By Miriam Brysk and Joanne D. Gilbert

The Triumphant and Unforgettable Story 
of an Indomitable Little Girl 
              Who Joined the Anti-Nazi Partisan Fighters                 in the wild forests of Belarus.  

                  You'll fall in love with brave Miriam                                     as she confronts and overcomes                          the unspeakable horrors 
  of the Nazi Blitz and Occupation of Warsaw. 

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During the warm, beautiful summer of 1939, when I was four years old, the Polish people went on about their lives, never imagining that World War II was about to explode over Europe. Like most little kids in Poland—or anywhere else—at that time, I didn’t have any idea that a war was coming. Or even what “war” really meant. But on September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland with their terrifying, deadly, Blitzkrieg, my life, along with the lives of all Polish Jews, abruptly changed. And I learned all too well what war meant. And I learned that I would never feel safe again.

I remember all too clearly my first bombing experience.  It had been an ordinary afternoon until I was suddenly shaken by the terrible sounds and felt the powerful vibrations of bombs as they crashed into my neighborhood, rattling our five-story apartment building. I scrambled up on the sofa and tried to peek out the window, but my Aunt Ala, who visiting at the time, quickly reached over and closed the shutters so I couldn’t see outside. She told me get under the dining room table, while she and my mother, whose face was deathly pale, ran around the apartment, gathering food, clothes, and blankets. 

Then they rushed into the room to get me. The terrified, yet determined look on my mother’s face was something I’d never seen. And it scared me more than the bombs and fires that seemed to be destroying the whole world. Without a single word, she grabbed one of my hands, and my Aunt grabbed the other.

Trembling, too terrified to cry, and barely breathing, I tried and failed to understand what was happening. When I finally caught my breath and asked my mother what was happening, she responded in a tone of voice I’d never heard, “Mirele, this is serious. It is not a game. No matter what, you must hold on to me or Aunt Ala at all times. We must not be separated. You must instantly obey all the orders I give you without asking any questions. Always do what I tell you. Do you understand?”         Unable to speak, I just nodded solemnly. We practically flew down the five flights of stairs to the big front door, and out onto the street. Our usually safe, familiar, and friendly block had been transformed into fiery chaos and danger. We quickly headed for a bomb-shelter, which was located in the basement of a nearby apartment building. We had become part of a confused, panicked, screaming mob of men, women, children—all running for our lives. It was almost like one of today’s computer games—except we living, breathing, human beings, were the targets.                                                 Low-flying German planes randomly machine-gunned people down on the streets. We dodged the bricks, broken glass, and flaming chunks of exploding buildings that hurtled crazily through the air, and plummeted down upon us. Shaking, I kept asking my mother why all this was happening. “You wouldn’t understand, Mirele,” she repeated.

By the time we reached the bomb shelter, I was all but paralyzed by fear. My Aunt Ala put an arm around me, and held me tightly to her. We clambered down the narrow stairs and into the basement. The bombing had cut off the electricity, and the subterranean room was so dark that we could barely see each other’s faces. We tried, without much success, to be polite as we cautiously made our way through the packed room and into a small space in a still vacant corner. We were hot and sweaty, and the foul smells in that dank, dirty, fear-filled cellar made it difficult to breathe. Eerily unlike the deafening clamor in the streets, the only sound now was the soft hum of people softly praying that we would not sustain a direct hit, and that the tall building above would not collapse on top of us.                                                                        Huddled tightly together with our families, neighbors, and anyone else who had been nearby when the bombing had begun, we tried to act as normally as possible. We were all nervous, but somehow understood that if one person lost control and started screaming, then everyone else might also. If anyone was mean to another person, it might start a fight that would endanger all of us. Even I somehow understood that the survival of this terrified group depended on each individual being calm and considerate to each other.                                                                                                         After a while, we were relieved to see that someone had thought to bring a flashlight, and someone else had brought candles and matches. Once there was a little light, people began to calm down a bit. No longer distracted by the bombs, my thoughts turned to my father, my uncles and my grandparents. Worried, I asked Ala where they all were, and if they were safe. She assured me that they all were quite safe in shelters. She cradled me in her arms and told me she loved me. I buried my face in her sweet-smelling sweater, and as her calm, loving voice resonated through me, my eyelids began to droop.

Suddenly, just when we were beginning to feel a little bit safe, just when we had started to breathe a little more normally, our worst fears became a reality. We were stunned by the terrible whistle of a bomb very close overhead. This was quickly followed by an ear-splitting crash as it smashed through the roof of the apartment building. Everyone held their breaths again—waiting for the explosion. And the horror that would follow.

But somehow . . . unbelievably . . . the bomb did not explode! This left us even more dazed and bewildered than before. What had happened? What would happen next? We were completely helpless.

Eventually, when the bombing seemed to have stopped, two brave young men, undoubtedly with their hearts beating wildly, set out to see what had happened. Imagine their surprise when they slowly opened a door into a bathroom on an upper floor—that no longer had a ceiling or a roof—and saw the fat, unexploded bomb sitting calmly in a water-filled bathtub!

 Seventy-five years later, whenever I see a bathtub, I think about that day, and how lucky we were.

