"A Gas Nightmare"
By Rachmil Bryks, translated by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Published with the permission of the author’s daughter, Bella Bryks-Klein.
Born and raised in a Hasidic milieu in Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland in 1912, Rachmil Bryks was a prolific and highly acclaimed Yiddish poet and writer. His debut book of poems Yung grin may (Young Green May) appeared in 1939. At the outbreak of World War II, Bryks was in the city of Łódź working as a hat maker and housepainter. Most of his family perished in Treblinka. He was interned in a series of prison camps and then in the Łódź Ghetto from 1940–1944. In August 1944, Bryks was transferred to Auschwitz and later to Wattenstadt, Ravensbruck, and Werbelin. The Yiddish press reviewed Bryks’ work extensively, and Nobel laureates S. Y. Agnon and Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as numerous other scholars and writers, including B. J. Bialostotzky, A. Mukdoni, and Aaron Zeitlin, championed it. His fictional works translated by S. Morris Engel appeared in English as A Cat in the Ghetto and Kiddush hashem. In addition to English, Bryks’ work has been translated into languages such as Hebrew, German, Italian, and Swedish. Bryks married Hinde (Irene) Wolf in 1946, and they had two daughters, Myriam Serla and Bella. Rachmil Bryks died in New York in 1974.
“A Gas Nightmare” is a chapter in Rachmil Bryks’ The Fugitives (New York, 1975), a memoir of his experiences from the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 until the establishment of the Łódź Ghetto in May 1940. Bryks graphically depicts the confusion, chaos, and danger of the early days of the war: the false propaganda coming from Polish radio, the air raids and bombs, the fugitives desperate to escape the bombings, and his own experiences in German captivity. The chapter excerpted here is set in Łódź, the industrial city where Bryks was living when the war broke out. The Fugitives is the second of three memoirs by Rachmil Bryks I translated as a 2018 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. The set of memoirs entitled May God Avenge Their Blood: A Holocaust Memoir Triptych is now available from Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.
I would like to thank Bella Bryks-Klein for her enthusiastic support of this translation project, Norman Buder for his responses to my Yiddish-language queries, Elżbieta Pelish for her help with Polish orthography and other Polish matters, and khavruse and Translation Fellow Jason Wagner for his feedback on an earlier draft of this chapter. Additionally, I would like to thank all of the individuals associated with the Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship Program—instructors, mentors, staff, and Translation Fellows—for their backing, insights, and encouragement.
—Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
During the afternoon of September 3, 1939, an air raid alarm sounded when I was out on the street. The sirens howled and the church bells tolled, causing terrible panic. People scurried in terror toward the covered courtyard gateways. I rushed to the first one I could find and then hid in the nearest cellar. It was a cork factory and crowded with Jews by the time I arrived. I didn’t know anyone there, but I quickly felt as if I were among old acquaintances. The windows were well sealed. The air was stuffy, difficult to breathe. Next to the radio on the workbench was a handsome, middle-aged man with a long, full beard. He was the owner of the small factory. The radio held us all in its tense grip. It was our only contact with the outside world.
Presently, a radio announcer was calling out: “Nadkhodzshi! (It’s coming!) Dora Dvadzshyeshtsha ava! (There, twenty-two!) Nadshedl! (It’s here!)” So persuasive was the announcement that we felt as if the enemy planes were flying above us at that very moment, their bombs poised to descend. A woman’s voice came on the air, broadcasting with even greater urgency: “Attention! Attention! Gas! Put on your gas masks!” No one had a mask, except a small segment of the O.P.L. defending against the air assault. After a little while, there was another warning on the radio: “The Germans have released poison gas in Karolev (a suburb of Łódź)! Beware! Gas! Gas!”
The air in the crowded cellar had become unbearable. It was difficult to breathe; the women began to heave and spasm, crying, “Oh no, gas! Gaaaas!”
“Oh no, I’ve been gassed! Oh no, my child has been gassed!”
“Gas! I’m going to suffocate! Let me out! The gas is suffocating me!”
“Don’t open the door! It’s worse outside! There’s even more gas out there!”
“Take the tampons and moisten them in water and cover your nose and mouth!”
Everyone did as told, me included.
“Oh no, Jews, say Vide  with me,” pleaded an elderly man, “The gas has suffocated me.”
