We acknowledge with gratitude
the financial support of the Polish Socio-Cultural Foundation
Copyright: Hanna Wehr
Cover etching "Hands"
by Beata Wehr
Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation
You are holding the first publication in our series,
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
We would like to express our thanks
here to the author, Sven Sonnenberg, for agreeing to
publish his wartime recollections and for his close
and friendly cooperation during the process.
A number of people who survived
the German Occupation of Poland during W.W.II are still
alive and scattered around the world. The personal history
of every one of those individuals is woven into a series
of momentous events: tragic or fortunate encounters,
fateful life decisions, and miraculous deliverances.
The people in question are not young anymore and since
they have not published their memoirs by now, it is
doubtful that they will ever do so. There is, however,
no question that these testimonies are enormously important
historical records. They tell us much about those perilous
times; about how people behaved in dramatic, dangerous,
and often tragic circumstances. They tell us what we
might expect from strangers, from those close to us,
and from ourselves. The more testimonies we have from
those times, the broader will be our knowledge of the
world around us and the more profound our understanding
of it. We must not allow the facts to fade away into
oblivion as the witnesses pass on. We must ensure, too,
that those who did not survive are never forgotten.
The aim of the Polish-Jewish
Heritage Foundation is to seek out and publish the testimonies
of survivors in order to distribute them into libraries.
We will encourage those who are inclined to write but
have not gotten around to doing so not to delay recording
their experiences for the benefit of future generations.
We will publish all testimonies in the language in which
they were written with all confidence to their authenticity.
Voila le premier volume de notre collection
Aby nie zapomnieć - Pour ne pas oublier - Let us not
Nous voulons tout d'abord remercier
l'auteur, Madame Hanna Wehr, d'avoir accepté la publication
de ses mémoires de temps de guerre ainsi que pour sa
collaboration étroite et amicale au cours de la publication.
Éparpillé tout autour du monde,
vivent encore des gens qui ont survécu en Pologne les
temps inhumains de l'occupation allemande pendant la
deuxieme guerre mondiale. L'histoire de chacun d'eux
est composée d'un grand nombre d'événements inattendus,
de rencontres tragiques ou salutaires, de décisions
difficiles a prendre, de sauvetages miraculeux. Ces
gens ne sont plus jeunes et s'ils n'ont pas encore écrit
et publié leur mémoires, il est probable qu'ils ne le
fassent jamais. Et pourtant, ces témoignages sont extremement
importants du point de vu historique, psychologique
et, tout simplement humain. Nous voulons et nous devons
savoir comment les gens se comportaient dans des circonstances
dangereuses, dramatiques, souvent tragiques. A quoi
nous pouvons nous attendre de la part des étrangers,
des nos proches, des nous memes.
Plus il y aura de témoignages des cette époque, plus
notre connaissance du monde sera riche, notre compréhension
des événements - profonde. Il ne faut pas permettre
que ces témoignages disparaissent avec les témoins.
Nous devrons aussi nous assurer que ceux qui n'ont pas
réussi a survivre ne soient pas oubliés.
La Fondation de l'héritage polono-juif se propose de
retracer des mémoires du temps de guerre, que les gens
ont écrits sans les publier, de les publier et les distribuer
dans les bibliotheques. Nous voulons aussi encourager
ceux qui n'ont pas osé mettre sur papier leurs témoignages
de le faire au profit de la postérité.
Nous publions ces mémoires dans la langue dans laquelle
ils ont été écrits avec toute confiance en leur authenticité.
Click here for the Polish version
At the moment, people who survived the
Holocaust are a very tiny group. I unwittingly belonged to a group destined for
liquidation, but I managed to avoid that ill fate. Extermination was my destiny. That I survived all in one piece
was the result of a whole set of instances and the help of an entire hoard of
various people. Fate was gentle enough on me, that I was a mere witness to the
horrific situations that surrounded me.
Now, many years later it is hard
to believe that something like this could have happened in my life. But the
memories of those times were not only erased but on the contrary came back with
great force. The truth comes tolight that a whole society of people, among
which I grew up with simply disappeared from the face of the earth.
I am a very hidden person, and sharing my personal
reflections and experiences with others is a very difficult undertaking. I am
motivated however by an internal drive: a very serious feeling of
responsibility towards those who perished. So that something may be left of
them. I also think that what I wrote is a valid account of the brutalities of the final solution seen and felt from the perspective of
a young adolescent just barely getting a sense of the world around her.
In the following recollections, enclosed are
exclusively only what I saw with my very own eyes, or (in occasional
circumstances), they are facts that I gathered from an eyewitness.
I don't know much about my ancestors. At my
grandfathers house on my fathers side, there hung a portrait of my great
grandfather. It depicted a man in a suit, and from the pocket of his jacket
there hung a chain from his watch. This great grandfather belonged to the part
of my family that had lived in Warsaw for many generations. Supposedly one of
its branches converted to Catholicism, but I didn't have very concrete
information on the matter.
At my grandparents house on my mothers side there
also hung portraits. They were completely different - both of my great grandfathers wore long beards. When I was a
small child, I was a bit afraid of them. When I grew up a bit and took on
reading "Pan Tadeusz", it dawned on me that they were probably similar to Jankiel - I knew that my great grandparents came
from Lithuania. My Grandfather and Grandmother were the first in the family to
come to Warsaw. They then imported some more people. My grandparents opened up
a laundry. At first it was very small and cramped and they worked in it alone.
It then grew into a large laundromat and factory.
I would really like to get into better touch with my
ancestry. I don't mean the specific branches of my genealogical tree. I would
like to know but a little bit more about the zig-zagging and obscured paths
that they journeyed across before they settled in Poland. Unfortunately, no
history of the Jews will ever tell me this and one can only speculate on these
My father loved to whistle. Especially during the
early morning, different melodies could be heard coming from the bathroom. Most
frequently, these were soldiers' songs: "The horn calls us to action" or "Over there on the hill the flowers shines", or his favorite: Schuberts army march
and others. Army uniforms and arms were then kept by officers in households,
these items hang in the depths of one of our closets.
But in reality none of this really meshed with his
personality, he was the gentlest person under the sun. He was unable to even
become truly angered.
I loved to go on walks with my father, I even
preffered it to playing with boys and girls that were my friends.
MY FATHER'S FRIENDS
My father had two very close friends. One of them - Olek- was also an engineer like my
father. The other -Stas- was a lawyer.
For as long as I can remember my own life, I also remembered
both of my fathers friends visiting our own house and their neverending
conversations. They talked and talked without giving me any attention
whatsoever, and even when my mother came in to call them out for supper, they
never stopped conversing. After many years I asked Olek what they were always
talking about. The only response I got was "everything".
Olek ended up in Oflag in Woldenburg at the beginning
of the war. He was kept there until the very end of the war and this saved his
life. His wife perished in Warsaw.
The other friend - Staś (as a little girl I called him Mr. Cioś) - also lost his wife and three year old
daughter Anusia who were both murdered by Nazis. He was mobilized during the
first years of the war and then ended up in territories that were under Soviet
control. For a while he was imprisoned by them in Lwów. But luckily he evaded
the worst. After the war he moved to England.
When I met him many years after experiencing the war
in London, he left a very sad impression on me. He was unkempt and gloomy. Our
conversation didn't hold very firm ground. At one point he said: " I was so happily brought forth into this
world. In the twentieth century. In between Hitler and Stalin. A Polish Jew."
THE FIRST YEAR OF THE WAR
When Germany attacked Poland and the bombs started
dropping on Warsaw, I experienced some sort of a vision: the end of a
golden-yellow laden room for a little girl, the end of childhood. A bleak, non
childlike picture of life came across me in black and white, accompanied by a
dark cloud. I panicked. Does this mean that they are going to gas us? We had
one gas mask at home - for four
people. Later, when my father left Warsaw when he was prompted to do so by
radio, three people were left to use the one mask. In this situation no one
would have used it anyway. But there were no gases. Bombs were used instead
The mind-boggling dominance of the German army quickly
led to chaos on the fronts, but this hadn't quite registered in the minds of
the citizens of Warsaw. My father - a
reserve officer, wasn't mobilized on time during the first days of September,
because of some serious deficit in eyesight was classified as being in a lower
health category. At the end of the first week of the war, the radio that was
still active began to broadcast the motivational speeches of Lieutenant
Umiastowski urging all men capable of carrying a weapon to leave the capital
and head east. Was this an intentional diversion created to make the already
horrible situation on the roads even worse? This was later said and believed.
My father, obediently left Warsaw. When I naively asked, "When will you be back?", he was forced to remain silent. We were
never to see each other again.
It was decided that Warsaw was to defend itself and a
siege was under way. At first the bombarding wasn't very powerful. One could
sit around and play cards with new friends from the same apartment building:
Ania and Fredzia. Anti-air defense was utilized, most of it was localized in
the Saski Garden. Because of this, Królewska street that we lived on was
particularly vulnerable to military action. It was then still believed that our
building is solidly built and that one could safely reside on lower floors.
Unfortunately the bombing got worse and one day a high caliber bomb destroyed
the entire foundation of the building, from the fifth floor right down to the
ground floor. It was in this part that Ania lived, who died along with her
entire family. Only a boy survived who was a few years old. The blast of the
bomb forcefully blew him into the nearest corner and he was found there in good
health after a few hours.
From that point on the residents of the house spent
most of their days and nights in the basement.
People that previously didn't know one another very
well quickly became good friends. One had to journey back and forth between
ones own apartment and the basement for food and collected water because the
water pumps stopped working. This was a dangerous undertaking. A little girl
spent time with us in the cellar, she was just learning to speak. She became very
amused with the word "bomba" (bomb) and repeated it constantly "bom-ba, bom-ba". "Quiet that kid down", the angered adults would yell."It will encroach something bad on us!".
The occupying army marched into a still burning
Warsaw. The fires were slowly dying out, many buildings were completely razed.
After Warsaw was conquered, I saw a dead body for the first time in my life. It
was laying by the curb near the Saski Park and looked as though he was
sleeping. Lying nearby was a group of dead horses, with bare ribs, because
people had cut out the meat. This left a horrible impression on me. Meanwhile
on the streets a German paraded around on horseback, looking down with an
unhidden pride on the conquered nation.
Everyday life was slowly returning to a more-or-less
normal pace. Everyone believed back then, that the war would be over very soon,
of course via the defeat of the Germans.
An occupation began. "Now the Germans will get the Jews by the beards" - Pelasia said happily. She worked for
Jews, but her employer didn't wear a beard.
I lived a fairly normal life the first year of the
occupation. I met with friends, was secretly taught in underground schools,
and I went ice skating. I also learned French with one of my friends, from some
slightly crazy Mademoiselle, who happened to be in Warsaw for a short while. I
didn't think much about the war in progress, whose important objective was to
inflict a "final solution" regarding the "Jewish Question".
From the start the Poles and the Jews were repressed
and persecuted. Already then the Germans tried to differentiate and separate
between the Jews and the rest of society forcing them to wear armbands. In
Warsaw these armbands consisted of a blue star of David on a white background.
Jews were repeatedly harrased and beat up. One of the first manifestations of
persecution was the confiscation of furniture. It went down basically like
this: After a rapid ringing of the doorbell, an elegant officer would come to
the door. After meticulously picking out furniture that he liked, he ordered
lower ranking soldiers to load them up on a truck waiting right outside the
house. A good father and "family man" ensured his close ones back in Germany a
nicely furnished household..
