Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story
by Ann Kirschner
Small and Grey, Old and Young, the Poor and the Rich
She was alone, standing near the window of a neighbor's apartment on Kollataja Street. Through the glass, she saw across the open courtyard and into another room of another apartment. A naked body lay on a wooden board. Four men stood, two on either side. Slowly and rhythmically, they dipped large cloths into a metal tub and washed the dead man, first his head, then his right and left side. They turned him with great care and washed his back. They did not speak but prayed silently as they worked, now drying him with fresh cloths and wrapping white linen garments around his head, torso, legs, and feet.
She woke with a start. Her second year at Geppersdorf had begun. In the darkness of the barracks, she could still see the fading vision of the taharah, the ritual purification of a corpse. Had she witnessed this as a child?
She had been sent back to the barracks to sleep with the rest of the women. Without Ala next to her at night, her dreams were a jumble of childhood memories and fears that persisted well into the dawn.
As her friend, Chana, anticipated, she had not recovered from the shock of being home.
September 22, 1941
My dearest Sala,
It almost feels as if you were sitting beside me still. My dear, everything passes. One always hopes for the best. How did your first day after the vacation go? Are you still under the spell of your experiences or have you come back to reality?
She was lonelier than ever. Her return to camp coincided with the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, a time for contemplation and confession.
Even Raizel permitted herself a bitter outburst.
September 24, 1941
We are happy that you got back to Geppersdorf safely. May God always look after you. [It seems] that He turned away from here. We imagined a different world, but now we have come to [the holiest days of the year] and how can one have such angry thoughts? And you wrote that you have prepared yourself for the day of judgment, which is good .
Our dear parents ask you to observe [the day of fasting for] Yom Kippur.
Her friends wrote more often now, though they still complained about the difficulty of composing in German. Her visit had given them a better understanding of how she cherished their chatter, the more idle the better. For a few minutes, she could imagine that she was together with the whole group.
Bela wrote her letters from her father's store, where several of the friends usually added their regards:
We know how it must be for you there, especially since Ala left and you are alone
Last Sunday, we laughed a lot it rained every five minutes, and every time we tried to go out, it started to rain again. The rain finally stopped around seven.
When you read this, you will surely laugh that I am writing about such unimportant things, but I want to write you about everything. You know very well how hard it is for me to write in German.
Chana cut her hair and it looks very good, rolled up underneath.
Well, I wrote about everything in detail, but I am sure that you will read more between the lines answer me and try to write not just a postcard but a letter, so that I will have a lot to read.
The girls from the store send regards.
If there was any consolation in Ala's absence, it was the promise of receiving her letters. Ala was her teacher. When her first letter arrived, Ala's voice was as strong and lively on the page as it was in person, provoking Sala to laughter and challenging her to know her own heart.
Ala's brisk pronouncements blew through the barracks, bringing in the fresh air beyond Geppersdorf.
September 24, 1941
Sarenka, you giddy girl, I know, you were disappointed, but I couldn't help myself. I know that I spent too little time with you [when you were home], but you have to understand why. To begin with, the vacation was short. Then my work, going home, even the bad weather, everything interfered this time.
But don't think badly of me, and don't lose hope.
There is no reason why you shouldn't trust me. I felt your reticence quite keenly. There is, Sarenka, no excuse. You are younger and should have a little more understanding of etiquette toward your elders. We can't always say what we want to say, or all we want to say. In the camp, I protected you and surrounded you with warmth. You miss my caring, certainly, my golden precious, but Sosnowiec is different; and besides, I was in an exceptional position. I hope that you will get to know all my good sides better those you know and those you don't know yet. Everything in its own time. The next time, Sala.
But now you have to be a good girl. Don't cry and pout. Who can and will understand me, if you act in such a foolish way? You're silent why? Write what you think, including the most minute details. Don't be afraid, I always think of your release, just be patient.
I have remained the same Ala, even though I have so many possibilities and opportunities to become someone else. I am amazed myself: to be as attached to the camp as I am, is rare. Believe me, Sarenka, I am very sorry that you couldn't stay with me. Do you remember the hours on Saturday when you came into my bed early in the morning? We amused and puzzled [everybody]. You wrote very well about how you feel about the camp. Sarenka, are you still in such a pessimistic mood? I consider myself lucky to have so much work. In this way, day after day passes quickly
Sarenka, keep trusting me, I kiss you, as always, you beautiful girl. Give regards to all women. Write me, clearly and in detail, okay? I ordered skin cream for you, I'll send it together with the photos the next time.
Ala was working as a supervisor in one of the Bedzin workshops under Organization Schmelt. If anyone could manage to find Sala a place, it would be Ala.
