Death-Defying: Symcha Binem Motyl

‘We are at war, he who trades stays alive’, went the smuggler’s anthem.

Symcha Binem Motyl lived by this creed as well. He could set off on trading expeditions from occupied Warsaw deep into the Soviet occupation zone or into the territories incorporated into the Reich. All so that his wife and infant daughter could survive the hell of the ghetto. Though he was exceptionally lucky, he did not manage to save his family from the Holocaust.

Just a few days into the September campaign, Warsaw slowly began to prepare for the German siege. On the morning of 7 September, Lieutenant Colonel Roman Umiastowski, head of propaganda for the Supreme Commander’s Staff, issued a radio announcement. He called upon men not recruited for the army, but capable of bearing arms, to leave the capital and head east, where they were to be mobilised.

Panic broke out in the city. Crowds of refugees – harassed by German air raids – began to stream along the main roads towards the eastern provinces of Poland.  Among them was thirty-year-old Symcha Binem Motyl, a humble clerk at a Jewish financial organisation.In the days that followed, he experienced all the horrors of war. He saw the first villages burned and the bodies of civilians massacred by the Luftwaffe. He was in Kaluszyn when the dramatic battle between the Polish Army and the Germans took place. He faced death a couple of times. He miraculously emerged alive from the hands of the Wehrmacht.

After these harsh experiences, unsure how the war would go on, he decided to return to Warsaw. He arrived at 18 Śliska Street, where he lived with his wife and daughter, after about a week’s absence. He wept with emotion. He was completely exhausted by the march and starvation. At the same time, he observed that in those few days he had become a different person. He wrote: ‘I felt that some unknown force had entered me, driven by a defiance of death’. Following this transformative experience, Motyl became one of the most daring smugglers in occupied Warsaw. Disregarding the danger he faced as a Jew, he ventured as far as Baranowicze, deep into the Soviet occupation zone, as well as areas annexed by the Third Reich. He could be stopped neither by the walls of the ghetto, nor by the terror of the Grossaktion, nor by the greatest personal tragedy. Reading Motyl’s memoirs, one is forced to admit that, with one exception, he was exceptionally lucky.

The end of official stability

Symcha Binem Motyl was born in 1909 in Gostynin, a small town near Płock. He was one of three sons of a small-time grain merchant. Despite his humble origins, he managed to graduate from the local secondary school. In 1928, he left for Warsaw, where he found a stable clerical position at the Union of Jewish Merchant Cooperative Associations. His work included inspecting co-operative banks across the country.

In 1935, Motyl started a family. He married Necha (Nadzia) Damazer, a native Varsovian, daughter of the owner of a prosperous charcuterie and delicatessen on the corner of Pańska and Wielka streets. Their daughter, Lidia, was born the following year.

The outbreak of war found him without any savings; on top of that, he lost his job. So in mid-September 1939, when he returned to Warsaw after a fateful trip to Kaluszyn, he immediately began looking for ways to raise money.

He took his first steps in the wartime trade by selling, at a small profit, newspapers still coming out in the German-besieged capital. After it fell, Motyl temporarily worked as a clerk in the newly established Judenrat. He was part of the team that oversaw the census of the Jewish population, carried out at the occupiers’ behest. He also helped create the first map of the Jewish Quarter. The Germans ordered it to go ahead and then, after negotiations with Jewish community leaders on 10 November, had it withdrawn and postponed.

Behind two cordons

At the end of November 1939, like many Jews anticipating increased persecution by the leaders of the Third Reich, Motyl decided to explore the Soviet occupation zone. His journey started off poorly. Soon after crossing the border of the Bug River near Siemiatycze, he fell into the hands of the Red Army. However, taking advantage of the darkness, he luckily managed to escape, losing neither the jewellery hidden in his clothes nor his rucksack full of saccharine – an extremely valuable commodity, as it could be sold at a multiple profit on the eastern side of the cordon.

During his stay of about a month in Soviet territory, Motyl went to Bialystok and Baranovichi. Having sold all the saccharine on the sly, he sniffed out another opportunity to further multiply his earnings. It was announced that the Polish currency would soon be null and void, so people started to sell it in a panic. The enterprising trader bought it for around a third of its nominal value. In this way, he amassed a sizeable fortune, with which he returned to Warsaw on New Year’s Eve, with no further hardships, having gotten the better of both the Germans and the Soviets.

During the harsh winter of 1939/40, Warsaw suffered from severe shortages. Motyl felt his capital melting away and, after only a few weeks, he threw himself back into the dangers of trade. He began taking goods on weekly trains to Sochaczew or Łowicz, pretending to be an ‘Aryan’, as Jews were no longer allowed to use the railways at that time. Then he would cross the ‘green border’ into the Reich to get to his home town of Gostynin. He exported cigarettes and spirits produced in the General Government, taking butter, pork fat and eggs to Warsaw. After a while, he also started dealing in jewellery and dollars. On each smuggling expedition he recorded an estimated up-to-four-times profit.

In June 1940, his fortune ran out. One night, while crossing the border, he was ambushed by gendarmes. He lost a considerable amount of money, which he had to throw into the bushes, but he managed to survive, despite the fact he was recognised as a Jew. He was forced to work in the fields for a few days with the other captives and then released. So Motyl once again returned unscathed to his family, who were concerned about his prolonged absence. From that moment on, he was reluctant to travel beyond the borders of the General Government. He abandoned these journeys once and for all.

