Chapter 9: Parting from Poland

New school, new classmates. As in Falenica, some were friendly, others hostile.  It  was difficult  for me to get used to my new environment.  I had built up a good reputation with my teachers in Falenica, and missed many of them. More important, I had left all my friends back in Zatrzebie, and missed them greatly.
I never became used to Walbrzych, and did not like the small-town  mentality of its residents. There was a quiet corner in a nearby city park, where I used to sit alone on a bench and read books. In school I had few friends. I felt lonely, and for a  while contemplated  going  back  to Zatrzebie. Eventually, I gave up on that idea, because it would undoubtedly offend  Stella and Gabriel,  who treated me as their own son.
School work was not a problem. The two years of diligent study had brought me  to the  top of  the class in Falenica,  and I easily remained at  the top  during the  following two years in the Lyceum, until  my  matriculation  in  1949. I continued  to study  hard, provoking  frequent  scolding  from  Stella,  who  thought  that incessant study  would make  me tired and too much reading would ruin my  eyes.  She insisted that I was not getting enough sleep and rest,  and  that I did not eat enough.  She used to enter my room several times each night, to check whether I was asleep, or reading. More often than not, she would find me with a textbook, reading and making notes. A tirade followed,  in which she tried to convince  me that  I already “knew everything better than all the professors”; that I  should get some rest and go to sleep,  etc. If she did find me asleep, she would close the window, so that I would not "catch cold",  and cover me with an additional blanket which I would discover in the morning.
Stella assumed totally the role of my mother, both at home and in  school, where she regularly attended parent-teacher meetings to hear about my progress, always returning home with pride.  Marek  and  Adam became  my little  brothers. Neither was interested in studying. Stella set me up as an example they were supposed to follow, but her efforts were by and large wasted.

While I did not have many close friends in school, my relationships with the teachers were excellent. I have particularly fond memories of Mr.  Marian  Weinert,  my class  tutor,  who was also the gym instructor. An intelligent and extremely nice person, he understood the students and their problems well. He organized a physical education group, in which I participated. Every morning at 7 o'clock, an hour before the beginning of classes, our group gathered in the school yard for one hour of advanced gymnastics, using vaulting horses, parallel bars and other gym equipment. Our efforts culminated in an impressive gym show at the end of the school year. When I left school after my matriculation, Mr. Weinert also left. He moved to Wroclaw, where he became the Rector of the Academy of Physical Education.
I participated in the school choir, singing in the bass section. There was no music teacher in our school. The choir was directed and conducted by Edward Doszla, a student one year ahead of me. After his graduation from the Lyceum, he stayed on as the music teacher, and continued to conduct the choir.
Another of my favorite teachers was Mrs. Manikowa who taught chemistry.  I took  her subject  most seriously and often argued with  her  about  the  structures  of  molecules  and  other controversial points. In spite (or because?) of our arguments, she thought  of me  as her  best student,  and  insisted that  I continue to study chemistry and make it my future. At the end of the  school  year  I  was  awarded  a  prize  for excellence  in chemistry. It is amazing, how little of that knowledge remains today!
There was only one teacher with whom I did not get along: Mr. Rossowski. He taught drawing, which was obligatory. I never learned  to  draw  properly,  and  all  my  efforts resulted  in ridiculous forms, which Mr. Rossowski interpreted as disrespect and contempt  for him and his subject.  His interpretation of my work was incorrect; I respected all my teachers,  but could just not draw  any better.  We  retained serious  antipathy for  each other,  which lasted  well beyond  the period of my study at the Lyceum.