October 16, 1941
Little, beautiful Sarenka,
Please excuse me for not writing to you in such a long time. I am so busy and have so much work. If only you knew how tired I was when I got home. Now I live on my own, my dear mom is in Sosnowiec. I don't know how many times I've been saying, Oh dear, if only Sala were here; oh my, I miss Sarenka very much, particularly now that I live alone.
Just imagine, the two of us on our own! Sarenka! You won't recognize the room: newly painted, the furniture rearranged, clean, pleasantly warm only, I'm all alone. I brought the [grammophone] over here last Tuesday, so I brought back my music world. Our photos, the new ones with you and me and the one with Bernhard are all over the place, even though I look so ugly in them. Everybody admires how beautiful you are. I look like a witch, really, no kidding! Your cream sits in the drawer, I didn't have a second to take care of it, but truly next week Are you angry?
Your sister came to see me in Sosnowiec on Monday
We talked for a long time. I thought you might be offended since the vacation, but she reassured me that this was not the case. To the contrary, you supposedly said that you could not live without Ala. I am very happy, little, beautiful girl! I also like you very, very much. Do you know that? I love you and shall never forget you. Our time together in the camp your kindness to me, all that you did for me I have not forgotten, Sarenka. For the time being, however, things have to be as they are, but you will convince yourself that I am neither bad nor ungrateful
Now, I kiss you, beautiful Sarenka, write soon.
Sarenka, patience! It's good that you have a job! Send me a certificate right away that you have been working there for a year.
Ala visited Raizel several times. She continued to work on Sala's release.
November 6, 1941
Beautiful little Sarenka,
I'm still working until late at night. The [registration for identification cards] has ended. I'll have more time now and will get everything done. Don't worry, the time when you will be working here at the shop will start soon. Believe me, when I look at the girls as they run back and forth, just as you used to, I am very upset. You have been in the camp for 13 months already. Do you remember how you leaned your little head on me on the train? Nobody can and will understand me as well as you do!
When you come Oh, my God! I implore you, be obedient and well behaved. Keep clean and, as always, work hard. Yes?
Today the first snow fell. Everything is white all around. I'm waiting for mail from you as well as from Bernhard Before long, the three of us will be together again (all good things come in threes), God willing. Patience, courage, and don't lose hope!!!
Ala was well aware that she continued to be a subject of conversation at Geppersdorf, despite her absence, and complained that someone was spreading a rumor that she had married: Damn that gossip!
As 1941 came to an end, Ala was nostalgic about their time together in the camp, and commiserated about Sala's voluntary conscription. There seemed to be no reunion in sight for the friends.
December 15, 1941
Beautiful little girl,
Now it's December '41 again. A year ago, we were together. Do you remember the plans we made? I thought you would be released from your service, but since I had my doubts, I started my own initiatives on your behalf. I'll have no problems with you! Let me know if you have seamstress under the category occupation [in your papers]. I won't wait until Bernhard will be released, but will try for both of you.
You have no idea how angry I am that you have to suffer so much through no fault of your own. You signed up voluntarily in your sister's stead, then later I ignored you a little bit but enough of past sorrow and vexation! Sarenka, just don't lose hope and don't even cry because of the delay. I'm always thinking of you. I miss you in more ways than you can imagine.
Sarenka! Are you healthy? Write me something! What can I send to you? Pa! I kiss you on your mouth.
Germany's grip on Europe continued to tighten. France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were well into their second year of occupation. Greece and Yugoslavia were invaded in the spring of 1941. Although Hitler had to abandon his plan for a December 1941 victory banquet at the Kremlin, his armies continued the assault on Russia, with casualties mounting on both sides. Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war on the United States, American troops joined the British and Russian forces. The world war now touched five continents.
Labor camps in Poland and Germany were considered to be an essential component of Germany's war economy; and Schmelt continue to win concessions that increased the number of camps and workers he could offer to German businesses. Geppersdorf expanded yet again. Some of the first wave of administrators were assigned to new posts, including the Jewish inner circle. Kronenberg had returned to Sosnowiec, and someone else now served as the Elder. Dr. Leitner had new responsibilities at several Schmelt camps, but he continued to visit Sala at Geppersdorf and bring her cigarettes. Hokilo was transferred to a different construction site. I heard that you got married, he wrote to her, but I don't know whether this is true. If it is, I wish both of you good luck and now I can just go ahead and get married, too, right?? His jokes had apparently not gotten him in trouble when he visited her family in Sosnowiec he was even a favorite with Raizel.
Only Bernhard Holtz and Chaim Kaufman remained with Sala at Geppersdorf. Bernhard sat at the same desk in the Bureau, more disconsolate than even she without Ala. Both of them hoped for Ala's intervention on their behalf.