During the first phase of the war my mothers' brother
perished. They came to arrest him, it was in an apartment adjacent to a factory
in which he worked and was co-owner. Two other men were arrested along with
him, one of them the was already very old. These two men gave up and went with those
who were arresting them, but my uncle yelled out "No I won't go with them"and he
jumped out of a window on the third floor. He died after a few hours. As it
turned out, he acted wisely, because the other two never returned. It can be
assumed that before they died, they experienced things that were much worse
than the quick death of my uncle.
Towards the end of my first year of the German
occupation of Warsaw a Jewish neighborhood was organized - the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews outside the
designated lines drawn up for the ghetto had to move there; while Poles had to
After a month the walled-in Jewish neighborhood was
closed off. A couple of gates led to its entrance, (so called "wachy"), which were guarded by German officers, as well as Polish and
Jewish police. Barbed wire and broken glass was placed on the fence, but this
did little to curb the smuggling that went on for most of the duration of the
existence of the Warsaw Ghetto. In some places along the fence a placard was
hung with the following rhyme:
Unikaj brudu, Bądź zawsze czysty,
Brudy wesz rodzą, wesz tyfus plamisty
(Avoid the dirt, always be clean,
lice come from dirt, typhoid from lice)
This was poetry containing faulty information about
automatic birth, as well as an ideological justification for disgust towards a
nation, which could be dangerous to others.
VIEW FROM THE WINDOW
The window of the apartment in which I lived in the
ghetto was right across from the wall of the Pawiak prison - specifically the wall of the so called "Serbia", the womens' section. From this side there was no entrance to
the prison area, and the red brick walls hid everything from view. Only a
watch-tower was visible, with an armed guard inside.
Loud gunshots could sometimes be heard from inside
the Pawiak prison. We were almost paralyzed from the impression it made on us.
But one of our acquaintances that was imprisoned there for some time and was
later released told us that we shouldn't worry about the gunshot because there
was a shooting range inside the prison. I don't think this was true, I think
that he lied on purpose to calm us down.
The street was very crowded and loud, although in
this section it was only inhabited on one side, as Pawiak prison stood on the
other side. Many orthodox jews dressed in black chalats walked around. Soon
after the Warsaw ghetto was closed off, in addition to Warsaw residents more
and more residents from surrounding towns were also placed there. They were
rounded up in quickly organized "points". There wasn't even enough work for the
existing residents of the neighborhood, much less for these newcomers. They
were completely devoid of any means to sustain life.
On the streets there were traders and beggars, while
others were in a hurry to get to some sort of activities. Very intense trade
went on around Smocza street. Merchants loudly praised their goods regardless
of whether it was firewood or coal, or whether they were minor articles of
Beggars also had resounding voices. "What does oc rachmunes mean?" I would ask. "Have mercy, rachmunes comes from Hebrew". "And what does oc mytlajt mean?" "That also means have mercy, it comes from German." "So why do they say 'oc rachmunes, oc mytlajt'? They say the same
thing twice?" "Yes, they repeat the same thing twice". "Give me a piece of bread, give me a small
piece of bread!" I heard these words coming from all
around me begging in many different voices, by both children and adults, some
louder and some more quietly.
Beggars tried to call attention to themselves at all
costs. They did this in many different ways, sometimes by singing loudly. There
was this handicapped woman, that moved around on some sort of a wheelchair or
platform with wheels, that would traverse the same streets every day at the
same time, singing in a very bold voice. Even if it wasn't very beautiful
singing, it was definitely unforgettable.
A very unique, one-of-a-kind, morbid style of humor
could be heard sung in a hybridized Polish-Jewish language while children on
the street danced to it. They sounded somewhat like this:
"Pani prezesowa machts a ondulacje
a żydowskie kinder nie ma na kolacje,
Fa wues? Mues
Mues is a hajlige zach"
(The presidents wife styles her hair
while the jewish child cannot afford supper,
High and mighty cash
And another song that made its way into history
"Oj da bona,
Ja nie chcę oddaćbona
Bo Pinkert jest cholera
I bony wszystkim zabiera"
(Oj da bona
I don't want to give back my bona
because Pinkiert is very bad
and takes of bona)
This song requires clarification. "bony" (bona) were ration cards of a very small amount of food. Too
give away your "bony" in the ghetto jargon meant to die. While Pinkiert was the owner
of funeral agency.
More and more frequently, people died of starvation.
Those that died often lay there naked and convered in something on the street,
because their families could not afford to bury them. And just like in the
times of great epidemics during the middle ages, these bodies were simply taken
away on carts to the cemetary at the cost of the community.
There was no lower penalty in the ghetto than the
death penalty. It was threatened for many different crimes such as owning a fur
coat, not to mention a radio receiver, and for many other large and petty
crimes. The death penalty applied of course for being outside the ghetto walls,
which is why so many underage food smugglers, who often supported entire
families by sneaking in and out of the ghetto perished. The penalty could also
be given for no reason at all. A military policeman could just shoot someone,
just because he felt like it. A man with the last name or maybe nickname "frankenstein" was especially famous for this, he shot people to put some
excitement back into his life.
The ghetto was very densely populated, and full of
hunger and misery. And maybe this may sound strange as i'm writing this, but
but me and my girlfriends led fairly normal lives during this period. As young
schoolgirls we didn't expect anything bad to happen.
This doesn't mean that we were completely indifferent
to the misery that surrounded us. But taking care of these problems was beyond
our control. Helping those in need was an everyday ordeal, however the results
were not very visible. Social organizations took care of these issues, as well
as aid commitees that started up in almost every building. Very often a
well-to-do family had people that they helped out and tended to. This was
however only a drop in the ocean of needs.
We were educated via "komplety" (a sort of organized group tutoring). We could have called them secret
schools if it wasn't for the fact that authorities weren't interested in this
education and as a result did not prosecute it. There were seven girls in our "komplet" and unfortunately not a single boy. We would rather have had it
differently, however for some reason the boys were taught at another "komplet".
In the Ghetto there were not only "komplety" that taught middle school material. There were also specialized
courses e.g. of chemistry. There were underground medical studies that were
part of the secret Warsaw University. Ludwik Hirszfeld lectured there. People
showed such interest in his lectures, that in addition to students people other
people-not students from the outside also came to listen to them. Chemists also
lectured - professors Lachs and Centerszwer and many others. And sadly but
truly, in one of the hospital divisions studies regarding malnourishment were
My girlfriends, guy friends and me almost all belonged to
families of assimilated Jewish inteligentsia. In terms of customs we had very
little to do with the world of Shabas candles. In our homes Polish was
exclusively spoken, while the culture to which we were tied to was Polish. We
were Poles of Jewish descent, except this reasoning had no merit for Nazis,
they had already classified us as Jews.
The strongest character out of all of us girls was
Wanda. The apartment in which she lived in with her parents and sister which
was two years older was a little larger than most others, and was a hub for our
social life and many of our peers. The sisters had an energetic father, and a
gentle, pale and sickly mother, who rarely left the house. Wanda had a great
sense of humor and adamant views about many issues. We - her friends - were less
decided and kept changing our minds. We often just took over Wandas views and
Zosia was as much of a redhead as Annie of Green
Gables, however her hair wasn't the collor of a carrot but darker. Although she
had many freckles, many experts said that she would grow up to be a beautiful
woman. She thought so as well and dedicated much time and effort into her
allure. We were envious of her popularity around boys.
Alinka had a little bit of trouble with her studies.
She was a very good friend. I knew her from when I was the smallest child.
Jasia had a passion for writing. She put together
very skillful poems about her friends. Then she began writing in her diary, and
later she began writing books. It was fun to fantasize about plans for the
future with her. It was a little difficult to imagine this future. Outside of
the crowded ghetto? In a free world? But we had a lot of plans.
Many people from our circle of friends and
acquaintances signed themselves up for "Toporol" - the
organization for promoting agriculture. This institution arose with the goal of
farming a very scarce collection of terrains - all of even the smallest plots of arable land were utilized.
These puny gardens had to take the place of the forest, fields, and all of
nature. Boys worked there mainly because that way they took care of their share
of the mandatory work contingent. Part of the Ghetto youth was adamant about
learning farming and gardening, probably because they planned to move to
Palestine after the war. We - girls - worked for fun. We formed rows, planted
bulbs, and tended to the garden. But we loved volleyball even more, which we
could play in our spare time in the adjacent square.
One of the greatest social attractions was modern
chicken breeding - using incubators. Wanda sacrificed a
great deal of her time tending to the chicklets. As did her boyfriend -
Tadeusz. Wandas parents started to suspect, that she was more preoccupied with
him than with the baby birds. They were not very fond of this arrangement. They
believed that she should meet boys at home. Wanda became irritated. She really disliked
the role of being a lady from a good home. I don't know what was really more
important for Wanda, but she was definitely overwhelmingly attached to the
chicklets. Yet they ran out of luck. A chicken pestilence soon broke out and
despite the professional help of a veternarian one had to get rid of the
The ghetto looked its worse during early spring. Then
the dirt and misery of the neighborhood reared their ugly heads and were most
apparent. During late spring things started to look a little better, but there
was shockingly little greenery and other plants.
To the north of Pawia street on which I lived there
was Gęsia street with a jail called "Gęsiówka". The next parralel street was found at
the gates of the Jewish cemetary. In order to get there you first had to cross
Okopowa street which didn't belong to the ghetto. It was a pretty dangerous
place, because gunshots sometimes came from the "wacha" that was found there. We went there
however from time to time because right next to the cemetary there was a small
plot of cultivated land that belonged to the Toporol.
To get to my lessons as well as to the main terrain
that Toporol was found on Elektoralna street was quite a long ways. To walk
there I had to scale a large part of the ghetto. I walked there often with my
girlfriend and although we were immersed in conversation we were quite aware of
what was going on around us. After walking around the Pawiak prison on
Więzienna and Dzielna streets one would get to Karmelicka. It was very dense
and busy, sometimes it was very difficult to get through the crowds of nervous
people hurriedly going in various directions. Further on, on Electoralna and
Leszno streets the crowds got a little looser.
Leszno was the nicest street. It was a place to
take walks. There one could see the most beautiful and most elegant young
women. Some of them walked with uniformed men - Jewish policemen. Of course the
uniform made them seem more charming. It wasn't until later that it became
evident what a fatal mistake it was to join such a police force.
During the first phase of the existence of the
ghetto it consisted of two parts, from the south side there was the so called
small ghetto, which one could get to from a bridge above a street that didn't
belong to the ghetto. After a while the small ghetto was liquidated, making the
neighborhood consisting of Jews even denser.
On the crowded surface of the ghetto life was in
full bloom. Everything could be found there: from the most tragic poverty to
the most extravagant riches. Germans loved to take photographs of these
contrasts, which were supposed to show how pitiful the nation they closed
behind walls actually was.
Transportation consisted of "rickshaws" i.e.
benches on wheels, which were powered by a pedalling man. Rikshaw operators who
were awaiting a fare loudly advertised their vehicles "Leszno, Solna, the
Rikshaw is free!".. There was also a tram so-called "konhellerka" from the
surnames of the entrepreneurs that profited off of it; it was said that they
were collaborators. From what I remember, the entire time that I spent in the
ghetto I never took advantage of any of these forms of transport. There were a
couple of coffeehouses in Leszno, there was also a cabaret. From time to time
there were art openings, in which the paintings of students which attended the
ghetto fine arts schools were presented.
Social gatherings and dances were also
organized. It was mostly youth that took part in these, but adults also met
from time to time, usually on the grounds of ones own house due to the
restriction of the police curfew.
On Grzybowski square there was a church.
