September 1939: ‘Something broke in the entire world’

Defence of Warsaw, September 1939. Photo by Julien Bryan, Institute of National Remembrance Archive

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. We present fragments of reports of Jewish soldiers of the Polish Army from the first days of the defensive war, preserved in the Ringelblum Archive.

‘Constantly under observation and on target’

‘Military service was of particular importance to the Jewish population in Poland,’ writes Eleonora Bergman. – ‘The number of Jews in the ranks of the Polish Army in September 1939 is generally estimated at about 100,000, or about 10% of all mobilized men, which corresponded to the percentage of the Jewish population living in Poland before the war.’[1] The accounts of Poles of Jewish origin who fought in the Polish Army during the defensive war of 1939 were collected by collaborators of the Oneg Shabbat group. These testimonies paint a picture of hope, chaos, failure, and sometimes boredom and disappointment.

German Heinkel He-111 bomber over Poland, 1939 Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-317-0043-17A, CC-BY-SA 3.0

An anonymous doctor of Jewish origin, who lived in Warsaw, came to the front in the vicinity of Lublin:

In the turbulent days of the Polish-German war, on Saturday, September 2, 1939, on the second day of the war with Germany, I left my wife, family, and Warsaw, and with a small medical and soldier’s luggage went by carriage to the Warsaw railway station. In the event of mobilization, I was assigned to a field hospital in Lublin and had to turn up my workplace within 4 days after the notification. Even though I still had two days at my disposal, I was in a hurry, realizing that the later, the more difficult the transport conditions would be, and who knows if I would even be able to get to the destination.

Already on the second day of the war with Germany, it was clear that Poland had difficulty in fighting all the enormous power with which Nazi Germany attacked her. The shortcomings of the command immediately revealed themselves, as well as the fact that Poland had much fewer military aircraft than Germany. On Saturday afternoon, the mood of the Polish population was already very serious, although there was no panic. (…) In accordance with the wartime law, total darkness reigned in the station building, as well as on the streets, and only here and there were discreetly shining bluish little electric lights. The station was crammed with thousands of people with parcels, mostly reservists, waiting like me for their trains to take them to their designated units. I had to go to Lublin by a freight train, in a wagon packed to the brim with soldiers and officers. Around midnight, our train slowly left the station and emerged from the bushes to the wild, it was going very slowly, without lighting, stopping almost every few hundred meters. (…)

And so it was for over 3 weeks, when we, doctors and paramedics, had this dubious honor to be constantly under observation and on target of German war planes.

(…) one night, the orderly woke me up, saying that our village was on fire and that our barracks were also in danger. We immediately organized help for the peasants in the village, and our command decided that our stay here was no longer purposeful and we were ordered to quickly prepare for the withdrawal with the entire hospital. From the train going southeast, we saw several great fires in Lublin. During the journey we quickly ran out of food and money and were quite starvinf, but it was not hunger that exhausted us all physically and – above all – mentally, but the repeated regular bombardments of our hospital three times a day by German combat aircraft.

During one of such attacks, a bomb fell into a wagon and severely injured the hand of a well-known Jewish doctor from Warsaw, who lost his entire hand. Everyone else in the car paid with their lives. Initially, the doctor lost consciousness, and he revived when a priest was praying over the bodies of the dead Poles. The wounded man used all his strength to signal that he was alive. He was immediately pulled from under the dead and taken to the hospital for treatment[2].

‘Broken, shattered’

Szmuel Zeldman, a Varsovian serving in the 14th Kuyavian Infantry Regiment, stationed in Włocławek, would have completed his one and a half year compulsory military service in September 1939.

An ordinary, carefree, nice young man, working during the day in a tree warehouse, and after work a ‘count’ who – for little money – can have fun and spend time pleasantly. A lover of dance venues, sports, schnapps and delicacies. He is not particularly interested in social, political or cultural issues. In his society, no importance is attached to it. The most important thing is to have a few pennies in your pocket, a few close, good friends, plus two or three pretty girls and… life is beautiful![3]

Unfortunately, just before his release from service, ‘something broke in the divine world,’ wrote Szmuel Szajnkinder, a footballer and journalist, associate of the Oneg Shabbes group, who wrote down the soldier’s account. Zeldman was transported to the German border. On September 3, 1939, his unit fought its first major skirmish – or rather was decimated by German fire:

The entire 14th regiment, which was concentrated on the train, scattered in panic under the blasting bombs, searching for a shelter. With great difficulty the command managed, after a long time, to gather the regiment back, and we marched forward. When night fell, we were already in Germany, in Mełno [author’s mistake: Mełno was located in Poland – ed.]. The mood was good. We marched in the night darkness through a long, narrow street. There was silence all around. We started joking about the enemy, and the officers assured us that tomorrow we would be in Berlin, where Rydz-Śmigły [Polish marshal and Commander-in-Chief] would take a parade.