Among all my schoolmates, I did have one close friend: Marek Rucinski.  Classes in the Lyceum were separated into three parallel orientations:  biologic,  mathematical-physical and humanist. I studied  in  the  biologically  oriented  class; Marek,  in  the humanist.  Despite the  separate classes,  we  were mentally and spiritually  close,  and  liked each  other.  He lived  with his mother. His father, a physician and former officer in the Polish Army of General Anders, could not return to communist Poland for fear of  being imprisoned,  and so continued to live abroad.  We often studied together, exchanged forbidden political jokes, and looked forward  to medical studies,  which was our common dream. Later we became classmates in the Medical School of Wroclaw University ("The  Wroclaw Medical  Academy"),  where we remained close friends.  Our  relationship is a living denial of the theory of  incompatibility  of Polish  Catholics and  Jews as  friends. Today Marek is a gynecologist. He still lives in Walbrzych. I visited him recently and found him as nice as ever, and the town unattractive and unchanged.

*     *     *

In April, 1948, Poland celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw  Ghetto  Uprising.  The  monument  of  Nathan  Rapaport - Memorial to  the Ghetto  Heroes - was to be uncovered on the ruins of  the  Warsaw  Ghetto.  Many  dignitaries  and  other visitors arrived  from  abroad.  Virtually  all  Jews  who had survived  the Holocaust and were still living in Poland attended the ceremony. Stella, Gabriel, Marek, Adam and I took a night train to Warsaw.
While in Warsaw, we were approached on the street by a man who recognized Stella. As soon as he started talking, I recognized him. He was Bernard Kutyn,  my father's pre-war accountant, the only  one  of my  father's employees  who survived  the war. He survived due  to his  military service  in the  Soviet Army. We continued to talk for a while,  telling him all about our family’s fate. He mentioned the subject of my relatives in Australia:  my father's two cousins Tosia  and Gina, who had emigrated in 1939. He knew and remembered them well, because their sister Ziuta, who had been a secretary in my father's office, used to work with him in the same room. He was quite surprised to hear that I had not contacted them; they were, after all, my only surviving paternal relatives.
The idea had not occurred to me. Also, I had no idea of their whereabouts in Australia. Kutyn insisted that I should at least make an effort, and suggested that I write to the Medical Association of Australia  and  through  them  try  to  locate  Dr.  Bronislaw Rappaport, Tosia's husband. Kutyn's idea seemed unrealistic to me,  but Stella  took it  seriously,  and when  we were  back in Walbrzych, managed to convince me to follow his advice.
Composing  a  letter  in  English at that time was  beyond my  capability.  I contemplated writing in German, but eventually composed a letter in Polish, asking the Medical Association of Australia to try to locate Dr.  Bronislaw Rappaport.  The only identifying details I could provide were Bronek's country of birth - Poland - and the facts that he had studied medicine in Italy and had emigrated to Australia  in  1939. Not knowing  the Association's  address,  I mailed  the  letter  to  the Medical  Association of  Australia, Australia.
Much to my surprise, within a month I received a reply. The letter, written  in Polish,  was from  Dr.  Bernard (changed  from Bronislaw) Rappaport, Tosia's husband, and my late parents' close friend.  It  was very emotional.  The Australian branch of the family  had lost all hope that any of us had survived the War.  Bernard and  Tosia offered to bring me to Australia and to take me into their care. They did not have children. A lively correspondence developed  between me and my family in Australia. This was followed by parcels of food, clothing and later medical books, which they continued to send to me in Israel,  throughout my years in the Medical School.
In 1964, during my surgical residency training in New York, Tosia and Bronek came to the New York World Fair.  We had an emotional  meeting,  our  first  one  since  the  1930s.  Gina's daughter Maxine has been to Israel several  times with  her husband Morrie and  her children,  Lisa and Mark,  and we maintain steady contact.

