When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, the author and his father were drafted into the Polish Army. After a few days of hopeless fighting, the brigade in which the author served was routed and dispersed. This precipitated a headlong flight of soldiers and civilians alike, anxious to escape the murderous attack of the rapidly advancing enemy armored columns and their attendant aircraft, which ceaselessly bombed and strafed roads and villages.
For some three weeks, Aaron Reisfeld and his father desperately sought to escape the Nazi onslaught by fleeing eastward to the Russian border and the perceived safety that country offered. It was a harrowing ordeal covering hundreds of kilometers, during which the Reisfelds endured hunger, exposure, bombing, shelling and countless dangers on roads clogged with millions of terrified, escaping refugees.
At the outbreak of war, the author lived a comfortable life in a reasonably affluent home in the town of Lodz, and was about to complete his last year of high school. Little did he know it would be more than a decade before he could complete his education and obtain a degree in textile engineering from Nottingham College in England. In that decade, the author survived many trials by fire and mortal danger, first in escaping from the Nazis, then fighting the Germans in North Africa as a soldier in the British Army, and finally serving in the Israeli Army in that country's bloody war for independence. While he managed to escape the fires of the Holocaust, his mother, sister and most members of his extended family were consumed in it along with six million Jews and untold numbers of gentiles.
Running from the advancing Nazis, the author and his father, through sheer determination, willpower to survive and luck, managed to reach the Russian Zone of Occupation and its temporary safety. Soon, however, they found they had to flee from the Russians as well when they began deporting into the Siberian hinterland capitalists, professionals and the intelligentsia, who were unlikely to hew to the Soviet ideology and order.
Fleeing the Russians, the Reisfelds brought off another harrowing escape, this time by crossing a raging river in the middle of a cold, wintry night into Romania, where they hoped to find a temporary haven. Because they had crossed illegally into the country, the author and his father were apprehended by the Romanian police and forced to serve a brief jail sentence before being set free and allowed to stay in that country.
From their base in Bucharest, Reisfeld's father tried to arrange for his mother's and sister's escape from Nazi occupied Poland. Such arrangements were difficult to make, but possible by bribing the right police and Nazi officials. Reisfeld's father succeeded in making those arrangements, and his mother and sister were set to travel to then neutral Italy from where they could continue on to Palestine. But just as they were about to depart, Italy entered the war on Germany's side, thus trapping them in Poland and sealing their doom.
The security they found in Romania did not last as both Germany and the Soviets were poised to march into Romania and partition the country between them. The Reisfelds had to flee once again before they could be overtaken by their dreaded enemies. They managed to book passage on one of the last passenger ships to leave Romania, barely days ahead of the German occupation. After a tour of eastern Mediterranean ports, the Reisfelds finally landed in Haifa where they were taken in by family members already established in Palestine.
Yet, this was hardly the end of the author's peregrinations. With the war raging in North Africa and creeping closer to Palestine, Aaron joined the British Army's Corp of Royal Engineers as a sapper lifting and planting mines, blowing up fortifications, and building and destroying bridges, among other dangerous duties. For the next four years, he served in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.
Despite the war and the rigors of army service, Reisfeld was determined to complete his education. He enrolled in correspondence courses offered through the British Army. Thereafter, his Egyptian desert dugout or sandblown tent served as his classroom, laboratory, study hall and library. Somehow he managed to complete his courses and pass the exams that earned him a scholarship to Nottingham College where he started his studies in textile engineering after the war. But, once again he had to put his studies aside to join the fledgling Israeli Army to help that nascent country establish its independence. Eventually, Reisfeld returned to England, completed his studies, obtained his degree and finally found his place in the growing textile industry in the United States. During his half-century career in the industry, Reisfeld earned a worldwide reputation as one of the foremost textile engineers and an expert in warp knitting.
From a Polish boy who stuttered badly and who distained the learning of languages, the author grew into a confident young man, curious and eager to learn, especially science and technology. He eventually became fluent in several languages including English, German and Hebrew as well as Polish, and could manage to make himself understood in French, Arabic, Russian, Latin and Greek.
Reisfeld's wartime experiences not only forged the character of a young man anxious to survive, learn and succeed, it also molded, as might be expected, his view and philosophy of life, which he amply explores in this memoir. While he cannot forgive his Maker for tolerating the advent of the Holocaust that consumed his family and fellow Jews in its fiery maw, he has come to terms with his God, formulating a rather unorthodox view of good and evil and the rationale of life itself. He likes to believe his survival was not a matter of random chance, but in some sense a divinely inspired act that allowed him to emerge unscathed from three wars while serving in three armies, obtain his degree, marry, raise a daughter, and establish himself as an authority in the textile industry.
Many books have been written on the Holocaust, its horrors, death camps and Nazi bestialities. Few, however, match the author's narrative of a successful, if harrowing, escape from the German and Russian invaders as they engulfed Eastern Europe.
Reisfeld's book depicts the coming of World War II in Poland, as seen through he eyes of a 17 year old boy, drafted into the Polish Army with his father, only to flee before the advancing German hordes, all the way to the Russian zone and into the jaws of the invading Red Army. When the Soviets begin deporting the Polish intelligentsia deep into the Russian hinterland, father and son daringly escape across the border to Romania only to be arrested and imprisoned. After their release, they face a Romanian fascist revolution and imminent occupation by the Nazis and Soviets. At almost the last moment, they manage to get out of Romania by boat and make their way to Palestine, where they begin a new life.
In this tale, the author is thrust overnight from a tranquil life as a schoolboy into the terrors of war to rapidly mature in its bloody crucible. The pulse pounding escapes the author endured take the readers through the 1939 apocalypse that eventually devastated most of Europe. It is an absorbing, fast paced narrative of war events written on a personal, historical and political level.
Reisfeld also wrote the book for his daughter to answer her questions of what it was like to be on the run without food or rest, in constant danger of violent death, starvation or capture. He told her, "This was a time when I thought I couldn�t run any further, but got up and ran on. A time when I felt I couldn�t any longer cope with the hardships of war, but found strength to go on, discovering my reservoir of inner fortitude. If your father could do it, so can you when facing life�s vicissitudes." This message should inspire the readers to realize that we can all be stronger than we think when drawing on our inner resources in emergency or traumatic situations.
Most importantly, however, this memoir is Reisfeld's eyewitness account of the traumatic events he had to endure simply because of his religion. He also records the overt anti-Semitism, slanders, and physical assaults of his Polish neighbors and classmates on himself and his Jewish friends.
Later historians and revisionists may want us to question whether these events ever took place. That is why eyewitness accounts such as Aaron Reisfeld's is such an important document. He was there and endured those evils and it was only his tenacity, underlying faith in life and his sheer determination to survive that allowed him to pull through so that he could attest to those events.
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October 07, 2002
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