The Soap Incident

When Adek, Zina and Henry were fleeing Warsaw in October, 1939, an incident occurred, which Klara Samuels describes in her book (p.51). I had also heard about this episode, I think from my father. All accounts agree on the basics: They were confronted by German soldiers (Wehrmacht), were afraid for their lives, since what they were doing was illegal, and in addition, they were Jews. In fact, as it turned out, the soldiers only wanted soap, and upon receiving it, actually gave them advice on how to fool the Russian authorities into allowing them to stay when they reached the Russian side (tell them you have been visiting relatives in Russia and want to get back to German-occupied Poland). The soldiers even returned to tell them when the best time to go was. The suggested ruse succeeded, and the Russian authorities put them on a train “back” to Białystok (where they did in fact have relatives).

Henry’s description has them walking when the Germans confront them:

So we took that taxi and I forget now where they really dropped us off, and there were – not horse and buggy – it’s a horse-drawn wagon, you know, like farmers have – where we put the suitcases. We were sort of walking, and all of a sudden, was “Halt!” and the Germans got us. So, first of all they took – I think they had quarters in a high school …

Klara, on the other hand, describes being in a wealthy peasant’s hut, when …

Suddenly disaster struck. There was a loud knock at the door followed by a harsh voice ordering the owner to open up. Several soldiers, helmets on their heads and rifles at the ready entered and took the situation in at a glance. We did not look like peasants, so what else could we be but Jews trying to escape the Nazis? We were stunned into immobility. What would happen to us? We might be summarily shot, arrested, beaten, or, at best, turned back. It all might depend on the orders of the day, or perhaps even on the caprice of our captors. We were ordered out and taken to a nearby school which had been hastily converted into a military command center.

We were left waiting for a while, trembling with fear. But when our captors from the Wehrmacht (German army) returned, they engaged Adek – who spoke fluent German – in a conversation. The catastrophe turned out to have been a farce. It seemed the soldiers were only looking for soap.

Klara’s version accords more with the one I heard. I remember being told that when they were ordered out of the peasant’s hut, the order was “Raus!” (Out!)

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