Chaim continued to pursue her aggressively. Although she had tried to signal her ambivalence, it was too hard to explain during their brief and unplanned conversations during food distributions and occasional encounters at the Bureau. He too had been sent home briefly. During his vacation, he had visited her family and hinted to her parents of a future betrothal. She denied vehemently that she had made any such commitment. His talk of marriage was foolish: how could anyone fall in love in this strange place? He was humorless, possessive, jealous. Now that he had met her parents and sisters, and Ala was gone, he acted as if he had been awarded custody of her. He seemed to know when she had received mail and was always pestering her to allow him to add a few lines. Raizel seemed to be encouraging him, sending him regards and messages in her own letters. [Chaim] always used to add some lines, she noted. Why not now? The talk about their relationship had even reached her cousins in Olkusz: He is very much in love, said her cousin Rozia, who had met with Chaim during his vacation.
He kept pushing her for an answer.
Do not be surprised by my letter. It is autumn, dark and gloomy and raining, as I am inside my heart.
I am writing because I cannot take it any more. I waited, observed, and what's most important, I tolerated. But what of it? I tried to understand, I wanted to understand you, all in vain. Still, you don't give me any reasons for your change. So here I am again, asking why I don't deserve something better. I can't answer that; please tell me the answer. Sometimes I get the impression that you are trying to make me face some fact if so, just tell me. (Although I suspect that you do not think about it at all.) How much has changed during our stay in the camp! There will be more changes. And yet you toy with my love? You want to lead me away from a direct path, but where are you leading me?
Please speak up. I am not dictating to you. By now, you probably know everything concerning me: I aspire to have a friend for good or bad, the kind whom no power could tear apart. In short, that's the truth. My beautiful one, even though I expect a positive answer, I ask you for a definite answer because only that will point to my life's future path. Please consider it, dearest. And please don't misunderstand me.
I send you my affectionate regards.
What she wrote or said hardly mattered; he interpreted her responses in accordance with his own expectations. But she was no longer the uncertain teenager of 1940. Belatedly, he discovered that he was courting a stronger and more decisive young woman.
Ala had taught her well. She continued to learn on her own, a keen observer and careful listener. As one of the original Geppersdorfers, she found that she had some advantages. Those who arrived in the early days had acclimated to the camp when it was smaller. She had many friends among the small group of workers, camp guards, and officers who had arrived at the camp in the autumn of 1940. Her German was now fluent. Her skill as a seamstress had won her some respect and privileges. Her months with the Pachta family had strengthened her physically and emotionally. Perhaps all these factors would provide at least some protection against a random transport to another camp.
Because she worked directly for the Germans, people at home believed that she had extraordinary powers. I heard that you are able to obtain great favors, a friend wrote. She was asked to intervene on behalf of relatives, and sometimes for total strangers. Dear Sala, please be so kind as to do my brother's laundry, someone asked, with a sad reminder that the young man was mentally ill and illiterate. A neighbor's husband was sent to Geppersdorf and his wife begged Sala to cook for him. A friend asked her to write a letter for her brother every fourteen days. Ask him if he needs shoes and is his linen still in one piece? wrote another worried acquaintance.
She had prejudices of her own to overcome when she was asked to look out for her landlord's son, who had been sent to Geppersdorf and was struggling to remain religious within the camp. The Beglmacher family was wealthy and owned several businesses and buildings in Sosnowiec. Before the war, the landlord had traveled back and forth to America, the only person of her acquaintance who had ever crossed the Atlantic. Sala relished his tales of Chicago gangsters and Shirley Temple. But the Kollataja Street landlord had often been cruel and unforgiving when her father fell behind in paying the rent. Now the rich landlord's son and the poor rabbi's daughter ended up in the same place. She pitied the young man, thinking of Raizel. He had to be flexible, she counseled him, because the alternative was being sent away to someplace worse than Geppersdorf. When she received a precious package of unleavened bread for Passover, she gave it to him.
Whatever she could share, she did. Her cousin Abram Grunbaum was her special charge through much of 1941. He was Rozia's youngest brother, and she entreated Sala to look after the teenager, although her baby brother was not much younger than Sala. Rozia's expectations were high, and she did not hesitate to berate Sala for neglecting him: We heard that our Abram has trouble with you and that you have not been nice to him. How can you do this to him? How can you not be a cousin? Sala, understand it is the first time he is away from home and he is still a child, after all, and he has no friends and you are a girl. Rozia also voiced her complaints to Raizel, who warned Sala that her neglect would make the elderly Mrs. Grunbaum sick.
Rozia's opinion soon reversed itself. From her initial harsh criticism, Rozia grew warm in her praise of Sala's guardianship.