Services were performed there attended by believers - Catholics of Jewish
I don't remember anymore why I began to practice
spiritual witchcraft with my girlfriends, I can no longer remember what
motivated us to do so. It was a sort of witchcraft with plates and a piece of
paper with letters drawn on it. And the plate surprisingly moved! - There was
no doubt. And it kept showing different words, from which answers to our
questions were formed, and sometimes profanities. It was very strange indeed -
impossible to understand. And then I finally figured out what really happened.
One time I defeated the pull of the plate, and started to pull it in the other
direction and in this way I discovered the ghost. It was the younger sister of
one of my girlfriends, who took part in our witchcraft sessions. In this way
she mocked and suckered us older kids. Never again in my life did I take part
in another witchcraft session.
Most of our teachers were recruited from the
prewar Middle and High School "Spójnia" in Warsaw. The Latin and history
teacher was short and dark. We gave him the nickname, "small black". His
pedagogical ideology was: don't require learning by memorization - the
consequences of this teaching style were that we didn't learn Latin very well,
and in terms of remembering historical dates we were mistaken not by years, but
by entire centuries. Small black was a little puzzling and we talked about him
often. He was a bachelor, was very good at playing the violin, and with his
brother he took part in amateur concerts in a private residence. This presented
him with more humanly qualities.
Our Polish language teacher loved quotes. "There
are two melancholies, (he often quoted the poet Słowacki) one is out of
strength, and the other out of weakness; one is the wings of great people, the
other one is the stone of drowning men" - maybe this sounded a bit differently,
but it made an impression on my recollections as something very beautiful. Not
all of us were patient enough to read Slowacki, but we all wanted to see his
plays presented on stage. There was a theater in the ghetto, I was only in it
once and it didn't leave me with any concrete memories, however it was believed
to be very good. Anyway they did not perform Słowacki's plays.
Our physics teacher and math teacher were
excellent pedagogues and gave us massive amounts of homework, definitely more
than we wished for because we didn't really have time to do it all. Because we
had just started reading books "for adults". There were many books in different
homes. One could also borrow them from libraries on the go. These were
collections of books that were tended to by one or two people who would deliver
ordered books or advise the less decided readers.
Some books during this period were particularly
popular. Amongst the more popular were "Gone with the Wind" and Werfel's "Forty
days of Musa Dag" (about the persecution of Armenians by Turks). People tried
to look for analogies in their content with the current war - in reality they
had rather little to do with it. There was also a book from the first world war
titled "Catherine becomes a soldier" - I don't remember the name of the author
- Teenagers were very fond of this book, particularly the girls. I haven't
mentioned "All quiet on the Western Front" by Remarque and about the "Thibault
Family" which consisted of many volumes. The first book and the last volume of
the second, which ended on a very strong pacifist note, were very anti-war and
therefore were praised with very much interest back then. I also tried to read
different famous books, which were still too difficult for me such as the
"Magic Mountain" by Mann - I didn't understand very much of it.
These were also times of first encounters with
music - it could be listened to either off of records or at concerts in a hall
where kino Femina is located today. The concert hall shared the same name. The
symphonic orchestra under the guidance of conductor Pullmann played a lot of
different classical music until the German decree which significantly limited
the repertoire. Jews could not after all desecrate Aryan composers by listening
to music composed by them. From that point on they were only allowed to listen
to music composed by Jewish composers. The ancestry of some composers could be
pretty easily inferred as in the example of Mendelssohn, but who knew about the
Jewish descent of Ravel? In fact it was good that he had this origin, because
his pieces were often played.
A young singer known as the ghetto nightingale
was very popular. Her name was Marysia Ajzensztadt. She had a very pretty,
warm voice. I could tell that her performance contained several famous opera
arias. Entire operas weren't of course presented, as the conditions weren't
We could listen to Beethoven from records. One
of our friends had an acquaintance who owned an entire collection of classical
records, which he agreed to lend him to listen to over and over. We also
acquired an adapter and we found an apartment in which we were allowed to play
records though it was very cold there and we had wear our jackets while sitting
there. Among borrowed records there was Beethoven's fifth symphony executed by
excellent performers. Unfortunately soon thereafter a misfortune befell upon us
- a piece of one of the records broke off. Our friend didn't have the courage
to admit fault to his acquainted collector. So we listened to the fifth
symphony without end. It became etched in our minds forever. The first well
known motive when " destiny knocks on the door to human fate" ceased to make
any kind of impression, it became as banal and boring like the motif of a
Two years of learning - third and fourth grade
of middle school - led us to a so-called small matriculation. But already a bit
earlier threatening announcements of what was going to happen appeared.
One day Wanda came to class extremely nervous.
"They killed Pejtr (this was the nickname of a boy a bit older than us that I
didn't know very well, probably a pupil of the same school). They came for him
to his house, led him to the back of some ruins and shot him to death. Why? No
A wind of horror blew in.
In the summer of 1942 similar occurrences began
to repeat themselves. The atmosphere became dense and it could be felt that
something really bad was lurking above everyone. Hearsay was shed that only
workers would remain in the ghetto while the rest would be relocated
Some of us - friends from our schooling -
already attempted to save themselves by escaping from the ghetto, -
immediately, or a bit later, if they were able to survive the first phase of
transporting the Jews out - to the so called Aryan side. Since we belonged to
the intelligentsia group escaping for us was much easier than for the
overwhelming majority of the population of the ghetto. The way we looked acted
or talked didn't give away our descent.. Some were betrayed by features of a so
called "bad appearance" - which made survival that much more difficult - but
one could always try. We often had some friends who weren't Jews, who could and
wanted to help us. But the dangers of being transported out came suddenly and
many people, even those who had the chance to save themselves, were unable to
undertake any action.
An overwhelming number of residents of the
crowded Jewish neighborhood didn't have any realistic opportunities to save
themselves by escaping - they would be very quickly identified by their looks,
clothing, and speech. Others were afraid of isolation. In order to break free
of the hitherto existing surroundings one needed strong determination and a lot
of courage. A faulty belief prevailed that it was better to be amongst ones
own. "What will happen to the rest, will also happen to me" - sentences such as
this one could be heard very often. In any case people counted on the hope that
after they were transported out they would be able to work somewhere and it
would all play out somehow. After all at first it didn't cross anyone's mind
that being transported out meant a very swift death.
Those of us, that escaped from the ghetto lived
alone or with their families in very risky circumstances, tracking Jews on the
"Aryan Side" never stopped.
Some of us survived, far more girls than boys.
Of our teachers our "polish" teacher and biology teacher survived. The rest
left no mark.
TRANSPORTATION OF JEWS
The first eminent threats began to make their
way into the ghetto during the summer of 1942.
During the night groups of people were removed
from their homes and immediately shot to death. Rumors spread that the
residents of the ghetto would be transported "to the east" to perform some
unclear work in unspecified work camps. Employment in existing and newly
forming German owned enterprises, called "szopy"(sheds) (tailoring, furniture, fur, etc.) was
supposed to protect one from being taken away. Of course many people wanted to
be hired right away, but there weren't that many slots to fill. A sort of a
"race" began: searching for contacts, bribery, offering sewing
machines and other things. Masses consisted of thousands of people didn't even
try the aforementioned activities.
The hearsay turned out to be true. The chairman
of the Jewish commune - Czerniakow - not wanting to sign orders concerning
transporting the populace out, ended up committing suicide. Others signed this
decree and enigmatic "displacement to the east" became a fact.
The first mass transports of people out of the
Warsaw ghetto struck a society completely unprepared to put up any kind of
resistance. Above all people didn't think that they will get killed. Who would
imagine such a thing? A great majority of people died unaware of the truth
until almost the very end.
Special teams executed blockades of houses.
They were composed of Germans from the SS and Ukrainians and Latvians specially
enlisted for this operation, called "shawlises". There weren't any
Poles in them. Shouts were reverberated in German, "Come outside, who does
not will be killed!" Then the searching of flats was carried out and those
that remained were killed - those that were sick or hiding.
Our house, which stood across the street from
Pawiak, earlier housed a factory and later a German enterprise or
"shed" was established there. Besides there were only a few flats
and they remained unnoticed for quite a while by those that set up the
blockades. It was obvious that one day they would finally notice them and
therefore we were constantly unsure whether the next day would find us still
Some ghetto residents agreed to be taken away of
their own will, because Germans offered these "volunteers" bread and
marmalade. Hunger was a powerful motivator, while receiving food kept people
assured that they were being taken off to work.
The view out the window changed dramatically
beyond recognition. There was no longer any traffic on the street. From the
window one could see people getting onto trucks - many of them were dressed in
black chalats. The cars were headed for the main trans-shipment square
(Umschlagplatz). From there wagons would drive off to that uncertain east. Of
course even then one could guess what was really happening to those being taken
away, but people insistently stuck to the version of work camps.
Gradually, bad news began to make its way into
the ghetto by word of mouth, originating from railwaymen. Someone would say:
"Wagons are riding to Treblinka, they're full of people, but not a single
person ever comes back from there, and the wagons come back empty. What does
that mean"? He was quieted: "Maybe its not true, there will always be
Finally proof reached us on paper. A brochure
started circulating of what was going on in Treblinka. "Dear reader -
wrote the author - his name was Jankiel Wiernik - I am only prolonging my
shabby life for you". He lost his entire family. He wrote about gas
chambers and burning corpses. The Treblinka crew consisted of very few people -
Germans. Other than them a small group of men - Jews, were hired to get rid of
bodies. After a while they were also killed, but one of the groups in an
extremely difficult situation was able to organize an attack on the guards and
to penetrate into the forest - among them was the author of the booklet, in
which he described everything in detail.
After reading the brochure one could no longer
be under any illusions. But still not everyone believed the inevitable. Their
will to live was simply too strong. Anyway the opportunity for most people to
resist their fate was very slim. Escaping from ghetto into as large a city as
Warsaw was a task impossible for them to carry out.
Many years after the war I wanted to go to Treblinka and
see the place that was once meant to be my destiny. But I was afraid. Not of
the the spirits of the dead, but of those that were alive. I was afraid that I
might get mugged or assaulted, because apart from the days that tours or
special ceremonies were organized, it was a deserted place. But I was even more
afraid that I would see antisemitic graffiti that stated "gas the
Jews" or something of that nature. And that is why i didn't go to
At first it seemed that the function of a Jewish
policeman was nothing bad. Policemen fell within the Jewish community and
contributed to maintaining order in the ghetto. Some of the youth joined the
force, partly because they had no opportunity for other activities and also
probably because they wanted to wear uniforms. It turned out however that one
cannot innocently join occupying forces even if you are not directly under
their jurisdiction. The policemen were forced to take part in campaigns in
which people were thrown out of their homes - they were to deliver a
specified number of people to be taken away. In this way before they were
killed themselves they managed to be written down in history in the most ill
After the first mass-operation of taking people away a
period of calm ensued, during which the ghetto turned into a kind of work
camp. German enterprises still functioned and their owners profited immensely
by taking advantage of the virtually free labor, really hoping that such a
situation would last as long as possible.
From time to time unexpected new selections took
place marking people with special numbers and eliminating those who were no
longer needed for labor. Somebody reminded us of an ancient prophecy, which
was now being fulfilled, which was :"You will all beg for work, but they
won't want you".From the window one could see a long line of those that
were eliminated by selection, who were forced to sit on the road, and then were
driven off to Umschlagplatz.
