The last thing my father told me as he pushed me from the train was "You run. I know you will stay alive, you have the Belzer Rebbe's blessing." He was very religious and he believed this.
At this time I was an infant in the cradle. My mother had lost four children. We were supposed to go live in a house we owned next door. My mother refused to move me out of our main house until the Belzer Rabbi blessed me. It was said that he gave me a special blessing. The whole city knew about this.
In our city everybody was observant. Everyone went to synagogue and everyone ate kosher. On Shabbos the men wore streimels. When it was time to go to synagogue on Friday night, the shammes would holler in the street or knock on the doors.
Somehow we did not believe Hitler would come to Poland. Until the last minute people did not believe that the Germans would invade us. The Polish soldiers used to sing patriotic songs. They would not give up an inch of our Polish soil to the last drop of their blood. They sang songs about fighting for the port of Danzig.
People did not believe that the Germans would come until they saw the airplanes. It was so sudden. In a couple of days the Germans occupied the whole of Poland. Then there was not anything one could do. It was too late. The Germans and the Russians had a treaty, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which divided Poland at the River San. Because our town was on the Russian side, the Germans occupied our part of Poland for just two weeks. Then, according to the Treaty, the Russians came in. Until 1941 the Russians were in charge.
We did not expect anything to happen. One Saturday evening in June 1941 we went to sleep. About 6 o'clock Sunday morning we heard gunshots and went out to see what was happening. German motorcycles were going down the main street. Soldiers were shooting right and left. Whoever was on the street was killed right away. This is when our problems began.
The Jews were not permitted to keep a job. People started to trade their belongings with the farmers for food. Potatoes and flour were more important than money. If someone had savings in the bank, all the money was confiscated. If someone had cash at the house, it did not last too long. Best off were the people who had stores and who could hide the merchandise.
The first thing they did was to make a Judenrat. A few Jews became responsible for the entire Jewish community. To these people they gave orders which they had to pass on to us. Every day there was a different decree. We had to put on armbands so we would be recognized as Jews. Our armbands were white with blue Stars of David sewn on. Every day orders came for people to go to work at hard labor or to do work like cleaning toilets. The Judenrat had to deliver the number of people they required.
We were not allowed to walk down the sidewalks, but had to walk down the middle of the street. The street in our town was not paved. When it rained it became a street of mud. Once my mother forgot and walked on the sidewalk. A young walked by, a Ukrainian man who was a teacher. He had helped my brothers with their homework and had come to our house. He went and hit my mother when he saw her walking on the sidewalk. My mother came in and cried. She said, "If a German had done it, I would have said nothing. But this man should have been an intelligent person: he came into my house and I fed him."
Even your friends could turn against you. It was as if anyone could pick on the underdog. I did not understand. I felt degraded. There were times when I envied a dog. A dog has his master who takes care of him and feeds him. We were outside the law. Anyone could do with us as they wanted.
In those days the way they delivered messages was by a city drummer. He beat his drum calling out "Ja wam tu oglaszam"" I have an announcement for you." In our town the drummer's name was Pan Czurlewicz. He wore a uniform like a policeman. He came to our street drumming and calling until everyone came out of their houses. "All the Jews must assemble in the city square," he said, "If they find someone missing they will be shot."
When we arrived at the city square, we saw a fire in the middle of it. The whole inventory from the synagogue was burning, the prayer books, the torah scrolls, everything was burning. The German soldiers pushed the young girls up to the old men and made them dance around the bonfire. When we looked up we saw that each of our town's three synagogues was on fire.
All around us our neighbors and friends were watching and laughing at us like they were at a show. This hurt us more that what the Germans did. After the fire burned down they told us to line up and parade through the whole town so everyone could see us. This I will never forget.
We were living in conditions of hunger and fear, but we were still in our own homes. People made hiding places in their houses to hide from the Germans. Our hiding place was in the attic behind a double wall. Whenever we saw the Germans, we would run to the attic and hide. Even the little children understood that if they made noise it was a matter of life and death.