I too could feel myself suffocating, when suddenly there was a thunderous explosion. The earth shook. All was dark; the radio went silent. Everything hanging on the wall came crashing down. The windowpanes fell out, breaking into shards. Now that the radio wasn’t working, we were completely cut off from the world. Infants and children sobbed in distress. Women began to spasm with greater intensity. I realized that I would meet my end if I stayed there. Several other young men and I got up the courage to go out into the courtyard.
We saw a black fog coming toward us from the south. We confirmed it to ourselves: Yes! This is it—gas! The terrible thought seized me: the gas would corrode my body. What a cruel death! A ghastly silence reigned. Suddenly there was a commotion of oncoming trucks and fire sirens, instilling even more terror in us. I could see that the black fog was getting closer. What was I to do? I didn’t have a gas mask. Whether we were on the street or in the shelter, the gas would reach us. Left with no choice, I covered my mouth and nose with a tampon moistened with water and tea soda. “But what if this is the type of gas that doesn’t suffocate the victim, but slowly corrodes the body until the life is extinguished?” I asked myself, worry gnawing at me. I had to do everything I could to buy an anti-gas uniform and a gas mask. I cursed the Polish government for failing to provide every citizen with this safeguard. (The next morning I learned that the Germans hadn’t released gas; the terrible explosion was the result of a bomb they threw on the power plant, causing a massive power outage in the entire region.) I went back down into the cellar. There was still fitful screaming, just like before.
“Oh no, I’ve been gassed!”
“Dear God above, make a miracle happen!”
The next day, Monday before noon, I went to my sister Ester’s place in the old city. From a distance, I saw that Wschodnia Street, near the Łódka River, was dense with the dark specks of surging crowds. When I got closer, I saw that there were only Jews there. They were leading a spy they had captured on the roof in the Jewish quarter. He had signaled to the enemy with a pocket mirror. He was powerfully built—a Christian in his twenties, possibly an ethnic German, wearing shabby clothing. He was proceeding quietly, calmly, surrounded by hundreds of Jews across the entire width of the street as well as both sidewalks. He showed no fear. Two police officers with rifles approached. The Jews shouted, “Szpieg! A spy! We’ve got a spy!” The police took him away, and the Jews followed them until they reached the police station.
The rest of the day was calm, without any air raid sirens. We had an opportunity to come up with some food.
Tuesday night also passed without incident. Now we were even more convinced that the “powerful” Polish army had crushed the German forces. I went down to the street full of optimism. People stood and joked around in the covered gateways. We were certain that victory was on our side. Soldiers were on the street, walking alone or in groups of two or three. We were still full of naïve optimism and expressed our thanks to the Polish army, greeting them joyfully with cries of:
“Long live the powerful Polish soldier!”
“Long live the victorious Polish army!”
“Long live our saviors!”
The soldiers pretended not to notice, too ashamed to lift their eyes. Then I thought this was out of humility, but now it seems to me the soldiers were surely thinking: you poor things, you have no idea of the kind of danger you’re in.
Finally, the electric lights went back on, and the radio was working again. Life took a turn for the better. Shortly thereafter, there was an announcement on the radio: “The air raid is over!” We calmed down a little and left the cellars.
Polish radio was waging a frightening propaganda campaign. People were literally going out of their minds. They were ready to do anything to get the sirens and the poison gas to stop. “Let’s surrender to them! Let’s stop fighting them! We don’t have the strength to go on!” said many Poles and even some Jews. The Germans achieved their objective through radio. The Polish nation was quickly broken.
In the evening, Polish radio communicated the following: “The powerful Polish air defense has driven out the German airplanes! Our army is strong and powerful! Our great and powerful leader, Marshal Śmigły Rydz is with us! We’re fighting and will continue to fight until our last drop of blood is shed! We won’t surrender a single meter of land!” This left us feeling somewhat encouraged.
We thought to ourselves: things really aren’t so bad. After all, we’d been expecting a terrible night. But there hadn’t been a single siren, and we were able to sleep peacefully. We were sure this was due to the “powerful” Polish army with its “powerful” aircraft.
A soldier—a Pole—came to visit the home of the baker where my sister Tobtshe lived. He was a deserter from the army. His uniform was grass-colored and had large brass buttons and an eagle, the Polish emblem. His cap was made from the same material, with a stiff, four-cornered crown made of four quarters with a high bar and a long visor bordered with gleaming white metal. His lower legs and feet were wrapped in the same material; the narrow cuffs of his trousers were tucked into the wrappings. He wore Russian leather shoes of the “piechota” (infantry). They were laced up with leather “shnurevadles” (laces) with double leather soles reinforced by steel nails with wide heads. His shoes were too narrow for his feet. Previously, he’d worked here as a baker’s apprentice and was stopping by to see his former boss on his way through the area. The baker served an entire loaf of bread in his honor. The soldier held the loaf in his left hand, while regularly breaking off chunks of bread with his right and popping them into his mouth, as he breathlessly told us about his tragic experiences on the front in the same upbeat tone used to tell a funny story or a joke. And he repeatedly burst into laughter.
