At the beginning of the Nazi period, 25,000 Jewish people lived in Tarnow, Poland. By the end of the Second World War, nine remained. Like Anne Frank, Israel Unger and his family hid for two years in an attic crawl space above the Dagnan flour mill in Tarnow. Their stove was the chimney that went up through the attic; their windows were cracks in the wall. Survival depended on the food the adults were able to forage outside at night. Against all odds, they emerged alive. Now, decades later, here is Unger's 'unwritten diary.' At the end of the war, following a time as people sans pays, the Unger family immigrated to Canada. After discovering a love of chemistry, Israel Unger had a stellar academic career, married, and raised a family in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger is as much a Holocaust story as it is a story of a young immigrant making every possible use of the opportunities Canada had to offer. This revised edition includes a reproduction of Dagnan's List, a list of Jewish slave labourer similar Schindler's List, made famous in the Steven Spielberg movie. The name of Israel Unger's father appears on the list, in which Dagnan declares that Unger is an 'essential worker'-a ruse that may have saved the father's life. This recently discovered document proves that Israel Unger's memory of this key part of the story was accurate. A new postscript details the importance of this startling document.
Israel Unger was born in 1938 in Tarnow, Poland, and immigrated to Canada in 1951. He is Dean Emeritus of Science at the University of New Brunswick. Israel Unger was one of fifty Holocaust survivors to be honoured by the Government of Canada in 1998 in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was the educational advisor for Atlantic Canada for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.
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.
My mother was Hinda Fisch. She was born in 1904 in Bobrowniki Wielkie, a village near Tarnow. Her family was from Dabrowa Tarnowska, also near Tarnow. Her father was Chaim Fisch and he was apparently a wood merchant. He worked for a nobleman-a Graf or Earl. According to my wife, Marlene, who got this from my mother, there were logging drives down a river and the family was involved in this business. His wife was Raizel, my maternal grandmother. She was born Raizel Grossbart-I have that information from my parents' wedding certificate.
My paternal grandfather was Josef Pinkus Unger and my paternal grandmother was Hana Leia Lesser before she became an Unger. My parents totally lost contact with them once the Germans occupied Poland because all communication and movement between Jewish communities was forbidden. They were murdered in the Holocaust.
Unger was a fairly common Jewish name in Poland. There were quite a few Ungers in Ryglice. My father decided to go to Tarnow, about twenty kilometres to the north. As a young man he somehow started a business and became the sole owner of a bakery. He was an up-and-coming businessman and he wanted to get married, so he went to a schadkhin, a matchmaker, and the schadkhin found him my mother. My father came from a poor family that was rabbinical. My mother was from a family of means and she was well educated for the time. One of the things that she learned was German; her sister learned accounting. It was seen as a good match for both of them. There were some people who didn't want him to marry my mother and they told my father that my mother was a sickly woman and he shouldn't marry her. "That's the woman I am going to marry!" my father said. And he did. They went for a walk a couple of times. I guess my mother thought this was the way it should be done. She was going to marry this man who the schadkhin had found and that was fine. It pleases me to note that I never met a couple more loyal and devoted to one another.
Tarnow Jubilee Synagogue, pre-war. (Tarnow Regional Museum)
One of the first things that my mother did after she was engaged was to begin working on her trousseau. She made a matzo bag so they would have it for the first Passover of their married life. She embroidered the matzo bag and put a little lace frill around it. My mother had been taught like young ladies were taught then, how to do fancy work. That matzo bag was one of my parents' only possessions that survived the war. When we were forced out of our house, whoever got our house packed a few of our belongings in a box. My mother found it after we came out of hiding. My parents were married in Tarnow-in which synagogue I don't know, but definitely orthodox. There were many synagogues in Tarnow at the time and stiebels too-little prayer houses. Before the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed there was Temple Judaism. When people came to the Temple there were priests and sacrifices were made. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, what were you going to do with Judaism? It then became Rabbinic Judaism, which is what we have today. In eastern Europe at the time, rabbis were not what they are in North America today. The rabbis would basically paskin shayles, that is, answer questions about kashrut-the dietary laws or minor disputes and so on. The rabbi did not lead the prayer services. Any ten male adults constituted a quorum and could pray. Any one of them could lead the service. You didn't necessarily need a synagogue-a stiebel would do. Rabbis did not teach kids; rather there was a melamed or teacher. So the rabbi having the role of being head of the synagogue, leading services and teaching kids was something that developed later.