Some individuals tried to resist the violence by
escaping from the train. Times came when many men never left their tool kits,
and as soon as they found themselves in the wagons they started a mechanical-locksmithing
operation. Whoever wanted to, could then jump out of the window of such a wagon,
but not everyone had enough physical strength or the willpower, because a great
majority of those that escaped were instantly shot to death by the trains
Suicide was somewhat of a form of opposition,
however it was not very common. Entire families sometimes took their own lives
in their own homes, still before they were captured. This was the fate that met
my cousin, my peer and play companion since the youngest years of my childhood,
and his parents, they committed collective suicide. Others, hoping earlier that
they would not be caught, ingested poison in the last moment - on Umschlagplatz
or in the trains. Of course only if they were able to get the poison.
Eventually resistance began to take on a
different form, namely the preparation for armed action. And the
mentality of the populace began to change in an apparent manner, even if it was
only in the sense of posing passive resistance.
Of those still living in the ghetto in early
1943, numerous persons took up attempting to survive underground. Shelters were
built, food and water were collected. Some of these shelters were reportedly
very well furnished and equipped. I haven't heard of anyone however, who was
successfully able to survive in Warsaw in such a manner. War hostilities and fires
caused this. The Nazis completely razed the entire neighborhood - ruins were
not even left over, only fields of rubble and debris. Historical sources state
that the battle for life in some shelters lasted another couple
of months after the ultimate downfall of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Two young authors that personally didn't
experience the era in which the ghetto existed wrote a book about the Warsaw
ghetto. They collected materials for the book for many years When I met them,
they asked me about details so precise that I never noticed or I have long
forgotten. I asked what was the cause to become interested in such a topic. One
of the authors - a historian told me: "I was born here and I spent my
entire childhood here, in the Nowolipki neighborhood. I played with my peers
here, we ran around, went sledding. It wasn't until many years later that I
found out what we were really running around on. That played the deciding role
in my interest regarding these matters".
Many children in the ghetto begged and traded,
and would sneak out on to the other side of the wall in order to get food,
sometimes for their entire families. Many of them were incidentally killed
while doing so.
There were also children born before the war, or
during the war, who enjoyed comfortable living conditions, surrounded by the
care of their families. It wasn't until the deportation of Jews , that every
child without exception found itself in an extremely difficult situation. A
grown up man or woman could still count on some sort of employment, which would
temporarily save their lives. A child was unproductive. This is why above all
children were hidden during all of the capturing and blockading. In different
hiding places, where it was expected that persecutors would be close children
were given sleeping pills, so they wouldn't give away their presence.
Hiding oneself or ones child can be done one way
or another in one's home. And probably to make that option impossible, at a
certain moment in the ghetto where some residents were still left, an order
was decreed to route to an area that was gated in by a few streets. Mila street
was the largest of them. Nobody knew what would happen next, maybe people would
never be allowed to go back to their homes, so almost everyone went. Soon it
became apparent, that this was a trap - set up so that the oppressor could
perform yet another certificate inspection checking peoples employment in the
German enterprises that functioned in the ghetto. If you have the right
classification you go through selection, if you don't, you go to Umschlagplatz
and then further - that is Treblinka. Above all this was a way to exclude
children. The person taking care of the child was always taken along with the
child, to maintain order. "Don't Cry" - someone says to a four, maybe
five year old girl. "That's easy for you to say" - answers the child
- "since you're an adult".
Some woman ran out of the file, probably to find
herself near those that were close to her. The SS-mans reaction was rapid - an
immediate shot to the head. Maybe it was even better that way for her.
What do you do, if you have a work permit, but
also a child, which is very difficult to hide in this situation? The mothers
hide their small children in backpacks. Just to get through inspection!
Meanwhile the Germans walk in between the files and poke the backpacks with
bayonets, to check that a child isn't in one of them. This is a trivial amount,
almost nothing compared with the hundreds of thousands that die in gas
chambers, but it causes that, whoever happens to be standing by forgets about
his their own fate for a while and repeats frantically in their mind "God,
please ensure that there is no child in that backpack. Or in that next one
Mariusz was born right before the war, while his
cousin Erna was born right when the war began. Neither of them had any idea,
that they came into this world in such horrible times. They lived in one flat
and went on walks together to the very small green areas in the ghetto. Today
exactly, right when they got back from their walk, it turned out that their
aunt came (my mother, attended knitting classes in the ghetto) and she brought
presents - knitted clothing. Mariusz couldn't care less about what he has on.
He runs back and forth from the bedroom to the kitchen immersed in his own very
important matters and doesn't have time for outfits. But Erna, like any woman,
likes to dress. The dress fits her perfectly. She even forgot about her beloved
teddy bear for a while. Where did he go? There he is! He was in the kitchen
among Mariusz's toys.
The whole family left absolutely nothing to
remember them aside from this very distant memory. The parents didn't have time
to attempt to save even the children. Their only privilege was their professions.
They were pharmacists and within the scope of their possibilities was to
procure an adequate amount of poison. They got into the train wagons supplied
in this manner, and most likely none of them reached Treblinka alive. Thinking
about it, one felt a certain sense of relief.
The story of a young mother: "I was
carrying Janusz around in my stomach then, it was the fifth month of pregnancy,
when everything began. I gave birth to him at home, then complications set in,
it took a long time before I was back to my old self. We thought long and hard
about what we should do now. We've lost all hope, that we would be able to save
ourselves. But he should stay alive! We're in a lot of luck that this man
agreed to carry him out of the ghetto and drop him off. There is an orphanage
on the first floor in the house over there. He will leave him on the stairs on
the top floor. People will have to take care of him. There is one more thing.
The woman doctor friend is trying to escape from the ghetto. I gave her the address
of this house and she promised that in case she will survive she will visit the
orphanage after the war and will see what is going on with my son. How will she
be able to tell which child it is? He has a birthmark on his neck. It's
horrible, that I will never get to see him again. But this is how we have to
deal with it." The child's mother is crying, but the young parents
are relatively very calm and composed, taking into account the situation at
stake. Apparently their sense of fulfilled responsibility is giving them this
peace of mind.
"How is playing the piano any kind of
skill, when you know exactly what note is where - says Oles - The violin is
really what's hard, where nothing is labeled and you have to hit the right
spot". Oles did have perfect pitch, but this didn't help him hit the right
spots and he had much trouble doing this. Music playing was held in the house
in which he lived with his parents and grandmother,- the family as well as
amateur musicians took part in it. Oles didn't play with them yet, but he
listened, he also attended concerts with his father a few times.
The grandmother wasn't musically inclined, but
she liked everyone - those that played as well as those that didn't. She wore a
black lambswool scarf on her back, smiled and would say with delight: "How
good of you to be here, sit down, sit down" - she exuded warmth. And that
is why so many people eagerly came to this house, not only because of the
At first the teams composed of German SS
officers and other that carried out blockades thought that the entire house
consisted of workers. Then the family wanted to send Oles to the Aryan side,
they heard, that monasteries saved children - he didn't look the least bit
Jewish. But they didn't have any contacts or a telephone and they didn't do
anything in time. Soon the entire family was taken away.
There were some Jewish children about which it
was still unknown whether they were orphans, would find "Aryan"
guardians. Many peculiar tragedies and conflicts arose due to this. A problem
formed when a child got attached to their foster parents, while the real mother
who happened to survive would come and pick the child up after the was was
over. It could have not even been the mother, just someone from the family that
had rights to the child. "I don't want to complicate her life anymore and
that's why I don't try to meet up with her - said one of these war caretakers -
her mother doesn't understand me, she's probably jealous. But I miss her so
much! I would love to learn so much more about her, what she looks like, how
she's dressed, if she's cheerful. I think that she misses me too" - cried
the war guardian of the child.
WORK IN THE GERMAN "SHED"
After the first great cleansing, there
officially were no more unemployed persons on the terrain of the ghetto. There
were only German enterprises ("sheds"): Toebbens', Shultzes and others,
scattered around the old neighborhood. Pretty far from our place of work the
so-called central ghetto housed the "brushers" shed - later that became
the main headquarters for the ghetto uprising.
Schultz hired furriers, who sewed hats and
gloves for German soldiers on the Eastern front. The fur came from a
collection in Germany. The owner also employed people without professional
skills, whose job was tearing, i.e. removing the lining, waddling etc., form
the objects so that furriers could sew new things out of them. Schultz made a
considerable amount of money out of his enterprise and moreover thanks to
running it he found himself far from the front. It lay in his best interest
that employees would live and work as long as possible, so he played the role
of a "good caretaker". He even had his own Jewish governor, who
began to feel very satisfied about the smidgeon of authority that fell on him.
Those that were allowed to work, tried not to
advocate German actions on the eastern front by not working too fast. Even
though everything seemed to indicate that hats and gloves will no longer save
the German army, since it clearly began to lose. War announcements included
more and more lines about the Germans plans to retreat to new positions and
about the extreme losses of the enemy that they endured by moving forward.
Unfortunately these events were still taking
place very far from Poland. And it was extremely unlikely that we would win the
race against time. Hitler had just announced in his last speech, that soon
there would be as many Jews left in Europe as there is trash in a well cleaned
dumpster. And one could probably believe him.
We no longer lived on Pawia next to our "shed"
but in the Nowolipie neighborhood and every day we would traverse to work in
columns and then back. On the way, on Smocza street we passed Hallmans small
shed - furniture was manufactured there. Marian, my good friend and acquaintance.
always waited by the gate. We only had time to wave and smile to one another,
we had no other options.
The so-called "Werkschutze" kept
things in order, they were specially hired young men that manifested a great
deal of energy and a certain level of brutality, although they never really
hurt anyone. They were rather primitive. There was also a hired
"Werkschutz" who proved to be a complete dud, unsuitable for the job.
He was no more no less a musician, strictly speaking: a fledgling symphonic
orchestra conductor. In addition he had a quiet voice and was well raised. It
was worth seeing his efforts at keeping order in the files. The rest of the
"Werkschutze" of course managed much more effectively.
In our group of unskilled laborers life flowed
on its own. This was an eclectic array of different people - people of many
professions, some intelligentsia, it also enclosed Jews expulsed from Germany.
We differed strongly from the honored furriers.
It may seem strange to some readers, but the atmosphere
remained cheerful. We created even a satirical program..In fact
there were many funny things in this strange life among old clothing collected
in Germany. The work was disgusting, but light. We could carry on
conversations, we could also sing. Ada brought the most life into it. She had a
wonderful voice. She remembered many songs from operettas, cabarets, and
others. "How do you know all of these? You didn't go to shows like this
one, you were a child". "My mother taught me. Whenever they got home
from the theater my mother sang". Every once in a while Ada suddenly sits
and starts to cry. Her parents were taken away almost at the very beginning.
In our group an important role was played by the
widow of a famous doctor - her husband was taken recently during his trip to a
different part of the ghetto, to the so-called central ghetto, where he had to
take care of something indispensable. The lady was very gentle and
understanding of many of the problems of other people, who came to her for
advice. Her two adult daughters also - worked with us - the older one was the
wife of Werkschutz - the conductor. The younger was energetic and cheerful -
she was the only one out of the entire family who survived the war.
The older married couple got round to cooking
soups, which they sold "per bowl", in that way earning money for a
living. They were perpetually embarrassed, attempting to reconcile all of their
responsibilities, which also included religious practices, because they were
devout. The husband ran around every afternoon to various premises, to find
ten men needed to perform prayer. He was eventually successful, although among
those working in our section there weren't many that were willing.
From time to time a happy event occurred.
Someone already found himself at Umschlagplatz, but he was able to come back
from there. A small boy passed the selection, without hiding. - the SS-man just
looked at him and let him through, as if he was even smiling. Someone moved to
a different apartment and has it much more lightly now, because he doesn't have
to carry water. And a mother went to the doctor with her little daughter and
it turned out that her throat was much better.
