Poland – September 1939:
A fleet of Nazi airplanes drop their bombs on a small village in Poland. Jakob Eisenhardt leads his family away from the attack. They find a low wall to hide behind. His wife Edie cannot believe that the entire village they just fled from has been destroyed.
Another small group of people is huddled near the Eisenhardts. They ask them where they are going and Jakob replies that they are heading for the city. The others tell them that the Germans have taken the city. Erich points out that they’ve taken the country as well. Max spots a contingent of soldiers in the adjacent field and alerts his father to them. Max and his family move quickly, leaving the others behind. The soldiers open fire as they entire the open area. The other Jews declare that they are unarmed and beg the soldiers not to shoot. The Nazis order them onto their stomachs and then kill them.
Max hears the shots cry out as he and his family run away. His father urges him forward and whispers “Don’t look back, Max.” He tells his son that they need his sharp eyes up front and Max takes the lead. His father tells him once again “Good boy.” Ruth, his sister asks where they are going and Uncle Erich replies “Warsaw.” Ruthie protests that the man just told them that the Nazis had taken Warsaw. Erich assures his niece that her father knows what he’s doing. He explains that in Warsaw there are thousands of Jews and at least there, they will not be alone.
Historical Overview – <:br>
The German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Following the main German forces, Nazi Einsatzgruppen, or “operational groups” hunted down Jews and Polish intellectuals. In September and October of 1939, the Einsatzgruppen and other German forces killed over 16,000 Jewish and Polish civilians. Two years later, Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into the Ukraine and Russia, slaughtering Jews wherever they found them. By the end of the war, the Einsatzgruppen and their auxiliaries had killed 1.3 million Jews.
The Eisenhardts arrive in Warsaw in September, 1939. They find a small one-room flat but in October of 1940, they are forced to move into the area of the city that will become the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. A month later, the ghetto is enclosed by a ten-foot high wall. This is just the beginning of a harsher and more regimented existence for the Eisenhardts and the other Jewish families in the Warsaw ghetto.
Historical Overview –
In the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland, a flood of refugees swells the Jewish population of Warsaw from 350, 000 to almost 500,000. In the Jewish sector of Warsaw, entire families live in single rooms. Radios are confiscated. Coal becomes scarce enough to be called “black pearls.” In October 1940, the Germans officially establish the Warsaw ghetto, forcing all Jews to live within an area less than two miles long. Overnight, the Germans complete the construction of ten-foot walls around the ghetto, topped in places with barbed wire and broken glass.
Over the next few months, the Germans drastically reduce food allotments to Jews. By 1941, the official ration falls as low as 699 calories per day for Poles and 184 for Jews. By June, 2,000 people a month are starving to death in the ghetto.
Warsaw Ghetto - December, 1941:
A young Jewish boy walks quietly along the inner wall of the ghetto. He wears an armband bearing the Star of David to mark him as a Jew. He makes his way to the line where German soldiers are distributing the day’s meager rations. A soldier hands a Jewish woman a small loaf of bread after demanding to see her ration card. He warns the others to have theirs ready. Another soldier shoos away the children who have gathered around. The little boy grabs the bread from the woman and darts into and alleyway. The other children chase after him to try and get the bread from him. They tackle him, driving him into the snow. They tear at the bread like ravenous wolves, fighting each other for a mere scrap of it. One piece goes flying and lands at the feet of Max Eisenhardt. He picks the chunk of bread up and hands it to the boy who originally snatched it. “You dropped this,” Max says to the hungry boy whose nose is bloodied.
Max continues along the inner wall of the ghetto until he comes to a hole at the base that is large enough to crawl through. He removes his armband with the Star of David and crouches down to peer through the hole. He sees two soldiers in the distance and waits until they are not looking to crawl out. The hungry boy with the bloody nose watches Max disappear into the free area of Warsaw. Unbeknownst to Max, the boy follows him through the hole. He is immediately spotted by a soldier who aims his rifle at him. He yells at the boy “Hold it right there!” Max has made it safely to a darkened alleyway across the street from the ghetto. He hears the soldier call out and turns to see what is happening. The boy is still on his knees as he tries to explain himself. The Nazi soldier tells him it’s all right and tells him to hold still. He approaches the boy and shoots him. The chunk of bread falls to the ground. The hungry little Jewish boy drops next to it. The soldier chuckles.
Max’s eyes narrow as he takes out a sharp, thin knife. He starts to approach the Nazi from behind but a figure emerges from the alley to stop him. The man claps his hand over Max’s mouth and pulls him back before either of them is spotted. The man speaks to max in hushed tones, urging him to be quiet and stop fighting him. He tells Max that “We Jews don’t need to kill each other” since there are plenty of others intent on doing so.
Max recognizes the voice as his uncle, Erich. He asks what he is doing outside the ghetto and Erich replies that he’s smuggling things, just as Max is. Erich teases Max that he’s traded up to being a Nazi-killer. Max pulls away and tells his uncle he could have done it. “With a penknife?” his uncle replies. He then urges his nephew to consider what would have happened had he succeeded. A hundred Jews would have been killed in retaliation. He notes that just last year when a Polish police officer was killed, fifty-three innocents were shot in retaliation. He asks if Max would like that upon his conscience. Max protests and asks if they are just going to let them away with it. Erich tells his nephew that they cannot punish the Nazis for their deeds, but they can defeat them by surviving. He sends Max off, telling him to be careful.
Max wonders down the street, trying not to draw attention. He stops at an alleyway, inexplicitly compelled to peer into its dark corners. His sharp eyes see a glint of metal. He ventures into the alley and finds a gold coin, buried in the snow.