*     *     *

Since the end of the war, Stella and Gabriel had wanted to leave Poland, preferably for America.  Several of my mother's cousins had left Poland after World War I and now lived in the United States; Gabriel had  a  childhood  friend  who lived  in Canada.  They  all were willing  to  help.  Stella  and  Gabriel obtained  the necessary affidavits  for  both  countries  and  made  arrangements  for emigration.  We were free to go.  But I did not like the idea of going to live in America. Stella did her best to try to convince me,  but I stubbornly persisted in refusing.  They could have gone without me, as often happens in families,  with parents and children living  in different parts of the world.  But Stella,  my mother's sister, felt fully responsible for me: according to her understanding,  conscience,  and love,  we  could not part.  She would not  abandon me  in Poland.  If  I refused to go with them, they would stay with me.  With time the affidavits expired.  Thus Stella,  Gabriel,  Marek  and  Adam  became the victims  of  my stubbornness and stupidity.
The establishment of the State of Israel in May, 1948 created an entirely new situation. Jewish immigration to Israel became free and unlimited.    With my full cooperation, we applied to the government for permits to leave Poland.  Unfortunately,  by then the  Polish  communist government  restricted the  emigration of Jews. While we waited for permits to leave Poland, I prepared for my  matriculation examinations  which were to be held in the spring of 1949. At the same time I was worried that should the permits arrive, I might have to leave Poland before the examinations. This would immensely complicate and delay my future studies. Presumably, I would have to start preparing anew for matriculation exams,  all in Hebrew,  a language totally unknown to me. I needn't have worried. Unexpected help came from the Polish Government:  our request for  permits was rejected.  It was  two long years before the emigration visas were finally granted. By then it was long after my matriculation examinations.

The examinations, both written and oral, went smoothly. I graduated at the top of my class, and delivered the valedictory speech at the graduation ceremony.  I was accepted at the Wroclaw University Medical School, where I started my studies in October, 1949.
For the highly competitive admission to the Medical School under the communist regime, one had not only to excel in studies,  but, more important,  to have the "proper" social background.  This I had prepared well ahead of time. While in the Lyceum in Walbrzych, I had declared  that before  the war  my father had worked as a simple laborer in a city-owned leather factory. When the decision was made regarding  my acceptance to the Medical School,  this point was carefully considered.
From the very beginning I liked the studies. Every subject was interesting. I liked chemistry, and with my background from the Lyceum,  the  chemistry  course  was  very  easy.  I particularly liked  the courses  in anatomy  and histology.  The lectures in anatomy by Prof. Marciniak were intelligent and full of humor,  and listening to them was a pleasure.  In contrast to many others,  I  also liked  anatomic dissection and microscopic exercises in histology. Lectures in biology by Dr. Paschma were heavily indoctrinated by communist dogma. Capitalist fabrications such as chromosomes and genes were strictly  forbidden,  because  they  supposedly  encourage exploitation of  the working class by capitalist parasites.  But this did not make the biology course any less interesting.
I did not have many friends, and usually studied alone. Sometimes, I explained material considered difficult to one or another student or group. However,  I did cooperate closely with Marek Rucinski.  His  background was humanist,  and he therefore had some difficulty with physics and chemistry. I tutored him in chemistry, tested him, and finally decided for him when he was ready for examination.  He did very well.  He reminded me of this cooperation when we met 41 years later.

Once in the Medical School, I became careless with my tongue, and frequently exchanged forbidden political jokes with Marek. All too often we were talking openly, with many unintended listeners as our audience. Stalinist terror was at its peak, and gradually I became known as an  opponent of the communist "new reality", an "enemy of the people".
I became a sore in the eye of the communist party cell in the Medical School,  an undesirable element who should be gotten rid of.  Marek warned  me repeatedly to hold my tongue.  He tried to reason with me, explaining that I did not achieve anything by it, only got  myself into trouble.  All to no avail.  Eventually,  the problem came to a head near the end of the school year, in the spring of 1950.
Because the communists in the Medical School could not accuse me of any specific offenses, they used my excellence in studies and directed  it  against me.  Throughout  the year  I had taken  all the examinations  at  the  earliest  possible time,  and  invariably had passed them with the highest marks. Therefore,  I was accused of lacking  solidarity  and  friendliness,  and  not  providing  my classmates with much needed help in studies.  While there was no formal  requirement  to teach  others,  and there  is apparently nothing wrong with passing examinations,  my behavior was quoted as being “egoist,  befitting unfair capitalist competitiveness”,  rather than “friendly socialist cooperation and mutual help”.  My help to Marek Rucinski  and (to a lesser extent) to  several others,  was totally disregarded.
The communist cell in our class called a formal meeting of all students,  and on  a memorable  afternoon formally accused me of promoting  unfair  competitiveness,  contrary to  the spirit  of socialism and  communism.  The meeting took place in the lecture hall of  the Institute  of Anatomy (“Collegium Anatomicum”) with every student  in attendance.  Anyone who did not attend,  would expose himself as another “enemy of the people”, and a supporter of  the  reactionary  “black  sheep”.  Many communist  activists spoke,  demanding my  expulsion from  the Medical  School.  Some spoke in  an aggressive tone,  others expressed regret about the "unfortunate necessity" of  saving others from my bad influence. The words of Anna Fastowa still ring in my ears: “My heart aches and  I  shed  tears  over  the  necessity  to  remove  'comrade' Weissberg from our environment, but there is no choice...”.

