Harry Rosenberg's (1923 - 1995) distinguished career as a biochemist had a most unpromising beginning. Rosenberg was just 16 when the Nazis invaded his Polish home town of Brzesc (Brest-Litovsk and now called Brest). Through a twist of fate which he describes in the title piece The Leica he and his mother managed to escape Poland in a cattle truck to the frozen wastelands of Siberia. These stories are his vivid retelling of actual events from those years; stories of cruelty, corruption and sadness, but also of courage, strength, humor and the indomitable human spirit.
This except from Harry's book The Leica and Other Stories is used by permission of his son Michael Rosenberg.
Czlowiek strzela, lecz Pan Bóg kule nosi. (Man shoots, but God carries the bullets: an old Polish proverb).
It was September 1939 and it had been a short battle. Our small town of Brest in Eastern Poland was bombed just once by the Luftwaffe. As rumour had it, the well-aimed bombs had fallen near a hotel where, a little earlier, members of the Polish Government had stopped briefly for a meal and a rest on their way to the Romanian border. They eventually made it to London, while the rest of us were left behind to face the music. It turned out to be quite a concert.
The front reached us some time later, but even then it was no more than a sound of cannonade in an exchange of gunfire between the Germans who had surrounded the town and the Polish garrison in the Brest fortress. For two days the shells shrieked overhead, but fell elsewhere. Soon after the cannons fell silent, there was a commotion in the street with people shouting and disappearing into gates and doorways. The shops were quickly shuttered. And then, looking down from a window upon the emptied street, we saw the tanks and trucks advancing steadily and the motorcycles with sidecars, darting about. Steel-grey helmets and uniforms, all in perfect order. With portentous timing, the German army had entered our town on the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement.
A Temporary Reprieve
Little happened in the days that followed. Gradually people took to the streets again. The word went around town that all Jews were to assemble at the market area for an important announcement. The Germans found a respected Elder of the Community who spoke German, a man by the name of Begin, who translated the announcement to the huge crowd. From where we stood, the message could not be heard, but we learned later that we were expected to carry on normally and that the German Army would soon withdraw, as the territory was to be ceded to the Red Army in the near future.
We were not to know that this was only a temporary reprieve, and that in less than two years time this border town would be the first to fall to the enemy in yet another war, and that Nazi tanks would again rumble over its cobbled streets. Nor could any of us have possibly imagined, as we stood in the market place in the warm September afternoon, that on an October day, three years hence, the entire Jewish Community of Brest, more than 30,000 souls, would be butchered by the Nazis. And no-one amongst the crowd that now listened to this thin, grey-haired man, reading through his pince nez spectacles, would have believed that his son Menachem would be the Prime Minister of a sovereign State of Israel some forty years later. I myself could have hardly imagined that, through a quirk of fate, our own family would be spared the fate of our 30,000 brethren, doomed already through having been trapped in a pocket of geography and history from which there was no escape.
The Red Army Arrives
The Germans' promise proved to be true. It was not long before the Red Army, a little bedraggled compared to the Germans, not as disciplined, but a lot friendlier, rumbled into town, greeted noisily by the population. In a brief ceremony the Germans handed over the town and departed. The next time I saw German soldiers was in 1944, in Siberia. They were prisoners of war.
Brest settled down as a quasi-Soviet town, its new political status already felt in every walk of life. Nowhere was it more obvious than in the streets, where Red Army soldiers and civilian functionaries were scouring the shops, busily buying up whatever merchandise they could lay their hands on. Their highest and most sought after prize was a “CYMA”. The Russians were mad about all watches, but “CYMA” was the favourite. The most frequent question from a soldier was Chasy est'? (Have you a watch?) This, and similar requests, were always followed by the statement U nas vsyo est' (We have everything). This was meant to convey the impression that in Russia there was no shortage of anything. We suspected that the soldiers had been brain-washed by their politruki, the political leaders, to keep parroting this sentence in the hope that it may fool the locals who, seeing their frantic commerce, may begin to distrust the value of the rouble and maybe guess what life inside the “real" Soviet Union was like. As it happened, this made us all even more suspicious, as we watched everything in sight being carried from the shops by individuals who kept repeating “we have everything".
In the end the sentence became a common joke, and the locals used it, in the original Russian, in the negative sense. One could walk up to a stranger in the street, looking for a light,
Excuse me, do you have a match?