Roma lost her entire family and was unable to
cope on her own. She sat dumbfounded and only ate when someone treated her to
food. Lately "the ones that make the soup" offered her that she could
help them out with making it and at least eat it regularly in return. Roma
livened up only when she talked about her friend, who got married recently and
they are so much in love.
Many times one could notice the following
pattern: if there was a rapid break-out of despair, then this person
would recover relatively quickly. Those that concealed everything without
letting it out were considerably worse off, they stayed in a slump for a very
Marysia constantly sobbed talking about how they
got lost on Mila, she was with her aunt and uncle, while her mother stayed with
her little brother and their baby Mark. Finally the mother and both boys were
taken. After two days however, she was able to feel consolation, because she
got news from her older brother who survived, and she could meet him from time
Mrs. Chawa seemed almost unconscious, she could
barely utter out, that they separated her from her daughter - pale and sickly
Halinka, she kept repeating over and over: "They took Halina from me, they
took Halina from me". But she regained hope after a while, that they might
still see one another. Maybe in some work camp?
The doctor survived a very peculiar tragedy.
They decided to commit collective suicide. They all ingested poison: him, his
wife, two sons and the wife's sister. And everyone died, while he was the only
one that survived, apparently the dose was too small for him. He sits around
and rips furs. From time to time he even tells a joke.
The only language of the group of Jews from
Germany was German. They didn't always understand what was going on around
them. "They have it really good - someone said - they get less
Hertha originated from Dusseldorf. Since she
found herself in the "rippery", she worked very systematically.
Sometimes she sighed, "but I don't even know if my mother is still
alive!" The furs appropriated for ripping were brought in on trucks,
convoyed by German soldiers. Hertha once got into a conversation with one of
them. He was also from Dusseldorf! "We both miss our city so much" -
she would say with tears in her eyes.
Frau Mueller completely misunderstood the course
of history. She kept saying with respect "unser Fuehrer" - one could
assume, that she died with his name on her lips.
Frau Wolff was the wife of a doctor. They
arrested her husband long ago, still in Germany. She didn't speak much,
sometimes she asked for permission to reheat food in one of the nearby
apartments for herself and for her ten year old daughter Rita. "Something
really, really good - Kartoffelsalat" - explained Rita
Herr Israel looked so German, that it wouldn't
cross anyone's' mind that he had bad descent. In fact he was a mixed breed and
apparently the grandmother on his fathers side determined his fate. He tried to
save himself, He had acquaintances, who helped him get out of the ghetto and
they scored him Polish documents, although it was excruciatingly difficult for
him to play the role of a Pole, because he spoke only German. He established
communication with the entirely Aryan husband of his sister, but this didn't
help him much. He was destined for liquidation and was finally liquidated.
Ms. Szewczykowa was a keeper. She came to the
ghetto sometimes, to take care of some business in the house adjacent to
Schultz's shed. She came by to the "rippery" to converse as well as
purchase something to wear - people sold their things, because one could not
make ends meet after all by working in a German enterprise. Ms. Szewczykowa
stood around and talked about what goes on in Warsaw "on the other
side". "They routinely checked windows for escaping light, they are
afraid of air raids. Two sons of our neighbors were taken to work in Germany.
While yesterday they killed one man on our street. And for nothing, completely
nothing!" Ms. Szewczykowa almost cried. Her aggravation was understandable
but she probably stumbled upon the wrong audience. Ms. Bronka said something
about it, that so many of us were already taken away and they keep killing us
and taking away, and also for nothing. "Well yes - said Ms. Szewczykowa -
but that's the whole nation in general" and went back to her storytelling.
Lilka was very pretty and was in great demand.
"We can't escape from the ghetto - she would say - my brother has such
Semitic features. Its probably better to stay among our own." Others - in
a similar situation - not mustering up the strength to undertake escaping
independently - searched for support and planned a joint effort, meaning more
people escaping simultaneously. They usually put it off until later and finally
nothing came out of it.
A couple of times there were different
operations that decreased the work forces of the German entrepreneurs One time
the crew for special operations, named Sonderkommando, came with dogs. They
were supposed to look for people, who hid under furs. But the dogs didn't find
anyone, because the smell of the fur turned out to be too strong, they were
One day Schultz ordered all of his workers to
gather outside. He came out on the balcony and delivered a speech "He had
to relocate his factory to a different location. You will still work for me,
but not here. Tomorrow we will move to Trawniki - it's a place in the Lubelski
Voivoidship". Schultz addressed us in German, but there was no need for a
translator - the Jews understood him anyway. They were terrified. Some believed
that this was yet another German lie and that they were taking them straight to
gas chambers. Others even believed that they would still work, but they rightly
realized, that the trip meant they would be in complete submission to German
Still others - who weren't quite decided until
now - news that they were to be moved accelerated their decision to escape.
At the same time another company, Toebbens'. was
transferred to Poniatow - also in the Lubelski vovoidship. Enterprises there
hired people for a full year, supposedly in good conditions. A sparse number of
people escaped from these camps into the forests. After a year everyone that
was still working there was shot to death by a team that arrived there for this
ESCAPING FROM THE GHETTO
During the campaign process of transporting the Jews
out - a resolution matured in my mind, that I would not surrender and let
myself be led like a sheep to a carnage. It wasn't just about saving my life,
but about personal dignity. To at least try.
The Warsaw ghetto was convicted to be destroyed.
The opportunity to be saved was to escape and hide out on the so-called Aryan
side having false documents. It was a very difficult decision. Besides, as I
already mentioned, the greater proportion of the Jewish society didn't have
such opportunities. In this sense the countryside offered a slightly easier
situation - people hid out in forests, different hiding- places, barns and
cellars of acquainted peasants. But the risk was enormous and most of these
At almost the last minute before I escaped from
the ghetto, my old schoolmate Paul came to visit me. Excited, I shared with him
our plans to escape. Paul was sad. "We are going to try to make life as
easy as possible for my mother" - he said.
During periods of relative peace escaping was
realized in an organized manner, one only had to pay for it - in any case these
were moderate sums. The guards divided the sums up amongst themselves: the
Jewish police, The Polish (navy blue) police and probably also the German
military police for keeping a closed eye. A ladder was placed up against the
wall and after a short while one was on the other side. One also had to
cooperate with a team of smugglers and wait with them at a nearby lodge until
curfew was over and the day began. From that moment on you're on your own.
The first very strong impression that came upon
me was the seemingly normal Warsaw street life when on the other side, right
alongside, while behind the walls, nothing was reminiscent of
"normal". We made it to Żoliborz, which was a beautiful neighborhood
of Warsaw even during the war. But in reality there was an occupation, terror
and horrible things happened here at all times.
It is easy to imagine, what kind of impression
was made by the sight of two figures like us -me and my mother- showing up at
someone's door in broad daylight, straight from the ghetto. Furthermore
unexpectedly, because other than our previous notice that we requested help we
had no contact with family, to which we arrived - Calling at the last minute -
right before we escaped - turned out impossible. A flash of terror in their
eyes - difficult to forget for the rest of ones life - but it only lasted a
fraction of a second. And right afterward joy - how good that you were able to
In this way we worked our way into an almost two
year period of living illegally on "Aryan papers" with the
accompanying uncertainty this lifestyle brought upon us.
Aryan paper consisted primarily of a birth
certificate. Its cheapest version was engrossed on a false form with forged
signatures and stamps. Authentic birth certificates were much more valuable,
rendered accessible by church parishes and originating from children that were
baptized there and later died. A birth certificate was an important document,
because on its basis one would procure a Kennkarte from German authorities,
which was an occupation identification card containing fingerprints.
ON THE ARYAN SIDE
DANGER AND HELP
FRAGMENTS OF A STATEMENT put together in the
Jewish historical institute in Poland - In the Department of Righteous Among
From Autumn of 1940 I found myself in the Warsaw
ghetto with my mother. During the campaigns that stripped people of their homes
in the summer of 1942 we were able to survive thanks to the temporary
employment in Schultz's fur factory by Pawia street. In the winter of 1943
after the announcement that Jews employed in this factory would be taken to a
camp in Trawniki in the Lubelszczyzna region, we decided to immediately escape
from the ghetto.
After escaping over the wall on Nowolipki street
we took a tram to Żoliborz and then made it to our friends house - the
Sienieńska family by Felińskiego street. The tenants of the house were:
Władyslawa the mother and her daughters - my peer Zofia and Janina which was a
couple of years older. Władyslawa S. was barely able to make ends meet by
transporting oil from the countryside and selling it in Warsaw. The older
sister received her education in nursing school, while the younger learned in
secret outfits. The father of the family - Jan (a friend of my fathers from
the course of his studies) was no longer alive - he was a Soviet prisoner of
war in Starobielsk and was murdered there in April of 1940.
We knew that our presence posed a a great danger
to the S. family, we decided however on trying to save our own lives so we
didn't see any other way out. We were admitted with joy, since we were able to
escape from the ghetto. It's obvious that mother and daughters S. risked their
own lives. Other tenants in the building could have easily seen us, from the
look of my mother one could surmise that she was Jewish. We also didn't have
We spent two weeks at our friends home, which
was needed to attain false papers and to rent some kind of room. We couldn't
stay in this house, because there was very little room in the apartment - other
Jews also lived there that had never been in the ghetto. Wladyslawa S. rented
them space knowing about their origin and the mother and daughters helped them
out as much as they could. Despite very strained material resources the
families' help was completely selfless.
We lived partly from savings. Soon I began to
work in a tailoring company, I also tried very hard to learn, my mother mainly
stayed at home afraid to leave.
We changed our living quarters many times. For
the period that we stayed on the so-called Aryan side the S. family afforded us
shelter in their home several times. Once was when my mother was being
blackmailed by a polish policeman and we had to escape immediately from our
current residence. The other time this was much more dangerous situation,
because a person that knew our names and address turned out to be an informer
and we had to change our documents. In addition it was also at a terrible
moment - the Warsaw ghetto uprising had just begun and the Nazi's were looking
everywhere for hiding Jews . In the most difficult of situations, the S.
family home was always a safe haven for us.
I always realized that the mother and both of
the S. daughters has played a key role in determining our fates. Taking me and
my mother into their apartment and their later help enabled us to survive. We
always nourished a great sense of gratefulness for them.
I should also explain why I am requesting that
Wladyslawa, Janina, and Zofia S. should receive a medal Righteous Among the
Nations only after so many years. After my trip last fall to Israel, I saw with
my own eyes what a beautiful symbol of gratefulnessas well as an aattestation
of human stances during the last war, namely the nameplates of the surnames of
the Righteous in Yad Vashem. I understood, that the Sienieński family should
not be absent from them. I kindly ask that my late request be taken into
account and they be included in the group of the Rightous.
The S. family was soon awarded the Medal of
Righteous Among the Nations.
Receiving help was a necessary condition of
survival, without the help of the Poles no one would be saved at all. Helping
Jews was very dangerous and those that granted their help were heroes - the
looming threat of the deaths of their entire families, and this was realized
time and again. For every escapee there was not one, but at least a couple of
people and families that risked their own lives.
Everyone that speaks the view that helping the
Jews was something obvious in those times, a duty and nothing else, should
really think long and hard about how he/she would act in such a situation. I
will admit, that I'm not sure to what extent I would have the nerve and
willpower in those conditions of raging Nazi terror.