This continued until September 1942. One day the drummer came. He announced that all the Jews had to take what they could carry and walk the seven kilometers to the next town of Lubaczow. There was a ghetto there.
All the Jews of Oleszyce and the neighboring villages were moved to the ghetto in Lubaczow. The ghetto was the size of one city block for 7,000 people. We slept 28 people in a room that was about 12 by 15 feet. It was like a sardine box. People lived in attics, in basements, in the streets--all over. We were lucky to have a roof over our heads; not everyone did.
It was cold. In one corner there was a little iron stove but no fuel. We were not given enough to eat. The children looked through the garbage for food. There was not enough water to drink. There was one well in the backyard, but it would not produce enough water for everybody. To be sure to get water you had to get up in the middle of the night. Once I had a little water to wash myself, and my sister later washed herself in the same water. Some people started to eat grass. They would swell up and die. Because of the unsanitary conditions people got lice and typhus. My brother Pinchas got night blindness from lack of vitamins. Every day a lot of people died. It was a terrible situation. People were depressed. There was nothing to do. They waited and hoped and prayed.
Then, beginning on January 4, 1943, the Gestapo and the Polish and Ukranian police started to chase all the Jews out from their houses. The deportation took several days. People ran and hid. The Jewish police helped to find the people in hiding. They had been promised that they would stay alive if they cooperated.
We knew where we were going. A boy from our town had been deported to Belzec camp. He escaped and came back to our town. He told us that Belzec had a crematorium. Deportation trains from other cities had passed by our city and people had thrown out notes. These notes were picked up by the men forced to work there. The notes said, "Don't take anything with you, just water."
They took us to a cattle train. People started to run away from the train, but they were shot. Once on the train we had to stand because there was no room to sit down. A boy tore the barbed wires from the train window. The young people started to jump out of the window. Many jumped. The SS on the rooftop of the train shot at them with rifles. My father told us, the oldest three, "Run, run--maybe you will stay alive. We will stay here with the small children because even if they get out, they will not be able to survive." To me he said, "You run, I know you will stay alive. You have the Belzer Rebbe's blessing." He was very religious and he believed this.
My brother Berele jumped out, then my sister Hannah, and then I jumped out. The SS men shot at us. I landed in a snowbank. The bullets did not hit me. When I did not hear anything anymore, I went back to find my brother and my sister. I found them dead. My brother Berele was 15. My sister Hannah was 16. I was 17.
In the evening when it became dark she gave me half a loaf of bread and 25 Polish zlotys. She told me to go. I went to another family's house that I knew who lived close to the woods. He was a forester. When I worked with the taxes, I had helped them. They were afraid to let me in. It was already dark. I could not walk. It was freezing cold. There was snow. I was not well dressed. I went in the barn where they had a newborn calf, and I lay down with it to keep me warm. About twelve o'clock the wife came to look at the calf. She saw me and felt sorry for me. She let me come and sleep in the house, but in the morning she told me to go.
I wanted to go to the train station, but I was afraid to go in our city because everybody knew me. So I went to the woods and walked to the next station 32 kilometers away. At that time it was thought that there were partisans in the woods. People were afraid to go in the woods, but I was not afraid. I was walking in the deep snow, and in the evening I came to the station in Jaroslaw.
At the Jaroslaw station I bought a ticket for Cracow. I figured that Cracow was a big city with a big Jewish community. Maybe the ghetto would still be there. In the train station I saw the person who took over my job at the internal revenue. I was frightened that she might recognize me. I kept walking around the block until the train came. Then I got on the train. This was another situation. I did not have any documents. The lady that gave me the bread had given me some papers from her daughter, but they were not good enough. There were identification checks on the train. Every station I would move to another wagon.
In Cracow I spent two days and two nights living in the train station. There was a curfew at night because of the war. People who came into the city late had to stay in the train station until morning, so there were always a lot of people there. I moved around a lot so people would not recognize me, from one bench to another, from one room to another. It was a big station. But I did not have any money, and I did not have any bread. I had never been to Cracow before. I did not know where the ghetto was. I did not see anybody with an armband, and I was scared to ask someone where the ghetto was.
