The booted men in gray came searching down her street in Dynów, Poland, that mid-September day in 1939, guns drawn in the pallid sunlight, sweeping past where the 10-year-old Jewish girl stood breathless with fear.
They might not have stopped had a neighbor not caught their eye and nodded toward a house where the girl’s father hid on an upper floor.
The searchers were in and out in mere moments. The girl’s father came quietly. He was led away with six others.
“It was so fast, I don’t know if it was even a minute,” said Rita Berger, 86, of Long Beach, recalling the last time she saw Leo Adler. “He couldn’t even turn to wave; they just marched him off. . . . I was too afraid to say goodbye.”
But this year, research by a German student of the Holocaust encouraged Berger to again stand where her father first felt the Nazi terror, 76 years ago.
Last month, Berger traveled to the Berlin neighborhood where Adler had raised his family until Oct. 28, 1938, when Adolf Hitler enforced the “Polish Action,” expelling all Polish Jews living in Germany.
There, Berger dedicated a memorial plaque commemorating her father’s life — the first of hundreds of “Stolperstein” markers that are to be placed around the German capital to memorialize the lives of Polish Jews exiled in the Polish Action, and often never heard from again.
Interviewed shortly after her return, Berger said placing the permanent marker moved her deeply.
“It meant a lot because it is the only memorial that we have for my father,” said Berger, who made the trip with her husband, Simon, and 15 relatives. “He has no grave. We know where he was shot, but not particularly. So it meant a lot to have something done in his memory.”
Following the mass expulsion, Adler, a furrier who loved music and theater, and was said to dote on his family, fled to Dynów, near the Ukraine border. His wife and children joined him there months later.
The Polish Action, or Polenaktion, marked a critical acceleration of the Holocaust, said Gertrud Pickhan, a researcher at the Free University of Berlin’s Osteuropa-Institut. Historians are now devoting more attention to the expulsion, whose significance may have been overlooked because of the Kristallnacht pogroms that destroyed 1,000 synagogues and sent 30,000 Jews to concentration camps less than two weeks later.
“The Polenaktion was the first mass deportation from the German Reich,” Pickhan told a university publication. “It was no coincidence that its victims were Poles living in Germany. They were the easiest victims.”
The Adlers’ refuge in Poland was short-lived. Hitler’s Sept. 1, 1939, surprise invasion of Poland soon brought the Nazis to Dynów.
On Sept. 15, 1939, they herded 400 Jewish men from the town into a schoolyard, where half were executed. The next morning, the rest were marched into a forest a half-mile from town, and made to dig a mass grave with their bare hands.
“My dad was a family man,” Berger remembered. “The day before that happened he was very worried. He just felt that something was going to happen.
“In the evening, my brother and I, we were waiting for him to come home, but, of course, he didn’t come,” she said.
Berger and other members of Adler’s family were expelled from Dynów after the mass killing — driven across the San river into the hands of Russian troops who were not yet at war with Germany.
She spent the remainder of the war as a refugee. Berger eventually made it to Israel, married a veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, then moved to New York in 1954. Within months they settled in Long Beach, and raised three children. Simon Berger opened a security door business.
Earlier this year, Véronique Mickisch, a student at the Free University of Berlin, was assigned to find out what she could about Adler. An Internet search traced one of Adler’s sons, Fedor Adler, to where he settled in Long Beach. His 2006 obituary in the newsletter of Long Beach’s Temple Israel led Mickisch to Berger.
Mickisch told Berger that commemorative plaques were being placed on sidewalks in Berlin near where Jews deported in the Polenaktion had last resided.
“I consider it important that the memory of the Holocaust is present in the Berlin urban landscape,” Mickisch told the newsletter. “The very city in which the mass murder was planned.”
Berger, who had visited her old Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin several times before, said the ceremony gave her a sense of completion.
“When I held the stone, I can’t tell you what went through my heart,” she said of the marker, a palm-sized bronze square engraved with details of Adler’s life that was embedded in a section of sidewalk. “The years all of a sudden came back.”