“… And then the Holocaust came. I was 18 years old. It was right after I graduated from high school. September 1939. And then it all collapsed. My father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters … What kind of sins did they commit? My father was a religious, a very decent man. I don’t think he ever would hurt a fly…
“I hardly ever speak in terms of my family because I lost my parents, lost my brothers, sisters. I usually am more general about it. But of course, these were the people who were the dearest to me. This was the first time… Two of my brothers were taken away to a concentration camp. Both were shot. This was 1941, rather early.”
What city were you living in at that time?
Is that where you were raised?
“I was brought up in Lodz. We remained in Lodz until March 1940, because by the end of March – Lodz was one of the first ghettos – Lodz was right away integrated into the Third Reich, a part of Germany. Actually, Poland at that time was divided into three parts. The eastern part was taken over by Soviet Russia in ‘39. Hitler made it Poland because he had this non-aggression pact with Stalin. Now the rest of the land which Germany invaded – after a while part of it, the westernmost part, was integrated into the German Reich, into the German nation, and they even changed the names of the cities. They considered it an integral part of Germany. Lodz was one of those cities. It was southwest of Warsaw, and they changed the name to Litzmannstadt. Litzmann was some general in the First World War; stadt means city. Lodz was a big city, the second largest. It was 600,000, and 200,000 of the people were Jewish. So, in November 1939, already they announced that all the Jews had to move.
“They announced there was going to be a ghetto and they assigned us to the slummiest part of town, and you were supposed to move there. The latest the ghetto would be closed would be the 31st of March. Life already did not exist anymore for the Jews. There was no mail, you couldn’t ride the train, you couldn’t write letters …
“My Aunt Etka lived in a small town called Skierniewice. My father was a small wholesaler, he had a dry goods store. At that time, you didn’t go and buy ready-made clothes, you made them from materials, even sheets and pillowcases. So people from the small surrounding towns and villages would come and buy materials from my father, and they, in turn, would go back and retail them.
“My aunt was also a customer of my father’s. I say ‘she’ because she actually ran the business. Her husband sat and studied. She died of typhus in the ghetto, and everyone thought she was very fortunate to die so, and to be buried in that town in a Jewish cemetery.
“Little by little we smuggled ourselves out of Lodz. My brother and I stayed there the longest. Of course, we were all deluding ourselves, you know, ‘Maybe the war would end, maybe America will speak up for the Jews.’ So, my oldest brother and I remained in the apartment. One knew and one didn’t know, in spite of the fact that one didn’t really want to accept the reality of what was really happening. A man couldn’t step out into the streets without being grabbed to clean the latrines of the Germans. The streets were forbidden for the Jews to walk on. So, we left.
“My aunt had rented for us an apartment, really one room and just a kitchen for the whole family. But this wasn’t really anything. This was luxurious compared to what would come, so you adjusted.
“That was in the Spring of 1940, just before Passover. When we came to Skierniewice there was no ghetto yet and one could move around pretty freely. That’s what we, the girls, did.
“My father’s business had been confiscated. So one night, he and my oldest brother went back and snuck into the warehouse through a window and stole out, stole –it wasn’t theirs anymore – some pieces of fabric for a blouse or sheet or whatever. I remember my one sister – my older sister was married and was living with her in-laws in another city – would take these materials, and two cousins and we would walk around the little villages peddling, actually peddling those materials. I remember it was rather pleasant, the surroundings. Those first few months, especially springtime and summer, I think in a sense we didn’t even feel so much hardship.
“My aunt was very well liked in that town. She was small and pleasant, and everyone liked her, so she had built up a good business. At that time the Germans allowed the Jews to sell certain things in a store, like some kind of glasses. So my aunt took out quite a bit of the inventory she had left and hid it somewhere, where I don’t know, cellars, maybe even among some of the Polish neighbors. What was allowed to sell, who made it, and how it sprung up, I never thought about it, but they were all selling glassware: glass bowls, glasses. In Poland, everyone is drinking tea from the glasses, so all the dry good stores turned into glassware. What they had was just three glasses on this shelf, and maybe two glasses on this shelf, and a couple of bowls, so she could keep the business open. But for others, for instance, the bakeries or the butchers, it was rationed too much.