Marek Rucinski rose, and against the general spirit of the meeting  spoke  in  my  defense.  He  mentioned  his  humanist background and lack of understanding of chemistry,  and told how I had systematically tutored him in chemistry,  week after week, until  he  was  ready  for his  examination.  He also  mentioned several other classmates who had benefitted from my help. His speech was  harshly  interrupted  by the organizers of  the assembly,  who accused  him  of  favoritism.  “Cronyism  with Weissberg  is more important to  you than  purity of  good socialist  spirit in our Medical School!” shouted  Ilicz Urbanski.  Marek had to keep quiet.  Had he  persisted,  he would have given the communists an excuse to seek his expulsion from the Medical School,  and,  at the  height  of  Stalinist  oppression,   even  imprisonment.
The request to expel me from the Medical School was voted upon openly, by show of hands, while the  communists observed and took note  of those who dared to vote against.  No one dared. Several, Marek among them, abstained. I was expelled by an overwhelming majority.
*       *      *
At about the same time we received the long-awaited permits to leave Poland  for Israel.  We had waited for them since the spring of 1948, and had received three refusals during those two years. For me, the permits came as salvation,  just in time to part from the Medical School and leave Poland.
To be sure, the permits came with some strings attached. First, anyone leaving Poland for Israel had to renounce Polish citizenship and  commit himself never to return to Poland.  This condition  was  easy to  accept,  because we  intended never  to return to  Poland.  But this  also meant  that we  would have to travel  without  passports.  In order  to make  this technically possible,  special  identity  certificates  were  issued,  each certificate valid  for a  single one-way  trip to  Israel,  with the transit visas for countries of passage stamped in.
Second, the certificates had to be obtained within 10 days, and then they were valid for only 2 months.  Anyone who did not manage to get organized  and leave  within those  2 months,  would have to stay in Poland. Our deadline for leaving was July 5. On that day at  the latest,  we had to cross the border on a train going to Venice, where we would eventually board an Israeli ship. This caused a rush of hectic activity.  We had to obtain the identity certificates  in  the appropriate  government office  in Warsaw, have them  stamped in  the Israeli  Consular Office,  and obtain transit visas  for Czechoslovakia,  Austria and Italy.  We had to pack our belongings and purchase travel tickets (Fig. 38).