The Germans Bomb Soviet Poland

On June 22, 1941, when I was just six years old, our relatively happy days came to an explosive end. We didn’t know it then, but this was the day that  the Germans broke their treaty with the Soviet Union and attacked them. Since we lived in what was at the time the Soviet Union, we once again were targets for the Nazis. Once again we heard the roars of low-flying planes as they circled above us before dropping hundreds of bombs. My barely forgotten memories of the terror of Warsaw came flooding back. And now I had another day I would never forget.  It was very early on a lovely warm, sunshiny morning, and while the men had already left for work, we “women” still hadn’t gotten out of bed. I was jolted out of a warm snuggle  with Mama by the deafening roar of what I already knew were bomber planes flying directly overhead.                                                                               "Mama, are we being attacked again?”  

Shaken, Mama and I huddled closely together, drawing strength from each other’s presence. I choked back tears as Mama explained that the Germans had attacked the Russians, and that we were once again in the middle of a war zone. Mama tried to reassure me, saying, “Don’t worry, Mirele, darling, we will be all right. Remember the bombing in Warsaw when you had to follow my orders immediately and without question? You’re a big girl now, and I know you’ll be brave. I nodded solemnly. “We came out all right then, and we will this time, too. Just remember to do what I tell you—without any questions.” I wasn’t as sure as she was that we’d be ok, but I knew that this wasn’t the time or place to argue.

Unlike the blitzkrieg of Warsaw, where we had lived in a sturdy apartment building, and been able to run to a bomb shelter, this time we were in a small house. Through our windows, Mama and I could see the houses around us were in flames. Mama told me we needed to get out quickly. We grabbed our sweaters and water, and hurried out of the house.  Holding hands, we ran toward the farmland that began just beyond the edge of town.                                                                                                 In the midst of the explosions, flames, and terrorized people, my biggest fear was that I might get separated from Mama. What would I do on my own in this chaos? I was even more terrified than I’d been in Warsaw because now I was older and understood the dangers. We were quickly engulfed by other terror-stricken townspeople who were also escaping their houses as fast as they could—it was like a human flood—all of us running in a frenzy away from the center of town.                              It seemed as if we’d been running for hours, dodging bombs, fires, and exploding buildings. During that whole time, even after we no longer could feel the heat of our burning city on our backs, we didn’t look back once. We kept our eyes focused on any possible escape routes. By the time that the sun was setting, we’d managed to run almost five kilometers, and had passed several farms. Unlike many of the other exhausted escapees who had already stopped, we continued into the wild, uninhabited fields beyond the farms. Finally, unable to go any further, we sank to the ground. Only after I’d settled into my mother’s lap, did I ask her if we really could get away from the Germans this time. Instead of answering my question, she assured me that we would all right. Again, I was skeptical, but what could any mother have said in these circumstances? 

After what seemed like forever, the bombing suddenly stopped. Above us, the sun was just setting on what would otherwise have been a beautiful June day. But our once clear blue sky had been darkened by smoke and ashes. Blood red streaks of sunbeams twisted and shot through the smoke and ash-filled sky, turning it into an ironic rainbow of death. All along the horizon, for as far as we could see, the flames of other burning towns convinced us that the world was being destroyed around us. As if all sounds had been sucked out of the world, the sudden, eerie, and utter silence was almost as frightening as the ear-spitting bombing.                                      The people around us began to stir and get up. I could hear men, women, and children crying out for help, and calling out for missing loved ones. Mama and I stood up, brushed our clothes off, hugged each other tightly, and began our walk back to town. We stepped cautiously through the smoldering ruins of Lida, trying not to look at the dead and dying. Our irritated eyes watered from the filthy air. Mama held tightly to my hand. Afraid to speak the words out loud, we could feel each other’s dread about what we would find when we got home. Would there even be a home to return to? Would Papa and my uncles be safe?                                                                                 Imagine the waves of mixed feelings that hit us when we turned the corner and saw that amidst the smoking, crumbled ruins of our neighborhood, one house was still standing —and it was ours! Propelled by joy and relief, we rushed forward, eager to feel the comfort and safety of home. These feelings were quickly over-shadowed, however, by grief at the sight of our dazed and weeping neighbors as they carefully searched through the remains of what had once been their homes.  And then, just as suddenly, another wave of emotions flooded us with joy again when we opened our front door and saw Papa and my uncles sitting at the dining table.                                                           There was food on the table, and the room was lit by candles. It was beautiful—just like a photograph in a magazine! Can you imagine it? My beloved Papa and uncles, sitting at a food-laden table in a lovely, candle-lit dining room—in the midst of the sights, sounds, and smells of a smoldering war zone!  At least that’s how I remember it. The food probably consisted of  some stale bread and cold potatoes. Dust and debris had probably blown in through the broken windows.                                                           I flew into Papa’s arms and wouldn’t let go. Mama told the men what had happened to us and what we’d seen.  Then, Papa told us what it had been like at the hospital during the bombardment, where he had been providing care to injured townspeople. My uncles had run away from Lida just as we had, but had been unable to find us in the chaos. While our house had sustained some damage, we would be able to clean it up. Life would go on.                                                                                                                       Before long, feeling warm, full, and safe, I fell asleep in my father’s arms, and he gently carried me to bed. All too soon, I wouldn’t even be able to remember what feeling warm and safe was.