In this Aug. 26, 2009 photo, a tank stolen by Polish insurgents from Nazi German occupying forces during World War II and turned against them in in an ill-fated attempt to liberate themselves stands as a reminder of the heroic chapter in Polish history. The tank is one of many visible reminders in Poland today of the massive suffering inflicted on the country between 1939 and 1945. Poland on Tuesday will hold state ceremonies for the start of World War II, which began Sept. 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany's invasion of neighboring Poland.
It was daybreak on September 1, 1939. And my grandfather and I were seated next to the family radio in his summer house in Lake Mohegan, 40 miles north of New York.
It was an exciting time. We could hear clearly the broadcast from Berlin. We listened to the hoarse, angry voice of Adolph Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany, addressing the Reichstag, the German parliament.
Hitler was interrupted again and again by the cheers of his puppet legislators. They shouted “Sieg Heil” as he announced that German troops had crossed the Polish frontier and were engaged in fighting. He denounced the Polish government for precipitating the conflict, a typical Nazi lie.
My grandfather and I heard the cheering as Hitler screamed: “The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms…A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great Power, proved that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich.
“In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on.”
We heard the clipped, confident tones of commentator H.V. Kaltenborn, translating Hitler’s speech and reading the latest bulletins from overseas. It was six hours later in Berlin, Paris, London and Warsaw. The British and French governments had no choice. Although Hitler tried to cajole them into staying out of it, on September 3, they would fulfill their treaty obligations to Poland and declare war on Germany. But it didn’t do the Poles any good. Within a few days, Hitler’s juggernaut had overrun Poland.
I was thrilled to be an eyewitness, through radio, t o an historic moment. But our next door neighbor in the country, by 8 o’clock in the morning, had complained to my grandfather about the radio waking her up. My grandfather let her have it. “What’s the matter with you? It’s a war, a war is breaking ou -- And you’re worried about your sleep!”
Grandpa -- I called him "Zaida”---had a sense of history. And so did his 15-year-old grandson. Within two years, America would be at war. Millions of Americans, including this grandson, would be in uniform, fighting the Germans and the Japanese. And, by 1945, Hitler and his allies would be defeated. The Nazi dictator would commit suicide in his Berlin bunker. A new world would be born.
As the summer of 2009 comes to an end, I think back to that portentous summer of 1939 when the world teetered on the brink of disaster. Tens of millions would lose their lives in the fighting that followed----and many millions more in the extermination camps that the monstrous Nazi dictator built to justify his racial theories.
The grass outside the house was still wet with dew when I left my grandfather’s side on that September morning -- so long ago. Birds were singing. The angry voice of Hitler had faded away. I wondered what the future would bring.