The Nazis are cruel to all East Europeans and especially to Poles. But they are most brutal to Jews, a people the “Master Race” detest more than any other. In Hrubiechev the family’s situation becomes grimmer each month as the Germans consolidate control over the populace. Initial deprivations and humiliations soon became property confiscations and physical abuse. German beatings, taunts, and cruelties are relentless, life an ordeal of constant despair and fear.
Dora’s nephew, Reuben Katz, is still living and working in Warsaw when the Germans occupy it. Soon the Germans are rounding up the city’s Jews and he feels it will be safer to be in Hrubiechev. To get there he must escape Warsaw and walk 160 miles through fields and woods, avoiding roads where German occupiers could spot him. When he arrives the family advises him to flee into the Russian occupied areas east of the Village, which he does. Immediately the Soviets press him into the Red Army.
With direct contact to relatives in Europe closed off, the family’s American branch becomes increasingly concerned over the fate of brothers, sisters, and Louis’s children. They only hear unsettling rumors. Early hopes that the Allies will stop Germany are dashed. Helplessness and attendant frustrations grow with German military successes. Soon the United States is at war too, bringing a whole new set of worries for the American Brustmans: Irving, Al, and Frances’ husband Bill become soldiers. The whole world is caught in the war and family in America and Europe are no exception. In the midst of this, four new grandchildren are born: Henry to Frances, another Henry to Elsie, Richie to Mark, and Alice to Frances.
The rumors from Europe become more alarming. They say Jews are suffering even more than before. They are rounded up, turned into slave laborers, or simply slaughtered. German atrocities are being described as systematic and on a frightening scale. The American Hrubiechev community hopes such tales of incredible inhumanity are exaggerations, just wartime propaganda. But unable to be sure, fearing the worst, anxieties continue to grow. If there were only some news…
Every few weeks the Nazis have Hrubiechev’s Jews report to the Village Square. In the beginning, 1939, these assemblages amass thousands; at the end in 1942 it is just two hundred. The purpose is to make selections for deportation. Some of the young and fit are sent to concentration camps, mainly Sobibor, as slave labor. Some elderly and unfit are taken outside of town for execution. The remaining Jews are sent home until the next time.
In the afternoon of October 20th, 1942, the Gestapo orders all Hrubiechev’s remaining Jews to the Square. There they are jammed into army trucks and taken to execution pits just beyond the village. They are made to undress (the Germans see no point in wasting clothing) and lie face down in a row by the edge of the pit. Then a short, red-faced Gestapo member named Demant, walks from one end of the line to the other, putting a pistol shot in each person’s head. He relishes his job.
Afterwards, the Nazis declare Hrubiechev “Judenrein” (free of Jews.) Thus ends 500 years of Jewish life in Hrubiechev, the Krakauer family included. To the Germans this is just another small action, repeated in hundreds of villages, in a vast effort to cleanse Europe of Jews.
In Tomaschev, there is a similar destruction of the Jews. Louis’s daughters, Frieda and Ethel, are sent to concentration camps where Frieda is killed.
At war’s end nearly all the Brustmans and Krakauers in Europe are slaughtered. Dora and Louis’s brothers and sisters, including, Solomon, the adored baby brother, and their families are murdered. The survivors are Louis’s daughter Ethel, liberated from a concentration camp, Reuben Katz in the Red Army, his sister Bella who fled to Russia, and his brother Joshua who went to Palestine before the war. The survivors make their way to what will become Israel, except for Reuben, who eventually comes to the US. There is no longer family or other ties to Europe; Hrubiechev and Tomaschev become just another pair of distant, foreign places.
In one of the war’s tragic ironies, the family’s small American branch is now essentially the entire family. Originally a tentative offshoot of a sturdy European tree, this branch is now the main stem. Who could have foreseen this outcome that poignant day in 1910 when Tovah and Froy’m Krakauer sadly watched their troublesome son and impetuous daughter set out for another world?
Photos: Wartime snapshots of soldiers on leave, 1943: Dora, Al and Henry Heinbach; Irv with sister Ida.