U nas vsyo est' in reply would mean that the stranger had no matches. Or anything else one may ask for. The authorities soon made it known that one could not joke in this way with impunity. In the city of Lwów the use of this expression was banned. By the time the shopkeepers and artisans realised that they were selling valuable and irreplaceable goods for worthless money, the town had been almost cleaned out, and whatever had not been “sold" was well hidden away, preferably off the premises, as the period was marked by an increase of unheralded searches, as well as thefts. Soon all private shops and businesses were replaced by official magazins, which seldom offered anything worth buying, and on those rare occasions sprouted long queues. By then the “elections” had been held, and Brest became a truly Soviet town.
A Certain Russian Officer and the Leica
It was at about that time that Leonid Afanas'evich Spasskii, Polkovnik Bezopasnosti, (Colonel of State Security), as his rank in the NKVD stood, entered our lives. It was purely a chance meeting. My father, a professional photographer, owned a small studio and service shop in town and, following the Russian take-over, was allowed to operate it as a private, self-employed worker. During that period he attracted a number of Russian customers, mostly officers, who owned (or recently liberated) cameras, and, enjoying the availability of film and of a developing and printing service to which they were not accustomed, clicked away and kept Papa busy. Most of them had various box or bellows cameras, but the lucky ones, usually officers, used 35 mm cameras, called FED.
The FED was a Soviet version of the Leica, but was a poor camera. Colonel Spasskii had a new FED and used to bring his films to Papa's workshop for developing and printing. He was quite a proficient amateur photographer and liked to discuss the results, but his problem was that he expected too much from his limited optics. He had heard about a German camera, Leica, which was said to be much superior to the FED, but he had never seen one. My father owned an almost brand new Leica, which he had bought for his business just before the war. One afternoon he took Spasskii outside and let him photograph the same object with the two cameras. When the finished prints were compared, Spasskii immediately realised that what he had heard about the Leica was quite true. From then on, getting his hands on one became a burning obsession.
Colonel Spasskii was a meticulous man, and very fussy about what he acquired. He was not one to chase after CYMAs. I noticed that he had a Swiss watch already. It was a Patek Philippe. He had obviously been well informed regarding watches. The ordinary soldiers knew only about the CYMAs, the odd one had heard of the Omega. No one ever asked about a Tissot or Longines, let alone a Patek. But the Colonel wore the same watch as did kings and princes. He told Papa jokingly that it cost him less than what he would have had to pay for a CYMA. His uniform, too, was unique. Tailor-made, probably quite recently, it had not come from home, nor were his sapogi, the soft Russian knee-boots, of Soviet origin. He was a well-educated man, quite tall, handsome, and under forty. His thin, pale face was wedge-shaped, and smoothly shaven on every occasion that I saw him. His hair was a pale straw-colour, quite straight and parted in the middle. He had a pleasant smile, but his eyes worried me. They never smiled with the rest of his face and there was a strange coldness in their blue depth. I could not explain this feeling I had about him, but much later, after several encounters with other NKVD men, I came to associate this look with a special kind of cruelty.
From the day of the Colonel's encounter with the Leica, he would not let my father alone. At first he kept asking him to locate one for him. Papa explained that there were none about that he knew of, that in our town they were never sold in shops and that he himself had to order one from Warsaw before the war. Spasskii argued that there must be a few of them in town, owned by some rich people, but there was the problem of locating one. Did not father remember any customers who brought in 35mm films for processing before the war? Papa explained patiently that before the war he only ran a portrait studio, and did not do printing and developing. The few street photographers who used Leicas did their own work. Father knew none of them by name, and they had not worked the streets ever since one had his camera “confiscated temporarily", never to be seen again.
After about a month of futile searching, the Colonel changed his tack. He started to badger father to sell him his Leica.
“I will let you have two FEDs and 500 roubles. 700 roubles." It began to get embarrassing. The Colonel had become very friendly by then, bringing us gifts when he brought his films, usually vodka (which father did not drink). He insisted on meeting the family and had been to our house for evening meals several times. But the more insistent he became the more firmly, though politely, my father declined.
“It is my tool of trade, Colonel. I make a large part of my living with this camera." But the arguments and lucrative offers never stopped.
Meanwhile, a troubled atmosphere had enveloped the town. People, one's friends and acquaintances, began to disappear. The inhabitants began to know the terror of the knock on the door in the early hours of the morning. Polish Communist Party members, Zionists, teachers, ex-public servants, rich store owners and Community leaders, as well as ordinary people with neither political, communal, nor commercial past, were amongst the targets. There seemed to be no pattern and it was this randomness that frightened people. Anyone could be next. In the end, even our family did not escape that dreaded knock. It came in the early hours of the morning in March, 1940. There was an NKVD officer and two armed soldiers. Their first action was to call the upravdom, or house manager, who was to act as a witness and eventually testify in writing that everything had proceeded in accordance with the law. The house was thoroughly searched, but only a few unimportant documents and photographs were taken, and a receipt was issued. But the shock came in the end, when my father was told to get dressed (it was 2 am. and we were all in our dressing gowns). A document was then read to inform him that he was under arrest and that charges would be laid. Their nature was not mentioned. There were tears and protestations, but they had little effect on the intruders. When they walked out, they took my father with them. We did not see him again for almost two years.