What did Jewish life look like on the Aryan
side? A whole lot depended on what kind of "look" one had. Those that
looked good - meaning they looked Polish - could lead a fairly normal
lifestyle, leave the house, work and make money, and be active in the most
diverse of domains such as: social work, the underground, and others.
A bad look that gave away non Aryan origin
forced maximum carefulness: not showing oneself in public, staying at home
often in a hidden room with a masked door - as it was called - "behind a
wardrobe". Such people had to be tended to by caretakers.
Still, the risk involved everyone, and maybe
even more those who freely moved around the city; since they could easily run
into an ill-intentioned familiar person. They could find themselves in an
"encapturment" - a typical occurrence during the occupation. That's
how it was with Krysia's brother: the entire family decided not to go to the
ghetto at all. And one day her brother on the way to the barber was caught in
an encapturment and was shot to death with a group of men - not at all as a Jew
- it was a retaliation for some German killed by Poles. One could also just end
up with problems while being carded on the street and accidentally stuttering
something out on that occasion. One time I had a difficult experience of this
nature. I was once taken out of a tram by a German ticket inspector because he
noticed that right before getting off I gave my ticket to the conductor - it
was a widely practiced favor, although forbidden. And while being carded I
almost forgot my birth date! I weaseled out of it somehow, but I was
embarrassed to tell anyone about my extreme carelessness.
There were a number of ways one could rent an
apartment. One consisted of keeping ones origin a complete secret and living as
if nothing. This was definitely the best way - also for the landlord, for whom
this posed the smallest risk. Another method consisted of letting the host in
on the situation and paying them higher rent for the apartment. Such landlords
didn't always act too well. Often, they would keep raising the rent threatening
to kick out the tenants immediately if their new quota wasn't met. George
emigrated from Poland many years ago, his wife was a non-Polish speaker, and as
a result even his Polish was a little shaky. But he remembered this fact very
well. "Money and money, all they demanded was more and more money" -
he talked about the period of the occupation that he spent with his father in
Warsaw. A common occurrence was that people who rented flats would partner up
with blackmailers - one such situation comes to my mind very vividly: It was
like this: the landlords of a flat would warn time and again that an acquainted
Navy Policeman that came by the apartment could be dangerous, and to not show oneself
at all costs if he were to come by. Then one day the Navy Policeman would step
into the room rented to people with the wrong kind of ancestry, while the
landlady would stand behind him with a petrified look on her face. One didn't
have to be an ace detective to guess that the whole situation was staged
earlier, while the scene played out by the landlady and the policeman - he
didn't dare be seen earlier, so that he couldn't be recognized later. It was
all done as a scare tactic to get a little more money and luckily it all ended
But there were also many people, who treated
compensation for taking the risk of renting an apartment to people of the wrong
origin simply as material support, and strived afterward to make sure
everything is in order and running smoothly.
An organization that helped Jews existed,
created by a group of Polish activists, which was called Żegota. Apart from
financial assistance they helped look for flats, hiding places, they were also
intermediaries in placing children mainly in monasteries. There were also other
organized groups that bore help. The activities of Irena Sendler who has saved thousends of babies
are now well known. Unfortunately,
under the German occupation it was not as easy to come across a similar
opportunity. Many people didn't even know
about organizations of this nature.
I've written very little about the most
important form of support: undaunted, good willed people, who selfessly helped
out at all costs. There were flats in which Jews always stayed, both those who
never went out on the street as well as those who retained semblance of normal
life. Entire families were given refuge by famous writers and cultural
activists. Marian lived in one of theses houses with his parents and sister.
Time and again this also occurred in situations, when pre-war convictions of
these persons who gave help didn't favorite Jews.
One example of great bravery and commitment in
granting assistance was the "House in the Zoo", that is the flat of
the former director of the Warsaw Zoological Garden - Doctor Żabinski and his
wife. This house, due to its specific location (the site of the former
Warsaw zoo) had good conditions to perform the role of a hideout. It was filled
to the brim with animals, people, as well as various illicit affairs. He had
numerous residents - refugees from the ghetto, who managed to successfully
survive the war. After the war Mr. Żabinski personally planted one of the first
trees to commemorate the Righteous Among the Nations commemoration at Yad
Vashem in Jerusalem. This was accompanied by a great celebration. He probably
felt uncofortable in this situation and afterwards also said that he went to
Israel because of the bison. "I proposed to the Israeli Government that
they purchase several of them." "How in the world - I wondered -
bison? In such hot climate?" Mr. Żabinski stated that the hot weather
doesn't affect them. Bisons in Poland have recently proliferated in large
quantities and other countries in the world also need to be persuaded to breed
these animals. However the deal with Israel probably didn't go through.
Unfortunately not everything was always so
great everywhere and all the time. There were some Poles who tried to exploit
the tragic situation of the Jews and draw benefits for themselves - "Szmalcownicy"
who blackmailed Jews living illegaly and receivied everything they had .. There
were also true enemies of the Jews - "selfless" denunciators.
Living using false
papers often led to frequent complications including threats and the sudden
need for a change of residence. From time to time, the activity of blackmailers
kept us on our toes. Meanwhile life seemingly went along normally. And at the
very core lurked the sin of an evil birth.
Getting caught could occur very easily.All it required was that
someone living near conceived a suspicion that Jews live here or there. If such
news spread, it could cause panic under the slogan: "Now they will surely
kill us all." And when a lot of people knew there was no other option
but to flee immediately
We were insects, which were to
be consistently and completely eradicated. These were circumstances for bold
and courageous people, able to calmly deal with uncertainty and danger. This
unfortunately was not a description of my character. Unlike my mother, who
was not very confident, nervous, and always searching for someone to lean on;
but in difficult moments proved to be very brave. Already at a very young age I
was much better than her at deciding what to do, but I had a vivid imagination
and I was rather a coward. Because of this unfortunate character trait it was
for me very hard to live in these difficult times.
Uncertainty and a sense of great
danger accompanied us all the time. This situation was so difficult to cope
with that even the few people that were able to live successfully on the Aryan
side preferred to return to the ghetto (of course at a time when it still
existed), they could not withstand such tension and nerves. From the very first
moment when we still lacked any official documents at our friends home who were
trying to hide their very legitimate fear from us, we never lost our deeply
engrained feelings of grave danger. On the street, in the field, in the woods,
everywhere and at all times a deep sense of fear accompanied us every step of
the way. The hardest moments came right before falling asleep, because in the
silence of the curfew, it seemed that every approaching car is out to get us.
We became superstitious, almost ready to engage in witchcraft. It
would be best to pray. But to what God? The same one that puts your chosen
nation through such terrible trials? Or to the one we just recently
discovered?. It didn't really matter, because it was the same God. Except that
not everyone believed in him..
Surely it is better to die for
something. Such a death for which ones own decision comes into play, as well as
courage and overcoming fear, has a different price, a much greater value. And
it would be best to die in combat. It's quite different than to be murdered as
a worm or a rat.
There were many Jews among those actively participating in conspiracies, taking
part in armed actions and later among the fighters in the Warsaw Uprising. Some
of them died in the course of its business. "I belonged to the PPS (Polish
Socialist Party) formation, which was subordinate to the Army - Vladek would
say - my company commander was of Jewish origin. He died at the very beginning
of the uprising, during the first clashes of insurgents in Żoliborz with
Germany. I know many other such cases."
to a group of people living more or less a normal life during my entire stay on
the Aryan side. . I ended up working as a tailor for a company producing summer
dresses and coats. I remember how my uncle, who I often met back then, praised
me, that I was so adept at finding a job. Since I was not an expert I was
employed as backup help. Even this job was difficult for me to do and my bosses
complained but somehow I was never fired. And since I always liked to sew this
work brought me pleasure. Some of my colleagues from the workshop of the
dressmakers were well educated in the craft, others a little worse, and some
completely unskilled in this area - just like me. It soon became apparent that
I was in a good situation, since the company, had ambitions to help people in
difficult situations and were satisfied even if some of these people treated
the work as a temporary thing and engaged not only in tailoring. In this
company full of tailors I came into contact with an environment which was
totally alien to me before. In the midst of mostly young girls and some older
women I actually had the impression that the war did not exist. Their problems
consisted of boyfriends, weddings, holidays, new shoes - as if nothing else was
happening. "You worked your way in to such a middle-class
environment" - explained my uncle. But these could also partly be well
camouflaged mere appearances.
Once, while returning from work I had an adventure. In the
"artificial congestion" on the tram my bag was stolen along with all of my
documents. At first I thought that it would all end here - I lost such a
hard-won identity! And to form a Kennkarte I had to ask the police or the German
authorities, the worst possible scenario. But it soon turned out that the
settlement of these formalities was quite easy.
Sometimes I lived alone and sometimes I lived with my mother. But we
could not officially be mother and daughter, after all we had different last
names on our fake ID's. So we ended up being aunt and niece. My mother had to
get used to calling me by a different name. Actually, taking into account the
possibility of getting caught, it was better to live separately - it is easier
to lie alone, because after all, there is no way to arrange all the details of
someones life story, which should be identical in the accounts of all closely
One day I was passing through Wilson square
when suddenly someone grabbed my - it was Alinka. We knew each other from the
earliest years of our lives - our parents were good friends before we were
born. And then we learned together in the ghetto sets. Before the war Alinka
lived with her parents in Zoliborz and went to a school called RTPD (Workers'
Society of Friends of Children) - it was a school associated with PPS (Polska
Partia Socjalistyczną - Polish Socialist Party). And then, when she escaped
from the ghetto with her mother she also settled in this neighborhood. In the
first period of the war her father made his way through the mountains to
Slovakia and then further on, but was unable to take his wife and daughter
along. "I do not know how good it is that we are living here - Alinka
would say - We don't know who we can meet at any time. There are so many
people we knew!" But somehow they stayed. Many people that had ties to PPS
lived in the so-called "Glass Houses", the Warsaw Housing Cooperative
(WSM) in Żoliborz, and it was Alinka that drew me into this environment. There
was a large concentration of Jews with false papers living in these houses.
Despite this it was relatively safe there. Helping the Jews there was
widespread in many of the resident families, both working class and
intellectual. For some time my mother rented a room in one of the blocks with
the family of a trolley driver while I lived in Grochów with their older
daughter. The younger daughter took a Jewish girl who lost her parents into her
house. And these people did not feel the least bit that they were heroes.
Żoliborz in this respect was the "preferred" district. I know families who had
lived in there before the war for many years and neighbours probably knew
about their "bad" origin. I survived in the same place throughout the
I tried to get through the high school curriculum - no longer on
sets, but at private lessons. Apart from other reasons, this was beneficial
because I was constantly busy and didn't have time to think. Asia - a colleague
with whom I began attending these classes as well as our teachers - lived in
the WSM homes. The teachers - they were wonderful people - lived in poverty, so
giving lessons helped them make ends meet, were also in general - they or their
children - very involved in clandestine activities.
Both me and Alinka could meet
people and live relatively normal lives, because fate had bestowed upon us
facial features that were favourable to the current situation. How differently
it manifested itself for our friend Jasia, who we had no contact with then -
she told us about her life during this period much later. Both she and her
younger sister were very pretty girls, but their beauty was not quite what it
should have looked like. Maybe in Georgia or in India they wouldn't have had
much trouble. But in Warsaw every need to go out on the street - and such
situations took place of course - was associated with mortal danger and
caused the need to cover their faces with bandages and other treatments worthy
of a skilled theatrical makeup artist.
Jews on the Aryan side lived
scattered all across the city and my contacts with other former colleagues were
small or non-existent there. I knew nothing of the others until after the war.