Destroyed Polish military equipment on the banks of the Bzura River. Source: National Digital Archive

Suddenly, terrible shooting from all sides broke the silence. They were fired from the sky, from the ground; tra-ta-ta-ta from the machine guns came from every house, from every window. Nobody expected this, and therefore the confusion was terrible. From under each wall we began to hear screams and groans… There were corpses at every step, making it difficult to escape in the darkness. It is simply impossible to convey what happened on that terrible night on the long street in Mełno. Each of us, in panic and fear, ran back where our eyes had gone. Many soldiers were wounded and fell on their way. It took all night to escape to the rear. And when the gray day broke out, we were back in Polish territory. Broken, shattered.

After the retreat, Zeldman’s unit found itself on the Bzura River, where between September 9 and 22 took place the greatest battle of the 1939 war.

We crossed the Bzura river several times, both ways. On one occasion, I went with six other men to patrol the river bank. We heard gunshots from the mill. It was a few Germans, probably also a patrol, convinced that we were going for them, entered the windmill and started shooting at us from there. We threw several hand grenades at the enemy. Then we demanded from a distance that they should surrender. But no one replied. When we approached the mill, after throwing a few more grenades, we saw 3 German soldiers lying with their mouths shot through. They preferred death to surrender to the enemy.[5]

Following the defeat, during the chaotic retreat towards Warsaw, Zeldman found himself in the Kampinos Forest and the Germans treated him as a wounded prisoner of war, although he did not formally surrender himself. He was sent to a POW camp, from which he was released in March 1940 and sent back to Warsaw by train.

When I saw ‘my’ Warsaw for the first time, after more than 15 months of absence, I started to cry. I did not expect such a view…[6]

‘There were 70-80% of Jews in my company’

Zelman Kawa, a reservist, was assigned to an officer’s bureau in Warsaw:

(…) a sergeant asked who of us can write nicely, and when I reported that I could, I was invited as a scribe to the captain’s office. This sergeant was a cultured man and was very friendly to all soldiers, regardless of nationality.

On the first day of my work at the office, on September 4, in the evening, I was surprised by the unusual sound of planes resounding over our barracks building on ul. Czerniakowska. I thought it was an exercise by Polish planes, but an emergency order soon came, because it turned out to be German spy planes against which a fierce defense immediately began. Fearing that the Germans had tracked us down, we left the barracks that same evening and marched in complete darkness to the citadel [Warsaw Citadel, old Russian fortress in the northern part of the city – ed.]. About a thousand soldiers marched then, including quite a large number of Jews. We were divided into companies. In my company there were 70-80% of Jews. In the first days, relations between Poles and Jews were quite friendly.[7]

Unfortunately, the company came under the command of a non-commissioned officer, who tried to separate Poles from Jews, and commissioned a unit composed mainly of Jews to search for German paratroopers near Okuniew. Ultimately, no paratrooper was found. After his return to Warsaw, the witness and his companions – as Jews – were deprived of their weapons and assigned to a labor battalion.[8] The unit dug trenches in the suburbs of Warsaw, then sought shelter from German bombing raids in the cellars. This is how Kawa lived to see his surrender.

I was in the army for 28 days, until the capitulation of Warsaw. 28 days in the same clothes, without sleep, without proper food, but we did not even know until the last minute that we would end so sadly. [9].

Written and translated by Przemysław Batorski
Footnotes:
[1] Eleonora Bergman, Wprowadzenie, in: Archiwum Ringelbluma, v. 15, Wrzesień 1939. Listy kaliskie. Listy płockie, Wydawnictwo ŻIH/Wydawnictwo UW, ed. by Tadeusz Epsztein, Justyna Majewska, Aleksandra Bańkowska, transl. by Sara Arm et al., Warsaw 2014, p. VI.
[2] Archiwum Ringelbluma, v. 15, op. cit., p. 115-116. In some parts of each story, paragraph breaks have been added for online publishing..
[3] Ibid., p. 58.
[4] Ibid., p. 59.
[5] Ibid., p. 60.
[6] Ibid., p. 62.
[7] Ibid., p. 28-29.
[8] Ibid., p. 31.
[8] Ibid., p. 33.