Every return was a victory

After a short break, the tireless Motyl resumed his activity. He began venturing out of Warsaw by bicycle to the Reich border in order to trade with the local peasants. In exchange for ghetto goods, clothes or currency, he bought sugar, as well as other foodstuffs, such as butter and eggs. This was a lucrative venture – he turned a profit of at least double his money – but it was dangerous and physically demanding. He travelled 175 kilometres a day on two wheels and returned laden with around sixty kilograms of goods. He made such journeys twice a week.

‘Every return was a triumph not only financially, but also for morale. I always regarded it as a victory in a battle won over the enemy’, the smuggler noted. Although he fell into the hands of gendarmes or other German officers a few times, he only lost at most a batch of goods, coming out of his ordeal just slightly battered.

Motyl had to discontinue his escapades near Warsaw after the ghetto was closed in November 1940. For several months, he made a barely profitable living as a middleman, trading in food smuggled over the wall. However, in May 1941, he returned once more to his old routes. A Christian friend from school arranged him a pass allowing him to move around in the Płońsk and Sochatschew districts (German: Kreis Płońsk und Sochatschew), the border areas of the GG . To get there, he had to leave the ghetto illegally. The first time, Motyl and two friends did this by bribing a Wehrmacht driver, who drove them by truck to a place where they could legally stay.

In the following months, Motyl went around Sochaczew, from village to village, selling peasants clothes he had bought for next to nothing in the ghetto. With the cash he earned, he purchased potatoes and other vegetables, as well as butter and flour. He packed the food in ten-kilogram parcels, which, after bribing a clerk at the post office, he would then send to the family trapped in the ghetto.

“This was actually the best period during the war. Although there were dangers around every corner, I spent all summer outside (1941 – ed.) (…), and fed on the fresh produce of the countryside, unlike my neoighbours, who suffocated in the cramped ghetto, where they gradually perished  from hunger or from spotted typhus, which was rampant at the time,” Motyl recalled. During this period, he only returned to the ghetto sporadically to meet his family and replenish his goods.

After each such visit, he would return to the Sochaczew region on his bicycle, sneaking over the wall or bribing policemen on guard duty, or going through the ‘dens’ of ‘Aryan’ food smugglers – across the roofs of tenement houses.

The Holocaust era

The autumn of 1941 ushered in the worst period of Symcha Motyl’s occupation existence. After returning from one of his ghetto rallies, he fell ill with typhus. During his months of recovery, his wife did as much as she could, providing him with doctors, medicine and food. No wonder, then, that the capital he had risked his life to accumulate melted away. Soon, in order to survive, the Motyls had to sell off their flat, furniture, and other possessions.

In this tragic situation, the mass deportations in the summer of 1942 began. Miraculously, one of Motyl’s brothers-in-law got them out of there. Then the whole family immediately moved to a brush shed. It was managed in part by the famous Szymek Kac, who was a cousin of our protagonist.

Unfortunately, the Motyls did not manage to save little Lidia. In the chaos of the selection at the beginning of September, they had put their daughter in the care of an acquaintance, thinking she would be safer in her flat at 52 Miła Street. They were wrong. Along with the other inhabitants of the house, the girl was taken to the Umschlagplatz, and no one heard from her again.

This tragedy broke Nadzia Motyl to pieces, and Symcha began to dampen the pain of his loss by intensifying his fight for survival. After the deportation operation ended, he began by trading clothes in the Derma factory outside the ghetto (Żelazna 54), where he was temporarily employed as a labourer. On his return he smuggled food past the wall, earning thousands of zlotys a day.

Then, in the autumn of 1942, Motyl organised his own smuggling base near the brushmakers’ shed, at the section of the wall between Świętojerska Street 28-34. Working with ‘Aryan’ partners, clothes and people were smuggled past the barricade and out of the ghetto. Mainly food, but also weapons, flowed back into the closed district. We should note that Motyl spoke well of his Christian ‘business’ partners. He developed friendships with several of them as they sneaked into the ghetto every week to negotiate their goods over a drink.

A silver lining

Motyl felt that the ghetto’s days were numbered. In the winter of 1942/43, he sent his wife to a den occupied by a friend on the ‘Aryan’ side. It was not far from the shed, incidentally, in a house at 16 Nowiniarska Street. It was only unfortunate that Nadzia decided to visit him in the ghetto on 18 April. They survived a few ghastly days of the uprising together, wandering the bunkers on the ground floors of houses on Świętojerska Street. Eventually, the Germans caught up with them. They ended up at Umschlagplatz.

They managed to escape from the transport to a camp outside of Życzyn, near Dęblin. With the help of an old woman and a railwayman, they returned by train to Warsaw.

The Motyls hid with Symcha’s various Christian friends on the Aryan side until 14 July 1943, at which point they sought shelter at the Hotel Polski, where they were registered as Palestinians.

As is now known, this was a trap the Germans set for Jews in hiding. Symcha and Nadzia were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Unlike most of the Hotel’s ‘guests’, they managed to survive. After twenty-one months behind barbed wire, on 12 April 1945, they were liberated by American troops.

After the war

The Motyls decided to start a new life in Belgium. They settled in Brussels. In 1947, their son, Pierre, was born.

In times of peace Symcha gave up taking risks. He worked in a cardboard factory, then for the Polish Red Cross, and finally opened his own furrier’s shop. S

ymcha Binem Motyl died suddenly on 20 September 1973. Nadzia outlived him by almost thirty years. She passed away in February 2003.

Writing this article, I consulted Symcha Binem Motyl’s book entitled ‘To My Possible Readers’, compiled by. A. Haska, Warsaw 2012.