“In the mornings my sister and I, my two, sometimes three, cousins, we’d walk around the villages and many of them knew that we are emissaries from my aunt. We would bring home eggs and fresh butter and live chickens. And they would sometimes milk the cows and we would get fresh milk. Sometimes they would bake fresh bread and give us a couple of loaves to take home. This was about April 1940, until about the end of the year.
“This was one time it was at least bearable, at least for my family and my aunt’s family, and we were young. The surroundings are lovely, and you’d walk through the woods, and there was a river also. And sometimes we went to swim in the river, and we were lying in the sun. And sometimes the girls would get together and we would sing songs. We were 14, 16, 18…
“But then came the order there was going to be a ghetto in Skierniewice. We had to move out of that apartment. By this time already the Germans had those things planned more systematically. What they were doing is they were organizing smaller ghettos so they could get all the Jews together and also all the Jews, if there were any, in the surrounding villages. Like maybe a couple of Jews had an inn or whatever, so they had to move into the ghetto too. And then, maybe after a year later, after we were all concentrated in this ghetto, that’s when they were shipping you to a bigger ghetto. This was near Warsaw. So we were supposed to go to Warsaw. We didn’t go to Warsaw, but this was a different story again, always trying to hope that we were going to save ourselves somehow.
“Anyway, we had to leave the apartment and move into a different house in the ghetto. I forget, a kitchen, maybe two rooms and maybe three families. Things were horrible. I think the worst was the lack of hygiene, the lack of sanitary facilities. I, my family, we suffered awfully from it because there was not even plumbing, indoor plumbing in those kinds of places. In Lodz we had indoor plumbing, bathrooms, and running water in the apartment. In those small places it was really quite primitive. In those places in the ghettos there was no running water, no toilets indoors, there was just the outhouse. They didn’t even have time to organize this ghetto properly in time to have the city Judenrein.
“There was this bridge, it was ridiculous really. One of the streets, I remember, they built a bridge. It was so ridiculous because the house, which they assigned to the Jews, on one side of the street the houses were Jewish but when you came out of your house, the sidewalk was not Jewish. So, when you came out of one of the houses on that side of the street, you had to go across to the other side because only one sidewalk of this street was declared Jewish. The street in the middle was, of course, not Jewish either. There was not much motorized traffic, it was mostly horse and buggy in these places, even in the big city at that time.
“Anyway, by the time they were through with this thing it was around Christmas time. I think then around December was when they announced that Skierniewice was going to be Judenrein – clean of Jews. And the orders actually came to go to Warsaw, to the Warsaw ghetto.
“By then, especially this town, which was maybe 60 kilometers from Warsaw, people did know what is going on. In the meanwhile, when I think back now, this was coming so naturally… I mean life has changed completely, totally transfigured and all what you are doing is hoping to survive. I’m not speaking of individuals but as a family somehow to manage to live on something or other. So, at that time my younger sister –she was about eight months younger than me – and I and one of my cousins, also not alive, we were blonde and blue-eyed, and this was a compliment at that time: ‘Well, you don’t look Jewish, lucky you.’
“So, we started … You see, you were not allowed to roam those villages anymore, but from time to time we would take the train which was absolutely punishable by death. I mean, everything: to get on the train, take off the yellow star, whatever you did, I mean whatever you did you immediately would be shot if you were caught. But we did it. We smuggled. We would sell pieces of material to people my aunt knew, and then we would smuggle in something like food or butter or what have you. So that was actually the source of our family’s survival.