Days passed, filled with writing appeals to various persons and visiting the jail and the NKVD headquarters in an attempt to find out what was happening, what the charges were and trying, unsuccessfully, to pass in some food for the prisoner. All enquiries came up against a brick wall and the same statement: no information, no letters, no parcels, no contact whatever until the interrogation is over.
From the first day after father's arrest, we tried to locate our friend, the Colonel. But Spasskii vanished. No-one seemed to know him, or anything about him. Every department in the NKVD that we tried had the same answer: not here, try some other section. In the end we gave up, assuming the Colonel had probably departed and was no longer in Brest, taking with him our only hope for possibly saving, or at least helping Papa. And so, we settled down to wait until the end of the interrogation, when we might learn something of the charges, and what would happen to Father. For us, that day never came.
...Comes to Our Door
One month after father's arrest, we had another knock on the door at 1 am. The same kind of party stood in the hall when we opened the door: the upravdom, an officer and two armed soldiers. Only this time, the officer was Colonel Spasskii.
“Leonid Afanas'evich!" I greeted him like a lost uncle, a saviour in time of need. I rushed to him to take his hand. A soldier stuck out his rifle. Nazad! Back! The Colonel did nothing to stop him. I stood still, and then suddenly my words came out in a rush. Did he know that my father had been arrested, almost exactly a month ago, that we had been looking for the Colonel and could not find him anywhere, there was no-one to turn to, my father was innocent, innocent... I stopped suddenly, aware of the fact that Spasskii showed no reaction, and the realisation hit me: He knew. He had known all the time. And as I looked into his face, I saw something new there: his expression now matched perfectly the dreadful chill of his blue eyes. The smiling face which, from our first encounter, I could never reconcile with those eyes, was gone. In the new face everything was in perfect harmony, and it was frightening.
“We have a warrant to search the apartment," he said in a flat, official voice. “Please sit on chairs against the wall." He nodded at the soldiers who arranged the chairs. We sat down, and they went about their business in complete silence. They finished in under an hour and returned to the Colonel. There was a whispered exchange, then the Colonel turned to my mother.
“Where is the Leica?" My mother looked at me. The Leica was hidden in a recess in the wardrobe, which the searchers had missed. Father had been worried by an increasing number of thefts and always brought the camera home after the day's work. He cleverly built the little recess for it and it had been there ever since his arrest. Now the question had been put, and we were helpless against this man, whom we once thought of as a friend.
“Get it for the Colonel," my mother said. As I made to get up, one of the soldiers stepped forward, his rifle at the ready. This time the Colonel stopped him.
“Go with him." The soldier followed me to the bedroom, and I retrieved the camera, its leather case smooth and warm to the touch, still smelling new. Back in the front room I handed it to Spasskii. His face lit up, but hardly in a pleasant way. As I sat next to my mother the tears were running down my face. The Colonel did not appear to be too concerned, though he did not look pleased and he avoided my eyes.
“I shall write you a receipt," he said. “We are not thieves." He took a clean sheet of paper from his bag and wrote on it. I realised that he was not using the official form like the one we were given for the items taken at the time of my father's arrest. The Colonel stood up, took another document from his bag and read to us:
We Are Deported
“In accordance with order #.... issued.... I inform you.... in the presence of.... due to requirements of Frontier security.... undesirable elements.... transportation into the Soviet Union.... permitted baggage allowance, 100 kg per person... effective immediately..."
We were being deported. And he left no doubt about the “effective immediately" part. Urged on by the soldiers with the familiar davai, davai (come on!), my mother and I, helped by our cousins, refugees from Warsaw who lived with us, packed whatever was most useful or valuable. Less than an hour later as dawn was breaking, we had said our hasty farewells and we were on a truck, speeding towards the railway station, where we were promptly loaded into the teplushki, the converted cattle trucks, for the long journey East.
We did not know in this moment of shock and bewilderment, that Siberia would become our sanctuary, a place in which to survive and that a Security Colonel's obsession with a Leica had twisted our fate. On the sixteenth day of October 1942, the day when the entire Jewish Community of Brest was put to death by the Nazis, we were not to be amongst them.