“Psiakrew! Sons of bitches! Cholera! Bastards! The Szwaby  (Germans) fire from their airplanes and rain bombs down on us, and we have to shoot back with bullets,” he said, pointing to his small pack of bullets he was carrying in his leather belt—“that don’t even fit the gun!” he continued, pointing to his gun. “As soon as we hear the sound of airplanes in the distance, we take off like rabbits. Ha, ha, ha. The Germans have been burning entire towns and villages with incendiary bombs! Ha, ha, ha! They fly like the black devil. No one is stopping them; it’s all burning like a white thunder! Ha, ha, ha. The civilian population is on the run, same as the military. Ha, ha, ha. The fire is as hot as hell! Psiakrew! Cholera! And the szczeniaki (fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-year old scouts) run away in soiled trousers. Ha, ha, ha. The highway was laid out with dead scouts. The scouts can’t even hold a gun in their hands. Ha, ha, ha. I haven’t laid eyes on bread in three days. I wolfed down what I could steal from the fields and trees. Psiakrew!”
By the time he finished his narration, the soldier had devoured the entire loaf of bread. Given his lighthearted tone and the false propaganda we’d been inundated with from the radio, we couldn’t grasp his description of the catastrophe happening to Poland.
A half-hour later, a Jewish soldier, the baker’s nephew, stopped by. He was completely brokenhearted. In a dispirited voice, filled with misery and terror, he said, “The Germans are winning. They march like a relentless inferno destroying villages and towns; the Polish army has been crushed. Their soldiers are like lost sheep without a shepherd. Poland is completely unprepared for this type of war. They’re working with airplanes, and all we’ve got are worn-out, starving horses. You see, Uncle, the bullets I have in my belt don’t even fit into this gun.” He grew quiet, the sadness and fear visible on his face.
His aunt spread out a tablecloth. She set down the food that she’d rustled together for him. The soldier washed up, recited the blessing, and began to eat. But the food caught in his throat. “I have to report to duty as soon as possible,” he said, “I’m a Jew, after all . . . It’s not good, Uncle, not good at all! We Jews are lost! The Polish government has betrayed us!” His words touched us deeply; the atmosphere in the room turned gloomy. He stood up, getting ready to go. He recited the Grace After Meals standing, uneasy, as if on one foot. His uncle gave him several zlotys and comforted him, saying, “Don’t lose your trust in God. We Jews have a great God. He will help us!” Assuming a cheerful tone, he advised, “Be a Jew at home and a Gentile in the military. Come back with your Jewishness intact.”
The soldier remained downcast. We said goodbye, offering him our warmest blessings. His uncle accompanied him downstairs. At that moment, I contrasted the Polish and the Jewish soldiers: the Pole, even though his country was being destroyed, remained in his land and in his home because he wasn’t broken. But the Jew, always made to feel a stranger, sensed in advance what was in store for the Jews with the arrival of the Germans. After all, he knew what the Germans had done to the Jews in Germany and in the territories they occupied. And he witnessed firsthand what the Germans were doing on the battlefront. They had turned the entire country into a single war zone.
We, who hadn’t experienced the battlefront and whose hometown Łódź hadn’t been bombed, were drunk on the false radio propaganda that the “powerful” Polish army was winning.
 Jewish confession of sin recited collectively on Yom Kippur or individually before dying.
 “Szwaby” means Swabian (literally an ethnic German people who are native to or have ancestral roots in the cultural and linguistic region of Swabia, which is now mostly divided between the modern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, in southwest Germany) and is used here as a pejorative term for Germans.
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (www.yataub.net) is the author of the book of stories Prodigal Children in the House of G-d (2018) and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017), is winner of two CIPA EVVY awards, and was named a finalist for a Foreword INDIES award. Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish Songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. With co-translator Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize and the 2014–2017 Modern Language Association’s Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Hamilton Stone Review, Jewrotica, Marathon Literary Review, Oyster River Pages, Second Hand Stories Podcast, and Verdad Magazine.
Read the original Yiddish version of "A Gas Nightmare" in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.