Wanda got out of the ghetto fairly early with her parents and sister. I met her
only once. She was resourceful, and gave good advice. She helped others and was
able to keep their spirits up, since she never lost her sense of calm, or her
unique sense of humor. She helped a few people in finding temporary places of
residence. Among other things, she helped Celina, who had already lost everyone
in her family, to find work in a home as a maid - it was quite a practical way
Even today it is hard to think
about the tragedy that has burdened Celina so much. One of the worst things in
the last war was that it placed people in situations that they were not
prepared for - in situations in which the only acceptable solution was to be
completely brave and heroic. Not everyone can meet such requirements. Celina
after all was a good and brave girl. We knew her for a long time and remembered
an event from before the war when we were harrassed by a group of hooligans
while playing outside. They were boys among us, but we all escaped together
with as much strength as we had in our legs. Only Celina didn't chicken out,
she stood there with honor and began to withdraw slowly. We shouted at her to
run away, seeing that one of the attackers was approaching her with a big lump
of ice, but she did not listen. And she got hit in the head hard with it. The
things that were happening during the occupation were obviously of a completely
different measure. When Celina fell into the hands of the Gestapo she gave them
Wandas address. They definitely beat her, maybe they promised freedom both to
her and those that she gives away, and she wanted to live so much that she
believed them.. Both were shot in the Pawiak. Wanda's father and sister were
also not rescued, they died after leaving Warsaw after the fall of the Warsaw
Uprising, shortly before the end of the war.
There were two versions of Sophies death, I still do not know which
of them was true. According to one she had gone to (at "Aryan side")
with her mother to an apartment, in which Jews already lived and someone had
snitched them - and they were assumed to be part of that group. According to
the second version Sophie was stopped on the street where she was betrayed by
her red hair. Going out in public with such hair was extremely careless,
because according to the scheme a redhead is Jewish.
Living on the Aryan side remains
in my memory as something extremely tough forever. To this day it is very
difficult for me to admit to my true origin. I thought for a long time that I should
be ashamed of hiding this fact and that it is cowardly and reflects poorly on
my otherwise strong character. But I realized at a certain point that this is a
very common phenomenon among people who survived the Holocaust in Poland. Such
subsequent "hiding" applies even to those who have long lived far
away (eg in America). I think this can be explained due to our experiences
being so powerful.
This fact also caused that various subsequent historical
events which I witnessed, or about whom I knew, seemed not severe at all ,
because it was something incomparably less drastic than the loading of
thousands of people into cattle cars and subsequently killing them in gas
chambers. When I read about psychologists employed to treat people with a
history of psychological trauma it springs into my mind immediately that there
was no such psychologists in wagons that rode to the death camps. And though I
did not experience such a fate firsthand, I still cannot live without the imagination of what was happening.
FRIENDSHIP, HOSTILITY AND INDIFFERENCE
People like me who lived a seemingly normal life had many
opportunities to hear various comments about Jews, even if they did not want to
hear it. Examples of both "bad" and "good" speeches could
be heard very often. Some of these "bad" speeches were sometimes
quite shocking in their thoughtlessness and cruelty, they should not however be
concealed because the testimony of those times requires the truth above all.
A few examples of some voices and opinions
It is spring of 1943. Explosions in Żoliborz can be heard - it's the sound of
the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A young mother comes out on the patio with her son.
"Were you near the ghetto? - She asks a neighbor - Who's winning?"
And she laughed happily at her own joke
"I was riding by the ghetto
today - said Mrs. Władyslawa - my face was in tears! These people are on fire!
And there are children there!"
"He was not ashamed to show
that he had a cross on his neck, it was obvous that he was a Jew. I pointed it
out to the German gendarme. That I killed him by doing this? Are we certain they wouldn't do the same
During the Warsaw Uprising, a
young lieutenant with a very mild facial expression reports matter-of-factly
that the partisan division which he belonged to killed Jews encountered in the
In the countryside near Kielce
during the evenings the boys came out of the woods to their homes. They sat
with the girls. They didn't say much, but they sang pretty songs.
- We are here far away from family and loved ones
Polish soldiers from the świętokrzyskie Mountains
Because the heavens wanted us to spill our blood on heathers
So let the trees hum our song
Fellow countrymen give us your hand
Among the forests we are carrying dawn of freedom on our baionets
Did they also kill Jews?
"We were allocated to a
German munitions factory in Kielce, near Radomsko - Simon tells us after many
years - it was not difficult to escape, but news reached us that the partisans
in the forest are killing Jews. It was said that the Reds did not kill. But
what could we do to come across such branches that did not kill? So we had to
stay in this factory. Some of us were then transported to Theresienstadt, I was
among them, and there I managed to survive the war. "
"Try to explain to me why
they acted like this, I do not understand. How could they kill such a
persecuted people?" "It is indeed difficult to understand, but it was
the case that the life of a Jew was worth very little then and there was a
bounty on his head. Furthermore different ideologies derived from the Middle
Ages still inculcated hostility toward Jews. And in some people, unfortunately,
it so very easy to "wake up" their love of killing
"When the campaign to
evacuate Jews from Otwock began I hid my two friends from class in the garbage.
They could not stay there long and then went to Warsaw. They were light
blondes. But somebody pointed them out to the gendarme on the street and they
A man was hiding at my aunt and uncles apartment - a Jew. One of the neighbours
denounced them, they guessed who it was. When the Germans came the man escaped
through the window, and when they didn't found him they shot the son of the
hosts to death - my cousin. When the man returned and saw what happened he said
that he no longer cared and walked away. My aunt was surprised when after the
war he came to visit them - it turned out that he somehow survived! "
She lived in one of the old
houses on Hoża, or Wilcza street. Or maybe it was Wspólna. Her name was Halina
and her last name was probably Sochacka.
In 1944 she was eighty years old. She lived with two Jewish boys cast her into
her care by their parents, the younger was probably three years old and older
one - Hansel - about five. She did it for a sum of money, it was probably her
only source of income.
"Johnny you're rude, you didn't say hello. OK that's better, now you can
go play". No, they do not leave the house - Halina says reassuringly - when I
go on errands I leave them alone at home." The younger boy, although
dark-haired, could pass as a Polish child with some difficulty. As for the
older one however, there is no doubt - his facial features indicate immediately
that he is sentenced to death. "Boys you can now wash your hands, lunch is
The younger boy's parents visited once a week and soon took him in themselves.
The older sons family suddenly ceased to visit. Halina now in a much quieter
voice: "Something bad must have happened" and now in a louder voice:
"His mother and brother left on a trip" Johnny was jumping on the
couch, but as soon as he heard this he exclaimed: "Oh, that's why they
didn't come!" "Yes, of course, that is why - Halina says - what did
"I'm not afraid of death. - explains
Halina - Because I have a saint in the family. As far as I can see there is
favoritism on earth, I believe that the afterlife is the same and I will go to
"You know yesterday I felt bad, somehow I wasn't doing too well. So
I made myself better food - she says while gorging on cooked peas - I need to
take better care of myself. Madam, I cannot die now. What will happen to him? I
must really wait until the end of the war. "
Unfortunately, the Warsaw Uprising and its collapse separated them from the end
of the war, after which they had to leave Warsaw along with the others. Their
fate is not known to me.
All of these examples show
both good will as well as hostility towards the Jews but do not give us the
whole truth. To complete the picture one must take into account a common public
attitude, namely complete indifference to the fate of the Jews.
SECOND FACE OF HOSTILITY
In the U.S. and Canada, I met groups of Polish Jews. Often people
from the same small town or area stick together. They created an album from old
photographs and memorabilia which were somehow saved . They know the history of
their town for several generations - Jews were once 70% of the population.
Their war histories consist of terrible experiences. They lost close family,
some children. They also met with the hostility of the local population. Their
longing for their birthplace and childhood borders on hatred.
"Were you in Opatów recently? Do tall trees still grow on the
main market square? I will never visit Poland again. Do I miss it? No, I do not
miss it. I do not want to have anything to do with the Polish and Poles."
Children of immigrants often do not experience such an emotional entanglement.
It can be much worse however if their parents are able to trasmit such negative
feelings to the next generation.
The aggressive attitude of the people who survived a host of
misfortunes, then they left Poland permanently and still miss the country very
much without even realizing it is understandable when taking into account the
history of their lives.
However, these are not only their personal issues,
because such twisted accounts can lead to falsification of the history. From
such aggression originate terms such as "Polish death camps", which suggest
to the unoriented that the Poles played a major role in the murder of Jews in
Poland while the role of the German Nazis is diminished. And that's why you
must oppose this aggression at all costs.
IN THE COUNTRY
In the summer of 1943 I stayed in a village near Grójec with the
acquainted Milecki family posing in front of their neighbours as their niece.
The M. family lived in Warsaw before the war and during the war moved to the
countryside where they had a piece of land. I helped them at work in the
fields, spent time grazing cows, and I took part in the feeding of livestock
and other farm activities, although I wasn't always so adept at it. And in no
way could I learn to milk cows!
I made friends with Anka - the daughter of our neighbors, who was my age. I
went with her to bathe in the river and on to Church on sundays. To not go to
church on sundays in this village was impossible. Someone like this would
immediately be labelled a communist or a Jew. Church Music and the smell of
incense, had a calming and soothing effect of me. But I was always horrified by
images of the Passion, because that to me formed a direct association with the
current persecution of Jews.
One of the neighbors, a newcomer from Warsaw, came to find me attractive
and kept wanting to take me out on dates. He said that we could at least give
Hitler props for freeing us from the Jews. And there wasn't even any way that
I could answer him.
From time to time Aunt Lucy came to visit us'. She was a great friend of
mine and my of entire family. She was also a great friend of the Jews. And in
general the ideal of goodness. Early in life she was an orphan. She barely
managed to learn to read and write, but her wisdom surpassed that of many well
During the war she worked in peoples' houses and did not have her own home.
Therefore she was able to offer very limited help to the Jews for whom she had
Although a sligthly more attentive gaze would give me away immediately
that I was not the true niece of the M. - I differed from them too much
(though it was even said by some people that there was a family ressemblance
between us), Apparently we were good actors, because no one ever conceived any
suspicion. This could have had disastrous consequences for us all. And only at
the very end of my stay with the family that lasted for many weeks it came to
light that their daughter, who was then seven years old, knew from the very
beginning exactly who I was.
THE DEFEAT OF GERMANY IS APPROACHING
It was a beautiful sight. A very large columns
of soldiers began to pass through Warsaw from east to west - they were
withdrawn from the front, walking with difficulty, exhausted and almost
unarmed, just survivors.
But at the same time, other cars drove through the streets from west to east -
it was not yet a complete defeat of German forces - it was easy to see that
they were strengthening their front on the Vistula. Started in such
circumstances, the Warsaw Uprising was a terrible tragedy. There was no one to
Some Jews - those who had been in hiding in Warsaw- came out of their hiding
places during the Warsaw uprising, some fought during the uprising. (among them
were several groups of people that also participated in the uprising in the
ghetto). After the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising, the Jews had to leave along
with the other inhabitants of Warsaw. For some, it was dangerous. A young
friend told me that as he was standing in formation with the other inhabitabts
of his house he heard (he knew German well), as one German said to another:
"This boy looks just like a Jew." He obviously thought these were the
last few precious seconds of his life. But nothing happened further. The
German simply shared an interesting observation with his colleague.
Some (very few) Jews did not leave Warsaw but hid in ruins and cellars. Then
the rebellious city of Warsaw was systematically burned and the fate of those
in hiding became very complicated and difficult.