May 7, 1941
Our dear cousin Sala,
Today we received a postcard from our dear child. We all cried with joy because of the good things he said. Dear Sala, how can I express our gratitude for the kindness of your heart, as Abram has now described it to us? You cannot imagine our joy. I don't know how to thank you, dear Sala. Father asks for God to bless you with only good things. Mother says thank you and wants to kiss you and speak with you in person. My sister and I know that for the good things our cousin has done for Abram, God will repay her in the future. She will be as happy as she hopes to be
We ask ourselves why Abram has been moved to another room and I think this is also your doing, dear Sala. Our only concern, dear Sala, is that you never write us. You can't imagine how much we love you for your good heart. Hopefully, we'll soon be happy together.
Please tell my brother that we already sent him a package. Give him regards and kisses from me. My parents send their regards and kisses, and please let us know what we can send to you.
Abram's mother died. Rozia wanted to spare him from reading the sad news in a letter and, at her request, Sala secretly met with Abram and arranged for him to recite the proper prayers for his mother.
As she had advised the landlord's son, work was their only protection. Moses Merin preached this message in his public speeches, in handbills plastered on street corners, and in newspaper articles that appeared in the few remaining Yiddish newspapers. More important than money was an identification card validated at an authorized place of employment. It was no longer sufficient for one family member to serve in a labor camp, as they had believed when the Council's first letter arrived in 1940. If I don't get work, I'll have to go away someplace else, Raizel worried.
Some of Sala's friends had already received their identification cards in the local Schmelt factories or shops, such as the one in Bedzin where Ala worked. Bela Kohn and her siblings worked in her father's former store, under its new Nazi managers. Bela hoped that her new husband would be allowed to work with them in the store. Gucia was excited to have found steady employment in a local factory that was building cribs for government-run nurseries used by German working mothers. Her job was to whitewash the slats, nothing dangerous or heavy to lift, and the factory was clean and well managed. She worked from six in the morning until four in the afternoon. Her mother had given her permission to eat the lunch provided at the factory, even though it was not kosher; with wild inflation, and food supplies being cut every month, this was no time to be fussy, her mother said.
But Blima and Raizel had only temporary employment, as Raizel fretted in nearly every letter. They stood in long lines at the Council offices, hoping to find a steady position with one of the local factories. Without valid identification cards, they were vulnerable to the frequent roundups. Raizel used a code to alert her sister to the threat of deportation: to be caught in a wedding meant a summons to the dreaded Skladowa transit camp. Raizel had already been brought there once and released, and she and Blima remained at risk unless they could demonstrate proof of employment.
The victims were becoming younger: in the middle of the night, the Jewish police entered the Rabinowicz household and took away Sala Rabinowicz's younger sister Frymka, who was fourteen years old. Her name was on their list. Frymka's father appealed to Moses Merin, reminding Merin that the Rabinowicz family had already sent two sons to Geppersdorf. Merin refused to intervene, and argued with the father that his daughter would be better off in the labor camp. Frymka went away.
Searching for alternatives, Raizel hoped that Ala's family might have enough influence to find the sisters a place in a local factory, or borrow a sewing machine for Blima. The Garncarz family had no political friends and no money for gifts, the bribes without which there was little chance of obtaining work. Raizel and her mother decided to make a personal appeal to Ala's brother. Their trip would have been accomplished quickly before the occupation. Now, there was only one tram, attached as a separate car behind the regular tram, staffed by Jews and marked with the inscription, Only for Jews. It was too crowded to board. To make the trip by foot, Raizel and her mother had to avoid the main streets of the city, closed to Jews.
Along a circuitous path of detours and alleys they trudged, taking hours to reach their destination.
November 8, 1941
Oh! what shall I write? Why haven't you received any mail from us? Why? Why? Why does one even write to you? If I didn't worry about causing you uneasiness, then I would be silent, because I have nothing cheerful to tell you. My dear! Weeping, oh weeping one can do a lot of that. I would rather not tell you about the ways in which our hearts are bloodied, but I must, so that you will know why we don't write to you often.
Every day brings us new sorrow If you have money, you're in, but without money, you have no help.
Yesterday, dear mother was again at Ala's brother to weep out her bitter heart. Ala hasn't come recently. Mr. Gertner spoke very politely with dear mother, but there is no help in sight for now. He will try to arrange a sewing machine for Blima, but who knows if he will be successful. He did say that he would telephone Ala in Bedzin. Our future is dark.
Sala! Sala! What shall I write to you. On top of everything else, I wound up at the wedding. Imagine: our dear parents don't stop weeping. The weather outside is dismal and dark. It's snowing and raining.
Good day, good mail, good mail, good mail we await.
Less than a week later, Raizel was relieved to report that Blima finally found work, although their friends were attending more weddings.
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