“Especially my cousin, he did look like a Jew, and he spoke Polish with a very heavy accent. But he was such a daredevil, and he was traveling too sometimes, and they finally caught him, and they executed him. He was born in Skierniewice and had very many Polish friends from school or wherever. So when they were starting to say everybody has to go to the Warsaw ghetto … We really knew quite a bit, even though some people say now that they didn’t know. So the friend was saying it was awful. And there were those family conferences constantly. I wasn’t in any decision-making thing, but …
“Poland was rather halfway divided by the river Vistula, but this was already happening in 1941, after I think the war had already started with Soviet Russia. So that Pole who told my cousin, ‘Maybe you can find out how things are in the cities on the east side of the Vistula. The war is going on with Soviet Russia, maybe they aren’t treating the Jews as badly,’ and all that. It was also up to whoever was the particular commandant leading this particular town. Some Germans were a little bit, whatever, and some are of course murderers on the spot – with every Jew he saw he immediately put him down.
“So my mother had a cousin in another city called Siedlce. It was in the eastern part of Poland. Somebody got the idea that maybe since we have somebody who lives there, that we should take the train. Of course, the Jews were not allowed that, but we, the ‘non-Jews’ in the family, should take the train and go over there and see how things are with the Jews. Is there a ghetto, not a ghetto?
“So that’s what we did, my sister and me. And when we came, we found the family and talked to them, and they told us definitely not to come because conditions there were very bad. Whoever was in charge there, the German in charge, he was a Nazi, ‘He is awful, he is killing people right and left and it is no use coming there. But about 60 kilometers south there is another town which has a pretty large Jewish population, and it is a terribly provincial city, but there they produce two important industries in town: furs and leather, and especially badger,’ you know, the badger brushes. All those industries are very important for the German war effort. So, in this town conditions are supposedly very, very good. ‘Why don’t you take the train and go down there and see what’s happening?’ So, we did.
“There were also nice sections of this city. There were some wealthy Jews there because of the industry in this city. And most of the workers, there were many – there was a big Jewish proletariat in Poland – they were working in the industries there around the badger brushes and where they process the leather, the tanneries. There was a terrible smell in this town and that area wasn’t very pleasant. But they gave us some names, and we talked to some people there and they said, ‘Yes, it is true, and if you like to do this, and …’
“So, we came back, and we told the story. My family, my cousins, we decided, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ And my cousin, he was really a mover, he said, ‘Yes, and if it’s so good, why don’t we tell other Jews about it.’ And he, with this Pole, he decided that we could arrange to provide transportation. Transportation means renting trucks and transporting people, of course for a fee, and this would bring us some profit. And how are you going to arrange it? So, this Pole knew some transportation company in Warsaw.
“Here we are, my sister and I, and we are the ‘non-Jews…’ This, I never forget, and really when I think about it, it was almost like a kitschy scene in a movie. Here I am a young girl, and another thing … In the meanwhile, those orders were coming on the part of the Germans, you know, like the Germans would give an order that they wanted 50 liters of gold by morning and the Judenrat had to carry out their orders or they would take them and string them up. Anyway, about December came this order that the Jews were to give all the furs which they own, and if you find a Jew wearing the smallest part of a fur collar, he is going to be shot. Anyway, this was a bloody night. They were shooting people right and left that night, and what the family decided was that those two coats, my mother’s and my aunt’s … People had fur coats. Back in Poland it was very cold, you needn’t be very well-to-do, I mean some had whatever – sealskin. Anyway, that those two coats are going to be hidden somewhere, in case, for us, for my sister and me when we travel. And if you travel in the wintertime, you’d better wear a fur coat if you are not to attract attention because all the Polish women did.
“I remember one day they decided I am going. They are sending me to Warsaw to meet this man who is going to provide transportation papers. I’ll never forget. Because I came from a very religious family, I was sort of naive. And here I come to Warsaw, and I come to the main street of Warsaw and there a man – a young, dashing Pole is waiting for me. And we are going out for dinner.
“It was the first time I ate non-kosher food. We are going to one of the most elegant nightclub restaurants called ‘Patria,’ probably still there in Warsaw. I mean, to me the whole thing was so unreal.”
(To be continued)