I got to experience life in the
countryside once again, but this time with true indigenous peasants - it was
after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising, when residents of the capital were
sent first to Pruszków and then to further Polish regions and "assigned"
the inhabitants of various villages to receive them- our accommodation ended up
in the farm near Kielce. Unfortunately, there were lice in this house, and this
caused us to quickly move back to the city, of course not until we got rid of
these nice animals in a well functioning steamer.
LIBERATION FROM THE GERMANS
I spent the last period of the war in Kielce where
we moved after a short stay in the countryside and lived with a family that
adopted us - refugees from Warsaw - to their home.
I went on walks with the daughter of our hosts. Tereska was very energetic
child, said talked a lot, even though she was only one and a half years old .
"I will kill the German , I will kill the bolshevik" she kept
repeating while walking on the street. Upon seeing an upcoming German soldier
she would say: "There goes a German". I would try to distract her,
fearing that she would say something unnecessary and who knows whether that
particular German did not understand Polish. Meanwhile, the little girl would
look around and ask: "Where is the bolshevik?".
We played "preferans" in the afternoon. Two neighbours would come. One
of them - Mr. Tonik - was the son of the caretaker. He played in a very well
and focused manner. I also learned the rules of the game which appealed to me,
but I played carelessly, because I kept listening to the sounds of the coming
front. Dull rumbles were heard louder on some days, and softer on other days,
louder again for the next three days and then silence again. It went on like
this without end.
I really waited for this front. But when it finally came and rumbled
through Kielce the consequences were truly dramatic. From the Bodzentyn (we
lived on that side of the city) "Katyusha" (a very strong russian
cannon) would strike. Some residents of the house took refuge in the so-called
"loszek" which was a small cellar in the middle of a courtyard.
Others would go hide out in one-storey dwellings. Mr. Tonik was there with his
sister and said, " I do not know who made the better choice, me or my
parents they are in the loszek." One time the house shook, all the
windows shattered and from the rising dust it became so dark that persons in
the apartment on the ground floor did not realize that a bullet hit just the
loszek. Mr. Toniks mother and father died on the spot, a ten year old boy
seriously injured in the fire was rushed to the hospital, but unfortunately
they failed to save him. Buildings in this district were low and there wasn't
really anywhere hide. Terrified residents ran across to the other side of the
street where the church stood. They felt that it would be safe. The roar was
even greater there however, in addition the echo from the dome of the church
intensified it even more. The deafening noise forced a bunch of people to come
down even lower - to a small crypt under the nave. It was reckless - the place
could easily have become a collective grave - only a set of narrow steps led to
it. It would be awfully stupid to die in such a manner at the last minute.
It was in this very crypt that silence suddenly arose and at one point
we heard the Russian language. A young soldier stood on thr steps leading to
the crypt and said throwing a lot of polish words that in three days Polish
troops will come here. He also explained
to civilians that were gathered on what the difference between the previous and
the current world war was. The latter was, apparently, called the Patriotic
War. Nobody understood, moreover, hardly anyone listened. People were already
hurrying to their homes.
After the Soviet army came people took to the streets. At one point I
heard a woman utter the sentence "The Jews have come out of their
ditches." It was said in a completely indifferent voice, without either a
trace of sympathy or hostility.
WAY TO WARSAW
Warszawo, you are my Warsaw! Thou art the content of my dreams, my dreams!
People were moved to tears listening to this sentimental wartime song.
To aimlessly pass Marszałkowska
to watch the Vistula river from the bridge
to take number nine to go to the Avenues
to walk through Krakowskie to Nowy świat
and see again today like it was in my young years
like you are smiling to me Oh my Warsaw ...
The rush to Warsaw was huge. At one point, looking
for opportunities to get to Warsaw, my mother asked a plump russian soldier on
the road, who stood near a car going west: "Will you be coming back this
way soon?" The woman proudly replied thrusting her chest out" "We
only always move forward." The question was very tactless.
It was necessary to choose a train journey. The trains were very
crowded and the way was roundabout. The journey first took us to Lublin through
Sandomierz then towards Warsaw and finally ending up on the Otwock line -
already close to the capital. Along the way, you could meet some survivors of
the Holocaust. In Lublin, there was a dormitory for such persons. I wasn't very
well acquianted with a the communities of Jews from small towns or villages.
They left a very heavy impression on me - Some were obviously carrying on them
the stigma of living for a long time in the woods, constantly escaping and
hiding - they were a bit like people from primitive tribes. Most of these
people were getting ready to leave Poland.
I was pretty naive then, and it seemed to me that rescued Jews would be
welcomed with joy. But this was not the case. Already in Lublin one could meet
with symptoms of hostility.
Simon recalled, "My Polish friend was very good to me. He said: "After the
war, tell everyone how I helped you" I promised him, but after the war he
already did not want that, he asked me to tell no one that he helped me. Not
too many people were pleased that the Jews were back and they would want their
In Sandomierz I witnessed the meeting of people from the same locality. "Guteczka, do you recognize me? I am
seamstress Sophie, your aunt sewed for me," Sophie had been saved by a
local farmer, she was hiding for two years under his barn.
In Otwock I was in a house for rescued Jewish children. A young girl
named Renia -no longer a child- helped out on the farm. She survived the war
as a village maid. In the village she would tell others that she was the
daughter of wealthy farmers displaced from Poznań, who had a sizable portion of
land. "I could not stand not having young company around so I spent time
with boys and girls from the neighborhood all the time. She met a peasant boy,
he was exceptionally handsome. - "I would marry him - she said honestly - only
he won't want me without all of those acres of land." She planned to leave
After some time, I went back to the same orphanage
in Otwock. Renia still worked there. She told me something terrible: her
friend, a Jew, who was the daughter of the owners of a mill had gone to her
village and was killed there.
In the beginning there was only the right bank of the river in
Warsaw. In the crowded apartments in the Praga district, a couple of people in
one room, what a joy it was! People found their way quickly, immediately
organizing schools, colleges, theaters, transport. The left side of the Vistula
river was also gaining life. No one needed to be persuaded to participate in
cleaning up rubble. The war was still ongoing but it was clearly coming to an
In Praga, on Targowa street the Jewish Committee officiated and one
could meet many of those who survived. A File functioned, in which people
recovered their loved ones even though they more often did not find them.
It was very difficult for me to meet the mothers of my peers who did
not survive the war. I really did not like such meetings, because during these
encounters I experienced a feeling of shame that I was alive.
Mrs. Sophie lost both her daughtesr and husband. She kept coming back
to telling about the circumstances of the death of her younger daughter Wanda,
who was my close friend.
Mrs Helena has saved her daughter by putting her in a monastery
boarding school. But her son ended in the eastern territories, and after the
occupation by the Germans he got sent with his father to the camp at Stutthof.
With Helena I met a few days after a witness gave her a direct message that on
such and such a day at about this and about that time her son - Peter - was taken
with a group of other Jews to the gas chamber.
My mothers third friend - Wanda - a few years after the disappearance
of her son repeated insistently that she believed that Staś is alive, only that
there is still no news from him.
THE STORY ABOUT THE THREE BROTHERS
The First Brother - Stach - more than twenty years separated him from
his half brothers - Max and Józiek. He spoke of them "boys" even when
they were already in their forties. "The boys went out" - he said
when Colonel Umiastowski called out men capable of bearing arms in Warsaw on
the eve of the siege by German troops. Crowds of pedestrians caused congestion
and messy organisation and were easy targets for low flying aircraft. There
were no weapons for these men. The eldest brother remained in Warsaw. Later he
lived in the ghetto. He was a very wise man and full of charm. His house was
the site of frequent meetings of friends who sought moral support from him.
During the deportations of Jews he and his wife were separated at one time
and the Nazi took her away and he remained. After losing his wife he cried -
it was a strange feeling to see such and old and hard man crying. Soon after,
Polish friends were able to help him get out of the ghetto. He had the
appearance of a Polish nobleman of the previous century and didn't have great
trouble with staying on the "Aryan side" He wasn't very fearful
anyway. One time in the outskirts of Warsaw, attempting to avoid trouble he hid
in the garden and "szmalcownicy" pulled him out of there suspecting that he was
a Jew. He talked about it with a laugh. "So, did they check? - Yes, but
it's hard to tell when you're an old man... But they found a vial of cyanide in
my pocket. And after that they knew I was a Jew. They said that every Jew
carries such a bottle with him.
He had no real desire to live anyhow. "I just want to see how it
will all end. And to kill at least one German - that I really want." But
it did not happen. Why after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising did he suddenly
decide to take the poison which he always carried with him? There was no other
reason except that he no longer had the desire for inflicting any burden on
himself or others.
The fate of the second brother - Max - was completely different. From
the eastern part of Poland he was transported even further out east. He found
himself in the camp and worked in the mines. It is unknown how he lost a leg.
Only his letters to acquaintances in which he described his desperate situation
were preserved . "Józiek's trip out of Russia is a tragedy for me" - he
wrote (Józiek did not know anything about the fate of his brother at this
moment) After his release from the camp he ended up in a shelter in Bukhara in
utter misery and loneliness and a being leglesslack caused him more misery. He
died of dysentery.
Józiek was moved from Lwów to eastern Siberia. He
was employed there in the forest. Baracks to live in had to be built first
from the trees to provide shelter. Then came the frost, but there were no warm
for those sent there. After some time
he enlisted in the army of General Anders, which soon ended up in the Middle
East. Unfortunately, he was frail and emaciated, and on his way to Palestine
he was already seriously ill. And the story ends here not only because it is
not related to the history of the Jews in Poland in the time of war. I am not
able to write about the fate of my own father. He is buried in the military
cemetery in Rehovot near Tel Aviv.
Indifference to the Holocaust was a terrible thing. It is true that it was hard
to believe that something of this nature was actually happening. I must admit
that even to me after half a century it all seems beyond belief.
And although it is very unpleasant to replay these terrible memories, I think
back to them anyway, because I know that this is necessary and inevitable.
What should be the final reflection of a person who didn't
end up in a sealed wagon going to Treblinka, nor did she suffer any other kind
of death in the hands of oppressors, but instead against the plans of Hitler
survived the war and many more years? Maybe my memories will interest those for
whom it is a direct testimony of someone who witnessed the events of recent
The author of Memories" comes from the Warsaw Jewish intelligentsia
environment. At the outbreak of war, she is 13 years old and receives a
firsthand experience of war from the perspective of a child, a little later a
teenager, and finally an adult. In the second year of the war she moves to the
Warsaw ghetto. She is a direct witness of everyday life and poverty in the
ghetto, and the growing threats of transporting Jews to the east - to the gas
chambers at Treblinka that people did not initially realize was happening. The
author has managed to survive the first perod working in one of the German
companies in the ghetto which temporarily protected from deportation. Then,
before the liquidation of the ghetto, she flees with her mother to the
so-called. "Aryan side", i.e. the part inhabited by the Poles in
Warsaw where they are assisted by Polish family friends. They manage to survive
the war while living under a Polish name under constant threat. Memories give
an authentic picture of wartime experiences of a young girl sentenced to death
because of her birth. They also try in the most objective and fair way to
present complex picture of Polish-Jewish relations during the implementation of
the "Final Solution of the Jewish question."
My grandparents with their son and daughters. The older one is my
My father during the war
Near the house in Żoliborz where we found help; Photographs from
the early thirties
playing with Sophie
from left to right: Sophie, Janka and me
Year 1945 . The place where the house was in which I lived in
the ghetto and where Schultz's "shed" was as well
My son with his father
My grandson with his mother
My son, my grandson and me - late eighties
Beata Wehr - the author of the cover etching: Hands