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Excerpt from The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger by Carolyn Gammon and Israel Unger

From the PART ONE: The Only Jews in Poland

Srulik Is Born in Tarnow
My father, Mordechai David Unger, came from a small village near Tarnow, Poland called Ryglice in what was known as Galicia—a region that encompassed southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. He was born in 1902. He had eight brothers and sisters but I do not know their names and we do not know exactly what happened to them other than that they were murdered by the Nazis. Unfortunately I did not ask my father about this when he was still alive. I am still trying to find out their names after all these years....

On 1 September 1939 the German war machine smashed into Poland. On 8 September 1939, the bombs hit Tarnow and the Nazis marched into the city. On November 9th they destroyed the synagogues. I was a year and a half old.

Wysiedlenia
So what do I remember? Above all, I remember fear. A constant all pervading fear, for the first years of my life. We knew that the Nazis wanted to murder us. We just wondered when it was going to happen....

During another wysiedlenie I was being held in my father’s arms. I was very afraid. I was asking him to say the Shema so that we would go to heaven. That is the prayer Jews say when they consider that death is imminent. Apparently I expected to die that day. I kept asking my father to say the prayer over and over. The last prayer is Shema Yisrael, which is interesting because it is really the most basic and condensed version of the statement of monotheism. The words are Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad. It basically says, ”Hear O Israel The Lord is our God The Lord is One.” It continues on from there. It is not saying: Dear Lord save my life. It is talking about the unity of God. I really have no idea as to what my conception of heaven may or may not have been at that time. I think I was asking my father to recite the Shema Yisrael simply because I expected to die and somehow heaven was in my mind as a nice place. I wanted to go there rather than some other place. After the war my father told me that on that day he recited that prayer thirty-six times....

My maternal grandfather, Chaim Fisch, was a very orthodox, pious Jew. I was in his upstairs apartment in the ghetto the day the Nazis came to get him. Two Nazis came in and ordered him to go with them. Instead of instantly going with them when commanded, he went and got his prayer bag because it was important to him that he should be able to practise his faith wherever he went. At the head of the stairs one of them pushed or kicked my grandfather and as he was falling, they shot him. Although my family did not speak about the Holocaust later, this was one memory I verified with my mother. She told me that I remembered it correctly. It’s a mystery to me why the Nazis let me stay, why they left after they shot my grandfather....

From my earliest memories, my father was missing the index finger on his left hand. He was taken to the Gestapo headquarters and they wanted him to become a Judenpolizei. The Germans made the Jewish communities in the ghettos form a type of police force or “Jewish Police.” My father refused to join. He was tortured but he still refused. They stuck his finger in the door jamb and slammed the door shut, snapping off his finger. He still refused to join so they kicked him in his side and he fell flat to the ground. Still he refused. Eventually they let him go. The Gestapo headquarters was a long way from the ghetto and he had to make his way back to the ghetto in great pain. Decades later when we were in Montreal he had kidney problems. It turned out he had a shrivelled kidney right at the spot where he had been kicked. He had to have that kidney removed....

One night my father took my brother and me to the ghetto wall. It was cold. There was snow on the ground so it must have been late in the year of 1942 or early 1943. We had to escape over the high ghetto wall. My brother scrambled up to the top of the wall. My father pushed me from below and with my brother’s help from above they got me on top of the wall. We both fell to the ground and crouched there for a while. We heard shots being fired. Other Jews were trying to escape. The Nazis were patrolling around the ghetto perimeter and if they spotted someone trying to escape, they shot them. Someone met us—a man my father had hired. I believe it was a man called Skorupa who later brought us food. This man took my brother and me to the hideout behind the false wall in the Dagnan mill....

Who knew about the Jews in the attic? I am not sure even to this day. Probably the Dagnans, and the Skorupas, and the Drozds. Why didn’t anyone tell on us? Was it humanitarian or were they scared to be caught if we were caught? Were they paid, were they not? Were they “Righteous Gentiles” or simply afraid for themselves? These are questions I cannot answer. Likely about ten non-Jewish people knew about the Jews in hiding and no one told on us. Anne Frank’s hideout was perhaps a “palace” compared to ours but we were much luckier. No one informed on us. We survived and she did not....

How did we maintain hygiene up there? I don’t know. I’m sure I never had a bath for two years. There were rats. I think they were helping themselves to the stash of a kind of pita-type flat bread that we made. We had a whole barrel of it. That may have been what attracted the rats. My father would go out of the hiding place—not every night. He wanted to be out as little as possible to minimize the chances of being seen. But he would go and bring back flour from the mill and we mixed it with water and then cooked it on the hot plate. My father took more flour than what was needed to build up a reserve. We watched the rats scurrying along the rafters. It was in the main part of the attic where the roof slanted down and the rafters met the wall; there were gaps and daylight coming in. That is where I could see the rats running along. It was part of the entertainment....

The Soviets had come very early in the morning. Night came and I don’t know where I was but I was lying on my back and I could see the shells going up overhead. It was very exciting because first the shelling went from west to east, from the German lines to the Russian lines, and then the shelling started to go the other way. It went massively from the Russians to the Germans! Then the German shelling died out and you knew the Russians were banging the hell out of the Germans. It felt so good to see our tormentors getting shelled!