Max returns to the ghetto where he finds his father and the other Jews in line. They have been ordered to surrender their coats, furs and wraps. One man says to Jakob “So now we stand in line for the privilege of letting them steal from us?” and Jakob comments that it is that or have them kick in your doors. The other man cynically replies “You think they won’t do that anyway?” Max approaches his father and shows him the tomato he has purchased with the coin. His father is surprised by this and even more surprised when Max adds that he also has a half pound of beef. Jakob’s eyes are filled with concern and he promptly tells Max “Take it to your sister.” Max turns and makes his way home.
Not long after, Max is sitting next to Ruthie’s bed, holding her hand. She has grown pale and gaunt from hunger. Her hand rests limply in his. Max’s mother brings a soup she has made from the tomato and the beef and gingerly feeds some to her ailing daughter. As she sips the soup, she grips Max’s hand just a bit. Mac’s mother sees this and smiles at her son, kissing his forehead and saying to him “Good boy.”
Warsaw Ghetto – July 1942:
Max visits the umschlagplatz. This is the area between the Warsaw ghetto and the Polish district of the city and the site where many Jews are being shipped out of Warsaw via train. Huge throngs of Jews numbering in the thousands are climbing into freight cars. They are being offered bread and marmalade for their cooperation. One man’s whispers warn that those who board are being taken to their deaths. He claims that the bread and marmalade are bribes. The man he is addressing says that his cousin received a postcard from someone who had taken the train earlier that month and that all is as the Nazis claim. Families are being kept together and given food and shelter in exchange for hard work. The man issuing the warning asks the other if he is willing to stake his life on an alleged postcard from someone his cousin knows. The man replies “Why would they kill us? It doesn’t make any sense” to which the other man replies “Then why have they been killing us for the past three years?” As the men say this, Max listens intently. He peers into the freight car and notices traces of blood on the floorboards. He frowns and walks away.
He returns home and tells his father and uncle what he has seen. Jakob asks if he is sure what he saw. Max replies that no one else said anything and perhaps he was wrong. Jakob says that he has never known his son’s sharp eyes to be wrong about anything. Uncle Erich reports that they have received word from an escapee who says that the trains go to Treblinka where passengers are told they are going to be given baths. They are then gassed to death in the showers. He surmises that letting them starve to death and shooting them in cold blood was taking too long. Jakob says that they will just have to stay put then. Erich tells him that they are no longer being given the choice to leave. The Nazis have begun pulling the weakest among them from the streets and forcing them onto the trains. He cautions his brother that if the Nazis were to find Ruthie or him on the streets, they would surely take them. Jakob asks Erich if he is saying that this is it for them all. Erich says that it is indeed, if they follow the Nazis rules. He tells Jakob to thank God that his son grew up to be a smuggler.
That very night, the Eisenhardts sneak out of the city through the small hole in the wall that Max has used to leave the ghetto. Uncle Erich instructs them to meet a woman named Cecelia at the banks of the Vistula. She has found a farmer who will hide them. Max realizes that Erich does not intend to join them and speaks up about it. Erich simply says grimly that he will catch up later. Max asks him if he’s staying to fight. Erich replies that there is nothing left to lose. Max insists on staying too. Erich says “No!” but Jakob steps in. He reminds Max of Major Scharf whose life he saved. He cannot recall all the details and believes that Max is too young to hear such things, but he does share one piece of wisdom he learned from this. “Sometimes in this life, you get a moment. A time when everything lines up. When anything is possible. When suddenly you can make things happen. God help us if we take that moment. And God forgive us if we don’t.” He holds his son’s face in his hands and calls him “My beautiful son.” His pride in Max doesn’t need to be spoken. Max watches as his father, mother and sister turn to leave. Uncle Erich peers through the hole in the wall and tells Max that it’s time. Max makes his choice. He catches up with his family and using his keen eyes, leads them safely to the Vistula.
Cecelia is waiting for them in a rowboat. The family boards and she rows them to a spot further up the river. As they approach clearing, Max spots something. A small squad of soldiers emerges and one of them smashes the butt of his rifle across Max’s forehead. Jakob raises his hands and says that they are unarmed. Cecelia apologizes for her betrayal and explains that they had her mother.
The soldiers march them all to a large open grave where other Jews have been gathered. Cecelia cries out “Oh God, no!” as she sees that she has led this family to their death. She places her arms around her mother who is there also and weeps. The soldiers order them all into a line. Jakob simply says “Ruthie” and Max’s mother holds her frail daughter tightly to her. His father places his arm around Max’s shoulder and says “Come to me, my son.” Max leans into his father’s embrace and stares directly into the faces of the soldiers who are about to fire upon them. He remembers his father’s words. “Sometimes you get a moment when everything lines up. When anything is possible. When suddenly… you can make things happen.” The soldiers fire and Max stares coldly at them and the bullets as they fly towards him. As the bullets speed forward, time seems to stand still for a single moment. The bullets appear to hang in mid-air. In this instant of opportunity, Jakob moves. He throws himself in front of the bullets that would have killed his son. The four shells hit Jakob square in the chest. He and Max fall backwards into the mass grave along with the others.
For a long time, there is simply darkness. Max awakens in the mass grave and pulls himself out. He is clearly in shock as he makes his way into the night. He survives on his own for a short time before being captured by the Nazis. He is forced onto a train headed for the camps. As it travels the countryside, he watches fearfully through the cracks. Outside he sees a farmer tending his field. The man sees the train pass. He raises his thumb to his neck and draws it across it grimly, indicating that those aboard are heading to their deaths. The train arrives late that night at its final destination: Auschwitz.