Fig 38
Fig. 38:  My travel Identity Certificate in lieu of passport

I had retained my Study Record Book ("Index") of the Wroclaw University,  but still needed the signature of Prof.  Marciniak, confirming my  attendance at  the anatomy  course and my passing the required examinations.  Quietly,  trying not to be seen by anybody, without an appointment,  I entered Prof.  Marciniak's office.  I told  him  that  I  was leaving  for Israel,  and  asked for  his signature.  The  Professor  understood my  situation and  signed.
Third, there was a very restricted list of personal effects which we were permitted to take with us to Israel. This included the suit or dress we were wearing,  the shoes we had on,  and six extra  shirts, underwear, and socks. We were allowed one plate, spoon, fork and knife, one pillow, one blanket,  a few sheets and  one tablecloth.  We  could each take up to 10 books, provided they  were not  hard-cover and not published before the war(!).  Food in  amount sufficient for the trip was included in the list.  For  expenses during  the trip,  which was expected to last about 10 days,  every person was permitted to take only US$ 10. This foreign currency had to be purchased  at a sky-high exchange rate in a government bank. Everything else had to be left behind. Anyone caught trying to smuggle out an additional pair of shoes, or a few more dollars, would be punished. The punishment would include the cancellation of the travel permit.
I had many books and did not want to leave them behind. Because I could not take them with me, I mailed them as parcels to Jurek Rothenberg in Haifa,  my classmate from the Limanowski Lyceum in Walbrzych, who had left Poland for Israel a couple of months ahead of me. Some of the books reached their destination, but many were lost in the mail.

A special train for emigrants heading for Israel was scheduled for June  26.  The word  “refugee” was forbidden,  because  by definition,  refugees  are  people  who  escape  oppression  or persecution,  while we  were voluntarily  leaving the  communist “paradise”,  going to  a capitalist  uncertainty.  We arrived in Warsaw a  day ahead  of time,  all  packed and ready to go.  One suitcase  was  filled  with  dry salami,  another  one contained several jars  of Stella's latest culinary achievement:  margarine melted  with  cocoa and  sugar - a  kind of  home-made chocolate spread; all this  to help  us survive the first several weeks in Israel.
On June 26, hours before schedule, we were at the railway station,  waiting  for  the train.  Several  of my  friends from Zatrzebie who did not intend to leave Poland at this time,  came to  bid  me  farewell.  Among  them  were  Ida  Kelberg,  Marek Sznajderman,  Jozef Siegman,  Stefan  Kon and several others.  A friendly argument developed. To me it was obvious that the gates of Poland were closing forever.  Those who stayed in Poland,  would never have another opportunity to leave.  To them it was equally obvious that  I would  never be able to continue my studies.  In Poland all studies were free.  In the capitalist world,  medical studies  were  very  expensive,  and  I  had  no  resources.  My argument that  I could work and study simultaneously sounded like pure fantasy.
Six p.m. We boarded the train. The doors were locked. We all knew that in  spite of  having valid visas for the three countries of transit,  we would not be permitted to leave the train  until we reach Venice. The final call came through the loudspeakers  in a  deep male  voice:  “Train  from Warsaw  to Venice  with  emigrants  to  Israel  is  leaving  from  track 2, platform 3. Please  move away from the track”.  The train moved. Those who stayed behind, waved; so did we.
It was late night by the time we reached the border town of Zebrzydowice.  The checks  performed at the border regarding our identity documents,  visas,  bags and suitcases were tedious and lasted  several  hours.  The  customs  officials  wanted  to  be absolutely  certain  that  no  one had  managed  to smuggle  foreign currency, gold or other valuables out of Poland. Strangely,  our suitcase with the salami was not opened. If it had been, they might have confiscated it.
In the morning we continued on our way. As soon as we had passed the Czechoslovakian border, the people on the train were overwhelmingly relieved.  Until  then,  there had been  doubt in everybody's mind.  There  was always the possibility of some minor bureaucratic problem.  Permits  could be cancelled at the last moment.  Now all this  was  behind us.  We  were still on a Polish train manned  by Polish  government personnel and on the soil of another communist country. And yet, at the moment we crossed the border,  I felt  a huge,  incredibly  heavy burden  drop off  my heart. Suddenly, everything became light and easy.  Anna Fastowa and the  others from  the communist  cell in  the Medical School were now  in a  different country,  and  would never  threaten me again. "Never again", "never to return", those were my thoughts. In a locked train which I could not leave, speeding toward the Austrian border, I felt completely free.
I remember several stops on the way: Brno and Breclav in Czechoslovakia, Wiener Neustadt and Villach in Austria, Tarvisio and Udine  in Italy.  The  train remained  locked at  all times. Passage through the Eastern Alps in Austria and Northern Italy offered incredibly beautiful views, particularly by moonlight. Stella and I stood at the window, observing  nature's beauty - perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To both of us it brought back  memories of my parents' descriptions of their trip to Italy in 1938.