Tarnow marketplace pre-war. (Tarnow Regional Museum)
One story my mother told more than once goes like this. Father owned a bakery. He also made wine, but at that time either he did not have a licence or Jews were not allowed to make wine in Poland. He was making wine illegally. One day he had a batch of mead on in the back of the bakery. Mead is a wine made from honey and you have to cook it. An inspector came and you could smell the honey all over the place. My mother realized that there could be some serious problems, so she grabbed the laundry and tossed it into the vat of mead. She pretended that they were doing their laundry. It worked!
I was born 30 March 1938. I had a brother Kalman who was four years older. My parents called me Israel but they would have pronounced it Yisruel. As a child they called me Srulik or Sruel-a diminutive of Israel like Willy instead of William. In accordance with Jewish tradition, I was circumcised when I was eight days old. This is recorded on my birth certificate.
Israel and Kalman in Tarnow, circa 1940. (Israel Unger collection)
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 9 they destroyed the synagogues. I was a year and a half old.
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.
Tarnow was a city of about fifty thousand people, half of whom were Jewish and many of whom lived in a part of town called Grabowka. The Jewish community dated back to the 15th century and it was one of the largest in Galicia. There were Jewish doctors and lawyers, musicians, teachers, industrialists, butchers, grocers, peddlers, tailors, shoemakers, jewellers, scribes, bakers, and nurses-all the professions required for the functioning of a community. Some of the city councillors were Jewish and at one time there was a vice-mayor Goldhammer who was Jewish. There were six large synagogues and a few small ones, Jewish schools, and cultural centres.
This means that during the Holocaust, half the city's inhabitants were murdered.
In October 1939, Jews in Tarnow were forced to wear a Star of David armband. Tarnow was the first city in Poland where the Nazis imposed this marking of Jews.
On 9 November 1939, a year after the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, a similar "Crystal Night" happened in Tarnow where most of the synagogues were destroyed in one night. Tarnow was also the city where the very first prisoners to Auschwitz were deported. They were mostly political prisoners-not necessarily Jewish. That was June 1940. In 1941, the German authorities ordered Jews in Tarnow to hand in all their valuables. Thousands of Jews from the surrounding towns and villages were forced into Tarnow. All Jews were forced to live in a certain area of the city.
Jews were rounded up in what the Germans called Aktions, but I remember them by the Polish words wysiedlenie-a word that technically means "resettling" or "displacing" a population. That was euphemistic because really it meant rounding up Jews and either murdering them on the spot or taking them to the train station for transport to the death camps. In June of 1942 the first wysiedlenie took place in Tarnow, during which half of the Jewish inhabitants were murdered. Either they were transported to the extermination camp Belzec or shot in the nearby Buczyna forest by Zbylitowska Góra. Many were shot in the streets or in the Jewish cemetery. The massacre lasted for about a week. Survivors and Polish eyewitnesses say the street running down from the main town square was a river of blood.
Jews in the city square-the rynek-of Tarnow during a wysiedlenie, July 1942. (Tarnow Regional Museum)
Tarnow town square, 2009. This current photo clearly proves that the historic photo was taken in the Tarnow city square. (Carolyn Gammon photo)
After the first massacre, the Nazis sealed off the district where Jews had been forced to live making the Tarnow ghetto. Non-Jewish Poles living in that area had to leave. Lwowska Street became the southern border of the ghetto, which was surrounded by a high wooden fence. If you left the ghetto without a permit you were killed. There were not many toilets and there was not much food. My father had to do forced labour in a factory outside the ghetto walls, but at least this meant he could leave the ghetto. In September 1942 several thousand Jews living in the ghetto had to gather in the town square. Those who were considered not "essential" to the Nazi slave labour system were rounded up, "selected," and sent to Belzec extermination camp. More wysiedlenia took place throughout the years 1942 and 1943. It was now clear what the Nazis intended for the Jews. It was only a question of when and how.
It is during these wysiedlenia that my first childhood memories begin. I was about four years old. I looked out between the shutters of our room. We were...