I walked and walked. I was hungry. I figured the only thing to do was to jump in the river. I came to a market place, a farmers' market. I could hear running. They closed up the market place and took all the young people aside. I could hear the girls and boys talking. They were catching boys and girls and sending them to work in Germany. Nobody would go work freely in Germany; they had to use force. This was how they rounded up the people. I was very glad that I was caught with those people. I was caught as a Gentile and not as a Jew.
I prayed to God that they should not find anything wrong with me--after such a long time in the ghetto, after the malnutrition. Thank God, I passed the physical. If I had been a boy, I could not have passed. None of the Polish boys were circumcised, but the Jewish boys were. A Jewish boy would have been recognized by the doctors right away. I assumed the identity of a Polish girl, Katarzyna Czuchowska, a name I made up. I took a different birthday, May 12th.
We were put on a train and taken from Cracow to Vienna. They sent us to a place where the German farmers came to pick up workers. It was something like a slave market. One family liked me and took me to their farm, which was on the border with Czechoslovakia in the Sudetenland. The farm was a bad place because the husband was at home and he was a very mean person. The neighbors said that he avoided the draft by bribing someone. He made anti-Semitic remarks, even though he did not know I was Jewish.
After a year I got sick. They transferred me to a smaller farm where there were nice people. There were no males there, and I had to carry sacks of grain. At Christmas, when the husband came home on leave, they made homemade wine from their vineyards. The husband got drunk and he began to curse Hitler, "Hitler, you so-and-so! If it were not for Hitler, I would be home with my family." I was scared someone would hear him, so I closed the door so nobody would come into the house.
I was scared that they would find out I was Jewish. I was not afraid of the Germans because I was not different looking from anyone else. But I was afraid of my friends, the Poles. I was scared that one of them would recognize me. They were country girls, and I was afraid that they would figure out how much more educated I was.
I was the letter writer for everybody. If someone needed to write a love letter, they came to me. The Poles got letters from their families and packages of clothes. My letters were returned. I made up the excuse that my family was resettled and they did not know where I was. After a time when I saw that nobody recognized me, I felt secure.
Then a terrible thing happened. Before Easter, Marie, the farm lady I worked for, told me that I had to go to confession. I was a religious Jewish girl, and I did not know what Catholic girls did at confession. I lay awake nights worrying what I would do until I came up with a solution.
My Polish friends did not speak German, which I had picked up easily because I knew Yiddish. My friends were going to go to confession at the Slovakian church, where they spoke a language close to Polish. I asked Marie to let me take confession at her church in the German language. She showed me the prayer book where I had to confess my sins. I figured if I did not say the words exactly right, the German priest would not be suspicious because I was just a Polish girl. So I made up some sins and went to confession. My heart was pounding; I was so scared. I saw what other people were doing, and I imitated them. I went up to the German priest, and he put something on my tongue. Somehow I blacked out; it must have been the fear. When I came to, Marie asked me why I was so pale. I made up the excuse that I was weak from fasting. Later on everything went smoothly.
They brought sixty Jews to a big farm to work. There were guarded by the SS. One day I passed three of them, and I felt such an urge to talk to them. I saw that other boys and girls were talking to them, but I was scared that if I talked to them, I would get emotional or reveal something, and they would recognize me. I do not know what happened to those people.
In May 1945 the Germans started to draw back, and one day the Russians came in. I was still scared to tell anyone I was Jewish. I looked at the Russian soldiers to see if I could recognize anyone who was Jewish, but I didn't.
Now came the time that I could help my people, the German farmers. The Russians started to rape the German women. When they came to our door, I spoke to them in Russian. They stationed a Russian captain in our house. He saw to it that nothing happened to our family.
