by Harry Lazarus (Tenafly, NJ)
(interviewed by Bruce Black)
When I was growing up, I used to love listening to my grandfather, Harry Lazarus, z”l, retell stories about his childhood in Zharnov, a small village near Lodz and not far from Warsaw, and how he made his way to America. He was a baker, with bright blue eyes above a thick nose, a warm smile, and broad, strong shoulders, and he spoke with the thick Eastern European Yiddish accent of his youth. Before his death a number of years ago, I recorded one of our story-telling sessions in his apartment in Tenafly, NJ. In this segment he describes his life in Zharnov when war between the Austrians and the Russians breaks out.
BB: So, you were saying the war broke out…
HL: Yes, then the war broke out. The Russians were in Zharnov. Then the Austrians chased them out and grabbed all the boys, fourteen-year-old boys, to chop stones. And then they took us and sent us away to make trenches.
We were there by a farmer, two boys laying on the floor or three of us covered up in our coats, and at 5 am we used to go to the place where the sergeant counted us, and then we ate something, and then we had to go to dig the trenches.
One time my boots fell apart. I walked about two miles without the boots in the snow. When I came there to the place, I warmed my leg under my jacket, and the sergeant hit me with a whip, the Austrian sergeant. He hit me with a whip. I had to stay with both feet in the snow.
And some fellow that spoke German came over and said, “What did you hit him for? He hasn’t got boots.” And he sent me in the place to peel potatoes until they were going to fix my boots.
They fixed my boots, and I came out, but instead of going to them I ran away. I couldn’t go on a train because I didn’t have any documents. So, I ran. When I came to a farm or somewhere, I went inside to the farmer and I crossed myself and I spoke Polish.
They didn’t know whether I am Jewish or not, and I begged for a piece of bread or something, and that’s what they used to give me: a piece of bread or potato or something. And I would sit around there, and then I’d run again.
I ran, I don’t know, maybe forty or fifty miles. I kept on running until I came to Kunsk. There was my sister. Not from my father’s first wife, but a sister, and she was no good. She was a terrible woman. When I came there on a Friday morning, she gave me something to eat and said, “When do you go home?” She wouldn’t let me stay over Saturday in her place. “When do you go back to Zharnov?”
So I had to run from her place to Zharnov. It was maybe another ten miles. When I came back to Zharnov, I went to my uncle. He was a very good man. He kept me there, you know, and I was by him a few days, until a soldier asked “Who wants to go to Vienna?” And I registered to go to Vienna, and another few boys registered to go to Vienna, too.
So, we came to Vienna. We were put in a barracks where the soldiers lived and they gave us something to eat, all right, and then they came in the next day or two and asked, “Who wants to go to Czechoslovakia?”
At that time Czechoslovakia used to belong to Austria, and I picked up my hand right away to go to work in a leather factory. And another boy picked up his hand. And they sent us away to Czechoslovakia. The city was, I think, Brinn.
And they took away all our documents, and then they gave me an apron and boots and a piece of iron to take out the leather from the lime and bring it to the machine to fix up. The machine cleaned this up to make leather out of it.
But lots of times I couldn’t hit the leather, you know, with the hook. I couldn’t hit it. It would slide out. So I used to grab it with my hand to pull it over to the machine and my fingers got burned up from the lime. And I thought, “This is not for me neither.”
So, I ran again. They wouldn’t give me my documents back. So I ran away to a train, and I hid myself under the bench, and I knew that the train goes back to Vienna, and I went back to Vienna.
When I came to Vienna, everything was rationed. You couldn’t get anything without a ration card. I didn’t have any money to go into places to eat. So I said, “All right, whatever’s going to be is going to be.” And I went back to the barracks.
I came to the barracks and the officer said in German, “What are you doing here?”
And I said, “I burned my fingers up. I couldn’t work there, so I ran away.”
And he called me all kinds of names in German, “Verfluchte Yuden! Verfluchte Yude! I’m going to send you back to Poland!” Oh, he hollered murder.
But I had one nephew there who worked in a very big factory. He found out that I am there, and he made a job for me in the factory. So the German let me out. He gave me another document and he let me out to go to work in the factory.
I went to the factory. It was a very big factory, about 20,000 people there, and they put me in, and I had to put electric lights in, you know? Electric lights.
I used to work in that place and we used to get one meal a day, just a little meal. One time everybody was kicking, and I said to a friend, “What are you kicking for?” And he said, “We’re eating horse meat.” So I had enough already. I didn’t eat it.
And then I lived in a place, you know, I used to pay there, I don’t know, two krone or five krone, to rent a room. And I used to live there as a boarder, and I brought over Manny, and he was a boarder there, too.
After work we used to go in a people’s kitchen to get something to eat, like a bowl of soup or something. And then we used to go home with nothing more than a piece of bread in my pocket. I used to have such a terrible life.
But I was with Manny, and he made a few dollars, and we used to share, and soon I was making a little money on the Black Market…
Next: From Vienna to Berlin…