The story begins on Sunday morning, September 3, 1939, in Bielitz, southern Poland. German Nazi forces are invading Poland and have arrived in Bielitz, where fifteen-year-old Gerda Weissmann lives with her parents and older brother, Arthur. World War II has begun, and it has become very dangerous for Jews in Bielitz.
Gerda recalls that the war actually began two days before this, on September 1. Papa, who is ill, wanted Arthur and Gerda to leave and seek refuge in the interior of Poland, but Arthur said they would not go; the family must stick together. Their father accepted this; it was what he secretly wanted to hear.
The next day, Saturday, at breakfast, the family was more cheerful, and it was a peaceful day. But the next day the German troops arrive, and the Polish army is on the retreat. Swastikas fly over houses in Bielitz. Many of the townspeople, many of whom are German, greet the invaders as liberators and shout “Heil Hitler!”
That evening, a neighbor, Mrs. Bergmann, reports that some Jews had been rounded up in the street and the Jews’ temple had been burned. Mrs. Bergmann also brings the news that England and France have declared war on Germany.
The next morning, two neighbors come over and ask for the family’s Polish flag. When Mama reluctantly produces it, the two neighbors, both women, create a German flag out of the Polish flag and then hang it from the house. Gerda does not know why they do it but thinks they might be trying to protect the family.
Bielitz had been part of Poland since 1920, after World War I led to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the late 1930s it was just twenty miles from the border of German-controlled Czechoslovakia.
Bielitz was a small town known for its textile industry. The large majority of the townspeople spoke German; Jews were a sizable minority. In 1921, there were nearly four thousand Jews living there, which was about 19 percent of the population. Many ethnic Germans lived there and were not happy at being incorporated into Poland. They were also strongly anti-Semitic, and many were members of the Nazi Party, which explains why Weissmann Klein describes them as being so delighted when the Nazis invade.
This opening chapter paints a picture of the Weissmanns as a normal, indeed happy family who just want to go on living in peace. Their pleasant lives are cruelly disrupted by the invasion, although they remain optimistic, hoping that the war will not last long.