itself in the situation of a city left to chaos as early as tomorrow morning. …
2A voivod is an official in charge of an administrative district in Poland.
Pinkhas Shvarts 11Herts, Y. Sh. (ed.): 1956–1968. Doyres Bundistn, Vol. 3. New York, pp. 116–122; Schulz, Miriam, 2016. Der Beginn des Untergangs. Die Zerstörung der jüdischen Gemeinden in Polen und das Vermächtnis des Wilnaer Komitees. Berlin: Metropol. http://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/miriam-schulz-der-beginn-des-untergangs/, p. 93 was a member of the Bund, writer and correspondent of the Yiddish Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper) in Warsaw and brother of the famous chronicler of the Holocaust in Lithuania, Herman Kruk 22For biographical details see Kruk, Herman, 2002: The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944. New Haven: Yale University Press. He was one of the few Polish-Jewish writers who managed to get a seat on the so-called journalist train, which left Warsaw for Lublin on the night of September 5-6, 1939, to escape the German invasion.
The group of Polish Jewish intellectuals were not the only ones who decided to flee. Thousands of Poles from Pomerania had already arrived in Warsaw with the aim of fleeing further. Under chaotic circumstances and often on the brink of madness, they waited at train stations to be taken “to a safe place”. The further fate of the Pomeranian refugees, unlike that of the intellectual elite, is unknown. The latter reached Vilnius on 10 October 1939 after a long, dangerous and erratic journey on the journalist train.
Arriving in Vilnius, the exiled Jewish refugees did not hesitate for long. In November 1939, the group of refugee writers and journalists founded the Committee for the Collection of Material on the Destruction of Polish Jewry in 1939, probably the earliest Jewish historical commission in Eastern Europe, which, in the shadow of German crimes, secretly began to document the destruction of Polish Jewry since September 1939. Pinkhas Shvarts survived the Shoah by escaping via Vilnius in the direction of New York, and in 1957 became a leading member of the Bund‘s World Coodinating Committee.
1Herts, Y. Sh. (ed.): 1956–1968. Doyres Bundistn, Vol. 3. New York, pp. 116–122; Schulz, Miriam, 2016. Der Beginn des Untergangs. Die Zerstörung der jüdischen Gemeinden in Polen und das Vermächtnis des Wilnaer Komitees. Berlin: Metropol. http://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/miriam-schulz-der-beginn-des-untergangs/, p. 93
2For biographical details see Kruk, Herman, 2002: The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944. New Haven: Yale University Press
Pinkhas Shvarts, 1943: Dos iz geven der onheyb, New York: Farlag “Arbeter-ring”, pp. 53–56.