On July 1 we reached an isolated part of Venice harbor. We left the train, but could not leave the harbor.  We stayed there overnight, waiting for an Israeli ship. I remembered my parents' photographs and stories about the city-on-water,  the gondolas,  Palazzo Ducale, Piazza di  San Marco  with its  thousands of pigeons,  and the other marvels of Venice. Going to see them was out of question. Meanwhile vendors came, offering a variety of merchandise: cigarettes, wine, Italian sunglasses, shoes, cheap jewelry, and more.  Since we had beenallowed only $10 per person,  I wonder how anybody could afford to buy anything.
We spent the night outdoors, under the sky, sleeping on the ground.  In the beautiful Italian summer weather,  these Spartan conditions were no hardship. On July 2 we boarded a small Israeli steamship, Galila,  an old craft.  Several hundred people  filled  it  to  capacity,  and  for  the next  four days we travelled under  extremely crowded  conditions.  We slept in the steerage, scores of people together,  with bunks arranged on two levels. Food was served on the deck three times a day. Showers were available,  with  salty sea  water.  I discovered that salt prevents soap  from forming  suds,  and had the feeling that the shower made me wet, but not clean.
Our days were spent on the deck, talking, arguing about politics, dreaming unrealistic plans for the future, and sunbathing. At that time I did not realize that too much sunbathing is harmful. I spent most of the days on the deck without a shirt, and I paid for  it with second  degree burns  over my shoulders and back.
Near Cyprus the sea became stormy, with water pouring all over the deck.  We all went below,  while the ship danced on the tall  waves,  turning  from  side  to  side.  It  was  a  scary experience. Everybody was nauseated and many people vomited. To us it  seemed to  be a  real sea storm,  but members of the crew told us that in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly near the Greek  islands,  this  kind  of  weather  was  considered nearly normal.

Upon seeing the shores of Israel people became quite emotional. Some cried. We reached Haifa harbor on Thursday, July 6th, 1950. Control of documents was short and expeditious. Everybody became instantly  a  citizen  of the  State of Israel.  The ceremony consisted of  receiving an immigrant's card (“teudat oleh”),  and a spray of a generous amount  of DDT behind the shirt collar, to kill off all our non-existent lice. No one was asked or examined before this  “hygienic” procedure,  which in  the first years of Israel's existence was a trademark of preventive medicine.
We were transferred to a nearby transit camp, “Sha'ar Ha'Aliya” (“The Gate of Immigration”), where we were supposed to spend a day or two before being assigned to one of the long-term shelters for  new immigrants. Those with family  in  Israel  or  with financial means, could leave the Sha'ar Ha'Aliya camp immediately and start life  in the new country on their own. The overwhelming majority including us did not have such means.
Upon arrival in the Sha'ar Ha'Aliya camp, every person was presented with basic survival  equipment.  This consisted  of an enamel-coated  metal plate, a cup, fork, spoon, and knife, a metal bed - the famous “Mitat Sochnut” (Jewish Agency bed) - and a mattress. This equipment was ours to  keep.  Everybody was assigned a place in a canvas tent, usually several families together, so that the tents were filled to capacity.

On the first afternoon I left the tent and went for a walk around the camp. When I left the tent,  it was close to sunset, but the  sun was still shining brightly.  I observed the beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean Sea and returned to the tent. I had been out for less than an hour, but when I returned, it was already dark. To me, who had just arrived from the far north, the quick transition from day to night was most impressive.

My feelings were in a turmoil: I was now in my own country, free from any political pressure.  I  had reached the end of a long struggle and of a long trip. What would I do next? Where would I go?