I wanted to go back to Poland. I figured that maybe I would still find somebody alive. It was a long journey back to Poland. The mail started up. I had a brother and sister from my father's first marriage who were alive. He had immigrated to the United States in 1933, and she had gone to Russia. He wired her and she came and got me and took me to Breslau (Wroclaw). We could not go back to our city because Russia had taken that part of Poland. I had written to a friend and not one Jew went back to our city. I learned later that from my whole city of about 3,000 Jewish families, just 12 people survived.
The Red Cross had lists of people who had survived, but we could not find anybody from our family. My half-brother attempted to get me a visa to the United States, but there were quotas. I got a transit visa to Sweden. Meanwhile, from the Red Cross lists I found a friend from Oleszyce who had been in Auschwitz. She was the only other person who jumped from the same train as I did and lived. Her fiancee had met my future husband at the train station in Cracow. My husband was in the Polish army. He and I were childhood friends from Oleszyce. Her fiancee invited my husband to come to their wedding, which was two weeks before I was supposed to go to Sweden, but they did not tell me anything about him.
At the wedding Henry walked in--He did not know that I had survived--I did not know that he had survived. I almost dropped from the chair. I thought I was seeing a ghost. Henry right away asked me to marry him. I said, "No, Henry, I have to wait; I am going to Sweden." Henry went with me to Warsaw to catch the first airplane that was going from Warsaw to Stockholm after the war. Henry said, "I will come to Sweden." Four weeks later Henry came illegally on a coal boat to Sweden. He paid a sailor who smuggled him onto the boat.
At that time most of the survivors were single. People married people that they did not know just to get somebody, just to have a family. When Henry and I were young children in school, he would come to our house under my window and talk to me. We were friends. Not boyfriend and girlfriend. I was too young. But we were attracted to one another.
When the Swedes let Henry out of quarantine, he asked for political asylum. He did not want to be in Poland, a communist country, in a communist army. A Rabbi married us three weeks later on Christmas Eve. I did not even have a coat. I had to borrow a coat from the girl next door to go to Synagogue. We took a furnished room and went to work in a restaurant. We were dishwashers. Henry washed the big pots and I washed the glasses. We lived on one salary and with the other we bought things that we would need for the house.
After three months I got a job in a factory making blouses, and Henry got a job in a tailoring factory. No one gave us anything; we started out from nothing. We worked our way up with our ten fingers. Henry learned tailoring in no time. They sent him to a school to learn to be a foreman. He got a high school degree; he took correspondence courses; he learned English. After three years my eldest daughter was born.
We came to the United States on May 2, 1954, when our quota came. After eight years in Sweden it was difficult to adjust to life in New York City. It was difficult for me not knowing the language. When I came to the United States I spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and Swedish, but not English. I was pregnant and stayed at home. My oldest daughter came home with her school books--"See Dick run." I learned English by helping my daughter with her homework. I tested her on spelling, and she tested me. As soon as I learned the English language, I adjusted. After seven years in New York, we thought we would like it better in a smaller community. We came to New Orleans in 1962. Eventually, my husband started his own tailoring business. I had two other children, both girls.
If you lose your parents at any age, it hurts. To lose your parents in that way, at that age, and to be alone in the world... If you cannot grieve right away, it stays with you for your whole life. You need compassion to be able to talk out your grief. Time is the best doctor. As the days and weeks and years go, it grows weaker and weaker. But you never forget. I tell my students that they should cherish their parents and obey them. A parent is always at your side.
In Poland, after the war I was sick emotionally and physically. I had to go to a doctor to get shots to gain weight. In Sweden I went to a psychiatrist because I could not get over those terrible nightmares. Today I see that when there is a disaster, they send people to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. We had to work out our own problems. As parents we were overprotective to our children. My eldest daughter was accepted at an Ivy League college, but I was afraid to let her go away from home to school. We were afraid to let our children know too much about our past.
I taught Hebrew and prepared children for their Bar Mitzvahs. A friend encouraged me to go to college. In 1985 I graduated from the University of New Orleans. It was my children that made me talk. In the beginning I did not talk to anybody. I did not tell anything. My daughter had to write a paper for school, and she got me to talk. Now, Henry and I go to schools to talk with students about the Holocaust. That is how life goes on.